quaint_twilight: (kagetora)
quaint_twilight ([personal profile] quaint_twilight) wrote on October 24th, 2009 at 12:24 am
Book 16 Chapter 16 白い嵐
Japanese to Chinese translation by Hinako. Chinese to English translation by me.

Basics of this chapter: Kagetora and Kiyomasa escape; Kotarou and Naoe are trying to rescue Kagetora


That night, Katou Kiyomasa requested to see Takaya. Naturally his request was not granted at first, but the Fire sect disciples eventually grew intolerant of his wordiness and extreme obstinacy.

"I know that he's still alive! As a friend, I just want to be sure that he is all right!"

Kiyomasa was as noisy as a child. The disciples reached the limit of their patience after one night of his carping and had no other choice but to inform Motoharu about this.

"What? Kiyomasa?"

Motoharu pondered deeply for a while before saying, "I understand." He agreed to let Kiyomasa see Takaya on the condition that he must not utter a word and someone had to be present to keep a close watch on them.

"Kagetora-dono was injected with a tranquilizer and took some sleeping pills. He's now fast sleep, so you can only look at him."

"That fine with me," said Kiyomasa. He could finally see Takaya again under the close watch of a Fire sect disciple. As they left his room, Motoharu sighed in a melancholy manner.

Kagetora-dono...

Kagetora's predicament lingered in his mind.

Takaya appeared to have lost his bearings after that conversation.
He had seemed dazed and speechless. Although Motoharu knew Takaya would be shocked, he did not expect it to this extent. Kousaka had left at his own discretion after he had finished with whatever he wanted to say and do. However, out of concern for Takaya, Motoharu could not simply leave the room as Kousaka did.
But no matter how much he had called him, Takaya's eyes had not moved.

He will not be crippled by this... will he...

The depth of Takaya's shock caused Motoharu much distress. Kousaka's words had a devastating effect on Takaya.

It's not surprising...

Although this was for the sake of their battle, it was too cruel. Motoharu despondently looked out the window. The drop of guilt expanded in his chest. Kousaka had told him not to feel bothered and trivially stated that Kagetora was reaping what he had sown, but was that really how it was? Motoharu placed his hand on the cold, glass window. Feeling conflicted, he sighed deeply again.


Takaya was still fast asleep.
With both arms secured by the disciples of the Fire sect, Kiyomasa was brought to the adjacent cabin.
The water level in the kettle was much lower now. Takaya had been half-forced by Motoharu to take his medicine. Otherwise, there was honestly no way he could sleep. At the entrance, the disciples wanted him to bite on a piece of washi1. This was to prevent him from speaking.

"We'll know if you try to communicate using a wave a thought, so there's no use trying," warned the disciples. Kiyomasa roughly replied that he understood and bit the washi without hesitation. He walked towards Takaya.
Not even the sound of his breathing could be heard as he slept.

Guess there's no escape for him with this condition...

Kiyomasa sighed, thinking of what he should do.
He was plagued with uneasiness. After learning that the head of Kihachi was the core of the Fire sect disciples and the reason for their support of Kikkawa Motoharu's Shimazu stratagem, Kiyomasa could not lay idle in this place. ...But how was he to escape? He could not use any of his powers due to the tight security. Despite waiting for a chance to make his move, the enemy continued to deny him of any opportunity.
He thought of using Kagetora to turn the situation in his favor... but all things considered, this seemed useless.

Do I just sit and wait for an opportunity?

Furthermore, Kiyomasa could not just leave Kagetora as it is. They were planning to use Kagetora in the resurrection of Kihachi. Kiyomasa could not let them have their way. If he could not prevent them from using him, then he simply had to...

Kill him.

However, the close surveillance here rendered both of his ideas unachievable.
Forced to a dead end, Kiyomasa looked at Takaya's sleeping face.
Takaya appeared so unguarded in sleep.

The greatest enemy of Nobunaga-kou...

It suddenly occurred to Kiyomasa that, at this moment, he could obtain all the information which Kagetora possessed. No other information would be as valuable to Nobunaga as this one. He could find out all of Kagetora's thoughts as well as all the secrets of the Uesugi. In this way, the Uesugi would be stripped naked. This could become the decisive blow to destroy the obstacle that was the Uesugi. Nobunaga-kou would definitely be able to exploit this information.

That's it. Alright...

Kiyomasa had made up his mind. Although it required some mental preparation, he was the only one who could do this.

Read Uesugi Kagetora's thoughts.

Kiyomasa thought and secretly stretched out his hand to touch Takaya's sleeping body. But the moment his fingers touched his shoulder,

"!"

Kiyomasa almost cried out in fright. His fingers had been tightly seized by Takaya's hand from under the blanket. Kiyomasa was startled and looked at his face. Takaya opened his eyes.

"Ah...!"

Kiyomasa nearly exclaimed aloud but Takaya managed to hush him with a Shh! in his thoughts. His heart had nearly leaped out; Takaya was not asleep. Perhaps he had noticed Kiyomasa approaching him, or had been waiting for him to come. Takaya gripped Kiyomasa's hand and said in his mind.

//Don't make a sound. Listen to me.//

U...Uesugi-dono. You noticed?

There was no response to Kiyomasa's question. The conversation was uni-directional. Takaya could convey his own ideas via Kiyomasa's telepathic abilities. Apart from this, the rest of the information inside him was protected with a defense that prevented Kiyomasa from accessing it.

//It seems like you were planning to read someone's thoughts without permission. Unfortunately, you're not so lucky this time.//

Takaya 'thought' in his heart. Kiyomasa's face stiffened. Kagetora was more astute than he was and would not so easily let him have his way. The lifeless expression in Takaya had disappeared; an aggressive radiance emanated from his eyes. Gazing directly at Kiyomasa, Takaya told him,

//I want to leave this place.//

What...

Kiyomasa stared at him. He did not even have time to ask how he was going to do this. Takaya continued to transmit his thoughts in a one-sided manner.

//I need your strength. Do as I say. Bring this building down and we can escape amidst the chaos.//

E..Escape? In your current condition?

Although Takaya had recovered significantly with the help of the luminous flame stone, it did not change the severity of his injury. Takaya should not even be able to move about normally, let alone escape. Furthermore there was a kekkai encompassing the area, leaving was not going to be easy. They were too closely watched and could not use their powers, so attempting to start a commotion was out of the question. Kiyomasa felt that it was impossible but Takaya's intentions were resolute.

//I have an idea. Concentrate your telepathy in the depths of my body. ...There's something that can be used for our escape.//

Takaya wanted Kiyomasa to place his hand on his own chest. Kiyomasa moved away from eyes of the guards, and calmly slid his hand beneath the blanket. Takaya positioned Kiyomasa's hand above his own heart, then placed his own hand on top. He slowly closed his eyes and concentrated.

What...

Kiyomasa sensed some kind of burning object on Takaya's chest. His skin began to heat up. Takaya shut his eyes and concentrated, wrinkling his brows in pain. The heat from the depths of his body drew close to the skin surface. Then it finally...

This is...!

A hard stone had completely emerged from Takaya's chest and was now in Kiyomasa's palm. It had an octahedral shape and was red like a ruby. It was the luminous flame stone the Fire sect disciples had buried into Takaya's body. It was said that only the followers of the Fire sect had the ability to manufacture them, spiritual stones produced by the crystallization of the divine power of the lava beneath Aso. Kiyomasa stared at Takaya. Expelling the luminous flame stone from the body must have required a lot of energy. Takaya's forehead was covered with sweat, his breathing was chaotic.

//If not for your ability to read thoughts, it can't be extracted. ...Take it.//

But if this object has been extracted, Takaya's body..., and his injury...

//I will tell you the plan and you will do as I say. If you want to escape then help me.//

Takaya's keen eyes were like those a carnivorous wild beast; they had a forcefulness that did not allow disagreement.

Takaya said,

//Nod if you understand me.//

Kiyomasa nodded with a tense expression.

//Good...//

His eyes shifted to the entrance. Fortunately, the Fire sect followers had not noticed anything. Takaya ordered him to leave. Kiyomasa gripped the luminous flame stone firmly in his hand and turned back.

"Okay. I already know that he's all right. Time to go back," Kiyomasa said to the Fire sect followers. He took one glance over his shoulder at Takaya then left the cabin. Seeing that he was gone, Takaya sat up.

Kiyomasa was escorted by several members of the sect.
He looked up at the sky. A darkness lied deep in the forest. It was almost 11 pm.

"Walk."

Urged in this manner, Kiyomasa walked down the alley in the forest back to the wooden lodge. His arms were still secured by the same two disciples.

How do I...

Shake these two off?

Will I really be able to do this--...

Though in doubt, Kiyomasa decided to follow Takaya's instructions. Once they passed the halfway mark en route to their destination, Kiyomasa suddenly clutched his stomach and doubled over.

"W...Wait! It hurts, it hurts!"

"What's the matter?"

"My stomach... my stomach is acting up again!"

"Your stomach... what's wrong?"

"I don't know. I have been feeling uncomfortable for quite some time now. D..Did you guys give me something weird to eat!"

"What!"

"It...It's no good..."

Kiyomasa clung onto one of the disciples with a face close to tears.

"I think I've diarrhea! The bat... bathroom... Are we not there yet!"

"Bath..bathroom!"

"D..Damn! It's too late! Wait for me here! I have diarrhea!" yelled Kiyomasa.

Sporting a hunched posture, he burst into the thicket of trees in a distressed manner. The Fire sect followers, though dumbfounded, were successfully fooled by the act as they had grown accustomed to Kiyomasa's melodramatics in last few days. Kiyomasa's acting skills were truly amazing.

Is this the area...

Kiyomasa crouched near the tree roots, taking care not to be found out. He took out a wooden sword from his pocket and held the luminous flame stone.
He did as Takaya instructed, using the sword to carve a spell on the luminous flame stone. This spell technique was unique to the Nichiren sect as it utilized a Kiji2 as an invocation, which could grant the user all sorts of magical power. Kiyomasa chose the Kiji for stimulating underground water, then added the characters of 'kyuu' and 'myou' onto the stone. The combination of these characters caused the luminous flame stone to glow. Kiyomasa buried it near the roots of the fir trees, held his wooden sword and prayer beads together, and completed the incantation in earnest despite knowing that the disciples would be alerted to resulting blast.

"What!"

The Fire sect disciples were startled by the noise.

"What are you doing!"

The Fire sect followers yelled fiercely. Kiyomasa roared back defiantly,
"Shut up! I'm conducting a prayer to cure my stomach! Got a problem with that!"

Thinking it best that to bar Kiyomasa from doing anything strange, they dragged him back to the main cabin.

Will this be good enough? Uesugi-dono.

All that was left was to wait for it to start.

There was no sign of anyone; all was silent and still. After several minutes, it happened without warning. Towers of steam began to successively shoot out of the ground in the region where the flame stone was buried. Saturated with water vapor, the dry earth turned muddy. Water came frothing up from the subterranean. No, this was not just water - it was boiling water.

The entire area was transformed into a basin of hot sludge with gurgling sounds from beneath, huge bubbles were inflated like living organisms. The surface of the hot mud swelled upwards into a hemispheric shape as sprays of murky water polluted the air. Soon, steam began to rise and the boiling water spread to the surrounding areas. The heated earth gradually dissolved the layers of snow. Something unusual was happening underground.


"What?"

Kikkawa Motoharu was the first to notice this abnormality. He had left the task of monitoring Takaya to the Fire sect disciples and stayed in the main cabin with Enoki. However, still troubled over Takaya, he headed down the stairs intending to go to the next cabin. That was when he noticed a stench coming from the outside.

"It smells sulfuric to me," said Motoharu. Enoki twitched his nose in acknowledgment.

"It's like..."

There was a strange fume. Often described as the stink of rotten eggs... A smell common around volcanic craters.

The smell... of sulfur?

No, this is volcanic gas...!

"Motoharu-sama, it smells like sulfuric acid fumes!"

"What!"

Boom! Rumble!

There was an intense shaking coupled with a resounding explosion as if the mountain had been blown to pieces.

"!"

Outside! Motoharu and Enoki rushed out. There was another violent quake.

"Uwah!"

Yet another thunderous blast was heard which sounded like the explosion of gunpowder. Motoharu saw it. Jets of hot mud were shooting out everywhere towards the sky.

"What is that!"

"Motoharu-sama, the next cabin!"

With the rumbling from beneath, geysers of hot mud demolished the wooden cabin Takaya was in. Motoharu and the others ducked. In the violent explosion that followed, they were showered with wooden fragments of the lodge.

"Kagetora-dono...!"

"Look out! Motoharu-sama!"

Hot mud rained down on them. Motoharu and the others cried out from the unbearable heat. Boiling water doused the entire area. The hot mud, which was close to 100 degrees, began to burn the trees.

"What on earth...!"

Motoharu looked around him astonishment. The Fire sect disciples were in utter confusion.

"Don't go outside! There's hot mud! You'll be more than just burned if it hits you!"

"Nnnh... ahhh!"

An intense quake rocked the house with vibrations so great that they could not even stand. All of them instinctively sensed the danger of remaining indoors and ran out. In that moment,

!

Mud geysers eventually toppled the dwelling with a destructive force.

"Ohhhh!"

Drenched in hot mud, the disciples fled in all directions. As the eruptions had yet to subside, Kiyomasa took advantage of the chaos and ran around randomly.

"Uesugi-dono! Uesugi-dono!"

Takaya was standing beside the destroyed wooden cabin. The high-neck uniform he was wearing had been smudged with dirt, but at the very least he was not hurt. However, Takaya seemed to be repressing the pain from his injuries; his forehead was covered with sweat. He clenched his teeth and looked back.

"Looks like it was smoothly executed."

By allowing the strength of the luminous flame stone to fuse with the power of a spell, it brought the underground volcanic gas to life. The area had turned into a scene of chaos as a result of these water eruptions. Although he felt apologetic to Motoharu, it could not be helped as this was the result of using volcanic energy.
But did Takaya really have any energy left to escape?

"Your body won't be able to take it, Uesugi-dono!"

"It will! Let's go, Kiyomasa!"

Overcome by that assertion, Kiyomasa followed him. Takaya was steadfast in his intention to escape. Not long after they entered the woods, they were spotted by Motoharu and the others.

"What! Kiyomasa and Kagetora...!"

Motoharu hatefully looked at the hot mud shooting up from the ground. Only Kagetora was capable of this feat. Motoharu knew this was definitely the work of Kagetora.

This is going overboard....!

Attempting to escape in that body condition was simply suicide. That injury should have left him immobile for two to three weeks. If he exerted himself without discretion, his life would be endangered. Thinking in this way, Motoharu was abruptly beset by a dreadful idea.

Don't tell me...!

Motoharu was startled; he looked behind.

Don't tell me he really wants to die!

"Motoharu-sama! It's too dangerous to stay here!" Enoki and the others cried out as they ran towards him. Motoharu yelled back at them with an aghast expression.

"Don't worry about me, find Kagetora-dono! He should not have gotten far!"

"Has he escaped!"

"This was started by Kagetora! Find him immediately! If we don't bring him back at once, he will die!"

"Die? What about Kiyomasa?"

"Forget about Kiyomasa! If you find him, just kill him!"

"Understood!"

Disregarding the scalding mud, Enoki belted out commands to the disciples. Despite being caught in the initial panic, they came back to their senses once they heard Enoki's instructions. With a focused spirit, their bodies began to emit a golden divine light, and one after another they flew into the sky. It was clear evidence of the bird people's flying ability.

The mud-spattered trees erupted in flames. The encircling blaze reminded Motoharu of that night at Hagi.

This is not good.

How could he escape with that broken body? If this was not suicide, it was the act of a madman.

Things will be bad if he doesn't come back!

There were 'Yachou', onshou under the Ootomo's command, hovering about in the vicinity. If they find him, he could not imagine what would happen. Furthermore, his life was definitely at risk with that kind of injury.

Why did he do this...!

Motoharu felt he was beyond redemption. Was this his final struggle? Or was he trying to escape again!

Kagetora-dono!


Deep in the forest, two men were making their way down to the foothills. This area was untouched by the fire, there was nothing but the pitch-black forest. Neither was there any clear path. Takaya and Kiyomasa merely relied on the thin layer of white snow to lead them down the mountain while they fought to catch their breath.

"Uesugi-dono...!"

Takaya had fallen behind. As expected, he was having a lot of difficulty moving. He was panting heavily, using the trees to support him as he shielded his body.

"Why bother looking back..."

Takaya asked in a pained voice, his sharp eyes twinkled in the darkness.

"You really should just abandon this sort of baggage..."

"But you...!"

"You are my enemy!"

Takaya still had the strength to threaten the other with words. But his face was ashen from his desperate attempts to hold back the pain, his forehead was covered in perspiration. Without the aid of the luminous flame stone, his body was probably in a lot of pain.

"Or do you see this as a good opportunity? Do you wish to kill me... and deliver my head to Nobunaga!"

"As I thought, it was too reckless of you to escape in that physical condition! I'll carry you!"

"Don't touch me!"

Kiyomasa was startled by his refusal and withdrew his hand. Takaya was like a wounded beast.

"You have no permission to touch me! If you dare touch me, I will kill you!"

"..."

Overwhelmed by his vehemence that threatened to shred everything, Kiyomasa gasped. He could not reply.

At this moment,

"!"

A large group of black shadows flew down from above the trees. They were from the Fire sect.

"Found them!"

"Capture them!"

Kiyomasa clicked his tongue in disgust; he drew his wooden sword and prayer beads.

"I'll hold them back! Go quickly, Kagetora!"

"Kiyomasa...!"

"Save it! I won't let them catch you! I definitely won't let you become a receptacle from something like Kihachi!"

Kiyomasa appeared to be protecting Takaya by shielding him from the bird people.

"Don't be mistaken, Kagetora! I am doing this for the sake of the Oda! The 'Golden Snake Head' is not an eight-headed orochi, but a far more frightening monster! And you are its receptacle! They want to turn you into a human medium for Kihachi's will! If Uesugi Kagetora becomes the dwelling of the Kihachi onryou group, we are going to have trouble!"

"Kihachi onryou... group?"

"Now that you know, hurry up and run!"

As if driven away by Kiyomasa's majestic roar, Takaya turned and left. Saeki shouted, "Pursue Ougi Takaya! Kill Kiyomasa!"

"Who are you planning to kill!"

A ball of fire formed in Kiyomasa's right hand. The flames extended outwards, transforming into a large katakama yari. Kiyomasa concentrated his energy and the seven characters 'Na Mu Myou Hou Ren Ge Kyou' burned with a golden radiance.

"Stay back---!"

Kiyomasa held the katakama yari up high, throwing back the ones who intended to pursue Takaya. A deep humming sound came from the katakama yari as it swerved around, causing explosions in the sky which obstructed the way of the bird people.

"Uwahhh!"

"Yasuo!"

Hit by the explosions, they fell to the ground. Saeki activated the luminous flame stone inside Kiyomasa with an incantation.

"Nnnghh!"

His chest burned as though inflamed. As Kiyomasa struggled in pain, the others began to attack him one by one with their own flame stones. It was the very same method they had used to expel Rairyuu.

"Ohhh!"

Kiyomasa held his wooden sword to the sky.

"Don't you underestimate me---!"

An intense ringing surrounded Kiyomasa as he put forth every ounce of his body's strength.

"What!"

The arrows created from the flame stones were deflected by the wall created by the wooden sword. Kiyomasa desperately intensified the spin of his sword. However, Saeki remained composed and stimulated the morale of the bird people.

"This wall is inconsequential, strike it down! We are the natives of the Fire sect! Repel all those who stand in our way!"

"Ngh!"

Their attacks had a renewed ferocity. Kiyomasa frantically swerved and pivoted his wooden sword, but a few of the flame stones that pounded down on him like a violent hale broke through the barrier and injured Kiyomasa's body. Blood splattered out; his heart seemed to be on fire. Kiyomasa gritted his teeth.

"Damn you--!"

Snarling, Kiyomasa brandished the katakama yari once again.

"Like hell I'm going to let your Kihachi clan take over Japan!!"

***

I must go and save him...!

In the darkness, Fuuma Kotarou hurried towards Kikkawa Motoharu's residence. Although the soles of his feet had grown slippery due to the snow, it posed no hindrance for Kotarou, a ninja tempered in Hakone. His eyes were fixed on the journey ahead. Kotarou wanted to go and 'save' Takaya, who had been imprisoned by Motoharu and Shimazu.

Saburou-dono... No, Kagetora-sama!

That was the only thing Kotarou was thinking about.

I must go and save him!

For Kotarou who always regarded 'strategic benefit' as a standard by which to decide how to act, his current actions could only be seen as disadvantageous. Fuuma Kotarou should have given complete support to Kousaka's or Rairen's scheme - Naoe's betrayal of Kagetora. But Kotarou could not do this. Why? Because 'Naoe is not someone who will betray Kagetora.'

I will not betray you.

Kotarou ran swiftly through the forest without stopping.

I will never betray you.

It sounded like he was trying to convey his thoughts to Takaya. With a resolute determination to prove his innocence, Kotarou continued to run through the forest.

--Do you no longer have any feelings?

These words had bound his will, changing Kotarou into a person different from 'Fuuma Kotarou'.

--Have you even forgotten... how to kiss?

This had turned into a case of putting the cart before the horse. Kotarou, who used to be willing to do anything to make Kagetora return to the Hojo, was now only vaguely aware of his original goal. Had he become so engrossed with wanting to become Naoe that he finally believed he was Naoe? He could not criticize his own actions because he was not completely conscious of what was happening to himself.

He could not calm down. He could not understand the fretful sentiments he was having, this heartbroken feeling. It unnaturally spurred Kotarou to run on. Yet he was not aware of its apparent effect. This was not the simple feeling of inferiority he always believed he had. It was something deeper, something which concerned his own being...

--It's impossible for you to understand!

Ujiteru's words echoed in his heart again. Back then he had only thought of them as foolish words. He had felt that Ujiteru, who could not bring himself to harm Takaya's physical body, was truly ignorant for acting on his emotions. Kotarou had had no empathy for him. Neither had he found it strange that he could not sympathize with others. Furthermore, Kotarou had also believed that this was proof of 'perfection'.
But wasn't it really because he lacked the ability to sympathize?
Wasn't it really because he was not a 'perfect human', but rather, a 'somewhat defective' one?
He began to feel this way ever since he started masquerading as Naoe in front of Takaya. Anxiety stemming from a deep sense of agitation grew with each passing day, intensifying as time went by. Disproved in every single respect by Takaya, very soon all Kotarou thought about was how to make things right before he came to a complete loss.
Kotarou was ultimately losing himself.

Through the great snow, Kotarou silently pressed on into the mountains. He felt that Takaya was somewhere in this mountain ridge, crying for his aid.

--You can never understand!

These were Takaya's words at Hagi. Now that he thought about it, that was the first yoke. The one who compelled Kotarou was Takaya. The one who rejected him was also Takaya, but the only one who could give him affirmation, was still this one person - Takaya. Kotarou felt that, more than making him resume his identity of Hojo Saburou, more than forcing him to return to the Hojo,

I want to obtain your acknowledgment!

Kotarou continued to run. That desperate look on his face gave the impression that he was afraid of something. He had come to a small path. Then, the clamor of an explosion came from a distance.

What...!

The shaking beneath his feet seemed to pull him back from his thoughts, Kotarou looked ahead nervously. A rumbling... A persistent sound accompanied the vibrations of the earth. Kotarou could hear the splattering sound of hot mud shooting out.

That was...!

Yes, it came from the direction of Motoharu's residence.

Could it be that...

Kotarou had very keen intuition. He slid down the path between the trees, and hurried in the direction of the blast. The ground was shaking. He heard the explosions again, then a sudden brightness covered the mountain ridge with a thunderous roar. Great flames surged out to the sky.

Over there!

Motoharu's cabin. Takaya should be there. Something abnormal must have occurred to bring about this pandemonium. Kotarou ran forward as the flames advanced towards the mountain ridge. Kotarou immediately understood what had happened. This was definitely Takaya's doing. Had he given up on waiting and acted on his own? If so, that would mean he had decided that no help was coming and took the initiative of opening an escape route.

No, Kagetora-sama!

He shouted as he ran. I will save you. I have come to save you. Please do not act rashly...!

Kotarou sprinted on the charred rock path with the speed of a wild deer. He had to find him as soon as possible and protect him. If Takaya had acted because of his misunderstanding of Naoe, he had to vindicate himself as soon as possible. He had to tell Takaya that he had come to save him. Everything about the betrayal was a lie, he had to undo the misunderstanding!

"!"

Sensing an intense spiritual presence ahead, Kotarou reflexively took precautions. The sound of clanging armor drew close.

What...!

Not long after, glowing shapes like blue-white will-o-wisps emerged in all directions from the forest. The shapes merged and took on human forms. They were the spirits of a group of armored warriors. Soldiers clad in broken armor appeared before Kotarou.

Which clan are they from...!

The onryou drew their swords, their armor swaying as they approached. Kotarou consolidated his power and assumed a fighting stance. Then, a man appeared behind the onryou.

"I cannot allow you to go any further, Kotarou-dono."

"What...!"

The man wearing a long, white coat had a knife in his right hand. He was a hyoui rei. He must be the leader of the onryou. The man said to Kotarou,

"I am Shimazu. Shimazu Toyohisa. I have come to stop you on behalf of Akechi-dono. Since you disobeyed our instructions, I no longer regard you as a comrade. ...Prepare yourself!"

Shimazu Toyohisa...!

The first born of the Shimazu brothers - Iehisa's son. At the famous Battle of Sekigahara, he was the man who died in place of Shimazu Yoshihiro, his general and uncle, during his attempts to break away from the battlefield by fighting resolutely to break through the enemy ranks. Apparently, he had answered Mitsuhide's request by rapidly dispatching an army to this place.

Are you going to stop me...!

Kotarou's eyes had a sharp radiance; he heightened his guard like a wild beast. Shimazu's onryou soldiers steadily approached, intending to surround him. Kotarou gritted his teeth bitterly.

Saburou-dono...!

***

"!"

The sounds of the explosion also reached Kaizaki and Hakkai, who were still in their vehicle. With the water snake leading the way, the two of them had reached the mountain road to Eboushidake.

"W-What happened!"

The vibrations could be felt in the vehicle and the rumbling sounds did not stop. While paying attention to his control of the steering wheel, Hakkai glanced at Kaizaki.

"Wasn't that...!"

"Speed up," ordered Kaizaki. "That was the spiritual wave of the Kiji charm. Kiyomasa is from the Nichiren sect. As a devout follower, it's not surprising for him to use the Kiji."

"Then Kagetora-sama...!"

The car sped up, scaling the winding and uneven mountain road. It was a really steep slope with no paving, but the large horsepower of the 4WD allowed the vehicle to continue into the mountains.

"!"

Because of the hot mud spurting out from underground, the entire area had been laid to waste.

"W..What on earth happened here!"

It seemed like they could not drive any further. The trees were on fire, resembling columns of flames and the collapsed wooden cabins were covered with mud. All traces of the former landscape were gone. The steam was so thick it saturated the air, furthermore there was the occasional spray of hot mud in certain areas. Hakkai covered his nose. Very dense volcanic gases had drifted into the area, making it very dangerous to remain. If they stayed for too long, they would be poisoned.

"K..Kaizaki-sama..."

Kaizaki gazed at the miserable state of the place with a solemn expression. There was no one here anymore. And no sign of Takaya.

Takaya-san...!

"Looks like our guest finally arrived."

"!"

Hearing the male voice behind him, both of them turned around.

This voice is familiar...!

On the other side of the rising steam, a human figure approached. The pure-white steam calmly separated as if clearing a path to welcome the stranger. A beautiful man in a white overcoat emerged from the depths of the forest...

"!"

Kaizaki gasped. The one who approached was, without a doubt, Takeda Shingen's trusted aide - Kousaka Danjou.

"How late you are."

Kousaka said in a sweet voice, walking over slowly. The hell-like volcanic gas seemed only to disappear with his presence. Kousaka smiled proudly.

"You... are still alive!"

"Is that any way to greet someone? ...Still as cold as ever despite the long parting."

Kaizaki was momentarily speechless, then stared as Kousaka fiercely. Kousaka smirked, holding his chin with his soft fingers.

"Still the same cowardly man despite that expression. Did you borrow another person's body to hide your true colors? Hmph, how foolish."

Kaizaki was guarded. He coldly said, "I have no idea what you are talking about."

"Oh please. I have no wish to see this puppet show of hypocrisy. That troublesome spiritual wave that started just now was vexing enough. Haven't the puppet strings been exposed?"

Kaizaki's expression stiffened. Kousaka looked at him with playful interest and smiled maliciously.

"But then again your acting skills have always been third-rate."

"You...!"

"It's truly interesting that someone like you has spiritually synchronized with a living person. But the fact that the one before me is not the original body displeases me. If I feel like it, I ,Kousaka, can cut off your strings of your control."

Hakkai was extremely nervous. Kaizaki glared at the other viciously. Kousaka smiled again then declared in a loud voice.

"Looks like not even Yama, the King of Hell, wishes to accept you! Well, it was good of you to return! Allow me to welcome your resurrection, Naoe Nobutsuna!"

A gale blew past, fanning the rage of the fires behind them. Steam blew fiercely at their bodies, clouding their field of vision. Within the snow-white storm winds, their confrontation began.


1washi - hand made Japanese paper
2Kiji - literally translates to 'demon character'
 
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