Winter in Northen region can be very harsh.
In some areas, city roads are completely unusable, and many villages are left isolated until spring.


 Nevertheless, this also creates a ripe opportunity for merchants.
Not every village could store enough food for the coming winter, and even in wealthy villages and towns, logistics are disrupted due to the lack of stored food before winter, so merchants visiting at such a time were welcomed because of the rarity of such a visit.


 That being said, even though it is an opportunity, successful and established merchants are often reluctant to visit because of the fear of bandits and youkai.
Therefore, the majority of individuals in this line of work are young traveling merchants who are willing to take risks and sometimes reap great rewards.


 ”Well, there are definitely more losers than winners,” said an army soldier who discovered the tragedy at the scene of a devastated carriage and a dead horse with bloody marks in the snow.


 Starting from Sakui Station, which was crowded with 15 soldiers, 10 horses, 2 government officials, and 2 miscellaneous people, the three army soldiers who were patrolling on horseback through the heavy snowfall on the city streets found the scene around noon that day.


 ”It's terrible.
Is it bandits?” asked one soldier with concern etched on his face.


 ”No, look inside the carriage.
There's a pile of goods left.
Bandits wouldn't have done this,” said the other soldier in a confident tone.


 Through the city streets, bandits usually robbed travelers and merchants during winter when there was a shortage of food.
Witnesses were usually killed and buried in the snow to cover up the crime and to buy time.


 ”Damn, a monster, huh?” exclaimed the first soldier in disbelief, his voice laced with fear and shock.


 ”And look.
There are drag marks.
They must've gone pretty wild this time,” observed the other soldier, his words conveying a hint of respect for the strength of the creature.


 ”It goes all the way to the bottom of the mountain.
That's probably where they were…
my condolences,” said the third soldier solemnly, his voice reflecting the gravity of the situation.


 The three army soldiers cowered their shoulders and sighed at the few footprints left on the snowy plain.
Youkai were cruel and heartless.
They rejoice in human fear, and if they have to eat, they prefer to eat while the victim is still alive.
It is easy to imagine the horrific end of the victims.


 ”The question is, how big is it? If it's just a few small fry, we can do it ourselves.
If it's a big one or a swarm, we'll need reinforcements.
Or maybe an expert…”


 With that, the patrol leader announced it and took out something from his pocket.


 It was paper, a curse tool officially standardized and adopted by the imperial court for army and law enforcement agencies.


 It was a kind of litmus paper called the “Color-Floating Identity Paper Symbol (Iro Ukami sadame kami Fu (色浮見定紙符))”.
It was used to investigate who or what was there based on the residual energy left at the scene.
The paper turns yellow if it detects spiritual energy, black if it detects youkai power, and red if it detects a curse.
The intensity of the color change increases with the target's youkai power.
However, the paper won't react at all if the culprit is a wild animal such as a bear or a wolf.
It's been said that the paper can't withstand divine energy and ignites if it senses it.
However, this is a rare occurrence.


 Now, the leader shook this paper lightly, fluttering it to measure the scale and identify the culprit.
Meanwhile, the remaining two men, each carrying a sword and a spear, stand guard around the scene and spoke to each other.


 ”Well, this is a troublesome situation at the end of the year, isn't it?”

 ”I wish it were not a small fry, but a great youkai instead.
If they're small fry, we might be the ones to face it.”


 The army was a kind of colleague of the exorcist family, also a potential virtual enemy, who had overlapping authority because they were in charge of security in Fusō-kuni.
And since the exorcists are a reserve army for rebellion, the army soldiers had the responsibility to kill them if necessary.


 Therefore, they sometimes had to subdue small youkai or young youkai to prevent themselves from having to ask for help from the exorcist family.
And since they were not experts, it was not uncommon for them to suffer casualties even against such small fry if they were not careful.


 Besides, in another half month, it will be the end of the year.
Unlike the nobles and wealthy merchants in the city, or the exorcist family, the army do not feast for days on end with sake and festive food.
Even so, they still serve Nigorizake (muddy sake) and have Mochi (rice cakes) and Zoni (a kind of stew).
And it is a sufficient feast.
They didn't want to die in a situation like this.


 ”Yes, indeed.
A monster should fight a monster.
It's best for us to watch from a distance, right, Corporal-dono?”


 The soldier with a spear laughed heartily and asked for his superior's agreement.
However, there was no reply.
Not even a rebuke.




 The soldier turns his head to look at him strangely and tilts his head further.
The superior, whose back is turned to him, has remained standing there for a long time.


 ”Corporal-dono? Did something happen…?”


 Without understanding the situation, the soldier advanced towards his superior.
Then he looks at the corporal's face.


 Half of his face had been bitten off.


 ”What the!?”


 Stunned, the soldier looks down, noticing smoke trailing from his feet.


 It was from the burning of a litmus paper, stained black to the point of being poisonous.




 The next moment, the soldier ran out as if he had changed and started running towards his horse.
As soon as he got in the saddle, he was off at a gallop.


 ”H-hey!!? What's going on…”


 The soldier was asked by his colleague about his sudden flight from the scene, but his voice did not last long.
After all, the soldier heard a terrifying scream and bones breaking and flesh tearing from behind him.


 He immediately fled, leaving behind his belongings including his spear, knowing it wouldn't help him.


 ”D*mn! A great youkai, no, was it a Calamity youkai? And also a God of Evil (禍神)…? How could this be possible…?!”


 He never thought he'd meet a god who had turned into a monster.
He couldn't do anything about it, so he rode his horse to his station to tell his comrades.
And deep down, he defended himself.
He tried to justify leaving them behind by telling himself he didn't really run away.


 After a while, he's not sure how long he rode, but when he arrived, he felt a bit better and composed himself.
Then he went through the entrance gate.


 ”D*mn!? It's a disaster! Corporal and Goro were eaten! They were eaten by calamity youkai! The god of evil—”


 His report with a raised voice was interrupted in the middle.
It was because he stopped talking involuntarily, but either way it would have been meaningless.


 Nobody was there to listen to his story.




 Inside the station, there was a gruesome scene.
Blood covered the walls and pieces of flesh were left scattered on the ground.
There were soldiers who had suffered terrible injuries: one was holding a cup with only half a head left, and another was on the floor, rolling and spilling his guts with a sword in hand.
On the desk, a senior official was frozen in a stunning posture, but only the upper part of his body remained.
A miscellaneous person was also seen rolling towards the exit, missing the back half of his body.


 The place was a true vision of hell, filled with the stench of death and corpses.


 ”Oh, ugh…”


 He groans involuntarily at the sight of his familiar comrades' tragic state and the situation he was in.


 Then he realizes that there is a presence behind him.
He realized his fate was approaching.


 ”Ha, hahaha…”


 A laugh escaped his lips.
It was a horribly awkward and trembling laughter.
His face was contorted in despair.
His eyes widened, his pupils dilated.


 Then he turned his head slowly.
To see the fate that awaits him.


 It was much taller than he was.
He has no idea what the pair of eyes staring at him are thinking.
At least he was sure it was not going to help him.
Once again the man laughs.
He cries and laughs.
And then…
he mutters half in an attempt to escape reality.


 ”Hahaha, it's a lie, right? Stop kidding me.”


 The countless fangs, growing out of shape, are the last thing he remembers of his life…


* * *


 In the early days of the 13th year of the reign of the Emperor Seiri, aa surveillance team for Namahage received a messenger from the neighbouring Hanachouin family and left the Onitsuki residence.


 The team consisted of over twenty members, including three exorcists and seven servants, which was almost twice to three times the number of personnel that the Onitsuki family had dispatched for the same mission.


 (Though having more people is necessarily a good thing.)


 Under the cloudy sky, with fluttering snow falling, I rode a black horse leading the team and sighed at the sight of the team when I glanced back.


 It is reassuring to have more people, but it is complicated to manage and take care of them.
Simply put, when the number of people doubles or even triples, the amount of food alone has to be prepared for them.
They also need sleeping clothes, firewood, medicines, and other consumables, and they need money to stay at lodgings along the way.
Although our budget was relatively large…


 ”Come to think of it, the 'Stray House' is a great help.”


 I muttered to myself as I looked at the ox carts that were moving right in the middle of the team.
Transporting supplies on a long march requires a large number of oxen, horses, wagons, and people to carry them.
This increases the amount of supplies needed, and losses due to accidents and diversion must also be considered.


 To address this challenge, the 'stray house' was created by the exorcists, an old family in the Northern region.
After all, this moving warehouse can expand dozens of times its interior space to serve as a supply base during long journeys.


 However, since the 'stray house' itself is a forbidden technique that violates humanity, there are no new productions officially made.
So, all existing 'stray houses' are several hundred years old, and the number of them will not increase even if they decrease.
…Well, I guess it would be possible if I thought about that way of making it that was described in the setting collection.



 ”What's wrong? Huh? Why are you looking away?”


 While I was lost in thought about the setting I had remembered, I heard such a remark from the side.
I looked down to the left and saw a person's shadow and our eyes met.
The figure smirked at me and respond it with a wry smile.


 The person was dressed in a black robe that reminded me and many other servants of the monk-soldiers, but her mask was only halfway up, and she was walking leisurely with a battle-axe with the tip of the blade woven into the cloth on her shoulder.


 ”Iruka, huh? Well, I was just thinking of the future,” I said with a wry smile.


 ”Too many people to babysit, huh?” She teased.


 ”Are you talking about yourself?”


 ”That's harsh, come on,” she responded playfully.


 I answer Iruka's questions with the most serious jokes I can muster.
In fact, she is one of the troublesome ones, you know.


 (Well, at least she can still defend herself, huh?)


 I sigh thinking about the people in the “stray house” and the people accompanying them.
They say life doesn't always go as planned…
but it can't be helped.
I just have to play the cards I am dealt.

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