07 September 2017 @ 10:51 pm
Book 17 Chapter 25 燃えあがる闇  
Should have posted this sooner, it has been sitting on my backlog for ages. :)

Directly translated from the original Japanese text.

This is the final chapter of Volume 17.



The moon was beautiful that night. Ougi Takaya was standing in the curtain of darkness that had descended upon the Kokuzou shrine. It seemed like the clouds bringing snow had moved elsewhere. Moonlight was shining into the chilly cedar grove. His breaths appeared white in the deep darkness of the clear winter air. Takaya walked slowly through the remaining snow in the compound to the front of the 'Denya no Oosugi'.

The large cedar trees in this place were all several hundreds of years old. He could probably find one that was about 400 years old like he was if he were to look around the grove.

Takaya looked up at the large cedar tree.
What was he thinking of?
He suddenly lifted his left hand. His fingertips moved as if in search for the presence that used to always be there behind him but only grasped at emptiness before dropping onto his right shoulder weakly.

--No matter what we go through, my place is by your side.

When did he last hear those words?
His thinly-opened black eyes stared into space as the flakes of snow swirling down took the shape of an illusion. His hand clenched on his shoulder as if to protect his cold back.

Coming to kill you...

Takaya covered his eyes and smiled. He expected that a long time ago. He would someday be killed by Naoe and die. And that would be the end of Uesugi Kagetora.

If that's the case, I should be glad he's cutting me down from behind, yet...

Was this also revenge?
Of the man he never turned around to look at...
Takaya closed his eyes.

What's wrong with me?

Had he grown so weak without realizing it?
He never looked back because that was the only way.
There was nothing he could do for that man's inferiority complex and suffering. He could not show sympathy by looking back at him. He thought that was the one thing he must not do. The only thing he could do, even if it pained him to do so, was to continue to look ahead with determination. To continue to move forward. He thought the only way to respond to his suffering was to have utmost seriousness.
That was why he continued to turn his back on him.

That too... I no longer have to do that...

As he told himself that in his heart, he frowned. Takaya could feel his chest grow heavy from his thoughts.

You are the one fueling this one-sided obsession.

Yes. He did not remember asking for this. That man became obsessed on his own accord.
Therefore, there was no need for him to be wounded by this. It did not matter if his obsession had come to an end as it had nothing to do with him. This never had anything to do with him from the start.
So he will not feel any pain. He had no reason to feel pain in the first place.

If only he could go back...

To being a person who thinks this way...

"..."

Takaya looked up at the sky.

That's not it...

He heard the sound of the blowing wind in the silent woods. Takaya's eyes narrowed as if remembering the pain.
It was not such a big deal. He was not looking to criticize Naoe. That was not it.

That's not it...

A cold wind blew past.
The waning moon was partly obscured by the branches of the cedar trees.

"Kagetora-sama..."

Takaya's fingers twitched at the man's voice behind him.
He was Takemata Yoshitsuna.
Takemata had remained with Takaya. After their meeting, Mitsuhide wanted to dispose of him but Takaya did not allow that for some reason. He told Mitsuhide to leave Takemata with him.
The two of them had not spoken yet.

"Why did you not exorcise me?"

Takemata was the first to speak.
This was torture to Takemata. He much preferred to be vanquished at the hands of Kagetora as soon as possible. He found it painful to remain with him.

"You have every right to be angry. It is only natural for you to feel resentful. Why do you not berate me? Punish me. If not, I will..."

"I've no intention of punishing you," replied Takaya, without turning back. "You were only acting under Father's orders. I won't blame you."

"But..."

"If he has indeed joined the war, Father must have some reason for it. I don't resent that."

"T-That is a lie!" Takemata bravely refuted. "Kagetora-sama, you are cheating your own feelings. Do you intend to just accept this? Do you not find it unreasonable? Kenshin-kou probably used you for his own purposes and now he has cast you aside."

Takaya remained silent.

"You may not wish to hear an opinion from a lowly servant like myself but I wish to say this. Please stop destroying yourself. Kagetora-sama, you have always granted us your support. Your encouragement and compassion, your gracious presence have given us immeasurable motivation thus far. Truly, because of your presence... you do not know how much it means to us... Therefore, Kagetora-sama, please claim your freedom!"

"...Freedom."

"We do not blame anyone. We do not have the right to blame anyone! Kagetora-sama, even if you decide to fight against Kenshin-kou, we will also...!"

Fight...

Takaya murmured in his heart. Takemata knelt before him.

"Now please punish me to your heart's content. If you do not, I cannot bear to remain here! Please punish me, take out your anger on me!"

"...I'm not all that wise."

Ah, uttered Takemata looking up at Takaya. Takaya was looking at the cedar trees, his back facing him still.

"...I'm not."

"Kagetora-sama..."

There was a deep silence between them again. Then from a distance, the sound of a commotion traveled with the wind. Takemata turned around wondering what it was.

"I'll go take a look."


The commotion came from the stone hut where Inaba Akemi was confined. Mitsuhide had been notified but by the time he rushed over, all of the guards were down and the sarcophagus had been smashed to pieces. The stone hut was but an empty shell.

Was it done by intruders...!

Mitsuhide's face turned pale as he yelled.

"Who did this! How did this happen! Who took the hostage away!"

"N...Nobody did!"

Although saddled with injuries, his retainers quickly made their reports to Mitsuhide.

"It was the hostage! That girl suddenly used her powers and smashed through the sarcophagus. She then defeated the guards using Wave and escaped into the woods!"

"She has powers? The hostage should have been an ordinary person."

"T...That was no person! A snake. She was a snake, Mitsuhide-sama!"

Another guard on duty rushed over to make his report.
What, said Mitsuhide as his eyes widened in bewilderment.

The guard cried in a flustered voice.
"That was a snake goddess! A large snake with red, gleaming eyes appeared in front of us and wanted to consume us. The red-eyed snake was... so huge, it stood at the height of a human!"

"That was probably an illusion."

A voice came from behind him. Mitsuhide turned around and saw Takaya.
Mitsuhide's eyes showed doubt.

"Illusion? I hope you did not aid her escape."

"I didn't do anything. The jyako has hatched."

"Jyako?"

"Yes. The offspring of a venomous snake spirit. In order to brainwash the students of Kojou High, the Ootomo implanted them with jyako eggs. When it hatches, it can give an ordinary person power."

Mitsuhide was astonished. He never expected them to resort to such methods...

"Kagetora-dono. Did you do nothing despite being aware of this?"

Takaya pursed his lips together and did not answer as though he was unconcerned. Mitsuhide glared at him hatefully for a moment then reverted to his usual expression and gathered his subordinates.

"Find the hostage and bring her back. She should not have gone very far. Kagetora-dono, if you think you will be freed because of this, you are mistaken. You will now follow the Bird clan of the Himuka and head to Daikanbou. It is the appointed place for the exchange of the hostage with Asara. It will soon be time."

Takaya looked up.

"Are you taking Asara away from the Miike?"

"There is no other way. If the head of Kihachi is going to fall into the hands of the Ootomo, it is even more necessary for us to seize Asara. All the more so if the Ootomo is joining forces with Kenshin. Kagetora-dono, please cooperate with us."

Takaya did not reply. Mitsuhide narrowed his eyes then promptly walked out.

"We shall set out for Kumamoto! The Shimazu's forces are in Kumamoto. Take advantage of the chaos of the battle and recover the head of Kihachi from the Ootomo. Prepare yourselves!"

Takaya observed Mitsuhide with a wary look.
The members of the Himuka Bird clan encircled him from behind. Enoki was the first to speak.

"Please refrain from any tactless behavior. The luminous flame stone in your chest will really ignite next time. If you do not want your heart organ to burn away, follow us obediently."

Takaya turned without any expression. Enoki looked at him pointedly and said, "I think that guy, who appears to be your comrade, will bring Asara together with Miike. The exchange is scheduled at midnight. Let's go, Kagetora-sama."

Enoki's tone of voice was somewhat disrespectful. Takaya gave a sidelong glance at Enoki then walked out ahead of him without saying a word.

"Kagetora-sama, please allow me to come with you!"
Takemata chased after him. Takaya gazed at him coldly and uttered, "You will stay here. You'll be a burden if you follow."

With those words, he continued towards the shrine by himself.

***

Elsewhere, along the national highway, in the deep of the night, a lone girl was making her way into the city center from Aso. She was wearing a sailor-style school uniform.
She was the one who had just escaped from the Kokuzou shrine - Inaba Akemi.
Car headlights flashed past her but Akemi did not once look at them. The real Akemi would not have dared wandered out this late at night. A car with a booming stereo came from behind, slowing down beside her, flashing its emergency lights. It was a metallic sports car. Two young men were in it.

"Miss, miss. Where are you going this late at night?"

Inaba Akemi looked at them with red eyes.

"Isn't it dangerous for a young lady to be walking alone at this time of the night? You know, it's going to get darker ahead. It's not safe, why don't you hop in? We'll give you a lift."

Akemi's lips quivered, saying something. However the music was too loud so they could not hear her.

"What...? Ah, the music's too loud! I'm turning it down. Miss, what did you say just now?"

"Juri...sama..."

"Huh?"

The music from the car's CD player was suddenly cut off and radio music began playing at a deafening volume even though they had not touched the dial. Then the radio buzzed as the channel frequency started changing by itself. The young men were shocked.

"What the... this is way too loud! Weird, is the player is broken!"

"Huh, what happened, oh...!"

The door was flung open and Akemi pulled the man in the passenger seat by the arm, forcibly dragging him out with immense strength. The youth tumbled onto the road.

"What are you doing!" he shouted as he tried to grab at Akemi. Then his face tore open in a snap with a sound like a splitting watermelon.

"Huh? Arggghhh!"

The young man pressed against the area between his eyebrows where blood was suddenly spurting out as he bent over.

"Uwah, hey! What happened!"

The loud music did not stop even when the player was turned off. Surprised, the man in the driver seat was in the process of getting out when he saw Akemi perform an unbelievable jump. Immediately after landing from her huge leap over the car, she grabbed hold of the driver's hair with one hand and flung him out of the vehicle. Akemi then got into the car herself and stepped on the accelerator.

"W-What!!!"

The car sped off in a blast. The young man was left behind, dumbfounded. Suddenly, he heard the screeching sound of brakes behind him and was too fear-stricken to get out of the way.

"Are you trying to get yourself killed! Sitting right in the middle of the road!" shouted the young man who was riding a purple motorbike with no helmet. He was Tetsuya.

"O-Our car got stolen. By a high school girl."

"What!"

"His head was injured. She flung me out of the car with one hand..."

He saw the other boy lying on the ground, his face covered in blood. Tetsuya trembled and his face turned pale. Tetsuya never expected this to be Akemi's doing. He clenched his teeth and sped after the car.

Damn it, what on earth is happening!

Hokage had flown away and something was happening in Kojou High. He felt that there was something unpleasant about the school ever since Mikuriya came and now all the students have turned strange. Furthermore, the head of Kihachi was said to be buried under Kojou High.

This Kihachi thing... I'll destroy Kihachi's head or whatever it is!

Resting on Tetsuya's back was the katana of Takachiho shrine that Haruya had entrusted to him. Tetsuya rushed towards Kumamoto city with all the determination he could muster.

*

The streets of Kumamoto was now a battlefield.
After a long march on the National Route 3, the Shimazu army had reached the city and the invasion was underway.
Chaos was afoot. The place had turned into a ghost city but that did not mean the complete absence of people. Onryou could be seen everywhere.

"Monsters!! There are monsters!!"

Surrounded by the warriors, a taxi driver screamed and leaped out of his vehicle. Signboards and shutters were destroyed by the warriors while shop assistants stood stupefied before them. There were traffic accidents everywhere. Even the dispatched ambulances and police cars ended up surrounded by the onryou.

"Please don't kill me!! Help!!"

The onryou defiantly continued their rampage. The army force pressed on to Kojou High destroying everything in their way. Naturally, timely reports were being sent to Kojou High. Mikuriya assembled the students into groups to meet the enemy.

To protect Kojou High, the Shirakawa river would serve as an outer moat to hold back the invading Shimazu army from the south, and the Tsuboigawa river would serve as the inner moat. The students were divided into castle and external soldiers, the latter group further allocated to Chourokubashi, Yotsugibashi and so forth, so that every known principle checkpoint was covered.

Koganezawa Kyouko and the second year students in class D were stationed at the intersection of Shimotorisuji.

The shopping district was around here. On normal days, the working crowd and students would go barhopping in the back alleys until nighttime. However, this was not the case for the past few days. The occasional passerby took shelter in the buildings as the students ran about.

"They're coming!"

The onryou charged like a surging wave. The sight of them attacking in a swarm resembled a tsunami. Smaller fights against the enemy broke out all over the streets. The bizarre scene of boys in their black school uniforms and girls in their sailor-style uniforms fighting against skeleton warriors could be seen in every corner.

"This way, here they come!"

Kyouko charged her incantation and a bright radiance appeared in her palm as she stretched out her fingers. Snakes took shape in her hands. These snakes can transform into any weapon, such as a spear or a sword.

"Ohhhh!"

With a roar, the souls of the standard soldiers attacked Kyouko and the others. Kyouko, her hair disheveled, brandished her snake sword.

"Take that!"

The result was a strong crackling sound as the soldiers were sliced vertically from the head down. Then, in a returning motion, her blade slashed horizontally across the torso of three other soldiers, mowing them down. Her manner was that of a savage warrior. Koganezawa sliced her way through with reckless abandon. But fresh soldiers kept appearing. Swarms of onryou closed in on Koganezawa.

"Out of my way!!"

She violently cut her way through. The students all fought competently but the onryou were not intent on losing. Not just the invading warriors but the bound spirits too were provoked to fight. Poltergeists awoke everywhere in the arcades, wrenching open door shutters to pillage the shops.

Elsewhere, Takaya's classmates arrived at Shirakawa to set up an offense and defense at the Taiheibashi. Endou was there. He was determined to fight back with the 'incantation wave' using the incantation artillery set up for attacking the Shimazu soldiers.

"Push, push, push!!"

The students who once arranged desks with Takaya now showed the same kind of fighting power that Takaya possessed. The incantation soldiers launched a fierce offensive and defensive front at Taiheibashi.

"Guwah!" "Ohhh!"

One simultaneous attack of the artillery took out many enemies. It was the special artillery built by the Saiga Sect and used by the Ikkoushuu. Its power was not ordinary. The soldiers did not know the stretch of its barrier but were determined to fight back with a barrage of incantations.

"Aim for the archers! The archers!"

The shouts of the executive committee members relaying commands were silenced by the bombardment. The students ducked and desperately fired counterattacks. But they were pushed back. The Shimazu force slowly pressed forward.

"Stand your ground, we must not let them pass! They must not break through! Keep firing incantations until the end!"

Yet elsewhere, the destruction by the onryou was escalating. Here and there, cars were overturned, vehicles were destroyed in pillars of fire. The glass windows of buildings were smashed, the municipal railways were ripped out of the ground. The city's residents, who had no idea what was going on, were being chased and ran about haphazardly trying to escape while the students of Kojou High continued to fight as if protecting them.

With piercing sirens, patrol cars and fire engines raced up and down the streets. Ignoring that, the onryou pranced around as if they owned the place. This abnormal situation began to spread from the city streets to the entire region.


At this moment, main army of the enemy general, Shimazu Toshihisa, was southwest of Kojou, moving into Kitaokashizen Park. It was where the mausoleum of the Hosokawa family was located. Above that was Hanaokayama where the army headquarters was set up. Kojou can be clearly seen from here.

"Reporting sir!"

The messenger came before Toshihisa to make his report.

"Katta-dono's diversionary force has entered the fray in the city streets. The enemy soldiers have also assembled there!"

"Very good. Continue with the assault. How about Noda's army?"

"Moving in like a blade."

"Reporting sir! In the outskirts of Kumamoto city, a new band of bound spirits have started to create havoc!"

What, Toshihisa's eyes widened. Beside him, Saruwatari Nobumitsu supplied additional information. The bound spirits in question were the souls of those who had died in the Seinan war during the 10th year of the Meiji era. The garrison army led by Tani Tateki could not protect Kumamoto city in the battle against the Satsuma army led by Saigou Takamori. The spirits were of those who had died back then.

"Perfect timing. They will further distract the enemy's eyes. Let them stir up as flashy a commotion as they please."

"Understood!" replied the messenger in acknowledgement of the order before he hurried away.

Toshihisa gazed upon the lights of Kojou once more. The sports ground and school buildings were covered in extensive, blinding lights like a city lit with bonfires. This was like a castle seige.

"The enemy's castle soldiers seem to have acquired powers in an unexpectedly fast way," remarked Nobumitsu.

Toshihisa nodded as he replied.
"But they are just spineless puppets at the end of the day. If we attack with force, they will collapse with surprising brittleness."

Just wait a little longer, Iehisa. This is a battle to avenge you. I will crush that tiny city with my own hands.

A different messenger hurried in and knelt before Toshihisa.

"Reporting sir! Akechi Mitsuhide-sama has arrived in Kumamoto! He conveyed his wish for you to pay attention to the movement of the Golden Snake Head beneath Kojou High! Mitsuhide-sama also mentioned that he will personally join the invasion of the city!"

"What, Mitsuhide-sama has..."

Toshihisa was shocked. "All right, I understand," he replied loudly. "Send soldiers to Asoguchi to escort Mitsuhide-sama. See that he reaches the army headquarters safely."

Then a loud sound like a tripped circuit breaker could be heard, and the lights in the park were extinguished all at once. Not just the park, but the street lights had also vanished completely.

"Did it work?"

The Shimazu's covert operative corps had cut the electrical cables under the bridge. Thanks to that, the entire area disappeared into darkness as if a massive blackout had occurred. With this, the naked eyes of the Kojou soldiers were rendered useless.

"This is it. Attack now!"


The blackout plunged the streets into absolute darkness and the students could not see anything with their eyes.
Taking advantage of that, the Shimazu force pushed through in one go. There was chaos everywhere. Although the enemy had broken through, fortunately, the moon was out on this night. As their eyes got used to the darkness, they slowly regained their fighting capacity and did whatever it took to hold their position.

However the numbers of the onryou were too great for the students to handle.

Among the students, one was particularly remarkable, fighting extremely gallantly.
He was Narita Yuzuru.

"Don't fight over there! You will be surrounded, stay here!"

He was fighting together with Yokoteno Gorou and the others near the Semba bridge but his power was far more tremendous. He eventually took charge of the team. Yokoteno Gorou, having lost his position of authority, was dumbfounded.

"What... a monster..."

The snakes that Yuzuru released were no ordinary snakes but serpents with ferocious power. Moving towards the invading onryou, Yuzuru maneuvered his serpents, mowing down ten or more of the enemy in one swing. Furthermore, Yuzuru could create five to six serpents at any one time and freely control all of them. The wave of incantations he fired was like an artillery gun, destroying everything within a range of several hundred meters.

Yuzuru himself was astonished at his own power.

I'm powerful...

The power he wielded was terrifying. He almost wanted to thank Mikuriya for implanting him with the jyako.

With this, I might even be on the same level as Takaya!

Semba bridge was an important position hence the fierce enemy attack. Yuzuru protected the students who ran about trying to escape. A golden aura danced around his body. He did not realize that whenever he wielded his power he had a demonic intensity.

I'll protect everyone in Takaya's stead...!

"Ohhhhh!!!"

Roaring, Yuzuru charged at the onryou. The enemy was overwhelmed and could not come close. He single-handedly defeated a squad of the enemy's forces just like that.

"A..Amazing.... This is amazing."

Yokoteno Gorou was trembling with astonishment. "I must report this to oyakata-sama!"

"Haaah!!"

Incantations came flying in assault. Interestingly, the warriors retreated. Yuzuru remembered this strange sensation. A boundless energy began to boil up from the center of his body. The soldiers retreated out of fear like a receding tide.The students of the Kojou army became more confident having such a powerful fighter on their side and increased their attacks. But the enemy was not to be taken lightly. All of a sudden, they fired one simultaneous volley from their incantation guns.

"Ch!"

Yuzuru stretched out his arms and created a shield to protect the students. The hits were immediately deflected into splashes.

"Everyone, don't try anything foolish! Fall back behind me!" Yuzuru shouted while repelling the enemy's attack. "Just leave this to me! Stay back everyone! My...!"

He shielded his own body as the pavement before him shattered. The moment he lifted his face to counterattack, Yuzuru's forehead became abnormal. He felt an extremely piercing pain run through it.

What...

Another sharp pain attacked him. He bent over pressing against his forehead.

This is...

He looked at his hand. Immediately, the memories flowed through him. The sensation of being physically present on a ferry heading towards Miyajima two years ago. His fingertips grew stiff as if paralyzed by the cold. Soon, both his arms and legs were numb and could not move freely. It was a sign that the root of the seed was going to break through his skin any time now.

Wasn't it supposed to be frozen...?

Yuzuru was struck with fear. He could not hear the students beside him calling him. The "Seed of the Demon King" was suddenly filled with power. Yuzuru desperately suppressed the other consciousness which felt like it was about to burst out.

I should be able to suppress this with my current ability

He now had power. If he could not handle this, he would trouble Takaya and the others yet again.

That's the one thing I do not want...!

Contrary to his wishes, darkness slowly spread through his consciousness. It was an indication that the other being was starting to encroach and snatch control of his body. Yuzuru resisted. This could be dangerous. He had to resist one way or the other, or else...!

Not... good...


"!"

There was a thunderous roar. Yokoteno Gorou, who was starting to run, turned back. Just as he did, his eyes widened in shock.

"What!"

Yuzuru pulled a telephone pole out of the ground. The pavement was viciously turned inside out as Yuzuru forcibly dragged out the live power cables with his bare hands. The students cried out as sparks flew everywhere. Yuzuru seemed to smile a little as he heaved the uprooted telephone pole onto his shoulder.

"I've emerged despite your unbreakable endurance."

Yuzuru announced with a crafty smile.

"Let me have some fun too."

Gorou trembled.

W...Who on earth is he...

The telephone pole hanging over Yuzuru's shoulder slowly shifted down his arm. He then threw it at the retreating soldiers with dreadful, superhuman strength. The pole flew like a missile, roaring through the air, mowing the soldiers down with thunderous ferocity. Incantations were randomly deflected, destroying the surrounding buildings. Yuzuru exhaled gently.

"That's a nice tune."

He noted with a cruel smile on his lips.

***

A cold wind was blowing on the rooftop.
Mikuriya Juri stood with folded arms on the rooftop of the southern school building, glaring at the city streets.
At the military headquarters, reports on the progress of the battle dropped in one after another. Almost two hours had passed since the start of the battle but nobody could tell the outcome as yet. The situation appeared to be a stalemate.

This must end before the students' endurance is exhausted.

This was why the Golden Snake Head had to be dug out as soon as possible.
There was a power blackout at Kojou High at the moment and the backup power generators were running. The goods required to sit out the castle siege were being transported in as well. The recovery operation of the Golden Snake Head using a small crane continued. It was buried ten meters underground. No matter how heavy it was, they had to achieve their goal irregardless of how rough the going in order to protect it.

"It must be dug out tonight. There is no more time." Jouun said to Mikuriya. "It has magnificent power. I can feel it, as if the orochi is awakening in my very hands."

"Indeed. I too feel as if it is overwhelming me. Just the idea of personally commanding the Yamata no Orochi sends a shiver down my spine. Once it is in our hands, we will use it against the Shimazu's soldiers and destroy them in one sweep."

Julia was a snake spirit user. If she were to use her full power, she could freely manipulate the Yamata no Orochi. The Golden Snake Head was the cornerstone of the "Fire Wheel Technique" however it made for a horrifying secret weapon if used on its own.

Of course, the faster it is dug out, the better.

Irobe thought as he listened to the reports on the progress of the war. The longer the war dragged on, the greater the risk to the students' lives. One could argue that they had Narita Yuzuru but he did not believe he could protect all the students scattered over such a vast area.

If the power of the Golden Snake Head could annihilate everything in one shot,

"Mikuriya-sama!"

The one who sprinted in brushing aside other messengers was one of the executive committee members assigned as commander inside the castle.

"Another army has been sighted in the direction of Shinmachi! Their numbers are huge!"

"What," said Mikuriya, turning around. "Are they aiming for the side? Very well, send out the reinforcements. Get the second squadron of soldiers ready for action! Send out the third squadron to attack now!"

After Mikuriya's brisk orders, the students inside the school frantically moved out.

"It seems like the soldiers out on the city streets are a diversion." Jouun said with a grim look on his face. "Please be careful. The strength of the Shimazu's attack is tremendous. It would be better to recall the soldiers and fortify the castle's defenses. Do not take the enemy lightly."

"I did not ask for your opinion on how to deal with the castle siege, Jouun."

Mikuriya replied coldly.

"You fear a siege because you were once defeated by the Shimazu's forces by holing up in your castle. I will not allow a repeat of that failure. I will not let Kojou become a second Iwaya castle."

"!"

What a thing to say...

Thought Irobe. He turned around and saw that Jouun's face had grown pale and stiff.

"I do not need your advice on how to go about the battle. Hurry back to the excavation site and supervise the ongoing operation."

Jouun appeared humiliated and stood very still. In the next moment, he forcefully maintained his calm, bowed and left the roof.

"Jouun-dono."

Irobe called out to him as he disappeared down the stairs.

Chikuzen Iwaya castle was once the place where Takahashi Jouun was besieged by his enemies, the Shimazu army, in a ferocious castle battle that ended in his defeat by death without surrender.

How did Jouun-dono feel during that battle?

At that time, in order to save the Ootomo, who were in a precarious situation, he took the ultimate gamble. The Shimazu were planning to attack Tachibana castle once they took over Iwaya castle, which was situated in front. Tachibana castle belonged to his son, Tachibana Muneshige. Muneshige had planned to resist to the bitter end at Tachibana castle together with his biological father however Jouun firmly refused and purposely confined himself in Iwaya castle, which was in a disadvantageous location, aiming to prevent the invasion of Tachibana castle by blocking their path. During that time, he was gambling on the possibility of reinforcements from Hideyoshi.

The Shimazu was impressed by Jouun's bravery as he did not response to the repeated calls to surrender. The siege culminated in what was considered the most intense fight in the history of the warring states era. The Shimazu suffered more serious losses than expected and could not immediately capture Tachibana castle. Then Hideyoshi's army arrived in response to the Ootomo's request for support. Faced with a large army force meant for the imminent conquest of Kyushu, the Shimazu were forced to retreat. Once Muneshige learned of this, he vehemently pursued the enemy to avenge his father, earning himself outstanding war merits in the process. The Ootomo family managed to survive in this way.

Jouun had sacrificed his body.
Those who understood the significance of that battle would never use words like 'a repeat of that failure' to describe that incident.
During a time where Sourin's retainers began deserting him, to regard Jouun's show of unfailing loyalty in this battle as such was intolerable.
As a military commander in the same vein, Irobe knew how he felt all too well.
He himself did not matter but what could be done to compensate the soldiers who had died? Jouun thought in that way.
Considering what was in Jouun's heart, Irobe was indignant. He turned around and made his way back up the stairs, wanting to say something to Mikuriya, but Jouun stopped him.

"Irobe-dono, let it be. It is fine."

"But Jouun-dono...!"

"Restrain yourself. I am fine."

Irobe, unable to suppress his emotions, looked at Jouun. ---What did the Yami Sengoku come down to?

A conflict that slights the importance of the past...?!

Not just the past. It also infested the lives of modern individuals like worms.
The onryou were insatiable. Ironically, the dead who should hate this 'war' that prevented them from resting in peace, have only this path to tread in search of salvation. Thus they continued to fight without knowing the end.

In the darkness, the streets of Kumamoto resounded with the angry roars of the dead for a long time.
At the same time, a girl could be seen, high up in the sky with her back towards the moon.

***

Based on his wristwatch, it was time for the midnight appointment.
Chiaki Shuuhei had come to the Daikanbou, the designated place for the hostage exchange.
This place was originally called the "Nose" when viewed from afar, however, after it earned the recognition of having the most splendid view in Aso, it was renamed Daikanbou by Tokutomi Soho. At the highest point in the northern outer rim of the crater, one could have an unbroken view of Aso-gogaku and the caldera. It was the most beautiful, nirvana-like scenery one could imagine.

Tonight the moon was visible. The outline of the grand Gogaku could be distinctly seen. It looked like a giant sleeping under the moon. This place protruded out like a small hill inside the caldera and the wind blowing here was also considerably strong. Although the outer rim of the crater had several "Noses" which were considered small peninsulas, it was not necessarily an inaccuracy considering that the area was an enormous lake in the past.

All things considered, it was cold enough to freeze one's ears off. The extreme chill was because of the strong wind. Standing at more than nine hundred meters high, it was understandably frigid on a midwinter midnight. Chiaki Shuuhei was standing in front of the stone monument, which had the words Daikanbou written on it, when the person he was set to meet arrived.

He's here.

The shapes of several people emerged. About five or six of them. Each and every figure could be clearly seen under the moonlight. Among them, Chiaki recognized the faces of Enoki Masamichi and Saeki Ryouko.

The two people I saw at the hospital...

They were part of the Himuka clan. Moreover, they were actually Rairyuu's allies. They were definitely the ones who had informed the onshou of the Yami Sengoku about Asara, being devotees of the Himuka clan.

"You have quite the nerve, pretending to be clueless back then." Chiaki raised his voice.
"You were the ones who instigated Rairyuu to kidnap her. You sky-flying angels. Working with the likes of the Ikkoushuu. You've brought Inaba along, right? You were also the ones who took Ougi Takaya away, right? Where is he now?"

"We do not see Asara-hime. Where is she?" Enoki countered with a question. "It was promised that we would exchange the hostage for Asara-hime."

"Inaba won't be coming."

"...!"

Another voice came from the stairs, Chiaki turned around in shock. It was a voice he knew.
A figure clad in high-school uniform walked from the viewing platform towards him.
Chiaki's eyes widened in complete disbelief upon seeing that face.
The one he saw was Ougi Takaya, who was supposed to have been kidnapped.

"Kagetora, you!"

Are you all right! Chiaki was just about to ask that when he immediately noticed something odd about Takaya's appearance. Takaya did not have a single expression on his face despite reuniting with Chiaki. In fact, he was looking at him coldly.

"Inaba escaped by herself. She isn't here."

"By herself, from the hands of the Ikkoushuu?"

"The jyako eggs that Mikuriya planted for brainwashing purposes have hatched. This gave Inaba some power and she escaped on her own."

"Jyako eggs?"

That was the thing in each and every one of those students, the reason that they could pull spirits towards themselves--- was it a magnet?

"She's probably heading towards Kojou High. Mikuriya has brainwashed the students with the intention of turning them into castle soldiers. But then again..." Takaya paused at these words, then told him in a cold manner. "...You might have known of this plot all along."

What...

Chiaki looked puzzled. "What do you mean by that?"

Takaya lowered his eyes and remained quiet. At this time, a group of Birds came flying in, gasping for breath.

"Sect Guardian! Asara cannot be found, she is nowhere to be seen!"

"What? Asara wasn't brought along? You bastard, what are you planning to do?!"

"It seems like I was wrong about this man having allied with the Miike."

A surprised Enoki looked at Takaya. Takaya was talking about Chiaki.

"What do you mean?"

"You heard about Asara and Kihachi's head from the Miike, didn't you? This information might have been leaked to the Ootomo. Asara might have been taken by these people."

"What...!"

"I've no idea what you're talking about, Kagetora!"

Chiaki was indignant. Takaya looked indifferently at Chiaki, who had raised his voice.

"What are you talking about now! Are you saying that I've joined the Ootomo! Are you sure you haven't gone insane!"

"Where have you hidden Asara?" Takaya asked with half-narrowed eyes. "Did you send her to the Ootomo? Or are you planning to get a head start on the Ootomo by hiding her in your domain?"

Chiaki did not understand Takaya's words. Heading towards the Birds, Takaya said, "There's a possibility this man is in communication with the new Uesugi. The new Uesugi has joined forces with the Ootomo. The Ootomo wants to get their hands on the Golden Snake Head, Kihachi's head."

"New Uesugi...?"

What on earth was that? What on earth was Kagetora talking about?
Chiaki was confused with what he had just heard for the first time.

"What are you talking about? What is this new thing? Who has joined forces with the Ootomo? What have you been influenced with during your capture!"

Takaya did not reply. Instead his expression hardened and a strong fighting force unexpectedly emanated from his whole body.

"You..."

Chiaki trembled. This was the first time Takaya approached him with such direct fighting force. Killing intent floated in Takaya's still eyes.

Does he... intend to fight me?

"What are you planning, Kagetora! Stop behaving like an idiot! Have you allied with these guys! Have you joined forces with the Ikkoushuu!"

Suddenly, there was a stinging pain across Chiaki's cheek.
A sharp object like an arrow had grazed his skin. Feeling the blood flow out, Chiaki's face stiffened. Takaya had used an incantation. Takaya did not trust Chiaki. He might be Naoe's compatriot. He might have received orders from Kenshin.

"...Asara isn't here." Clenching his back teeth, Chiaki shouted. "She has flown away I'm afraid! Just like those guys over there!"

"Flown away. Which direction?"

"I don't know! She was summoned by Kihachi! Asara's blood has engulfed the host body! After driving off Miike's Tamamori, Hokage returned to that Kihachi-sama!"

The Birds all tensed at the same time. With the exchange of glances and nodding of heads, very soon, one after another, their bodies emitted a bright aura. It was the manifestation of their flying ability. The power that the Himuka clan had.

Their feet left the ground. In the next moment, men and women soared high into the air and flew, one after another, from Daikanbou towards the caldera of Aso.
The Birds headed towards Kumamoto.
Only Takaya and Chiaki were left on Daikanbou.
The two of them stood glaring at each other.

"Are you trying to kill me, Kagetora?"

Chiaki asked without letting down his guard. Takaya's killing intent did not diminish.

"Who fed you this nonsense? What have you been told...!"

"Kenshin-kou has joined the Yami Sengoku."

"...!" Chiaki's eyes widened. "What... did you say?"

"Kenshin-kou has created a new Meikai Uesugi army with Naoe as the general. Naoe has formed an alliance with the Ootomo. His very first order was to subjugate Ryuuzouji using Saga's Byakuime. When this was discovered, the Byakuime were killed by Kikkawa Motoharu."

Chiaki was extremely shocked.

Joined... the Yami Sengoku... Naoe is the new general.

At the same time, everything in his head became clear. Kaizaki's alliance with the Ootomo, Irobe and Hakkai's actions, which were kept absolutely secret from Kagetora and under the direct supervision of Kenshin. And lastly, the fact that Naoe was alive...!
In his mind, all these words suddenly connected in a single thread.

A new Uesugi army...!

Chiaki was shocked.
He felt as if a blade had been thrust at his own throat by Kenshin.

That's... impossible...

"The details were explained by Takemata Yoshitsuna. He's being held as a prisoner of war by Akechi Mitsuhide."

Takaya had no expression as if he had killed his own feelings.

"I was told that Hakkai has mentioned it."

"..."

"It seems like Naoe wants to... Kenshin-kou wants to remove me."

Words were lost from Chiaki's throat.
Standing in front of him, Takaya was amassing his power with a confrontational stance. He had been looking at him with eyes full of caution. There was no other reason for that killing intent and Chiaki perceived that.
There was a reason the blade was pointed at him. It was to protect himself.
If Kagetora had been removed from his position as general of the Uesugi, there was only one path left to him.
Kagetora was to be obliterated.
He understood the meaning of Takaya's wariness. A strong energy was burning from his body like a crimson flame.
Takaya was protecting himself.

The moon previously hidden by a slate of clouds appeared, pouring clear light onto Daikanbou.
The two people on the concrete came into view.
As the strong wind continued to blow, Chiaki looked at Takaya intensely.

"Are you going to destroy me as well?" He asked in a subdued voice.

"..."

"Do you think I'm on Kenshin's side too? Do you think I'll kill you?"

"..."

"Are you going to exorcise me to prevent yourself from getting killed?"

Takaya gave Chiaki a pained look.

"Are you going to kill me! Kagetora!"

An aura began to blast from Chiaki's entire body. Gritting his teeth, Takaya revived his incantation. A wind surged between them.

Like hell I'm going to get myself killed by you! Kagetora...!

The place where one could see Ashura was now the site of a duel to the death.
 
 
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