Small birds sang in the forest.
The overcast Nikkou
morning was pleasantly brisk. Fog covered the entire area around Kirifuri Plateau
, limiting sight distance. Chiaki stopped his car in the middle of the gravel road and got out to look through his binoculars at the manor in the distance.
“Damn it. Do they really have Narita in there? There’re way too many rooms,” Chiaki said, peering back through the window at Katakura Kagetsuna, who was still inside scowling at a blueprint of the estate.
“This must be the place. If what Tooyama-dono told us was true.”
“If it’s not, I’m gonna beat him up.”
According to Tooyama, Yuzuru was being held prisoner within the Houjou estate, and Chiaki had sallied forth to rescue him. Kojuurou had joined him upon learning that Date Kojirou was with Yuzuru.
“So Kojirou of the Date really is in bed with the Houjou, huh? And there was something about binding Narita to the sacred tree at Futarasan Shrine
and setting the Mt. Nikkou
forest on fire along with all the souls? Are those idiots planning to go from kidnapping to arson?”
“It appears the Houjou truly are planning to occupy Nikkou.” Kojuurou looked at the beech grove around them. “Nikkou was always endowed with elements of a exceptional sacred site. It was uniquely chosen by Lord Ieyasu as his burial place and supported by the spiritual protection of the Tokugawa Shogunate throughout the years—perhaps that was also a consideration. —Fire has the ability to fuse several distinct types of power into one. By setting fire to Mt. Nikkou
, I believe the Houjou are seeking to pare the tree-bound souls down to their nuclei, then fuse this ‘power of souls’ with the ‘power of the sacred trees’ along with the ‘power of the earth’ at their roots. If they can successfully unite these three sources of power, Mt. Nikkou
will become the center of a terrifying spiritual energy.”
“—Because Nikkou is the symbol of the supreme conqueror? So what they actually want is victory over the ruler of Japan. They’ve set up their base smack-dab in neutral territory, and they’re planning to conquer the «Yami-Sengoku» from here. Geez, they should think about all the trouble they’re causing the tourists and students on field trip here!” Chiaki quipped, scowling toward the estate. “First step is to get inside, so what’s the plan? They look like they’re swimming in dough over there, so they’ll probably have Dobermans in the garden.”
“They appear to have set up a barrier. They’ll know as soon as we step inside.”
“A security system for your peace of mind, huh? Too bad we don’t know exactly which room Narita’s in,” Chiaki sighed, when—
“…! Yasuda-dono! The rearview mirror!”
Takaya’s reflection had appeared in the rearview mirror—vivid as a true reflection, though he was nowhere in the car.
It didn’t faze Chiaki in the least. So this is what everybody’s been freaking out about, he thought, grinning.
“Finally decided to pay me a visit, Kagetora? About time, you idiot!”
Takaya didn’t bother with a response. Instead, a vague scene like something out of an illusion replaced his image in the center of the mirror.
The inside of a room, apparently. Blurred though it was, they could tell that it had white walls and a single bed. On the bed was a young man:
There could be no mistake. Two youths around his age stood close together with their backs to them. If the image were clearer they might be able to identify them, but it was impossible with what they had. Still, Chiaki had the feeling that he’d seen one of them before….
“Hah, guess now we can at least monitor them using the mirror.”
“Then…this is a room within that estate?”
“Probably. I’m guessing Kagetora is showing us the reflection from a mirror somewhere inside. That idiot’s trying to help us from wherever he is.”
Chiaki detached the wide mirror from the car handed it to Katakura.
“Here’s the plan. I create a diversion: break the barrier, make lots of noise, draw the enemy’s attention. You circle to the back, find Yuzuru’s room and get him out. Kagetora will guide you.”
“Give it twenty minutes. Let’s go,” Chiaki said, and ran for the front door while Katakura set out along the valley.
A thin white fence around two meters 1 in height encircled the estate, and the barrier followed its path. It appeared to be of the underground variety, sustained by spirit stones or orbs buried at regular intervals.
(It’d suck if I had to dig ’em all up one by one.)
Chiaki crouched, extracting a small wooden statue and two cakraratna from his belt pouch.
“These should have more than enough power to deal with a barrier like this.”
He had primed the koppashin to call upon the God of Thunder. The collected power could only be released once, for the impact always broke the container—a weakness of this particular summons. Its destructive potential, however, was in a league of its own. Since the God of Thunder belonged in the retinue of Śakra, Lord of the Devas, their summoning mantras were the same.
Chiaki doused the two cakraratna with holy oil and set them ablaze.
“On asanmagini un hatta on asanmagini un hatta—…”
The flames from the cakraratna turned purple and reached hungrily into the air. Still chanting the mantra of the vajra flame, Chiaki picked them up.
“On torotoro un!”
He switched to the mantra of the racing carriage and threw the cakraratna over the fence. The burning wheels broke through the barrier with tremendous momentum and zoomed into the premises at high speed, leaving behind a set of tire tracks.
Chiaki immediately turned to the koppashin and chanted the mantra of Śakra:
“Naumaku sanmanda bodanan indoraya sowaka, naumaku sanmanda bodanan indoraya sowaka—”
Blue light flared from the koppashin with a whoosh. Chiaki quickly grabbed it and threw it into the sky over the barrier with all his strength.
“Naumaku sanmanda bodanan indoraya sowaka!”
He traced a gigantic symbol in midair with his forefinger.
The ground around him shook as an enormous image of the God of Thunder towered in the sky above him. The earth and trees shrieked in torment as they jolted from the god’s booming war cry. His eyes flashed ominously before he spat out a brilliant bolt of lightning, hitting the two burning cakraratna dead-on.
There was a blinding flash, followed immediately by an enormous crash and explosion which enveloped the entire area. In the next moment, the curtain of spiritual power forming the barrier vanished as if blown away.
Shielding himself from the shock wave, Chiaki destroyed the fence with a burst of will and rushed onto the premises.
“What has happened…?!”
The mansion erupted into pandemonium at the terrific noise and shock. Ujimasa, who had been resting in his room, leapt to his feet in surprise. His aide came running into the room.
“The barrier appears to have been destroyed from the outside. Someone is mounting an assault on the mansion!”
“Who? Who has done this?!”
“I don’t know!”
“Mend it, now! Kill the invaders!”
The Houjou warriors were already converging on the attacker.
Chiaki only licked his lips at the sight of the rattling skeletal warriors. “Been waitin’ for you guys. Looks like you lot’ve got some nerve! All right! Anyone who wants to head off to the next world, come at me!”
Chiaki brought his hands together in Bishamonten’s ritualistic gesture and chanted his mantra.
“Ari nari tonari anaro nabi kunabi!”
The warriors drew their swords and attacked.
“Reporting!” A Houjou retainer rushed into Ujimasa’s room. “The invader is alone! But our warriors are unable to touch him!”
“What?! What do you mean?”
“Anyone who attempts to kill him disappears! They are unable to approach! The enemy is chanting some sort of strange mantra, and he’s making our warriors vanish without even laying a hand on them!”
“What?! Could it be…?”
Ujimasa’s face changed color, and he glared out the window. Something that looked like smoke rose from the forest. He had heard of the Uesugi’s power of «choubuku». He was not surprised that one of the Yasha-shuu had been able to break through the barrier using the God of Thunder. But he was needlessly losing men.
“Tono! You are in danger here! We must prepare to evacuate!”
“Tell our men to draw back. They are no match for him, if he is Yasha-shuu. —The tsutsuga! Release the tsutsuga!”
“Yes. Our enemy is a kanshousha. Let him be devoured by a hungry tsutsuga. Release as many as we have.”
“Yes, my lord!”
In the basement, Ranmaru and company had also heard the tumult. A flustered Kojirou paced the room. “Ranmaru-dono…! What in the world—”
There was no reaction from Ranmaru. Even the breaking of the barrier had elicited no more response than a flicker of his eyes upward; he appeared unmoved, completely absorbed in his spell.
“There is no need for panic, Kojirou-dono. My guess is that a thief has entered the premises. It has no impact on us. We need only concern ourselves with the barrier upon this room.”
“Distraction will only weaken it, Kojirou-dono.”
Thus reproved, Kojirou ceased his agitated movements and focused his attention once more, hardening the wall of his will.
The barrier closed, so tightly that even light could not enter. The flames rising from tall candles placed at the bed’s four corners danced in place. An incense burner filled the room with the strong scent of incense from Yuzuru’s bedside. Ranmaru was seated on a small Buddhist prayer platform on the floor.
“Naubou aratannau torayaya naumaku ariya barokitei jinbaraya boujisatobaya makasatobaya—…”
Ranmaru repeated the mantra in a low, flowing chant. On the bed, Yuzuru lay with his eyes half-open, but they were expressionless, vacant, unseeing.
“On maitarei maitarei maitara manausen maitara sanbanbei maitaro dobanbei akasanmaya sowaka.”
Kojirou gazed at both of them, holding his breath. They’d been at this for almost six hours. Kojirou’s face was worn with weariness, but Ranmaru’s looked just the same as it had at the beginning. Whence in that thin frame came the capacity for such willpower and physical endurance? Was he a monster? Kojirou wondered.
(Is he really going to extract that power?)
A chill ran down Kojirou’s spine as he recalled the heroic battle between the Kings of Wisdom and the koko in the skies over Sendai. He remembered, too, the gallant figure of his brotherMasamune in the distance—
He bit his lip, but the clamor of voices down the corridor jerked him back to himself. Bam bam! Someone pounded on the door.
“Do not enter! Just give me your message!”
“The enemy has entered the barrier! You must prepare to evacuate!”
“One who wields the power of «choubuku»—it can only be the Uesugi’s Yasha-shuu!”
Koujirou quickly turned to Ranmaru. Ranmaru continued his ‘spell of awakening’ without any hint of concern.
(Have they come to retrieve Narita Yuzuru?)
Kojirou’s expression turned grim as he commanded, “We’re not moving! You must allow no one to approach! Stop them at any cost!”
Within the manor, chaos reigned.
The shock of a kanshousha of the Uesugi calling upon the God of Thunder to mount a direct attack on the manor had certainly succeeded in gaining the attention of everyone within. Katakura, who had penetrated within using the cover of the confusion caused by the destruction of the barrier, ducked into an out-of-sight corner to assess the situation.
(Where is that room?)
The image reflected by the mirror in his hand had changed without his realizing it. It now showed a stairwell hall with a large window and a door leading to the terrace. It also contained a spiral staircase with a white marble sculpture standing beside it.
Katakura ran. Judging by the blueprint given them by Tooyama, the hall could match one of two locations. The manor was shaped like an square open on its western side, with several detached buildings. In addition to the front entrance hall, there was also a staircase and hall on the eastern ravine-facing side.
But it was difficult to get through with so many people running around—every retainer in the place, it seemed. He was surprised at the sight of little girls among the adults. At least in the chaos no one stopped to question Katakura’s presence.
(Could this be the place?)
Here, deep in the eastern corridor, there were no signs of life. It did connect, however, to a brightly-lit hall hung with an enormous mirror. From this angle, the reflection appeared identical to the image Kagetora had transmitted. But it lead to a dead end.
(So where is the room?)
He looked around uneasily. Kagetora appeared once more, this time in the mirror.
“Uesugi-dono, where do I go from here?”
Kagetora only stared at him. Returning his gaze, Katakura noticed a line of distortion across his image. When he focused on it, he saw a fingerprint against the surface of the mirror.
Maybe—he thought, reaching out to touch the mirror. It didn’t respond to his push, but when he added a little sideways pressure…it moved. The mirror had shifted just the smallest bit.
A harder push, and the mirror slid aside to reveal dimly-lit stairs leading to the basement.
(This is it…!)
This must be the place where Narita Yuzuru was being held, he thought as he began to descend the hidden staircase without hesitation.
“Heeey! Where’s your love for your brethren? Come at me with a little more conviction here!” Chiaki yelled, not even breathing hard as he finished mopping up all the warriors in the first wave. Waiting for the next batch, he danced lightly in place as if looking for a more strenuous workout. But his opponents didn’t stir at Chiaki’s tauts.
“Hah! Scared now, ya blockheads?!”
In that case, he’d bring the fight to them. He let out a yell—and sensed something approaching at speed from behind. At the same time, the grass around him began to rustle in the still air.
He tensed. The grass continued to rustle ominously as something emitting an alien and malicious «aura» moved through it.
“You gonna come out and play?”
He spat into his hand and went on guard.
He didn’t know if whatever it was had heard him, but the grass split apart to reveal the entity whose presence he had sensed.
Even Chiaki’s breathing hitched. Before him stood the crimson beast with curled fur, the spirit-beast which looked like the artistic rendition of a lion. —Spirit-beasts, for the grass parted again and again to reveal more tsutsuga. He didn’t know how many the Houjou had bred, but nine of them now stood facing him. Though his fearless grin never faltered, he stiffened slightly.
“Man! You guys thinking ’bout starting a circus or something?”
The tsutsuga padded closer, stalking him with hungry-sounding yowls. Chiaki eyes grew serious, and he shifted into fighting stance as he filled himself with «power».
“Guess I’ll have to be the one to train you bad boys.”
—And the tsutsuga bared their fangs and attacked!
“Come on then!”
He released a burst of will at the tsutsuga leaping toward him, knocking them back with howls of rage, but he couldn’t get them all.
Sharp claws grazed his back as he narrowly evaded an attacking beast. He fired off several «nenpa» without pause, but the ravenous tsutsuga didn’t even falter as the shots hit home. They seemed almost to sneer at Chiaki as they converged on him despite his protective barrage.
Chiaki tumbled to the ground as tsutsuga suddenly attacked him from behind. Two or three of the beasts leapt for him at the same time, their eyes glittering gold.
If you look into their eyes, they’ll devour your soul…!
Shutting his eyes tightly, he released all the power he had in him, flinging the tsutsuga back to writhe on the grass. But before he could recover the pride had already rallied around him, atsutsuga springing for his throat with fangs bared.
(This is endless!)
He couldn’t deliver a fatal blow with «nenpa» alone. «Choubuku» had no effect on spirit-beasts. How was he supposed to break this stalemate?!
Chiaki rolled away from savage claws, managed to catch the tsutsuga’s paws by the narrowest margin, and threw it against a tree. The rest of the tsutsuga stalked him patiently. Chiaki shifted back into fighting stance and faced them with a tree at his back. His breaths were coming quicker. He averted his gaze. If he relaxed his guard and looked into those golden eyes, he would be sucked in.
His heart pounded painfully, and he pressed his right hand over it. He touched something hard, and he suddenly remembered that he had a koppashin of Shoumen Kongou in his shirt pocket.
(Shoumen Kongou repels evil beasts…)
He had a chance, he thought, pulling out the koppanshin. The tsutsuga howled and sprang toward him, their paws kicking at the ground.
“On deibayakisha manda manda kakakaka sowaka!”
He threw it at the tsutsuga with all his might. Drew the shuji in midair—
The wrathful blue-skinned god appeared with a thunderous roar and met the tsutsuga onslaught head-on. He crushed a tsutsuga in his hand as Chiaki joined in with «nenpa». But the pride oftsutsuga slipped through Shoumen Kongou’s defenses to attack Chiaki directly.
“I’m not gonna end up as your chew-toy, you mongrels!”
The hidden staircase descended to a long corridor: a basement not drawn on the blueprint. In all probability even Tooyama didn’t know about it.
It held several rooms, with five or six men standing in front of the innermost door. Which meant—that room.
“Wh…you! Who the hell are you…?!”
Katakura attacked the mind of the speaker with his will. The other men turned as he collapsed in place, only to slump silently to the ground in turn as Katakura focused his attack on them.
He strained to see within, but an extremely strong barrier blocked his sight, and he could see nothing.
(Is Master Kojirou here as well?) Katakura made his decision and knocked on the door.
“Narita-dono! Narita-dono, are you in there? Narita-dono!”
An agitated Kojirou rose at Katakura’s shouting. “Who’s there?”
A shiver ran across Kojirou’s shoulders. Katakura banged on the door violently and yelled, his voice urgent, “Kojirou-sama! You are in there, are you not? It’s me, Katakura! Katakura Kagetsuna! It’s Kojuurou, Kojirou-sama!”
Kojirou trembled. Why was Kojuurou here, in this place? He couldn’t believe it… Ranmaru, immersed in his art, appeared oblivious.
“Kojirou-sama! Please answer me, Kojirou-sama!”
“Oh…” He staggered to his feet, looked to Ranmaru pleadingly before timidly making his way to the door. Kojuurou, his brother’s right hand, here? It was impossible. And yet—
“I have come for you, Kojirou-sama! Kojirou-sama!”
“Ko…Kojuurou…” Kojirou hovered next to the door, speaking through it, “Is it…really you…? Kojuurou…?”
“Kojirou-sama!” Katakura clung to the door at the sound of his voice. “Kojirou-sama, Katakura Kagetsuna is here for you! Please open this door. Let us return to Sendai together. My lord has been waiting for you!”
“My brother…?” Kojirou pressed close, asking, “Truly? My brother is truly waiting for me?”
“Of course he is! He has waited for you for so long, worried about you… Ever since he heard of your resurrection, that you were with Mogami… No, since the day you died by his hand in your previous lives…!
He remembered that day. His fate had been sealed the moment their mother Hoshunin had tried to assassinate Masamune by serving him food laced with poison. His brother’s face, filled with bitterness and agony beyond words as he drew his sword in the moment before he cut Kojirou down, was seared forever into his memories. He could forget the pain of his death, but even now he could not bear to recall the expression on his brother’s face.
If you want to tell him, then go to him. He recalled Naoe’s words to him. Please tell him from your own lips. You’ve always wanted to, have you not?
“My lord has carried that pain all these years. Nothing has weighed on his mind more; he has worried about you for so long. Please come back to Sendai
In his heart he saw again his brother’s face, kind as he had been.
I miss you, Brother…
I want to fight with you for the Date. I want to fight for you, my brother the One-Eyed Dragon, the hero come too late into the world: Date Masamune…!
“My lord is finally the fearless One-Eyed Dragon once again, and this time he will conquer all the land…! Kojirou-sama, please, let us fight together! Kojirou-sama!”
At that instant, the ground abruptly heaved beneath their feet, and the entire building began to shake.
An enormous explosion of sound deafened both men. No—more accurately, there had been no sound at all; instead, a super-nenpa had collided directly with their souls. Pressing hands against their ears could not block it out, for it beat directly against their minds.
Both Kojirou and Katakura writhed against the horrible pressure.
In agony, Kojirou turned to see Yuzuru sitting up on the bed. But there was no trace of Yuzuru in his half-lidded eyes. Something evil glittered in their depths as a breathtaking golden aura surged from him.
Ranmaru was on his knees next to the source of the terrifying tsunami of power. Even he seemed to have been caught unawares by the explosion of will. But he pushed back against it with all his strength, looking at Yuzuru with teeth gritted.
“Good…this is good. It’s perfect, Narita Yuzuru. Now, use that power to crush the Yasha outside…!”
Yuzuru’s eyes opened, glittering gold with divine evil. The space around them twisted. Then a ball of terrible energy flew past them.
It crashed straight into Shoumen Kongou. With an explosion like a bomb going off overhead, Shoumen Kongou vanished.
The super-nenpa then turned on Chiaki and the tsutsuga at full intensity. The tsutsuga writhed. Chiaki screamed and pressed his hands against his ears.
(What…the hell…is this?!)
Something had happened, he realized, but that was his last coherent thought. The super-nenpa impacted the mind directly, a violent storm raging through the pysche. This was the first time he had encountered a nenpa on such a level, and he could not guess its nature. He could no longer grasp his own consciousness or sense of self. He could not form any words. He was going insane! The overwhelming power was crushing his mind…!
Chiaki gathered all of himself, calling upon all his «power». He had the strength to resist. He took everything he had, and finally released it in an attack…!
The impact shook the estate.
Enduring the pain of Yuzuru’s super-nenpa, Ujimasa and company looked out the window.
“What is it now? What has happened…?!”
A portion of the forest—the spot where their tsutsuga had been battling the intruder—had been gouged out, and thick smoke rose from the destruction. The ground was caved in as if a bomb had been dropped there.
Yet perhaps Chiaki’s counteroffensive had hit its mark, for the intensity of Yuzuru’s attack seemed to have lessened. Yuzuru was sitting expressionlessly on the bed in the basement as if nothing had happened. Kojirou and Katakura lay comatose on the floor. Only Mori Ranmaru was still conscious. He leaned against the wall, panting heavily with a smile on his lips.
“What glorious power. You have fully met my expectations, Narita Yuzuru—”
Around the crater in the flattened forest, tsutsuga stumbled and collapsed in place. Chiaki lay motionless where he had fallen, pinned by a fallen tree.
A golden glow trailing tiny scatterings of plasmatic light enveloped Yuzuru. Light shone in the shape of an odd Sanskrit character on his forehead.
The ‘threat to the Six-Path Worlds’ that lay within Yuzuru had now revealed its fiendish shape.