Amidst the falling snow, the two stood out with their vivid colour.
A bewitchingly voluptuous woman, and a beautiful young girl.
Both were clad in beguiling kimonos. The girl was holding an umbrella, to shield the woman from the snow.
At first glance, they looked like sisters. The woman was like a gorgeous rose, and the girl like an elegant chrysanthemum— they had vastly different airs about them, but their facial features had some similarities.
“This is it, isn’t it?”
Coming to a halt in front of a certain estate, they passed through the blackened door.
It looked like there had been a fire. The estate had been completely devastated by it, leaving it a mere shadow of its former self. The smell of burnt ash permeated the place, and the ground was covered in a thin layer of soot.
In the midst of it all, there was a lone boy.
The cold in the air was enough to sting bare flesh, yet the boy had stripped to the waist, making gestures with his fingers like a mountain hermit. An ancient-looking scroll was unfurled before him as focused his magic energy and poured it into the wooden puppet in front of him.
Shakily, like a newborn infant learning to walk for the first time, the puppet took unsteady steps forward.
The boy was making the puppet move. His whole body was drenched in sweat. He was concentrating so hard it looked like he was about to pop a vein, but disproportionate to his efforts the wooden puppet only moved a little.
With wild, ragged breaths, he gritted his teeth hard enough to crack them as he pounded on the floor in irritation with his clenched fists.
His face looked terrible. His cheeks were hollow, and his eyes were sunken in. However his pupils shone with a fierce light, making him look very ghastly. He looked like he was on the verge of dying at any moment.
The boy looked through the scroll with bloodshot eyes, before making gestures with his hands once more. He began to store energy at a point below his navel, and then—
He spewed out blood with a terrible sounding cough.
Racked with coughs, he fell down on his back and stopped moving.
—This was a suitable time. The woman stepped out from under the umbrella the girl was holding, and walked towards the boy.
“That was quite the effort, boy.”
“… I am not ‘boy’.”
The boy replied in a hoarse voice. He was still conscious. His physical endurance was surprising.
“That’s right. You have a name, and it is Raishin.”
A wary look crept into his eyes. The woman gave a mocking laugh,
“I know a lot about you, boy. You’re the sole survivor of the Akabane clan.”
“… Who are you?”
“You’re not very diligent, are you boy? You were born into a house of puppeteers, and yet you don’t know who I am.”
Turning to the girl, she beckoned her over.
The girl seemed to understand what to do. Without any particular instruction from the woman, she stopped in front of the boy, turned her back to him and removed her kimono.
The boy was startled, but he no longer had the strength to cover his eyes.
The girl’s skin was exquisitely beautiful. With neither mark nor blemish on it, it was a smooth as a field of snow.
At the lower left of her beautiful back, above her hipbone, an inscription had been carved into it.
Karyuusai, it read.
That name was one that resonated throughout the world. Even the military’s top brass had acknowledged her as the eminent puppet craftsman of this generation.
So— this girl was an automaton?
The boy’s eyes opened slightly wider. He was shocked by the vibrancy of her complexion. The feel of her skin was exactly like that of a human being.
“She’s pretty, isn’t she? This is one of the Setsugetsuka trifecta, Yaya of the Moon.”
He had only heard of their existence before, Karyuusai’s prized treasure, the Setsugetsuka.
They had never been revealed to the world before. No matter how rich a girl was, there was no way she could have owned one.
Therefore, at this present point in time, the only one who would be in possession of a Setsugetsuka would be the creator himself.
His blood soaked face contorted as he let out a weak laugh.
“You gotta be kidding me… Karyuusai is… a heavy drinker, fond of women, and someone who wildly indulges in the pleasures of life…”
“Oh, so you do know me after all. Yes, that is all true. I do love wine, women and song.”
“That means you’re the one who… created the Imperial Guard’s… Oborofuji…”
The woman turned her head away like it was something tedious, and spoke in an oddly depressed tone.
“That thing was a failure.”
‘A failure…!? That monster…. which changed… the entire landscape of the Fuji training grounds…?”
“It wasn’t beautiful at all.”
The boy was rendered speechless. The woman carried on speaking.
“In this fleeting world however, nothing is useless— thanks to that failure, my fame has grown somewhat significantly. I guess you could call me a celebrity now. And I do have influence amongst the army higher-ups.”
She laughed violently, and stared into the boy’s eyes.
“Enough influence to grant you your wish, boy.”
“Yes. I can help you find the person you hate so much that you want to kill him.”
“To go up against him, I’ll even lend you the world’s best automaton.”
The boy moved his pupils horizontally, his gaze falling onto the beautiful girl standing next to the woman.
If the Setsugetsuka were exactly what the rumours said they were, then it was possible—
“Say, boy. Become mine.”
It was a piercing gaze. The woman lightly and gently touched the boy’s cheek.
The boy’s body stiffened. It was like a dangerous wild beast was staring at him.
What surfaced in the boy’s eyes was the emotion felt when faced with something completely unknown; instinctive fear.
However at the same time, he was charmed by her.
The intensity of her entire existence captivated him, being both poison and antidote.
“The road lying before you forks into two paths, boy. You can either choose to freeze to death here, or you can—“