Prelude: Puppetry

There exists an art known as ‘puppetry’. The puppeteer manipulates a doll from a distance, making the little thing move as though it were alive and had free will… or so most people would tell you. What we do is no different. The root of the art is the same, but the heart is somewhat different, and we don’t use anything as mundane as ‘strings’.

Our ‘strings’ are fine tendrils of mana, connecting us to our ritual puppets, our karakuri, and imbuing them with lifelike qualities. By our will, even the impossible becomes possible, overcoming any limitations a real living being may have and manipulating them perfectly to our wills. You could say such a thing is more weapon than toy, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

Our house is a pedigree of Fiendslayers, the Sakagami Family, the most illustrious of the six Fiendslayer lineages. Our every act upholds our proud name, smites down the evil that dares pervade our lands, and raises our art to ever-greater heights.

This… charade I’m in is just a part of that.

“Puppeteers, begin!”

The opponent before my eyes is the only thing standing between me and the title of Puppetmaster, the greatest practitioner of our craft — and that opponent, that child is something I couldn’t afford to lose to, even if the stakes weren’t so high.

“Is something the matter? I can’t imagine you would be content losing here without even deploying your puppet, but I suppose that’s your choice.”

The embarrassment of the Sakagami Family, the bastard child of a misguided affair, Sakagami Kagura gives me a conceited smirk. The cretin was born to some foreigner woman, filth that the previous Father Sakagami had dragged in. To think I once admired that man! How dare such a prodigy waste his invaluable blood, his time, his energy on such a pitiful creature?

The horrid thing has long, blonde hair, tied into two flowing tails, as if it were still in grade school. She’s dressed in a dress and cardigan as though she were about to stroll through town, not in the most sacred of rituals. Just like the children’s tales of old, her fae appearance is betrayed by the rot at her core. That condescending smile, her impetuously formal tone…! It’s no small wonder she’s gained the malice of the entire family. Never have I seen anyone so evil, so despicable before in my life.  Her only ally was the old Father Sakagami, and now even he is gone. How dare this ungrateful cretin show that carefree smile! 

On my honour and on my pride, I could never lose to such a horrid thing. I’ll crush this child and show the world how a pure-blooded Sakagami acts.

I release my karakuri puppet from within my cloak, the demon-faced Jinka Kurakami, ‘Petal-Cutting God of Disemboweling’. This karakuri, the pinnacle of the Kuzuha Branch Family’s steel puppetry, is supreme in both its durable craftsmanship and its raw power. Within its sleek, meter-long body lie embedded fifty-four distinct weapons, making its raw power superior to even the karakuri used by the Main Family. Only the Main Family’s secret weapon, the ‘Sakura Demon’ Ouka Shouki, could possibly surpass it.

Hmph… the foolish girl hasn’t moved so much as a centimeter. The very appearance of the Jinka Kurakami must have paralyzed her with fear. She had mocked me for withholding my karakuri mere moments before, but all she can do now is pitifully clutch that little rabbit to her chest. The stuffed toy is clearly no weapon; to think of it as her karakuri is impossible. As I thought, even if she had the Ouka Shouki, she lacks the courage to use it. The aim of this fight is to incapacitate, not kill, and as such even the slightest mishandling on her part may end in her disqualification. She couldn’t possibly possess such a killing machine, and her arrogance is nothing but a front for her powerlessness. I can’t help but sneer.

“You haven’t deployed your puppet yet. What, got cold feet?”

 “Oh? But I already have. Look, right here. Isn’t he cute?”

She giggles and scratches the doll’s cheek, causing its ears to twitch happily as if it were alive. Her skill may not be bad, and for a master to hone one’s skills with a single karakuri alone is natural, and yet that toy is obviously no weapon. 

My blood begins to boil. This is a sacred ritual, a battle to determine the next master of the craft. How dare this girl bring such a thing here? Has she no dignity, no respect for tradition!?

“I wasn’t talking about that ugly toy. Where’s your real karakuri? You’d better not be planning to catch me off guard, in which case you’re a true failure, no matter the outcome of this match.”

“Of course not. I’m simply using a karakuri fitting of your, ah, ‘unique’ talent level.” She sniggers. Kagura, that mere child, looks at me and sniggers. “Unless I level the playing field somewhat, this fight would hardly be interesting to our onlookers. I had thought you wanted to show them a ‘good’ fight. Unless, of course, you’re hoping to bore them all to death?”

“You really think you’re that great, huh?”

“Oh, you understand how great I am? I must admit, I’m impressed. I seem to have completely underestimated your mental capacities.”

There’s no need to hold back my rage against this gremlin. Mana glowing at seven of my fingers, my maximum output, Jinka Kurakami spurs to life. Given the size and complexity of it, it takes all seven of my fingers to move, but no matter. I will it a few short steps forward before opening its frontal chest plate, revealing a full battery of guns. We’re outside; there’s no need to hold back, and even if I were to kill this impudent little girl by chance, not a soul would mourn her. I pull the ‘trigger’ and countless gunshots ring out. No matter if Ouka Shouki is as fast as the legends say, she couldn’t possibly deploy it in time to stop the storm of death. 

The bullets thunder around her, raising a cloud of dust that obstructs my view of her. At the shrill sound of metal shearing, I grin. She must have finally deployed her real karakuri to use as a shield, but no puppet could withstand such a powerful barrage. Karakuri are weapons, not armor, and attempting to use them as such would only break them. Not even Ouka Shouki could be any different. 

For good measure I fire off three more volleys, eliminating any chance her karakuri could have survived the first. Come to think of it, that brat can’t have survived, either. At worst I may have killed her, and the very thought prompts my body to tremble with joy. She was nothing to begin with, no Father Sakagami to shield her, and if she were to lose her talent through injury or death, no obstacle could stand in my way. 

I suppose the girl wasn’t poor-looking, though… in fact, if I were to ignore her insidious personality, she was quite charming. Should she survive, I could do with her as I pleased and not a soul would object. Unable to suppress my ecstasy any longer, my face splits into a hedonistic grin.

As the dust settles, however, what I find there betrays my expectations completely. The glint of silver steel catches my eye, a sight that couldn’t possibly belong to Ouka Shouki. The shape emerges further to reveal a wall of circular shields, not unlike the phalanxes of ancient Rome, countless pieces combined to produce a glittering shell barring me from her. A moment passes and the wall crumbles to reveal its constituents, innumerable rabbit dolls, each scarcely thirty centimeters tall, equipped with shields and spears as knights of yore. 

Where they came from scarcely bears thinking of; the most basic magic of puppetry is creating an extra-dimensional space within one’s clothes, enabling even a large karakuri to emerge from one’s sleeve or the hem of one’s robe, and naturally weapons could also be stored in such a manner. The problem lies elsewhere.

“What the hell…!?”

The number of them. The sheer number. Even the most accomplished of puppeteers can only control as many puppets as they have fingers. Both the previous and the current Father Sakagami possess the skill to use all ten fingers, and loath as I am to admit it, this girl should also be able to use ten, but no more. And yet, right before my eyes, I witness some thirty rabbit soldiers, slowly advancing, and more continue to emerge from beneath her dress.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I never thought you’d be surprised by little bunnies. These are all my karakuri.”

The rabbit still clutched to her chest scratches its cheek, as if embarrassed for him.

“How there are so many of them! How is this possible!?”

This little brat somehow effortlessly surpasses what is regarded as a fundamental law. Even the higher-ranking Sakagami officials start shouting in astonishment from where they watch on the sidelines.

The girl seems to dominate the air itself.

My fingers begin to tremble with fear, and misinterpreting that as a command Jinka Kurakami fires another volley of bullets. Thirty-five bullets arc towards her, and the rabbits in the line of fire jump into the air to take the blows with their own little bodies. Naturally, the karakuri are sent sprawling backwards, and a fair number of them fail to block. Those that had taken direct hits rapidly begin to fade away.

I let out a sigh of relief. In a proper formation is one thing, but scattered as they are now, it will only be a matter of time before she loses her pawns and is rendered defenseless. I don’t know how she is managing to control so many karakuri at once, but at this rate I can’t lose. 

At that moment, however, I hear a thundering sound and the screech of rending metal, and the sensation of Jinka Kurakami at my fingertips crumbles away.

Standing there at that contemptible girl’s feet is a row of three rabbit karakuri. Each of them has a musket hoisted to its shoulder, a thin line of smoke rising from every barrel. Jinka Kurakami’s legs crumble beneath it, gaping holes visible in its torso even from where I stand behind it, testament to the attack it had just received. 

My body freezes with shock. Jinka Kurakami had the hardest body of any karakuri, a steel shell that should have been impenetrable to any attack such a child could make. And yet this damned girl had done it, and in three shots no less. 

“A word of advice – even an idiot would know to aim for the body of a karakuri if it’s sitting so invitingly open and vulnerable.”

“What…!?”

“I’m afraid your karakuri is the mere toy. Thinking any fight can be won with enough guns, plating the outside with gaudy armor only to leave your underbelly totally exposed… It’s an admirable show of guts, I suppose, but the times have changed. Proper risk management is rather important these days, young master Kuzuha.”

With a chuckle, Kagura waves her arm and the lapine horde advances. I try to flee, but my legs give beneath me and I collapse. Desperately, I attempt to reconnect my mana to my karakuri, but like a wingless fly, it has lost any power it had to resist. In moments the rabbits have surrounded it. They draw large hatchets from their backs, and with terrifying efficacy they dismember it, piece by piece, reducing it to nothing more than scrap metal.

Teeth chattering, I turn to face the girl in horror.

“This… this can’t be happening…!”

“Oh, how cute. You’ve lost your grip on reality, have you? I suppose I can teach you one final lesson before I wrap things up here.”

There isn’t a modicum of glee withheld from her expression, not a shadow on her face, as if she had truly jumped out of a child’s picture book.

“The world revolves around beautiful young geniuses such as myself, not disgusting men like you. We shan’t meet again.”

The rabbits close in around me, hatchets glistening with fresh oil. Without a shred of dignity, knowing no shame, I cover my face with my hands and scream but can’t keep myself from watching what follows through the gaps in my fingers. The axe descends upon me, and with a hot, visceral rending feeling, I feel my insides flow out.

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