”Thank you for the compliment.
But why are you suddenly praising me? There's nothing in return for the praise.”

 Shrugging her shoulders, Iruka narrowed her eyes.
The night vision inherited from her beast youkai traits glimmered in the dark.
She was completely on guard.
I continued to advance without concern.

 ”No, I just came to check.
I wasn't born a farmer.
I have little experience in hunting.
That's why I wanted to ask…
Do footprints like these really remain even in a blizzard?”


 In response to my casual observation of the footprints beside us, Iruka remained silent.
I continued further, calmly asking.

 ”It reminded me of the characteristics of the Namahage.
It supposedly move during the winter, especially in blizzards.”

 As mentioned before, in the original folklore, it would drag away children shivering from the cold around the hearth, and it only operate while it snows.

 ”Thinking about it, it's obvious, isn't it? If footprints remain, it's unlikely that first-rate exorcists would lose track of it.”

 It's the same as stealth.
No matter how well it can disguise its own appearance, it's still just itself.
Footprints can be left behind, and it's impossible to make them completely undetectable.
And someone like Iruka, who relies on hunting for sustenance, wouldn't overlook something like that.
Moreover, it snowed continuously for two whole days in the vicinity of Sakui Station.

 ”But that's not all.
You have a keen sense of smell, don't you? So, hey, don't you understand?”

 I took another step closer to Iruka and took a small deep breath before asking.

 ”Can I ask you something? Did Ino Village, Sakui Station, and Yori Village…
Did they all have the same scent of the culprit?”

 The response to my words was Iruka swinging the axe hastily, aiming to strike.


 The blade wasn't raised, and I managed to avoid it by crouching down at the last moment.
At the same time, I intercepted the kick coming towards me by bracing both arms.
Although I had enhanced it with spiritual power, the dull sound of the impact reverberated in the surroundings.
Unable to completely kill the momentum, I inadvertently fell to the ground.

 ”Just go back to sleep…!”

 And Iruka, raising the axe overhead, was about to bring it down directly on me.
…Sorry, but this situation was within my expectations!!

 ”Eat this!”

 At the moment the axe swung down, I had thrown it towards Iruka's face.
At the same time, Iruka realized what it was and widened her eyes.
She tried to quickly step back.
But it was too late.

 Immediately, a blinding flash and a pungent odor enveloped the surroundings.
It was a standard flash bomb and stink bomb used by the servant group.
Iruka, deprived of sight and smell, covered her face and leaped backward…
only to be tripped by me and fall onto the snowy plain, landing on her back.

 ”Ugh…!? Don't come any closer…!”

 I kicked up Iruka's right arm, sending the axe flying far away, and then I restrained her by straddling her body.
While restraining her, I had a dagger (tantō) pressed just before her neck.
A thin streak of blood trickled from the skin.


 ”You don't have the right to look at me like that.
You were the one who betrayed us first…!!”

 Even with teary eyes due to the light and stimulation, Iruka glared at me, and I intensified my anger as I spoke.
That's all this person's scheme amounted to.
She deceived us…!!

 ”What is it? What is your purpose? What does all this mean? What is the significance of these footprints? Why did you lie? Do you even understand the consequences of your actions?”

 One after another, I relentlessly questioned Iruka.
That's how furious I was.


 And in response to my relentless questioning, Iruka remained silent.
She averted her gaze and kept her mouth shut, like a scolded child.

 ”You've got some nerve…!!”

 Driven by anger, I was about to move the dagger (tantō) as a warning…

Servant, calm down.'

 Suddenly, the voice of an old man with wrinkled throat echoed.
I reacted to it and turned my gaze.
There, standing on the snow right next to me, was a single hummingbird-shaped shikigami.

no, it's you, Old Man.
What brings you here?”

 'I have something important to discuss.
Don't blame that person.
She is nothing more than an executor.
She lacks the cunning to plan something like this.'

 The hummingbird mocked with a “hohoho” laugh.
Although its appearance was not much different from the one controlled by Botan, it appeared noticeably colder and more callous, clearly influenced by its current user.

 ”What are you trying to say…!?”

 I glared fiercely at the shikigami.
However, the Old Man maintained an indifferent attitude, seemingly unaffected by my anger.
And he proclaimed:

 ”Most likely, that act of yours is the influence of that youkai, the fallen god of youkai power lurking within you, right? Then you should already understand everything—what the dog and we have done, and the purpose…
Isn't that right, servant with divine power?”

 The words spoken by the Old Man directly pointed to the mastermind and culprit behind this entire commotion…

* * *

 Come to think of it, it was strange from the beginning, when Ino Village was first destroyed.
The Namahage moves within the blizzard.
If so, there should have been fewer cases of villagers being attacked outdoors.

 It also serves as evidence that the culprit who destroyed Yori Village was undoubtedly the Namahage.
The victims in Yori Village were mostly indoors, unlike Ino Village.
And considering the two-day snowstorm that struck Sakui Station, the truth naturally becomes apparent.

 In other words, we were searching for and pursuing the Namahage, but in reality, it was the opposite.
The Namahage was advancing behind us.
If we trace the timing backwards, it aligns perfectly with the original scenario…
at least initially.

 And with that, new suspicions arise.
One is the true identity of the entity that attacked Ino Village and Sakui Station.

 ”There is another monster roaming this county…
Isn't that right?”

 'From what I've seen, that would be the infamous 'Yamanba (One of the two first quest youkai).' And if I may add, the one guiding it is the comrade of that dog who abducted that young lady in the capital.'

 (The Salvation Youkai People…!!)

 With the mention of Yamanba and Iruka's former colleagues, I immediately hit upon the organization behind the scenes.
It meant that the “Yamanba Attack Defense Event” from the original scenario was taking place in a different location.

 ”…In that case, are those footprints left by Yamanba?”

 'No, those are the simple shikigami I controlled.
They were meant to guide youOmo.
Although it's certain that Yamanba is heading east…
most likely toward the capital city.'

 The Old Man's words indirectly explained the reason why Iruka deceived me.
Iruka was neither a good person nor did she has any sense of duty towards her mission or loyalty towards Fusō-kuni.

 But there was one thing that was undoubtedly genuine—her gratitude and friendship towards Tamaki and the others.
She was willing to be captured or even lose her life for her friends.
If her friends were in danger while she was ordered to search for Namahage, it's easy to imagine what her answer would be.

 And if that were the only reason, I wouldn't be so disturbed up to this point.

 Yes, there is a more fundamental issue.
Why did the Namahage start behaving irregularly only this year? If that weren't the case, the situation would have been much clearer.
It shouldn't have become this complicated.

 In other words, what I'm trying to say is…

 ”Am I…
am I the cause?”

 Realizing, acknowledging, and accepting everything, I whispered weakly.
Somehow, the power to restrain Iruka had loosened.
Unfortunately, my mind was not strong enough to accomplish that at this point.
There was no way I could have done it.

 ”Hahaha, this…
this is not laughable.”

 There was nothing laughable about it.
How could anyone laugh? I couldn't accept this despicable, worst-case reality.

 …Though not mentioned, the same principle was likely at work in the original scenario.

 In the original story, Hotoya Tamaki awakened his own ability and absorbed the land god as a result of the tragedy in Hotoya Village.
He swallowed it and made it his own.

 Divine power is a highly rare factor, even among the numerous exorcist families and especially among prestigious ones.
The divine era is far in the past, and the existence of deities, bloodlines rooted in them, and curse tools associated with them have dwindled over the years, diminishing their power compared to before.

 In the midst of routine work spanning two hundred years, it's unlikely any family brought out an ace or a prized resource to deal with it.
Meanwhile, the Namahage steadily lost its divine aura over these two centuries.
Its craving for divine energy undoubtedly grew day by day.

 Reacting to the faint presence of the divine factor absorbed within Tamaki, the Namahage began to act differently…
This speculation is merely speculation when considering the course of the original story.
It shouldn't exist without my presence.

 'That youkai probably detected you around Ino Village.
And it gradually approached you, sensing the presence of the fallen goddess within.'

 ”But it surpassed me.
Isn't that right?”

 'I borrowed a strand of your hair.
After concentrating the factor, I used it as bait with the shikigami.
It easily ensnared it.'

 ”Hohoho,” the old man laughed after he said so.
I recalled the moment when my hair was pullet out, and at the same time, I became irritated by his carefree attitude.

 ”Why didn't you tell me!? Even if it was meant to guide, there must have been another way! You could have directed it in an unpopulated direction!”

 There was nothing I could do about Ino Village.
However, it should have been possible to redirect it to a different direction from Village Yori.
Shinkaki Village, which was likely attacked while following me, was another example.
Clearly unnecessary sacrifices…!!

 ”One reason is…
certainty,” answered not the old man but Iruka, who was restrained under my command.


 ”Those damn Namahage were originally after you, right? It planned to ambush you.
In that case, a pseudo-bait alone was a bit uncertain.
It seems it needed a bait that would provide some tangible benefit, even if it realized it was a pseudo one along the way.”

 'Anyway, the government offices and villages in this county were so corrupt that they ignored the imperial decree.
It's difficult to subjugate the Namahage.
It would have been better to create an example of a warning for similar incidents.'

 Iruka and the old man coolly declared that sacrifices were necessary.
While acknowledging a certain degree of rationale in this words, I felt disgust toward their callous and cruel nature.

 …And yet, I myself was prepared to abandon one or two villages.
No, I am the root cause, making it even worse.

 ”One reason, huh.
…Is there still another reason?”

 Suppressing my anger, I managed to ask a question instead of lashing out with curses and insults.
Their words suggested that there was another underlying reason.
It would have been wiser to listen to everything before allowing my anger to take over.
I persisted in seeking an explanation, and once again, the composed werewolf was the one who responded.

 ”You too, didn't you want to know?”

 It was a muttered remark, almost spat out.

 ”…What do you mean?”

 ”Don't act tough.
It was the same in the city and the village, wasn't it? By the way, I've been asking that old man over there about various things.
Seems like you're quite inept at living, huh? I don't know what's going on in your head, but from an outsider's perspective, you're dangerously unpredictable!!”

 'As for me, I do not know how you evaluates yourself.
But I have my own unique evaluation of your reckless actions.
It would be a shame to lose what you have achieved so far for no reason here.'


 I fell silent for a moment at their explanations.
From their perspective, they doubted whether I could truly watch the sacrifices before my eyes when the time came.
That's why they acted secretly without involving me…
and I couldn't completely deny their observations.

 No, I had certainly made up my mind internally.
Given the circumstances and the nature of the scenario, I thought there was nothing I could do.
I considered it a success if I could contain the tragedy to a level slightly better than the original story and prevent the protagonist from falling into darkness.
Yes, that's what I thought.

 …But what would happen when that moment actually arrived? Could I truly abandon the people in front of me? Unfortunately, I couldn't confidently say that I could.
So, I didn't know.
And even I didn't know.
It would be even more so for Iruka and the others.


 ”…Do you think I don't feel bad about deceiving you? But hey, I can't act based on uncertain assumptions either.
Make a mistake and go mad, recklessly die or something.
I couldn't face Suzune with that.”

 'I don't know how the factors within you will turn out.
You're not a fool, either.
You don't think we're wrong?'

 I continued to remain silent at their words.
I sank into silence and organized my inner emotions, my passions.
And then, I let out a deep breath.

 ”I have one question.
Is Shiro involved in this case?”

 Shiro is also a beast half-youkai.
Her senses are more acute than others and she should have noticed Iruka's tricks.
Or did she keep it a secret from me too, with that innocent face?

 ”That's why I had her keep you company.
She's been clinging to you a lot lately, hasn't she? After all, she's just a brat.
It was easy to manipulate her by guiding her in a certain direction and distracting her attention, you know?”

 ”…I see.”

 I felt relieved and slightly hurt by Iruka's words.
I don't have any lolicon tendencies, but it seemed that the brat who would come to me seeking comfort was just being instigated.
Well, leaving that aside…

 ”…I can understand, but I still can't accept it.”

 I put the dagger I had pressed against Iruka's neck back into its sheath and spoke the words that were now somewhat belated.
Both Iruka and the old man snorted in exasperation, as if to say it was expected.

 ”…So, what now?” Iruka asked, frustration evident.
“Are we really going towards Namahage? Sorry, but I want to focus on those heading for the county capital.” Her words were sharp, emphasizing her determination.
“You must have someone important on that side too, right?”

 On the side, the old man raised an eyebrow, skepticism lacing his voice.
'And how do you plan to handle Namahage with this forces? Sorry, but it'll be difficult this time, even if you become a monster again.
It's not like that spider that's been hiding around.
And it's negligence for the Onmyoji Dormitory to leave it untouched for two hundred years, knowing its location.'

 Each of them expresses doubts and shares their opinions with my words.
I was well aware of that.

 …And within me, even though it was improvised, a plan had already formed to some extent.
Fortunately, I had made a rough estimation that these monsters that had appeared this time would be manageable to some extent.
Although I could also say I would be in trouble if they couldn't be managed.

 ”Do we have a chance of winning?” Iruka asked with a uncertainty voice.

The problem is…”

 ”How to handle this situation, right?”

 I, Iruka, and the hummingbird directed our gazes towards the approaching presence in the dark night.
It emerged from the darkness.
Moonlight reflected off the armor and helmet, the iron arrowheads on spears, and the blades…

 ”Acting fire commander…”

 ”…What's going on here? Care to explain? Hm?”

 Representing the soldiers, Hikorokurō, with a stern expression, turns to us with a grim look on his face…

*To be Continued*

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