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T-Toh

5 (part 4)

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"----Time to lock and load."

'This is so over the line, I can't believe I'm doing this.' Aoko grumbled to herself.
...........enemy...........................rank
This puppet possessed a quality different to the one she took down at the public park two nights ago.
It was a collector's item -- functioning as a perpetual motion machine with the aid of its self-regulated singing. Yet, it participated in battles
...............................................................................................................................................Gandr
exaggerated by its stretching arms, and its eyes were both crystals that projected hexes.
It was a top-of-the-line contraption, which easily amounted to somewhere in the nine digits in terms of Japanese yen.

Nevertheless. The puppet was an antique, as far as it went.
For combat purposes, it was only appropriate to employ familiars suited for fighting. Furthermore, it was much cheaper that way.
Where big spenders throwing so much money on getting people killed were concerned, the puppet's creator had definitely shifted gears to be absolutely nothing like the 'enemy' they were up against until recently.

"Vivimus in somnus. Solitari putris in inferos.
Hodie mea obiit die, et mea natus die. Te obire."


"----Here it comes."

A music box grinding out its grainy melody.
The automaton was drawing nearer, getting its ability to move from the act of cursing its own self.
This passageway's length was around ten meters. At that one corner, Aoko was lying in wait for the puppet to appear.

......The last thing she wanted to do was put an end to it here so that Soujuurou Shizuki could get away. Make no mistake.
Aoko just had a very vivid idea of how running away from the puppet would help her right now, which it would not.

If she had chosen to make a run for it, using the little luck she had would take her as far as out of the mirrorhouse, but that was it.
Getting outside where there was no cover would make it easier for the puppet to catch her, running her through from behind.

So long as her ability to use magecraft was cut off, Aoko stood no chance of shaking off her pursuer.
Therefore, she took the option to fight the puppet off right here.
Her side of things looked terrible, but the same went for her enemy.

While this narrow passageway provided Aoko with zero means of escaping, on the other hand, the puppet was also incapable of going at full speed.
Such was its mechanical drawback.
Slowed down by its choppy advance, it had awful performance, especially for an automaton from a dated era.
............Set
"----Connect."

She ran magical energy into her heavily damaged Magic Circuits.
......Both blood circulation and the provisional flow of magical energy were going absolutely haywire.
Putting together a magecraft formula like this was next to impossible.
Preparing her right hand with magical energy, all she could do was make it roughly sturdier than usual. Since Aoko's weapon was a hammer, it was a blunt instrument that barely lived up to the effectiveness of a baseball bat. Getting close to her enemy was the moment of estimation, so she was unbelievably helpless.

That said, there was also tactics.
Right now, she had no other weapons to choose from, and there were no options for how exactly she should fight with her hammer.
Dreaming up a solution was easy: she could make use of the mirrors and hide herself, and attack the puppet from a blind spot---- however, it would never work.

Afterall, the puppet was a sight-less creation.
It saw the world, not through visual information, but through the nature of its surroundings.
It possessed a pretense similar to a nocturnal creature like the bat. Emitting waves of high frequency and tuning in to the sound bouncing off surfaces, it used echolocation to gauge the area it was in.
.................................................. .............................sensor
Its singing also played a part in creating sound waves. To the puppet, the walls were merely transparent boards, a laughable attempt at surprise attacks from within the darkness.

'......The closer I am, the more it'll definitely sense me......would've been a great idea to snipe it at long range......but if it fires Gandr shots, then it's got a Finn Shot stowed away as well......'

Gandr shots were popular in Northern Europe, a simple, general-purpose, highly regarded hex. Its enhanced version could chip away the physical health of a target by a simple 'point of the finger'.
..................Single Action
It was a single-process magecraft, therefore its effectiveness was restricted to just making targets 'sick', but there was a secret art to it -- said to be at the heart of creating Gandr shots.
According to the 'Finn Shot'.
Instead of inflicting illness, it was a deadly curse that stopped the heart of the recipient.

"............Urk."

The wound her back received was agitating her nerves.
A young girl who lost her weapon, and an automaton with instant death as its last resort.
No matter how the scenario was played out, the only one getting killed here was her.
Given Aoko Aozaki's current state, there was hardly anything she could think of that would help her pull through this encounter, also----

The vision that appeared, caused a chill to shoot through her.

"----"

Aoko quietly, with all of her heart and soul, endured the illusion she was so used to by now.
She could almost hear her back teeth crunching together.................illusion
Ah, still, she could feel fingers brushing the back of her neck. The ghost behind her stood watching, smiling.
She was this close to just bolting off and away, and yet the simulation she ran through her brain after five seconds was -- after waging ten fights, she fell down twice.

......Twice. Her predictions were sometimes more real than reality itself.
......Done ten times, twice. The thought of it was not enough. She was seeing too much, the vision swam before her eyes -- the dead remains of her former self, this was the truth.

"----, gh."

She took the puppet's curse, and fell over.
Her eyeballs wider than a pufferfish's, blood and urine oozing from her ears, nose, mouth. Twice, twice, twice. Even if putting up with it once was more than she could take, there was no way she could do something as crazy as dying twice......!

"----, ----Still, I..."

She clamped a hand over her heart as it tried to twist itself.
'What about it?' Taking a deep breath, Aoko stared at her reflection in the mirror and told herself that.

----Half a year ago, remember the white night.
This right here, doesn't even compare to that.
The Kuonji European-style building half a year ago.
.................................................. .....................................Wondersnatch
When it showed up in the thick fog, the White Rose Hound probably couldn't kill you a hundred out of ten times.

"Mea anima immortalitas. Autem mea futura necata eram.
Manes sum. Animae definire ambiguus est."

Aoko's illusion, was vanquished by the sorrowful hex.
It had a distance as far as ten meters.
The puppet girl appeared around the corner to meet her.
Two separate shadows with obscured profiles.



She had no opening remarks, or an option to make the first move.
...........................................Gandr
The puppet launched its hex, escaping Aoko's detection.
It was just as she predicted, and she responded by casting a haze of magical energy in the hex's path.

It was a dense cloud that lasted for only a few seconds.
Seizing the chance,

'----Yikes!'

The elastic lance, shot towards Aoko's face!

"Gh, gotcha----!"

The lethal weapon grazed the side of her face.
Sidestepping the puppet's attack by a margin when it lashed out at an opening, was the result of knowing its next move.

Besides having its strings pulled, the number of actions an automaton acting on its own could do was limited.
Since she could face off with an enemy simply programmed to slaughter targets via templates such as, 'this range, this attack', Aoko took a shot in the dark with her own luck.

'Now's my chance----!'

Before the puppet retracted its extended arm, she was going to charge at it.
Even when her prospects looked bleak, she still seized her chances of winning.
The scales of victory were tipped in Aoko's favor.
Dying twice out of ten times according to her estimation, was if it had used a Finn Shot instead.



As it were.
As of now, the puppet's attack pattern took a huge leap beyond her expectations.

Rapid mass movement. Or perhaps, carrying.

Not even two seconds after Aoko dodged the puppet's lance of an arm,
when a strange weight, slammed into her.

"Oogh, ugh......!"

It just looked like she was shot with a rocket, a head-on collision from the shoulder up.
However, where exactly did that propulsion power come from?
Being able to send itself flying like that -- even though the puppet was never stated to come equipped with that function......!

'*pant*----, *pant*----!'
While keeping herself from passing out at the extreme pain, Aoko was quick to see the true nature of the puppet's assault.

'Just now, it wasn't flying towards me -- it pulled itself towards me......!'

Yes. Rather than taking its arm back, the puppet pierced the wall, and pulled its body towards Aoko......!

'Is, is this for real----!?'

While swallowing her shock, Aoko desperately straightened her posture.
Her abdomen and diaphragm took the enemy's body slam really hard. Shock from the impact had also made her vision swim. Still, the puppet was amazingly light. It was thanks to it that her bones and organs were in no danger of being seriously damaged, but she was still gasping for air. Aoko was shaken by the turn of events, but at the core she was still very much calm, cool, and collected. She could tighten her grip on it if she even had two more seconds. No, scratch that, it would take her two seconds to get herself back to normal!

No, no, keep it together, I'm already keeping it together, can't see straight so I don't know the distance, it's OK, my breathing and vision can wait, for now my body's gotta----

Intellectum non necessitas, et pius non necessitas. O nostrum essentia auferati eramus,
'There's no need for thought. Faith in God is a heavy load. Oh, our natures are a
Ratio figur tantum est. Doloris initium encephalon.
struggle, so reason is an excuse after everything. The source of pain, comes from the brain.'

Above her, was a distorted, moving sound.

'Move, feet......! But where, where do I even go----'

She could feel Death looming over her.


Iis salvatio
.......................Iis salvatio.......................Iis salvatio
'Salvation for us will be. Salvation for us will be. Salvation for us will be.'

A distance they could close if they stretched their hands out,
a distance that could kill her if their hands came down.

'----There's a, a blind spot with the right arm......!'

Out of pure intuition, Aoko rolled herself over to the puppet's right.
Its right arm was still wedged into the wall.
Doubtless, there were no attacks to be expected from that side. She was right to think that way, even her little dizzy spell went away.

Throw away correctness. Say goodnight to piety.
"Intellectum non necessitas, et pius non necessitas.
We are beasts that devour each other, such life is all a decoration.
O nostrum essentia auferati eramus,
As we are, cast out all of reasoning----
Ratio figur tantum est. Doloris initium encephalon."

Pulling herself together, it was Aoko's turn as she looked up at her enemy.

'Huh----?'


.......................................................................................................................................figure
For a moment. Inside this mirror maze, she saw someone sporting the same looks as her.

Iis salvatio
"LET US, DIE HERE----"



Such prominently dazzling light.
Gashes resembling claw marks made into the walls..............................................magical energy
The puppet had just used its trump card, and by increasing the concentration of blood running through her body, Aoko barely withstood the short-range fatality with her raw anti-magecraft skill.

"Gh, you, sick............!"

A puppet that was exactly like her................................................... .................destroyed
It was for more than causing her heart to stop -- it was a potent hex that tore down all matter.
As eye-popping a phenomenon it was, now was not the time to sit there and ogle.

This was definitely the moment of opportunity.
The puppet teetered in place while its right arm was still stuck in the wall.
She was ready to kick it where it really hurt. Then, Aoko fell to the floor on her knees.

I live even as I slumber. I rot alone in the soil.
"Vivimus in somnus. Solitari putris in inferos.
Today's the day I'm born, my birthday. Now, let's go see you.
Hodie mea obiit die, et mea natus die. Te obire."


She suddenly felt like gagging. She suddenly felt anemic.
Her body was getting colder by the second, and she prayed it was far from true.
'Darn it......this thing's, spreading its curse......!'
She was too late to realize what was happening.
All around it, the puppet's hex surged forth.
Its source of power was its curseful poetry, which was now a means to ward off approachers by bringing the state of sickness about.

She was smack dab in the sick radius.
Aoko had her Magic Circuits, but just like Soujuurou, she was having her health worn down.
Languid and ready to collapse onto herself, Aoko snapped out of it, and threw herself away from the puppet.

"Gh, don't think you've beat me......!"

With a scream, she shook off the hex's weakening effect on her.

"----, oh."

However, anemia made by its curse, was eclipsed by another plummet in her blood pressure...as Aoko saw her dilemma approaching.
It was a golden opportunity.
In front of her when she jumped back, stretching out its left arm and throwing it like an arrow, was the automaton whose face she shared it with.

......The lethal weapon was on target, and flying straight for Aoko's heart.

Still, just before it hit.

"Watch out."

Thinking that somehow, his casual attitude managed to completely miss the death missile headed her way, Aoko's entire body was suddenly and very forcefully pulled to the side.

Once again, the arm stretched out and grabbed empty air.

The puppet quickly retracted its arm, but without further hesitation, he took Aoko's hand, and ran off as fast as he could go.
----------------------------------------------------------------
He ran aimlessly through the passageway. As soon as they were way out of the puppet's range, Soujuurou came to a stop and began to talk.

"So, I was thinking."

The rescued party was clearly less than happy with him. Even so, making up his own mind about it, he gave her a sensible explanation.

"Tomorrow, it's going to be another busy day."

'So, can't we wrap this business up today instead?'
Such made up the rest of his bizarre plan. To that,

"----"
Aoko kept her mouth shut.
While she was at it, she was also fairly upset.
Not that she knew how this boy's head worked at all, but that was beside the point.
Letting him go free, only for him to go ambling back to her side? Beside the point.
Annoyed by the stupidity that he toted with him and his everyday existence? Beside the point.
......To put it, in that instant.
The moment he took her hand and pulled her away -- without thinking and just acting on something, was the single most reprehensible thing to do for someone like Aoko.

Therefore,

"Have you, completely lost it?"

Out came those words. She never meant them to be so forceful.

"Or do you just have a deathwish? People like me, and that thing, exist to kill types like you.
Don't think I'm thanking you for this.
FYI, I got a code that I stick to -- especially after getting bailed out of a pinch."

'Yes, you do.' Soujuurou answered with a nod.

"Aozaki, I get the bone-tingling sense that you're your least adorable for just tonight."
"----"

That made Aoko sort of unhappy to hear.

"But because you've got the wrong idea, you're also right in a way.
Aozaki, you're not the only person she's after. It isn't just you -- I think she also wants to kill me."
'That is a bold-faced lie now.'
Her gaze sharpening even further, Aoko scowled at Soujuurou.

"I'll tell you everything. ......Whatever it means, it's on the ground floor entrance, isn't it? The narrow tunnel we came through.
For some reason, I just can't seem to get further than that. Even if I want to leave, I can't. So, I had no choice but to come back here."
Aoko's eyes widened a fraction.
'That can't be!' Not so much from surprise, but to give kudos to the enemy for thinking that far ahead.

"So now, I'm definitely being treated as an enemy. The puppet doesn't like me at all.
......Well, I didn't get a good look at her back there, but I couldn't get the sense that she was alive in any way. Aozaki, you should also be careful around her. She's really, doing more than just making a scary face."
"----That's thoughtful of you, thanks."

"Yeah. And so, this is also my problem now.
Aozaki, you and the puppet. If we think about it, it doesn't matter which of you wins, because either way, I'll still be killed by one of you in the end. Am I wrong?"
"......Valid point. If I have to go there -- you, the witness, would definitely get bumped off. It's what I would do."

"I know. Still, I don't want to be killed by her."
"Huh?"
He was being steadfast.
Soujuurou sounded so emboldened saying it, that Aoko raised her eyes to him.

......Then, at last she noticed it.
Soujuurou's terrible complexion, had gotten worse over time.

"Wait a sec. Are you feeling OK?"
"......Ah, I feel like I just drank about two liters of soy sauce, you know?"

He was shrugging it off the way he would sit down and make small talk, but the beads of cold sweat on his brow were too much to be dismissed as nothing.

'......I get it, it's because the puppet got near you......'

After taking the full force of the puppet's nausea-inducing curse, she could understand how Soujuurou was feeling now.
......She bit her lip at how shortsighted she had been.
He was such an absent-minded guy, but not so much if he could think straight with that.

"......Hey, why didn't you just hide yourself down there?
Would've been a safer move, don't you think?"
'I honestly don't understand you,' said Aoko.
"Aozaki, you didn't tell me to.
----But anyway, we're running out of time talking like this. It's getting close to us already."

Soujuurou eyed the passageway.
......Somewhere in the mirrored darkness, they started to hear the music box's grainy sound.

"I was thinking when I got to the ground floor. If she gets you, she'll also kill me. If so, we should do something about her first."
".....................
What, the heck are you saying now?"

It was obvious, but Aoko still went ahead and asked.
She wanted to know just how determined Soujuurou was being.
Her eyes were fixed on him. If his next words were the opposite of sincere, then she was going to take care of him right here, once and for all.

"How about this? If we work together in terms of beating her, are you going to leave me out of the fight?"
"......Didn't I tell you that my code won't change even if you helped me? Besides, what would you say you could do in this situation?"
"Aozaki, that's up to you to think about. It's what you do best, afterall."

Assigning the right role to every member of the team was a leader's job.
Soujuurou was swelling with pride -- knowing that his woeful grasp of what was going on, his nondistinction between himself and the enemy, and his inability to come up with what to do here all made him unqualified for the position.

"----"
Just as he pointed out, only Aoko Aozaki knew what both Soujuurou and the automaton were like.
Ergo, what he meant was that he would do his best to follow through on anything Aoko would tell him, since that would be the smartest thing to do.
She was this close to giving up on thought, yet despite that -- now that she had come to terms with her own powerlessness, Soujuurou's proposition was nothing short of being the most reliable.

"......So. Everything I say goes, right?"
"Sure. Afterall, this isn't about any sense of obligation with gratitude attached to it.
Together we stand, divided we fall. That's all. It won't be about niceties, or even kindness. Wouldn't you say it's more of a deal between us?"

The honesty behind his eyes said it all -- it was an exchange of principles.

"----Good God."

......This level of wisdom could have only been passed down to this boy, by none other than that simpleton Tobimaru.
As much as she refused to let it show, Aoko wanted to smile at it, just a tiny bit. This was costing her a point, but if she had to say so, there really were such things as losses that were far from frustrating.

"So you'll get something out of the work you'll do. That does make sense.
Yeah, can't believe I'm saying this but----"
After a while, she heaved her shoulders with a sigh.
Willing to get over it, a wicked grin spread across Aoko's face and,

"----That, is totally what I'm game for."

she flung right back the same level of confidence he placed in her.
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