The portal behind us closed up. When we turned around, I saw the very familiar view of a mansion. Tsumugi didn’t open the pass in the building, insisting that in case of danger, we’ll be able to react faster.
‘You never know who or what can lurk in an abandoned mansion… Better stay safe.’
He wasn’t wrong, but I had my doubts about this place being dangerous, all marionettes died together with their Master.
Unless, I don’t know, Kagehira was still here. I hoped not.
Just in case, I focused my mind on reading the mansion’s aura, looking for abnormalities or cores, but I haven’t noticed anything. Everything seemed fine.
But hell, we didn’t even had time to wonder even about safety! With every minute passing by, Hokuto had less chances to survive this day. I nodded my head and moved first towards the mansion. Isara was right behind me.
“You sure you want to go there?” I asked. “It seems fine and I’m going to rush for that book. I know where to look.”
He frowned at me.
"I admit that my curiosity is consuming me a bit, we were supposed to come here in past," He admitted. “Nothing was okay with this place for years.”
'And besides, there’s no way I could just stay back and watch my leader slowly losing it…’
I scratched my head.
“You’re not going to have much time. Grab something you’re interested in and we’re going out. What do you need?”
“You tell me, you know this place, don’t you? I’m mostly interested in things about the North,” He said with a serious face, putting his hand to his mouth. “Yeah, sorry for being like that… I guess I got hooked into my job as an archivist more than I anticipated.”
“You don’t look like one- Ah, screw it, we’re going, tell me your story later!”
As much as I wanted to listen, we really had no time. Once again, I turned around and stared at the entrance, bathed in darkness. The sun was slowly setting, only few rays of light were able to pass through the destroyed doors or shades windows, making the place a bit easier to navigate.
Images describing the entire residence slowly came to my mind. Despite the short time since Shu was here, few things has changed. The mansion seemed like it didn’t survive a long time without any residents…
“Go left from here, go through the entire living room, there are small doors which lead to the library,” I pointed at the direction. “Think loud, scream, contact Aoba or whatever if something’s wrong, okay?”
“I have a gun with myself, I’ll shoot at least once to warn you.”
Where the hell did he get that… I almost asked.
But whatever, good for him. Time to go!
Welcome back, old home.
We split up immediately, with Mao going to the library, while I rushed towards the stairs, since Kagehira's room was located on the first floor. A walk around this mansion evoked a whole lot of strange emotions, as if I really came back to my own house after many years ... Although I had a strange feeling that suddenly my body was reacting to everything around it, as if something stimulated it, forcing the reactions. Not wanting to risk, I listened every now and then to everything around, checking the energy flows. As if there was some sort of energy as the lirium, the only thing I could think of.
When I was in front of the stairs, something caught my eye. My leg moved in a strange way when I stepped on the first platform, paralyzing my body for a good second. I crouched, looking for a reason why it happened. There was a fresh trace of a strange liquid in a dark blue color. At first, I poked it with the edge of my sword, but nothing happened. Then I took my broken finger and ran it on the liquid. My core reacted to it, making the lirium inside my body flow faster.
It was lirium mixed with something. Something dark… And red.
I didn’t like it. It was still wet, and the trace was going all way to the next floor. My hand reached for a sword again.
“Aoba… We’re not alone here.”
The mansion was quiet, so Mao was still safe – so I thought it’d be a good idea to inform Aoba at least, so he could warn him. But I couldn’t hear his voice.
‘W…t- s wr…, as-o?’
His voice was distracted, making it impossible to understand a word.
There shouldn’t be any problem. We just wanted to take one book and leave, and now everything was going in a wrong direction.
Someone was here.
And it wouldn’t be wrong to say they were making the connection distorted on purpose, as this mansion never that type of troubles. But who…
I could only hope I wasn’t right. There was only one person I could think of and I knew our meeting could end up deadly.
I looked back, wondering if it was a good idea to go back and take Isara with myself, but on the other hand, moving by myself was faster, without worrying.
My fingers clenched on the sword’s handle as I stared back. No, I’m going alone. I don’t want to risk his health over it.
Slowly, I went up, trying my best to keep both my mind and body silent, looking around and listening. At first, there was only darkness and silence embracing me.
This voice was familiar. Too familiar. And distorted.
My body was light. Too light to my likings. Normally my heart should go all way beating with an enormous speed. I tried to ignore this and move on.
‘My fault. But also their fault?’
The voice was getting louder.
There was a sign of a core when I got closer to Kagehira’s room, door wide open. Leaning my back against the wall, I moved to it and peaked inside, listening to the voice.
Seeing him, hearing his voice… I couldn’t tell what was happening inside my head.
That was Kagehira. Sitting on the desk where the notebook was laying, hugging an old rabbit mascot, with his head hung down. He was staring at the floor without blinking, mumbling under his nose.
The notebook was right next to him.
I clicked my tongue. The worst scenario was right in front of me.
‘What should I do?’
Just looking at him was giving that strange feeling, as if I was both mad and relieved at the same time. He raised his head, only to show how much he has changed since the last meeting.
I wanted to cry upon seeing him.
His face lost all colors. It was covered in cracks as if it was made with a porcelain, filled with dark blue liquid, slowly dripping from the wounds… Or as if his veins were filled with it instead of blood. Judging how dirty his clothes were, his entire body was in this state. To make it worse, his leg which was shoot back during their meeting with the knights was twisted in a strange way. When he jumped from the desk, I could hear a crack from it. But he was still standing on it without a grimace of pain.
‘If I only killed them back there.’
The rabbit mascot fell down on the ground as Mika caught his head, clenching his teeth. I averted my eyes for a good second, unable to watch this.
It was wrong. Wrong on so many levels. Just looking at it was painful.
I wanted to cry so much. Nobody deserved this.
Itsuki turned him into this .
‘If I only killed that Observer.’
My grip on the handle tightened.
But Mika was still in the exact same pose.
Then I noticed what was happening around him. He focused on his own mind, allowing me to see the fragments with ease. The Curse was rampaging, devouring his memories like a predator taking pleasure with killing all those beautiful memories he shared with the person he loved.
Kagehira was planting fake memories in the place of them without a problem.
My answer was right in front of me.
‘Yeah, I can do as much… Break ‘em. Make ‘em pay for the betrayal.’
Not every single fragment was the same. Filled with grief, he made so many memories focused on knights. Especially on Narukami and Tsukinaga.
He was taking disturbing pleasure in thinking of so many sadistic executions he wished he could carry out, and planting these ideas right into his head.
And I felt even worse not only by allowing him to do this, but because I was watching every single on them. But I had to endure it. I needed to know how he was doing it.
But then, Kagehira stopped. In the middle of his work, he just stopped, relaxed his body and gazed at the ceiling.
“I’ll bring ya back.”
His voice was calm.
I moved back, keeping the sword close to myself.
I was just next to the stairs when a great force pulled me back, throwing at the wall. I couldn’t escape it. He grabbed my collar and brought all the way back to the ground, knocking out weapon. My hands clenched on his dagger, pointed exactly at the marigold flower.
Kagehira was staring right into my eyes with a hollow look, as if he was in trance. I struggled with his right hand, trying to knock his weapon as well.
Part of his cheek cracked, with a part of skin falling right on my own, leaving a trace of blood mixed with lirium. I wished I didn’t have to look at him right now.
Kagehira looked as if his entire body could break into pieces in any second.
But he still had enough strength in his body to move fast and strike hard.
He was staring at me in silence, then blinked once. The strength in his hand weakened.
I used all my power to push his hand back, kicking him from myself, then got up and grabbed the sword from the ground. Kagehira’s body was on the ground, slowly getting up, just staring at the floor only to gaze at me once again.
I couldn’t tell what this gaze was meaning for me. His face was just as blank as his eyes – only his mind raging, whispering so many words at once.
“Ya have it,” He mumbled. “Of course ya have it… Observers are too curious.”
He grinned and disappeared in the shadows.
Unable to tell where he was lurking, I focused on the energy and his core rather than other sounds.
I managed to block his assault, now struggling again with the force he put into it.
‘The Observer has his memories.’
Stay back. Stay away from me.
‘If I can take this core and purify it… You'll be back.’
He wasn’t looking at me.
He was staring deeper into the core, seeing another person.
My body moved without me even thinking about it. I kicked him with such a force he slammed into the wall.
I can’t take him alone.
I have no time for that.
I need help.
I… I can’t look into this boy’s eyes. As if my body could stop in every second, allowing him to do what he wanted.
I don't want to die.
“C-Calm down…” I said to myself. “You’re losing control. Calm down-”
...No way in hell I can stay calm!
Time to get out. As far as possible. I ran towards the stairs.
The sound of two gunshots echoed through the mansion. I turned around.
Kagehira was gone.
I was laughing. Why was I laughing? He was there... Or I’ve never seen him and it was just my mind playing tricks on me. I ran my finger on my cheek. It was stained with a dark blue liquid.
No, it wasn’t it. But now, he was gone, lurking around.
I don’t get it. Why did I even cared at first? It’s wrong. There’s nothing good in him. It’s not the first time he tried to kill me. So why did I...?
Oh God. Isara!
I ran downstairs with a sword in my hand, trying to catch Isara’s thoughts, hoping it wasn’t too late. Kagehira just disappeared, but for now he wasn’t attacking. I could feel the shadows moving, giving a hint of his position, so he was staying close. Too close to my liking.
I went down as fast as I could, but immediately I had to hide. It wasn’t Isara’s voice which reached my ears first. It was Northern language.
‘Jun-kun, you missed. How in hell he knocked out your gun?’
Isara was on the ground, pointing the gun at a man crouching right in front of him with a strange blade in his hands. Around them was a soul flying.
The gun was close enough for me to reach it.
“Too bad,” Mao hissed. “Seems like you’re not as professional as the rumors say.”
“And Yumenosaki’s old adventurers still have some edge, huh?” His opponent smirked at him. “Kinda a pain in the ass... I wished it was an easier job, but I don’t mind a worthy opponent.”
It’s bad. I focused on them and now I couldn’t tell where Kagehira was.
Without thinking, I ran towards the gun and picked it up, pointing it at the man who was still on Isara.
“Get away from him.”
All three of them gazed in my direction. ‘Jun-kun’ furrowed his eyebrows and raised his free hand.
‘You were supposed to scout this place.’
‘Eh, we were fine- Wait, he’s not a human.”
“I can see you, Observer,” I made a step towards them. “Don’t play on me. Get out.”
We had no time for that. Kagehira was here.
Jun clicked his tongue, but slowly, he raised his second arm and moved from Isara, while I went in his direction. Only when I was next to Mao, I lowered the gun a bit.
“We don’t have time,” I whispered. “It’s bad.”
“I see as much, these two are Northern agents. And I couldn’t hear Aoba.”
“I’m not talking about them!”
Isara’s eyes widened.
“Jun-kun, he’s named Mashiro,” The green-haired Observer spoke to him in their language. “A Marionette, it seems.”
“No way. Or not, I hope so. My raise is coming back then.”
Their dialogue was longer, but I couldn’t understand everything. These two were too calm. I hoped they weren't working with him.
A familiar voice echoed through the room again.
“Good to see you in health,” I saw a hint of smirk on Isara’s face. “And don’t worry. I used that.”
I didn’t get at first what he meant, focused on Kagehira’s voice going all way around.
The shadows moved again. The next thing I saw were magic missiles going at Jun. The agent moved fast and summoned a circle that protected him. Isara grabbed my arm, using the chance to reposition us behind furnitures. Too far away from the exit to run. These were blocking our only way to freedom.
Jun charged in the direction where the missiles came from with his blade, but missed. Kagehira attacked him from behind, but the man managed to block it in last second.
‘Hell, another one? Aagh, this lack of body is annoying! I’d be able to help, but as you can tell, I can’t do shit. So do your best!’
‘You better focus on the other one and check if he’s really a Marionette, goddamn-’
I glanced at the soul in front of us. Kagehira charged at them even faster than at me, giving me time to at least calm a bit down from our last meeting.
But that meant they weren't together, thankfully.
Even with the fight going outside, the Observer gazed back at me, trying to get a glimpse of my memories. I did the same, but I didn’t get much, as I couldn’t understand everything. Their names were Sazanami Jun and Tomoe Hiyori, working for someone named Ibara.
‘Wait, there’s no way in hell you’re >that< Mashiro.’
Now he was speaking in Yumenosaki language.
“You really think you have time to look at me?” I grinned at him, hoping he could get away and give me even more time to ask Isara about the situation. “Kagehira won’t let your partner get alive for-”
“Kagehira?” Now he blinked at me, then clapped your hands. “Oh lord. I knew it was a good idea. What a fine weather!”
There was too much happening to focus on his thoughts, but I could tell it wasn’t good. He said something in Northern, only to move so he could both gaze at both us and Kagehira, who was giving a hard time the second man.
Ah. I had an idea.
Just think about bullshit while talking, that might cover at least some of it. Even when I was still in shock after that meeting with Mika, I tried my best.
“You know who they are?” I whispered to Mao. “Things got crazy.”
“Northern agents, no clue,” He said, but judging from the light in his eyes, he already had an idea. “That’ll be fast.”
I raised my eyebrow. He pointed at the short sword laying on the ground and poked one of his pockets, where he put a present from our sneaky friend.
I nodded my head. Now I get it. That alarmed the Observer, who stared at us, then rushed to his partner. Kagehira almost landed a hit on the man – he protected himself with another spell and jumped back, close to us.
‘Jun-kun, if we can take him back-‘
‘Come on, can he even survive this? I feel like even one blow will make him break like a mirror…’
Kagehira pointed his weapon at him.
“Get the hell out and tell yer sovereign to never bother us as we live, Northern scums.”
Sazanami fixed his grip on his blade.
“Job’s a job,” He shrugged. “Nothin’ personal, really. We jus’ need help. Nobody said we won’t pay ya back, huh?”
He said something to Tomoe as well, but I couldn’t understand it.
Mao patted my shoulder.
“Did you get the book?”
“No, Kagehira forced me to run away.”
Isara glanced at the scene happening right in front of us.
“We might have our last chance to go for it,” He put his hand to his mouth. “But it’s damn risky, we have no contact with Aoba. I can make that show even more chaotic with two guns, you’ll get a chance to go there and grab the book.”
“Are you out of your goddamn mind?” I shook my head. “You’re asking them to kill you.”
“Do you have any better idea then? No way I’m going back with empty hands.”
I tried to think about something, as the show outside has started, with Jun and Kagehira going all out, destroying everything with their deadly mix of magic and steel, while Tomoe watched it, warming his partner whenever Kagehira was escaping and attacking him from the shadows… And watching us. We had to stay almost frozen.
…There was a thing.
“You know what they want?” I asked.
“They’ve been asking for the Puppeteer and Kagehira. More likely they want some knowledge… And they were willing to kill me just so I couldn’t tell anyone I saw them.”
“So we can strike a deal. We’ll help them, but I need time to get close to Kagehira.”
I didn’t want, whenever I was looking at him I could see those eyes, but… If I couldn’t get the notebook, I might as well try to get the knowledge I needed right from his mind by reading his fragments.
Sazanami’s voice caught our attention as Kagehira landed a hit on him, but he didn’t pierce through his body. Rather than that, something broke. And his moves got slower… Natsume’s poison was slowly kicking in.
We looked at each other shocked. Aoba’s voice was now audible, right after Kagehira’s successful attack.
‘Ah, I don’t know what’s happening, but hear me out, something inside the mansion is distorting the connection? So I’ll go there as soon as you’ll answer me back! So, uh… Say blue bird if you can hear me!’
With another mage joining this madness, things might get even crazier.
Looking around, I noticed an old doll laying on the ground, its core still capable of allowing a soul to get into it. Then I gazed at Tomoe.
I didn’t know who he was, but if we wanted to get a good grip on Kagehira, he could do the work. The thing was - is it safe to tell him how to use it?
Definitely not if Isara himself has to join the show by himself, they’ll outnumber him as soon as Kagehira will be down.
“Answer him,” I said to Mao, keeping both my voice and mind as low as I could. “Whatever we’re going to do, we need time. Tell him to sneak around the entrance and get us out as soon as we’ll get what we need – or as soon as you’ll need help, if you really want to let me go upstairs.”
So we had two options.
Option 1: Isara joins the battle, takes all the attention at himself, trying to buy me time to get the notebook, then we escape with Aoba. I won’t be able to tell what will happen to Mao, he’ll have to deal with two crazy northern warriors… And an Observer who can read his mind.
Option 2: We both get into the battle, our goal to get me close to Kagehira and read his mind, all to get clues about making false memories. That means we’ll be both in the very middle of conflict, and we can’t be sure what both Kagehira or that Jun will try to do.
We’ll have to give our lives to Aoba. The sooner he’ll get here, the better.
Or, worst case scenario, to these agents. Sazanami didn’t have too much time left.
Isara nodded his head and closed his eyes.
Now we had to decide.
I said I’d prefer to…
1. Go for the notebook,
2. Attack Kagehira to get into his head.