I sighed as I sat up, annoyed at myself. Mother always said a shrine maiden’s most basic responsibility of all is towards herself – I couldn’t hope to serve her or help others if I couldn’t take care of myself. Eating enough and eating properly, sleeping right, keeping clean and neat; all elementary things you might not think consciously about, but of vital importance nonetheless. Because it was Mother’s direct teaching, I took it as seriously as I would any youkai extermination: a threat to my health was a thread to my work, and that could not be allowed.
I knew what the issue was. Slowing down to keep pace with Aya for a few days in a row had left me with excess energy. I didn’t think I was the kind to get restless over it, but it built up over time either way.
I took stock of our situation as I thought of what to do to work off the extra energy. The night no longer looked red: the thin white lines now radiated enough clear, bright light that they easily drowned out the moon and stars in intensity. They lacked the red color, as if they were on the inside, and the sky on the outside of a big pane of colored glass. They had nearly covered the entire sky now, and I had to look for a full minute to spot even one tiny patch of starlit sky not covered by the web of light. Whatever this was doing to the world, it would be complete before next dusk.
Aya breathed peacefully, having tumbled into sleep nearly instantly from the fatigue of the day. I felt a strong pull of anxiety as I saw his skinny, pale little limbs shake from another passing shiver, the fire having died down to embers by then. My teeth clenched. It was that same unexplainable protective instinct from before flaring up again. I huffed as I got up and fed the fire, and forcing myself to stop there. It would get improper, otherwise.
I hadn’t seen my friend for almost a full day now, but I quickly nixed the idea of going off to look for him. Aya was vulnerable here, I couldn’t just run off to look for a dog. There was one thing I could do to occupy my time.
I sat near the fire and started to relax, feeling the warmth of the fire wash over me. With some reverence, I drew an ofuda out from a hidden pocket. It was a cut of common, even cheap washi paper, bought off a kindly couple in some remote village I never bothered to learn the name of – I’d cut it to the length of a forearm and painted it with some nice praise towards mother. What was actually written was not that important, I’d been told. I ran my fingers gently over it, feeling the rough texture, the edge of it… Although in the end it was nothing but a tool, it was precious in more levels than just the mundane.
I couldn’t easily burn or tear it if I tried, I knew – just from the calligraphy and from being near my skin as I traveled, it absorbed enough strength to protect itself, somehow. It was a wonder to me. In truth, I had always felt under-informed on how these things worked – rituals, exorcisms, talismans, all the traditional miko work. Mother placed more value in the worldly – specifically, how to deal with people and other practical skills. I knew there had to be some kind of basis to my own spiritual powers, but I had little help there; I knew as much as I needed to get rid of the weak youkai I’d faced outside, to convince the people I was the real deal (sometimes), and not much more than that
There was just one glaring exception. Mother’s own misfortune I was taught plenty about – it was a totally disparate source from what the ofuda were composed of.
But that was irrelevant right then. I re-focused my meandering mind and curled around the charm, leaning forward towards it as if I were shielding it from the world at my back, concentrating on it, meditating as I was taught. I pointed all my senses, my entire mind towards the slip of paper between my hands.
It was a less mystical process than anyone would imagine. In a way, it was no different from regular old mundane concentration, the kind you used when doing math in your head. You must be fully, completely committed. Let all your senses and thoughts run over and past you, flowing towards just one spot like meltwater on a river, and keep your focus completely and utterly. It was exhausting the same way as concentrating on anything is – like aiming at a target for one, two hours at a time, without the cathartic release of trying to hit it, or the expectation of being able to let go any time soon. If that weren’t enough, there was the actual drain of… life force, or faith, or whatever nameless thing the charm used for fuel. I could feel it sloughing off your arms, your legs, your core, like an incorporeal fluid. Be what it may, my body always missed it dearly once it was gone, and made sure I knew about it. I could even call the process brutal, or physical, like I was violently, forcefully dragging off energy from my core through brainpower alone – it certainly didn’t feel very spiritual. It also left me drained both mentally and physically, making it perfect for that moment.
I wasn’t very good at it, particularly that night. My attention kept wandering to the sounds of Aya’s breathing and soft forest noises. It may have been understandable, but by my reckoning, it wasn’t excusable, and I scolded myself for it. Even so, something felt different that night. Mistakes aside, it felt easier, smoother than usual. It drained me less, and yet I felt more flowing towards the ofuda. I deferred wondering about it until after I was done, and kept at the meditation.
It’s difficult to tell the passing of time when you’re in such a state, and I tended to simply go on until I felt too tired to continue. At some point, my attention flagged one time too many, and I felt myself being dragged out of it by the low rustling sound of cloth. I took a deep, calming breath, eyes still closed, while I readjusted to being back in the real world – dizziness was inescapable after these sessions.
Slowly, I opened my eyes, bit by bit, as I had learned to. Looking first at the fire, nearly all embers and ash again. Then, down at the ofuda, nearly glowing with a surprising amount of power. Then, I looked up.
On the other side of the fire, the boy was gone.
No, that wasn’t right. I looked again. There was a massive black shape over where he had been sleeping, large enough to cover twice again the space he took up. I couldn’t see any sign of him. My blood froze and I felt the shock of it urging me into immediate action, but I held off from even twitching, freezing as my instincts urged me to.
That wasn’t good enough. A head popped up from the black form, and suddenly it became clear that it was not just one black form, but two, sprouting impossibly from a the shoulders of a girl a third their size. A familiar youkai, still leaning over my charge. She laid a hand softly, almost tenderly upon his chest, then grinned at me.
With her other hand, she gave a little wave.
Each heartbeat pounded loudly in my ears.
[ ] Move. Now. [ ] Stay as still as possible. Let her make the first move. [ ] Talk. She didn’t seem overtly aggressive before. [ ] Talk. Wait for an opening, when she’s distracted. ____ hope you guys don't mind that i don't put a whole lotta effort in looking for pictures for each update
Adrenaline burned through my veins, evaporating all fatigue and trying to push me into the last mistake I’d ever make. I recalled the people I’d seen killed by youkai just days earlier – limbs that had been torn away, missing gouges of flesh – and those had been the injuries inflicted by the very weak ones, hiding amongst the people. A pulse of nausea flashed through me as I thought of what this creature might be capable of.
Awful, stupid, irresponsible. What was I thinking, this close to a mountain teeming with them? That because I’m here, nothing will come close? What if it had been something keen to quickly kill him, or me? I clenched my teeth in frustration.
The youkai kept that infuriating grin on as she faced me, still leaning over the boy. There was a long pause as we stared at each other. All the routine small sounds of the forest at night seemed to recede, leaving behind just our breathing.
“What do you want?” I finally snapped, half-whispering. It was weak, but I still had no idea how to interact with this monster. Merely talking to it felt like surrender.
“Ah. This is awkward,” her whisper broke through the silence, her grin faltering. “Give me a second.”
Saying that, she turned back to Aya, pawing through his clothes and the cloak he was sleeping in. I tensed up even more, if that were possible, but she didn’t seem to be hurting, or even waking him. Perhaps that shouldn’t have surprised me. If that had been her goal, she could’ve done it any time she pleased.
“Here it is.” She perked up, lifting up the pouch with his protection charm in it. Immediately she wrinkled her brows, stretched her arm out, putting it as far from herself as she could, and made a noise of disgust. “Eugh. Hakurei work, unbearable. I’m confiscating this for now; you won’t be needing it.”
She spun it by the string once and tossed it far upwards. There was a loud, startling caw, and it failed to fall back down. Aya stirred from the noise, but didn’t wake.
“That wasn’t yours. You shouldn’t even be able to go near it.” I said, stupidly. She rolled her eyes, in what I thought was a decidedly un-youkai-like expression.
“Listen carefully,” she began, in a lecturing tone. “It’s about time you got over that 300-year-out-of-date zealot’s attitude. I’ve excused it so far, but the others won’t be so kind.”
She sighed, slumping, then seemed to make a decision. She started walking towards me, deliberately, calmly. I took an involuntary step back.
“I hope you’re not truly this thick, Yoshiko.” Hearing my name from her mouth made me decidedly uncomfortable. “Did you think you could walk into the mountain by yourself and not meet anyone? That your goddess would be, what, hanging out in a cave, alone, and you’d just come across her by searching randomly?”
I hadn’t thought about it, I realized. When I thought of the mountain, I just thought of a normal mountain. Rocks, trees and wildlife. But of course it would be no such thing.
She shook her head, seeing my expression. “The only reason you’ve gotten this close unmolested is thanks to me.” She drew close to me, close enough that I could see the twinkle in her eyes. “I’ll tell you this much: yes, Hina really is in here with us.” I took in a hard breath and opened my mouth to interrupt, but she didn’t pause. “No, I don’t know exactly where, or what she’s doing – It’s a city, you realize. We’ve lived here centuries, dug through and under the mountains – miles and miles and miles of tunnels, halls, storehouses, homes, bathhouses, town squares, stores, tombs, courtrooms, markets and shrines. It’s far larger than any human city,” she said, and it felt like a boast. Having been all over Japan, I highly doubted that last part was true. “You have no chance at all of finding her without interacting – interacting positively! – with some of our kind. So, get over that. You’ll just have to get along.”
She stared into my eyes, looking for something. I nodded hesitantly, sure I had no other choice in that moment, with us hand-spans apart. She nodded back, seeming satisfied. “Good. Let’s practice it.”
I wasn’t allowed to complete the thought. In a blink, she forcibly pulled me in by the arm, directly into her. She wrapped her arms around me and I went completely stiff on reflex.
She was very thin and smelled of nothing much.
“There. See?” she whispered, way, way too close to my ears. “I’m warm and made of flesh and blood. Just like you. I won’t say we’re exactly alike, because that’d be a lie, but we’re close enough. We can be this close and you’re still completely safe.”
She abruptly let go and took a step back, leaving me a little stunned. “Get used to it, is my point. Get used to me, to us, or your chances will be awful. What do you say?
I stayed quiet for a beat. “Ye… Yes. I’ll… try.” I tried to make myself feel less hostile. I didn’t know whether I succeeded, but Aya flashed me a smile.
“Good. I’m glad you understand. Now, go wake the boy up. We’re going in right now.”
“I’m walking with you from here onward. You need a guide, or you will probably die.”
I blinked, face blank.
[ ] No, fiercely. [ ] No, politely. [ ] Fine... for now. ___
“Time’s wasting. I was going to wait until tomorrow, but since you’re up, we may as well get you two a decent place to sleep tonight.
“You were going to wait until tomorrow, after stealing the charm, you mean.”
“That’s not important. It’s not even yours, anyway, and as I said, you won’t be needing it in the mountain.” She smiled, stepping behind me. “It’d make everyone grumpy at you, not to mention make you antsy to use it. I know you shrine maidens.” The smirk she wore came through in her next words. “Best to leave it with someone trustworthy.”
She prodded me forward. “Go on.”
I took two steps before I turned back, taking a good look at her. She still wore a smug expression.
“Just so you know, I understand what you just did, and I don’t like it.”
“How do you mean?” Her eyebrows arched convincingly. “I’ve done nothing at all.”
I frowned. The entire encounter: showing up here at this time, the sudden hugging, all calculated to keep me off balance. Fast-talking, no more and no less. A common con-man’s trade. For a supposed great tengu, she sure chose some crude skills to wield. Nothing would please me more than going against her out of spite, but my brain was in the process re-engaging properly at this point, and refusing her outright was a poor idea.
It wasn’t pleasant admitting it, but she‘d even made a good point. Thinking back, my feelings about youkai hadn’t been so strong before what happened in the village – and should they be? A farmer doesn't 'hate' the rabbits and moles that plague him. I tilted my head at the crow tengu, watching her as I thought. No, this meaningless anger wasn’t a useful emotion. Those lowly, deformed youkai had thrown a wrench in my duties by killing people, and so an unreasonable grudge had grabbed hold my of my heart.
I pried it off then, or at least started to.
Still, some kind of concession seemed necessary.
Mother had said older, higher youkai were often close to human in temperament. If that was the case, I’d been plain rude.
I tapped my foot, impatient with myself. I lacked the stomach to apologize or thank her for the moment, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to. For all I knew, she was doing this exclusively to profit from me, somehow. “I’ll go,” I sighed. “D-Don’t misunderstand," I said, mysteriously stuttering. “You’re dangerous, untrustworthy, and I don’t like you. But I don’t see that I have much of a choice.”
She gave a pure, beaming grin at that. “Since we’re friends now, I’ll take that as the compliment it is.”
I frowned harder.
Unsurprisingly, the ‘short hike’ turned out to be more of a trial than the tengu made it seem. For one, there was no discernible trail at all, as they’d have no need for that. Besides that, the darkness was a factor – I couldn’t let Aya trail behind as I had in the daytime, he’d lose sight of me and get lost. It was slow going, and the terrain got harsher as we went; the mountain range extended far and it was anything but smooth: we went downhill nearly as often as up, and the closest peak remained far in the distance. If the approach was this bad, the valleys between peaks would be torture to hike through.
Still, our guide occasionally took flight to find the best spots to pass through, and we arrived to our destination in what must’ve been less than one hour, what seemed at first like a natural cave in a well-hidden, small rocky fault. As soon as we stepped inside, the illusion evaporated: less than an armspan from the entrance, the natural walls ran into the clean straight angles of a perfect hallway, vanishing into complete darkness further on.
She told us to stay put and walked off into the tunnel’s maw. As soon as the soft sound of her footsteps died down, Aya tugged on my skirt forcefully, looking up at me.
“Do you know what you’re doing?”
I thought about lying, but there was no good reason to. “No. We’ve been kidnapped.”
He scrunched his eyebrows at me, but also seemed bemused at the idea. He’d been strangely alright with being marched out of his bed at the middle of the night earlier – even attempted to chat with the tengu before getting shushed down – apparently she didn’t want to attract further attention, even in her own territory.
“Aren’t you scared? You were before,” I asked.
“Don’t ask me something like that,” he complained, frowning, but took a moment to think about it. “Tengu are less scary than wild youkai. They won’t just attack us for no reason, and you can reason with them.” He paused, feeling the smoothed stone wall absently. “I’m a little scared, yes, but it’s exciting. I have no records of anyone surviving being inside the Youkai Mountain tunnels proper. That means I’m the first of the Hieda to be here!” He gave a nervous, fleeting grin.
I’d have left it at that – more than that, I wouldn’t even have instigated such a conversation, but I couldn’t feel the same. Being moments from being swallowed by a gigantic stone tomb filled with tengu did awful things to my stomach, and the fear there squeezed words out of me that wouldn’t have come otherwise.
“Hieda. Those two seemed to recognize the name.”
He rounded on me instantly, eyes lighting up – he suddenly looked like a kid at the park, entirely out of place in this dark tunnel. “Thank you! Thank you for finally being a little social. It’s nice being out here and free, but I was starting to get bored just walking about with no conversation.”
I hesitated. “You’re… welcome?”
He smiled, then cleared his throat, sending the sound echoing down the tunnel, dropping into what I suppose would’ve been the sort of tone you use to tell a story, if his voice were that of a fully grown men. “As I’ve said and you ignored before, I’m the eighth Child of Miare – chronicler of Hieda. But you don’t know what that means, do you?”
I hadn’t had occasion to care before then. “It means you’re a rich boy?”
“No, no – rich? What? No, that’s not it. What it means is that I’m part of a very special line born only about once a century,” he said – not arrogantly, curiously enough, but he seemed excited to be telling me this. “I carry the memories of all who have come before me, and I don’t forget anything I’ve seen once. Do you see why it’s important that I’m out here at a time like this? It’s knowledge that will be preserved for hundreds of years.
“I don’t believe you.”
“What? Why not? It’s the truth.”
“You act like a child.”
He glared, puffing up, but it didn’t truly put a dent in his mood. “You’re way too blunt, you know that? It’s not as if we’re all one person continually reborn. The next one only keeps the memories.”
I noted that he didn’t actually deny what I said. Perhaps not completely like a child, then. I nodded; arguing this would be pointless, it was best to humor him. “I see. Where are you going after this, then? Assuming there’s an ‘after’.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“You left to experience history yourself, didn’t you?”
“What?” He processed this, one dainty hand going to his mouth. “Oh, no, no, don’t misunderstand. I’m not running away from my land, of course. I’m Hieda, I can’t leave,” he said, looking at me as if I were stupid for even asking. “I meant our history, not Japan’s. The rest of the country has been slowly losing touch with the world’s forces – only we remain. You should already know this; you’ve been traveling outside, yes?”
I couldn’t deny it. My travels, especially nearer the larger cities, had been trying to say the least. People weren’t very receptive, to put it lightly. I soldiered through only because of mother.
“It’s my purpose and my family. It’s just… it concerns us, right!? Look at the sky! I had to take a closer look. And nothing has happened so far, we’ve been almost perfectly safe. And there will be an after. We’re protected.”
I got the distinct impression he was trying to convince himself more so than me, and felt a sudden, pulsing urge to push the point, just to make him more and more annoyed. Is this what having a little brother is like?
Before I could respond, I heard faint, lively steps sounding down the corridor. They grew, and a light became visible as well, far away – this single straight tunnel stretched far into the mountain, apparently. Both of us tensed up, but before long, our tengu guide was trotting into view, scowling, with a lantern bobbing in her hands.
“You two are way too loud. I could hear you halfway across the mountain. Come with.”
We followed that bobbing light through minutes of silent walking through darkness – a cold breeze constantly blew past us, belying a proper ventilation system in this massive tunnel system. Before long we arrived to what might’ve been a communal sleeping room. Stone, less perfectly carved out than the hallways – taller and curved in places, it nevertheless smelled like comfort. Stitched-together, threadbare fur bedrolls were piled up to one side of the room, and a good handful of tables and cupboard were lined up to a corner. A dozen people might have lived here comfortably.
“The dogs have all run off somewhere, so you have the whole room to yourselves. If anyone finds you, mention my name and you’ll probably be fine.
She lit a single candle for us and left, promising she’d be back in the morning. Despite the cold of stone, Aya was asleep seconds after lying down, and I followed close behind.
There was a black simmer going in her stomach, a slow boil of barely-held-back emotion that threatened to spill and stain the surroundings the color of death.
But Hina Kagiyama, mis-fortunate spirit of misfortune, well-used to that stripe of emotion as she was, caged it safely inwards and did it not let it destroy any thing but her own sanity – as it had been doing for a long time. It was a safe bet, she mused absently, that there probably wouldn’t be a great amount left to destroy those days.
But such thoughts were but small flashes in the roiling sea of rightful anger the ghostly goddess nurtured inside. Mostly, her depressing past-time was to worry, feel angry and powerless, at herself and everything else, too.
So Hina’s time flitted by while she was confined, in meditation, and anger, and helplessness.
It was a basement she was stuck in, by her reckoning; a windowless basement drowned in stale, dusty air. The ones that had caught her had at least not been cruel, although she wasn’t in a state to think so at the time. They’d left her a good lantern and oil, a comfortable feather bed, pillows, and even some books to kill boredom – as well as food, water and a bucket for earthly needs, of which she had none.
The din of life and talk came through the walls frequently, although dimly, and Hina surmised she was in a well-populated site.
It must’ve been purposeful. There were no charms or enchantments stuck to the walls or anywhere else to weaken her; it would’ve been easy to thrash about and bring the whole building, the whole town down around her ears. Not, however, without spelling painful death for any living thing for miles around. It was a cowardly measure and she hated it.
She’d tried the door, but it was a massive metal slab half again as tall as her and studded with menacing bolts, almost as if built with this kind of goal in mind.
She didn’t make an issue of keeping track of time. In complete darkness, she sat, laid, paced, steamed, and cycled through those many, many times.
At length, she heard dragging of furniture out by the door. It had been barricaded too, and thoroughly, judging from how much time it took to move it all. As if she were a caged animal.
There was a series of tremendous clanging noises, then the door screamed open, making her ears ache. The one responsible took one single step inside, cloaked in the dim indoors light flooding in from outside.
The call echoed. The woman who’d opened the door waited, squinting into the darkness. Hina did not respond, standing silently further towards the back of the spacious basement. “Kagiyama? We must talk.”
Hurting others did not come easily to Hina, even youkai, but she’d been stretched these past days, stuck worrying endlessly for her most important human and what might be happening outside. A growingly insistent part of the goddesses’ mind softly whispered to make this woman into slurry (and quickly), but thankfully, long practice allowed her to easily discard the idea. Instead, she responded as bidden.
“That’s an interesting proposition, after you’ve had me confined here for weeks.” Her tone was monotone, quiet and clear, as usual, belying her feelings. Still she didn’t step forward. “Will you explain, Keine?”
She winced, looking down momentarily. The village’s protector looked exhausted, rings lining her eyes. “Yes. We can talk about it upstairs. Please.”
“I can speak from here.”
“Very well,” Keine breathed, then repeated, louder. “Very well. There isn’t much to explain, anyway. You heard, right? About the barrier? That’s why you came.”
Hina clenched her teeth, unseen. “Yes.”
“I’m afraid it was completely true – and now it is done,” she said. “You couldn’t have stopped it any more than I could, Hina. Please understand this. I know you would’ve tried, and it wouldn’t have gone well.”
“So, that’s why you’ve put me here.”
“Yes.” Keine did not shake, but she wasn’t entirely at ease with this girl so near, and in so delicate a situation besides. They’d met, talked, and Hina had lived near for a goodly while, aiding the humans of her village in her own way, but still – still, she wasn’t entirely a known quantity.
Hina’s breathing sounded steady in the silent basement as seconds counted by, Keine edged a half-inch towards the doorway. But then, the flat voice sounded again, from the darkness. “It is alright. I understand. One more question.”
Keine breathed in relief. Being intimidated like this, unintentionally to boot, ill fitted her, or so she believed. “Yes, of course.”
“My priestess. Is she still in the village?”
The village protector froze in place.
It was uncharacteristic for her, but it’d completely slipped her mind – the entire meeting, almost. That day prickled her heart with the many deaths, and she’d ran herself ragged, busy with managing the village in the aftermath. In her state, then, she’d sent the stern strange-eyed girl off to the youkai mountain almost on a whim, a momentary notion that otherwise, she’d stay and make things difficult. Make the village less safe, the people more tense in these already hard times, just by being there.
Not for the first time in her life, Keine cursed her sense of duty and responsibility. “She’s gone to the Youkai Mountain. To search for you.” She swallowed. “On my word.”
There was a long, long moment of silence. She fancied she could hear Hina’s breathing become louder, but her voice was unchanged once it came.
“One may die in the youkai mountain. Easily, if they are human.”
Keine said nothing. Another dead moment passed.
“Leave, please.” Rather than wrathful, or disappointed, or any other reasonable emotion, the words suddenly sounded hurried, urgent. Warning bells went off in the teacher’s head, and she took a wide step back behind the doorway. A single, disjointed sob escaped the darkness from where Hina spoke, and her next words were loud, quick, and strangled. “Get out. Get out and close the door.”
The door slammed shut, hinges screaming as it did.
I felt uncommonly good the next morning. Long before my eyelids found the strength to push themselves open and the fog of sleep could be lifted, something just felt… nice. Just nice, was the best term for it. I felt warm and comfortable, for once not under that alien angry sky, huddled up in quilts that smelt of dog. Never mind the fact we were under ten million tons of rock and youkai.
Nice, but… something was out of place. I resisted clearing the cobwebs out from my head, because it just felt so comfortably lying there; Just for that short moment, I wanted to forget all about duty and the situation we’d ended up in. It couldn’t last, of course. At length I was forced to open my eyes and confront the something that had been out of place. The boy cuddling up against me.
I frowned; I’d been half expecting this to happen ever since he joined me – he was a child, after all – but I always figured I’d wake when he tried it. By necessity, I wasn’t a heavy enough sleeper to let such a thing pass, ordinarily. The previous night must’ve taken more out of me than I’d foreseen. He’d wormed under my covers and arms (it couldn’t be otherwise), poking his pointy nose right up against my ribs, and I slept through it completely. Inappropriately close. His bony arms folded up against his chest, digging into me a tiny bit with each slow, sleeping breath. He was drooling on me, mouth half-open.
A growing restlessness caught in my stomach, and I cursed inwards as it suddenly burned bright in my mind, demanding my attention. It was happening again. The same feeling as days before, when I first saw him. Seeing the small helpless boy in my arms like so, a wave of unwelcome emotion welled against my insides, irrationally demanding that I do something, anything to protect him, although there was nothing to be done. Even so, it was an unwelcome, insistent reminder that I and I alone was responsible for his well-being. I sighed.
Just as before, it was such a sudden and overwhelming feeling that a silly thought struck at me: what if this was a youkai, lying, cloaking itself in the guise of a human boy, influencing my mind by force?
It was stupid, of course, and I in turn felt stupid for having had the thought. He shifted in his sleep, twisting his legs around mine – again, way, way too close. It was about time to wake him up.
I called his name, as neutrally as I could.
Not even a sign of life. I called again, louder.
He yawned, stirring – first, he rubbed his face against me, then looked up with those big eyes, dull and confused from sleep. Not easily, I fought off another unexplainable bout of that awful plague of an impulse, instead shooting him the best cool, questioning look I could muster. He looked blearily at me, still not fully aware of what was happening. Soon enough, some wakefulness returned and he was squirming uncomfortably, trying his hardest not to look at my eyes.
I spoke. “Why are you in my bed?”
He stilled, looking down, but at point blank as he was, that just meant he was looking directly at my chest. He coloured, looking back up. “It’s not a bed,” he grumbled.
He tried another excuse. “It was… It’s cold in this place.”
That wasn’t a lie – whatever ventilation system they had in these systems made for a very cool draft, and being all stone did it no favours. Still, I continued glaring. He tried again, weakly, to escape, twisting sideways, then went still again, looking at me resentfully.
“You–” He swallowed. “Your dog wasn’t around today.” He’d been sleeping with my friend when he got the chance, I recalled.
“No,” I agreed, feeling him figuratively and literally squirm under my attention. I couldn’t say it wasn’t satisfying in some level, but I stopped short of wonder why it was so, at the risk of incriminating myself. After a while, he settled unwillingly on a position with his ear against my chest.
“Let me go already,” he whined, mumbling and bright red at that point. I held on for another beat before finally unclamping my arms from his back, letting him sheepishly back up and off me. Even though I was to blame for it, I resolved to dwell on what’d just transpired for as little time as I humanly could. I latched on to the first likely explanation for what I’d just done: punishment. Yes, a small punishment for crawling in with me without my leave. And payback, from when he’d teased me before.
“You’re cruel, aren’t you?” he accused, and I allowed myself a minute smile. A point for me, today.
The boy had an undeniable talent for regaining his composure. Before ten minutes had elapsed from the business on the bed, he was up and about, no grudge, merry for all the world to see, chewing on a piece of salted meat and chattering animatedly at me about the architecture, or mode of life of tengu, or whatever it was that he found so exciting in these dull, stark tunnels. Now he took the chance to catch up, after being silent out of exhaustion the previous night.
Properly awake and alert after a good night’s sleep (for both of us, it seemed) we surveyed the room properly and uncovered a hearth-stove hidden out near the corner with the tables, the smoke vent snaking off neatly into a near-invisible crevice in the walls. I offered a prayer to providence when the search of the room also revealed a sack of charcoal, kettle, pots, barrels of water and beer, stale bread, butter and everything else you might need for a good enough breakfast – including a full, shiny-new teabox and cured meat! I even found myself humming low as I picked out what we’d eat. I didn’t wonder long why someone would run off and leave so much food behind – stuffing my pack with as much as I could comfortably carry was enough work to keep me the questions at bay.
It was fine, my companion comfortably spoke enough to fill both our roles. We sat close to the stove, for light and warmth.
“–makes no sense to have an eatery and communal sleeping quarters in the same room! Did you see how many tunnels there were? There has to be enough room to separate those. What if someone wants a midnight snack?” He went at his piece of hard bread with intensity as he spoke.
“Mm.” I tried to concentrate on chewing.
“I mean, what if you have to fry something up? It’d be loud. And the smell would wake everyone up! Oh, is it the wolves?”
“The crow said something about dogs, didn’t she? You know of the wolf tengu, don’t you? They’re supposed to be subordinates. The beddings smelled like dog! So that’s what it was.” He tried a sip from his tea and cringed, sticking his tongue out childishly.
“Mm. What if they just have dogs?” I responded absently. Must’ve been my good mood. I killed the fire in the stove and was about to go through the room again, for useful tools this time. Was it wrong to steal from youkai?
“I don’t think so,” he said with finality, then shifted tone completely. “Yoshiko. We should go explore.”
“Yeah! Look, she said we’d be fine if we mention her name, and she’s a tengu, she’ll be able to find us in here easily.”
“Too dangerous. No.”
He wasn’t cowed by my instant answers. “We don’t even know if she’s telling the truth about– about anything, really. It’ll be good if we find someone else to ask, or maybe even some clues! About the sky! The tengu are involved for sure, right?”
I frowned. It wasn’t an argument completely without merit, despite its obvious makeshift nature.
[ ] Go. [ ] Wait here for Aya.
wanna hurry up with this crappy story boys if i put in effort maybe i can be wrapping it up by end of jan
“This isn’t fair. We don’t know how long we have here, I should be trying to make the best of it.” He angrily tossed a scrap of bread into the stove fire-chamber, then looked sideways at me. “And if I just get up and leave, what’ll you do?”
“I’ll bodily restrain you if I need to” I said, quickly thinking back to where my rope would be. He believed me and deflated, grumbling about it being a waste. At least he was obedient.
“I just don’t get you. Why do you care if I’m in danger or not, anyway? If I did wander off and disappear, would it even matter to you?”
“Yes. I’m a shrine maiden. I protect humans from youkai – even if said human won’t protect himself.”
“It’s not as if I want to be in danger. I just think you’re worrying too much – we haven’t seen or heard anyone around since we got here, have we? It’s completely empty.”
“Give up. You’re not convincing me.”
He sighed. “That’s all there is to it, then? You’re holding me like this because it’s job, and nothing else?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling strangely like I was lying. “Do I need some other reason?” I asked, feeling acutely silly. It was so stilted that the boy chuckled at me, although he looked self-conscious himself. I chastised myself. I really didn’t know what was going on with me – occasionally, being around this boy without a proper role to perform was doing bizarre things to my head. The usual mask of a serious miko that I donned regularly didn’t seem to fit quite right, and he kept poking uncomfortable holes through it. It got me restless and uneasy.
It also made me want to take it out on him, just a little. I changed the subject abruptly. A smirk almost formed on my lips. Almost. “Will you need to sleep with me again if my friend doesn’t show? I won’t mind, if it helps you.”
He pointedly ignored me.
Our tengu guide did not take long after that to appear, the rhythmic clacking of her geta on stone grew slowly in volume, echoing down the corridor for a full minute before she finally emerged from the doorway. She wore a much simpler, workman-like earthen shirt, shorts and some sort of puffy hat rather than the elaborate robe from before.
“Good morning,” she announced loudly, without malice. “I’d love to ask how you both slept and make fun, but we’re short on time. Big shots don’t like to be kept waiting. Up, up, gather your stuff and put out that fire! No need to clean up, though.”
I did as she said, still miffed that we’d been forcefully pushed into going along with this girl. There was nothing to be done for it now, making an issue would just be retreading ground at this point. All I could do was keep my eyes open and hope for the best.
We took a lantern and followed a brisk, business-like Aya down the tunnels as she explained we’d be heading further into the heart of this mountain – the tunnels would widen to allow five to cross abreast (or one tengu with their wings unhidden), and we would start crossing other crows soon.
“I’m sure I don’t need to say this, but don’t stare too much. Look like you belong. The one we’ll be meeting is one of the five most powerful people in the mountain, one of the Devas. A great oni.” I glanced at the boy, but he was already fully absorbed in the ‘lesson’. We turned a sharp corner.
“You know the legends. They despise dishonesty, drink a lot, and like to be treated fittingly. For you two, that means be respectful and know your place.”
The boy interrupted. “Why and how are we getting an audience with a Deva? We just got here! How would anyone even know of us?”
Aya flashed us a smirk over her shoulder. “You didn’t think I was sitting idle while you two traipsed around the woods, did you? It was a ton of work, spreading the word!”
I felt an icy knot form in my stomach. “Spreading the word,” I repeated, apprehensive.
“Yes!” She made a pleased sound. “About the mysterious roaming human shrine maiden who beelined towards our mountain – all the scouts swear it. Not just any old shrine maiden, either, a priestess of Hina! Yes, that same Hina! Where has she been these years, and why a shrine maiden now?”
I made a sour face, but if she saw it, she wasn’t deterred. “As Hina was one of the most fearsome dwellers of the mountain in her time, so this one must be. What does she want? Has she come to join either side? Something else? What can she do to tip the scales?”
Either side? It took a second for my memory to work again: They were having a conflict of some sort, weren’t they? The knot in my stomach only grew.
Aya wound down from her soliloquy, her perilously wide grin visible even from our awkward angle behind her. “That’s the gist of it, anyhow. These are tumultuous times for us, so people are especially receptive to flimsy rumour.”
I didn’t know how to respond. The first thing that came to my head plopped out of my mouth, inadvertently. “Fearsome? No, never mind. Why… Why have you done this?”
Aya positively cackled at that, and her laugh echoed painfully. “Here’s another tip for when you meet her. Don’t ask dumb questions.”
I swallowed the insult.
“If she offers you a drink, accept and be prepared for the kick, but don’t be goaded into any more than the first dish. Don’t be too formal, they all hate that; no bowing to the ground. If she jokes and you don’t find it funny, it’s better not to laugh.” She rattled off tips that wouldn’t be remembered. Glancing at my side, thought, I found that the boy was rapt. We crossed a gray-haired, stone-faced man who didn’t even spare us a glance – the first tengu I’d seen beside Aya. “If either of you have some trinket that might serve as a gift, that’s not a bad idea. Ah, we’re almost there.”
“Already?!” The boy piped up, alarmed. “We’re meeting them right this second?
“What? Oh, no, no. You don’t think you’ll be meeting a Great Oni stinking, sweaty and in travel clothes, do you?”
We turned a corner, crossed two wooden doors, and, abruptly, found ourselves in the single largest bathhouse I’d ever seen. Underground.
The blast of humid air hit us full-on, and I got a good glimpse of what was inside. A huge hall-sized chamber, large enough to need support columns, with a full-featured traditional bathhouse inside. The bath itself was much larger than usual, a pool that had to span half the entire chamber. There was a massive furnace, mounted in a bulky, metallic pipe-wreathed mechanism… the boiler, I realized, with pipes running off it. It doubled as the main form of lighting, making for a fire-lit, dim, warm atmosphere; almost sensual, although that couldn’t possibly be appropriate for a public bath. Other than that, it was surprisingly the exact same as I was used to – soaps, buckets, and all that, and bathers, of course. Two or three had their wings out, having them tended to by other tengu.
A dozen heads swiveled our way when Aya dramatically opened the door, and a few lingered. Flinching away from their line of sight, I glared at her. I’d been distracted enough that I didn’t notice it when she took us through a changing room – where we were now standing, alone.
“Just testing your focus,” she said with a smile before either of us could properly react, shutting the door, then tossed us three towels from the neat little wooden shelves. “Anyway, I’m not joking about cleaning up. The oni aren’t exactly sticklers for it, especially once the drinks start flowing, but looking good and smelling nice always helps, with anyone. Now, you can leave your belongings here, if you have any” she started casually unbuttoning her shirt. “I guarantee they’ll be safe.”
She had her shirt off and neatly folded in her hands by the time the boy finally built up enough courage to sputter a complaint. “W-what are you doing!” His voice cracked with unfortunate timing.
“Huh?” Aya seemed genuinely confused for a second, but then the customary smile split her face. “Ah! I’d forgotten about your silly human ideas. This is a mixed bath, little boy.”
He fumed at being called that, flushing visibly – aided by the fact Aya was now unraveling the binding around her chest, and slowly. He turned his back on her abruptly, muttering something, but did start undressing.
I was fine with mixed bathing, but something else was making me squirm. I considered asking Aya whether leaving everything here was truly safe – these were all my earthly possessions. My pack, my clothes, my charms, my food, even my gun. Asking for reassurance from someone I already didn’t trust in the least seemed like a meaningless to do, however, so I silently made the decision to go along with it. I was already risking my life and someone else’s by being in here, my belongings were no great consideration in comparison.
Another question popped in my head instead, and I voiced it. “Why are you bathing with us?”
“Can’t I?” she sniffed. “It’s great for bonding. We can wash each other’s backs and such– ah, maybe I could let you clean my wings? Hahah!” She let out a clipped laugh, cupping her cheeks, and I could swear she actually coloured for a moment. I briefly wondered if it was possible to fake a blush. “That was a joke. We’d need to be much, much closer for that to happen. Our wings are very sensitive, see.”
With varying amounts of awkwardness and hiding behind the small bath towels, all three of us got through the cleansing before the proper soak (Aya asked about washing our backs and was dryly refused). It was a wonder the poor boy didn’t blow steam out of his ears and pass out, with how intensely he was blushing and how hard he was trying not to look at either of us. He didn’t do well at it. I let out a suffering sigh when I slid into the deliciously warm pool. It wasn’t enough to make me forget the situation we’d gotten ourselves stuck in, but it made good headway. The boy looked relieved as he dipped in to my left, likely because the water covered me and Aya up as we sunk to our shoulders in it. It was large enough for us to be more or less isolated off to a corner barely lit by the furnace firelight, I between the two of them. The other bathers politely ignored us just as we ignored them.
Thinking of what Aya said, I snuck a look at one young tengu with his wings unfolded across the room: he was sitting on one of the washing stools, eyes closed, while a young girl knelt close to his body, painstakingly… well, there was no other word for what she was doing. Caressing. Slowly, thoroughly she lathered the wing close to the base in careful circles, close enough for him to feel her breath. Wow, I thought, she wasn’t lying. Calling this intimate might be underselling it. I looked away soon, embarrassed for having witnessed it. It was a wonder they were capable of doing such a thing in a public space.
She followed my line of sight and chuckled. “Told you. Afraid we’re not there… yet.”
She smiled at my expression, shrugging. My companion chanced a shocked “I–Is that really allowed?”
“Nobody complains as long as you do no more than wash. Not that young crows lack for mischief. They occasionally must be disciplined for such kinds of… indiscretions. And quit staring that hard.” She grinned and drifted my way, stopping when I felt her shoulders and hips touch to mine. I managed to stop myself from jumping, but shot her a look anyway.
“Bonding, I said! Don’t worry, I’m not into women.”
I scowled, but didn’t move or push her away. Again, my mind was clouded and I felt clumsy: I wasn’t quite sure how to act, and so realized I had settled into a stubborn hostility purely by inertia. If I wasn’t exterminating the youkai, what was I supposed to be doing?
It was an uncomfortable feeling.
I longed to go back to my routine, no matter how devoid ofwarm water and sweet-smelling soap it was. There I had certainty of what I was doing – there was only me, Mother, my friend, the road, and occasionally an audience of villagers. Nothing more. I had to find her. That’d settle everything.
The thought should have been enough to clear my mind of all doubts – it always had been, before. She had been perfect, beyond questioning or reproach. She had had my complete faith, as it rightfully should be between a goddess and a priest.
The idea didn’t fully form in my conscious mind, instead settling as a sickly feeling in my chest. Us humans are remarkably skilled at ignoring such uncomfortable truths, and I was very much human. Thus it went unchallenged, despite the moment of wrongness that wasn’t supposed to be there, and was swiftly ignored: I just had to find Mother, yes, and all would be solved. In the mean time, I could be friendlier to the crow, slightly, for as long as we remained on the same side.
I refocused in time to catch a question from the crow. “–will you tell me about it?”
“Tell you about what?”
“In all my years, I’ve never heard of a shrineless shrine maiden before. How does it work?”
The other Aya piped up for the first time since coming out of the dressing room, embarrassment still in his voice. He’d get used to it, I was sure. “I’d like to know too. You seem very used to traveling on foot...”
“I am.” I paused, uneasy, being stared at from both sides. It wasn’t as if there was much to keep secret and Mother had never told me to be secretive about any of our work, but I’d never been directly asked about it.
I cleared my throat, preparing. While I generally wasn’t much of a talker, I was practiced in speaking at length when I needed to – to teach a group of villagers something, or answer questions, or whatever occasional similar duty fell into my lap.
“There’s not so much to tell. I wander from town to town, guided by the Goddess. I arrive, make sure I am noticed, find a place to stay. People come to you if there’s a chance you’ll solve their problems for them. That’s the case in smaller towns, leastwise.” I scowled, thinking of the insulting treatment I’d gotten whenever I’d gone closer to the larger cities. Mother’s power being treated like a circus act… despicable. “People come to me for all sorts of problems. In love, in business, and much less spectacular problems. If a village lacks a proper doctor or veterinarian, that ends up being most of what I do. I don’t charge money, so it’s worth a shot to them. I do my best to help, whether our particular kind of misfortune was involved or not. It feels more like being a handyman than a miko, to be sure. We never minded it.
“I always walked, rather than taking carriages or any of that – a good portion of my work was performed on the road, anyhow. It’s where the more mundane sort of problem happens. Tired animals, broken carts, common injuries and broken bones.” I shrugged. “Not as much misfortune to be collected as in the towns, but more food and necessities. It works out well in the end.
“When I began, Mother followed close and protected me, but as I got more experience, I suppose there wasn’t as much need. For some time now, I’ve only been able to talk to her directly occasionally, for directions on where to go next, and… catching up.”
The crow interrupted. “You’ve been all over Japan, then.”
“Yes. Even down to the southern islands, once.” That had been a special request. A haunting in a little island village west of Okinawa.
She whined and slapped the water. “Awww, I’m so envious! I do love this hole in the ground, but I haven’t gone anywhere for over a year! Take me with you, once this is all settled.” She grinned. “A tengu will be sure to draw in the customers, don’t you think?” She sounded disarmingly girlish, and it wasn’t the first time I’d heard that sentiment. Young people from small villages sometimes get that itch.
“Thank you for the offer,” I said flatly, “but it’s not a business.”
“But the more misfortune you get, the better, no?”
“No. We help people who want to be helped. There’s no urgency and no quota.”
She hmmed, looking unconvinced. “No offense, but I’ve never heard of a selfless god.”
“You’ve never heard of a shrineless shrine maiden either.”
She shrugged. “Fair point. But you can draw it out just like her, then? I didn’t think it was possible for a human.
I blinked. The boy was looking at me with wild eyes, shame momentarily forgotten. “You’re giving her exactly what she wants! Don’t you see?”
She rolled her eyes, an expression I still found tremendously out of place on a youkai. “Please. I’m just making conversation. Ah, but we’re just about out of time for relaxing.”
She resolutely got up and very purposefully crossed in front of him before stepping off, making him squeal and shut his eyes hard. Poor kid. Far too sheltered for someone who’s supposed to have lived through several lifetimes. I got what he was trying to tell me, but it didn’t feel like that sort of a scenario.
“Thank you, I think.” He opened his eyes and looked in mine, briefly. “You mustn’t trust her. She’s the worst, craftiest kind of youkai.”
I nodded shallowly, for his benefit.
“We should hurry,” I said. Getting up as modestly as I could, I laid what I hope was a friendly hand on his head and then walked off, following the crow girl back to the changing room.
“No.” I could be stubborn too, I’d decided. “It’s not happening,” I completed, my expression set. I didn’t feel a need to explain myself to the crow; how this shrine maiden ensemble had been gifted to me by Mother, then tailored, modified, added to by my own hand until it was a more intimate part of me than my own flesh and skin. She could as well have been asking me, pretty please, to chop off my right hand, because it’d make an oni like me better.
Aya tsked as it became apparent I wasn’t about to cave, looking me acidly up and down as I retrieved my clothes. Even so, she put some forced cheer in her voice as she asked again. “You could look really good – you’re athletic, and gracef–”
“Save your breath,” I said, not looking at her, as I wrapped my sarashi back on. She huffed, but said nothing more.
The boy finally scuttled back into the dressing room, evidently not having been comfortable naked, defenseless and alone in a room full of youkai. He visibly suppressed a yelp upon getting an eyeful of the two of us, then cutely lowered his eyes and made his way behind me with small steps. He stopped short of grabbing hold of the towel wrapped around my waist, and I was grateful for the restrain.
From then on everything went as smoothly as I could have hoped for. We all got dressed: me in my usual, Aya in the same worksman’s-style shirt and shorts as before, and the boy in something similar. He seemed rather mystified by the western-cut clothes, curiously, and hesitant to get on with it front of us – but he reined in his embarrassment the best he could as he got dressed, not going beyond a bright red flush. She indulged in a bit of teasing and tried to stare at him as he changed, smirking, until I put myself in between them, ending her fun. Once clothed, we looked so mundane that I wouldn't have guessed we were supposed to have an audience with oni royalty – or whatever Devas were supposed to be.
Aya promised us we would only make one more stop. I’d started doubting whether there was truly any hurry or set time at all for this supposed meeting, but dwelling on it was pointless. I was giving her a chance, I reminded myself, and I hadn’t been made to regret that decision just yet.
We went into the tunnels again, lantern in hands, this time being guided continually upwards. If we entered somewhere near the base of the mountain, the bathouse would be down near ground level, and we would be heading towards the top… maybe. My sense of direction had thoroughly abandoned me in these echoing tunnels. More Tengu crowded the halls the farther up we went as well, and more of them seemed to stare at me – at us, really, but I felt I got the brunt of it.
It was… illuminating? Surprising? I wasn’t expecting anything in particular of a tengu people, but I especially wasn’t expecting something so normal at first glance, so like humans. The variety, more than anything else. There were ugly ones and pretty ones, grey- and jet- haired, men, women, boys and girls, short and tall, well and poorly dressed, muscled, slim and fat. Carrying blades, books, food and water. Intrigued, hostile, excited, uninterested as they met my eye. A few even looked afraid.
At one point we went through a square of some variety: a perfect octagon cut out of mountain rock in huge, flawless geometric lines as if from a mold, lit dimly with huge candle sconces on the center of each wall. There was a small fountain in the center and tables around. A meeting place, I judged. There were a few tengu clustered around a heated match of shogi, a group of young-looking girls chattering by the edge of the fountain, and others milling about or passing through. The sight overlaid my memories so well it gave me a jolt: the reactions, the mood of the place were the exact same as arriving to a new village always was. I had to close my eyes, recenter myself to make sure my head wasn’t playing tricks on me. The slight hush, the bolder ones coming up and staring at my empty eyes, even the whispering that followed. We hurried from there and I got the distinct impression someone would’ve stopped us if not for our guide.
As the initial shock wore off, so did, to some degree, this estimation. No, it wasn’t quite the same – how could it be? The differences were subtle but clear, once you stopped to look. A few of them came to me as I paid attention: No old ladies or old men, at least none so old that their backs curved and their eyes squinted. Whether they simply didn’t age that far physically or they all died before reaching it, I couldn’t say. Children were absent as well – The youngest I saw would have looked twelve were he a human. There were no merchants, no hawkers that I could tell, and those invariably grew on our towns like warts on a pox victim. I nearly did not see the western-style wear that was becoming popular all over the country. Looking carefully, a good half of these people had clear battle-scars that they proudly displayed, sometimes at the expense of modesty. And, of course, there was the fact they all had long, pointy ears.
Even with all that taken into account, it was so remarkably human. They were scarcely more different from us than I imagined a different nation would be from Japan.
We’d been walking up the street-wide underground ramps and staircases for a healthy twenty minutes. Poor Aya was flagging and breathing hard, so I had to reluctantly pull him along by the hand. It was then that we were finally intercepted. I’d almost expected it sooner.
She stepped square in front of us with her hands on her hips, stance wide, hands on her hips.
It was a brat. A child who couldn’t be older than fourteen by human reckoning, with a voice to match. She was a small thing, with the sharp, hawk-like features that I’d come to associate with tengu, her fluffy dark hair in a short ponytail, and a persistent frown on her lips. She wore another one of those tengu kimono that seemed, to me, too elaborate to be practical. The appeal and richness couldn’t be denied, though: this one was of some very fine material of deep violet, richly painted in a criss-crossing pattern of black and white. It got across that she was supposed to be wealthy and important, if nothing else. I thought of my own warm, tough, simple miko’s outfit and found that I was glad I hadn’t let Aya use me for a mannequin.
She scowled prodigiously at our guide, making her best imitation of a kid being told to clean their room and go to sleep.
“Aya,” she… greeted? Making no effort to hide her hostility.
Our own crow bowed shallowly, bringing her hands together. “Ah, this is a happy coincidence. This is the young Himekaidou lady,” she said, glancing quickly at us, a barely-there smirk on her lips. "You’ve grown so fast, it feels like just yesterday that I was watching this cute fledgling take her first flight. Aww.”
“You didn’t! I mean, it doesn’t matter.” Her geta thumped down hard on the stone. “Don’t deflect. You know why I’m here.”
She hadn’t even spared me or the boy a glance. I was fine with that. Aya made her eyes wide. “You’re finally taking my invitation!” In half the space of a heartbeat she’d closed the distance, grasping one of her hands tight in hers. “I’ve been waiting. I Just know you’re gonna be a fast learner. Right now is a little awkward, but we–”
The girl shoved Aya away after a moment of shock, a flush of anger creeping up her cheeks. She forced her voice to go cold. “Funny. If you’re done with your comedy skit, you– you’re coming with me.”
She tried hard to mask the stutter. It didn’t work.
Aya took a hopping step back out of punching range, grinning. “I’m busy today. Sorry!”
She composed herself in little time. “Aya, What’s your problem? We all know you’re not right in the head, but I thought you’d be on our side when it came down to it.”
“Your side?” Aya tilted her head, hmming. “I don’t know what you mean. I don’t take sides.”
“And your habit of playing dumb is reeeeeeeeally annoying.”
Aya made an awkward smile. “That one was a little on the nose, wasn’t it? You’re right. I just don’t think this is the time or place to talk about it.”
Himekaidou seemed put off balance by this sudden admission – she’d been ready to fire another insult back, and floundered. “Whatever. I still need you to come back with me. You’re wanted. The lady Tenma made that clear.”
“Nah. She wants to take my head off, I’m sure.”
“You can’t just ‘nah’ a call from the Tenma!”
“Clearly I can. I’m doing it right now.” She smiled innocently and shrugged. It was clear to see this confrontation, if it could be called such, wasn’t going as Himekaidou expected, judging from her bewildered expression. It didn’t last.
She shook her head to steel herself, putting on a brave face. “No. No, I knew you’d do this. I’m not leaving here without you, one way or another.”
There was a pause of the kind that isn’t so easily broken. Watching carefully, I could see the girl tense in a way that spelled imminent action. Her eyes darted, her center of gravity lowered. Even to someone of middling knowledge like me, it was obvious she was getting ready for a tussle. Before it could morph entirely something other than a pause, however, Aya contemptuously cracked it.
She let out a resigned sigh and looked around, back and forwards through the tunnel. It was conspicuously empty for as far as I could see (which wasn’t much, granted). When she was satisfied, she turned back to the well-dressed crow with a look of pure pity in her eyes. “Hatate. Let’s not do this. You aren’t this stupid.”
Evidently that had been the wrong thing to say. Hatate flashed her teeth and flushed bright red. Angry red, I realized, not embarrassed, and I realized it was about time for me to take action. She’d completely forgotten about me, if she'd even realized I was here in the first place.
“Oh yes. Mighty Aya, so above us all and ready to flaunt it. This is why I’m tired of you, and so is everyone else. I’m about to do the the whole mountain a favour.”
I’d been around enough to recognize an attempt at pre-fight banter when I heard it, and although I’d never witnessed a tengu fight, but I had the sinking feeling this unfortunate, proud little girl was about to get soundly slapped around.
I was going to sensibly lead my young charge a few steps away, but it was over before I could bother. The rich girl had been as badly outmatched as I’d feared. The ‘fight’ — that didn't in a million years deserve to be called such — lasted a scant few painful seconds.
Tengu were fast. I knew this, had known it, but I hadn't fully had the chance to witness it in action. I didn't have to be any sort of specialist to know movement such as what I was witnessing wouldn't be achievable by any human.
This is what I could tell happened.
She'd given plenty of warning, but I was still unprepared when Hatate lunged, abruptly turning into a blur. She snarled like a wild animal, swinging wide and wildly. Aya did... I didn't know exactly what, but I could tell she put herself close enough to her opponent to smell her breath, then — this I saw clearly, because that's where the fight ended — they spun, all of the momentum in Hatate's rush turned against her as Aya slammed her down on flat on her back with enough force to split bone. There was a painful, sharp crack of skull on stone and her head bounced back up off the ground in what would certainly have been a skull-destroying, brain-splattering, instantly fatal injury for any human.
She blacked out at once, silently. The boy gasped at my side, but unfortunately for her, another few seconds and her eyes were fluttering open again, hazy.
Aya waited patiently until a spark of recognition reached her eyes before acting again, but she wasn't letting up just yet. She stomped down hard, driving the single tooth of her geta into the girl's gut. Making a pitiful sound, she raised herself reflexively, trying to curl up and protect her midsection. That was a mistake. Aya's knee crashed on her face, sending her back down.
And that was that. It was impressive: in all my years, I had never seen a fight finished so quickly and cleanly as this. Hatate moaned and coughed, covering her face, Aya's foot still resting on her stomach.
“I'm disappointed, Hatate.” Aya furrowed her brows. I got the feeling she was trying — not trying her hardest, mind you, but trying nonetheless — to look like she wasn't enjoying this. She couldn't even completely get rid of her smirk, though. “You've—”
By then Hatate had recovered enough to interrupt, rather vigorously for someone who just got so soundly beat, with a torrent of profanity so vulgar that I had the irrational urge to cover the boy’s ears, mostly about Aya’s sexual habits, specifically with oni, and occasionally in great and lurid detail. I stood listening, more fascinated by the second. The tengu were an inventive lot, weren't they? Must be the result of living hundreds of years.
Aya listened for more than a full minute, bemused, and only put a stop to it when the girl freed her hands from her bloodied face to claw at the leg holding her in place. She stomped again and the obscenities trailed off into another pained wail.
“Are you about done?” Aya asked.
Hatate tried to spit on her foot and missed, but otherwise finally quieted, her hands balling into fists at her sides as she laid her head down on the stone corridor. The kneeing had given her a great ragged gash over one eyebrow that bled copiously, but she wasn't concerned. She looked up at Aya with such venom, I had a glimpses of the coalescing black mist that signalled misfortune being created around her. Interesting. I thought only humans could do that.
“Hatate. Being smart and crafty has never been the reason I like you, but you've gone overboard this time. You're acting like a small time thug. It's unsightly and improper.”
“Improper?! T-the... ugh—” she turned her head and dry-heaved twice. “The only time I'll ever take advice from you is if I'm ever looking for tips on taking oni co—”
The fearsome geta came down again like a factory machine, drawing another pained moan. Aya snorted. “I hope that was worth it for you. Next time you insult me, I'll start breaking ribs.” Hatate only continued breathing hard and glaring in response. Aya continued. “Do you realize how many mistakes you've made in the past ten minutes?”
She coughed heavily before responding. “I don't care. Get off me.”
Aya ignored that. “In the first place, why in the world would you come talk to me if you intended to attack? Just do it! With backup and while I've got my back turned, preferably. And besides, if you wanted to talk, you should've attacked suddenly rather than announcing it like an idiot. You must think before you do these things.”
And so she went on berating and taunting the fallen girl for a good few minutes, smiling slyly all the while. She was savouring it, that much was clear. Watching them, I came to understand a little bit about Aya's personality, or so I believed. The way she was speaking and prodding the powerless Hatate with her foot, it felt familiar; it was the same as when she was teasing and casually threatening us, making sport of wielding power like a crude club and enjoying it immensely. I realized with some wonderment that in this she was no different from a bully of the common stripe. The older kid in the neighbourhood who steals toys because he can. The petty government officer who takes a little too much enjoyment in his authority. The unlucky bandit whose weapons embolden him into trying to become something worse upon seeing a lone woman on the road.
Truth be told, I didn't think that much of it, aside from wondering whether it was as common a trait in Tengu as it was amongst us humans. At least she wasn't enjoying the beating up itself, but the glorifying in it that came after. Besides, Hatate did give her ample excuse to go for it.
Hatate didn't swear or spit again, and I was glad for it. I wasn't keen on watching someone be beat to death — my stomach wasn't that strong. Unexpectedly, the longer it went on, the less annoyed Hatate seemed, until the death stare was reduced into comparatively mild intense glaring. Her wound had stopped bleeding quickly without any tending, something unusual for a head wound, at least for humans.
“—didn't even notice my cute new attendants. See? You must work on your tunnel vision.”
I blinked, refocusing. Hatate's eyes widened momentarily, as if she'd truly only just noticed us. Aya sighed, looking down on her. “Unfortunately I don't have time to play with you today. Let's call it a debt owed, how about that?
Hatate scowled. “‘How about’ you never show show your face again instead?”
“I can't! That'd be a great loss for the entire mountain, and not just because my face is the prettiest one around.” She grinned. “That's the spirit, though. Remember, despite this poor showing on your part, my invitation is always open, if you ever feel like you want to rise above”
She motioned us past, and I firmly pulled the other Aya with me as I walked along, shooting Hatate a glance as she slowly stood, wobbling. I could only hope she wouldn't peg us as Aya's allies and hold a grudge.
“I apologize you had to see that. Hatate's really a great girl despite her birth. Parents that high up usually produce complete trash, but she's got initiative, she's got energy, and she's impressively devious when her focus isn't spoiled.” She sighed as she lead us through the tunnels. “She's just so very young and dense. She desperately needs guidance.”
Aya's hand trembled in mine. I looked down, and — ah. He was shaken. I hadn't been paying attention so I didn't realize, but seeing violence that direct had gotten to him. I wasn't 100% inured to it myself, but I was desensitized enough to keep it comfortably under control. He wasn't. It might have been the first time he's seen something like this. He pulled as far away from the other Aya as he inconspicuously could while we walked, glancing her way constantly.
I was absolutely certain he was about to say something stupid if I didn't stop him. There was that colour of outrage and horror at what had just happened to his expression.
[ ] Do nothing. [ ] Stop him.
>>198446 nvm lol I regret getting into such a heavy and relatively plot-centered story like this. I think I'm better at cutesy stuff and enjoy it more, so I wanted to make a romance short. Just sweet and innocent.
I'll still do it at some point in the near future, but I'll try to make it concurrent rather than halting updates on this.
I've started a vile, repulsive, disgusting and filthy porn story for perverts at >>>/at/38452 Finishing this is still priority one. Don't worry your pretty little heads about it. I just have an itch that has to be scratched, feel me?
I squeezed to creak his bones, drawing a muffled yelp of pain that couldn’t have gone unnoticed. He looked at me, spooked, and I glared as hard as I’ve ever glared, willing him to just shut up. It was strange that he’d shown no reaction at all to my eyes before, but now he shrank away, startled, letting go of my hand as he recoiled. I didn’t, holding him firmly at my side by the wrist. There was a twinge in my chest at this, but I smartly ignored it. I shook my head. There would be no attempted butting into youkai business as long as I was around.
Keeping the crow girl talking was a good bet, I figured. It was obvious she liked the sound of her own voice well enough. I was treating her like an ally, but there was no forgetting what she was after that display.
“And you’re this ‘guidance’, I’m guessing.”
She had her back to us as we follower, but I could clearly hear the grin on her voice. “I’d like nothing more than to leave the work to someone else, but alas! There’s no other crow in this dump more qualified. Educating the young is a society’s most important task, as you know.”
I could have sworn she’d said something about tengu children being ‘complete trash’ — in those exact words — not five minutes earlier.
Despite the scare I gave him, the boy spoke up. “That was education just now, then?” He asked, acidly. I drove my nails into his wrist.
She laughed, not taking it as a challenge. Thankfully. “That was the worst beating I’ve ever given her, true, but even that was downright gentle. Don’t pretend to know us, child.”
The last sentence was delivered lower, and I felt the shiver that went through the boy at it. If he didn’t stop mouthing off after that, I could no longer help him. She continued on, heedless. “I’m dead serious when I say I’m the most qualified to educate her, by the way. The poor girl is doomed to become yet another paper-pusher if she continues the way she is, same as every other crow. I just thought I might rescue her from a life of boredom and oppression, if only she’d allow me.”
“Oppression?” It was strange to hear this word come from a tengu’s mouth, but it stood to reason that if they had an organized society, they must have all the trappings of ones as well. “From the oni, you mean?”
She laughed again, lighter. “Not only them, and not exactly. It’s a tangled mess here in the mountain, and that’s part of the problem— Ah, and I’ve already said way too much. If the Tenma knew I’ve been speaking of these matters to humans, she’d have my head, regardless of consequences.”
I blinked, feeling the deepening impression that I’d been forcefully thrust into matters I had no earthly notion about, where a wrong step might land me on the wrong side of a set of youkai claws or a bloody 1-ton steel kanabo. A mire into which I’d been tossed by the crow. Even without facing us, she seemed to sense what I’d been thinking. “Don’t worry, I’ve already filled you in to the essentials. You’re going to be just fine.”
There was never a statement I trusted less.
She guided us through more tunnels than I thought could fit inside one single mountain, eventually slowing to a stop near a door that seemed the same as any other, save for the guardsman (guardstengu?) standing at attention to its front. Or, not quite at attention — he maintained a constant scowl as we approached, his eyes trained on our guide as he slouched forward. I couldn’t avoid noticing the conspicuous, bright red tanto sheath tied to his sash. Most tengu I’d seen, Hatate and Aya included, didn’t carry weapons that I could see.
The age-lined man’s scowl grew deeper the closer we got, until I fancied he was about to spit at us. But instead of spitting, he stepped aside, lowering his eyes as Aya stepped forward. We crossed a wooden door like any other into a broader, more well-lit tunnel than the one before, lined liberally with candle sconces, albeit exactly as perfectly carved and unadorned, save for the natural arraying of stone layers from the mountain itself. Our own lantern was snuffed, no longer needed. I could hear a quiet din of conversation beyond the plain portal at the end of the hallway.
Aya stopped us there, turning fully to face us.
“Here we are.”
“Where?” I asked drily.
“To the deva.”
My thoughts scraped to a noisy halt, and the sparks they lifted threatened to put the rest of my mind aflame. Wait. Now, already? My voice came stilted. “I thought we were making another stop before that?”
“We were, but Hatate pushed our timetable forward.”
“I said we were, but Hatate pu—”
“I heard you,” I interrupted gruffly, speaking before I could think about it. The deva, one of the five big honchos of the mountain, possibly a more powerful being than I’d ever seen in my life. I’d had hardly any opportunity to prepare at all. “Right now, this very second?”
She smiled innocently-but-not. “Yes.”
I swore inwardly. Extensively.
Aya grinned. “Don’t think too hard on it. I wouldn’t have told you much more if there had been more time to prepare.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
She kept grinning, annoyingly, then shoved the door open with bombast.
 Yuugi  Suika  Kasen
f u c k c let's go i'm writing, i'm alive, i'm at it, i've got the spirit my brothers
I’d found it strange that I’d seen none of the supposed oni in all this time wandering the tunnels, but the mystery was solved now. They’d been grouping up, not mingling with the tengu — in this hall, for example. A grand room with a tall ceiling, fitted with three long stone tables, each capable of fitting a dozen people to each side. The entire room was in a western style, strangely anachronistic with everything else I’d seen in this mountain. The dim, orange firelight my eyes had grown used to gave way to clean white daylight coming from a set of tall window-like slits to one side — we had to be near to the top of the mountain. The ballroom was split down the middle, with half being the same smoothed stone as the rest, half hand-built stone bricks. Seen from outside, it’d be a boxy shape jutting out from the rock face.
I halted at the door and the boy crowded behind me as I looked around, unwilling to barge in.
The tengu had been varied and one could mistake them for humans when they hid their wings, but there was no confusing for this crowd for anything else. The smattering of red and blue skin among them and the small forest of horns would’ve given them away even if I hadn’t been expecting oni at all. They seemed unconcerned with decency; many of them, men and women alike, disdained covering their upper bodies, mostly preferring to tie straps around themselves or leave their robes pooled lazily around their waists.
This gathering wasn’t as rowdy as I’d been led to believe oni were. There was no throwing of chairs, no breaking of bottles or glasses and no shouting. They smoked and drank, gathered in groups of four or five, filling the room with a low murmur of talk, with the occasional louder yell or slam of glass on the table. Might have been because it was daytime.
Although nothing was overtly out of place, I felt the waft of tension at once. The sort of atmosphere where a fight might break out at any time. Low, sluggish, smoky and dangerous. It seemed significant that there were no other tengu in the room at all.
Just as I was considering slowly backing out rather than facing a roomful of oni, the crow unceremoniously nudged us in with a push. A couple of them nearer to the door noticed and set off of a chain-reaction of staring and whispering I was familiar with — although perhaps whispering wouldn’t be the accurate word and half the stares were directed at the crow accompanying us. They weren’t concerned about us noticing or overhearing in the least. My charge clung to my hakama, but he was more excited than scared, judging from the expression on his face.
“Does nobody like you in this place, Aya?” he asked, whispering, more to dispel his nervousness than anything.
She sighed. “It’s hard to excel and still have everyone still like you. There’s a youkai of envy in the mountain, and I feel she’s the only one who loves me. Ah, there’s the boss.”
She pointed from behind us to an oni sitting at the head of the centre table, notably alone, hovering possessively over a gourd and sake dish. Even though I wasn’t in the midst of humans, the aura of a leader was much the same. She wasn’t the tallest, loudest, most muscular, or even the least clothed, but all the oni were arrayed around her, in a way. As if they’d sat so that everyone could have an open line-of-sight to her at all times.
That was not to say she wasn’t intimidating. She was still an oni, taller than nearly any human man. She was the only oni who wore one of those elaborate robes that was in fashion in the mountain, showing off her wiry arms as she sipped at her drink, eyes kept low. Most noticeably, her horns were by far the most impressive I could see, smooth bone spikes that grew from each side of her head then curved frontwards. I wondered if they oni used their horns to gore and shivered. I’d never heard of that in any story, at least. Her hair was a brilliant rosy colour, short, messy and haphazardly cut, letting only the very tip of her pointed ears poke through.
“You’re slow. Remember, don’t lie or act if value your hide,” she warned cheerfully in a whisper, circled around me, grabbed my hand and forcefully dragged me forward. “Kasen! I have someone for you to meet.”
She didn’t raise her head to respond. “Go bug someone else, crow. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we have a big fucking problem on our hands.”
Aya put on a fake offended tone. “How rude! I’m—”
“Not in the mood for it,” she growled. “Leave or I’ll have you leave.”
The focus of the room turned noticeably towards us, and not in a friendly way. Aya paid the threat no mind, frowning and crossing her arms. “I came with help! You oni don’t know the art of conversation, I swear. Here,” she said and dumped me on the chair next to the oni, forcing me down by the shoulders, then hopped up and sat on the table next to me. Aya stood awkwardly behind. “This is Kagiyama’s get. Says she’s her priestess, too.”
“Hina’s? A mongrel?” Despite the word, her voice was markedly less hostile than before. She looked straight at me, mildly interested. I felt the weight of her eyes, my stomach knotting about itself — although the bulk of my work was with the common people, I’d had to deal with the powerful a few times. It didn’t help a bit here. In various ways, nothing could’ve prepared me. Aya was, as expected, throwing me into this kind of a situation where an angry oni stared down at me with expectations. I’d have to play it by ear.
Fortunately, I was composed enough to hold eye contact and not shake like a newborn kitten, and spouted what first came into my head. “Mother did not birth me, but she is my mother,” I said, commendably firmly.
She shifted her eyes back to the crow, not looking impressed. “The rumour was your work.”
“You could say that.”
She sighed deeply and looked straight at me, tapping her fingers. It seemed important not to avert my eyes. The exhaustion and bags under her eyes did nothing to take away the horrifying sense of imminent danger bearing down on me. After one very long minute of this staring contest she sighed again and pushed a sake dish my way, filling it. We were skipping introductions.
“Drink,” she commanded. I gulped it down without hesitation, feeling the drink that was obviously too strong to be sake burn my throat as it went down. I had to cough, tears beading in my eyes. Equally without hesitation she filled the dish back up to the brim. Aya didn’t attempt to hide her growing grin as she looked sidelong at me.
“Drink,” Kasen repeated, leaning forward to look at me up-close. Not good, should I have hesitated a little more? Aya had said the second cup was optional, but that's not how it felt. A test was ongoing, I was sure of it. I halted for just a second then threw it down again. It went much smoother the second time around and I barely kept myself from coughing while she stared at me, her expression unchanging.
Then, after a tense pause, quick as a drunk downing a dose of cheap liquor, she cracked her first smile — a dried-up, joyless show of teeth that reflected the state of the mountain, it was still lighter than the heavy stare I’d gotten thus far. Aya told me there was something like a conflict going on, and I figured it was those worries worming at and eroding even an oni’s good cheer, in whole or in part. Still, it melted away the lump of ice that had been steadily growing in my stomach, and I had the passing feeling the room’s air cleared some, too, the attention of some oni diverting elsewhere, though that might just have been my imagination. I’d passed. “Welcome to our mountain, I s’pose. You might be the last one I get to say that to, so enjoy it.” She barked out a bitter laugh, leaning back and tipping back her drink.
She poured for me again, less threateningly, while I anxiously eyed the clear alcohol. She continued. “By the looks of it, you’ve been recruited by our resident pain in the ass.”
There was a snort from somewhere behind my shoulder, a reminder that the boy Aya was still with me. He piped up. “Kidnapped is more like it.”
She laughed again, the pitch giving me the distinct impression she was forcing herself into it, just a tad. ”For that, I can’t blame her; It’s an ancestral past-time for us.”
He didn’t miss a beat. “Have you ever considered shogi or reading as an alternative?”
There was a second of silence during which I wondered whether I’d my last moments on this blue Earth would be presaged by a lame joke of all things, but somehow, it landed with them. Kasen laughed in the only manner that would’ve been fitting for a group of oni: uproariously, with slapping of tables and all the rest. A more natural laugh than the last, for sure. Even crow perched on our table deigned to giggle behind her hand.
Perhaps youkai humour eluded me. Or humour in general. The boy himself kept his poker face throughout as they laughed, as if he’d said nothing out of the ordinary.
“Well, that’s not bad for a human tot,” she said, when she was done. “Who are you, kid?”
He made a good show of bravery, good enough that I couldn’t tell whether he was scared at all and faking it or if he truly was just taking all this in stride. “Hieda no Aya, eighth Child of Are.”
“That supposed to be a title?” She asked, waving him over to a place opposite me at the table, but he circled and sat right next to me instead, even scooting closer — a daring move. The oni paid it no mind, sliding him another sake dish as a matter of course. “Never mind. You have some too.”
“Thank you.” He made a face and went at it slowly, but drank the whole thing under the deva’s watching eyes. I gave my name as well, since I hadn’t gotten a proper introduction.
“Now,” she said, loudly, and although she looked my way, it felt like it was directed just as much at the rest of the room as myself, “Glad to have worthwhile visitors for once, it’s been years; even longer since the last human. Damn shame I can’t welcome you in the proper way a guest deserves.”
I canted my head at her.
“I’m talking about a real welcome party, ‘course. Your timing’s crap, so we can’t right now.” I decided not to question the warped logic. “We’ll start with how you got here. A story ought to be a good to the evening, and no human gets to Youkai Mountain without earnin’ a good story out of it.”
It did not seem like a request, and she was focused on me alone. I glanced around for any opportunities to beg off, but all I saw was a few of the closer oni shifting in their seats to get a better view and Aya with her ever-present smug smirk, looking down at me.
I held back a sign. I had acting skills, but storytelling was not acting, plus it meant I’d have to give away information to a bunch of youkai. Aya was especially a concern. I didn’t want to give her anything free.
But I had been forcibly made the centre of attention in a grand dinner hall. I didn’t have any choice, nor was I bold enough to lie before such an audience.
And so I told them.
After the choice, I got to thinking and realized it's kind of pointless to have the deva be Kasen in specific and might be a bit lame for people who like her. After all, it's like 100 years earlier, in an unusual situation and before some crucial in her life that we don't even know about yet from canon. It's like writing a completely new character with little resemblance to the one we know from the WaHH and stuff. So I felt a bit bad about that. Sorry.
>>198542 >It's like writing a completely new character with little resemblance to the one we know from the WaHH and stuff.
Lover of Kasen since WaHH debut here. Tbqh, I personally read stories here for peoples' different takes on characters. The fact that it is your interpretation (and yours alone -- until somebody else likes it enough to copy, I guess) is what makes it interesting and cool to read. So, yes, have confidence in your Kasen. You will have at least one ardent supporter by the end of the day.
>>198543 I'm not sure where you're getting that, friend. She only called her 'mother' to start, but there was no mention of being her biological child. Their relationship didn't even feel like that, considering Hina treats her more like an apprentice or something similar in the one flashback.
I narrated my visit to the village plainly, businesslike , without belabouring details too much. There was no need to tell them every single thing: not needlessly going on about irrelevant information couldn't be called lying, no matter how you sliced it. I didn't say I had followed mother here at her behest, didn't say anything about her warning letter... If they asked, I wouldn't lie, and that’d be enough.
When I mentioned the 'event', whatever it had been, there was a minor flurry of activity among the oni, but as I told them of the sky turning red, something struck and slammed my train of thought clear from its rails. I snapped around to stare at the stone windows like a falcon fixing on prey.
The windows. The lighting.
The red filter was gone.
It was white daylight, bright and sunny, warming the clean grey stone inside. The sky was a beautiful, cloudless blue.
Kasen's chuckle brought me back.
“Was wondering when you’d notice. Boy was quicker on the uptake than you.”
He smiled sheepishly when I looked at him. I must’ve been really distracted — being under rock for over a day really puts your senses out of sorts. Nobody else seemed too shocked about it, so it must’ve happened in the morning.
“Nevermind that for now. Go on.”
Mildly put out by my own incompetence, I continued. Although I avoided embellishing the matter, the small audience of oni grew louder still when I told of the brief youkai cleansing I undertook in the village: how they seemed stronger than the usual fare I'd witnessed before, the sudden attacks and aggressiveness. I hadn't enough presence of mind to pay close attention to the mood of this larger audience, focused on Kasen as I was. There’s no doubt I made a poor, boring storyteller, making no appropriate gestures or swelling and ebbing my voice at dramatic times as I knew proper storytellers would, but nevertheless she listened calmly, drinking and nodding along. It brought to mind memories of giving reports to Mother, from when I was being taught away from her.
I went through the events after that quickly. Meeting both Ayas, travelling, meeting the goddesses that smelled like food, the nominal kidnapping, being brought here, and finally, just because I thought it might annoy the crow, the encounter with Hatate. By my reckoning, not even fifteen minutes went by while I spoke.
I sat back down when I was done and the world swerved violently, making me need to lean hard on the table. The sake was starting to settle. Not a good sign, but I was still able to act natural, mostly. “That’s the shape of it. I’m only searching for Mother. Hina. When the sky turned red, Youkai Mountain seemed like the natural place to search.”
She tapped her fingers, looking strangely at me. “Be honest with you, I had somethin’ a little less formal than that in mind. I’m not your boss.” She gestured at the room, filled with drink and talk despite the tenseness of the atmosphere. Not all oni were paying attention to our talk. Was I actually supposed to tell an entertaining story?
The crow giggled. “She’s a shrine maiden. You wouldn’t know cause you’re just a shut-in, but they’re all pretty much like this. Terribly humourless bunch.”
“I can attest to that!” My Aya piped up, annoyingly happily. I glared at him.
“Shrine maiden, huh? Well, if Hina’s been here in the last decade she didn’t see fit to come say hi to me.”
“You know her?” I leaned forward, instantly regretting the sudden movement: both because it made my head spin and instantly gave away what I wanted.
“Most who were here while she was do — she made herself known. Friendly girl, for better or worse.”
Friendly? I frowned.
The oni noted my expression and smirked bitterly. “Doesn’t sound like the Hina you know?”
“How’d—” I stopped mid-word. I wasn’t drunk enough to ask questions that dumb just yet. “No, it doesn’t.”
The bitter smile grew into a full acid laugh. It was the same mood she was in when we entered the room, put into sound. “It’s not just us who have to deal with this garbage, at least. That’s some consolation.” She reigned in the sarcastic smile, looking at me with something like pity. “Give you some advice, for free. Don’t assume you know her,” the oni said.
“Older the being, the more they have to hide. She were oni, I wouldn’t say this, but you can’t assume you know everything about her. Can’t even assume you know who she truly is. Even if you consider her your mother.” She scrunched up her face into something like disgust. “’S always lies and secrets piled up sky high over the years. You people can’t resist it. It’s disgusting, people will scheme and lie about anything, even their own identity, for the tiniest advantage. Isn’t that right, crow?”
“I do my best, lady Deva.”
“You and your kind are already on thin ice, Aya. Keep a lid on it.”
Aya mock-frowned, crossing her arms and ignoring the roomful of oni glares. “Don’t put them and me in the same sentence. That’s just an insult.”
“Insult you’ve earned ten times over.”
“Are you picking a fight?” Aya covered her mouth with a strange fan shaped like a large maple leaf. Where and when did she get that? “You know I won’t shy away, but this hardly seems like the time for it, yes?”
The surrounding oni barely seemed to react to this exchange, and when Kasen sighed, I caught a glimpse of a tiny smile on her lips before it was quickly concealed — I only saw it because I was closest to her. ‘Ah,’ I thought, ‘Is it that kind of a relationship?’
I mused as they traded more barbs, my attention drifting. I stared meaninglessly at the colourful sake dish. Somewhere along the way it had become half-empty, although I hadn’t planned on drinking more. My thoughts were sluggish and my head was light, but I got what she’d been implying — no, saying outright.
She was saying Mother lied to me. That she was two face. That I didn’t know the woman who faced me.
It was complete nonsense, and insulting at that. It didn’t even bear thinking.
It didn’t ever bear thinking. It didn’t even bear thinking. It didn’t even bear thinking.
But my heart wasn’t listening to me.
[ ] Drink a little more. [ ] Drink a lot more.
>>198546 You must be a very kind person in real life. Thank you.
We're being used for lab rats for a bit, my dudes. Hold on to your seatbelts.
You can inject another bit of Kasen's characterization into this story depending on how she reacts to Friend Dog (even if just mentioned in conversation). It'd make some sense for her to have a soft spot for animals, even before going hoarder-hermit.
Drinking more would make the oni more well-disposed towards me.
Such a pathetic rationalization scurried by my head shamefully along with half a dozen of its' siblings, and all of them put together wouldn’t fool a clever toddler. I had time to feel embarrassed for myself before I threw back the rest of the clear sake, welcoming the burn. I had never been truly hammered before, but I’d seen enough people go through it that I knew it’d be a mistake, if I’d been in a state to think over my actions.
But enough was enough. The weight had piled up to a level I’d never had to bear before.
Being kidnapped into a den of youkai, going through mysterious apocalyptic events, becoming saddled with babysitting some kid, meeting some oni goddess or whatever she was, all of that I could deal with. Easily, even, just as long as mother was here. As long as she was with me, within my heart, unshakeable as always.
But instead... Mother...
Where was she? Why was she gone? What was she doing? Why did— Ugh.
It hurt. Everything hurt. There was a pressure on my temple that was about to blossom into pure searing pain, and I leaned heavily, still staring into my dish. It’d been mysteriously refilled. Good. Down it went, ever less hesitantly. It’d help me not think.
Kasen brought me back to attention (to a degree) by yelling something out — The exact words eluded me, but all the oni in the room slowly rose and cleared out of the room, but not without a lot of grumbling. I looked up, puzzled, but she was motioning us to stay — me and both Ayas. Soon we were alone in the vast, now echo-prone stone room. Kasen looked over us for a time, a difficult expression on her face. I felt the boy’s small fingers on my shoulder as I drank more, but shrugged him off brusquely, without looking.
She tapped her fingers, looking directly at me. “Best start from the beginning. From your story in the village, you know how it went. We all got stronger all in one go, at the same time the sky went red. Getting stronger alone isn’t a problem, but there was the other side to it. What made ‘em attack, in the case of your village, and worse in our case.”
“I don’t know exactly how or what, but it did something to our heads. Everyone’s heads. Younger ones got it worse, but even someone as old as me felt it. We oni got more reckless, like the blood was on us. Don’t know about the wolves, they all packed up and fled in a day or two. They’ll be back. The crows were the worst of the bunch.”
Aya kept surprisingly quiet. I’d have expected a quip, but she was only paying close attention.
“They’d never liked living under us, so it must’ve been that. The inner hostility turned outer. Within two days there were ambushes.” She clenched her teeth. “Oni died. There are a few hundred of us at most, and they still dared to murder us. And trust me, we aren’t weak enough that we can be accidentally killed like humans. Right now, no oni can walk alone — this is the state we’re in.” She spat again. “Some idiot dies fighting a tengu or getting himself into trouble, I don’t give a shit — but that’s not how the crows do. No, ten of the worms jump you in the dark with knives. They wouldn’t have dared before.”
She paused and glared at Aya with such undisguised vitriol that, for that single second, I was certain I was about to witness death yet again. Too many times in too short an interval. A shiver ran through me, but she looked away and the hatred was... not gone, only not so clear and focused. “I’ve been able to stall Yuugi and Suika from calling a war party and rampaging, but it won’t last a week if something doesn’t change. Much as I’d love to rip some wings off myself, outright war would lose us too many people.”
“Why is Aya here, then? Is she more trustworthy than other tengu?”
It took a moment to realize I was the one who spoke. Ah, fuck it.
Her eyes widened. “Trustworthy?"
And then she cackled. Very loudly, for about a full minute.
I took the opportunity to drink and managed not to spill anything.
“No. Gods, no. If anything this one is more likely to put a knife between your shoulders than any other creature in this mountain. I hate her as much as any other tengu.” Aya giggled, with not a trace of anything negative to it. Are youkai all this screwed up? “But unlike other crows, I know she couldn’t bear her own kind owning the place, either. Could call us allies of convenience, I s’pose.”
“You sure were chatty and friendly, for people who hate each other.”
Oh, that was my voice again. Was I always a chatty drunk? Nobody responded to that, so it was all good.
“All that is common knowledge. The real news comes next. I can speak of it now that it's done — the reason the sky went red, and everything else that's happened. The new Great Barrier.”
She summarized. Brutally. I was sober enough to understand the main gist of it. She said it’d have more effects than she could list in a day, but the main points were these: It made the sky go red when it was forming, it caused the changes in youkai. It physically locked everyone inside this piece of land, with no possibility of escape. Every human, every monster, animal, spirit and god. I was stuck here. She also explained why such a thing was needed, but I lost the thread there.
I laughed. I wasn’t used to laughing, and I might’ve been doing it wrong or it might’ve been the alcohol, but my throat hurt something fierce. The crow started raising her voice — she was angry at something, but not at me, so it just served as good entertainment and made me laugh harder, despite the awful headache I now had. My own Aya got concerned and kept trying to get me to stop drinking, whispering. It was cute how distressed he got, so I let him keep talking.
“Yoshiko. What do you think?”
“Huh? What?” It was Kasen calling for me. I was pulled out of the haze I was in. “About what?”
“It’s a big cage for humans, essentially. Herded for our benefit. That make you angry?”
I snorted. “Why would it?”
“A priest has to care for the people, right?”
I scowled. “No. Screw them. The ungrateful, disrespectful, spiteful—”
She interrupted. “Weird attitude for a shrine maiden, but fitting, in your case. Am I right?”
“A false priestess serving something that isn’t really a god.”
I buried my head in my arms. I’d just managed to distract myself from this. Why was she doing this?
“She didn’t pretend to be one when she first got here, that was something she came up with later, for the humans. She’s really just some kinda spirit, or a weird tsukumogami.”
[x] "Within the next decade, all Oni will be exiled to the underground, never to see the light of day again, except for a hornless Oni who will get by by pretending to be a hermit. You'll live to see the Youkai mountain under Tengu control, where they will proceed to hide from the rest of the world and stagnate" [x] That's the prophecy of a fake shrine maiden of a fake God.
fellas, my classes are starting again in a week and on top of that I have to do some relatively extensive replanning of the story i gotta do because of reasons let's call it a short break, 1 month max before i update again
Painful. That's how it felt. Painful, in twenty different ways. But it was okay, the hurt helped keep my head from spinning.
Spinning. Haha. Like mother. Funny.
I clutched my head a little harder. The youkai kept talking.
“Come clean. Hina was a dangerous unknown at best. I won’t stand another one walking around — not now.”
I groaned. She... thought I was lying? Or something?
“Well?” Oh, it was an ultimatum. “Why have you come to our mountain? You didn’t just stumble here by accident. Tell me.” She didn’t need to add an ‘or else’, it came through fine.
I chuckled into my arms.
“Is there something funny about me?”
She was so high-and-mighty, having fun at my expense. It was awful. I hated her. It was the feeling I got when people stared at me as I passed through villages, boiling up again. It didn’t even make sense, but I didn’t care.
“Sshure. It’s really funny,” I slurred. Ugh, I was really slurring. “It’s funny you think I care about your youkai crap. I'm not here to deal with you.”
OH, that felt good. I didn’t yell, but it felt like an explosion, a venting of something that had been bottled up for too long. I raised my head, finally, and giggled again. “What do you know? How would you know anything about gods? You’re just a youkai. You don’t know anything.”
What a stupid thing to say when you don’t even believe it yourself. I held Kasen’s stare. “Mother’s good. You don’t know anything.”
She stared back. The exhilaration from cursing at her deflated in seconds. I sunk back down and tried not to pass out. It was all so stupid, and I felt an idiot for even saying anything. It was pathetic, my life was unravelling and I could barely get angry enough to curse once.
“I thought humans were supposed to be honest when they’re drunk. That’s why this is the traditional greeting.”
“I’m not lying about anything.”
“Maybe not to me. Hina arrived here around... what was it, fifty years ago? Maybe less. She didn’t start claiming to be a goddess until over years and years later.”
There was silence for some seconds.
“I get it already. I’m not dumb.” I sighed. A hiccup cut it off. “What do you want from me? Okay. She lied to me. For all my life.” Sniff. “So what?”
“So, you’re really just... ?”
“An unlucky fake shrine maiden. One so pathetic she confides in youkai.” And a weepy drunk, on top of that. I felt tears brimming and was madder at myself for that than I could’ve been at Kasen for anything. I hid my face. “Stuck for the rest of her life with nothing but youkai and a town of braindead villagers.”
It was getting worse. Just staying still wasn’t enough to stop the spinning anymore. I couldn’t stop babbling. “So no, I’m too busy with my own stuff to get into your youkai drama. And sshorry you don’t like how I feel about the ungrateful idiots that do nothing but whisper behind my back everywhere I go. Do I have your leave now?”
It was miserable sarcasm and I was an insufferable drunk.It’d been real effort stringing those sentences together, so I closed my eyes, still feeling them sting. My voice getting quieter every word. “D’you wanna keep humiliating me maybe? Want to make me genuflect? I can go on with how much my life sucks right now.”
A boy’s voice came from beside me somewhere. “She’s about to crash, um...”
“Kasen is fine.”
“Don’t blame her too much, she—”
“I can make my own judgements, little human.”
“‘M not ‘about to crash’”, I mumbled. Then I was gone.
i wanted this to be a bigger more dramatic moment, but it just wasn't workin' out so fuck it, better this than taking another week to update
I laid on my futon and fidgeted impatiently, taking a break from pacing around the room. A small swaying candle on the floor nearby served as the only illumination in the room and my textbook sat forgotten next to me, the diagrams within long memorized. Studying it no longer served as a past-time. It was about time this ‘assignment’ ended, but Mother wasn’t always exact with dates. I hadn’t been learning for too long, so her arrivals and departures still filled me with a giddy anxiety and eagerness to meet her again — one would think living with her for all of my childhood would have deadened such an impulse, but all it did was make her absence more painful when she did begin sending me away.
This time, I’d been given a modest servant’s room in the manor of a minor imperial court member, mostly observing as he went through his busy schedule each day. Though I wasn’t given express instructions and learned well enough just observing him go through his work and occasionally asking questions, he’d even made time to teach me directly, along with some nephews of his. They complained, kept their distance and whispered of witchery that I could see without eyes, but that much was routine, and there had been nothing much worse than the usual whispers and looks. No matter. As long as I could do what I was told, I didn’t care even if they threw rocks at me. There had even been a pleasant exception to the rule, in this case.
I kept the sliding door to the outside opened a crack despite the cool wind, so I could fruitlessly crane my head back and peek out at the lantern-lit garden every few seconds, waiting. My time here had been well spent. I’d learned a lot, but it was growing near time to go — I could feel it. The increase in pressure that announced her, a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold. Goddesses had such presence, naturally. I rose into seiza naturally as the door quietly slid open. I smiled up at her.
Mother was ghostly as always, silhouetted against the night sky and the dim garden, long hair and ribbons streaming. Ethereal, pale and beautiful, like a princess from a tale. The starlight framing her from behind and the candlelight from below made her eyes look even more sunken than normal. She carried a heavy air of dignity and power, and I lowered my head instinctively as she stared down at me. She was grave and didn’t return my smile or my out-of-place greeting, but that was to be expected.
“Yoshiko,” she called in her whispering way.
She frowned minutely. “You can sit normally, if you like.”
I did, crossing my legs and getting comfortable.
She leaned and patted my head, once. A tremendously uncommon gesture from her, and just as welcome. I leaned into it just as she retreated, but thankfully stopped myself short of doing anything more embarrassing than that. It’d been a month since I saw her, so maybe she missed me a little, too. I hoped.
“Are you well?”
“Yes! Mr. Shimada has been kind. I’ve had this room for myself since I got here.” Granted, that was unlikely to have been for my benefit. Still, it didn’t make it less convenient for me. I briefly went through my activities: the man I’d been studying under had gotten to where he was from low beginnings through hard work and competence, as he’d proudly announced in more than a few occasions. His activities were varied, but mostly clerical, and while I hadn’t gotten to accompany him when he went to work outside, I got to look at a lot of paperwork and, tangentially, the running of a house. I wasn’t sure what use any of it would be to a shrine maiden, but my job wasn’t to question. Mother listened expressionlessly as I gave her my report.
“Good,” she said, once I was done. “A good month, then?”
I beamed in response.
“Then, we can begin.” she said holding out her hand. I nodded.
This was the other important part of ‘learning’, my training for this particular duty of being a priestess of Kagiyama. I used my time among people to do my job as a priestess of misfortune, collecting it from people, and Hina in turn took it from me. It was as quick and painless a process as when I did it to normal people, the wisp of jet black snaking out of me and up her arm, curiously without feeling or atmosphere. The entire thing was over and done within a minute.
“Oh, there was one more thing!” Aside from the ‘official’ report, I enjoyed telling her of any interesting happenings. It was like a field trip, after all, and she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it was difficult to judge, but I thought she enjoyed it when I shared. “I think I made an acquaintance. A kitchen maid who came up and talked to me. She asked me about you, being a shrine maiden, and a few other things.”
“You made a friend?”
Her tone had suddenly changed to something... complex, I couldn’t categorize it exactly. Not definitely positive, though, so I hedged. “Not exactly. We spoke, that’s all.”
It wasn’t a lie. She’d been a young woman, older than me by a few years and mostly curious about my circumstances, although she wasn’t unkind. She’d sneaked me some treats from the kitchen and I told her about my eyes, let her look into them up close. Nice girl, but we’d only spoken little and shallowly — I had scant concept of normal friendship, but I didn’t feel that had been it. It had been a novel experience not to have to put up an act and just speak to someone, though.
“I see.” She paused. “I see.”
“Um. Should I not have?”
“No, it’s fine. I’m pleased. You should make friends,” she said, her mouth twisting into a grimace that looked anything but pleased. I didn’t understand. “Yes. Yes, it’s a good thing.” She laid a hand on my head again, then stunned me by sinking on her knees and pulling me into an unprompted hug. A hug! From mother! Without me asking for it! I broke out of my daze as soon as I realized what was happening and returned it, of course.
She was as thin to the touch as she looked, and cold besides. Even being a small adolescent girl, it felt like I could break her by squeezing too hard. “Ah?! M—Hina! Um, is everything alright?”
Her voice was tight as she whispered near my ear. “Of course. Nothing’s wrong.” I basked the closeness for a few more seconds as she tightened the embrace then pulled away. She had to put some force in to detach me. She was smiling.”It’s really good. Really.”
I couldn’t understand. She was usually stoic and impenetrable, but when she was in one of these strange moods, her thinking was beyond me.
At least she wasn’t cursing humans this time, I thought, and decided to just enjoy the moment.
I opened my eyes, saw a stone ceiling, and closed them again. Kept them closed. I wanted nothing to do with the waking world right then — my first conscious thought was that I fervently wished I hadn’t woken up.
But my attempts to will myself out of existence bore no fruit. It barely did enough to distract me from the blossoming welt of a headache that was still building behind my non-eyes. It made me groan, and I wished with all my being that the only pains I felt were — as it had been when life was nice and stable — the myriad tiny aches travelling on foot heaped on you: from scratches, walking pains and careless campfire burns. Wished that I’d be transported to a month prior, where my only concern was to perform well in my duties... but that train of thought was pulling me somewhere I didn’t want to go.
Screw it. There was no way to vanish myself, so I closed my eyes and stubbornly, childishly ignored everything, doing my best to let the pain, hunger, and thirst wash over me. I clamped down on stray thoughts and laid there, still, sore and hurting. I was going to sleep it off, I decided, aggressively avoiding thinking about my situation. I was practiced at meditation, and this was similar, in a way.
Before a minute had passed, there was a tsk from beside me.
“Pretending to sleep?”
It was the boy’s not-yet-mature voice. I hadn't noticed him there. I turned away from him and shut my eyes tighter.
“Come on, this is just childish.”
I curled up inside the futon.
“You lose the right to call me a kid after this, you know? You’re literally sulking.”
“Fine,” I said, sitting up. We were in a tidy, windowless little stone room, dark but for a couple of lanterns that cast the usual orange light over us. Although the room was western style with ornate wooden furniture, I was in a double futon set near a corner. More of that strange mix of styles. A cool current of air ran through the dusty-smelling room, although there was only one entrance.
I noted I was wearing a simple sleeping kimono rather than my own outfit.
My headache protested as I rose, making me wince. I endured it and glared at the boy. “What? What do you want?”
He glared back. “I want you to get up. You’ve been snoring for close to twelve hours.”
I nearly instantly broke the staring contest, flopping back down. The movement made my building headache flare. “I don’t snore.” I hoped.
“Don’t avoid the subject.” He drew closer, poking his head into my field of view and taunting me with his lively little face. He frowned at me. “Hey. Could it be you’re still drunk? After this long? You did pass out pretty soon after drinking.”
I turned to the side and away from him again, huddling. “I’m tired. Leave me alone.”
“You’ve been comatose for half a day. How are you still tired?”
“I just am.”
There was a minute pause, then he spoke again. “I see. You don’t want to get up, then,” he trailed off, waiting for a response. I offered none. “That’s okay too. Do you remember everything that happened yesterday?”
“What?” I hated it when he changed subject that suddenly. I especially hated this particular change of subject, but I didn’t lie. “Yes,” I answered warily.
“Would you like to talk about it?”
He couldn’t see it, but my expression hardened.
“About the barrier, and about Kagi—” “No/.”
He was silent for a while after the forceful interruption. I hadn’t expected to come out with it that fiercely, but there was no point apologizing or backtracking: I really didn’t want to think about it yet.
“Alright then,” he said, suddenly mischievous. “I was waiting for you to wake, but if you’re not coming I suppose I’ll have to explore the mountain all by my lonesome while you wither here by yourself!”
There was more rustling, then soft sandalled steps, the smooth wooshing of the door opening and an echoing slam as it closed... and silence. He’d left. I didn’t move a muscle. A stray thought that I should’ve stopped him passed by, but it was gone as fast as it had come. He’d probably do well without me; he was a capable enough boy, profoundly stupid risk-taking aside.
Two seconds later, I realized there had been no sound of steps moving away from beyond the door.
Stupid. A smile fought its way onto my lips, barely staying a moment before I could banish it away. I kept facing the wall.
“Come on, Yoshiko! Would you really have let me do that? It’s dangerous in the mountain, remember?” He took quick steps back towards me, his long flickering shadow draping over me as he sat again by my side, as if he were nursing me through some disease. Blessedly, he said nothing for another stretch of time. When he wasn’t talking, his presence was somehow reassuring, despite just being a little boy.
It couldn’t last.
“Kasen and I spoke a lot yesterday. After you were... gone.”
I badly wished to put my hands over my ears, but it struck me as ridiculous and petulant, as did interrupting him again. I’d have to listen to it at some point, get out of bed, act. An ugly anxiety gripped me somewhere at the bottom of my ribs and held. I didn’t want to hear this.
“We talked about her mountain problem, fairly in depth. I was surprised she wanted me — us — to hear about it. She must be at the end of her rope to be telling all of this to two stragglers like us. Maybe she really trusts Aya?”
I said nothing, staring hard at Aya’s flickering shadow on the wall before me.
“Then there was Hina. I have very little of her in memory, and from what Kasen told me, she was only here this past century. She’s a recent arrival. Was a recent arrival.”
More painful silence followed. He soldiered on, slightly stymied.
“She was supposedly active in our village too, although I hadn’t gotten to any reports that yet. It’s so much work... But she seems like a very interesting lady. I wouldn’t mind an introduction. If you’re alright with that.”
Yet more silence. I drew my knees up some. When Aya spoke again, he wasn’t so sure of himself any more. Still, he continued.
“Um. Kasen told me a few stories about her. I can tell you, if—”
It was embarrassing and painful to plead, so I half-whispered. He hushed right away. “Just give me half an hour. One hour. We can talk about what to do then.” I sniffed. “How about it?”
He was sheepish about it. “Okay,” he said, fidgeting in place. “Can I help? I can... hear you out, I guess.”
Idiot boy. Stubborn little tyke. Know when to stop talking, damn it. I pawed at my face, feeling clumsy and awkward and just as much of a child as Aya.
He stared, expectant, a student waiting for a teacher’s say. I laid back and stared at the flickering shadows on the ceiling.
He was just trying to help; I shouldn’t anger so easily. I couldn’t fault him for being inexperienced — probable lies about having memories from other lives aside. He tried to be helpful, without judgement or mockery. He’d been... a companion, upon thinking about it. He interacted normally and hadn’t once shown to be afraid of me. I frowned at myself, hating being this disoriented and unclear on every thought that went through my head — it really was like the oni wine was still in me. My thoughts floundered without their usual solid foundation. This wasn’t how I normally thought or acted and knowing about it made no progress towards solving the problem.
I’d just woken up and exhaustion was already crawling up to me. The wish to just collapse into a coma and become a part of the mountain wormed its way back stronger than before.
Life wasn’t so convenient. To throw everything into the garbage and run away from reality would accomplish nothing. As I was forced to think on it, a few facts bobbed to the top, untouched by the brain-broth of confusion. I couldn’t ignore them, the same way you wouldn’t eat around a big beetle fallen into your soup bowl.
Despite her less than perfect honesty with me, I was still owed debts to mother that couldn’t be paid over a dozen lifetimes. I was still stuck in youkai mountain, supposedly in a locked-away land. I was still responsible for this small bumbling stripling in the immediate future. All of it settled slowly, and although they were nothing but responsibilities and restrictions, they were also a focus. Something to accomplish.
Having thus fooled myself into believing I was collected, I sat back up, surprised Aya had managed to behave while I gave it some thought. Right, he wanted to ‘talk’, like I was some simple village girl running to chatter about her problems. I would’ve firmly, instantly denied him with no trouble any other time.
This wasn’t any other time.
I’d made the mistake of looking directly at him. He knelt by me, and I was reminded of a group of foreigners I once saw in worship to their god. His face was all earnestness, with wide vulnerable eyes. Though he hadn’t thought twice about marching into a youkai stronghold, he now fidgeted with his hands when he thought I wasn’t looking.
He bit his lip briefly, transparently trying to look his most dependable. Some people had unfair advantages, I thought as I consciously prevented myself from reaching up and ruffling up his hair.
Right. I was giving even youkai chances, and he’d already seen me drunk. What was there to lose? I sagged back against the wall and prepared to speak. It might make me feel better.
But he was keen on making it difficult for me.
“Uh, if you don’t—”
“Shut up.” The words came out before I had a chance to stop them. I wanted to go along with this, but still my irritation had spiked. He couldn’t leave it alone for even a full minute. “I’m thinking about it.”
“I’m sorry. I'm trying to get this right, still. There was something like this in the past, with me.” At that point, I gave up, sighing to myself. There was no stopping this little idiot until he had his fill, and even if there was, I hadn’t the spirit to try. “I remember it. Or one of me remembers it.” He frowned, tilting his head at me as if he expected me to have an explanation for him. I stared back. “It’s complicated. Point is, I’ve seen it! I should know how to do this.”
I thought we were just talking. He didn’t have to ‘do’ anything. “Do what?”
Then, taking a breath, he tackled me.
No, it only felt like that, but there was no force behind the movement. He’d only suddenly shuffled closer on his knees and wrapped his arms around my head. I jerked back in surprise, but the futon was close against the wall, leaving me trapped, pressed up against it. I froze. What was he doing?
His ribs poked me uncomfortably — the boy needed more food. Sandwiched between him and the wall, I sat there, awkwardly still, confused, as a few seconds passed in silence.
I was too baffled to be angry. At length, I couldn’t help but ask.
“What is this?” My voice was muffled.
“Huh?” He shifted around, but I couldn’t see what he was doing on account of... well, getting held flush against his chest like a plush toy or favourite doll.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m hugging you. This is called an embrace.”
I turned my head so I could breathe, and one of his arms started digging into my temple. He was holding on like I was going to run away, “I knew that. That’s not what I meant.”
The air from his indignant huff tickled the top of my head. “Isn’t it obvious? I’m comforting you.” He paused, struggling for the words. “I know you’re troubled. This is what a man... this is a man’s job.”
I wondered if he was making a joke at first, but his voice held a serious tone. He was sincere.
It seemed laughable, but slowly I realized it was working — or rather, it began to work the more I thought about it. I didn’t feel ‘comforted’, but he took my mind off trouble in a different way; he was just so damn adorable. Even in this sort of situation, he was worried about being seen as grown up, and more so, worried about me. It must have taken bravery to do this — he was just a kid, after all. I was suddenly glad he came along, despite everything else. What a good, brave boy. Since he wouldn’t see it at this angle, I risked a smile and allowed myself to enjoy the arrangement, awkward as it was. His breath tickled my hair pleasantly, and a hug was kind of novel for me. The Tengu’s offensive maneuvre from the other day came to mind, but that hardly counted. Mother didn’t usually go for shows of emotion of this magnitude either.
Given the circumstances, I was unmotivated to follow in her footsteps right at that moment, as well as ill-prepared to resist such a strange swell of affection. A whim that I’d normally have scarcely paid any attention to drove me instead. I grabbed Aya back and spun us around, landing with a comfortable whomp back on the beddings. He gasped out a small noise of surprise. Hearing him made me immediately realize what I was doing, and the embarrassment raced up my cheeks — though it wasn’t bad enough that I stopped.
There was no option but to double down, and if there were, I would’ve done the same. Rather than an awkward half-sit we were now lying down facing each other, though the difference in height meant my legs were left scratching against bare stone. I wriggled as far as I could into his arms, burying my face in his robe so he wouldn’t see the expression I was making. He tightened his arms as I did, locking me in as close as we could be with clothes in the way (Intrusive thoughts!) Feeling stupid, warm and wonderful, I tried not to think that I’d essentially just spontaneously started cuddling with this boy. It was shameful and base, no doubt, but I found it difficult to care very much about propriety right then.
“...Thanks,” I said, the muffling from speaking directly into him doing a good job of hiding any emotion. Hopefully. “It’s not that bad. I’m okay.” It was a half-lie. I hadn’t had time to really think about everything that had happened yet, but the fact that I wasn’t catatonic seemed a good sign.
“It’s not so bad here.” He shifted around uncomfortably, looking for what to say. “The… the village could use another shrine maiden. The hakurei doesn’t like to come down from her shrine.”
Oh, there was that too. I wasn’t even thinking of it, but it was true, I was stuck here now — not that I was afflicted with wanderlust, but I could barely remember the last time I stayed put for more than a few months. I nodded for his benefit, effectively nuzzling. “I’ll think about it.”
He said nothing else, and I didn’t feel the need to either. I lapsed into a contented stupor, letting my eyes go half-closed. Relaxing, breathing in the mild smell of tengu soap. A small part of my mind remained disquieted, but it was like a tiny rattling compared to the fluffy feeling I was experiencing. All sorts of embarrassing thoughts went through my head that I wouldn’t dare repeat or think back on, and I may have gone slightly overboard, even, for lack of experience.
Someway, it all worked. Being held did calm me down — the piled up stress that had so rapidly piled up over the past week or two sloughed off like moulting skin with each breath. I didn’t need to put my worries into words: Having someone warm, near, and willing to listen was enough. I wondered briefly if I’d been missing this all my life, but it couldn’t be the case. I hadn’t any worries of this magnitude before coming here; my only troubles were how to become better at my job then, and I’d been doing well enough at that.
Unfortunately, even in my addled state I realized I couldn’t be doing this for so long while we were in enemy territory. It took me some ten very pleasant minutes, but I managed to drag myself out of it into something resembling working order. I pulled back as much as I could, which wasn’t much while sharing a bed. I hoped I’d be able to keep a neutral expression by then. Aya took a sharp breath when I moved — I hadn’t been paying attention to him in my trance. I had to look up at his face, and that sent all sorts of strange feelings coursing through me.
He was... less relaxed than me, shall we say. Small wonder. He was a healthy boy on the cusp of adulthood.
He flinched. “Y-yes?”
I smiled inwardly. It was my turn to help him out, it seemed. A spot of conversation would help him wind down.
[ ] Ask about yesterday. Did he talk to Kasen afterwards? [ ] Ask about the other Aya. What was his impression of her? [ ] He mentioned the village. Bring it up again — I’d have to learn more about it at some point. [ ] ...Maybe not. Tease him instead. [ ] Write-in
Sorry I'm so late, but this update kicked my ass. Also sorry that I misphrased the last choice. There wasn't any actual confiding going on here.
[X] Ask about yesterday. Did he talk to Kasen afterwards?
>“We talked about her mountain problem, fairly in depth. I was surprised she wanted me — us — to hear about it. She must be at the end of her rope to be telling all of this to two stragglers like us. Maybe she really trusts Aya?”
By far the most informative option, if they simply must be mutually exclusive. Let's get the full context before continuing.
sorry about this, but I've been thinking for a while about it. I don't like writing. I get no enjoyment, no sense of fulfilment or accomplishment from writing this or any story. I never did, since the beginning. I feel no attachment or emotional connection to the stories or the characters, and frankly I can hardly ever remember what happened in any one of them. I just can't bring myself to care very deeply. It's been a lot of effort for no benefit, on my side.
If you're curious why I even started and why I kept going for so long if I never liked doing it. Well, on starting, it was more like a compulsion. It was a time where I was f5ing the site more frequently than probably anyone else, to spend my time and I just felt there weren't enough stories. I had to do something myself. Then I just sort of kept going after I started on inertia and a sense of responsibility. That was also why my stories end and begin so close together, because once my story ended I felt that sense of an impulse that reading other stories alone wouldn't quell.
Anyway, that's that. Even though it was, strictly speaking, a waste of time counting in years, I don't think I regret the time I spent doing it. I'll keep voting and reading, of course. And this should go without saying, but this story won't get updated any more.
Well, thank you for your time and effort; I certainly don't think it was a waste. I could tell toward the end that you cared less and less, but at least during the Seija story it still felt like you were invested. And Kiss Me looked like nothing less than a labor of love - you'll have to forgive me if I refuse to believe you didn't feel something from that epic, even if it makes me a big fat hypocrite.
But anyway, thanks for the good times, and good luck with whatever you decide to 'waste' your free time on instead.
Witness: yet another reason we should have more writers working for commission. Everything would be so much easier around here if writers were slaves to our capitalist society instead of normal people with feelings/emotions.