quaint_twilight: (naotaka)
quaint_twilight ([personal profile] quaint_twilight) wrote on September 7th, 2009 at 10:18 am
Book 16 Chapter 15 割れていく水鏡
Japanese to Chinese translation by Hinako. Chinese to English translation by me.

Basics of this chapter: Kousaka continues with his stories; Naoe and Kotarou make their decisions

"Naoe will not be coming to save you, Kagetora-dono."

Takaya could not readily accept Kousaka's words. On the other hand, Kikkawa Motoharu had an intense look of disbelief which read, "How can that be."

"Kousaka-dono. You..."

"You've finally been abandoned by Naoe. Kagetora-dono." Kousaka said in an elated voice. "Do you still not understand? Naoe has betrayed you."

Takaya was shocked. He could not say anything; he merely stared at Kousaka.

"How sad it is to be unexpectedly betrayed by the retainer who followed you for the past 400 years. I can understand your refusal to believe this, but I think a white lie would only make it more tragic for you. So I've decided to tell you the brutal truth."

"Betrayed... me?" Takaya mumbled in a hoarse voice. "Naoe... has...?"

"Yes. Your trusted aide, Naoe Nobutsuna, betrayed you in order to save his own neck."


Kousaka looked at Takaya, who was in shock, with pity and calmly said,

"You're probably not aware of this since you were in Kumamoto. ...A few days ago, Naoe was captured by our comrade, Shimazu Yoshihiro-kou."

"What... did you say?"

"I was told you wanted Naoe to investigate the disappearances of the members of the Fire Sect. I can tell you now that the disciples of the Fire Sect are Shimazu-kou's associates. Naoe's thorough investigation led to a fight with the Shimazu's soldiers, and he was eventually captured by them."

Takaya had never heard of this. Kousaka gazed at Takaya, who already had doubts over what he was hearing, and continued in a low voice.

"At first, Shimazu-kou wanted to kill him immediately but Naoe raised an unexpected request."


"Using his own life as a bargaining chip, he betrayed his master. ...He betrayed you, Kagetora-dono, by offering to deliver you to Shimazu-kou."

Takaya was speechless.

"...How can that be..."

"I believe you saw Naoe a few days ago. That was to lead the Shimazu's subordinates to Kagetora-dono's whereabouts. ...I don't think I have to go into the details of what happened after that. Our fellow, Shimozura Rairyuu-dono, attacked you. Then we saved you while you were unconscious and brought you here. That was the plan."

Kousaka wore a matter-of-fact expression, giving the entire explanation in one breath. Obviously, this was a false account. But, as expected of a tactician, the lie was executed with such perfection that it was unquestionable. Even Motoharu could not help but admire his delivery.
Takaya had no information in hand that could negate this account.
His face had turned completely pale.

"You're lying..."

"This isn't a lie. That man is truly a despicable and shameless lowlife. And it seems like he has another motive for saving his own skin."

Takaya looked at Kousaka uneasily. Kousaka prudently returned his gaze.

"Do you want to know about Saga's Byakuime?"


"I see you're unaware of this by the look on your face. Then let me tell you. The one who overpowered the Byakuime you sent to Saga was not the Oda, or Ryuuzouji, and it definitely wasn't the Ootomo. Rather it was the very person standing here, Kikkawa Motoharu-dono."

"What did... you say..."

Takaya looked back at Motoharu.
It was the truth.
Motoharu nodded solemnly.

"Furthermore, several days before your Byakuime even had the opportunity to crush Ryuuzouji Takanobu, the latter was killed by another powerful faction."


This was unknown to Takaya. This piece of information had never been conveyed to him.

"What do you mean by this?"

"Apparently, the Ootomo and a certain power had joined forces, and were plotting to assassinate Ryuuzouji. The Saga territory was Ryuuzouji's domain thus it wouldn't have been easy for the Ootomo to move freely in that region. And yet it seemed as though every single one of Ryuuzouji's movements was leaked to the Ootomo. There must have been a spy aiding the Ootomo."

Kousaka discussed in a cold voice.

"The one who aided the Ootomo was your Byakuime."

"That's impossible...!" Takaya fiercely retorted. "The Byakuime wouldn't have acted without authorization! Without an order from me, they wouldn't...!"

"What if it was an order from Kenshin?"

Takaya jolted; his face turned ashen.

"From Father...?"

"Yes. If it was an order from Kenshin, the Byakuime would act as according to his instructions."

"How can that be..."

"The Uesugi army was responsible for Ryuuzouji Takanobu's murder. If you were not informed of this, it was because they kept it a secret in order to conceal their actions. Consequently, they intended to lure the Ootomo into Saga. In order to stop them, we, together with Kikkawa-dono, supported the Ootomo's banishment of the Byakuime, and eliminated them completely."

Saga's Byakuime had aided the Ootomo. Takaya found this unbelievable. Such a case had never occurred before in the past 400 years. He would never have expected the Byakuime to take orders from someone other than himself...

"Our worry has become a reality. Uesugi-dono." Motoharu told Takaya in a sensitive manner. "Kenshin has made his move."

"Made his move...?"

"I remember mentioning this to you in the past. Kenshin has abandoned you in order to achieve his own ambitions and desire for a new Uesugi army."


Motoharu had brought this up at Hagi city. That uncertainty returned to Takaya's chest once again. Takaya appeared stark; his lips were trembling.

"That's impossible...! But...!"

"Apparently, Kenshin has decided that you are not good enough to accomplish his true desire. Perhaps he doesn't have complete confidence in you since you're a Hojo." Kousaka said mercilessly to a startled Takaya. "And it seems like Naoe has joined Kenshin's side."


"That was why Naoe begged for his life. Naoe ran into conflict with the Shimazu while acting under Kenshin's orders. Naturally, he had to hide this from you, not to mention his need to carry out the duty Kenshin had entrusted to him. He could not just die in vain if he is to accomplish his mission. For this reason, he no longer has any kind of loyalty to his master and considers his own life to be of higher priority..."

Takaya gasped.
Upon seeing this, Kousaka continued.

"That is how it is."


His whitened lips could not stop trembling. Takaya's eyebrows crumpled as he turned painfully towards Motoharu, as though he was crying for help. He pleaded,


Kikkawa Motoharu was silent. He could not give any answer. Once he understood Kousaka's intentions, he could only complement Kousaka's story and completely deceive Kagetora.
Takaya was intensely shaken.
No longer had any loyalty. These words pierced deeply into his chest.

No longer interested in me...

A Naoe who no longer touched Takaya's heart...

Disappointed... in me...

"There's a limit to how much your heart can take, am I right?" asked Kousaka, as if he had read his thoughts. "Two years ago, before the Itsukushima battle, the falling out between the both of you was evident even to a bystander. Although it's none of my concern, I was always worried that things would turn out this way."


Naoe's cold eyes at that time appeared in his mind.
During that night at Hagi city... But Takaya really believed that they had reached into each other's hearts at that time. No matter how much they hated each other, no matter how much their depravity left them wasted, Takaya believed that they had truly captured each other's soul on that night.

--Your... no, our 'ideal' way of existence!

They could look for it. At the very least, he wanted to look for it. Together with Naoe. But since then, Naoe's heart was no longer close to Takaya. So much that even the wedge in Takaya had disappeared. Naoe no longer used words that could connect their hearts. Even when he risked everything and cried out to persuade him, he still couldn't convey it to Naoe's soul, could he? He believed in their connection, but wasn't it really nothing more than his own set of delusions?
And now, was he abandoned? Did he no longer have the strength to feel interested? Or had some other object stolen his interest, diminishing Kagetora's charm in his eyes, causing him to discard Kagetora...?
He always believed that their hearts had truly connected in that fire, believed that their feelings were so intense that they had perceived it.
Was it just an illusion?
Perhaps everything had ended on that night two years ago.

Is that... it...

Everything Takaya saw turned dark. But he had always cherished that one strand of hope. He still prayed that it was not the end for the two of them.

"It ended long ago. Two years ago." Kousaka said firmly. "He's a really headstrong, selfish man. He has caused you so much pain, even merciless in his departure. I truly sympathize with you, Kagetora-dono. In spite of everything, he still had the nerve to trample on your heart in this way."


Takaya trembled, stretching his fingers to his dry lips. If that was the case, then what about this? This seemed to encourage that glimmer of hope in him...

"...That kiss. What about that kiss a few days ago? He said he came to see me, and kissed my lips..."

Motoharu was so startled his eyes had widened. But Kousaka was unmoved. He folded his arms across his chest with a cold expression and said,

"That was probably... the 'kiss of a traitor'."


Takaya suddenly looked at Kousaka.
There was a soft flare; the firewood in the warm furnace cracked. The three individuals were brilliantly illuminated by the red flames.

The man who had betrayed to preserve his own life - his shadow appeared indefinably warped in the flames.

In Takaya's heart, time had stopped.


The snow falling in Aso valley had eased a little. It was going to be a cold night. Because of the heavy snow, the fir trees surrounding the main building of the Shinto shrine were cloaked in white.

This particular regional shrine at Miyamachi Teno was located at the foothills of the northern Aso caldera. The Shikinai-sha was an important memorial of the son of Takeiwatatsu no Mikoto, Hayamikatama no Mikoto, who was among the first generation of Aso's regional administrators. The shrine had a long history and housed the famous natural monument known as the "Giant Cedar of Teno". Due to a typhoon several years ago, the cedar tree had lost its former grandeur, its bark was peeling away and efforts to preserve the tree were underway.

A little deeper into the mountains away from the Kokuzo shrine was an old tomb. It was a stone mausoleum, one of the ancient burial places commonly seen in the northern region of the caldera. Its interior was illuminated with lights.
Inaba Akemi was locked in the innermost room of this stone building.
Shimozura Rairyuu and Shichiri Yorichika had brought her to Northern Aso.

Akemi was asleep in a sarcophagus. Her body rested in a sarcophagus filled with cotton wadding, in a deep sleep as though she was one of the dead. Red paint had been spread on the inner side of the sarcophagus, thus, as long as she remained inside this sarcophagus she would never awaken. This paint was made by burning raw sienna from Aso with spiritual fire; its red pigment had a magical quality that could put one to sleep.

"...But she'll just be asleep," explained the guard who led the way. "Continue to sleep without eating or drinking. After a long period of time, the body will weaken. There will come a day where it'll weaken to the point of death, no longer able to preserve its life."

"How long can she last?"

The guard tilted his head a little, pondering over the question, then he replied.

"Hmm.. about ten days."

"I guess the response of the Miike family, who have Princess Asara, will determine her fate."

The man wearing a military coat muttered and dismissed the guard before walking out of the stone mausoleum. The lights were turned off. He headed down a gentle slope and came to the main building of the Kokuzo shrine.

"Still no news on Kagetora-dono's status?" The man removed his gloves as he asked Fuuma Kotarou who was half a step behind him.

"We are currently searching for him using all of our resources."

Kotarou replied in a low voice. He had been collaborating with this man for the past few days ever since he left Takaya at the hotel. This man was a companion of the person Kotarou had met at the lobby that day. Kotarou had learned of Rairyuu's assault on Takaya from this man. He had then rushed back to Kumamoto, to the hospital, but... what awaited Kotarou was an unbelievable set of words.

--Ougi Takaya has passed away.

His remains had been taken away. Kotarou dispatched his subordinates in an all-out search and discovered that the cunning disciples of the Fire sect had taken Takaya away. They had not received any other information to date.

"Shimozura Rairyuu is truly a problematic fellow. I don't know what personal grudge he holds against Kagetora-dono, but I never expected him to disregard Kennyo-dono's orders by attempting to kill Kagetora-dono, who can very well be considered as our comrade. I was told that Kennyo-dono was rather infuriated and ordered Rairyuu to Kyushu island."

"I see."

"I have been asking around and heard that Rairyuu fiercely opposed to an alliance with the Shimazu."

This was not entirely surprising. During the rule of the Han government, the Shimazu had suppressed the disciples of the Honganji clan more severely than the way the Catholics were persecuted. Rairyuu had asserted, "I can't fight together with that sort of people." His rebellious mindset was understandable.
The man in the military coat turned around and faced Kotarou.

"In order to crush the Oda, this alliance is necessary. The power of Kennyo-dono and Shimazu-dono is essential. I believe internal conflicts should be resolved as much as possible, but it seems like it would be better for us to prevent those two parties from directly coming face to face. I have also wasted a lot of time in persuading Kennyo-dono. ...I take it that you share my views."

But Rairyuu's hatred of Kagetora was extremely strong. Trying to mediate harmony between them was perhaps an impossibility. But Kotarou had already made up his mind. There will not be a second time. If Rairyuu wanted to harm Takaya,

I will kill him.

The man did not seem fully aware of Kotarou's thoughts.
He grew quiet and listened to the clear stream of the shrine's river flowing by the side. The moment he reached the top of the stairs,


A soldier called out, running over from the opposite side.

"We have located Kagetora-kou's whereabouts!"


"If so, that would mean Saburo-dono is with Motoharu-sama!"

Kotarou exclaimed in an unusually loud voice.
Kotarou was speaking with Shimozura Rairen. On the night of the Hagi incident two years ago, Rairen died when his throat was mauled by a tiger reijuu at the Taishou cave. However, he had forcibly taken a new physical body to allow himself to come back to life. His external appearance was different but Kotarou recognized him. The man he had met in the hotel lobby a few days ago was in fact Rairen.

"We just received word that Kagetora-dono was handed over to Kikkawa-dono and Kousaka-dono. We also know where he is. Although he was injured, he life isn't in any danger."

"With Motoharu-dono..."

Kotarou seemed a little relieved, somewhat lost in his thoughts.

"...In that case, the bird people who saved Saburo-dono from Rairyuu-dono's attack were indeed the..."

"The followers of the Fire sect."

Rairen replied. It was no secret that Kousaka and his company had some dealings with the followers of the Fire sect because of Kihachi but no one expected them to actually operate together.

"Looks like the Takeda and Kikkawa have succeeded in allying with the Fire sect."

Rairen had a cold expression as he remarked that as a disciple of the Ikkoushuu, it was impossible for him to mingle with those of a different faith. The man from before began to speak.

"We can leave Kagetora-dono with Kikkawa-dono for now. Kotarou-dono, you should continue with the plans to attack Kumamoto together with me."

"No. I have to go and fetch Saburo-dono."

"There is no need to do that. Kotarou-dono, you should stay here."


Kotarou was very sharp. He was suspicious of Rairen's reasons for persuading him to stay in this place.

"If I do not save him, Saburo-dono will start to doubt me. Right now I am Naoe Nobutsuna to Saburo-dono. Naoe will not just lay idle when Saburo-dono's whereabouts are unaccounted for. In order to return Saburo-dono to the Hojo, I must acquire Saburo-dono's trust in the Naoe that I am. If I were to go and save Saburo-dono, Saburo-dono will be more convinced that I am Naoe."

"...But with this method of yours, I don't know how long we'll have to wait before you finally succeed."

Kotarou was speechless for a second. Rairen continued ruthlessly,

"In order to split up the Uesugi, the Takeda wants to capitalize on your disguise of Naoe."

Kotarou stared at him. "What did you say..."

"Even if you are against this idea, the Takeda is well-aware of Kagetora-dono's fatal flaw."

They knew perfectly well where Kagetora's biggest failing was. In order to sever Kagetora's feelings of attachment to the Uesugi, what was the most effective way to shake his spirit? What method could they use to force him to a dead end?

Naoe has betrayed...

Kotarou realized what Rairen was trying to say. The depth of Kagetora's attachment to this man called Naoe - even if he could not understand this emotion - Kotarou had personally experienced it. He knew how intense and strong that emotion was.
Because of Kotarou's Naoe, Kagetora had plunged into confusion, was hurt, saw a Naoe who no longer touched him, suspected whether his heart had distanced itself from him and was full of unease. And now, Naoe...
What if he really abandoned him?
Really betrayed him?
He could easily imagine Takaya's shock and hopelessness. This would be the final blow.
To be abandoned by Kenshin meant the loss of the base that provided him a reason for existence for the past 400 years. This shock would bring about an unimaginable feeling of desolation.
And if Naoe were to really leave him at this point in time... instead of an injury, it would leave a lethal stroke on him.

"Kagetora-dono will probably be badly shaken." Rairen said plainly. "Do you understand now, Kotarou-dono? 'Naoe has betrayed Kagetora.' Therefore, not only must you not go to his rescue, you cannot show your face to him."

"But I am Saburo-dono's...!"

"Correct. So all will be well once you return to your identity as 'Fuuma Kotarou'."

Kotarou was stunned.

"Kagetora has taken Kotarou-dono's current appearance as 'Naoe Nobutsuna' hasn't he? In that case, you can still rely on a different physical form. Return to the original 'Fuuma Kotarou', and serve Saburo-dono. There won't be any problems then."


Did Rairen notice the effect of his words?
Kotarou's face, usually concealed beneath a mask, had completely stiffened upon hearing his words. His original self would never have this sort of an expression. His original self would have mechanically and heartlessly accepted this strategy as proper and to be expected as a matter of course. Rairen was not aware of the change in Kotarou.

"But I'm sure I don't have to specially explain this to you. Kotarou-dono, you are the mainstay of an excellent ninja army. I shall leave Saburo-dono to you."

After he finished, Rairen led his attendants out of the main building of the shrine.
Kotarou's face was white like a sheet of paper. Fuuma Kotarou clenched his fists so tightly that they could not stop shaking.
From one corner, only the man in the military coat noticed the indecision of the supposed emotionless doll.


The southern region of the volcanic cones standing at the center of the Aso volcanic crater was known as the Southern Village valley. From this vantage point, the Aso-gogaku's 'Nirvana statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha' had its head on the right; its sleeping appearance was also slightly different.
Night descended on the Southern Village valley.

Meeting at Tateno, Kaizaki and Hakkai proceeded with their search for Takaya's whereabouts, but it seemed like there was a barrier in place to prevent outsiders from finding him. Probes using a gohou douji or a wave of thought brought back no results.
Aso was too vast.
He could not specifically pinpoint Takaya's location from the latter's response earlier. Now the impediment was stronger, to the point where he could no longer use a wave of thought to find him.

"The barrier seems to be a spiritual wave scrambler."

Kaizaki remarked. He was seated next to the driver's seat in the 4WD. For this reason, they could not find him with the eyes of a gohou douji. Using the hand bell proved to be useless in this situation as well. Was randomly searching for a connection the only way left?

"Mikuriya-sama dispatched her subordinates from Kojou High to pursue Kiyomasa after he left the Katou shrine, and it seems like they have traced him to this region."

"Was it those missing followers of the Fire sect..."

Kaizaki and company had already independently investigated the disappearances of the Fire sect followers. With the testimonies of eyewitnesses and the hospital staff, coupled with Mikuriya's scouts, they could almost conclude that they were the ones who had taken Takaya and Kiyomasa.

But, to what purpose...?

At present, Kaizaki was still unaware that the followers of the Fire sect, Kousaka, Kikkawa Motoharu and the Shimazu army were all linked to each other.
Only Shimazu Iehisa was of concern to Kaizaki.

The Fire sect... Definitely has nothing to do with the Yami Sengoku---...

"But is this acceptable? Doing this..." Hakkai gripped the steering wheel and asked. "If the Ootomo finds out about our attempts to save Kagetora-sama, wouldn't there be trouble?"

"It doesn't matter. I will think of some excuse."

Kaizaki did not see any problems with their current operation.

"Moreover, I am currently playing the part of a Satomi fugitive. Not an Uesugi."


Hakkai still could not erase his unease. He could decide whether it was appropriate of this man, especially as a general, to be operating in this manner because of Takaya.

My only duty is to obey his commands.

Hakkai reassured himself, shifting his view back to the path ahead. Hakkai drove the 4WD towards Hakusuimura. It seemed like Kaizaki had already thought of a method which would not be affected by the spiritual barrier.

The vehicle reached its destination at the Shirakawa Yoshimi shrine.
The Shirakawa water supply was a name familiar to all. The land of Hakusuimura was rich in natural springs and was also the source of the Shira river that flowed through Kumamoto city. The limpidity of its waters was second to none when compared with the eight other regions in the country also rich in natural springs. The Shira river could be said to represent a typical feature of locations harboring a water source.

Hakkai and Kaizaki got out of the vehicle. The sound of running water flowing downstream could be heard as they entered the depths of the fir forest. There was no one to be seen at this time of the day. They reached the shrine located deep in the forest.
There was a spring in front of the main building. The water in the lake was extremely clear. Were it day, one would be able to see the different levels of its greenish bottom. Unfortunately, they were now surrounded in darkness and the lake reflected the shadows. The ripples created whenever spring water bubbled upwards gave off a weak radiance in reflection of the snow, twinkling softly.
Kaizaki and Hakkai walked toward the lake.

"This water contains much spiritual energy."

The spring water was saturated with Aso's spiritual power. If they used the water here, it would definitely be up to the task. Kaizaki said in this way.

"What do you intend to do?"

"I want to use the Water Mirror method." Kaizaki calmly removed his leather gloves. "Utilize the pulse of groundwater to locate his whereabouts. Only transmissions via the subterranean will be unaffected by the spiritual scrambler."

Kaizaki ordered Hakkai to make the necessary preparations, and took out a specially prepared wooden doll from his coat. On it he wrote the Sanskrit characters that represented space [kha], wind [hūṃ], fire [ra], water [vi] and earth [a]. Hakkai wrote Takaya's name on the back of the doll with his brush. On the kaishi paper was a complete set of squares, in which he wrote the characters of the Buddhist guardians of the four directions. Kaizaki chanted the Suiten dharani and gently placed the kaishi paper on the water surface. The kaishi paper floated to the center of the lake, gently emitted rays of light before dissolving into the water. At the same time, the entire water surface began to glow blue-green, displaying what appeared to be the directional diagram he had drawn moments ago. Then the water began to swell, the central portion bulged towards the north; the surface began to form complex shapes of varying elevations. It resembled Aso's topography; the water had become a perspective model of Aso's terrain.

Kaizaki continued to chant the dharani, then placed the doll on the water surface, which was emitting a green radiance.
And then...

The doll slowly glided across the water surface in the northwestern direction. Upon reaching the analogical mountains, it sank and melted.

"This is..."

A little less than 10 kilometers to the northwest, in the mountains of Eboushidake. As the doll melted, the water began to sway, then returned to a flat surface once more. This time the lake took the appearance of a looking glass. Hakkai could not help but exclaim.


The surface of the pond had become a screen. Its focus took on a grainy quality. Slowly, the outlines became more distinct, and finally it showed the figure of a person.

"It's showing...!"

It was Takaya. It was Takaya's figure. Although the image was not clear, it was indeed him. He was in a room somewhere. The Water Mirror method was one of the incantation techniques which utilized water and liquids as a medium to reflect back target objects from distant places. It was possible with whole containers of liquid or even a single drop of water. It relied water surfaces to capture and transmit images from a distance. Fortunately, the technique was successful thanks to the water in the kettle beside Takaya.


Hakkai involuntarily lean towards the water surface but was stopped by Kaizaki. If any foreign matter were to touch the water surface, the reflection would disappear. Hakkai, who had not seen Takaya in years, stared at the image feeling quite emotional. He sighed, unable to take his eyes off the visual.

Takaya was seated on the bed, his head drooped. He knew that he had sustained severe injuries, but were his wounds all right now? Although he looked like he had recovered, he seemed dispirited. His face was extremely pale and his expression rather broken.


Kaizaki felt frustrated with himself again and bit his lips. The anger and anxiety boiling up from the very bottom of his heart was unbearable. He was angry at himself for failing to protect Takaya from an enemy who had caused him such grave injuries. He could not forgive himself for being here instead.
All of sudden, perhaps sensing a peculiarity in his surroundings, Takaya looked over in their direction.
Communication was definitely not possible with this method. It could only transmit images. Could it be that Takaya was aware that someone was watching him?
The expression in his eyes when he looked over, was full of unthinkable sorrow.


Kaizaki felt a chill run down his spine.
He had an abhorrent premonition.

Kaizaki made his decision there and then. After taking a deep breath, he shut his eyes. He concentrated his spirit, put his palms together and interlocked his fingers, then proceeded to move his arms up and down as though he was ringing a bell.


Hakkai did not understand what he was trying to do and quietly watched him. Kaizaki was chanting some sort of Shinto ritual prayer. It seemed like he wanted to borrow the spiritual might of the enshrined deity of the Yoshimi shrine. The enshrined deity, Kuniryuu myoujin -- that is, Hikoyai no Mikoto, who was one of Aso's agriculture deities enshrined at the Sannomiya of Aso shrine. He was the son of Emperor Jimmu and the father of Takeiwatatsu no Mikoto's wife, daughter of Aso city.

Blue flames slowly kindled around Kaizaki's body, as though his energy was starting to resonate with the power of the deity in the lake. Kaizaki opened his eyes.

"Honorable deity Yoshimi, please descend on this sacred lake and guide me to Ougi Takaya's position!"

The lake shone brilliantly, a gale blew past, and in an instance great waves surged from the surface of the lake. The water swirled up into a spiral, its core forming where the wooden doll had sunk. That circular pillar of water rumbled lightly and separated from the water surface, rising into the sky.
Hakkai found it incredible.
The block of water floating in the air was like a glass piece of art and could freely vary its form and structure. It stretched to a slender shape, finally assuming the form of a snake. It was a water snake.

"Guide me to Ougi Takaya!"

In response to Kaizaki's words, the water snake twisted its body, its watery skin quivered, then it swayed repeatedly, dancing above Kaizaki and Hakkai as its transparent body blended with the darkness.

"This water snake will show us the way. Let's go, Hakkai."

"Ah... Understood!"

The two of them hastily returned to the vehicle. The spiritual snake born from Aso's spring water remained ahead in the air guiding the two of them. Water was their friend. The underground water of Aso would seek for Takaya's breath and lead Kaizaki and Hakkai to him.

Passing through the fir woods decked in snow, the vehicle zoomed forward.
Snowflakes began to dance in the gray sky once again. The windshield wiper swept away the snowflakes that fell onto the screen as the vehicle followed behind the water snake, taking the national highway to Eboushidake.


"You can't find Kotarou-dono?! What happened!"

Rairen asked in a stern voice upon receiving this report from his subordinate. Inside the living area of the Kokuzo shrine, his subordinates replied with hesitation, scared out of their wits.

"Umm... Moments ago, Kotarou-dono unexpectedly drove out with a look of great urgency. When his attendants asked him where he was going, he did not say anything and left by himself...!"

"By himself? He didn't say anything?"

Rairen was surprised. Kotarou's behavior was extremely unusual in his subordinate's account. Kotarou's aide, Shichirou, ran in as summoned by Rairen. Shichirou was nervous and could not calm down.

"Where did Kotarou go? Did you hear anything!"

"This...!" Shichirou was also startled by Kotarou's unexpected departure. "Kotarou-sama did not tell us anything! He told us not to follow him and just left! What on earth is...!"

"Rairen-sama! This fellow was asked by Kotarou-dono on Kikkawa-dono's whereabouts...!"

Several members of the Ikkoushuu ran over breathlessly with the aforementioned informant.

"What...! And did you tell him?!"

"I... Because Kotarou-dono had this look on his face that did not permit otherwise, I had no choice but to...!"

"What is wrong with him!"

Although Kotarou was a retainer of the Hojo, he was also an important player in the alliance established to defeat the Oda. Was he heading to where Motoharu was? Kotarou could not be unaware of what that meant. Rairen felt confused. He always believed that Kotarou would never do anything disadvantageous to the plan to return Kagetora to the Hojo. But what was the meaning of this now...!

"He probably wants to go to Kagetora-dono's side."


Rairen turned around in shock. The man wearing a military coat stood there leaning against a pillar. Rairen gasped at this impossible answer.

"What did you say? How can that be?"

"He has gone to save Kagetora-dono."

"What do you mean save him...! How can that be! Why is there a need to save him! Kagetora-dono is under close protection! He should know this! Naoe is supposed to have betrayed Kagetora-dono!"

Rairen never expected Kotarou to violate their plans. The man in the military coat shook his head gently.

"Rairen-dono. It seems like that ninja is no longer the Fuuma Kotarou that you know."

"Don't tell me..."

Rairen found it difficult to accept the reality of the situation but it seemed like the man had anticipated this. He advised in a calm tone.

"It would be better for us to send out the men just in case. We can't let him come into contact with Kagetora-dono. If worse comes to worst..."

"..." Rairen's expression grew serious, he immediately summoned his subordinates. As they hurried forward, he commanded them on the spot.

"Chase Kotarou-dono down! If you find him, bring him back immediately!"


His subordinates set out straightaway. Although Rairen was still in disbelief, his face gradually grew solemn.

Why did he...


The man in the military coat gazed at Rairen quietly.
The man's name was Akechi Mitsuhide.
He was the man who once betrayed the tyrant and destroyed his empire. With a calm look on his face, he looked back at the snow falling on the Aso-gogaku.
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