I stride nobly through the wooden corridors of the family estate. On occasion, a servant steals a sidelong glance at me as I pass, only to quickly look away as if to avoid eye contact. Faced with my utterly goddess-like beauty, anyone would be eager to spend even a moment longer gazing at me, yet feel too inferior to overstep their bounds and stare… Yes, such is the only logical conclusion, a simple fact of the universe. Regrettably, as the people who have been enlightened to this fundamental truth are few and far between, they instead regard me with either hatred or scorn. The hallways of the Sakagami Family are filled with such unenlightened folk, a fact that I have come to accept with chagrin.
Above and beyond all else, beauty exists to be admired, and in the face of a beauty such as myself, adulation should come to them more naturally than honouring their own parents. Simply breathing the same air as fools who can’t comprehend such a simple truth puts me in an unpleasant mood. Not one of them meets my gaze, and after I pass I can hear whispered conversation of a clearly foul nature.
I sigh and squeeze Shiro, managing to calm my nerves somewhat in the process. After that ‘ritual combat’ nonsense I had become Puppetmaster, and yet to be treated in such a manner… Treating an ordinary young girl rudely is one thing, but to treat a beautiful young genius such as myself in such a manner is another. I let out another lamenting sigh. Finally, I had climbed to the same heights as Sensei, and yet not a thing has changed; if anything, their looks feel all the colder.
The Sakagami are fiendslayers, and slaying fiends is their sworn duty. To a poor little genius such as myself, the title of Puppetmaster is naught but another shackle, locking me into a life of never-ending conflict. Those fools of the Kuzuha Branch Family have roped me into doing the duty of five or ten fiendslayers. Honestly, to hold a grudge for a decent reason would be one thing, yet it hardly seems fair for them to blame me for their ‘promising’ eldest son’s incompetence. In the several months… no, I suppose it would be the half year since that day, I haven’t had even a day’s repose. While I had built up a considerable stock of mana and rabbit karakuri alike, my supply of both have dwindled to nearly nothing, my mind is similarly at its limit, and naturally I haven’t had the time to fix any of those issues. The Kuzuhas must still be rather upset by the fact that their precious son still hasn’t woken up.
Likewise, I’ve hardly forgiven them for their own indecencies. That unpleasant youth and his thuggish lackeys had tormented me to no end. He was a deviant of the pedophilic nature, and he had attempted to force himself upon me no small number of times. Merely rendering him comatose was indeed a mercy, and society is better off without him at large.
That being said, I might have the faintest sense of regret towards how I behaved on that day. I was perhaps a bit too hasty in earning the ire of the Kuzuhas, and now I find myself at my limit. The effects on my body may well become permanent at this rate.
Saving that woman the other day hardly helped my condition, either. Ahh, what a waste; even if I had held out some faint hope she may return to repay the favour, my hopes would have been betrayed. I’ve heard not a word from her since. Honestly, what a foolish woman. Who does she think I am?
Finally, I arrive at the head patriarch’s room. I throw open the sliding door, casually slamming it shut behind me. Two men are waiting for me within the room. One, the more prominent, is a middle-aged man with a goatee, seated in a wheelchair. He snorts contemptuously at me and glares, the overshadowed, overly-serious face of the Sakagami Family itself.
“You’ve been living here ten years, girl. How much longer until you learn some manners?”
“…By all rights, the likes of you should be learning manners from a beautiful young genius Puppetmaster such as myself, not the other way around.”
This wholly unpleasant ‘gentleman’, Sakagami Kazumasa, is regrettably both the patriarch of the Sakagami clan and my uncle. Fortunately, our shared blood seems to be worthless, as we’re as different as we’re as different as diamonds and mud, heaven and hell. He has more beard than common decency, which honestly isn’t saying much.
The other man, just as callous, is Kazumasa’s aide by the name of Saeki. I haven’t exchanged words with him so much as once; he’s nothing but another unaffected, uncaring face. There’s nothing worth mentioning about him.
“Even if you worked for me, dearest uncle, you don’t seem to realize that respect is a commodity, and that as such it has value, value that decreases the more it gets spouted about. Don’t you feel that my precious respect in particular would be wasted on a worthless man such as yourself?”
“You’re just as damnably infuriating as always, I see. Enjoy your nonsensical logic, do you? I’m sure Father misses that. You take after him so much in that regard. How about I send you to meet him?”
“That wouldn’t be bad, I suppose. If you keep working me this hard, I’ll end up seeing him soon enough regardless.”
“Good. The less I see that disgusting face of yours, the better. Your very life is a disgrace to the clan.”
“Likewise, never having to see your face again would be a dream come true.”
Kazumasa used to be a puppeteer of considerable skill himself, I hear, but the same spinal injury that robbed him of the use of his legs ended his career as a fiendslayer, and now he spends his time on administrative work. Despite that, however, he possesses a deceptively large volume of mana, and what remains of his body is clearly well-muscled. Loath as I am to admit it, he’s likely the second strongest puppeteer alive, a genius after only yours truly. If nothing else, he makes the Kuzuha heir look like a true child in comparison.
I remain deeply confused, however, as to why this man recommended me to the position of Puppetmaster and made me participate in that ritual. Given his rotten nature, he no doubt intended me to meet my match and submit to his authority or some such nonsense. Me, of all people! Honestly, no individual is more ill-suited for his position. How utterly unpleasant.
“Go on, then, be my guest and drop dead. You’d probably be the first Puppetmaster ever to die so soon after receiving the honour. Feel like making history?”
“I have no intention of making the history books in such an unpleasant manner, I assure you. More importantly, do you mind if I ask why you nominated me, of all people, for Puppetmaster? Even a third-rate old man like you could hog the glory to yourself, considering the current state of the three Sakagami families.”
“Kekeke, I may hate your guts, but your strength is the real thing, girl. You deserve that title, even if you’re the bastard child of my idiot sister and some foreigner trash. Stop fretting about trivial things like your ‘feelings’ about the work. Just shut up and be grateful.”
“What a marvelous thought, dearest uncle! And to think that for all these years I’d been convinced your mind was naught but a fetid cesspool! Apparently you still have a handful of brain cells somewhere in that primordial ooze. I feel moved to tears.”
“You’d better watch your tongue, girl.” Saying so, he takes a cigar out of a case on his desk, sticks it in his mouth, and lights it. “I don’t have any more time to waste on this idiotic sophism. Down to business.”
I gaze blankly at him, letting out an apathetic sigh. My entire body feels rusty as an unoiled machine, and just standing causing my knees to ache. I’ll love to buy myself a present to congratulate myself for working so hard like so many airheaded young girls these days, but I haven’t the time nor the money. I must be cursed. Just thinking causes my brain to hurt.
I suppose, all things considered, I should be thanking this ill-bearded idiot. Just being able to see him and curse him so openly is a miracle in and of itself. A fiendslayer clan such as the Sakagami tends to harbour more monsters than men. If a young girl without any decent support such as myself is to have any semblance of a human life, I need both potential and results. Only because I have both am I still alive today, and without those two factors my life would be meaningless – from the perspective of the animals of this family, that is.
I lean back against the sliding door, using it to indiscreetly support my body, and sigh. Kazumasa gives me yet another of his unpleasant smiles.
“Keke, you’re looking pretty tired there. Getting enough sleep? Or are you holding out for eternal sleep?”
“…Oh, my, don’t tell me you’re honestly worried about me? How shocking. I never knew you had a heart.”
“Of course not. Seeing you like that puts me in a good mood, that’s all.” He laughs, cigar bouncing unpleasantly at his lips. “You’re only allowed here in the first place because Father got down on his knees and begged us to take you in. His dying wish was to make you Puppetmaster, you know. That’s the real reason you were able to participate in the selection ritual.”
“I couldn’t care less about you if I tried, and now that you’re Puppetmaster I’ve no obligation to care for you. May as squeeze what life I can from your sorry little body.”
I’ve been the target of his hatred no small number of times before now, and I certainly won’t start caring about his words now. I squeeze Shiro a little more tightly and open my mouth in feigned surprise.
“Well, that’s the first I’ve ever heard of such a thing. To think Sensei had thought of me, even in his last moments!”
“I’m not surprised. Mother, that hag, always hid the most important parts of the story. She hated that you were the only one to get a letter when he died.”
“Wipe that look off your face. If you have the time to mope, then you should try living a little more smartly. If you’d only put more thought into your appearance and acted cute for once, you could probably make a killing as an ‘escort.’ The hag couldn’t complain about that.”
“…You are truly disgusting, dearest uncle. It pains me to think that you, of all people, succeeded Sensei.”
I glare at him, but he only smirks, seeming to take my insults as encouragement more than anything else.
“It pains me to think we share blood… though I suppose only half of your blood is of Sakagami stock. As long as you keep your filthy mouth shut you’re half pretty, so how about you pay the Kuzuhas an apology visit? I’m sure you could save them a fortune in tissues.”
“…You’ve already prepared my assignments for me, haven’t you? Just give them to me. Your words are soiling my gorgeous ears.”
I’ve long since become used to his vulgarities, but they’re hardly pleasant. I narrow my eyes at him in irritation.
“Kekeke, do these old words really hurt that much? Fine. I’m tired of this game anyway. Take your assignments and get out.”
With a flick of my finger, I use a strand of Thread to pull the folder towards me. Opening the folder, I find three separate assignments within. None of them appear that difficult, and yet three of them…?
“One of those assignments is about a rogue vampire. It doesn’t matter why she’s here, but bring her in alive. Understand? I don’t care what state you leave her in, but no killing her.”
That vampire from before immediately comes to mind, but it couldn’t be her. Not even she would be stupid enough to stay around here, with so many fiendslayers.
“You heard me. Apparently she was a slave or some such, but our long-time fanged resident is apparently willing to leave Japan for good if we return the rogue to her. Finish this and I’ll finally get you a break. You should be grateful.”
“………I can’t imagine I could even harm her, though, if we’re trading her.”
“Fool. I never said anything about trading. We’ll kill the lot of them at the deal site.”
“…I see. I suppose that makes sense.”
I stuff the folder into my bag and turn to leave. I certainly don’t want to overstay my welcome, as I fear I already have. I have no further words for the man… but the sound of laughter at my back causes me to stop.
“…Keke, you really are heartless, aren’t you? Any decent person would feel sorry for the poor stray. I suppose there’s a good reason everyone hates your guts.”
“Is that all you have to say, dearest uncle?”
“What, you’re getting angry at me? All I said was the truth, girl. Accept it.”
His chuckle is torture to my ears. Such abuse is all but second nature to scum like him. Ignoring him, I rub my cheek against Shiro’s ear and leave the room.
To be a fiendslayer means to work oneself to the bone for the sake of others. While that may sound rather noble, it’s incredibly dangerous and not particularly rewarding. Generally speaking the average civilian never encounters fiends, and those unlucky few who do perish almost without exception, making fiends the stuff of urban legend. Naturally, that means fiendslayers go unrecognized, and on a daily basis we have to deal with monstrosities and their mangled remains of their meals, or if we’re ‘lucky’, a cocky human who fancies themselves a black magician. On top of that, power- and sexual harassment are despairingly common, and even one’s colleagues are more likely to sabotage one than be of any decent help. In terms of interpersonal relationships and stress, I would call it the worst job on Earth. To make matters even worse, there are only a handful of employers with which one can work, and given the highly hierarchical nature of these companies, the benefits are nearly negligible. In the face of such conditions, would-be fiendslayers have been increasingly drawn to more illegal employment opportunities.
In truth, the only ‘legal’ workplace would be the Fiendslayers’ Association, an incredibly insular group consisting solely of the Six Families, the same group that has run the Association since antiquity. How unfortunate that national market policy against monopolies doesn’t extend to fiendslaying.
And yet, even if I were to quit such a rotten company, I would find myself nonetheless unable to live any semblance of a normal life. Many in this line of work, myself included, don’t exist on paper, and as such not only is moving to more mundane work not realistic, it’s been explicitly banned by the Association. You could say that we’re illegal immigrant labour within our own country, forced into this grueling work without so much as an apartment or bank account in our names, and all for what amounts to a subsistence wage.
They say reality is disappointing, and they would regrettably be right. Anyone foolish enough to want to become a fiendslayer would deplete a lifetime worth of dreams in a week. In the end, no different from illegal immigrants, we’re given the ‘choice’ between backbreaking labour or crossing the law and dabbling in the dark side of the trade – though I suppose having a passport forged or something of that ilk would be another way out, if an utterly unaffordable one.
At any rate, normalcy is all but unattainable for us, leaving many a fiendslayer with a complaint on their lips but no intention of changing their lot. I suppose many normal humans live similar lives, but the difference between them and us is the invaluable luxury of choice.
The pool of blood slowly spreads from beneath the body of the fifth werewolf of the night. Regrettably, tonight’s tasks are detaining the aforementioned vampire and two other non-werewolf-related objectives. Up until now my task has always been finding the lair of the vampire and source of these werewolves, and as such I would be on patrol from dusk until dawn in a fruitless quest for leads. Likewise, I spend my time during the day tracing residual mana trails in a continuation of the aforementioned, and as a result I receive roughly three hours of sleep per twenty-four hours, give or take. Unfortunately, the Sakagami Family has apparently never heard of paid overtime.
Honestly, who do they think they are, forcing a pretty young thing like myself to slave away like this? I would love to found a fiendslayers’ labour union, but as I alone am subjected to quite such repetitive, grueling work day in and day out, I hesitate to pen even the first line of our would-be creed. Not to mention, of course, that such an organization would never be allowed by the Association, nor do I have the networking for such a feat. I am, regrettably, abysmal at maintaining interpersonal relationships. I’m sure if I had such a convenient skill, I wouldn’t be working alone in the cold every night.
I let out a dejected sigh and plop myself down on the asphalt. I hate getting my clothes dirty, but my fatigue has reached overwhelming levels, and I can hardly pass up the chance to rest now that I have it. I gaze up at the sky. In the middle of this cityscape I could count the number of stars with one hand, and from this alley not even the moon shines in my slice of the sky. An empty sky is nonetheless a far more appealing sight than a mangled werewolf corpse. There’s no sign of my work’s end in sight, and even though I was promised a break should I finish it, I would likely spend the entirety of my vacation replenishing my mana and crafting new karakuri. Just how much of my life will be consumed by this fruitless toil, I wonder?
“…At this rate, I’m hardly human—”
—I’m a doll. I’ve never been anything more, I suppose.
The more I think, the greater the thin smile on my lips becomes, until a light sigh dispels it. Such sophistry is dust in the wind, and as dust it hardly matters.
My head feels vaguely murky, and my entire body feels unpleasantly warm. I must finally be reaching my ‘limit,’ so to speak. Wielding supernatural powers hardly excepts one from the more mundane constraints of the natural realm. Not even the strongest magic can cure the human condition.
I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to take some time off this afternoon… but just as I think that, I hear footsteps behind me and take to my feet.
“Good work. You can leave the rest to us.”
Finally, the cleanup crew has arrived. Leaving bodies such as this strewn throughout the city would naturally cause a panic, and as such a crew of specialists handles the aftermath of we fiendslayers’ work. I wouldn’t possibly linger in such a cold, dank, depressing alley if I weren’t waiting for them. My role in the cleanup is simply watching over the remains until they can arrive; maintaining a barrier to keep out the odd passerby, casting a simple memory alteration charm if I was seen, and so forth.
Fortunately, they seem to have arrived early this time, not that I’m complaining. The sooner they arrive, the sooner I can return home to my bed. Letting out a small sigh of relief, I turn to express my thanks—
“Ufufu, you’re being awfully careless, aren’t you? That rumour about you being tired was true after all, Sakagami Kagura-san.”
With a loud cracking sound, a bestial arm bursts out of the asphalt behind me. I manage to jump out of the way by virtue of reflexes and luck alone, not any modicum of foresight.
Hurriedly waking Shiro, I deploy two musketeer rabbits before me faster than I could take a breath. Then, a trio of shield-bearing rabbits take position behind the two.
Fortunately, about two meters of alley now lies between myself and the arm, and I’ve already gained the advantage in numbers. Unfortunately, my back is quite literally against the wall, a dead end with nowhere to go, though I suppose I might avoid being attacked from both sides this way. Nonetheless, this is hardly a situation I’d like to stay in long, and the true cleaners won’t be able to aid me even should they arrive now.
From the shadows emerge a woman with light chestnut hair and a languid expression, clad in a low-cut old-fashioned evening dress. She appears to be an ordinary woman, albeit with recognizably European facial features, but her deep crimson eyes reveal her as a fiend. At her side is a trio of werewolves, though more may be lurking nearby. Every sign points to her being a vampire.
“Good evening, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you. My name is Azelia, and I’ve come to inspect my prize.”
She has a distinct stench about her. I resist the urge to wrinkle my nose. The werewolves I’ve been slaying day in and day out share that same pungent perfume. This woman must be my long-hunted mark.
This situation, however, is far from ideal. If I was in top form it would be another story, but as careless and unobservant as I was, I was practically asking to even up at such an abysmal disadvantage. I can hardly complain as such carelessness was my own fault, but honestly.
I clear my mind of such pessimistic thinking with a small shake of my head. I need to figure out how I’ll survive against such odds. I’ll have all the time in the world to regret my shortcomings once I’ve made it out alive. I concentrate my mana into my fingers and study my surroundings once more. The key to being a successful puppeteer lies in a comprehensive understanding of one’s surroundings; an effective use of the environment can prove more critical than brains or brawn. I must keep calm, yes, calmly grasp my environs. I couldn’t hope to command my karakuri half-decently otherwise.
“By prize I mean you, of course. The Association’s little sacrifice to me.”
As soon as she opens her mouth to reply, I realize my critical fault. I had intended to buy time through dialogue, but from the first word she had control of the conversation. Her attack dogs still haven’t moved a muscle. Her intent must be to shake my will first. Even if I were to try to ignore her, her words seep into my ears like poison. I can’t afford to lose the initiative like this, but I would need time to compose myself before launching an offense. I have little choice in the matter. I’ll have to hear her out, but I mustn’t let my unease show on my face.
“Impossible. We both know the Fiendslayer’s Association is corrupt, but they’d never stoop so low as to serve a lowly vampire such as yourself.”
“Fufu, I wonder about that. Can you think of a better way to dispose of unwanted trash?”
“…I see. Yes, I suppose a personal request from one of its members would be within the realm of possibility. Regrettably, I have far too many enemies to narrow the list down any further.”
“I can imagine. If only you’d taken the time and effort to make more friends.”
“Unfortunately, with beauty and talent such as mine, it’s only natural that I would be envied by the common masses.”
As I giggle, I study the werewolves at her side. I can’t feel so much as a hint of malice from them; evidently they have no intention of attacking while their master is talking. What well-trained little pups… though for them to be so calm in front of one of their fallen kinsmen is truly unusual. They have a rather strong pack mentality, after all, and they lack the intelligence to hide a thirst for revenge should they taste it. In front of their mistress, they’re like different creatures altogether. How excellent. Such information in such a situation is truly invaluable.
“What were you saying about a sacrifice just now? You wouldn’t harm a pretty young thing such as myself, would you?”
“Of course I won’t. I’ve come with more of an invitation, really. What I’m looking for isn’t a pet or a slave, but a good, earnest girl whom I can put to much better use. As you say, you’re pretty and young, and I’ll love to welcome you into my bedroom. How about it?”
“……It’s rather generous of you to offer, but unfortunately, I’ll have to decline.”
“Come on, now, don’t be shy. We could be partners, two in one.”
“The thought terrifies me. Your offer sounds almost tempting, and I shudder to think what else you might try to convince me of.”
Vampires are notorious for their power to create thralls. Just one bite with mana-imbued fangs is enough to dominate a human being through their blood, and once under a vampire’s control there’s no turning back. Even the strongest of aversions would be meaningless in front of a vampiric master. All it would take is a moment’s carelessness and I’d be putty in her hands – and until then, my freedom would doubtlessly be similarly fleeting. What she suggests is no different from lifelong slavery, in the end.
“Fufufu, I do enjoy a smart girl, but there’s such a thing as being too smart. Isn’t happiness and unhappiness just a matter of how you look at things? Don’t worry, your life will be nothing but an endless ride of ecstasy if you’ll only let me spoil you a little. Who could wish for better?”
—Especially a miserable little thing like you, her eyes whisper. She chuckles seductively.
Honestly, what a thoroughly unpleasant woman. I would love to slay her where she stands, but unfortunately, that hardly seems possible. I’m all but standing in the palm of her hand. Judging from the training of her werewolves she’s quite an old vampire, and as such I could hardly hope to win in a contest of raw strength.
“I suppose you have a point. I’ll consider it. You don’t mind waiting for a few days for my response, do you?” I smile. The quip should buy me a little more time, at least.
“Of course. Take all the time you need.”
That, I had not expected. My smile fades in an instant and my brow furrows before I can stop myself.
“……How generous of you. You must be awfully confident. What’s your secret, if I may ask?”
I practically could not be in worse shape. This vampire must surely know that she couldn’t possibly be in a better position. Letting me go under such circumstances could be nothing but disadvantageous to her in the long run. Even if she were simply leading me on, she wouldn’t possibly be stupid enough as to honestly let me escape, could she?
“Fufufu, I’ve already gotten what I came for, that’s all. Didn’t I tell you? I came for a look, that’s all.”
With that, the vampiress Azelia and her dogs turn and leave just as suddenly as they’d appeared, leaving me standing speechless in the alleyway. Thinking it must be a trap of some nature, I scan my surroundings for mana but come up clean. Did she truly just come for a look, then?
Without a doubt, her employer was someone from Sakagami, Kuzuha, or Tatsumi, maybe even the entire Kuzuha or Tatsumi Branch Families. Not that I could arrive at an answer just by thinking on it, of course — and as there’s hardly a soul in any house that thinks favourably of me, there’s no shortage of suspects. What I should focus on now is their aim.
Whoever they are, their goal is to remove me from the picture, without a doubt. What would I do if I were them? The answer is too easy — nothing. This workload would kill me in short order, and if I were to try to avoid such a fate I’d have to flee. At that point there’d be no meaning in playing shadow games, and they could hunt me down and kill me however they saw fit, all in the name of executing a traitor to the Association.
And yet they went to such lengths to prepare this little show. Why? The only thing I can think of is… yes, that must be it. If I were involved in such a scandal, the Sakagami Family itself would come under fire. That must be their true aim, to frame me and use me to bring shame on the Family.
Like, say, if I were to make a deal with a vampire in a dark alley.
“…What an idiot.”
I collapse against a wall, letting out a heavy sigh. A different member of the Association must have been ‘passing by’ just as the vampire ‘happened’ to appear. If I attacked her, that would all be good and well, but if they were to witness us talking for several minutes, myself visibly cornered, and then I were to be let go unscathed… Ah, yes, and I would imagine the passerby would just ‘happen’ to have a camera or the like on-hand. With that, the stage would be set, the story complete.
Come to think of it, the cleaner still hasn’t come yet. Nearly ten minutes have passed since I requested one. As they pride themselves on their speed in arriving on the scene, it would be unthinkable that they would be simply late; if they were, it would mean harsh punishment. With that, the role of the ‘passerby’ has been cast.
I chuckle, closing my eyes. Not that it matters, of course. No matter who saw the encounter, it’s far too late for me to do anything about this mess now. Perhaps because the tension left the air so suddenly, I can feel the heat return to my face and I break out in an unpleasant sweat. I can see my future if I’m caught now. After a period of excruciating and thoroughly pointless torture, I’d either be executed or become a vampiress’ sex toy. Perhaps mere death isn’t too cruel a fate.
What can I do, though? Run? Give in? At that moment, my pocket starts humming, and after a moment I realize it’s my cellphone. I withdraw all my rabbits except Shiro, and with one arm still wrapped around him I answer the phone.
“…Who is it?”
“It’s me. I’m glad you’re finally making friends.”
There’s only one person who could be calling me. His tone is, as always, half smug and half mocking — Kazumasa Sakagami.
“…I’m oh-so-pleased you’re happy, dearest uncle. You wouldn’t happen to be in on the plot, would you?”
“Cut the nonsense, girl. My neck’s on the line as much as yours is.” I can hear the clicking of his lighter through the phone. Apparently, he’s incapable of holding a conversation without having one of those putrid cigars in his teeth. “I don’t know who’s responsible for this… or actually, there are too many suspects to know where to begin.”
“What exactly have you heard?”
“I’m sure you can imagine. A certain Puppetmaster met a vampire in a dark alley, they’re plotting something, it’s suspicious, investigate it, the whole deal. You have a genius for getting people to hate you.”
“It takes a genius to know one, dearest uncle. What’s the current situation at the estate?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen things so lively. Just hearing you had to be brought in was enough to light a fire under them. They’re about to head out now. If you’re going to run, you’d better do it now.”
His tone is perfectly disinterested. In other words, he won’t so much as lift a finger to help me. As I expected.
“Do you suppose I have a chance?”
“Hah, not likely. We’re talking about the younger generation of the Main Family. They’d kill to get their hands on your position, and that’s no turn of phrase. You’d better believe you’re getting brought in.”
“I see. I’d thought as much.”
“…IF you were to have any chance of survival, you’d have to bring in that vampire’s head. Nobody would complain if you could do that. Assuming you wanted to come back, that is.”
“…To think I’d live to see the day you’d say something kind to me. I imagine hell’s already frozen over.”
“Kekeke, I’m just as surprised as you are. I thought any emotion I’d had towards you dried up long ago. If I were you, though, I wouldn’t even waste time talking.” There’s a hint of exasperation in his voice. “Honestly, I can’t even begin to imagine why you’re so fixated on this city. You could make it anywhere, with skill like yours.”
“I likely could, yes.”
“…Listen good, girl. He’s dead. He’s not keeping you anywhere anymore. I don’t know what Father told you, but it couldn’t have been anything more than the rambling nonsense of a senile old man. If nothing else, your place here died with him. You’d better wake up from your inane little dream and–”
The sound of skidding shoes on the asphalt behind me smothers his voice. I let out a small sigh.
“…It looks like your men have arrived for me. Provided I survive, I’ll bring you that vampire’s head. I’ll make sure to remember your ‘wisdom’.”
“………You truly are an idiot, girl. Not that it concerns me. I hope your life is just as boring and meaningless as it’s always been.”
“Hehe, if only it truly were so boring.”
With another sigh, I turn off the phone and clench Shiro against my chest. In concert, a trio of men emerge from the shadows. I recognize the one in the middle. He likely belongs to one of the branch families.
“Would you men mind taking a message for me? I, Kagura Sakagami, would appreciate it if you would hold off your pursuit for a spell. Can you tell the others?”
“My apologies, Kagura-sama. We aren’t asking for your consent. You can understand that much, can’t you?” The man in the middle replies with a snort and a tinge of irony in his voice. His eyes are serious.
“Of course I can understand. I simply refuse to comply. So, what will you do?”
I mockingly smile at them. There are three of them and I’m in rather poor shape; I need to at least pretend I have the upper hand. I can’t afford to waste energy here.
“You don’t honestly think that excuse will work, do you?”
The central man narrows his eyes in fury, any hint of respect gone from his voice.
“I’m confident in my ability to make it work, at least here and now.”
The three men are petty grunts, and I ensure that my gaze carries the proper degree of ‘respect’.
“I see. We may not be a match for you, Kagura-sama, but you certainly wouldn’t spill Family blood, would you?”
His face distorts further, but he seems determined to retain a degree of calm. His voice, at least, is still level.
“Of course not. All I ask for is a bit of time to prove my innocence in this little misunderstanding. I wouldn’t harm a hair on your heads.”
In that respect, I’m perfectly serious. To hurt them in the process of my escape would be a poor plan indeed. Disarming them should be acceptable, but–
“…Speaking of which, just who are those grim-looking men with you? I can hardly commend involving outsiders in a Family matter.”
The man in the middle is a puppeteer, that much is clear, but the other two men seem to belong to a different profession entirely. The nature of the mana coursing through them and the nature of their muscling would suggest them masters of a more physical persuasion. Their clothes seem tailored as to not inhibit their movements, implying mastery in fisticuffs, or perhaps a different small weapon. A low-level puppeteer poses no threat, as destroying his karakuri would incapacitate him completely, but the other two use their very bodies as weapons. Dealing with them might prove difficult.
“These two? Mere servants. Like grass by the roadside, there’s no need to pay them special attention.”
“…What interesting grass to bring into the middle of a city. I was unaware it grew so wild here.”
“Don’t they always say that the grass that pushed up through the concrete is hardier than the normal variety?”
“…I still have some reservations with your choice of metaphor, but enough of that. I suppose this is your way of saying you’re prepared to resort to violence to bring me in, is it?”
“Indeed. If you were to resist us here, you would become the enemy of the Six Families in an instant. I hope you’ll make the clever choice. We ourselves don’t wish to make this incident any bigger than it needs to be. What, can’t you trust we would treat you fairly until we’ve proven your guilt?”
Hah, what a farce. The Association has always maintained the questionable policy of punishing the suspicious, not the guilty. They’ve no need for ‘evidence’ for my guilt. Only the head of a certain vampire could clear my name now.
“…I know full well what situation I’m in. I see there’s no point trying to talk sense into you. I’ll be taking my leave now. As you were.”
I separate my back from the wall, rest Shiro on my shoulder, and slowly start walking towards the alley’s exit behind the three men. I haven’t yet reached my physical limit, but my opponents have no way of knowing exactly how much stamina I have left. That will be the key to turning the tables this time around. Humans are inherently calculating creatures, and the four of us are no different.
I make a show of breaking into a run, then pretend to stumble. Naturally, the two larger men take advantage of that ‘opening’ and run forwards to attack. I suppress the urge to break out in a grin. They must have decided my fatigue is truly so great as to trip over my own feet, and as such they don’t even consider the possibility of a trap, charging with arms outstretched as if to grab me.
I, however, simply extend some Thread towards the pair. Thread is, fundamentally speaking, a means of physically moving things at a distance, and the human body is just as susceptible to it as any karakuri. The act of running shifts the body’s center of balance forward, the posture maintained by momentum generated by the legs. Steady footing, constant abdominal weight, shock absorption by the knees – all of these factors are essential enough that missing even one can result in a fundamental mechanical breakdown.
With a gentle tug of Thread, I guide the men’s knees a little further inwards and their torsos a little further forward. That alone is enough to cause their knees to lock, and without slowing down the pair magnificently stumble and tumble past, missing me entirely. Behind them, the puppeteer’s eyes bulge and he reaches into his cloak to deploy his karakuri, but he’s far too slow.
I beat him to the draw, deploying a musketeer rabbit, and the second his karakuri appears, a single shot deals a shattering blow to its core. A mere novice such as him requires such a core to assist with the complex motions required for combat. Without said core, his karakuri is all but useless to him, and with that my escape is assured.
Without paying him any further mind, I run past him and beyond, down the dark and empty road beyond.
One could say that puppetry is, at its core, a form of psychokinesis. By connecting the Thread to an object, it is possible to imbue it with one’s own mana and manipulate it from a distance. One could phrase it as the puppeteer is an electrical generator, the thread is the copper wire through which mana, or electricity, flows, and the target object is the electrical appliance. The higher quality the wire, the more effectively the appliance is powered. Often, this ‘appliance’ is a karakuri, and through the flow of mana it comes to life, acting and to a limited extent even thinking as an independent weapon. As long as the Thread is correctly attached to a karakuri, even an idiot could control it properly. Thus, once one has grasped the fundamentals and can properly supply mana, technique all but leaves the equation; stronger karakuri draw more mana, and as such the more mana one possesses, the stronger one becomes.
In that aspect, one might even call me a failure. Skilled at using the Thread as I am, one strand of Thread is no different from any other once affixed to a karakuri. Even though I can utilize as many as ten threads at once, I can’t fight as any normal puppeteer would, as my mana reserves are scarcely greater than the average person’s.
That’s why I needed to innovate.
By putting all of my Thread into Shiro, he can transmit my mana as a radio might, ‘wirelessly’ controlling a large number of inferior rabbit karakuri. Only the smallest volume of mana is required to bring them to life, given their basic construction. By exponentially increasing the time I devote to preparation, I can reduce my active mana consumption in battle to its absolute minimum. With this technique, it would be theoretically possible to animate an army of a hundred. To put it simply, I fight with quantity over quality. Even the greatest of warriors could not best an entire army single-handedly. By thus creating an army, and by myself no less, I can create an advantage in nearly any situation. That much is certain, undeniable. And yet–
Now, that strategy has begun to fail me.
How many hours have I been running? Chest heaving, I try to analyze my current situation.
I stand at the end of a dead-end alley. My opponents number frive puppeteers, commanding between them ten karakuri, and though they have since dwindled to eight, my exhaustion has been to take a serious toll. I can’t escape given such odds, either — I’ll have to wipe them out first.
My enemies numbered six, now four, demon-faced Kimen, mass-produced karakuri that tower over me at nearly two meters with massive sickle-like claws. Behind them, three Byakudou, cloaked human-sized karakuri wielding hefty staves. A step behind them hovers a Yamainu, a muscular winged tengu brandishing a Buddhist ringed staff.
A rather impressive group indeed, well deserving a heavy sigh. Against such numbers, my few remaining rabbits have hardly a chance. My splitting headache and double-vision are hardly helping. I suppose one warrior can hardly best an army after all. Unable to even give any half-decent orders to my rabbits, and in such a cramped space, my opponents cut down karakuri after karakuri. The best I can do is deploy ever-more rabbits to deplete the fallen, biting my lip in frustration all the while.
Even the Kimen possess enough raw power to split concrete, making them lethal in even an incompetant’s hands. Karakuri are designed such that even general directions are filled in with the puppet’s own basic intelligence. Though they are mass-produced, they’re plenty sufficient for hunting fiends, after all.
Another rabbit falls to a Kimen’s claws. A bullet of mana fired by a Byakudou is narrowly deflected by one of my shield rabbits, and yet at this rate my ranks shall break. Even the slightest opening would be sufficient for the Yamainu to swoop in and end this one-sided conflict.
My musketeer rabbits shoot down another pair of Kimen, but six enemies still remain. Considering my fifty-nine rabbits have now been reduced to twenty-three, however, anyone could tell who would be the victor of a battle of attrition. At this rate, I’ll surely lose.
“So, Puppetmaster? Finally ready to admit defeat?”
The Yamainu’s puppeteer begins to mock me. The man is of the Kuzuha Branch Family, just like the youth I’d beaten in the rite, and should memory, serve he’s an assistant instructor.
He sends his Yamainu circling up higher into the air, then diving at me head-on. A pair of shield rabbits intercept it, but unable to kill the force of the impact entirely, the rabbits and myself are all sent flying back against the alley wall together. The air is knocked from my lungs, my breath catching. I frantically resist the urge to vomit from the pain. Finally regaining control of my trembling body, I move to stand but find the great tengu’s staff at my neck.
“It’s over, and don’t you complain about playing dirty. Combat is all about forcing yourself into the most advantageous position. Didn’t your precious master, the previous Father Sakagami teach you as much?”
I suppress the urge to retort. My words would have no effect on him even if I did. My happiness and anger, my sadness, nothing has ever, could ever reach the ears of these men. Their only care is my ‘filthy’ blood, their disdain for me, their refusal to so much as look at me even as they cast their stones. How could such a paltry thing as ‘words’ help me now? When have they ever helped me, when they never once listened? The answer is simple. My path is one and one alone, as it’s always been.
Not with words but with actions, not with amiability but with fear, teach them just what would happen if they should dare to lay a hand on me.
I narrow my eyes slightly. His attempt to hold a conversation with me now is indeed fortunate. Even if he is in an overwhelming superior position, he must be a true fool to give me such an opening.
“…You really are a sad little bastard. Your rotten personality and heritage aside, you had real skill. The whole Family will be sad to see talent like yours go.”
I take a few deep breaths, totally relaxing my body. This is more than enough time to rest.
The man made a critical mistake. If he truly wanted to capture me, he should have knocked me unconscious when he had the chance. What an utter novice!
I draw the last remaining dregs of mana from Shiro, and with one last, soft smile, I cut the Threads attached to him. Instead, I wrap the Threads around my own body. Even if my body were to break completely, like this I can move as long as I remain conscious.
Yes, just like a puppet.
Manipulating my own body, I kick the ringed staff out of the way, spring to my feet, and put a gentle hand to the Yamainu’s neck.
–They call me a puppet. No matter how convenient I am, no matter the functions I possess, no matter how superior I may be to a human, there lies within me no heart, no will, they say. More than anything, they fear me coming to life, taking offense to their words, moving my own body for once, baring my own fangs. The fear and shun me for it. Yes, to them I am a heartless puppet, and a puppet can never be more than a puppet. Nothing can change. Why bother playing human around them? Why don’t I show them why they’re so scared? Why don’t I show them that their thoughts, their words, mean nothing to me.
“…Hehe, thank you. I’ll be taking this little one from you now.”
Before the men can get over their shock, I pour all the mana I can muster into the Yamainu’s neck through all ten Threads. Though I remain tragically limited by my stamina, I have more than enough strength to overpower the man’s five Threads and wrest control, even if only momentarily. Luckily, karakuri know no allegiance further than whoever happens to be pulling their strings at any particular moment, mere putty in their master’s hands.
I can tell from the fear in the puppeteer’s eyes that he knows it’s over, and I shan’t disappoint him. Shuddering only slightly, the Yamainu turns to face its once-comrades. This particular karakuri is specialized for aerial superiority, designed to make powerful thrusts with its staff during high-speed dives. A simple yet brilliant tool of death, in other words — and in my current state, it’s far better to focus ten into one than split one into ten.
In seconds, the Yamainu reduces three of my foes’ karakuri to scrap, leaving but one Kimen and one Byakudou. My borrowed friend nimbly dodges the Byakudou’s mana bullet before throwing its staff into the cloaked figure’s chest. Without bothering to watch it fall, the Yamainu grabs the Kimen’s head and twists it nearly a full revolution before slamming it into the ground and plunging its fist through the opponent karakuri’s chest. Abandoning the now-useless Yamainu, I reclaim control of my rabbits. One decapitates it with a hatchet, then a shield rabbit pierces its core with its spear, ending its ‘life’.
The rabbits turn their attention to the group of now-unarmed puppeteers where they tremble. I give them a warm smile.
“Don’t complain that I played dirty, now. That’s the law of the battlefield, isn’t it?”
“Your little friend there was quite enjoyable to control, I might add. Quite clever, quite faithful, and oh-so-useful, but…”
I warp my smile into a wicked grin, making sure all the men can see it full well.
“…In the end, puppets are puppets, worthless heaps of trash that could betray their master without a moment’s notice.”
“…You’re not talking about the puppet, are you?”
“Well, both of us have been dancing in someone else’s palm, that much is certain. I suppose as far as you’re concerned, I might as well be talking about myself. We may as well leave it at that.”
I subtly strengthen the Thread keeping my body standing. I mustn’t show a moment’s weakness, not in my breath, face, or manner. I’ll make them believe my exhaustion moments before was but an act, all an elaborate scheme. Perhaps because of their ‘pride as a puppeteer’ or some nonsense, they naturally aren’t carrying a gun or other secondary weapon, but should they realize how exhausted I am, the tables could easily turn once more.
Calmly and confidently, I head for the exit of the alleyway.
“…You’re the devil.”
“Oh, my, what harsh language! To think you’d call a pretty young thing such as myself a devil, of all things! Hehehe!”
I chuckle, then continue in a far lower voice as I pass them.
“Go ahead, call me a devil if you must. Your words cannot harm me. I’m not so narrow-hearted as to mind the whimpering of beaten pups.”
They aren’t me, nor I them. We can’t understand one another, nor should I wish to. This is hardly the first time I’ve been called a devil or a puppet. Since no retort, no amount of effort can bridge the gap between us, what should it matter? Where there is reason, obligation is all but irrelevant, and where there is obligation, reason is ignored by necessity. What should foul or underhanded tactics matter, then, if reason prevails, and I’m freed of such paltry debts?
I had thought that I would do as she wanted, be her doll.
“…I’m all too used to hearing those words by now.”
Even she, however, isn’t around anymore.
How long has it been since I left that alley? Come to think of it, they must have known I’d flee well beforehand; that last altercation marked the third in succession since meeting that vampire. I’ve reached my limit. Fortunately, the sky is beginning to lighten, and I can’t imagine they’d be so foolish as to attack me in broad daylight.
I find an abandoned building, two floors, only one staircase, and one full wall with nothing but windows. It should be easy enough to deal with any opposition here.
Resisting the urge to lie down, I instead sit slumped against a wall. My breathing is exceptionally ragged, and my heart is beating so hard it feels as though it may burst. My throat is so dry it’s painful, and my sweat had dried in the long night run, sticking my clothes frigidly to my body. I curl up further to give Shiro an affectionate stroke, yet he remains lifeless in my arms. It must be because I had robbed him of the last of his mana; without mana, he’s only a doll. I can hardly animate him now, but clutching him close to my chest alone is enough to fight my throbbing headache and my shivering. If I were to relax now, I can tell I’d lose consciousness almost instantly.
All I have to do is wait for the sun to rise and for foot traffic to increase somewhat. Then, I’ll ride a taxi or some such out of the city to hide out for a spell. I can’t possibly take that vampiress’ head in such a state, and certainly not while being hunted by the Association; recovering comes first. Therein lies the problem, however – fleeing my pursuers is a trial in and of itself.
I raise my arm, just to see how badly I’m trembling. If they find me now, my fate is sealed; I should prepare for the worst. To think that in the end, I should leave it all to mere fate. I try to smile cynically, but it turns into a series of hacking coughs. Covering my mouth with my hands, I curl up into a ball. Every cough sends my brain rattling, and in moments I’m gasping for breath. A few long moments pass before I can finally breathe normally again.
Come to think of it, my health often worsened like this when I was a child. My environment had certainly improved since then, but I suppose I was always a somewhat sickly child.
Mother would always cast me an irritated glare every time I coughed, but she never hurt me then, and she’d often let me spend the entire day in bed. I might have even neglected my health on purpose just for such luxurious treatment. I resist the urge to laugh. She must have only treated me in such a manner because my death would have been troublesome to deal with, but nonetheless, I remember the sheer joy I had felt in such moments. What was she feeling back then, exactly?
I think for only a moment before putting my hands to my neck. A chill runs down my spine. There was only one truth. One ending. Any more hopeful interpretation would be nothing short of self-deception. In the end, what she really thought of me is in these faded old nail marks.
Suddenly, I sense someone approaching, and I turn my eyes to the doorway. I can hear a single pair of feet, and the mana I can feel radiating from their owner certainly doesn’t belong to an ordinary human. I struggle to stand. Maybe they split up to search for me? At any rate, I might be able to resist against a single foe.
If there’s even but a shadow of a chance, I’ll take it.
“Haha, found you!”
The room seems to spin about me. I squeeze out my last vestiges of mana, extending Thread beneath my skirt to deploy a single musketeer rabbit. My brain feels as though it’s ripping itself in half. I can’t even see the puppeteer where he must stand in the doorway.
“Just one? Hah, lucky me! Taking you in’ll be easy as twisting a baby’s arm. Even if you’re the Puppetmaster, you’re nothing but a little girl now!”
I try to retort, but a cough comes out instead of words. The Thread at my fingertip dissipates, and I collapse. I feebly reattempt the connection, but I don’t have even that much mana left. I can’t feel my body at all now. Ahh, what an anticlimax.
The footsteps grow louder.
“I don’t even need to be a good puppeteer to take you–Ugh!?”
A low THUD echoes out, and I blearily look up at the source.
I recognize that voice from somewhere… that face…
And yet, before I can place it–
–I pass out.
◆ ◆ ◆
I lie down on the carpet, holding my rabbit to my chest. I’ve already cleaned every corner of the room, and the water has already boiled. I can rest a little now. She won’t be angry as soon as she comes home. I forgot to boil the water yesterday, and so she hit me a lot. I can feel my chest hurt just thinking about it.
Mommy keeps telling me to do it, but I forget so easily. That’s why Mommy gets mad. Why am I so stupid? I know Mommy is only hard on me because she wants me to be better. She hates my hair a lot, but she’s still really nice to me. She lets me eat food, and even better–
“Hehehe… so cute…”
I smile at the bunny rabbit in my arms. She even gave me my best friend. She doesn’t hate me. She gets mad at me because she loves me.
A bit of the thread near the rabbit’s ear is coming a little loose. I’ll fix it the next time she goes to work. I’ve got to treat her present nicely.
I’m a little bored waiting for Mommy. Mr Sun’s just starting to peek out from behind the curtain, so she’ll be home soon. She always comes home about this time, smelling like alcohol.
Ah, that’s right! I get up and take a cup from the cabinet. Mommy always drinks a glass of cold water when she comes home. If I get the water and ice ready for her, maybe she’ll compliment me. What a great idea! I eagerly start pouring water into the cup when I can hear the door rattle. Mommy’s home.
I rush to the door to find Mommy there. She looks really tired.
“Um… would you like a glass of water?”
I put Mommy’s shoes in order as I always do, then go stand beside the table. She’s drinking the cold water I made without saying anything. I feel really happy. I smile a little. Mommy turns to look at me and narrows her eyes slightly.
“Ah… Sorry, Mommy.”
Scary! I cover my head with both hands. She hates it when I smile. I wait and I wait, but the pain never comes. I peek out from between my hands. She stands up, puts the glass of water on the table, and looks down at me.
“…You really are sick, aren’t you? Can’t you even hate me right?”
Her voice sounds really weak and tired. She’s not mad this time?
“………You’re not going to hit me?”
“It doesn’t matter. Nothing in this shitty life matters. Don’t you think so?”
“Um… I don’t get it, uh… sorry I’m so dumb…”
“…You might be just a little brat, but you’re too smart for your own good. Honestly, I can’t believe something so intelligent and fair-mannered like you came out of me. It’s like you wound up in this fucking family by mistake.”
I think she’s complimenting me. That makes me happy. She’s never called me smart before. But why doesn’t she look very happy?
“Other kids your age are spoiled by their loving mommies and spending their time in kindergarten, screwing around with their friends. But just because you were born into the wrong family, you spend all your time cleaning and getting beat up… Don’t you feel sorry for yourself, you little monster? No, of course you don’t. If you did, you couldn’t show me that damn smile.”
“…Did I do something wrong? I’m really sorry…”
“Hehe, no, you didn’t do a goddamn thing. You never deserved to get beaten, not once. I only hit you because I can’t stand the sight of you. How the fuck can you keep following me around like a goddamn puppy? Not that it matters now, I guess.”
Mommy smiles at me, then reaches up and strokes my neck with both hands.
“Mommy’s a bad person. She ran away from home, but since she never even had a plan she had to sell her body, and even the asshole she fell for abandoned her. Every time mommy sees those eyes and that hair, she remembers that bad man and gets so angry she doesn’t know what to do. I called my brother inhuman for what he did, but look at mommy. She’s inhuman, too.”
Mommy tightens her hands, little by little. It gets harder and harder to breathe, and soon I can’t breathe at all. I hit Mommy’s arms, but her hands don’t get any looser.
“Mommy’s up to her fucking eyeballs in debt. She wishes she could just kill herself, but this is just as much your fault as it is hers, so she’s going to strangle your little brains out first. I hope you’re born in a better family next time around.”
I’ve never seen Mommy smile so kindly. I stop hitting her arms. It hurts, but she’s doing this for my sake. I want to be a good girl, so I’ll be strong.
Everything starts going black. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts. Holding that pain dear in my heart, everything disappears.
I don’t remember what happened next.