The hazy moon was visible from a gap between groups of clouds.
The typhoon had just passed, the wind and rain had ceased, and the moon illuminated the surrounding clouds, making them seem large and misty. The soft moonlight shone on the trees, making the after-rain moisture on the leaves sparkle. The vast, dark paddy was like a silver mirror.
Right now, Harutora was heading to the 'Imperial Hill' altar with Natsume.
Natsume had walked from the Bellflower Room into the courtyard of the mansion, taking out an ancient shikigami charm and summoning a shikigami that showed itself as a white horse. It was the most majestic horse that Harutora had seen in his life. Its body was outfitted with a black saddle and red reins, and it was a horse that was prestigious enough that no one would doubt it if it were dedicated to the gods.
It was the Tsuchimikado shikigami - Yukikaze.
It was a high-level manmade shikigami from the angle of 'General Onmyoudou'. But its origins were far before 'General Onmyoudou', even much more ancient than 'Imperial Onmyoudou'.
Natsume mounted the horse first, and Harutora sat behind her. Then, Natsume snapped the reins, and Yukikaze rapidly leaped off the ground, galloping off as if he didn't even feel the weight of the two. Actually, this was a bit inaccurate, as Yukikaze's hooves didn't even touch the ground.
Yukikaze circled from the courtyard to the front of the mansion, leaping out of the main entrance and rushing down the stone steps without touching the ground. When they rushed off the stairs, the distance to the ground became a bit higher again.
Yukikaze stayed at a height of about ten meters, galloping like the wind over a road between the forests and paddy fields. The scenery nearby was all visible because of their height, but Harutora only looked down a couple times. His hands wrapped around the waist of Natsume in front of him - before Yukikaze had leaped out of the entrance, he had hesitated about what to do - and he clung to Natsume for dear life.
"Um, ah, th, this is pretty nice!"
"Harutora-kun, your hands haven't stopped shaking."
"D, Don't mind me! On the other hand, is the Imperial Hill very far?"
"No, with this child's speed, we'll be there in moments."
Natsume solemnly tightened her grip on the reins. A crimson belt tied up her white clothes, showing her thin arms. Her imposing appearance wasn't like a shrine maiden, but more like a young female warrior.
A white horse galloping through the moonlit air, and the girl who rode it - It looked like the picturesque scenery from a dream no matter how he looked at it. Unfortunately, the addition of a shikigami whose entire body shook as he tightly grabbed on to the girl destroyed the picture - Harutora thought as his entire body shook, tightly grabbing on to Natsume.
But, Harutora also had his responsibilities. Right now, he was carrying a trunk used for practitioners on his back - a kind of woven bamboo trunk. Inside it was entirely Tsuchimikado ancestral tools, and he also wore a sword on his waist, with a bow hung over his shoulder.
These were all equipment that Natsume had prepared to deal with a magical battle before they had departed. Harutora was like a foot soldier accompanying the general, and he was also carrying his box of charms.
He had also contacted Touji.
He only realized right before they left the mansion that his phone was filled with calls from Touji, which had all arrived when he had been running to the mansion. Maybe Touji had noticed that Harutora wasn't picking up his phone - knowing that he couldn't pick up his phone in his current circumstances, he had changed to text messages, sending him the important information using texts.
Touji had first gone to the construction site that had become a battlefield, woken up the Mystical Investigators, and then contacted the police again. The Mystical Investigators were unable to perform temporarily due to their spiritual power being stolen. The typhoon had departed earlier than first predicted, so the assistance sent from Tokyo seemed to be on course to arrive this evening.
He should be worried and angry that Harutora hadn't contacted him, but his text messages didn't contain anything mentioning that.
Harutora was grateful for his friend and sent a message of confirmation, which just contained 'Sorry, I've troubled you a lot, I'm going to give you a break now.' After sending it, he immediately turned off his phone.
Natsume called out, and he quickly raised his head. There was a familiar-looking truck stopped before them.
The truck had been carelessly abandoned by the roadside, and the truck bed was full of pieces of a container. There were traces of devastated trees all over the road leading from the container to the hill in the distance.
These were traces left by that Tsuchigumo - the 'Armored Juggernaut'. Judging by this, the mundane, uninteresting hill over there was the location of the Tsuchimikado-established altar, the 'Imperial Hill'.
"Right, it's that! Did you see that spider monster?"
"I haven't, it seems that she already headed to the altar."
"Okay, we'll head directly to the altar."
Giddy up - Natsume uttered an adorable yet brave sound, swinging the horse's reins. The shikigami quickly bolted like an arrow upon receiving its master’s orders, charging up the hillside and advancing towards the Imperial Hill. They flew at a height above the treetops, following the tracks of the Tsuchigumo.
Then, a brittle shattering sound came from Natsume's chest. The third mirror that she had placed in her chest had also broken.
"...It seems like the last barrier was also destroyed."
"I know. But...... it's right ahead!"
Just as Natsume was full of remorse, the hilltop of the Imperial Hill ahead of them appeared in the night.
There was a circular, grassy field on the hilltop that the trees had been removed from. The field was surrounded by tall trees, but a stone plaza had been set in the center, encircled on all four sides by torii.
It was the Imperial Hill's altar. Bonfires had been ignited on all four corners of the plaza, seemingly by Suzuka.
There were two human figures preparing for a ceremony by the altar, and there was also a small figure giving orders.
They could make out Suzuka, the black suit-wearing simple shikigami, and the general-use shikigami 'Asura' that Suzuka had manipulated at the festival.
Harutora shouted. It didn't seem like Suzuka had heard him shout, but she turned around to look in Harutora's direction.
Harutora wondered if his eyes had failed upon seeing the girl's figure again. Aura poured out of Suzuka's body, like a whirling hurricane centered on her.
Intense and brilliant - but a unique, obviously imbalanced aura. Harutora had just become a spirit-seer, but he could directly feel that she was very powerful. That was the aura given off by one of the Twelve Divine Generals, the 'Child Prodigy'.
Suzuka's aura suddenly swayed intensely the moment she looked at Harutora and Natsume, as if it were doing a somersault.
"Why did you...... come?"
Suzuka gnashed her teeth, her childlike face twisting and showing a mournful anger, and forcefully swung her right hand to the side.
It wasn't Harutora or Natsume who felt danger in the nick of time, but rather the veteran Yukikaze who had served the Tsuchimikado family for many years.
Yukikaze jumped up before entering the field, turning its body - never mind Harutora, even Natsume was almost flung off the horse. A metal pillar shot like a cannon through the position where Yukikaze had just been.
The steel Tsuchigumo Armored Juggernaut had just attacked them. It had hid its body inside the forest for an ambush, ready to attack at any time.
"Yukikaze! Pull back!"
Natsume frantically reined in, and Yukikaze hastily leaped into the air, galloping up.
Tsuchigumo's attack failed, and its swinging body emerged in the field.
Its steel body seemed smooth and shiny in the light of the bonfires. Its body was huge, but its structure was unsuited to attacking upwards, so it wouldn't be hard to avoid its attacks as long as they were careful about the spider silk it shot out from inside its armor.
"Natsume, we won't be able to get close to the altar like this!"
Natsume frowned, surveying the field.
Tsuchigumo wouldn't chase if Yukikaze escaped over the trees, but if they recklessly approached the field, Tsuchigumo would react cleverly and ward them off. Perhaps it had received orders to prohibit anyone from entering the field, and it wouldn't be easy to destroy Tsuchigumo's steel defenses.
Suzuka stood on the stone plaza, looking fiercely at Harutora and Natsume, but the two shikigami behind her busied themselves to prepare the altar.
Harutora couldn't clearly and thoroughly see the situation because of the distance from the altar. He could only see that a table had been set up on the altar with several offerings on it. There were pieces of silver in a scarlet bowl, white silk scrolls, a saddle made for a horse, and paper. He could also see taiko drums and instruments placed by the side.
A big, thin parcel had been placed in the center of the altar.
A cold shiver inadvertently went down Harutora's back upon seeing that parcel whose exterior was plastered with charms. That charm-wrapped parcel was just as large as a child.
"It couldn't be......"
That should be Suzuka's dead brother.
Suzuka was trying to reproduce an ancient ceremony, but to Harutora's eyes, her commanding of the ceremony seemed immature like she was playing house, but with her brother's body replacing the role of a doll. The game she was playing was ugly, ridiculous, and heartbreaking.
Harutora inadvertently yelled. Natsume who held on to the reins almost jumped in surprise, looking behind her in shock.
"I told you! Even if you revive your brother, you won't be happy from it. Stop obsessing over it, wake up!"
"Shut up! I also said I would definitely kill you the next time!"
Suzuka straightened her small body, shouting loudly.
"You're really annoying! My life is my own, and neither my parents or anyone else can tell me what to do with it! I'll decide if I want to die or not! You won't stop me however much you say, I will revive my brother!"
Her anger became aura, as if channeling a raging flame, but the raging anger only burned Suzuka, and not anyone else.
The intense flame rapidly swelled from Suzuka's small body, and maybe soon after, the flame would extend from her body, becoming giant tongues of flame to engulf others.
"You can't do that kind of thing, no, you shouldn't even try!"
Natsume's remark was clear and firm.
The moon palely illuminated her face. Harutora looked at her, and Suzuka also quickly shot her burning gaze towards her.
Natsume didn't flinch, her attitude still serious.
"...Modern Onmyoudou prohibits magic concerning souls, and of course, the spiritual disaster brought about by Yakou is one reason, but more importantly, we shouldn't deepen our relationship with such magic. People shouldn't interfere with others' souls, because that is not the territory of man!"
Suzuka's face was irritated, and she glared fiercely at Natsume who made those remarks from Yukikaze.
"......Are you also a Tsuchimikado? I don't know where you came from, but you also came to stop me?"
Tsuchigumo hadn't moved. Natsume stared at Suzuka without blinking, continuing to speak with a firm tone:
"In the past, people harbored respect for the gods, feeling a natural gratitude and fear in their hearts, having an irrational confidence for these entities above human understanding. They believed in prayer, so it was effective. No, it should be said that they created prayer. That magic was only effective because it was cast by the people of that time, and the people who live in the world now won't succeed just by copying the ceremony!"
Natsume predicted Suzuka's failure without even thinking. Harutora gazed at Natsume, extremely surprised.
Just then, he finally noticed something.
...Right, this person was an 'Onmyouji'.
Of course, Natsume was just an Onmyou Academy student, and she wasn't an official Onmyouji yet.
But, forgetting about official accreditation for now, and also forgetting about magical skill, what was an Onmyouji in the most basic sense? He hadn't once thought about this problem in the past, but the figure of his childhood friend now led him to ponder.
On the other hand.
Suzuka on the ground below audibly gnashed her teeth upon hearing Natsume's speech. The bonfire next to her blazed with light, casting foreboding shadows across her body.
"The Tsuchimikado family was the one always responsible for holding the Taizan Fukun Ritual, and it was also the Tsuchimikado family that revived the ceremony. Are you saying that the Tsuchimikado can do it, but I can't? Don't joke around!"
The girl's voice was fragile, as if she would crumble at any time.
As her words fell, the Asura and the black-clothed man who had originally been silently preparing the ceremony stopped moving.
The ceremony was already prepared.
"Dairenji Suzuka! Stop the ritual right now!"
"Shut up, I'll definitely perform the ceremony better than you Tsuchimikado, leave if you don't want to die!"
Then, Suzuka began chanting an incantation. The words she chanted weren't for the ritual, but were Onmyoudou incantations.
The black-clothed man simple shikigami went limp from being unable to withstand the pressure given off by the magical energy, its external shape becoming ruined.
The Asura standing next to it absorbed the crumbling outer form of the black-clothed shikigami, and the two shikigami merged into one, with long, insectile wings even sprouting from Asura's back.
Natsume's eyes widened in surprise.
"How is that possible!? You can freely change the manmade shikigami produced by the Onmyou Agency?"
Harutora was clueless, but all he knew was that Suzuka's strength really was nothing to look down on.
The merged Asura bent its body, leaping strongly into the night sky and flying straight for Harutora and Natsume.
Harutora hollered at Natsume, and Natsume manipulated the reins attentively.
They avoided the Asura flying into the sky, but Asura leaped to a position even higher up than Yukikaze and unleashed an attack while maintaining that height. Natsume had to make Yukikaze move lower.
"No good, Natsume, they're planning on attacking us from top and bottom!"
Harutora's warning was a step too late. Tsuchigumo who was on standby below quickly swung its leg in an attack upon seeing Yukikaze descend. Natsume frantically pulled on the reins, but that movement restricted Yukikaze's movement, making Yukikaze slip in midair.
They couldn't avoid this. Once he saw Tsuchigumo's leg attacking, Harutora quickly drew the sword from his waist.
He leaned forward, as if trying to throw himself off the horse, and swung the sword forcefully at Tsuchigumo who was attacking from below.
With one swing, the sword absorbed all of the aura in his body.
The aura collected in the blade, shooting out from the tip. Tsuchigumo's leg was slashed, sending sparks flying, and pushing it back.
Harutora felt a strong recoil up his arm. The steel leg had been cut open, and the sword had carved out a trace on it as if it had been scorched. Though he had been the one who hit the enemy with the sword, Harutora still couldn't help but stare blankly.
"W, What is this? It's too powerful!"
"It's a 'Protection Sword'! It's a specially forged, age-old spiritual sword!"
"Huh? Really? It just got chipped by the strike just now--"
"Ah, but it was just a bit! A small bit!"
"Uuu...... S, Since it's a crisis, it's okay even if you break it!"
Natsume managed to shout angrily. But was it really okay to break it! Natsume's look had been obviously stern when she had turned around to say the words 'no way'.
The enemy continued attacking, and Natsume manipulated the reins for dear life, an obviously incredibly dangerous scene to anyone who was watching. Harutora almost fell off the horse a few times, and swing by swing, damage built up on the Protection Sword.
The Protection Sword seemed like a strong tool, as it could unleash a strong power even if an outsider like Harutora used it. It was just that a large amount of aura was absorbed from him with every slash, and the fatigue continuing to accumulate was no trivial matter. When Harutora noticed, he was already tired and gasping for breath.
"This can't go on, Natsume! I can't handle it by myself anymore!"
"I know that!"
"Then you need to fight too!"
"Don't talk to me right now!"
Natsume didn't turn around. She was obviously struggling to cope with the combined attacks of Asura and Tsuchigumo. A cold sweat broke out in Harutora's heart.
...Hey hey, could she be bad at actual fights?
Her attitude was different from her usual calmness, and obvious anxiety had appeared on Natsume's expression. How ironic that he would see this unexpected side of his childhood friend in such a situation.
Crash. A noise sounding like it wanted to shatter the air reverberated from the stone plaza.
Suzuka had beat the taiko drum set on the altar, making a strange noise that sounded like it vibrated the blood itself. Suzuka then continued to swing the drumsticks, and the taiko boomed, echoing through the nighttime Imperial Hill.
Suzuka beat the taiko six times, and then blew a horn, whose deep sound contrasted with the penetrating sound of the taiko. The air shook, and the unnecessary dirt on the stone plaza vibrated, cleansing it.
Harutora who had become a spirit-seer knew that the sound contained magical energy, and he couldn't help but feel a chill upon hearing the sound of the horn that announced the start of battle.
"Oh no, the ceremony is beginning! We have to stop her quickly!"
"Wait, Natsume. From above!"
Natsume was focused on the altar, and suddenly Asura attacked from above. She quickly pulled in the reins, once again stealing away Yukikaze's freedom of movement.
The two shikigami were attacking in turns.
Yukikaze hurriedly raised its forelegs, leaning back while standing on its hind legs to avoid Asura's attack.
In that moment, Natsume was holding on to the reins, but Harutora who was swinging the sword had nowhere to stand. He was sent flying off with a 'waaah'.
Natsume noticed Harutora fall off the horse and screamed, but Harutora had already begun dropping to the ground before he was able to make a sound.
A light shone next to the galloping Yukikaze before Harutora even had time to doubt his ears. The light extended outwards like a fluid, leisurely flowing through the light sky.
A dazzling strip of gold floated in the night sky.
It was a dragon.
A dragon had appeared in the night sky in response to Natsume's summoning.
The dragon's body was almost ten meters, and there were two horn-like things on its head, with a long snout and golden scales covering its entire body. Though its four limbs were short, they had the sharp talons of an eagle. The dragon before him wasn't as large as those he had imagined, but other than in body size, this 'dragon' was completely identical to the mythical beasts depicted in Japanese myths or folk tales.
The dragon turned around after appearing, sliding underneath Harutora's body. Harutora hurriedly tossed aside the Protection Sword, grabbing on to the dragon's body.
The dragon's scales were hard, but it felt smooth. A soft yet tough being was swaying in his arms.
Of course this was a shikigami. There was no other possibility.
But, even if it was a shikigami......
"Hokuto? It's called Hokuto? Hey, Natsume, is this dragon......!?"
Harutora raised his head, shouting at Natsume who was riding Yukikaze.
Natsume was already stretched thin trying to deal with Asura's attacks, but she still replied to Harutora's question after barely dodging an attack.
"She's my final trump card! The familiar who served generations of family heads and the Tsuchimikado guardian beast, one of the few modern true dragons!"
"T, True dragon......"
Harutora unconsciously forgot the matter of the name, gazing at the dragon he held on to.
The so-called servant shikigami were different from the mainstream manmade shikigami of 'General Onmyoudou', as they were deities, spirits, or beasts - more accurately, something that had possessed one of these names in the past - made into shikigami. In other words, Hokuto hadn't been created by humans, but had formed naturally, and was an existence similar to a materialized deity.
The aura he could feel from Hokuto's body was indeed strong and fierce. Actually, it was a very terrifying feeling. Hokuto's long body had a perceptible, peculiar feeling of vigor, extremely different from an animal's.
...But, why was it called Hokuto?
Most would connect the Big Dipper to the name Hokuto1, and the big dipper would often be compared to a 'dragon', with close ties to the stars that Onmyoudou worshipped. It seemed incredibly natural that a dragon shikigami would get the name Hokuto.
But, to Harutora's ears, this name felt extremely coincidental.
"Why didn't you summon this thing from the beginning!?"
"I can't completely control her! She doesn't listen to my orders, though she agreed to become my shikigami."
Natsume stared a bit resentfully at Hokuto as she spoke. The dragon ignored its master's words, looking down its nose at the Armored Juggernaut and the altar.
The dragon was clearly exuberant, and its appearance didn't seem to be because of its fighting spirit, but rather like it had seen an interesting and fun game. Not to mention its long tail was waving back and forth like an excited puppy's. Harutora grimaced.
"......Indeed, though this thing has courage, it doesn't have an ounce of tension."
"Hokuto! I order you to defeat the enemy shikigami, you should be able to, right?"
Natsume gave the order with a serious face - but Hokuto shook her head in incomprehension, looking at Natsume as if to ask: 'What enemy?'
But, Asura attacked again before Natsume had time to tell Hokuto what to deal with.
Yukikaze leaped aside without waiting for orders from the panicked Natsume, evading Asura's attack.
Hokuto was surprised by Asura's attack. It turned around, quickly taking Yukikaze's position, completely unheeding to the person on its back. Harutora yelled loudly, slipping down the dragon's body to its back leg region.
Natsume reprimanded Hokuto from the horse, but the dragon paid no heed, dashing through the night sky as Asura's opponent as a midair battle unfolded.
It seemed that Asura's attack had excited it, as it suddenly seemed clearly motivated.
"Th, This shikigami has such strong power, but isn't its personality a little too childish!?"
"It's dangerous! Harutora-kun, jump over here!"
"Don't be inconsiderate of me!"
Just as he cried out, Hokuto spun fiercely, and Harutora was sent flying from the dragon's body due to the centrifugal force.
This was his second time falling from the sky today. Natsume - actually, Yukikaze - rapidly rushed over.
Natsume spread her arms, catching Harutora in her arms.
The girl's small, delicate body held Harutora with all her power. She couldn't support the force of Harutora's fall, and almost fell down with him. Harutora frantically reached out his hand to grab Yukikaze's reins, and barely managed to avert the crisis.
"H, Harutora-kun, Harutora-kun~!"
"Natsume, stop yelling! You can let go, ouch, hey, you don't need to grab that tightly!?"
Natsume was using all her power to keep Harutora from falling to the ground, but Harutora was doing everything he could to keep both of them from falling off the horse. Their bodies tangled together, destroying the balance, and Yukikaze dropped as it mustered the strength to rebalance itself.
Just then, Tsuchigumo attacked with its leg.
Harutora had just dropped the Protection Sword, and now he thought flawlessly, immediately reaching his hand into his box of charms and flipping the lid open with his fingertip, fluidly drawing out a protective charm.
Once, he had practice throwing charms in front of the mirror every day, and those movements were still imprinted in his body even after abandoning that training.
Harutora shouted, throwing the charm out hard. The incantation meant 'swiftly enforce as law'2, the Onmyoudou that the Mystical Investigators had also often used - the common word widely used in charm techniques.
Harutora's magical energy flowed in to the protective charm, creating a shining barrier of light.
The Armored Juggernaut's leg smashed through the barrier, but it bought enough time for Yukikaze to regain its balance. Yukikaze shifted its back, letting the two properly sit again, and just barely avoided Tsuchigumo's leg that came crashing through the barrier.
They descended to stay on the ground, but lowering their altitude was equivalent to entering Tsuchigumo's attack range. The next attack came accordingly, giving them no time to catch their breath.
Harutora peeled off Natsume who was still tightly wrapped around him, sitting back on the horse's rear, and then reached forward with his arms as if to hug Natsume.
"Ah! H, Harutora-kun...?"
"Natsume, I'll control the reins, I'll leave it to you to deal with the enemy!"
"Huh? Uh, okay!"
"Yukikaze, I'm counting on you!"
Harutora gripped Yukikaze's body with his legs, lashing the reins. Actually, he only controlled the reins this one time, and everything else was all Yukikaze's own judgment.
Once Yukikaze gained dominance, he immediately showed agility different from before. It jumped deftly through Tsuchigumo's chained attacks while carrying the two of them. When the stiff Natsume who was squeezed between Harutora's arms noticed this, she inadvertently froze on top of the horse.
"H, Harutora-kun, what did you do?"
"I didn't do anything, rather, I'm doing nothing at all."
With the panicked Natsume and the willful Hokuto, the most reliable of the individuals here - including Harutora - was undoubtedly Yukikaze. Regardless of whether it was a horse or shikigami, it needed room to act.
He looked up at the sky. Hokuto and Asura were still fighting to the death in the sky.
Of the two, Hokuto had an overwhelming advantage. Its movements were free like a fish in water, and its golden scales reflected the bonfires on the ground like glittering dust scattered in the night sky.
With this, Harutora and Natsume might be able to focus on dealing with Tsuchigumo.
"I don't have the time to look for the sword I dropped on the ground right now! Natsume, can you do anything to hold off that Tsuchigumo?"
"I, I do! Harutora-kun, give me the bow!"
After hearing Natsume's order, Harutora rapidly took off the bow hung over his shoulder and gave it to Natsume.
"What about arrows?"
"I don't need them. This is the 'Peach Bow', a peach wood exorcising bow imbued with magic, and I just need to release the bowstring at an enemy to attack. But, that will at most be able to hold it back, since the Armored Juggernaut's armor has strong magic resistance."
There weren't any actually effective tools to use before the military shikigami Armored Juggernaut. If they seriously wanted to defeat the Armored Juggernaut, they would need military-grade equipment at the least, and more importantly, the 'Peach Bow' was originally a tool for exorcism, equipment for dealing with spiritual disasters.
"Then we just need to hold it off, there's no need to defeat it. Natsume, you're in charge of holding off Tsuchigumo, and Yukikaze, rush towards the altar if you get the chance, since in any case we definitely need to stop the ceremony!"
Of course, Suzuka's threat wasn't just limited to Tsuchigumo, and the possibility of winning against her with a head-on assault was very small.
But, even if she was a Divine General, she still needed to focus her mind to perform the Taizan Fukun Ritual, and if they impeded the ceremony, things weren't entirely hopeless.
"U, Understood. But, Harutora-kun, you're my shikigami, so I should be giving orders--"
"I know! Natsume, Yukikaze, let's go!"
Harutora ignored Natsume's mumbling, shouting loudly and shaking the reins.
The reins shook and Yukikaze instantly rushed forward fearlessly towards the giant Tsuchigumo several times larger than itself.
The surprised Natsume frantically took up the bow, but the arms that Harutora grasped the reins with blocked her front, so she was unable to draw the bow.
"Put your arms down!"
Saying this, she stood on the stirrups, stretching her upper body through the gap between Harutora's arms and the reins. Her black hair flapped like a banner as she stood on the horse.
Just then, spider silk shot out of the head area of Tsuchigumo's armor.
Yukikaze hurriedly backed off, making Natsume fall over backwards. Harutora grabbed the reins tight, crouched his body, and held Natsume's waist from behind as she fell.
"Ah! Th, That's my b-butt!"
"Don’t worry about it, shoot!"
Her face red, Natsume took a shooting posture and released the bowstring at the approaching Tsuchigumo.
The Peach Bow made a pleasant sound.
- The air shook as Natsume's magical energy shot towards Tsuchigumo. The wave of tremendous magical energy became an invisible arrow, shooting into Tsuchigumo.
In Harutora's now spirit-seeing eyes, he saw the armor easily repel the magical energy, but once the Tsuchigumo was hit by the shockwave from the Peach Bow, it indeed showed caution for a moment. The steel body didn't budge, but it seemed like its interior was suffering ‘lag’ effects, and its movements slowed as a result.
Yukikaze took the chance to speed up its gallop, planning on circling around Tsuchigumo's side and head directly for the altar.
Unfortunately, Tsuchigumo pushed out its back leg, blocking their advance.
Yukikaze turned at a right angle - Tsuchigumo moved sideways, chasing them while continuously slashing its spider legs. After Yukikaze pulled away from Tsuchigumo, it turned around again, once again galloping towards the altar.
Natsume released the string of the Peach Bow.
This time, her back was straight in a beautiful archery form. The released string contained a magical energy stronger than the previous time. Tsuchigumo took the attack head-on, and its movements became slow like it had short-circuited. But, the enemy had learned for the second attack. Before Tsuchigumo's movements became slow, spider silk spewed from the samurai armor.
The spider silk flew at them from the front, and they had nowhere to run. Harutora threw out a charm just in time, repelling the spider silk with the barrier from a protective charm.
Harutora pulled Natsume down with the right hand he had thrown the charm with, and Natsume sat down hard on the saddle. At the same time, Yukikaze ducked its body down, passing below Tsuchigumo from underneath.
"...Did we make it!?"
He turned around, looking backwards. They had broken through Tsuchigumo, which quickly moved its eight legs, rapidly turning around. A fierce gaze stared at them through the samurai armor that hadn't succeeded in driving off the enemy.
Just as Tsuchigumo prepared to pursue them, a golden light swooped down from the sky.
It was Hokuto. Asura was being chewed in its sharp teeth, so it seemed that Hokuto had won the midair battle.
Hokuto crunched Asura apart, changing targets to Tsuchigumo. It didn't seem the least bit worried facing the Armored Juggernaut, and even the military shikigami had to stop in front of the violent aura that the dragon gave off.
"Incredible! That thing's pretty strong!"
"Of course! Though that child is willful, there's a huge level difference between her and a normal shikigami!"
Natsume's tone was also filled with excitement. After all, the tables had now turned, and Tsuchigumo was now trying to get past Hokuto, with Hokuto blocking Tsuchigumo, not letting it approach the altar. Just by the situation before them, the two sides were clearly balanced now.
...Seize the moment!
Harutora prepared to charge on foot towards the altar on the stone plaza.
There were bonfires on the four corners of the altar, spitting sparks into the pitch-black night. Torii were hung on all sides, their colors differentiated into black for the north, blue for the east, red for the south, and white for the west.
Suzuka, kneeling in front of her brother's corpse, was in the center of the altar.
There was an opportunity. Harutora leaned forward unconsciously.
Suzuka murmured with a cold voice, still with her head lowered over her brother's corpse.
Immediately after, the charms covering the corpse all peeled off together, scattering in all directions.
The scene seemed like the corpse had exploded. At first glance, the charms danced through the air like confetti, but actually they attacked Harutora like a school of fish.
Natsume frantically attacked with the Peach Bow, and the wave of magical energy collided with the flurry of charms. The charms in the front were hit by the wave, dropping to the ground accordingly.
But, only the charms that bore the brunt of the wave fell to the ground. Harutora, Natsume, and Yukikaze were long since engulfed in a swarm of charms before the ones hit by the Peach Bow fell completely.
Harutora and Natsume were knocked off and pushed back from Yukikaze's body one after the other, as if they were hit by a fire hose. They fell off the horse, their bodies covered with charms. Fortunately, the charms absorbed the force of the impact, but they couldn't move because of it. Yukikaze hurriedly turned around, but its master had become a hostage, so it was helpless. Because it had also been covered with charms, it became shaken and kept its distance from the altar.
"I, I can't, I can't get them off!"
The two of them were pressed onto the ground, and they tried to pick themselves up from the wet grass, but unfortunately the mass of charms didn't allow them to move.
The charms had originally been stuck to Suzuka's brother's corpse, but were now on Harutora and Natsume to keep them from acting to obstruct the resurrection ceremony. Harutora noticed first that the incantations on these charms seemed to be written with blood.
At first glance, there were at least a thousand charms before him, and all of them were written in Suzuka's blood. You could say that these charms were the manifestation of the girl's obsession.
The thing that had been wrapped with the charms now showed itself as it laid before Suzuka.
It was a child similar to Suzuka - no, he had probably died at an age younger than Suzuka. The corpse's skin was an ashen color, but its expression was serene as if sleeping deeply.
Suzuka slowly rose, saying:
"Onmyouji, Dairenji Suzuka. I ask to offer myself to Taizan Fukun, the lord of the underworld..."
In ancient times, Onmyouji Abe no Seimei had performed the Taizan Fukun Ritual to save the life of the Mii-dera4 monk Chikou, offering up the life of his disciple in order to extend his life.5
Her only light and warmth in the dark, cold world was her brother's smile.
Her brother always showed his smile in front of her, regardless of pain, scars, or fatigue.
The siblings never had toys and never had picture books, and because they were always trimming paper into smaller pieces, they played with origami together.
Look, Suzuka, it's a new friend.
Her brother's nimble fingers folded many things, and her brother's warm smile endowed them with life. Not only the paper, but even Suzuka's life seemed to rely on her brother's smile.
That was the only magic that Suzuka valued with her deep disgust for magic.
Suzuka read the incantation that was written on a scroll, giving off a tremendous magical energy.
The magical energy filled the altar on the stone plaza, spilling forth from the top of the Imperial Hill.
The surrounding aura seemed to echo the incantation, changing intensely, forming a space that one could even mistake to be a different world.
Taizan Fukun was a deity of Onmyoudou - the lord of death, regarded as the god who managed human life and death.
Now, Harutora could indeed feel 'that thing'. He couldn't hear it nor see it, but with the spirit-sensing ability he had obtained, he truly felt that thing's 'existence'.
There was a powerful strength descending to the altar.
It was an existence exceeding human understanding.
"N, Natsume! That's......!?"
"......I don't know! But, it's definitely not a god..."
Harutora asked gingerly, and Natsume shook her head powerlessly. The altar was filled with an aura that had descended from the sky, and the two both stared intently at the altar.
The scroll Suzuka read from was blown like cotton in the breeze, lightly floating away from the girl's hands.
The flapping parchment made a soft, crinkling sound as it opened. When she read the last words, a blue flame suddenly shot out, instantly incinerating the scroll as if the heat of the aura flowing into the altar had made the scroll ignite on its own.
Suzuka couldn't contain her excitement, letting out a happy voice.
The body lying on the stone plaza slowly moved.
Harutora held his breath, and Natsume's eyes widened. Suzuka's brother opened the eyelids that had not stirred in many years as the two Tsuchimikado progeny watched.
Hearing his sister's call, the youth slowly turned his gaze.
The youth sat up hesitantly, and Suzuka dashed up to him, hugging him tight.
"Onii-chan, onii-chan, onii-chan, onii-chan......"
Suzuka bawled like a little girl. In comparison, Harutora's body couldn't stop shaking, and Natsume's face was livid. He could even hear her suppressing her voice, as her bloodless lips murmured: "How......"
The once-dead brother had reunited with his sister.
It should have been a touching reunion.
But Harutora felt that there was some inexplicable terror spreading through his body.
He wasn't scared, but he felt disgusted.
That feeling was probably since it was taboo, a feeling from something profane that humans were not supposed to touch upon. An alarm sounded through his entire body because of the scene before him.
But, Harutora still stared at the scene before him.
Forgotten soul magic.
The prodigy Tsuchimikado Yakou's - magic.
For some reason, Harutora suddenly had a strange feeling. Immediately after, he saw the brother unexpectedly grab her thin arm out of his sister's embrace.
A surprised and confused look emerged on Suzuka's tearful face.
The youth turned his face towards his sister.
"W, What is it?"
"It's not enough......"
The youth opened his dry eyes unblinkingly and stared intently at Suzuka. Then, he reached out his hand clumsily but surprisingly rapidly, grabbing Suzuka's shoulder.
Suzuka reflexively moved backwards, but the youth's fingers sank deep into the girl's shoulder, not allowing her to step back.
The youth stared hard at the panicked Suzuka, his fingers moving from her shoulder to her neck, his hands forcefully throttling the thin, choker-wearing neck.
"Not enough...... It's not enough, Suzuka......"
Veins raised from the youth's hands, his fingers sinking deep into the skin of Suzuka's neck.
Suzuka's face instantly paled.
"W, Wait, onii-chan! I'll give you...... I'll offer my life, so please wait......!"
Suzuka struggled powerlessly. She put her hand on her brother's arm, but she couldn't pull herself free.
She had anticipated her brother's revival in her heart, but her body refused to welcome her death. Her face turned dark in a blink, her back constantly spacing.
"Wait a little more...... Please......"
She gasped painfully, a tear rolling from the corner of her eye. It wasn't a tear of joy, but shock, pain, and sadness merged into a single teardrop.
It was a tear shed by the brat that Harutora hated.
It was a tear shed by the enemy who had killed Hokuto.
Harutora tightly clenched his teeth.
He thought in his heart that she was getting what she deserved. If that person hadn't come here, Hokuto wouldn't have died, and they could have continued to happily visit festivals like usual, pass summer break like usual, and pass every day like usual.
Suzuka had destroyed everything.
That Suzuka who had destroyed everything was crying out of heartbreak.
You deserve it! Harutora had originally planned on continuing to watch--
"......Damn! This damn brat!"
He roared, straining to twist his restrained body. He shook his head, twisted his shoulders, put his knees against the ground, and rose in a frenzy.
As he did this, the charms that had just been stuck tightly to his body began dropping off one by one. It seemed that since the practitioner was dying, their magical energy was weakening accordingly.
A bestial roar erupted from Harutora's throat.
He racked all the strength in his body, mustering all his strength.
His clothes and the charms ripped, and even his skin tore as well. Even so, Harutora still held himself up with his arms, forcefully ripping the charms.
"Hold your breath!"
Natsume shouted. Harutora quickly held his breath.
"Incinerate the heretic symbols, Order!"
It seemed that Natsume was also trying to rid herself of her chains however possible. She reached out her right hand that had recovered its freedom, throwing a fire-element charm towards Harutora. A raging flame shot out, and a flame swirled around the charms engulfing Harutora's body.
The searing heat stroked his skin, blowing his hair. His body wasn't burned because of it, but it instead seemed like he was blown by the summer breeze, soothing his heart. The master's magic didn't harm the shikigami, exclusively burning Suzuka's charms.
Harutora jumped out of the inferno, sprinting forward.
The pressure of the aura pervading the altar became higher and higher, and above it was the expressionless brother throttling his sister's neck and the crying sister trying to accept all of this.
The hand that Suzuka placed on the youth's arm powerlessly slipped down.
Harutora roared, sprinting towards the youth.
The youth didn't even look at Harutora, just forcefully choking the girl's neck as if trying to squeeze out her life without leaving a drop.
Harutora was going to hit the youth and pull the two apart.
But before that, his body felt a strong heat like a fire-element charm.
The heat came from underneath his left eye, from the pentagram Natsume had drawn.
The youth's figure was reflected in his left eye, along with the aura coming from the youth's body. There was an aura that was being absorbed up into the sky. There was a connection to the heavens above the youth's head, giving off a pulse of abnormal aura.
The youth could move freely entirely because of this aura vein.
He had to cut the vein.
But, how could he do it?
...This kind of thing......
Harutora's body twisted backwards, and he pulled off the bamboo case on his back, holding the strap in his hands.
"How should I knooowwww!"
He raised his hands high, bringing the bamboo case down on the youth's head - smashing it into that aura vein linked to the sky.
The bamboo case had Tsuchimikado ancestral tools inside it.
The Taizan Fukun Ritual was a ceremony held by the Tsuchimikado family for generations.
In that case...... Regardless of what was right, regardless of what unexpected, mistaken, or incidental things happened, it was enough if he cut that vein of aura and obstructed the ceremony.
He believed he had strangely bad luck.
But, since the Tsuchimikado family were notable Onmyouji--
Might as well see this as a celebration for tonight's birth of a new Tsuchimikado shikigami.
This was the first time Harutora had prayed from his heart, and the first time he had ever so deeply wished upon his blood.
In this moment, light covered the altar.
The huge strength he had felt before was rapidly approaching him.
It was an ancient, supreme entity that Onmyouji had once named Taizan Fukun - or maybe it was the strength of a 'phenomenon' that humans could observe.
A giant, blinding aura, a dazzling god, fluctuated.
The light flashing from the sky covered the world--
A beautiful moon hung in the sky.
A man sat in the edge of a mansion, gazing at the sky.
His hand held a cup of sake, and the sweet smell of alcohol mixed into the night.
In the mansion, in dim shadows that the moonlight could not reach, a voice called out softly.
"Have you still not changed your mind?"
That voice asked. The man who had been called Yakou showed a wry smile, putting his cup of sake to the side.
He returned "Yeah.", smiling as he said it.
Then, he continued with a "Sorry.", the smile disappearing from his face.
The sound of insects came to the mansion, slightly alleviating the silence between the two.
The other person quietly gazed at her moonlight master from the shadows.
Then, she also took a sitting posture, slowly lowering her head.
"I will wait until stones become dust, because I am - your shikigami."
The insects didn't stop, as if it were the last brilliant orchestra of their lives.
The sound of the approaching end of summer.
It seems like I saw something.
No, it seems like I saw someone.
It was an extremely distant past carved in Harutora's heart.
He had never seen that scene, but he truly remembered it.
His heart jumped intensely, and his brain cells sparked, electricity running through his body.
That thing's existence surpassed the concept of time that Harutora knew. In 'that moment', Tsuchimikado Harutora's sixteen-year-old self blurred momentarily, flying instantaneously, and then--
"Ban, Un, Taraku, Kiriku, Aku! Connect the five elements, Order!"
Natsume yelled loudly.
Just as Harutora's consciousness waned, five charms floated down from above his head. Light connected the charms, drawing out a brilliant pentagram in midair, forming a rigid wall that blocked the light pouring down and pulling Harutora's consciousness back to reality.
Coming to his senses, Harutora was standing in the center of the altar, holding the strap of the bamboo case in his hand. Suzuka had lost consciousness, but Suzuka's brother was lying by his feet motionless.
Just then, Natsume jumped at him from the side.
She knocked Harutora over, her back to the air, smothering her childhood friend's head in her chest.
"Don't look! Your soul will be taken away!"
Natsume desperately cried.
The wall formed by the pentagram cut off the altar from that 'other world', but it couldn't stop the strong ripples. Harutora had no way of imagining what was above him right now or what it was doing. His soul felt choked - it was Natsume's soft presence that let him slightly calm down.
That moment seemed like an eternity.
In this eternal moment, the two of them relied on holding each other’s bodies to support them.
This was the only thing the young Onmyouji and the new shikigami could do before a god.
When Harutora noticed, the aura's pressure had already disappeared.
He opened his closed eyes, blinking from the ground where he lay after Natsume had knocked him over.
Natsume still held Harutora's head in her chest, and Harutora looked around from the gaps between her arms.
The pentagram wall had already vanished, and the feeling of the strange world was no longer there. All that was before him was an ancient stone plaza set on a hilltop.
Harutora looked at Natsume. She lay on the ground, at a loss. Once she noticed Harutora's gaze, she quickly noticed that she was still hugging her childhood friend's head, and hurriedly let go.
The fragrance that surrounded Harutora floated away, dissipating into the air.
"......Is it over?"
"Is...... Is it?"
Harutora and Natsume asked each other, both of them clearly a bit helpless.
Next to them, Suzuka slowly got up, bringing them a shock.
Yukikaze who had been far from the altar had come forth, the Protection Sword in its mouth. It seemed like it had run out to find the sword in order to save its master. Harutora finally came to his senses at that moment.
Yukikaze shook its head, dropping the Protection Sword, and Harutora quickly got up and took the sword upon looking around.
He pointed the sword at Suzuka who sat on the ground, about to tell her to give up resisting, when--
Suzuka murmured to herself, letting out an empty voice.
Harutora relaxed the strength in his hand and the tip of the sword dropped powerlessly.
Suzuka was no longer Harutora's enemy. Harutora let the sword down, silently gazing at the girl.
He suddenly felt something near his head, and saw Hokuto emerge in midair as soon as he looked up.
What happened with the surprising thing just now? ...Hokuto looked at Harutora with that kind of confusion and incomprehension. What a leisurely thing. Harutora's lips curved in a smile.
He turned around, seeing that Tsuchigumo wasn't moving at all, and it didn't seem like it had damaged Hokuto either. He guessed that maybe Suzuka's magical energy had been drained to exhaustion, or maybe Tsuchigumo had been completely purified by Taizan Fukun.
Suzuka sobbed quietly, holding her brother's motionless body. She whimpered clearly with her head in her brother's chest.
Harutora looked back at Natsume with a bitter face. After her and Harutora's gazes crossed, he silently turned around as if remembering something.
With nowhere to vent his emotions, Harutora looked up at the sky.
The moon hung high in the clear night sky.
When Harutora turned his phone on and contacted Touji, Touji replied with an abnormally calm tone. That calm yet agitated tone was the best proof that Touji was angry. Harutora apologized and explained the general situation.
When Touji heard the news of Hokuto's death, he was clearly a bit shocked. Noticing his good friend stunned and unable to speak, Harutora couldn't help but feel pained along with him.
After a relatively long silence--
Touji normally would never confirm like this. Harutora hoarsely said "yeah".
"Hey, Touji. You couldn't have known already, right? She's, well......"
'The fact that she's not human?'
Harutora closed his mouth.
'I actually wasn't sure.' Touji replied honestly. 'I never checked with her, and more importantly, she was Hokuto regardless of what she was.'
Harutora clenched his teeth upon hearing that last sentence. It seemed like that had alleviated the void brought by Hokuto's death a bit.
'I'll go over there with the Mystical Investigators in a while, the aid is about to arrive. Wait there for a little longer.'
"......Got it. Touji..."
"Thanks." On the other side of the phone, Touji hmphed lightly, then hung up. He was still calm and strong like always. Harutora exhaled like he was going to breath out his entire body, closing the phone.
After Harutora told her the news about contacting the Mystical Investigators, Natsume nodded silently.
The two of them walked down the altar on the stone plaza, standing on the grass.
Suzuka was still by the altar. She had sat beside her brother's collapsed body hugging her knees for the whole time. She clearly didn't have any intent of resisting, just disregarding everything and anything they said.
Natsume had advocated using magic to bind her, but Harutora maintained the opposite opinion, believing that they should first let her have some quiet time to herself. Actually, if Suzuka got serious - even though she looked like her spiritual power was depleted - Natsume wasn't sure if she could succeed in binding her. In the end, they decided to go by Harutora's opinion, staying nearby and watching for the time being.
"......Then, I'm counting on you from now on."
"Yes, I know. But I really don't think I can explain clearly."
"It's the same even if I explain. People who weren't here won't understand regardless of how detailed the explanation is."
Harutora deeply agreed with Natsume's words. To be honest, even Harutora and Natsume who had actually experienced the events weren't very clear on what had happened back then.
Explained using 'General Onmyoudou', the situation was that the soul suspected to be Suzuka's brother's was actually a wandering spirit and Taizan Fukun was a special type of spiritual disaster. Just like something worshipped in the past like lightning or Mount Fuji, but which now was just a plain electric phenomenon or a national park. Though they were the same things, peoples' impressions were different. The difference between the past and the present might be the 'prayer' that Natsume had spoken so sincerely about.
But, only Harutora would be welcoming the Mystical Investigators' inspection. Natsume would leave the Imperial Hill before the Mystical Investigators arrived.
When asked for the reason, she just replied briefly: '......It's a family tradition.' She hung her head, as if to hide the embarrassment on her face, without explaining any further.
Honestly, Harutora was a bit dissatisfied inside, but right now he was Natsume's shikigami, and he had to obey his master's orders. More importantly, he couldn't say any more since that was what the tradition dictated.
As far as Harutora knew, there was only one branch family tradition, but the Tsuchimikado main family seemed to have quite a few complex traditions and customs that had to be obeyed. Come to think about it, when they had reunited on the bridge before, Natsume had also said that she was bothered by a tradition.
"Whatever. It'll be fine if I just convince myself that it's something that I don't know about."
Natsume hung her head, seeming she was sincerely apologetic. Harutora wryly said the words 'It's alright', leisurely looking into the night sky.
The night sky was clear and cloudless.
A moist humidity lingered in the night sky, soaking into the skin and not feeling the least bit hot.
Upon hearing the thoughts leaking from Harutora's mouth, Natsume next to him also expressed her agreement.
These matters had left behind a sad ending, but it had finally ended.
Harutora took out the shikigami charm that had formed Hokuto from his pants pocket. He still felt depressed, but his sad emotions had reduced slightly.
"......Could I see that for a bit?"
Natsume spoke, and Harutora couldn't help but be surprised.
"Can you fix it?"
He gave her the charm, asking with a sliver of hope. But, Natsume shook her head emotionlessly.
"I'm sorry, this shikigami charm no longer has any aura in it, and with such serious damage, it cannot be repaired."
As expected - Harutora's shoulders drooped in loneliness.
It had originally been an old charm with traces of many repairs on it. Now, the charm was not only damaged, but stained with rainwater and mud, dilapidated. Even an outsider could tell that this shikigami charm could no longer be fixed.
But, Natsume held the dilapidated shikigami charm extremely gingerly, maybe out of respect for Harutora's good friend, but Harutora felt somewhat strangely that even her gaze was tender, like she was looking at a child.
"That person...... Hokuto, is she dead? Or do shikigami not have what we call life?" Harutora couldn't help but ask, seeing Natsume's look.
Actually, he was very scared of finding the answer to that question. He really didn't want anything to deny or interfere with the relationship between him and Hokuto.
But, Natsume's reply greatly exceeded his expectations.
"Harutora-kun, the person called Hokuto should still be alive."
He didn't understand for a while. Natsume saw Harutora's stunned look and changed her wording.
"More accurately, the practitioner who used the identity of this shikigami Hokuto to communicate with you still lives somewhere right now. Judging from that person's magic, this shikigami is controlled by the practitioner directly, so in other words, this shape is a shikigami but just a 'container'. Someone out there somewhere controlled this container's actions, and her true personality is elsewhere."
Harutora opened his mouth wide, unable to speak for a long time.
Hokuto was a shikigami controlled directly by a practitioner, or in other words, Hokuto's body was a shikigami but her heart belonged to the practitioner. It had all been the practitioner acting and speaking through that body.
...That person...... that person still lived somewhere?
But, in that case a new question emerged.
"Why? Why did Hokuto - that practitioner do something like this?"
"I, I don't know that, but she definitely had some reason."
Harutora couldn't fathom Natsume's reply.
"Reason? I don't understand why she wanted to interact with me. We didn't do anything special, just played together ordinarily...... Only talked about boring nonsense......"
"Didn't I say I didn't know? But I think Harutora-kun definitely knows better than I do."
"Me? Why? I didn't even know she was a shikigami......"
"But, weren't you good friends?"
Natsume's words made Harutora stop speaking for some time. He pursed his lips, showing a troubled appearance.
I lied to you, I'm sorry for always deceiving you.
He thought of Hokuto's face before her deathbed. Thinking carefully, strange things had happened one after another since they met, but even so, Hokuto had stayed his good friend.
Harutora was ashamed of himself, having never even imagined that there was some hidden secret behind Hokuto. But regardless of what secret hid inside her, Hokuto was Hokuto and that wouldn't change. Hokuto was his good friend - that was definitely not wrong.
She still lived. There was nothing happier than that.
"Some day, will she show up in front of me?"
Harutora scratched his nose, smiling.
For a brief moment, Natsume showed a hard-to-describe complex look.
After saying that, she lightly gave the charm back to Harutora.
After Touji notified him by text message that the aid had arrived, Natsume left Harutora, leaving the altar on Yukikaze.
"......You really are an idiot."
Suzuka suddenly opened her mouth after the white horse vanished, galloping into the night. Harutora's heart leaped in surprise.
"Ah, you...... You're awake?"
"......I was never asleep."
Suzuka continued hugging her knees, looking at Harutora. Half of her small face was behind her knees, and he couldn't see her expression at all.
"......Aren't you a little bit too careless? You know, I could kill you easily."
Her voice was appallingly dull. Harutora frowned, not running away, but rather turning around to face Suzuka.
"You want to kill me and run away?"
"You wouldn't do that, right?"
"......What do you base that on?"
"I don't feel any killing intent."
"Okay, I lied. I can't sense anything like killing intent, I just simply feel that way."
Harutora replied honestly. He didn't believe Suzuka would sink to murder at the end, and though he had no proof, it was a sort of intuition.
Harutora's reply made Suzuka bury her face deeper in her knees.
"......Why did you save me?"
"Save - when you were being choked?"
"I was just stopping the ceremony from going on, I didn't do it deliberately to save you6. After all, I'm also a member of the Tsuchimikado family right now."
"......Even though I killed her?"
'Her', meaning Hokuto. Harutora's body trembled slightly after Suzuka's clear question, but he still slowly and deliberately relaxed his slightly tensed body.
"......I thought about just watching at one point."
He breathed deeply and exhaled, slowly speaking when his voice no longer shook.
"But thinking carefully, I was wrong. Hokuto wasn't killed by you, she saved me."
If he hadn't heard Natsume's explanation, maybe he couldn't have replied like this. These were Harutora's current feelings, and maybe someone would laugh at his selfish thoughts - but what was wrong with being selfish if he could stop hating himself with it and resolve everything calmly? Hokuto would definitely understand.
"She really was a great friend, right?"
"......Bunch of fools."
Then, she didn't look at Harutora any more, drooping her head and burying it deeply behind her knees.
Short, weak sobs sounded, and Harutora listened silently.
But, there was just one thing he had to say.
"......Listen up, remember to give your brother a proper burial."
The sound of sobbing increased, no longer hidden, and faint whimpers reached his ears.
She softly responded amidst her sobs:
Harutora indeed heard it.
Suzuka's tears didn't stop.
Touji and the others arrived half an hour later.
The closing of the case was announced the very next day after the Onmyou Agency arrested Suzuka.
But even with that broadcast, Suzuka's name still wasn't made public.
Harutora's parents returned home from Tokyo the following morning.
At that time, Harutora was still being questioned by the Mystical Investigators. In the end, he was detained for the entire night.
This matter reached his parents' ears. When they came to take Harutora home, they quickly and indiscriminately scolded him fiercely. However, when they saw the pentagram on their son's cheek, their faces changed and they went speechless out of surprise, only able to gape quietly.
In the end, how carefully had his parents guarded him while growing up during the past years?
Harutora only learned the answer to that question much, much later.
Harutora and Touji met the following afternoon.
He explained everything in detail and laid it all out on the table, everything regarding Hokuto's death, himself becoming Natsume's shikigami, and the battle and events on the Imperial Hill altar.
Of course, he also talked about the remark Natsume had made about Hokuto.
The Hokuto that the two of them knew had disappeared, but 'that person' still lived.
Touji asked a few questions in between, grasping the cause and effect of Harutora's words. His attitude was even more attentive than usual.
"......I see, so I was wrong after all." After listening to all of Harutora's words, he murmured some words quietly.
"Wrong? What were you wrong about?"
Touji's sudden words led Harutora to ask about them.
"I also thought a lot after things happened." Touji shrugged his shoulders, starting with an introduction. "......Yakou reincarnated, no, let's assume that he reincarnated."
"Then where did his shikigami go?"
"Yakou's shikigami? Ah, are you talking about the branch family person?"
In that case, Touji had also mentioned those things before the festival.
"......Yeah, I guess. Yakou should have had numerous shikigami at the time, including from the branch family. I was just thinking, we don't know what happened to those shikigami after Yakou reincarnated."
"When I heard that Hokuto was a shikigami, I believed that she was one of them."
Harutora's mouth gaped when Touji said all of that.
"W, Wait a second! You couldn't have believed Hokuto was Yakou's shikigami, right?"
Harutora's eyes widened with a stunned expression. Touji just shrugged his shoulders, looking quite calm.
"It was just a speculation...... Judging by the words of that main family successor, it seems like I guessed wrong. A directly manipulated shikigami is like a remote control toy, right? Since it's a toy that needs its controller, it's impossible for Hokuto to have been Yakou's shikigami."
"O, Of course. How could she have such an important role."
"In that case, the problem of what happened to Yakou's shikigami still hasn't been resolved."
"Who knows about that kind of thing! ......After all, its master died, so it should have died as well - or maybe it was released from its bindings, and it went who knows where to live its own free and unfettered life?"
He was always saying that kind of confusing and incomprehensible thing. Harutora exhaled deeply, muttering a few words. Touji heard him, and an unfathomable smile emerged on his face.
"......Maybe they're still looking for their master."
"......So? Now they'll turn to Natsume? What unfortunate things."
He replied indifferently, unable to keep from grinning along with Touji. This was the first time he had shown a smile after telling Touji about what happened.
Touji leaned back in his chair, lightly shrugging his shoulders.
"That mysterious girl was a mystery to the very end."
His tone was as harsh as usual, but it sounded like there were a few differences from before.
The sound of cicadas rose from somewhere.
The summer days were still scorching, but maybe the summer days of the three people Harutora, Touji, and Hokuto had ended here.
The two of them were silent for a long time, watching the end of the summer sun.
Afterwards, in order to welcome the coming new season, they switched to a different topic.
Time slowly passed.
When the short summer vacation ended, Natsume would return to Tokyo.
The next day, Harutora told his parents that he wanted to leave his current high school and leave to study in the Onmyou Academy.
"......She's too slow, how long does that Natsume plan on making me wait......"
Harutora faced the bustling group of people who had come to Tokyo, his hand supporting a sports bag and a large backpack on his back as he bitterly stood by the road.
The Onmyou Academy was in the center of three large streets of Shibuya, and Harutora was waiting for Natsume at the entrance to Shibuya Station.
After things had ended, Harutora and Natsume had sent each other several text messages and had also talked directly on the phone. Anyhow, Harutora was now Natsume's shikigami, and the pentagram Natsume had marked on his face was still on his left cheek, like a tattoo.
"Harutora, listen up, you need to go to Tokyo as soon as possible, since a shikigami must be by their master at all times."
Natsume had instructed him with this once over the phone. Her tone was strong, maybe to cover her shyness - Harutora thought it would be good if that were true. He felt faintly like he wasn't being treated like a shikigami, but like an attendant or servant instead.
"......I came here in the end."
When he had told his parents about entering the Onmyou Academy face-to-face, they hadn't opposed him. After that, he had been busy wrapping things up. He had to apply to leave school during the summer vacation, as well as take the transfer admissions exam for the Onmyou Academy. There hadn't been any students transferring recently, and Harutora didn't know whether it was because of the Tsuchimikado name - in any case, he no longer had any reason to wonder - working behind the scenes, or maybe because he had been credited with the event involving Dairenji Suzuka.
But, in any case, Harutora didn't care about the story behind it.
He was a shikigami, and he just had to do what he could to help Natsume.
The seemingly endless yet brief summer vacation ended just like that.
"......She's way too slow, what is Natsume doing......"
He had sent a text upon reaching Shibuya Station, telling Natsume that he had already arrived. A whole hour had already passed since then, and people came and went, but he hadn't seen Natsume. Harutora sighed, looking at the sky.
The sun was almost completely set, and the summer sun was swapping its colors into the night sky, which was painted a pure indigo.
The instant the sun fell under the horizon, in the short magical moment when the light hadn't completely vanished. The day's colors were particularly bright, and just watching it made his negative feelings completely vanish. For some reason, a smile emerged on Harutora's face--
At the start, he thought it was a hallucination.
His vision was naturally led by the sound, and he saw someone running straight towards him. That person was particularly conspicuous among the group of people, not only because of her beautiful appearance, but also because the clothes she wore were unique.
That person wore the Onmyou Academy uniform, dressed fully in black.
"I, It's been a while, even though it's only been two weeks...... Did you wait long? I was also...... a bit unsure about what to do, but, well, I'm okay now, I've already gathered my resolve."
An Onmyou Academy student stood in front of the dumbstruck Harutora, trying her best but unable to hide her embarrassment and tension, her entire face blushing red.
It was Harutora's childhood friend.
But she was wearing a male uniform, and her speech was also just like a boy's - as if she were a child7.
Her black, long hair wasn't spread behind her back like usual, but was tied in a bunch, drooping over her shoulder to the front of her chest.
A pink ribbon tied up her hair, like a case of deja vu.
Harutora was stunned.
"......Natsume, what are you doing?"
"W, What do you mean by that? I came to find you!"
"......What's up with your speech?"
"What do you mean, of course it's...... Huh? ...Wait, wait a minute, did Aunt and Uncle not tell you!?"
Tying up her hair, and wearing a male uniform - a girl disguised in male clothing, Natsume suddenly flailed her hands, showing her inherent personality. Harutora nodded blankly, and she straightened her body, moving her face near Harutora's ear.
Her attitude changed, returning to the tone Harutora was familiar with to say:
"'The Tsuchimikado Heir must be as a male when in the outside world.' It's a main family tradition! Harutora, did you really hear nothing at all about it?"
"Why is that!? I asked Aunt and Uncle to explain things clearly to you beforehand!"
"......I, I see. I think...... they probably forgot."
There was a high chance that they had forgotten, and even if they hadn't, he had really been busy to death these few days, with no free time at all.
Harutora spoke awkwardly, and Natsume's face blushed instantly.
It seemed, as Harutora learned afterwards, that her original plan was for Harutora to cooperate with the gender-disguised Natsume. As she told him, she had clearly been troubled, her whole body stiff.
Harutora finally understood, after everything, why Natsume hadn't wanted him to say her name. It was because 'Tsuchimikado Natsume' was a 'male' to outsiders. This was a pedantic family tradition, but Harutora who had actually become a shikigami had no right to question it.
The two childhood friends looked at each other, silent.
Harutora was uneasy, and Natsume's mouth trembled lightly like she felt deeply ashamed, ready to dig a hole for herself to crawl into. It seemed that she really wasn't good at adapting to changes.
"...A, Anyway! That's how things are, so you better properly cooperate, Harutora! Got it? Don't forget, you're my shikigami, and you have to listen to my orders, understood? If you get it..." Natsume nervously talked loudly, panic-stricken to the very end.
Harutora leisurely replied with an 'okay'. Natsume pursed her lips, her face still red.
"I understand. Sorry Natsume, for troubling you again."
He replied calmly, and Natsume listened quietly.
Afterwards, she asked to confirm in a cautious tone:
"Do you really understand?'
"Didn't I say so?"
"......Do you understand everything?"
"I understand everything."
Natsume gazed at Harutora, and Harutora looked back and Natsume. There was an unspoken agreement between them, an unspoken joy at their 'reunion'.
Natsume's black eyes reflected the figure of her childhood friend.
"......I lied to you. I'm sorry for always deceiving you."
She lowered her head and apologized quietly. The ribbon tied in her black hair swayed gently with her movements.
"In the beginning...... I was just practicing, practicing a new magic and masculine words and actions. One time, I thought of telling the truth, but Harutora, you told me 'you don't need to say anything', and so I didn't say anything extra. I was scared that I would become separated from Harutora again if I said it......"
Natsume lightly bit her lip.
"You're too dramatic, you don't need to apologize about that kind of thing."
Natsume raised her head, a relieved look emerging on her face. Her face was dyed with a redness different from before as she stared warmly into Harutora' eyes.
"It's not like you lied to me on purpose, right? My mom and dad just forgot to tell me about it, and I wouldn't separate from you just because you're disguised as a guy." Harutora spoke brightly.
Natsume blinked in surprise.
Harutora didn't notice Natsume's reaction, continuing to say:
"But, when did I tell you 'you don't need to say anything'? Did I say that to you before?"
Confusion momentarily flashed across Natsume's serious expression, and when she noticed that the two of them were obviously talking about different things, her heart became even more tangled, and she suddenly became flustered.
"......Harutora, could it be that you haven't noticed?"
She deliberately fiddled with her tied hair, touching the ribbon.
Harutora blankly asked: "What?"
"Didn't you say you understood everything?"
"Isn't it just the family tradition? Can't do anything about it, since you're so serious after all."
Harutora responded showing a tolerant attitude, with a helpless demeanor.
The expression on Natsume's face slowly calmed down.
"You big liar! Why are you always like this! You don't understand anything, stop joking around, Bakatora!"
"Huh, wait, what? Why are you mad all of a sudden?"
Natsume flailed her fists, thumping Harutora with a look that seemed like she was about to cry rather than being angry. The pedestrians walking by looked at the two with strange looks, but she didn't stop, thumping the luggage-carrying Harutora with fist after fist.
"......So that's how it was. I really can't stand you two."
A youth with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder showed up in front of them. That person had stood far away, watching everything that had just happened, and showed a look of astonishment from the depths of his heart.
Natsume's eyes opened wide in surprise upon seeing the youth.
But Harutora opened his mouth to say:
"Hey, Touji. Did you finish everything with your friends here?"
"I didn't finish anything, I was just saying hello and telling them I was back in Tokyo. But I really never thought that you would still be in front of the station."
Upon saying this, Touji glanced at Natsume with a sharp gaze.
Harutora hurriedly explained;
"Ah, this is the main family prodigy that I always mentioned, Tsuchimikado Natsume. Don't make a mistake since she's dressed like this, she's actually a girl. She has to pretend to be a guy because of family traditions, so please don't tell other people. Then, Natsume, this is my friend--"
"......Why is Touji here?"
Natsume whispered, stunned. Harutora didn't understand.
"Did I talk about Touji? You're pretty attentive. He's Ato Touji, he's always got that bandanna on his head, it's his trademark - Guwah!"
Before Harutora had finished speaking, Natsume pulled him hard.
She grabbed on to Harutora's chest with two hands that didn't stop shaking.
"I'm asking you, why is he here?"
"Uh, well, he's also entering the Onmyou Academy with me...... Didn't I say before?"
"I never heard about that! And he's going to enter the Onmyou Academy? How can that be! Isn't Touji an outsider!?"
Harutora didn't have a clue about Natsume's vexation and could only stare with his eyes wide.
Touji who leisurely and calmly watched the two opened his mouth and said:
"I was a spirit-seer all along."
Natsume went speechless for a while, staring blankly at Touji.
Touji just shrugged his shoulders with a casual appearance.
"It's a side affect from being involved in a spiritual disaster before. I'm still receiving treatment at an Onmyouji clinic even now. I plan on taking advantage of this opportunity to become an Onmyouji, so I can look after myself in the future."
Natsume's mouth gaped in surprise.
"......All along? Wait, so you mean......?"
Natsume asked gingerly, and Touji returned an evil look and smile.
"I can tell humans from shikigami pretty well, and in particular it becomes easier the more time I spend with them. But let's not talk about that. Nice to meet you, Natsume. That ribbon really suits you."
Natsume's lips slightly trembled, and her hand lifelessly released Harutora's chest.
Harutora was befuddled by her reaction.
"Uh...... Did something happen?'
Hearing Harutora's clueless response, Natsume wailed, but Touji shook his head helplessly.
"The nickname Bakatora is very suitable for you."
After Touji said this, Natsume shouted shrilly and with a red face as if she couldn't take any more:
"Whatever! Bakatora and you other person, come with me. For your information, you'll be my kouhai in the Onmyou Academy, so you better be prepared!"
After dropping those words, she turned around, slinging her hair over her back and striding into the crowd of people.
Harutora's eyes were wide.
"......What's up with her? Sorry Touji, she's usually not like this."
"No, she's usually like that."
Touji smiled, quickly following Natsume.
Harutora's brain was mixed up to the limit.
Not only Natsume, even Touji was being very strange, and it seemed like he was even sort of excited. Though he didn't get what was going on, he felt that he was being left behind, and it wasn't just in terms of location, but also in terms of the general atmosphere.
He felt distraught, but if he got left behind in this kind of place, there would be a good chance that he who was unfamiliar to the area would get lost. Harutora picked up his luggage again, chasing after the vanishing figures of the two.
"Hey! Natsume, Touji, you're hiding something from me, right? You're hiding something from me!"
Every time he spoke from behind, Natsume walked faster, and the ribbon bobbing with her hair swayed left and right accordingly.
Upon seeing the ribbon, Harutora felt like something flashed through his mind.
That thing was fleeting. Harutora pondered it as he chased hard after Natsume and Touji.
The master's ribbon lightly swayed, guiding the new shikigami through the crowd of people.
The history of the Tsuchimikado began turning again.