quaint_twilight: (kotarou)
quaint_twilight ([personal profile] quaint_twilight) wrote on March 22nd, 2010 at 11:22 pm
Book 17 Chapter 19 凍える神のもとへ
Japanese to Chinese translation by Hinako. Chinese to English translation by me.

Basics of this chapter: Kotarou vs Naoe; who makes it to Takaya?


The darkness of night in Aso seemed to have the unusual ability to warp every spirit. Murderous intent and desperate prayers surged through fervidly like hot lava, slowly smothering the great earth of deep winter. The snow had disappeared unnoticed.

Kaizaki Makoto ran through the dark forest. The water snake was still operative; it was his guide to Takaya's whereabouts. The water snake vigorously twisted and turned its body of fresh water as it flew ahead, followed closely by Kaizaki. Although his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he still could not see very far ahead and had stumbled over the roots of the trees several times.

He will not believe it.

Kaizaki had no confidence in his assertion.
Their time of honesty had stopped on that day two years ago, the moment the bullet went through Naoe's chest. Thereafter, as a result of the words and mannerisms of a 'fake,' Takaya believed Naoe's abandonment to be a lost of his attachment to Kagetora. Takaya had no evidence to overturn this belief.

For the past two years, Naoe could not convey 'his own' predicament to him. Although they had spoken on that one night at Chigasaki, outside the closed doors of Kumamoto castle, he did not believe that their meeting then was significant enough to counter Kousaka's slander. All Kaizaki could convey to Takaya were vague and powerless words, nothing more. No matter what he said, all of it was the mere words of a total stranger known as Kaizaki Makoto. He knew this himself; in Takaya's eyes, Kaizaki Makoto was just a mysterious man in the guise of a herald who bewitched others with unfathomable words.

Naoe had assumed the identity of Kaizaki in order to complete a mission and a necessity. If he could irresponsibly rid himself of what he had been entrusted with, the situation would be much simpler. However, he could not do that. This was how Naoe and Kagetora had lived for the past 400 years. But Naoe did not wish to use this as an excuse. He was always one to seize the situation from the best vantage point; he always took active measures.

Yet Naoe still felt that he had been careless. The Anti-Oda alliance was serious about roping in Kagetora and they were not about to give up despite failing to do so at Hagi. Within a short space of time, the might of the Oda had increased tremendously, furthermore his own movements had been discovered by the Takeda. There was no way the high-ranking officers of the Anti-Oda alliance were going to regard this as a matter of little crisis. If Naoe could manage this situation, he should be able to prevent a disaster from happening. He had experienced a bad premonition when he saw Takaya and Chiaki at Kojou High but regardless of his regrets, it was too late now.

I should have made both of them leave Kumamoto, by force if necessary.

Betrayed by Naoe--
It was not surprising that Takaya believed this. Two years ago, he had abused Takaya with his words and actions of exhaustion and self-abandon. With his failing powers and sight, all that was visible then had been the end. Naoe had confessed that he 'wanted this to end,' and Takaya had heard it.

As Kaizaki Makoto, he could not connect with Takaya. Regardless of what he said, Takaya would not consider it as Naoe's words, instead he would be confused by it or merely regard it as a temporary consolation.

No matter how much the imposters struggle, neither could convey anything to the other party.

Kagetora and Naoe were not even standing on the same earth at this moment. If he had his own physical body instead of Kaizaki Makoto's appearance - if he could communicate with him as the true Naoe Nobutsuna, Takaya would then awaken from the 'nightmare' he had created, return to the reality of the world and their genuine connection would end the long frozen period of time between them. However, everything had yet to start. Time for both of them remained as still as before and this stagnancy had a disquieting effect. If this continued, they would eventually drown in a swamp of falsehood, marred by confusion until death came from suffocation. Their ability to break away depended on the strength of their own resolve.

They were in the process of refining that resolve.
In short, Naoe had to hurry to Takaya's side. Although he was not convinced that Takaya had allied himself with the Takeda as Kousaka had indicated, he could not just leave him to the enemy. Naoe had to act to prevent Takaya from being exploited. That was the truth. But there was an even more important reason in Naoe's heart. A reason only he and Irobe knew.

Kagetora-sama...!

Naoe continued into the forest. As the night deepened, the temperatures began to drop substantially. He was very worried about Takaya's body.

Fuuma Kotarou was currently 'Naoe' to Takaya. If Kotarou was part of the Anti-Oda alliance, he should be Kousaka's ally. He ought to have abandoned his hyouza by now. But even if Naoe did find Takaya, considering his current appearance, how was he to explain himself to him? This would go beyond Takaya's expectations. Furthermore, even if Takaya were to find out that Kousaka's words were lies, he would still learn of Naoe's position one day - the fact that he had become the general of the new Uesugi. What was he to do then?

Nevertheless, future matters were of no concern to him right now, Takaya's safety was his first priority.

Takaya-san...

Naoe ran nonstop, breathing heavily. His black hair was in a mess and his overcoat was stained with mud. He descended a slope, brushing aside the branches as he proceeded.

Please be safe.

Suddenly, the water snake jolted back sensing an unusual scent. Naoe also perceived the smell of blood. Something was approaching from the darkness. He saw a figure of a man emerging from the depths of the beech woods. Naoe raised his guard. The man appeared somewhat strange however. Was he injured? Despite moving steadily one step at a time, he was trembling and breathing strenuously in his slow approach. He was covered in blood from head to toe, so much that it made one think of him as an injured beast. His entire body emanated a strong aura of death. Naoe gathered his reserve energy but once the other man's face came into clear view, he gasped in shock.

"You..."

The one dragging his blood-stained body along was Fuuma Kotarou. It was a tragic sight. He was bleeding most severely from his right wrist and his hand was notably missing. Judging from the measures taken on his elbow to stop the bleeding, had his right hand been severed? Kotarou's black hair was in a tangled mess, his face a ghostly ashen hue due to the loss of blood. However his eyes were flaming, glistening with an exceptional radiance. He must have an astounding amount of steadfastness to not collapse despite sustaining such heavy injuries. Kotarou had reached this place after cutting down the Shimazu soldiers till not one remained alive.

Naoe momentarily forgot to make his presence known. He had never seen Kotarou with such an astonishing air around him. Kotarou suddenly widened his eyes, sensing Naoe's presence.

The enemy...!

Kotarou prepared himself. Before him stood Naoe, the alleged descendant of the Kaizaki. Naoe only looked startled.

"Why are you---..."

There was no immediate response in Kotarou's brain. He did not recognize the other as Kaizaki. Only by reflex action did he grip the Arashizanmaru again in his left hand, bellowing in a voice full of savage spirit.

"Are you... another one of the Shimazu's soldiers...!"

Kotarou glared at him with ferocious eyes, veiled by a blood-sodden fringe, like a wild dog.

"Step aside! If you dare hinder me, I will kill you as well!"

Naoe stared at him. "Did you say... Shimazu?"

When he heard the question, Kotarou's eyebrows twitched and his vision seemed to sharpen unexpectedly. Then he saw the man in front of him clearly. He had seen him before.

"You are..."

Kotarou remembered. Although they had never met face to face, Kotarou remembered his appearance from the photo. He was Kaizaki Makoto, a descendant of the Satomi, Yoshitaka's valuable assistant and the man who helped to implement the 'Way to the Underworld.' He had also heard from Takaya that Kaizaki had come to Kumamoto and was working together with the Ootomo. He was the man whose thoughts and feelings were indecipherable. He was the one who had allowed Takaya to escape in Chigasaki and the one with a style of handwriting extremely similar to Naoe's. Ever since then, Kaizaki always had a strange effect on Takaya.

"Did you fight against the Shimazu?" Kaizaki asked. "Are your wounds a result of that fight? What are you doing here? Telling me not to hinder you... Where do you intend to go?"

Kotarou did not reply, he looked at Kaizaki with renewed caution. Naoe came to a sudden realization and pressed on with his questions.

"When you said the Shimazu, are you referring to the soldiers of Takamori castle? They should have joined the Anti-Oda alliance, Kotarou, you should be their ally. Why would you fight against the Shimazu?"

Wh..at..!

Hearing the way Kaizaki articulated his lines, Kotarou had an unusual reaction. These words touched Kotarou's ears in a curious way.
This was definitely the first time Kotarou heard Kaizaki speak but he soon understood the reason for this bizarre feeling. Kaizaki's eloquence was exceedingly similar to the manner of speaking he was striving to imitate. No, what he had just heard was exactly identical to the verbal mannerisms he had wholeheartedly tried to achieve all this while by racking his brains for the answer. Kotarou was startled and could not help but doubt his ears. It was not just his manner of speaking, that unique way of wrinkling his brows when he questioned him...

"Where have you taken Takaya-san?"

"...!"

"You have colluded with Kousaka and deceived him right. You people are truly despicable to go so far as to take advantage of his self-hypnotism. However, he will never return to the Hojo even if you mislead him!"

Kotarou found it unbelievable. No, he felt, "How could this stupid matter be so," and could not stop shaking his head. It seemed like Kaizaki took this to mean something else.

"You are aware of this, aren't you? It is not possible for you to have been uninformed of the Takeda's strategy. Where is Kagetora-sama? No, going by your appearance, you probably didn't see him. Who took him away?"

That is... right...

Kotarou was stunned.

This is Naoe!

This was the Naoe Nobutsuna who should have died. His gestures, speaking tone, facial expressions... Kotarou knew them. He was a ninja among ninjas and one who who had made his mark in history with the ability to familiarize himself with the most minute details of a person's character. Additionally, he possessed the rare skill of perfect imitation. His eyes could see through everything, leaving nothing to be desired. The person Kotarou had spared no effort in his desperate attempt to become was now standing before him. In his ears, the man's speaking pattern was a close and perfect match with his target ideal. Indeed, apart from this, there was nothing more that he could want...!

"Naoe... Nobutsuna...!"

Upon hearing the other shout this name, the man widened his eyes in shock.

"You are still alive? Were you not purified...!"

Naoe was stunned that he had managed to figure this out. In Kousaka's case, he had spiritual examination abilities that gave him a perceptive advantage but Kotarou should not have been able to see through it. Kotarou certainly did not have the ability to determine the presence of a spiritual synchronization but rather than going by intuition he had used the exceptional acuteness of his five senses to discern this. As the top ninja in the country, his eyes and ears, physically trained to their maximum potential, had completely seen through Naoe.

A ninja's eyes...

Naoe felt cold sweat run down his back. The so-called ninja was in reality a terrifying race of people. Naoe believed he was up against such a person; he felt fear of Kotarou. But Kotarou's expression was even more unusual than before. He had turned pale and stiffened after calling out Naoe's name. He was in enormous shock.

"Why are you... still alive---..." His voice was shaking. "You should have been purified! You should no longer be on this earth! Why, why are you now...!"

Kotarou could not restrain the intense emotions boiling up in his chest. Eventually, he yelled with a contortion of emotions on his face,

"Why are you in this place---!"


Whose voice is this....!

A man in the depths of the forest heard this yelling. Kikkawa Motoharu had come from the wreckage of the cabins destroyed by the eruptions of volcanic gas to this place in his pursuit of Takaya.

Who is over there...!

Motoharu ran ahead. He had not found Takaya or Kiyomasa. The bird people of the Fire sect sent after them had been obstructed by Kiyomasa who had apparently engaged them in decisive combat but Motoharu had no information as to the result of that confrontation. Motoharu had continued to chase after Takaya who had taken that opportunity to escape on his own.

He did not know where Takaya was. In order to find him, Motoharu had wandered in the woods for more than an hour. However Aso's forest was too vast; he could not find any trails whatsoever.

That was when Motoharu heard Kotarou's voice.
He sensed some kind of dangerous atmosphere and as a precaution, he took out the pistol he carried and sprinted towards the origin of the shouts. He clambered up a slope, made slippery by the frost, moved the shrubs aside and came to a somewhat open space. And there Motoharu saw it - the confrontation between the two men.

That is...!

Wasn't that Fuuma Kotarou? Motoharu remembered. Although he no longer had that long bundle of hair running down his back, he was indeed Kotarou. But he had never seen the other man before.
Motoharu found Kotarou's presence in this place strange. What exactly happened which resulted in his many bodily injuries? Wasn't he supposed to be collaborating with Rairen of the Ikkoushuu? And who was the other man?

Right...! Kotarou is the one Kagetora sees as 'Naoe.'

Rairen had already been informed of Kousaka's plan. Of all places, Kotarou was the one man who should not be here at all.

Kotarou's face was pale, his jaw was trembling slightly as he stared intently at the other man - Kaizaki. Kaizaki - Naoe did not refute Kotarou's words but maintained his silence.

"Why do you have that appearance..." Kotarou asked in a restrained voice. "You are Kaizaki Makoto... What is your intention? Why did you not immediately reveal your true identity? In addition to hiding your identity, why are you using that false name, Naoe Nobutsuna!"

Naoe...!

Motoharu did not hear wrong.

Did he just say Naoe Nobutsuna!

"When did you start using this false guise? All of the Yashashuu do not know that you still live, what is the meaning of this!"

Naoe was silent. Kotarou suddenly felt bewildered as his extremely sharp mind had already analyzed the significance of Naoe's pretense as Kaizaki Makoto. Naoe only looked at Kotarou with bitterness. Motoharu held his breath as he listened to their conversation in the shade of the forest.

Could he be...

Motoharu widened his eyes as he looked at the man in the black overcoat.

Could he be Naoe? But wasn't he purified...!

Was Naoe still on this earth!

"Answer me, Naoe Nobutsuna!" Kotarou shouted in a hoarse voice.

Naoe wanted to feign calmness but the veins near his temples had become more pronounced, giving himself away. He felt that he could not hide himself from this man and steeled his nerve.

"I can ask the same of you. You wish to find Kagetora-sama, right? What do you intend to do?"

"Save him."

"Save him?"

Motoharu thought he had heard him wrongly. He shifted his attention to Kotarou in shock. Kotarou replied with a look of extreme distress.

"This is as it should be. I am his right-hand man, isn't it only natural that I should rescue him from being held captive by the enemy?"

Kotarou...!

Motoharu was startled. Did this mean Kotarou had betrayed them? What on earth was he planning to do? Was Kotarou still an ally...!
Naoe was speechless as well, immediately taken aback as he shared Motoharu's thoughts.

"I will never betray Kagetora-sama. I did no such thing, that is why I cannot quietly allow things to stand. I am 'Naoe.' He is waiting for me. It is only natural that I go save him, I will never betray him to the enemy!"

What is wrong with this man?

Naoe was astounded. Kotarou was showing an expression which Naoe had never seen before, a face which looked at Naoe with a deep feeling of regret. He continued,

"That's right, that is the expression..."

Kotarou had always been seeking for that expression. Yet why did Naoe express it so perfectly? Because Naoe was Naoe himself so this was a logical outcome. But Kotarou was extremely unwilling to resign himself to defeat, perhaps an indication of Kotarou's excellent diligence. Seeing how Naoe could so effortlessly, so perfectly and so properly express that which he had been seeking, Kotarou strangely felt envious of him. That was how it was. Kotarou thought, squinting his eyes painfully.

And in this way... you have surpassed me.

Kotarou admitted to himself that he had developed an inferiority complex to Naoe. His facial expression was very serene, a complete opposite to the agitation in his heart.

"I know this because I have been thinking about your character for the past two years. You wish to go to him as well right? That is why you are here in this secluded place in the mountains. However, Naoe, I cannot let you go. Because I have seen you."

Kotarou said, smiling all of a sudden.

"Because he is waiting for me. The only one who can put him at ease is the Naoe that I am. Even if you go, it will not be of any use. If I do not go, he will die."

Noting Naoe's stiffening expression, Kotarou felt a little superior. Although he loathed himself for behaving in this way, his lips could not stop.

"Do you understand? Naoe. You are not needed anymore, no longer of any use. I have been with Kagetora-sama for the past two years and he has been satisfied with me. Contrary to your expectations, Kagetora-sama has never yearned for you."

"Wha...!"

"Because I am Naoe, that is why it is enough. Or should I say, it is better that you are not Naoe. I have understood how to put him at ease. The Naoe that I am would never betray Kagetora-sama...!"

This man...!

Naoe's face had completely stiffened as Kotarou had discerned Kenshin's part in this matter.

"If I were you, I would never have left Kagetora-sama. He does not hope for such a thing thus I will never leave him. If I had to choose between Kenshin and Kagetora-sama, I will definitely choose Kagetora-sama. This is how 'Naoe' should be!"

Naoe could not say anything and so Kotarou relentlessly continued.

"Since the real one has chosen Kenshin, it does not mean I am not 'Naoe,' it means that you are no longer 'Naoe!'"

"!"

"There is no need for two 'Naoes.'" Kotarou declared in a low voice, raising his spiritual dagger in front of him. "Let me eliminate the fake."

"!"

Kotarou was one step faster than he had anticipated. The moment he finished speaking, he leaped forward to attack Naoe with an unexpected amount of remaining energy. Grasping the Arashizanmaru in his left hand, Kotarou struck at Naoe.

"Harrghh!"

Sparks broke out like friction between two metals. Naoe's Goshinha had warded off Kotarou's blow. Kotarou fell backwards as a result of the repelling force; Naoe too was thrown back against a tree from the impact.

"This time I will see that you die, Naoe!" Kotarou shouted as he stood up. "I will kill you!"

A murderous aura radiated from Kotarou's entire body as he charged towards him. Naoe bit his tongue in agitation; he could not allow himself to be killed in this place. The battle between the two 'Naoes' unfolded before Motoharu's eyes.

"Ohhh!"

Kotarou roared like a wolf and attacked. Naoe accumulated a mass of incantations and unleashed them all at once. Sparks from their violent interchange of strikes crackled in the air, leaving sharp scratches on the nearby roots of the trees. Naoe set one incantation on his right arm, creating a shield. However, Kotarou's attacks were simply incredible. He slashed at Naoe mercilessly, the might of his spiritual dagger much greater than before, having absorbed the blood of the Shimazu. Naoe's incantation shield burst and his skin was lacerated. That weapon moved like a sickle.

"Ch!"

As blood spurted out, Naoe retreated several paces, unable to withstand his attack.

So strong...!

"You are no longer Naoe!"

Devilish in his violent and savage intent, Kotarou growled in a hoarse voice.

"A person like you should just disappear again!"

His spiritual dagger whirred, extending to the length of a broadsword as it was thrust at Naoe with amazing force. Despite recreating his shield to parry the blow, it was instantly reduced to dust by the sheer power of the sword...!

What you said was wrong!

Naoe gritted his teeth and fought bravely. What Kagetora sought for was not a 'Naoe catered to one's own fancies.' Even if Kagetora harbored this sentiment, there was no doubt that he had endured Naoe's scream behind him; what he was waiting for should be 'Naoe's truth.' Naoe deeply believed this was so. With eyes that had commanded him to 'cry out,' the object of Kagetora's unceasing pursuit existed only in Naoe's bosom, that was all there is to it...!

Don't be mistaken!

Like the crash of a ferocious wave, Naoe bellowed.

"The one who should disappear is you, you fake...!"

There was a flash in Naoe's hand and a sword appeared. This spiritual sword, acknowledged as the 'Murasame' by Kaizaki, emanated a radiance similar to the blade of Bishamonten. Naoe immediately steadied the Murasame and slashed at Kotarou!

"Ohhh---!"

In an instant, an intense light covered the forest as though night had turned to day. The blades of the Murasame and Arashizanmaru had clashed against each other. The point of their contact provoked a violent whirlwind but neither Kotarou nor Naoe backed down from the furor. Locked in position with their teeth clenched, they pushed their arm guard against each other in a contest of strength, eyes boring into their opponent at a close distance. A tremendous amount of energy ran through the earth; the trees were moaning from the excessive exchange of power so much that even the water snake was drawn into the fray, disappearing into the chaos.

Motoharu also had to shield his body as he desperately tried to keep the situation between the two men in view despite the glare of the radiance. A ferocious energy enveloped the surroundings with a thundering roar.

"It would be best if you were no longer here! I will not let you go to Saburou-dono! The one who deserves to die is you, Naoe--!"

Kotarou yelled as though he wanted to tear his soul apart.

"You must never come back--!!!"

"!"

Naoe felt a certain fracture in his chest, an extreme pain momentarily ran through his entire body. Kotarou's fierce spirit had crushed Kaizaki's ribs...!

"Ch..Ah..!"

Kotarou seized this opportunity to deal the final blow but Naoe reflexively defended himself with an incantation at the moment of Kotarou's sudden approach. Kotarou pushed Naoe away almost as soon as the skin on the former's forehead split open, resulting in a spray of blood. Naoe tumbled over, hands outstretched to break his fall.

"Urg...Ah...!"

He was coughing up huge lumps of blood. It was at this moment that Naoe realized that something was different.

The synchronization...

The spiritual synchronization had been perturbed. He could not freely use his powers. Why did this problem crop up at such a time? No, someone must have disrupted it. But who? His four limbs were shaking. At this rate, he would not be able to move his body...!

Is it Kousaka!

"Die---!"

Naoe heard Kotarou's angry cry for the need to kill and despite trying to look back he could not even budge. His eyes remained fixed in that direction; everything was about to end here. The sword shrieked as it entered the flesh. Not a single groan could be heard as the weapon sliced through his abdomen. There was only the crude sound of his inner organs being dragged along with the blade before the sword was pulled out. The copious amount of blood released began to soak the ground.

"Urgh..."

A moan came from the depths of his throat before Kaizaki Makoto's physical body collapsed, never to stand again. Kotarou's shoulders were heaving up and down intensely, his widened eyes looking down at the defeated man.

Ignorantly.

Is it over...

"..."

Motoharu had witnessed the entirety of this duel to the death. His gaze slowly shifted from the man lying in a pool of blood to the victor, Kotarou. Black, disheveled hair covered his face, which was stained with dried patches of darkened blood.
Kotarou gazed at the dead man with hollow eyes.
He had killed Naoe Nobutsuna.
Suddenly his vision began to spin due to his own loss of blood but Kotarou forced himself to remain standing. He turned towards the depths of the forest with a blurred consciousness and stood there for a long time, seemingly without aim, still firmly grasping onto his sword in his left hand.
Motoharu did not move from the thicket as he observed Kotarou's every action.

I must go... Kotarou thought, slowly turning his body, as though he was being called by some unseen person. He took one step forward.

Kagetora-sama...

Please call my name...Call that one name which represents your acceptance of me.
Kotarou had never been one to believe in divinity but his current state of mind was almost religious in the way he thought of Kagetora.
Kotarou moved forward, step by step.
Towards Kagetora...

The gentle breeze paused quietly in the forest.
Motoharu made up his mind and slowly lifted the gun in his hand.
He aimed the muzzle of the gun at the target in the forest.
His finger latched onto the trigger.

Kotarou's skull was fractured by the bullet.
Blood streamed out of his forehead as his body toppled forward.

No need... for the fake...

The smoke from the gun spread into the darkness of the night.
Slowly, it disappeared.


***


The pure, white snowflakes silently covered the great earth.
The warriors from the other end of the clearing slowly approached the whitened figure. Had they, in the endless passage of time, always been hovering about in this way such that they could not even remember their own appearances in life? Or perhaps they had taken on these miserable forms due to overwhelming feelings of resentment? These crumbling skeletons looked over, hatred brimming in the sockets of their eyes.

They must have died rather miserably.
Takaya looked at them calmly, thinking of all the people he had exorcised.
He always felt that the powers he had were not for the purpose of punishing them nor was it to rescue them. It was an undertaking born out of his inability to save anyone.

Where was the object capable of saving the world?

Where have they gone now?

The departed spirits were crying, howling like wild animals. They drew their rusty blades, snarling with the intent to kill. They were true onryou, beings who could only appease their hatred in injuring other people. The spirits' armor clanged as they slowly approached Takaya.
Leaning against the bark of the tree, Takaya closed his eyes.
Belief in a faith as a way to salvation was no more than belief in a phantom born out of one's dependency. But if this thought gave one peace, it was fine. Some were like them, attached to a grudge that could not be cleansed in any other way than to further soil their own hands. But if they could acquire peace in this way, it was fine.
The onryou indifferent to emotion gathered, brandishing their large blades.
Takaya felt that this was the end. --If you may find peace in doing this, it is fine.

Other than this... there is no other way for me to save anyone...


Ohhhhh---!
The onryou bellowed as they charged as though set to take the head of the general, swinging down their blades on Takaya's head together. The awareness that his physical body about to be cleaved rocked his eardrums.

"..."

Takaya perceived something was amiss and opened his eyes. The large swords had not touched Takaya's body. More specifically, the soldiers on his right had been skewered by a thick branch. The other three seemed frozen, still holding their swords but without any sign of movement.

Wh...at...

A strange protective talisman had been pasted onto the onryou's backs without his knowing. There was a soft sound and then the onryou's bodies burst into flames. The warriors cried out in grief, their spiritual powers snatched away, struggling in the heat until they disappeared, leaving a black sand-like substance on the ground.

A man emerged from the trees.
He wore a military overcoat. Takaya had never seen him before.
The man who appeared on the other side of the drizzle of snowflakes was Akechi Mitsuhide.
Mitsuhide gazed at Takaya quietly for a while. He had joined the search after receiving word that Kotarou was missing and Takaya was on the run.

The snowflakes swirled in the air, delicately covering the tracks of the warriors. After a long silence, Mitsuhide slowly asked,

"Why didn't... you fight back?"

Takaya did not say a word as his face drooped to the side, giving one the impression of a dying beast. Mitsuhide observed Takaya's disposition with a quiet expression.

"This is no different from being a live sacrifice. You should still be able to use your powers."

"You meddle in other people's affairs..." The hoarse voice came out in a whisper. "Why did you interfere... I wouldn't mind if you didn't..."

"Do you wish to die?"

Takaya did not reply. There seemed to be a faint smile on his lips.

"Is it because you were abandoned?" Mitsuhide asked calmly. "Is it because of the shock of the betrayal?"

"He...," Takaya smiled. "He... is not that sort of a person."

"..."

"Betraying another to save his own life... he will never do that. He is also... not the sort of person to do such a thing."

"You don't believe Kousaka's words?"

"If he has betrayed me, then--" Takaya murmured, closing his eyes a little. "Then it's definitely because he longs to be free of me, desires it so much that he would pretend to be a despicable person by committing this act..."

"..."

Takaya calmly lifted his head; he spoke as if he was thinking aloud. "--I will... put you at ease..."

His exhausted tone of voice was so tranquil.

"If you are suffering that much, I shall...personally...set you free..."

Mitsuhide stared at him. Takaya's head was raised towards the heavens as if in a prayer.

I want to release you,
From the person that I am,
From this incurable weakness...

"Return your... freedom..."

With one final call of his name, Takaya slowly closed his lips. His eyes shut.
Mitsuhide gazed at Takaya quietly.

Uncontaminated by blood or death, it buried everything.
The pure, white bodies descending from the sky swayed down coldly into Aso's darkness.
 
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