In the dimly lit room, the young girl with black hair lowered her head.
No, it wasn't a mere gesture; it was a full-fledged prostration.

 The man sitting on the high seat before her cast a disdainful gaze, his crimson eyes piercing through her.
Silently, he glared.

 ”Father, please…
I beg of you!”

 Once again, the girl pleaded, her voice trembling.
It was a heartfelt plea, a desperate appeal.

 It was all because of her selfishness.
She thoughtlessly demanded of him, without considering the consequences or the feelings involved.
She had resorted to crying and even hurling insults, forcefully imposing her will upon him.

 And this was the result.
The dream-like moments didn't last long.
It was nothing more than a child's naïve attempt.
But even so, the plan the boy had devised with cunning and intelligence, far beyond her childish imagination, had made it impossible for the adults to dismiss his actions as mere mischief.

 Being dragged away, looking like a rag and tattered rag with bloody clothes covered with cuts and lacerations, was the last sight of him for the little girl.

 And since the punishment was imposed, she had been crying for three days and nights, refusing even a sip of water.
This was why.
While they were on the run, hiding together in the thicket, he had casually mentioned a story.
She remembered it.

 [If things go wrong, princess, please plead with the Lord.
During your punishment, even if you fasted and under house arrest, he would still come to see you.
I'm sure he'd give in.]

 She truly believed it was just a joke.
But she, being far more foolish than him, couldn't think of any other solution.
She wanted to help him at least, so she did just that.
And his insightful eyes were right.
That's how she was granted permission to meet her father like this.


 ”Not happening.”

 How long had she been pleading? The girl, puzzled by her father's unwavering silence, inadvertently raised her face and called out to him.
He promptly responded with words of rejection.

 ”It can't be…!?”

 ”While basking in great gratitude, the audacity of this scoundrel who deceived and conspired against the princess, proved to be unforgivable audacity!!”


 Snap! The sound of a fan being struck echoed in the room as her father declared, instilling fear in her.
It wasn't the kind and gentle father she had known when they lived in the countryside.
It was an unimaginable scene compared to those times.
Even so, she couldn't help but wonder if her father had changed since they moved into this house.
Such thoughts crossed the girl's mind.

 ”Thus, the appropriate punishment for this crime is death.
Don't you all agree?”

 Though it was an unexpected reality for the still young fledgling to the extent that her father would declare his death.

 ”Indeed! Such a rascal should be executed immediately!”

 ”But before that, we should thoroughly torture and make an example out of him.
No one should dare to repeat such acts!”

 ”We could dismember him with a saw, or burn him alive.
We could even have those lowly youkai devour him alive.
In any case, we must ensure a gruesome end.”

 ”Hold on.
A plan as intricate as this couldn't have been executed by a mere child.
We should leave him as a cripple and extract the memories of those who were pulling the strings behind the scenes!”

 ”Yes, someone is trying to destabilize our clan.
We must expose that person…”

 Following their leader's declaration, the adults on either side erupted into a clamor.
The girl trembled upon hearing their angry voices and the content of their words.
Regardless of the specifics, to the young girl who had been raised in a considerably sheltered environment as an exorcist, the words uttered by the adults seemed to deviate from the ordinary.

 Nonetheless, she remained oblivious to the latter half of their claims.
Even before she could realize the significance of several elders directing their cautious gazes at one of the attendees…
But before she could realize, events continued to unfold.
The clan's head opens his mouth.

 ”…Uemon, what are your thoughts?”

 At her father's interrogation, one of the shadows stationed on either side trembled slightly.
As the girl turned her gaze toward the imposing figure, she finally understood that it was her uncle.
At the same time, she held onto a glimmer of hope.
She hoped that her uncle would defend him.
She knew that despite all the complaints, her uncle cared for him.

 ”…As the Lord commands, maximum punishment seems appropriate.”


 The young girl's hopes were mercilessly shattered.
Why? How? Was it okay for him to be killed? The reason why her uncle had abandoned him remained unknown to her.
She instinctively looked at her uncle.
He said nothing.
He averted his gaze in silence.

That was the overwhelming feeling in the girl's heart.
Realizing that she was the only one on his side now, she threw away all her shame and her reputation and cried out.

 ”Please, stop! It was me! I'm the one who insisted! I'm the one who forced him! If there's punishment, I'll take it! So, don't punish ◼️◼️, ◼️◼️ is—!”



 The girl's wailing never reached its conclusion.
After all, her father's words stole her voice.
She tries desperately to scream, but her throat does not obey.
Only dry sobs escaped.
This brings more tears to her eyes.

 No, there was still something she could do.
The girl stood up instinctively, causing a stir among the adults.


 Before one of the elders finished speaking, the girl acted.
She dashed toward the central pillar of the room and slammed her head against it.
An intense pain reverberated through her small skull.
Her forehead throbbed with heat.
A cry of agony erupted.

 ”Stop! What are you…!”

 Just as the elders shouted, a second thud resounded.
Blood splattered onto the floor.

 ”Stop her!!”

 Before the third sound could echo, the girl was restrained.
The adults held her down.
She struggled.
She fought.
She bit someone's arm.
Anger-filled voices resounded, and her cheek was slapped.

 ”Calm down!”

 At the declaration of the enraged Lord, silence fell once again.
Everyone, including the girl, glanced at him with fear.
Just before that, some remembered his extraordinary abilities and quickly averted their eyes.

 ”…All of you, leave.
I will reason with her directly.”

 In response to the Lord's command, a few tried to protest, but as they met the piercing gaze of his sharp red eyes, they fell silent.
Reluctantly, the attendees left the room.

 Only the father sitting at the head and the tearful girl collapsed on the floor remained in the spacious room.
The father rose and slowly approached his daughter.


 Hina can't talk because of a curse of speech, but she still wants to plead her dad.
In response, her father gently embraced her, comforting her.

 ”Are you alright? Going to such lengths when you can't freely use your abilities.”

 It was a gentle voice.
His expression was filled with genuine concern and compassion.
Did her desperate actions manage to get through to him? The girl clung to that hope with her childish heart, looking up at her father with a mix of fear and anticipation, reminiscent of her mother.

 ”Never would I have imagined that he would deceive you so cunningly.
Please forgive me for not realizing the treacherous hands closing in on you.”

 While gently stroking her reddened cheek from the slap, her father presented words of despair with utmost goodwill.

She couldn't scream.
She couldn't even struggle.
Immediately, she was ensnared by her father's gaze and the curse power within it.
Her mind twisted.
Her brain felt like it was being scrambled, nausea washing over her.
She vomited.
She retched, soiling her father's kimono.
something crawled within her.
Awareness was being crushed.

 ”Rest assured, my dear.
I will take responsibility for dealing with that boy.
Moreover, there is another troublesome intruder I need to handle.
They will receive the punishment they deserve for deceiving and degrading you.
They shall suffer long and enduringly, over the course of time, with their wretched existence…”

 No, I don't want this, please stop, don't torment him. There was no room left to voice such thoughts.
After all, the curse cast by her father pushed her consciousness further away.
Dizziness set in, her vision blurred.

 ”So, my beloved daughter, who resembles her so much.
Sleep in peace.
Know that I love you from the depths of my heart, more than anyone else.
No matter what sacrifices are made…”

 Her father cherished her.
He adored his collapsed daughter.
With words drowning in affection, he cursed her.

 ”You belong to me…”

 In that moment of unconsciousness, the girl heard her father's endearing words.
And she thought to herself.
If that is the form love takes, if that is truly the shape of love, then, then…

* * *

 As I have mentioned before, it should be noted that the creature known as “Mayoiga” is a youkai that disguises itself.
If we refer to its origins, it is akin to the folklore found in the remote mountains of the Tohoku region, appearing intermittently in a splendid and enigmatic mansion that could be either a dream or a reality.
However, in this world, it is merely a temporary appearance, a mere trap to lure in prey.

 According to the creators of the original work, the wild “Mayoiga” is comparable to a plant-like entity, similar to a carnivorous plant.
Unaware humans who are lured in by its illusions unknowingly become its sustenance and wither away.

 Even if one manages to see through the illusions at some point, the interior of the “Mayoiga” is a space distorted to an extreme degree.
It can be described as a vast and intricate maze, akin to a realm that has been transformed, where even the laws of physics can be disrupted.
Countless traps are set within, and numerous supernatural beings roam around.
Escaping from there, let alone surviving, is no easy feat.
At least, not without prior knowledge.
According to the creators, one of the inspirations for the concept is the unsettling atmosphere of a creepy pasta story set in a dark room.
Quite an embodiment of malevolence, isn't it?

 …Regardless, it would have been nothing short of a suicidal act to boldly pass through the main gate and venture inside such a “Mayoiga.”

 Still, the method of subduing the “Mayoiga” has already been established.
The approach is simple yet straightforward: “Eliminate it swiftly from the outside using overwhelming firepower.”

 Naturally, one would expect nothing less.
The grand mansion of the “Mayoiga” is nothing more than an external disguise, a mere appearance.
What truly matters is its core.
It is the essence of the “Mayoiga,” and once it is destroyed, the “Mayoiga” will perish.
If entering the interior of the “Mayoiga” is a suicidal act, then the only remaining option is to unleash significant firepower from the outside and blow away the core along with its external structure.

 So why hasn't this been done yet? Why leave it as a forbidden area? Some might argue along those lines.
Of course, there are reasons for that.

 The “Mayoiga” is a youkai that is closely related to plants.
Moreover, some plants grow to an incomprehensible degree at times.

 Especially, the “Mayoiga” that resides at the foot of the forbidden area known as Mount Hōraku is known to have grown abnormally large.
Its estimated age exceeds two thousand years.
Is it because it grew on a medium-sized spiritual vein? When viewed from above, the mansion spreads across a land comparable in size to the Imperial Palace.
One could even call it a palace.
From the outside, it appears as a resplendent and extravagant mansion, brimming with luxury and opulence.

 When dealing with such a scale, obliterating the “Mayoiga” in a single blow, reaching its central core, is no easy task.
Besides, despite being made primarily of wood and stone, the mansion, which seems to defy conventional durability, is clearly surpassing its limits.
The dense, yet concealed youkai aura enveloping it instantly neutralizes the spiritual energy of even a powerful exorcist's strike, rendering it ineffective.

 Of course, it would be theoretically possible to gather a sufficient number of capable exorcists and continuously bombard the mansion with a wave of powerful attacks until the “Mayoiga” is completely eradicated.
However, while it may be theoretically feasible, the practicality is low.

 Exorcists are not idle either.
Even if they were to gather a large number of skilled individuals, the impact of their temporary absence due to focusing on the “Mayoiga” extermination should not be overlooked.
In fact, it could potentially attract a swarm of miscellaneous youkai due to the dense aura that would be present.

 Fortunately, the “Mayoiga” itself is primarily a passive creature.
Its expansion within its territory occurs at a pace that, in human terms, is of considerable duration (long scale).
A hundred or two hundred years is not a significant span of time.
In fact, in terms of growth potential, the rate of concentration and strengthening through the bloodline of exorcists via marriage is much faster.

 These factors combined, and as a result, since its discovery seven hundred years ago, a comprehensive extermination was planned once, but it was interrupted by the subsequent “Human-Youkai War.” Following that, the Imperial Court designated this location as a forbidden area, conducting several investigations and reconnaissance, but maintaining a basic approach of “Definite extermination plans will be made once the resources and budget are determined, pending the current situation.”

 In the original work, “Firefly of the Dark Night,” by selecting the route of staying in the Onitsuki Valley rather than the route of Joraku (visiting the capital), one could confront this “Mount Hōraku Mayoiga.” It is also featured in the novel version that depicts the route of staying in the Onitsuki Valley.
As the incidents related to youkai continue to increase in various regions, the exorcists of the Northern region, led by the Onitsuki family, view this as a gesture towards the Imperial Court, a form of extermination.

 ”If things end without any issues…
that would be great.”

 I muttered quietly while sitting cross-legged and slumping my shoulders.
In the original game version, the moment one entered, it was basically a deadlock.
In the novel version, although the protagonist survives, the 'Mayoiga of Mount Hōraku' has clouded the protagonist's vision.
But on the flip side, if we never entered, the mission assigned to us this time would have been a piece of cake.
In fact, in the game version, it's just an event that ends uneventfully if one choose the correct option.

 …The problem is, based on my past experiences, I can't be certain that it will end peacefully.

 ”Sorry, but I can't consult you on that.
Look, I got sixty points with Shikō (Mahjong).”

 ”Huh!? Wait…
you're kidding, right!?”

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