”Hey, what are you doing…”

 ”Shut up!! Leave me alone!!”

 Ignoring the laborers' admonishing words, the bandit filled a cloth he held with valuable items.
The cold gazes from Izayoi and the others meant nothing to him.

 Yun-shoku (允職) of the Onitsuki family, along with the servants and Hidden Group members, faced the frog gatekeepers in a standoff.
However, those not officially counted as combatants, like him, quickly hid behind the piles of treasure as they sensed the danger of the situation.
There was no reason to blame them.
They had done so until now, and even Yun-shoku (允職), the person in charge, had not scolded them for it.
They hadn't expected anything different.
In fact, Yun-shoku (允職) had even given his permission beforehand.

 …However, Gonzo's bloodshot eyes and actions were truly beyond normalcy.

 ”Huff, huff, huff.
This should be enough…
See ya, suckers!!”

 With a considerable weight of treasures wrapped in a cloth, Gonzo, the bandit, immediately shot one of the laborers with his crossbow.


 ”Sukemaru!? What the hell are you planning!? Move!!?”

 After shooting Sukemaru's arm and knocking him down, Gonzo swung the crossbow and struck Eijuro's face.
The injured laborer held his face in pain.
Gonzo then turned to face the remaining group, but…

 ”D*mn it…!?”

 As Wakizashi was drawn by Izayoi, the other group's member also readied their weapons or prepared for combat.
Shaking with fear, they exchanged glances through the gaps in their masks.

 ”You b*stards…!!”

 With a click of his tongue, the bandit turned and fled.
He had been caught off guard.
He could have killed them all right then and there, but he was injured too.
There was no need to engage with them.

 ”Hehehe, what a bunch of idiots to fight head-on against monsters…!!”

 Laughing wryly, Gonzo aimed for the depths of the treasure vault.
He instinctively felt that the large gate glimpsed there was the exit from this hellish world.

 ”You guys are really stupid.
Thanks to you, I survived…!!”

 As he jeered, Gonzo's mind was filled with the images of his fellow travelers who had managed to break through numerous rooms.
However, he quickly pushed those thoughts away.
He felt neither sympathy nor pity.
He had survived because of his actions.

 After all, until now, he had been the only one to survive in a desperate village by stealing not only from fellow villagers but even from his own family.
After joining the bandit group, he mercilessly robbed travelers and merchants.
When pursued by the imperial army, he sacrificed his companions, using them as decoys.

 When the authorities launched a massive crackdown due to the actions of the bandit leaders, the bandits took refuge in this forbidden place.
They found the imperial soldiers chasing them to be scarier than the incomprehensible monsters.
However, the relief of escaping the pursuers was short-lived.
They were attacked and plundered by countless creatures, and eventually, they got lost in this labyrinth.

 Since entering this labyrinth, Gonzo had sacrificed around thirty comrades.
He had also directly or indirectly killed more than ten unknown individuals he encountered in the labyrinth, some as decoys, others to steal supplies.

 Gonzo didn't feel guilty, as he imagined they might have done similar things to survive.
It was how he had managed to find his way into this safe room, despite the putrid smell.
From there, who knew how much time had passed…
Subjectively, it might have been only a few months, at most a year, but he had heard that a considerable amount of time had passed outside, occasionally from those who stumbled upon this place.
Many had tried to find the exit and left, or they had succumbed to despair and ended their own lives.

 ”Huff, huff…
I'll survive! And with this treasure…
hahaha, hahahaha!!”

 With a distorted smile, as if trying to reassure himself, the bandit burst into laughter.
That man with the Hannya mask was indeed a complete fool.
It was good that he had stirred up trouble and increased the number of victims.
But he never expected that, after inciting the others, he would take the lead! It was incredibly foolish to willingly put himself in the most dangerous position.
Or perhaps, he was just a kind-hearted fool.
Either way, he wouldn't survive for long.

 ”But I'm different! I, I…”

 Gonzo muttered, his voice rough and agitated, unable to explain the reason himself.
Perhaps it was to erase the memory of abandoning his starving parents and siblings.
Or maybe to forget the memory of swinging a sword at a merchant's child clinging to their deceased parent's corpse.
Or perhaps it was to blot out the memory of sacrificing an arrow-wounded fellow thief to the youkai as food…
Whatever it was, he laughed.
He laughed loudly.
He mocked them with all his might.

 A shadow covered him from above.


 While running, Gonzo looked up.
A black figure approached rapidly, taking the form of a giant frog…


 In front of him, accompanied by a ground-shaking thud, the bandit was taken by surprise as the extended tongue of the giant frog youkai wrapped around him, swallowing him whole before he could comprehend the situation.
The immediate pressure on its jaw could have caused instant death, which was probably fortunate.
Helplessly, he was devoured, sinking into the stomach with a gulp.

 'Hmph! That's why I came! I won't let you escape.

 The giant frog youkai licked its lips and breathed heavily, looking around.
Its sensitive ears picked up a clattering noises in the surroundings, as if creatures were running around a mountain of gold coins.
It seemed as if they were deliberately creating a noisy spectacle.
Quite literally, noise pollution.
This was…

 'A shikigami.
A deception, you might say!!'

 The frog youkai laughed heartily, praising and ridiculing their earnest efforts.

 'Perfect! In that case, I won't forget to make you suffer next time! Don't think you can deceive my eyes forever!!'

 Glancing at his wounded Blue Dragon Sword, the frog youkai chuckled and started moving forward, thrusting through the mountain of treasures.
Its goal was to pursue the shikigami fleeing in every direction.
The frog youkai willingly participated in the feint; it knew that nobody could escape this room.
At least, not until it was defeated.
The frog had no intention of letting anyone get away while it was alive.

 And, the monster understood that time was on its side…

* * *

 ”That's right, time is on the side of that frog youkai.”

 Hidden in a corner of the treasure mound, I muttered softly.
The shikigami I quickly summoned were all tiny and insignificant, with little combat ability.
They were slowly being whittled down, which was inevitable.
However, the time they bought was invaluable to us.

 ”…How about you two? Can you move?”

 ”I can manage somehow…
but as for the group leader, it might be a bit difficult.”

 Answering while wrapping bandages around his burned arm was Asakuma's servant.
Next to him, the fallen figure was that of Sakuama's servant, the group leader.
He was critically wounded after taking a blow from the Great Youkai.
Bruised, with broken bones and struggling to breathe, he looked towards us.
His mouth didn't open; it seemed he didn't have the strength for that.

 ”Hold on…
Take this to ease the pain a bit.”

 I handed him pain relief pills.
After crushing them, Asakuma's servant gave him some water from his canteen, and he swallowed it with difficulty.
He struggled to bear the horrible taste but managed to swallow it all.

why did the frog youkai suddenly leave?”

 ”Well, there could be a few possible reasons…”

 Several hypotheses came to mind, but none of them seemed favorable.
I could only hope that the youngsters would overcome the situation.

 ”!? One of them got killed!”

 An explosion echoed from a corner of the vast treasure vault, and simultaneously, the sensation from one of the shikigami I was controlling vanished.
There was no mercy.

I need to come up with a way to get out of this somehow…”

 I desperately tried to devise a strategy.
However, everything seemed lacking in resolving the situation.

 …No, there was only one way out.

 '( ´,_ゝ) Thump thump, (゚ 3゚) phew!! (・ω・´) It's my turn now, huh!!'

 (…I ain't gonna use it.)

 '( ;´・ω・`) Sigh…'

 (Well, after all the trouble you caused, it's too late to mope now)

 Regardless of the reasons for the dejected spider youkai, there was no assurance that it would work the same here, even though it was under some control in Hotoya Village.
Even if I managed to defeat the giant frog, there was a chance I might go berserk and end up killing my allies.

 If, by some miracle, I succeeded in controlling it, it would likely lead to my body, which was already undergoing mutation, becoming even more youkai-like.
Worse yet, I might not be possible to return, and even if I managed to return, I might be reported and end up as research material.
It was far from a laughing matter.

 (…Another one killed.)

 A resounding explosion echoed from somewhere.
The rat shikigami that had been trying to escape through the gaps of the treasures was blown away without a trace.
Was there no choice but to fight? Wait, there must be something else…

 I reached for the bag at my waist.
I wanted to check what useful tools I had left.


 As I felt it, my thoughts momentarily halted.
My gaze shifted, and as I understood its nature, my eyes widened, and a formula for victory formed in my mind.
With this, perhaps…!!

 ”!? Who's there?”

 '(`・∀・´) Even if you hide, come here and face us with a smile!!'

 In the midst of contemplating the situation, I finally noticed the approaching presence and immediately raised my Dagger (tantō) as a warning.
However, a moment later, I lowered it upon recognizing the person.

 ”It's Izayoi, huh? I told you to stay hidden, didn't I…?”

 ”I had no choice.
I'm in trouble too, you know?”


 Izayoi countered my remark in a whisper.
When I looked puzzled and questioned him, he began explaining why he came here and why Gonzo did that.

 ”That idiot, he managed to escape alone?”

 ”I don't know.
Either way, both of the laborers are injured.
One only got punched, so he should be fine, but…”

 ”Did you treat the one shot with the crossbow?”

 ”I didn't remove the arrow.
I broke off the part sticking out and used cloth to stop the bleeding before applying bandages.”

That's well done.
What about the cloth?”

 ”I heard the smell of blood is dangerous, so I was planning to discard it somewhere when I ran into you.”

 ”I see.
…Wait, I have a request.
It's dangerous, but can you give me that cloth?”

 Understanding my intention, I nodded and made the request for reinforcement to my plan that had come to mind earlier.
Izayoi looked slightly puzzled, but eventually accepted.

 ”…I don't mind, but why?”

 ”We'll be saved.
Also, it's a bit risky, but can I ask for your cooperation, so we can survive?”

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