“Alright, fellas,” you say. “Time to go drop in on that Noboru human and tell him the great news. I’m sure he’ll be overwhelmed, as humans do whenever youkai drop by, but it’s better that Daiki gets her family visit out of the way before dropping the whole ‘I want to be the village’s cat youkai-slash-protector’ bomb on the populace.”
“What?” Chen sputters out, shifting her gaze abruptly towards her fellow cat companion. “You’re gonna do… what?”
“Basically,” you say, “Daiki’s going to have the human village accept her as one of their own.”
Chen takes off her cap to frantically scratch the top of her head. The girl’s frustration spreads to her feet as she paces back and forth around the shrine’s front entrance, kicking stray stones on the ground.
“I’m no good at these kinda things,” she groans, “but isn’t that crazy?”
“That’s what I’m saying!”
“Think it’ll work out?” Tewi says. All things considered, she’s surprisingly composed.
“Me? If I’m being honest, no. But I don’t know those humans.” With a defeated smile, you shake your head from side to side. “Daiki does. Your opinion, cat?”
“This cat thinks it will be alright.” She nods shyly. “She believes in them.”
How deliciously sappy. “Let’s get a move on, then.” __________
Noboru’s household probably wasn’t expecting an entourage of youkai to greet them come noon. And yet here is Daiki, bringing along a rabbit, another cat, and a wolf to Noboru’s home. To be fair, you’re not really a youkai, but you digress. Things get awkward, and quick.
A woman steps out from the home, only for her to go running back in, yelling Noboru’s name all the while. You overhear Noboru and the woman, presumably his mother, squabble for a bit before the boy unceremoniously peeks his head out the door, pulls Daiki in, and disappears with the nekomata.
A long moment passes before Noboru comes outside with Daiki.
“I’m sorry,” is the first thing he says to Chen as he bows low.
“Huh? For what?” the brown haired cat replies.
“For, um, well.” He motions to her bandages and sling. “That.”
She narrows her eyes. “Save your apologies, ‘cause I don’t need em. This thing?” She waves her arm around. “It’ll be good in no time. Anyway, I just did what I felt like doing, not because it was the right thing to do. That youkai? Didn’t like its face, so I decided to go pick a fight. Not like you told me to protect your home or anything.”
“I… yeah.” He hangs his head. “You’re right.”
“Noboru should keep his head up,” says Daiki. “This cat thinks that he should not blame himself.”
“Don’t think too hard about it,” you say. “After all, you’re just a human. What were you going to do, stop it? You would’ve been ripped to shreds.”
He looks over to you, crestfallen.
“Instead, you should be grateful that everybody got through it okay,” you say, glancing over briefly to Chen. “Mostly okay, I mean. But you know that you have better things to worry about. Like, for example, your cat. Did you hear what she’s about to do?”
“Yes,” he says, going rigid. The slow glance to nowhere in particular betrays his nervous emotions. Not that it isn’t obvious—his brow couldn’t have been furrowed any harder. “Daiki told me about it.”
“Good. Do you know what you’re going to do?”
He freezes. “I need to do something?”
“Yes, you ninny,” you say crossly. “What did you think was going to happen? You watch from the sidelines while Daiki goes in alone and tells the crowd, ‘Yeah, I’m a youkai, but I’m trustworthy, I promise, trust me!’ If you think that’ll work out, then you’re either an idiot, a fool, or everything in between. You have to tell the other humans that Daiki is your family, or something similarly gushy—that they can trust her because you do.”
“I—I don’t think I’m an important enough person to do something like that in front of the other villagers.”
“Huh. I guess you’re right. Looks like we’ll have to wait for you to grow up—I’ll see you around in ten or twenty years when you become the village chief, eh? Ah, wait, Daiki will be dead by then. Drats. Better luck next time.” You stare straight into Noboru’s dark-brown eyes until he retreats and tucks his head behind hunched shoulders. “I’m waiting for a response, you know.”
“Can I really do something for her?” He clutches his shoulder, massaging anxiously near the neck. “Am I able to?”
“You going to continue wallowing in your indecision, or what?” Really. Humans and their stupid, wavering emotions. “She needs you out there. And not the wishy-washy you. So are you on her side?”
“...I am,” he says.
“Then are you going to man up already?”
There, he hesitates.
[ ] Get on his case. [ ] Talk to the rest of his family instead—maybe they’ll be more conducive. [ ] Forget it. He’s his own man with his own nekomata problems.
I can't believe this update even took this long but, as always, it was my own fault. A month of daily updates in November to none for all of December and most of January. Sad, but I'm all settled in now.
I'll also be working on one of the Nanowrimo writing requests, so I may or may not be a little slow on the coming few updates as well.
“Fool,” you bark, and though you had more to say—better cut words for the likes of him—you bridle your tongue. Humans. “Perhaps you don’t realize how important this is—how important you are. You get to decide whether she lives, or otherwise. Understand?”
“I do.” Noboru bobs his head up and down numbly, letting stray black hairs falling down to his forehead. “That’s why—that’s why I—”
“So fickle, you humans, cowardly lot. You save their lives, and they repay you with what? Indecision? Stuttering?” You narrow your eyes at the human. “Human. If you understand, then you understand. There’s no room for ‘that’s why’ or ‘what if’ or ‘maybe.’ You either do, or you don’t. If you do, good. And if you don’t—know that you shall be forever scorned by me. Forever.”
“I get it,” he says lowly. “I get it,” he says again. “It’s not that I won’t help Daiki—I will, and you may take my word on that. But what if I mess it all up for her? If I stand in front of the other villagers, and they don’t believe me, then it is because of me that Daiki would…” He struggles to find his words. “...move on.”
“I said,” you hiss, “‘So what?’ Do not make me repeat myself. If you need me to explain, then you are more daft than I initially presumed.”
“But then...” he trails off.
Daiki places a hand on Noboru’s head and runs her fingers through his hair. “Noboru. It is okay. This cat’s fate—whatever it may be—she can accept it. Because this cat is on borrowed time. Even being alive here and now is a blessing—to be able to repay the people who loved her and protect them: It’s more than she deserves.” She lets go of Noboru and takes a step back. “And if she is not needed—if they don’t need her—then she shall leave.”
“So she says, you sheep. Are you going to do something about it, or what?”
Noboru, for maybe the first time in his life, grows a spine and lifts his head to meet your gaze. The invisible weights attached to his forehead must have fallen. “I’ll do it,” he murmured, brewing quietly in his ill temper.
“Then say it with conviction and not like you’re whispering sweet nothings in my ear.”
He stamps a foot to the ground. “I’ll do it, god damn it!”
“Good,” you say. “That’s what you should’ve said in the first place.”
“So,” Noboru says, with ice still in his voice. “What should I do, or say, to help?”
You shrug. “Don’t look at me. I’m not giving you a prepared speech. You figure it out.”
Desperate for assistance, he turns to everyone else, and the crowd goes mild. “You mean I should just play it by ear?”
“You know your heart thing?” you say. “The one with all your emotions? Yeah, use that and appeal to them. I know that you’re no man of reason—so just make do with your feelings or whatever.”
“...You’re calling me stupid, aren’t you?”
“So you can read between the lines! Really. If I didn’t tell that idiot cat I’d help her, I wouldn’t have even bothered. But I guess it’s my job to meddle.”
Noboru narrows his gaze. “Forgive me for being rude, but if you don’t mind me asking—”
“You—You mean, that Hakurei? The shrine maiden, Hakurei?” Noboru says.
“No, the village idiot Hakurei.” You’re met with a blank stare from the human, so you sigh. “Yes, the shrine maiden. And don’t give me those doe eyes. If anything, you should be relieved because that means I ain’t a wolf tengu. Less chance of me ripping you to shreds.”
Tewi covers her mouth in mock-surprise. “Weren’t you already going to do that?”
“That’s my backup plan. If he fails, that is.”
“I won’t,” Noboru replies gruffly. “And, um, my apologies for being so rude. I didn’t know you were the Hakurei god.”
“As long as you do now,” you say. Hey, maybe being that lanky shrine maiden’s god wasn’t such a bad gig after all. Despite appearances, it seems like she’s got a reputation—and a good one, too. Who would’ve thought? “So when are you going to gather up the humans and tell them about your dirty cat secret?”
“This cat is not dirty,” Daiki says.
“To humans, you are.” You turn your gaze to Noboru. “Well? I’m thinking after lunchtime, but any time before the sun falls is fine. You know those villagers get anxious when all the nocturnal youkai come out to play.”
“You want to do this… tonight?”
“Oh, are we playing ‘Ask the God Stupid Questions’ again? I love this game—next, you’ll ask me if water is wet. No wait, we can get even stupider!”
Noboru, closing his eyes momentarily, blows steady air through his nose. “I’m asking seriously. There’s no way I could get all the village elders to agree to this in one day.”
“What’s the hold up? Just tell them to come, and they will.”
“Humans have schedules,” he says, matter-of-fact. “The elders won’t come just because I told them to.”
“Then tell them to come, or else.”
“Or else what?”
“Must I spell everything out to you? Here, just do as I do.” You narrow your gaze at the boy and give him your best snarl. “Just say: Or else means or else.”
“You want me to threaten the elders?” He sputters out. “You’re crazy!”
“What I’m saying, human, is that you don’t have time to wait for the stars to align. Really. My patience is running thin. You want something to happen? Then you make it happen—none of this ‘waiting around’ business.” You take a step forward and crouch down—just barely enough so that your gaze is level with Noboru’s. “Frankly, I’m rather tired of you running around in circles, vomiting out malarkey, and being so pathetic. Where’s all your confidence from two minutes ago? Threw it into the void? By the time you get ready to do whatever you’re doing, all the other humans are going to die of old age. Am I clear, or do you need me to reiterate? This is going to be the second time, mind you.”
“No,” he grumbles, resignation seeping into his face. After a wild scratch at the roots of his hair, he concedes. “I’ll go talk to the elders.”
Daiki steps to Noboru’s side. “This cat will come with.”
“You can’t,” the boy snaps. For a moment, he’s lost in his own bitterness, demonstrating it with an awful frown. But as his frustration dissipates, he returns to his usual sullen countenance. Softly, he corrects himself. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to lash out at you, Daiki. But you really shouldn’t come—I don’t think I can persuade the elders with any youkai around. Don’t worry though. I’ll come back when I’m done.”
“...Okay,” replies Daiki, faking a poor attempt at nonchalance.
Ugly, you think, how quickly humans point their anger at their loved ones. You keep quiet—anything more out of your mouth, and his fragile ego is going to break again.
As Noboru leaves for the village, you think to follow the human, but you’re met with two cats and a rabbit. You reckon that Chen, with a face that says she’d rather be anywhere else, isn’t keen on human politics. Daiki’s silent, and Tewi’s raising an eyebrow that says, ‘Well? What now?’
[ ] Keep physical distance from the boy. You don’t want to see his ugly mug right now. [ ] Tail the boy alone. Chances are, he’ll need your help like the useless human he is.
[x] Tail the boy alone. Chances are, he’ll need your help like the useless human he is.
One old dude squaring up against a tradition of superstition and fear? Come on people, this guy doesn't have a chance in hell. I think Hakurō would be wise enough to know humans are at their absolute worst in these types of situations.
>>200396 What I imagine is that Hakurou knows this, but he's being petty right now so he doesn't want to help him out on the small stuff... Or Hakurou could be letting Noboru do it himself so that Noboru doesn't have to depend on him.
Let's be honest, he's doing this for shits and giggles.
You, for a brief moment, feel nothing but contempt for the boy—of course, humans love to do things their way and their way only for the sake of satisfying their own pride. But you don’t let your nasty emotions control you, at least to that degree. To do that would be to be human, no? Even if it might be—no, would be—better to satisfy your irritation by consuming until there is nothing left and—You’ll think of it no more. The last thing you want is to waste your thoughts about that stupid boy right now. Instead, you decide to mosey your way into Noboru’s home.
You’re halfway there when Chen asks an honest, if not dumb, question.
“Um. What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” you say, turning to her. “I’ll be waiting until the human comes crying back home, begging for help. Then I’m gonna rub it in his face and say, ‘I told you so.’”
Tewi folds her arms. “Very mature. You’re not going to follow the boy?”
“Frankly, I don’t give a damn whether he manages to get the elders together in their little village council. If he does—good. That’s what’s expected of him. And if he doesn’t, then it’s my turn to have a little chat with the other humans, whether the boy wants me to or not.”
“So… you’re just going to wait?”
“As always,” you reply, turning back round to enter through the family home, much to the surprise of Noboru’s mother, who was spying through the crack of the half-open door. “I am very good at waiting. After all, I’ve done it for over a thousand years. And, excuse me.” You briefly acknowledge the human woman. “I’ll be borrowing your home.”
She has a look in her eyes that you can’t quite make out, but you’ll hazard a guess and say that her stare isn’t all sunshine and roses. “Okay,” she mumbles. Clearly, she’s thrilled.
Daiki’s already inside, peering over to the other youkai from inside. With a nod of her head, she prompts them to come join her. She acts like she owns the place—but you suppose that’s just how cats are.
A second human comes out of hiding from her room, quietly observing the other two youkai reluctantly enter the human household. Suddenly, it’s a crowd. The house’s entrance leads straight into the leisure room which doubles as a kitchen. To say it’s homely would be an understatement: The place isn’t meant for two humans, three youkai, and a god to reside in at once. That, however, is not going to stop you from intruding because you’re already reclining back on a chair.
The smaller human inches forward and whispers something to her mother, but she’s quickly hushed and shooed away. They silently exchange a glare, and, presumably ignoring her mother’s complaints, the girl speaks up.
“Hello. I’m Yoru. Are you all, um, Daiki’s friends?” The room is quiet—the youkai are just staring at her. She blushes at the attention.
[ ] “‘Friends’ is a strong word.” [ ] “Sure. We’re all something like that.” [ ] Say nothing—just keep staring.
The girl looks rather young—even for a human. If you could guess, she’d be no older than her early twenties at the latest, her slender frame and modest attire not contributing to her puerility. Though, her black hair is well-braided and tucked to her right side, and she seems like she enjoys looking down at the floor whenever anybody makes eye contact, so perhaps she’s just shy of being an adult.
You’d love to continue the awkward silence and stare at her, but you can’t help and laugh at her words. “Hah! Friends. Sure. We’re something like that.”
“Excuse you,” Chen says with a hmph. “Daiki and I are friends. I bet you can’t say the same.”
For a moment, Daiki’s taken aback, looking especially vulnerable with her widened eyes. Then, with a warm smile, she shakes her head. “They… All of them are friends.”
What an adorable specimen. “Well, I’ll be. Aren’t you just the cutest thing around!”
Tewi must be thinking the same thing as she puts a hand on her cheek, grinning all the while. “Just a doll, ain’t she?”
“Yeah, well, I’m high priority on Daiki’s list of friends,” Chen huffs. “He,” she says, pointing at you, “is more on the level of an acquaintance.”
You adopt a sorrowful gaze and put a hand to your forehead. “Look at you, getting all high and mighty just because you finally have a friend now. And to think she’d be so eager to betray her ‘team’ and badmouth us like that.”
“Puts a tear in my eye,” says Tewi, feigning a wistful look. “She threw us away like garbage just because we don’t have the right type of ears on our heads.”
“Wait? No, no.” Chen vehemently shakes her head. “I would never—”
“No, it’s okay. You don’t have to say it,” you continue. “I know that, since you’ve tasted real friendship, we’re just not good enough anymore. You can’t hang out with the likes of us.”
“Is that true?” asks Daiki, a concerned look on her face.
Chen pulls off the mob cap off her head to ruffle her hair. “No, um, I—” She glares in your direction. “Stop it! You’re making me look bad!”
“You’re right, my apologies. Turning your back on your so-called ‘team’ doesn’t make you look too awful. Sometimes, that’s just the way life goes—so what if you’re a backstabber? No big deal, right?”
With that, Chen’s defeated. She takes a seat and slumps back on her chair. “Stop. Please. Just… say no more. I’m sorry.”
A soft giggle echoes throughout the home. And, partly because of the acoustics of the tiny room and partly because all the youkai in the room have discernibly strong hearing, all heads turn back to the human girl, who was silent prior to her outburst.
Yoru covers her mouth and blushes again, but what follows isn’t another excruciating silence, thankfully. “Sorry. That was rude of me. But I thought the scene was lovely—all of you, I mean. I know now that you must all be good friends.”
“You can think what you like of us. As it happens, we’re all just acquaintances by circumstance.” You lower your gaze to the human. “And I’m sure you and your family can vividly recall the events that led us all here.”
“Ah, yes.” Immediately, her attention goes back to the floor as she cradles her arms close to her chest. “I’m aware.”
“Good. Remember them clearly—remember that a couple of no-good cats did all they could to save you and your family.” You turn your head back towards the entrance, your wolfish ears flicking in that direction. “You’ll be needing that kind of sentiment soon.”
Yoru, still oblivious to what’s to come, says, “What do you mean?”
The door’s hastily opened with Noboru running straight inside. A cold sweat lines his brow—so he either has bad news or has suddenly discovered a newfound appreciation of exercise.
“The… the village council is coming,” he pants out.
“The village council is… what!?” Yoru shouts. “I can imagine why, but… why?”
Noboru frantically paces around the living space. “They want to see Daiki for themselves.”
“Okay?” You shrug. “Then what’s the problem?”
“The problem? This—” He motions to all the youkai. “—is the problem. How are we going to explain that we have a home full of… y’know.”
“There isn’t much to explain. All of us here were involved with the incident.”
“Oh,” he says, starting to pace around the living room table. “Yes, right.”
“Stop panicking and sit still, boy. You’re making me all antsy-like with the way you’re skipping around the room.”
“But—but,” he sputters, “but what if the elders—”
“Shut up and breathe, you sissy.”
Noboru, finally listening to you, does so with a deep, conscious inhale. Then, as he closes his eyes and kneads his eyebrows, he breathes out.
“Better?” you say.
“A little, I suppose.”
“Good—now don’t start hyperventilating again because the village circus is almost already here.”
“And how do you know that?”
He gives you a surprisingly valid response, but you’ve tempered your expectations—anything’s better than the boy heaving and circling the room like a mosquito. So, with that, you grace him with a fair response of your own. Wiggling your fingers in the air, you say, “Magic.”
You make your way outside, with everyone but Noboru’s mother following close behind. Honestly, you would have loved to kick your legs up on the table while Noboru and the other humans squabbled, but there was no space for everybody to fit inside.
There’s some amusement to be found in the scene unfolding—Noboru made an entire council of old men and one conspicuously young woman walk all the way to the edge of the village so that they could have a pleasant chat.
Now, how are you gonna deal with this mess?
[ ] You don’t trust Noboru to do this right. You’re pulling out the old “I’m a god so listen to me, or whatcha gon’ do ‘bout it” card. [ ] You’ll see how this goes. Maybe step in if you feel like it. [ ] It’s Noboru’s bed, so now he must lie in it.
Noboru’s a big boy, so you’ll pretend he’s mature enough to handle this by giving him the benefit of the doubt. Though, with the way he’s bathing in his own cold sweat, you’re not too reassured about the prospect of success.
And, at last, the humans collide. The Boy, His Stubbornness Exalted, as well as His Sister and His Cat meet The Great Echo Chamber, and the rest of the world gets to watch with semi-disinterested eyes. They do their typical human routine and circle around their usual hellos, how-are-yous, and what-in-the-hell-is-going-on-heres. It’s all the same—humans meet youkai, get together in a tight huddle, and then yell at each other until the youkai all die of boredom.
Their voices are but poorly played woodwind instruments, serving only as background noise until the problem is resolved. Understandably, Tewi looks like she has better things to do, checking for dirt underneath her trimmed fingernails, while Chen’s doing her best not to fall asleep. And to think that humans have shorter lifespans, eh?
Meanwhile, Daiki’s the only one paying attention, but she’s rockin’ that silent and stoic look. Or maybe miserable would be the more correct term. For now, she’s letting Noboru do all the talking.
He says something to one of the elders, to which Yoru chimes in. The village group stares at him blankly in astonishment, to which the boy responds by pointing over to your group of pals. You put on your stupidest grin and wave, which is all you can really do because you weren’t paying attention to what they were saying..
“Pardon?” you say.
“I said,” Noboru replies, a large crook notching his eyebrows, “We were all witnesses to what happened that night. My family and the youkai involved all were part of the incident. And we saw it: that… thing. Under the moonlight, I couldn’t see much, but I do know that it was dark, bloodied, and furred, and oozed inky fog from its face. And as that horrifying being faced us, the two nekomata saved us from what would have been a slaughter.”
A man with cut-back gray hair and a stringy white beard nods slowly, but the guy had ‘skeptical’ written all over his face. “But why would two youkai save you? And what of the rabbit and the wolf? And most importantly, why should we trust the youkai’s words?”
“I mean it, Noboru. And while I’d love to take your word on it, you’re using that as the basis for fostering a youkai? I—We can’t just blindly trust you. This is a large responsibility for the entire village, so if you want any of us to be so willing to adopt a youkai, then we’ll need proof. And not just lip service from other youkai.”
“Gotou—Chief. You know perfectly well that, of all people, I wouldn’t dare lie about this.”
Gotou breathes out and lowers his shoulders. Then, soft, he says, “I do. But that doesn’t change anything. We’ve gathered here because you need more than promises.” Yadda, yadda, yadda. You’ve heard the same spiel from the same type of humans a million times already. Listening to any of these chumps was a mistake.
“Well...” Noboru looks over to you desperately, nodding curtly. He then faces the chief again. “I have an impartial witness—one that you cannot deny so easily.”
The crowd murmurs, but one speaks up. “Who?”
“The Hakurei god.”
All eyes center towards your group, but the crowd's not looking too awed.
[ ] Look around. Where’s this god the boy speaks of? [ ] You’ve had enough of fooling around.
You draw breath. “...Noboru. I thought you were going to handle this? Didn’t you promise to man up? I don’t see any manning up happening.”
“I am. I—I am ‘manning up,’” the boy says. “But I’m not so foolish to not get help when I need it—and maybe that’s where we differ in mindset. So I ask you—please.”
Gotou interjects. “Noboru—”
“Hush, human. Now, boy,” you say, “what makes you think I’ll listen to you?”
He stands up tall. “Because Daiki and I believe in you.”
What an idiot, but at least you can admire that breed of stupidity. “Don’t make a habit out of it because it’ll get you killed the next time. Now then.” You turn back to the murmuring humans and the chattering immediately stops. “I won’t play any of your foolish games, humans. Unlike any of you, I have more important occupations than playing witness to your insipid he says, she says trials. But what the boy has said is correct.”
A burly, black-bearded man with wary eyes steps forward, though he could not look any less threatening with his faded-gray apron tied around his waist. “You may proclaim yourself as the Hakurei god, but do you really think that we’ll believe you? In fact—”
“Ida,” Gotou barks. “Bow your head.”
“Bow your head,” he repeats. “Now.”
He does not need to be told a third time. Without as much as a grumble, he prostrates himself before you, though the man’s fierce eyes are drilling a hole through the soft earth.
“Oh?” You focus your attention on Gotou. “Did you realize?”
“I did not,” he admits. “It was merely intuition. But the feeling I had made the answer obvious.”
You lead the man into a question. “And why’s that? You can be truthful about it.”
“The wave of dread… of spiritual power. I wished to run far from it—from you. But I trusted that you, as a god, would not come to us with ill intentions so long as you have not been slighted. And I pray that will continue to be the case, so please forgive the man’s actions. He is a foolish and reckless man. Ida, stand.” The aproned man stands up, head still looking at the ground, and backs away.
A small voice trails off, muffled by the crowd. In the back is Hieda, obscured due to her short stature. “Ida, rest assured, he is the Hakurei god despite your thoughts otherwise. I shall attest to this as the Child of Miare. Now please proceed—you did not have the chance to fully retell the events of that night.”
Chen finally perks up. “Oh, I can do that. If, um, if I may, that is,” she adds sheepishly. “I got there before the others, so I can explain up until we separated for the night.”
“Continue,” Gotou says.
“I was actually searching for that monster. Before, everybody’s been saying that a youkai cat’s been doing it, so I decided to hunt for the thing that’s been hurting my reputation, you see. And I did—I managed to find it in no time. Cat’s instinct, I guess. Anyway, I found it… but I kinda underestimated it. It was about to chop up some humans—so I decided to do a good deed and save them, yeah? Except I got real messed up so I couldn’t take the monster down. Luckily for me, that’s when Daiki came running to save us all.”
“And she really did,” Noboru adds. “Daiki protected us—our family and the other nekomata—and forced the monster into submission. Isn’t that good enough? What other qualms do you have about her?”
“For starters,” says a man, “she’s a youkai.”
“But she’s not just a youkai,” Noboru says, pained. “She’s family.”
“Ah.” Daiki, who has been acting the part of Noboru’s shadow this entire time, speaks. “This cat—she loves Noboru and Yoru, who has been her companion for all these years. Every day her path would cross with the two, and she watched them mature with time. And the same goes for all those in the village. Please don’t abandon this cat. She’ll promise to be good.”
“Consider this,” Tewi says. “If you were to disclaim the cat, then what’s not to say that she’d just return? Of course, not as an ally, but as a true youkai. Lately, there have been ferals running loose—I’m not going to say that she’d join them on her own volition, but we don’t really know how youkai turn into… those things. Plus, this is also a chance to protect the village. She can keep watch over the area. There’s only so many shrine maidens that can protect everyone in Gensokyo.”
“...It’s a consideration,” Gotou replies. “My main issue is the level of trust we can give to the nekomata. So what does the Hakurei god say about this?”
Typical. You were perfectly content just standing there, but they always need validation.
[ ] Put your foot down. They should know that, out of the two, they should fear you and not Daiki. [ ] If they want a definite answer, then they’ll have to find it themselves. Trust isn’t built on a god’s words. [ ] You want no influence on human affairs. They can do what they wish.
“Figure it out yourselves, humans. Would you like me to become the Village Chief too and handle all of your worldly affairs, or am I overstepping my jurisdiction now?”
“That is not what I meant,” balks Gotou.
“No? But that’s what you implied. If you humans are so weak that you need the words of a god to reassure yourselves that you’re making the right decision, then I suppose that’s the sorry state of the world we live in nowadays. Call yourselves nothing but foolish if you believe that you can find trust by blindly following my word. Trust cannot be assigned—you must build it yourselves. And if you fear that feeling of uncertainty, then step down and let somebody with a backbone do your job. Or alternatively, stop fearing that which isn’t known and learn for once.”
“Hey—!” A man starts to shout, but Gotou hushes him.
“I understand,” Gotou says, though his look is pained. “And I’m sorry—you are right. This would not be a problem if it were not for my own hesitations. But please recognize the fact that we are merely human—to err, hesitate, and fear is our nature.”
“I did not deny that,” you reply. “I say these things because I tire of you humans making the same mistakes over and over. Time and time again, you humans can only act on fear, whereas sympathy and rational thought seem to paralyze you lot.”
“It’s easier to shun the unknown than to explore it,” Gotou says grimly. “We are but meek folk. It’s not like we wish to cower in the face of adversity.”
“I know,” you sigh. “In the end, you humans are all the same.”
“Would that a good or a bad thing?”
And before darker words could enter your mouth, you respond. “Like I said. Figure it out.”
You herd away your usual group of youkai. Noboru, Yoru, and Daiki has to stay behind with the other humans for their usual circus antics. Logistics, as Noboru had called it. Either way, you’ve had enough of it—they can call it whatever they wish, but empty words are always empty words.
You enter Noboru’s home with one extra person unaccounted for. Joining your companions is Hieda with a tired scowl growing by the second.
“Well," you say, "if it isn’t Hieda—and might I add that you look positively stunning today?”
“Cease,” she snaps. “There was a point in time where I asked you to help out with the roaming youkai—and I sincerely thank you for that, I do—but what in the world happened?”
“Hieda, were you not paying attention earlier? I thought we spelled it out pretty clearly.”
“I meant the nekomata situation. The village isn’t in a state where they’d be so willing to foster a youkai in their homes. It’ll breed discontent—I’m sure of it.”
“I realize that already, Hieda. That nekomata—she’s too good for these pitiful humans. But that’s what she wanted. And if change is predicated on discontent, then so be it.”
“Are you actually respecting the wishes of that nekomata?” Hieda raises a skeptical eyebrow. “Since when were you one to listen to others?”
The words, when I feel like it, form in your mouth, but you discard them. For this day, you are the acting Hakurei god, and sobriety fills your chest. You remain silent for a moment—funny, the words don’t come to you as easily when you need to put thought into them. After deliberation, you say, “Even I have times when I can empathize, Hieda no Akyuu.”
“You—” Hieda starts, but she swallows her words. “It’s hard to believe when you have a track record like yours.”
“True,” says Tewi. “He did what you asked, though. He found the youkai, purified it, and—”
“Hold, for a moment,” Hieda says, squinting. “He… purified it?”
“I am a god, Hieda. It should not be of any surprise to you,” you state. “Unless you doubt me.”
“I don’t,” Hieda replies back quickly, “I just believe that you usually wouldn’t go out of your way to do something like that.”
You eye the purple-haired woman. “Did you not ask me to help the humans? Or did you think I would go back on my word?”
“I did,” she admits. “Your word is fickle.”
“Even I keep my promises,” you lie. “I just don’t promise often. Now, is that all, Hieda, or do you really wish to keep me company?”
“I have many questions to ask you,” Hieda says, sighing. “But I’m sure Gotou is going to need me soon. So take care—I’m sure I’ll see you around soon.”
And with that, Hieda unceremoniously leaves the household.
Chen, who looks like she’s been holding her breath this entire time, exhales in relief. “Things are too complicated around here. We beat up the bad guy, so we should get some praise. Isn’t it that easy?”
“Humans always make things complex, Chen,” Tewi replies.
“As always,” you say. “Maybe this time, they’ll do finally things right.”
It isn't the first time that humans have forged a bond as shaky as this one—nor will it be the last. You're sure that this bond shall be ephemeral and riddled with mistakes, too. It shall be like the last one and the one before that. It brings your thoughts back to times younger.
[ ] You dwell on the time prior to Hakurou. [ ] You won’t let yourself be consumed by the demon of sentiment.
It was of simpler times—one where both worry and happiness took from the same root.
She lifted the hems of her crimson hakama, dirtied by the mud beneath her feet—it was a pointless gesture, though you could not help but find it endearing. How could you not? The way that her dull brown hair refused to sheen under the drowsy sunlight, the way that her gentle, down-turned eyes were dark enough for any man to call them black, but really it was brown, and her languid smile—you could not resist.
“Finally.” She breathed a sigh of relief. The girl stepped away from the garden and patted the dirt away from her hands. To the left and right of the shrines were two symmetrical beds of flowers—ones that held a vague color; it was red with the light and purple without. “It’s done. Come, come, take a look—these bulbs. Don’t you see it?”
“I see it,” you said. “What do they do?”
“‘What do they do?’” she repeated back.
“What purpose do they serve? Are they to ward off spirits?”
“Warding off… aha, it’s not like that, you silly god.” As she giggled, her tiny frame shook with mirth. “They’re to look at.”
“I do not understand how you are able to enjoy something like… ah.” You stared at your priestess, looking deep into her eyes. She stared back with a curious gaze.
“Yes?” she said.
“No, it’s nothing. I realized why you look at flowers.”
“Because they’re pretty.”
“Yes.” You offered your priestess a smile. “Because they’re pretty.”
“These ones in particular, though—Dahlias, they call it—have a vibrant red—nothing like those dreary, thorned roses that are colored like blood—and they bloom like those summer flowers that you blow in the wind! Tightly curled up into a ball, the petals. Somehow, even the shape is charming.”
“Indeed.” A laugh escaped your lips, though you cut it short. “Everything about that flower is charming. And you’d never get tired of looking at it.”
“Let us enjoy it while it lasts.” Her eyes softened with nostalgia. “These flowers will only last until the fall.”
“Mmm.” You paused. “You know, you are kind of like these flowers.”
“Because I’m vibrant?” she said, laughing.
—Because, like a flower, you too shall not last, thought Hakurou—
“Yes,” you said, laughing back. “Like a flower.”
“Ah. So you understood why I liked flowers because—ah.” She lowered her head slightly, blushing all the while. “Forgive me, as I shall be dirtying your raiments.” Your priestess, still muddied, ran to your side and wrapped her earthly hands around your back as she buried her face in your chest. “Thank you. Roku.”
“—Koharu,” you mumble.
But instead of lavender, worn cobblestone, and the torii gates, you open your eyes to a few suspicious youkai eyeing you with worry.
“What’s with the face?” Tewi asks.
“Don’t call me ugly,” you say. “Anyway, all of you up in my grill is making me claustrophobic.”
[ ] “I’m going on a walk.” [ ] “We’re going on a walk, Tewi.”
“We—are we now?” Tewi’s understandably confused. “What about Noboru and Daiki? And also Chen, I guess.”
“I’m right here, you know,” Chen grumbles, ears flickering in displeasure.
“It does not matter to me. Cat, stay here until Noboru and Daiki comes back.”
“Wait, what? You’re really gonna make me stay here and leave me alone? I’m wounded!” she whimpers, flailing her arm-sling.
“You seem fine enough if you’re shaking that arm everywhere. And like I said, I don’t particularly care.” You move over next to Chen. Then, with a light tap, you smack Chen’s wounded arm.
“WhAAAAat in the hell are you doing?” she screams, lurching back from you.
You tap once more.
“AAAaaa—oh, actually, it doesn’t hurt anymore.” Chen daintily lifts her arm out of her sling and stretches it. She winces as if she were in pain, but the cat can fully extend and rotate without crying out. “It doesn’t hurt?” she repeats, incredulous. “You can do that?”
“I can do anything.” Except—You push away those thoughts. “Consider it as thanks for holding down the fort while we’re gone.”
You wait no longer, and without so much as a goodbye, you leave the house with a rabbit trailing silently behind.
Tewi doesn’t speak a word until the two of you are well away from all the humans. “Hakurou,” she says, breaking the silence.
“That is my name—Hakurou,” you state.
She keeps her curious, red eyes trained on you carefully. With her hands clasped behind her back, she inches ever so slightly closer. You and the rabbit continue walking, silence reclaiming the afternoon. You pass crops, a weathered stone road, and marsh until you reach the village outskirts, where you decide that’s enough wandering and turn-face before you let yourself be consumed by—
—The sight of those gathering humans, the memories of her—it all reminded you of—
“Hakurou.” Tewi’s shaking your arm, a fret of worry creasing her eyebrows.
“You know. You should really expand your vocabulary.”
“I feel like if I say anything else, it’ll go in one ear and out the other.” Though she says it with a sarcastic grin, her voice is weak with hesitation. You understand that it is a rabbit’s anxiety and timidity—in that respect, even Tewi could display weakness.
“Got a lot on your mind, rabbit?”
“I can say the same to you,” she retorts, half-serious.
“If you really wish to know, I was thinking about how today reminded me of something in the past.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“I was merely witness to the events, for I had little power at the time. There was a kuda-gitsune that lived amongst men. She fell in love with a laborer, who took her home to care for, after he had set her free from a trap. You’d think that the kuda-gitsune would possess a young human woman to seduce him, but no: She let her unrequited love nurture her powers until she transformed—into a kitsune. It was unprecedented—for that era, at least. The man then accepted her and, in exchange for blessing the village with wealth and prosperity, she was able to be with the laborer.”
“And they lived happily ever after?” Tewi says, dubious.
“If only. It was the end for her. She was killed on a particularly uneventful day while the laborer was out of the village. Nobody ever figured out who or why. So anyway, the kitsune was murdered rather ordinarily—a shortblade through the chest. See, she only had one tail; the fox was too young, too naive. Too weak. But those were darker times, times where death was but a subsequence to more death.” You shake your head. “Anyway, such a tragedy won’t ever befall our fledgling nekomata.”
[ ] The present holds a more peaceful world, after all. [ ] You are no spectator. [ ] Because, at the very least, she has you on her side.
It’s a sad life, to willingly accept distrust and betrayal, but you suppose that’s how the weak operate. You take away their naive belief that everything will work out, that blind trust, and they would have nothing.
“At the very least, she has me on her side.”
“And Noboru,” Tewi pointed out.
Begrudgingly, you add, “Yes… and Noboru. Though he may as well be fine cloth—the boy is no more useful than as backdrop. Still, you are right. What he lacks in persuasion and accomplishments, he makes up for with his foolhardy tenacity to stick to his ideals. Even that is admirable in a way. But,” you say, “I will not wait for him with bated breath. By the time he is able to shed his inexperience, I shall already be gone.”
“Gone?” The rabbit scrunches her nose and squints, a black displeasure coloring her crimson eyes. “What do you mean, ‘Gone’?”
“Gone,” you reiterate, starting to walk away. “Like this.”
“Alright, alright, I get it.” She covers distance to keep up with you. “Let’s get going then.”
The villagers, Akyuu included, have all left by the time you reach Noboru’s home. That, however, is for the best. Any more drivel, and you would have maimed a small animal to vent away your irritation.
Noboru’s of the same mind. Reclining back on a chair, he shields his weary eyes with his left arm, a scowl on his face.
“So how’d it go, boy?” you ask.
“Gotou said they’ll deliberate on it tomorrow,” he groans. “Would it kill them to give a straight answer? But anyway, I think that things are looking good. Minus Gotou himself, nobody seems to be against Daiki. I got lucky, though—Kousuke caught wind of the situation and told the younger folk about Daiki, so the children thought of her as a hero at least. Then he relayed messages back and forth to Gotou and the people back at the village.”
You nod blankly. “Who’s Kousuke, again?”
“You know. Ninomiya?” Tewi offers.
The rabbit looks at you in disbelief. “The food stall owner?”
“Oh, him. Right.”
“Yeah, that’s him—Kousuke,” says Noboru. “You know what he said before he left today? ‘Who woulda thought that the youkai was Daiki of all things!’” He sat back up straight and smiles, nostalgia alight in his eyes. “He and I—we’d often feed her because she’d always wander over to the Ninomiya stall when we were younger.”
Yoru clasps her hands in excitement. “Oh, that’s right! I do remember her doing that! I always thought it was cute how she’d always make her way there once it was supper time.”
“It was merely instinct,” Daiki gruffly replies.
“‘Instinct,’ she says!” Chen grins. “Sounds to me like it was more like habit.”
The three of them share a laugh, but you aren’t so easily amused.
“Daiki,” you say, and the room quiets. “Tell me honestly—and do not let the boy put words in your mouth—do you have the resolve to die, should the humans not trust you?”
Noboru starts speaking first. “Hey—!”
“Noboru. You act like you’ve already gotten the acceptance of those humans, but you underestimate that gnawing fear that lurks in the depths of the heart of man. Yes, you know that accursed word well—youkai. Or did you already forget? Anecdotes and empty worlds will not quiet that deeply ingrained aversion to the unknown. And I am not being critical of you—human, you have truly done your best.” You turn your gaze back over to the nekomata. “But that aside: Tell me here, Daiki, and do not lie. Are you resolved to die?”
The nekomata takes light steps towards the human boy to sidle up to him, draping two arms over his shoulders. She rubs her cheek to his, much to his public embarrassment, and stares warmly at him. Then, without hesitation, Daiki turns to you and says, “I have been prepared since the very beginning.”
You could have done without the unnecessary sentiment, but you ignore it. “Take note, Noboru. Physical affection aside, that is how you display conviction. This is the gravity of your situation, so understand that already. If you are not prepared to face adversity with as much resolve as your precious nekomata, then you are merely holding her back.”
He hangs his head in shame. “I’ll… keep that in mind.”
“But do not be too disheartened. After all, you know your village people better than I do. Perhaps my words rely on hollow worries and conjecture. It could be possible that those humans will come to accept the nekomata by tomorrow, and you all move on with your sorry lives.” And it could really be that simple, but humans love to complicate. “I am warning you though—the world is ever so whimsical and cruel. You shall fall to despair should you only expect success. So you too, Noboru, must be resolved to accept failure.”
“I can’t, though,” he grumbles, a hitch in his sour voice. “I just can’t.”
Chen, raising her arms behind her head, frowns. “To be fair, I don’t know if he can be like, ‘Yeah, it’ll be alright if Daiki suddenly disappears’ and then move on. It just seems… I don’t know, wrong. Not that I agree with him being too caught up in his downward spiral, but… yeah. Humans aren’t good at dealing with stuff like that.”
“Noboru,” Tewi speaks. “I’ve lived many years—and in those years, I’ve seen it all. To see those that you care for become dust… yes, I’ve been witness to it. You’ll only find regret if you choose to ignore what’s in front of you. You’ll just have to accept it and live with it.” She shrugs. “As do we all.”
He loves that word, doesn’t he?
[ ] Perhaps you’ve expected too much from Noboru. He is merely human. [ ] Let Noboru figure it out by himself. You’ve guided him enough. [ ] Noboru can keep pointlessly struggling. You have better things to do with your time.
You’ll let Noboru figure it out by himself. He does not yet realize, but the stars have aligned for him—it is merely chance that led him to this situation. “You’ll understand in due time, human. It is wisdom that’ll come from hardship. So keep living and making mistakes, as you shall do.”
“You do not have to tell me,” Noboru says with a bow of his head. “I will. No—we will.”
“Good. I expect things from you—not great things, mind you, but we’ll take it one step at a time. Anyway, if that’s it, then I’ll be leaving.”
“A moment.” Daiki approaches you with an expectant look. “This cat would like the wolf to lift his hand in front of him.”
You raise an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Please,” she insists.
You quell your usual high-five joke and silently raise your hand to chest height. The nekomata takes your hand with one of hers and presses it gently into a half-closed fist. Then, taking her other hand, she holds your arm by the wrist and closes her eyes. As she places her forehead to your knuckles, Daiki lets your fingers brush slightly into her dark hair.
Chen averts her gaze. “I feel like I shouldn’t be seeing this.”
“Well, aren’t we intimate?” Tewi adds.
“Thank you,” Daiki says as she lets go. “For saving me.”
You shake your head. “Do you and Noboru have cotton stuck in your ears? You aren’t ‘saved’ yet. Tomorrow still awaits.”
“No. This cat was saved before. When this cat faced the monster and was about to take its life, the wolf stopped her.” Daiki holds her arms close to her chest, clasping them. “This cat believes he saved her then. The Daiki that stands here would not be the same as the one that killed that beast. But there was little time to give thanks, so before they part—this cat thanks you, wolf. And she shall be prepared for what comes tomorrow.”
“That makes one of you,” you say, eyeing Noboru.
“Enough bothering the poor boy.” Tewi motions you outside. “Let’s get going.”
You nod. “Sure. Chen, are you coming with?”
“No can do,” Chen says. “Master told me we’re doing something in the village today, so I’ll be here until further notice.”
[ ] Your interest is piqued at the mention of Chen’s master. [ ] That’s enough humans for the day—you’re retiring to the shrine.
You’ve had enough human interaction for the day, so you’ll be retiring to the shrine where you’ll get some deserved peace and quiet.
“Fine with me,” you say. “See you then.”
You leave the rustic house with the youkai rabbit and take flight. You come to pass the human farmland and the yellow prairie until you scale the eastern mountainside in height. This too is familiar—the sight of a rickety hilltop shrine that overviews the world sitting beneath it. But you won’t let the pangs of nostalgia overtake you. There’s still much to do, and you won’t be consumed by idle thought.
As you land by the torii gates, you’re met with a whole parade of humans lining up the gray cobblestone steps, much to your chagrin. So long, your ever so desired peace and quiet, you knew thee well. The chatter of humans hush around you as you try to inconspicuously walk by. The fact that they bow their heads slightly as you pass through is disconcerting—then they must already know you as a god. If there’s anything that humans can do well, it’s spreading news.
But what’s more, is that you smell something familiar among the people—the stench of a god.
“Not too fond of the crowd, O great one?” Tewi says.
“I would’ve liked some solitude for a time, yes,” you reply. “But I can appreciate that there has yet to be a person to approach me. Perhaps that Gotou person told them about my cranky self.”
“I’m imagining that man in cold sweat, telling everyone, ‘Don’t anger the god. Don’t even look at him without his person. Or else.’ Or so he’d say.”
“If he did, then I’d love to commend him. I was in no mood to interact with these humans, so call the man the savior of the village because otherwise…”
Tewi just stares at you with a cocked eyebrow.
You sigh. “I’m just joking.”
“I know that,” she says, snorting.
You find Reimu at the shrine entrance, peering over the donation box excitedly. The ecstatic look on her face as she silently counts her newfound wealth is honestly disgusting. With the way her grin’s spreading, you fear that her lips might fall off her face. Once she spots you, the shrine maiden hurriedly skips over.
“You!” Reimu squeals, her face completely alight. “God of mine! I’m so glad you’re here!”
“Want me to roll my eyes before you finish counting your money or after?”
Your words go by ignored. “All the omamori sold out! Donations aplenty! I didn’t even think that was possible! Oh, praise our god. This’ll be a month that legends foretold—to live a month without worrying about physical necessities, joy!”
Tewi gazes at the shrine maiden in pity. “This is sad to look at.”
“Call it sad all you want. I’ll take my blessings and fortune without complaining. A shrine maiden must eat, too.”
“Right. So I expect tribute then.” You nod to the miko, who returns a shocked look. “It’s only fair. I did all this, so therefore, you must give back.”
“Okay, fine. What would you like from me?”
“I’ll let you know when the time is right,” you say, smiling innocuously. “But, more importantly, I do think we have a couple of guests.”
[ ] You’ll go greet the visiting god. [ ] Everybody’s favorite oni is here!
“Of course we do,” Reimu says bluntly. “Did you see everyone lining up the steps to the shrine?”
“Not them, you money-loving fool. There was a god amongst the humans, and I was thinking about dropping by to say hello. And if they are who I think they are, then it’d be discourteous of me to not greet them.”
“If it’s a god, then there isn’t a whole lot of people it could be. Oh, and come to think of it, I just saw Sanae a couple of minutes ago. It seemed like she was looking for something, but I couldn’t be bothered to talk to her.”
“And this Sanae person is?” you ask.
“The miko to the Moriya Shrine,” points out Tewi.
“Great. I’ll go say hello.”
“Sure, you do that. I’ll be doing my own thing. Which is...” The shrine maiden motions to her donation box. “Counting this.”
The Moriya shrine maiden takes no time to find. She stands besides the Hakurei Shrine gate, silently watching the people travel down the steps. Her hair is a vibrant green, and she had emerald eyes to match. The girl wore two colors: a white shirt accented with blue, and a blue skirt accented with white. Either she’s the miko in question, or she was trying way too hard to stand out.
“Come on out,” you say, directing your voice towards the green-haired girl.
“Oh, me? Finally! I’ve been standing around here looking like a fool this entire time. I took a looong look at Reimu, see, and she even looked back at me, but do you know what she did—yeah, she turned around and went back to selling her stupid charms! Oh, greed, how you capture a maiden’s heart. But anyway, I was just sitting out here, nothing to do. Sooo glad you came. Are you one of the youkai Reimu beat up and forced to do manual labor for her? So you’re like her secretary now? Is she going to pencil me in for an appointment or something?”
You stare at her wordlessly.
“...No, not secretary?” She laughs nervously. “A friend, then?”
You continue staring.
“Should I shut up now before something bad happens to me?”
[ ] “I’m looking for a god. Yours, I believe.” [ ] “Actually, we can keep playing this guessing game and see if you can get the right answer.”
“Actually,” you say, “we can keep playing this guessing game and see if you can get the right answer.”
“And if I get the wrong answer?” Sanae asks hesitantly.
You return to your silence.
“Umm,” she stammers out, tracing the snake coils of her hair accessory. “You’re a wolf tengu diplomat?”
You take a single step forward. “It’s fairly obvious, child. Just think: Why do you think you’re so afraid of me if I’m a mere youkai?”
“You’re a strong youkai?” the girl guesses.
“How are you even a shrine maiden?” You keep taking steps forward until you’re leaning over her. The miko pales when she sees your displeased face. “I’ll give you a hint, Moriya shrine maiden. Tell me what your divine senses feel. That is, if you have any.”
“Lady Suwako, help,” Sanae begs. “Lady Suwako?”
“So? What am I?”
“A god?” she says meekly.
“Would you look at that. You are a shrine maiden. Or maybe you’re just lucky? Anyway, I’m sure you’ve had enough of my games, girlie, so Moriya—come on out.”
“Lady Suwako? I don’t think he’s playing around anymore.”
“I’m not going to say it a third time, Moriya. Come out.”
“Can’t you let me have some fun, Hakurou?” says a voice. A small, ethereal figure stepped into vision. “I wanted to see what my cute shrine maiden would’ve done alone.”
“Lady Suwako, that’s just mean.”
“Call it building character.” The yellow-haired god winks briefly at you before she centers her steely-gray eyes onto the shrine maiden. “You’ve been too full of yourself, Sanae. Just because you can slap a few weak youkai around, you let your head get inflated. Might want to humble yourself before a god, no? Plus, I’m a little disappointed. You should’ve known that he was a god. Sense it immediately next time.”
“I’m sorry,” Sanae says, hanging her head down.
“It’s fine, it’s fine. As long as you know.” Moriya grins. “But what a surprise. Who would’ve thought that I’d meet the great Hakurou here. And here I thought you disappeared for good. What brings you to the Hakurei shrine?”
“I’m the god here, actually.”
“You? The god?”
You nod again.
Moriya looks like she’s holding her breath. She lets a hiccup escape, then a sharp breath. That’s when the floodgates break loose, and she explodes laughing, unable to contain her vicious snorts. “Pffffffhaahahaha!” she sputtered, gasping for air. Tears threatened to spill over from the corners of her eyes. “You—! Haku—rei—! Hoooo, what a riot! Can’t—stop, bwahaha! Laughing!”
Sanae looks on in horror, shifting her stare back and forth from you to her goddess.
You wait until Moriya calms herself.
“Phew. That was good. You never cease to amaze,” she says, wiping her eyes.
“I know. It’s pretty silly. To think that the world still had a place for gods like you and me, eh?”
“There will always be—such is Gensokyo. It’s you, Hakurou, that should settle for this world.” Moriya looks calmly into your eyes. “And I don’t suppose you’ve given up on your impossible ambition of yours.”
“If I do, then I shall cease to be Hakurou," you say, grinning.
“That’s fundamentally wrong, isn’t it? Because instead, you’ll cease to be Roku.”
You chuckle. “You really know how stick it where it hurts don’t you, Moriya?”
“You won’t get it otherwise.” Despite her youthful countenance, Moriya reveals an aged smile, her dull, gray eyes hinting of forbearance. “We are the last of our kind, Hakurou. You and I are the only gods of yore left. But I shall not fall to archaism, and nor should you.”
“And if I say, ‘no thanks’?” you say, gazing at the god.
“Depends on who’s responding.” She returned an aloof stare. “Hakurou or Roku?”
“Hakurou,” you say. “The Roku you know is no more.”
“I wish that were the case,” Moriya says, her eyes softening to a sympathetic gaze. “Maybe then, this Hakurou would stop chasing what is unobtainable. Roku, you still have this opportunity to renounce the past and live on as Hakurou. But I guess, ultimately, it matters not to me. White Wolf—you may continue lying to yourself, as you love to do, but be wary of the path you tread. All that awaits down that godforsaken road is nothingness.”
“Moriya. I am fully aware of what lies before me—before Hakurou. There is no mystery to what I am doing—and you must know that, too.”
“Unyielding as ever. If only you had as much reason as you did stubbornness. Maybe then, you would stop blindly pursuing the ineffable.” The goddess smiles pitifully at you. “Or will you be damned for eternity, looking for something that does not even exist? Don’t make me the last of the olden gods, Hakurou. I shall be living in a world without good company should that happen.”
“How selfish, Moriya,” you say. “All you have to do is live as you always did and forget that today even happened.”
“It’s hard to forget a face as stupid as yours,” she shoots back.
“And yet, this ‘stupid face’ is good company?”
“Unfortunately so,” Moriya laments. “Only you and Toyoke were.”
“And Toyoke is gone now,” you helpfully point out.
“What I’m getting at,” she remarks, “is that the same fate may await you too.”
“Who?” you say. “Hakurou? Or Roku?”
“Your wit is unparalleled,” Moriya spits, dripping sarcasm. “It’s whoever is standing before me right now.”
“You can decide who it is, Moriya.”
“How strange, there’s only one right answer, Hakurou.” The goddess eyes you unflinchingly.
Moriya doesn’t find it as funny as you do. She keeps her arms crossed, the flowing sleeves of her indigo dress spilling down to her waistline. Granted, what she said isn’t a joke, but you couldn’t help yourself.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Hakurou.” Moriya runs a hand through her golden hair until she reaches her gaudy flower vase and eyes of a hat. “Really, I’m considering bringing Kanako over here so we can beat some sense into you, but I seriously fear that she might take your side on the matter.”
“Regardless, I doubt the two of you could even beat me. Not when I’m serious,” you say, grinning.
Moriya rolls her eyes. “When are you ever serious?”
“I’ll be serious if you, as well as that Yasaka god, try to stop me. I mean it.”
“Hakurou,” she groans. “You’re such a living headache, sometimes. Fine, fine, neither of us will try and stop you. I promise you that.”
“Yeah, I get it. I knew you weren't actually going to, but y’know, I had to make it clear.”
“Sure,” Moriya says curtly. “And with that said, we’re leaving. Sanae—we’re leaving.”
Sanae, doing her best Jizo statue impression, shakes herself awake. “Huh? We’re leaving already? I thought we were supposed to talk to Reimu about something?”
“Some other time. It isn’t as important anymore. Regardless, I was mostly here to wish the Hakurei god good luck, but it seems like I don’t need to.” Moriya briefly nods to you. “Reimu’s in good hands as long as Hakurou is here—however temporary that may be.”
Sanae let the words simmer. Her face turns quickly from confusion to recognition, then finally, emptiness. She’s a true one-woman show, if anything. With her mouth agape, she says, “You mean I stood around, waiting for Reimu this entire time… for nothing?”
“Nonsense, Sanae. You got to meet the Hakurei god in person. And you’ll never make the mistake of not recognizing a god in their own shrine ever again. Isn’t that right?” Moriya says sweetly.
“Right,” her shrine maiden affirms hastily.
“Now then. Let’s go.” And as she fades out of physical view, Moriya calls out to you. “Another time, Hakurou.”
You watch the green-haired girl leave. She flies away pitifully, furiously whispering to her invisible god. It’s an entertaining thought that Moriya would be fostering a child like that. And, despite the girl’s looks, she smells exactly like Moriya—of earthen god’s blood. You think of it no further, however. That knowledge does nothing for you.
By the time you return to the shrinefront, all the humans have since left. You can hear chattering inside, so you make your way interior.
Reimu’s casually sitting with Tewi. The two of them are drinking tea at the center table.
“So what did they want?” the rabbit asks.
“Nothing much. Moriya was visiting with her shrine maiden, so we caught up with each other. Y’know, made small talk and stuff.”
“Oh, so you know Suwako? Color me surprised.” Reimu, in very unsurprised fashion, takes a sip of her tea.
“It sure didn’t look like small talk,” says Tewi. “Suwako looked real conflicted when you were talking to her.”
“When gods do small talk, it’s not usually about how the kids have been, or how fine the weather is.”
Reimu looks towards you curiously. “Then what did you talk about?”
“About things way before your time.” You shrug. “Personal stuff.”
“Then I won’t ask. Anyway, while you were chatting, Tewi and I heard something interesting going on.” She steadies her gaze and straightens her previously lax posture. “Apparently, there’s a rumor going around the village that there’s an insanely strong youkai around.”
“A rumor, you say? So what’s the deal with it?”
“That’s the thing. There’s a lot of villagers saying that there’s a strong youkai running loose, but they can’t describe it. The stories don’t add up—it has one leg, it has four, it is shrouded in darkness or isn’t at all—there’s no common ground.”
“I think it could be somebody, or something, fooling around for attention,” says Tewi. “Sounds like it’s just a prank. Whatever is the case, not a single person has been hurt so far.”
Reimu leans back, placing a finger to her chin. “I want to say that this is all just mischief, but I was thinking about investigating the matter tomorrow anyway as a precaution. Even if it’s just a little rumor, you can never know.”
Just a ‘little rumor,’ huh?
[ ] You want in on the fun. [ ] It’s a good time to see what Reimu can do. [ ] You’ll let her do her own thing. You still have business in the village to take care of.
It’s about time that the Hakurei shrine maiden had something to do. Really, she had less to do than… well, you. Not that you’ve been excessively free recently—Hieda assigned you some busywork, and now you have two cats to clean up after. You think about assisting Reimu on her investigation, but resolving an incident sounds way more entertaining as a spectator sport.
“I’ll be tagging along when you do that. I want you to show me what you can do as one of the Hakurei.”
Tewi scoffs. “I hope you’re ready to watch Reimu indiscriminately wipe the floor with random youkai she interrogates along the way until she finds the perpetrator, who’ll also fall victim to the same thing.”
“Do you want to be beat up first?” Reimu says, crossly. “Because I can do that if you really want me to.”
“I’m just saying,” the rabbit retreats. “You’re very good at finding answers. Even if your methods involve throwing things at people until they give up and talk.”
“And it’s proven successful every single time. But anyway, feel free to come join. Just don’t expect much. Chances are, it’ll mostly involve me circling around the village and talking to people until I get bored enough to leave,” she says, disinterest already mounting in her voice. “We’ll see if this youkai is even real by tomorrow.”
“You think you’ll find out in a day?” you ask.
“I know I will,” she replies in confidence. “Something as trivial as this can be resolved in a day or less.”
“And how do you know that, exactly?” the rabbit says.
“I just know. Call it instinct or whatever, but my instincts have never failed me before.”
“Sure,” Tewi relents. “Know what? I’ll come too. Maybe it’ll be more fun being on your side of things. I’ve always wondered how it’s like for you, Reimu.”
“I’m telling you, it’s not going to be exciting. In fact, we’ll be lucky if we find someone worthy of being beaten up.”
“I could always find someone for you to beat up,” you offer.
“Thanks,” she says with a shake of her head, “but I could do without that.”
Tewi gasps. “But then how are you going to vent all the pent up stress you’ve accumulated?”
“I don’t have any of that!” she retorts. “Really, you’re making me out to be a bully or something.”
You and Tewi stare at each other, which prompts Reimu to frown.
“I’m not, okay?” she says to defend herself.
“I believe you,” the rabbit replies, “even if you just threatened to beat me up.”
“Whatever, it’s not worth it,” Reimu sighs. “Just forget I even said anything.”
—It’s funny. Really, it is. Here’s a shrine maiden without a god and a god without a shrine maiden. While they are now bound by mutual benefit, two halves don’t necessarily make a whole. And yet, she’s essential to him. But essential isn’t the right word. Rather, she is a prerequisite—
“And that’s what happened,” you say.
“So you basically scared the living daylights out of the villagers?” asks Reimu. “And that’s why everybody came running with donations?”
“Hmm.” Tewi rubs her chin. “Now that I’m thinking about it, you unintentionally participated in an extortion scheme. While I’d love to say, ‘Nice!’ here, I don’t want to encourage Reimu to become even greedier than she already is.”
“I didn’t know! And it’s not extortion, either!”
“It’s all conjecture anyway,” you say. “I said nothing about paying tribute or the likes. But I suppose that, since I’m the Hakurei god, they must have thought that I am easily appeased by money.”
“Well, are you?” Reimu asks, though it’s more of a request.
“No. Material wealth means nothing to me. Though, I suppose I could drop a hint that I’d be happier if the Hakurei shrine maiden wasn’t in constant worry about her financial situation.”
She clasps her hands together. “You, Hakurou, are my beacon of hope.”
“Of course I am. I figured that I should act like a real god every once in a while.”
While you say it casually, you do mean it. The past constantly plagues your mind, and quite frankly, you’re sick of its provocations. But you’ll remain patient. Good things come to those who wait, after all. So you’ll do your part as the stand-in Hakurei god—even if it reminds you of what once was.
Self-pity aside, you have things to do. Apparently, the final guest of the day is here, and you’re not too amused. They’re in the guest room, barging in unannounced. At least Moriya had the decency to wait until she was called for.
You make your way there. In the guest room are two people. One is you, obviously. The second—you knew you smelled oni earlier—is Ibuki. She’s caught red-handed, holding onto the box that Hieda once kept safe. In between you and Ibuki are the remains of an oni frantically searching for something. It’s not pretty, to say the least. Everything that can be toppled over is extremely toppled over, and somehow, the futon is halfway into the floor. You’re impressed by the sight, even more so because she managed to do all this without anybody else noticing.
“You’re not going to find food inside there, you know. It’s not a bento box.”
She just stands there with the dumbest look on her face. Guess she wasn’t expecting to be caught.
[ ] “You really want to see what’s inside?” [ ] “Nice to see you too.” [ ] “You should really drop that box if you know what’s good for you.”
“Nice to see you too. I’d ask you how you’re doing, but it seems you’re a little busy. Judging by the state the room’s in, you’re learning how to tap dance? I don’t want to put you down, but I don’t know if you’re cut out for it. You need finesse, grace, and all that jazz, y’know? From the looks of it, you have as much finesse and grace as a beached whale.”
Ibuki, the first of the four Devas, Forgathering Dream and Night Parade of a Hundred Demons, keeps her eyes downcast like a child waiting for her scolding to be over. You expect a quip from her, but she remains silent, hanging onto the sealed box as a badge of her sin and miscalculations.
“Anyway, I didn’t expect you to come back so soon. You should’ve let me know! I thought that you were going to disappear into the wilderness when you said not to go out and find you. And here you are, coming back to find me instead. Me, of all people! Well, as they say, I guess we can let bygones be bygones.” You reach out to pat her head, but she goes wild animal on you, snarling and backing away. “Anyway. Things have been looking up for the Hakurei Shrine. Reimu has finally achieved her goal of having enough to eat every day. Crazy, I know. I had to exert my influence somehow, so I went around and helped a cat in need. It’s a long story, but I’m sure you have plenty of time to listen.”
“I’m in no mood for your games,” Ibuki grumbles.
“Oh, so you can speak! For a second, I thought a couple of Buddhists sealed your voice away! I was worried because I never learned how to sign. But jokes aside.” You eye the box gripped in the oni’s hands. “You shouldn’t take things that aren’t yours, Ibuki. Don’t you know that?”
She looks like she’s considering something—physical assault, maybe. But instead of tensing up, Ibuki lets her arms slack. “Forget it,” the oni says, throwing the sealed box underhand to you. Without much difficulty, you catch it. You thought that she’d chuck it straight to the moon or something, so you gratefully accept this outcome. “Nothing good’s going to come out of opening that box.”
“...But they’re just clothes.”
Ibuki fails to comprehend, so she’s just standing there looking like a total fool. Well, more than she usually is. “What?”
“You know. Things you wear over your naked body. Stuff like this,” you say, pulling on the neck of your worn-out robe.
“And the debilitating curses attached to the seals?”
“Ibuki,” you say with more weight to your voice. “I am a god. My retributions shall be harsh. But if you believe that there lies a malady inside, awaiting its discharge, then you are sorely mistaken. To put it simply, I do not like it when my things are touched. That is all. And should you not believe me, then…” In one fell swoop, you pry the lid of the box, letting the talismans stuck to its halves rip to pieces. “Just watch.”
Curses aside, the box is innocuous. The talismans’ use is not to seal the box, nor is it used to imbue the curses to the object. No, the curses are on the box itself. The talismans, however, are to preserve what is inside, to keep them intact after thousands of years. You pull out a gray hakama.
“Clothes,” you declare.
“So it is,” says Ibuki lamely.
“Despite what you think, Ibuki, I am not here to antagonize you, your youkai friends, or your human companions. Unless, you really want me to.”
“I don’t believe it. After all, all you can do is hurt people.”
[ ] Ultimately, she’s right. [ ] Tell her to do something about it. [ ] You can help people too, if you feel like it.
[x] You can help people too, if you feel like it. I wanted to vote the other way, as I feel like that's true on a sort of fundamental level. However, that's merely a statement about Hakurou as a phenomenon. This is a statement about his current impetus to act.
“I can help people too. That is, if I feel like it,” you say.
Ibuki looks at you like you’ve lost your mind.
“I know that this is hard to believe, but what occupies my mind isn’t all war and destruction. You aren’t privy to the fact, but I too have my own visitations. Or maybe you’ve known all along, and you’re feigning ignorance—wouldn’t that be deceptive? Frankly, I do not care. The point is, I’ve had over two thousand years to deliberate, and I am well aware that I have something to prove. So, instead of getting in my way, I ask you to step aside and watch.”
The fire in her eyes cool to a dull ember. “And I’m to believe that you, Hakurou, The Cursed White Wolf, will cast aside his wickedness and become a god of the people? Don’t make me laugh.”
“I know that I am very good at hurting people. I’m unrivaled in that regard. But,” you say, staring the oni down. “Even gods are not immutable. Hurting others isn’t all I do—not anymore. I shall harm those that harm me, and I shall help those that help me. It is as simple as that.”
“It is never simple with you, Hakurou,” the oni spits back with a biting scowl. “Your very presence muddles the truth.”
“If I swear by my name?”
“Swearing by your name has no meaning. Or shall I list out the many names you use as a veil?”
“Ibuki. I’m beginning to suspect that you do not like me.”
“No, I do not like you, you fucking bastard. Shall I reach out to the tengu and have them headline it for you? No matter how much you try and fool the world, you cannot fool me. Some things never change, plaguebringer. So I’d like it if you were to disappear for good, please.”
“You and me both,” you say.
The oni gawks. “Pardon? What was that?”
You sigh. “Leave this room, Ibuki.”
“What? Why?” she says indignantly. “We’re not done talking, Hakurou.”
“We were done talking a long time ago. And besides, I’d like to change. So wait outside and, while you’re at it, tell Reimu what you’ve done to her guestroom.”
“Ah.” Ibuki’s face pales to a misty-white. “Right.”
Unregrettably, she’s off to face Reimu’s wrath, and so you’re left alone with the box. Immediately, you undress. Your old robe holds colored history: dark holes that ran straight through the fabric, faint blemishes of crimson, and patched tears of the cloth. It had served its purpose, and that is all you think of it before putting on the clothes of yore.
A gray hakama is fit over a white robe. The colors themselves were rather plain, but it is an incomplete ensemble without the finishing piece. Over the white top is a brilliant scarlet haori that consummates the whole, accented by white labels, a gilded trim, and golden-colored tassels to match.
It is the attire of choice for the god, Roku. And you must admit, the colors are striking. But the clothes smell of dust, as if it were old history. Actually, no—it’s not as if it were old history, rather, it still is.
—You know what is inside, don’t you? Of course you do. Take another look. It couldn’t possibly still be empty, could it? No, you know it can’t be. Peer into it and see. A white hakamashita, a red hakama, a red sash. Don’t forget. Don’t you dare forget, Hakurō—
You close the lid.
You arrive at the scene—or perhaps its aftermath. Reimu’s busy thwacking the living hell out of Ibuki, who is unenthusiastically lying still out of resignation. Meanwhile, Tewi’s egging the shrine maiden on as the rabbit claps to the rhythm of the audible slaps.
“How many times are you going to destroy my guest room? How many!” Reimu says, yelling straight into Ibuki’s ear. “Do you even know the number so far?”
“...Thrice.” the oni declares. She allows the shrine maiden to shake her around some more.
“I’m betting on four,” Tewi adds. She immediately shuts up when the miko glares at her.
“Seven!” Reimu chokes out. “Seveeeen! Do you remember what I said? That you’re welcome to stay as long as you don’t ‘go full oni on me’?”
“I didn’t go full oni,” Ibuki grumbles, to which Reimu replies by grinding her knuckles on Ibuki’s temples.
“So you think ransacking my home and leaving a wake of destruction through my guest room is okay? And you don’t think that’s going full oni? Because if so, then I’m not going to go full Hakurei on you!”
You interrupt the chaos. “I think the poor girl’s had enough, don’t you think?”
The whole room pauses. You wait patiently until you’re given a response.
Reimu blinks. “...Not really, no?” At the very least, she’s honest.
Tewi’s eyes flit over to your figure. “And what’s with the special occasion?”
“How is it?” You lift an arm up, letting a crimson sleeve fall to your waistline. “It’s what I wore in times past, back when I was still enshrined.”
“I do like it,” Reimu says, still gripping the oni’s head. “It suits you, I think. You look like exactly what I think a god would look like.”
“And what do you think, Ibuki?”
“I do not care,” she says, still being mortally squeezed under Reimu’s iron grasp.
“You’ll warm up to me eventually.”
“Check back in another thousand years,” she hisses.
You laugh. “I don’t think I will.”
The amber evening soon fades and, as the Hakurei Shrine is flooded by pale moonlight, quietness comes with. The day winds down quickly after Ibuki takes her leave—as she always does when confronted by you. Perhaps one day, she’ll let go of her pertinacity and start to tolerate you. That’ll also be the day she stops being an oni or even just stops being, but it matters not.
You sit on top of the shrine’s donation box to take in the silence outside. It is a day where this weathered god wishes to speak no more. A rare circumstance, for this god pretends to revel in the sound of his own voice. But nonsense aside, he tires of listening endlessly to himself. And yet he’d continue, this day exempt, because when all is quiet, his mind—your mind—it fills of the past.
Just like now.
[ ] You were drowning. You were in a vat, maybe, and you could not speak. [ ] You found a rabbit, and your mild curiosity got the better of you. [ ] You met an oni, one with daemon-like horns. [ ] You met an oni, one with a singular crimson horn. [ ] You were challenged by another god. It was a short but gruesome affair for them.
It was a time of bloodshed—a time where a god leveled entire villages, motivated only by his own caprice.
There was an immeasurable expanse of green in the land that predated Gensokyo. Wildflowers crawled towards the little sunlight that entered the fog of trees. Beneath the overhang of leaves was not wildlife, but rot. A dark miasma enshrouded the forestry. It, however, was not like thick fog but rather a mist: ever present and ever pervasive.
One being stood at the center of the miasma—you. And as you traveled through the greenery, so did the mist.
You had expected there to be little but silence within the forest. Flora aside, no sane man or animal would dare venture into the miasma. Only their own demise would await them within. And yet, strangled cries—several of them—echoed throughout the land, interrupting the otherwise still landscape. The cries soonafter matured to hurried pattering of feet and incessant shouting.
A bloodied thing, for a lack of a better description, scrambled through the woods. It desperately scaled the unforgiving hills, uncaring of its raw feet and its bloodied hands as it scraped through obstacles to keep running. Two rounded ears touched with crimson sat at the top of the thing’s head and, for a brief moment, its eyes matched yours. The moment was ephemeral, however, as it dropped its gaze to meet its front. Something registered in thing’s eyes, and its frantic look changed to that of shock as its foot tangled on stray brier. The thing fell to wet ground and unceremoniously rolled to your feet.
The rabbit, or so you surmise, attempted to stand, but its knees buckled, and it slipped back to the earth.
You watched as it rose up once again and grabbed onto your robe, smearing the white fabric with its blood.
“Wolf,” it rasped out. “I beseech you. Help.”
You took the rabbit by its wrist, forcing it to stand to full length. It wore remnants of clothing: Under the caked blood, dirt, and gashes was what vaguely resembled a dress. “You. Thing,” you say softly. “Do you even know who I am?”
“The Wolf of a Thousand Curses… or so I pray,” it said. The rabbit turned to the sound of a march, growing to a thunderous crescendo.
You kept your eyes on it. “So you pray.”
“I do.” There was a steady resolve in the rabbit’s eyes. “I pray that you are the Cursed White Wolf, more so than any wolf or any other god, here in this forest.”
“And what do you need of him?”
Its eyes shone a harsh crimson through its matted hair. “The ones chasing me—they must die. It does not matter how painful, or how gruesome, but they must die. Now. You see, if I die to the hands of my enemies, then there shall be no one else in the forest to protect the other rabbits—and they, too, shall die to their hands.”
“But why should the White Wolf help you? What would he gain?”
“He may take my life,” it said, “my soul, my power. He may take anything that constitutes the Rabbit of Inaba. If he so wills it, then he may curse me until I wish to die, or he may treat me as he would a sacrifice. So long as my enemies perish. Regardless, as it stands, I need him. I need you, Hakurō.”
“You need Hakurō?”
You chuckled at first, but it inflated to laughter in its entirety. Your voice was heavy and guttural, the sound of your laughs coming from deep within. All noise ceased. Even the echoes of weighty footsteps stopped, politely waiting for you to finish.
“That,” you remark, “is something that I never thought I’d ever hear. Very well. I shall help you, Rabbit of Inaba.”
“Oh.” The tenacity in her eyes turn to relief, and she crumples back to the ground. “I must be lucky.”
“Inaba. You amuse me so,” you smile, baring your teeth. “‘Lucky’ does not even begin to describe it, rabbit.”
You ended up nursing a stray rabbit. She laid her back to your chest, grimacing as a dark affliction seeped from her wounds. In particular was the foot she twisted when scrabbling over the forest hills—it secreted yellow filth and swelled twice over; the limb was worse than useless. But even if she survived her wounds and ailments, the miasma that she took in and breathed out would consume her in due time.
Still, it was only fair that she should live long enough to see the demise of her assailants, so you eased her pain by providing her physical foundation to lean on. Her condition was rougher than she had initially let on: Inaba, after an attempt to move her wounded foot, bit on a bloody sleeve to muffle her cries of anguish. She did not mind that she found herself resting under the warmth of a curse god, but perhaps that was because there were no other alternatives.
“Who are your enemies?” you asked, awaiting the inevitable footsteps to come.
“...Hunters,” the rabbit said through gritted teeth. “Of the East. They’ve come to find the youkai that had ransacked their village.”
“This ‘youkai’—was it you?”
“No!” she said vehemently, then wincing after. “It was not us,” she reaffirmed, tempering her spirit. “We rabbits do not put needlessly put ourselves into conflict. But youkai or not, it doesn’t matter—they are chasing down all the rabbits in the forest.”
“Ever the same, foolish humans,” you laughed in derision. “I need no more explanation than that. Why waste time trying to figure out why humans do the things they do? But they shall regret the day that they set foot into my domain.”
“This forest is your domain?”
“The forest was my domain the moment I set foot inside it. And inside is my property.” You stared at the wounded youkai before you. “Henceforth, you are my property, doubly so since you have sworn yourself to me. Should you continue to amuse me, you shall remain that way.” The once unceasing footsteps had been reduced to trudging, lumbering stomps. “And let it be known that I do not like others touching what is mine.”
A force of humans finally arrived to the chase—you did not count but it was no more than a dozen. The men, simply put, were a consort of fools. They had no priests, no priestess, no miko and, despite their numbers, had nothing but raggedy weapons. Sticks, they effectively had, against youkai. It was no wonder they pursued this Inaba with wild conviction: The rabbits were all they could hunt.
You set Inaba down and walked forward. Who would be the foolhardy one to brandish his weapon first? The answer was: no one. Not a single human braced for battle. No, they dared not move once you caught them with your eyes. Did they think, that if they did not move, then you’d find your attention wandering to more interesting sights?
“Why are you here, humans.”
There was only the silence of to-be dead men.
“Humans. Do not fail to answer me again. I said, ‘Why are you here?’”
“I—W-We—!” A man cried before his answer dissolved to foamy gargles. Tears formed at the corners of his eyes, but the hunter could not blink them away as his body jerked and stiffened. The whites of his eyes ballooned to a swollen pink. Yet, despite the harsh irritation, the man, unwillingly so, put a hand to his eyes and scratched. He scratched an itch that did not exist, and yet it was not enough for the man. Eventually, his senses left him until he was no more than a writhing specimen for the rest of the hunters to see.
The men were at odds: Their continued silence would cost them their lives. Yet the one who spoke first died. Then, all at once, their formation crumbled. Few knelt in prostration, while many others turned-face and discarded their companions to flee.
Disgusting. To think that they would leave their brethren behind to run to safety. But they could not run. It mattered not how far they traveled—the moment they took in the miasma, they were under your grasp. All with their tails between their legs fell to the earth, a thick black fog enveloping their bodies. Wicked shrieks echoed through the lands. And when the fog dissipated from the bodies, all that was left were viscous pools of blood, waste, and regurgitation.
“Rise,” you commanded. “And you are required to answer no more. I do not care now.”
The ones who put their heads to the floor stood back up shakily.
“For your respect, you are all allowed die harmlessly.”
The remaining ones nodded out of dull acceptance; a few wept to themselves.
A hunter lifts his head. “Why do you do this? Why do you continue to curse our lands, O White Wolf of the West?”
“I need not explain myself,” you reply. “I am a god. And I shall not waste my time with mortal reasoning.”
“May you be forever scorned!” a second hunter screams. “May you suffer the same fate as those that have deserted us! Curse you, Wicked White Wolf! Curse you, you limb-ripper, you venomous snake, you cruel, cruel executioner!”
You nodded, and so, they all fell—all but one. The very last human, the one weeping like a child, was left. It was not that the human wept like a child: They were a child, so it was more exact to say that they wept as they should.
“No,” said a voice softly. It was from behind: Inaba, struggling to prop herself up with her beaten hands, spoke. “Do not. Not him.”
You stared at her. “Should they not all perish?”
“He,” Inaba rasped, “is like one of us. A rabbit. Look at the boy.”
The child was an indiscernible age, but it was true that he stood several heads below the rest. All the boy used his weapon for was to keep himself standing. Even without your help, the boy looked like he was a moment’s away from death. Skin, bones, and a ghastly complexion. The only color on the boy’s face were his eyes and cheeks, pink from weeping.
“They—they told me that Mother and Sister would get food, lots of food, if I joined. They said, ‘You’ll be paid well, Kota’ and things but I didn’t really pay attention.” He rattled on. “I didn’t know—I couldn’t have known—I didn’t even know about weapons, and, and, and… hunting. I don’t know lot of things. They said catching something. I thought—food. It, it, it… it wasn’t.”
Inaba looked to you. Her eyes warmed to a deep, crimson sympathy.
“Hah.” You grinned. “You humor me so, Rabbit of Inaba. And here, I thought you’d spare no witnesses.” Moving to the boy, you placed a hand to his shoulder. The dark mist around him scattered. He was now free. “Go back to your village. Tell them what I have done to your companions. Then lie and embellish—as much as you can. Speak of the Cursed White Wolf and do not stop speaking. Preach of his powers, his curses, and it does not matter if it does not make sense or is the truth. So long as you do not stop preaching. You do that, and you shall go free. But don’t think to disobey, because I shall know. And if any villager dares touch a rabbit again, then they shall answer to oblivion. You may go.”
He nodded and scampered away, wasting no time to his escape.
Inaba looked to you steadily, her dull red eyes trained directly at your visage. The fear that you had expected to surface on her face never appeared. Instead, resolve colored her eyes. The resolve, however determined, was lost on you—she was, in everything but her desperate embrace to life, a corpse.
“Do you want my life in exchange?” she asked. “It is all yours, White Wolf.”
“Your life? Hah! Please.” You approached the girl. “Not a single god would want what little lifespan you have left—just look at yourself, Rabbit of Inaba, resigned to death’s embrace. Pathetic. If you are going to offer your own life as sacrifice—” you held a hand up, and a faint glow embraced the rabbit, “—then at least make your life look valuable to take.”
Inaba shimmered. Briefly, the rabbit’s body turned ethereal, fading into the green of the forest. Wounds sealed, darkened blemishes from the miasma uncolored themselves, and the harsh abrasions that swarmed her hands and feet smoothed out. The rabbit remained battered withal, but it was a grievous change from her standing in front of death’s door.
The rabbit leapt to her feet but winced right after—she was still not fully recovered. Inaba knelt on one leg to regain her balance as she clutched her still-wounded flank. With her other arm, she grabbed at your robe to keep herself upright.
“As you should understand, I am not a god of remedy,” you said.
“I must be the only one in this world to have been blessed by a curse god.” Inaba shook her head. “What you did was more than enough. You are too kind, Hakurō.”
“‘Kind,’ so you say. That is not the description of choice for most.”
“It does not matter what most think. You saved me, Hakurō, in more ways than one.”
“And so, this god could only save that which was ultimately inconsequential to him,” you said. “I do not care. I only require compensation.”
“White Wolf. If you are not going to take my life, then what do you need of me? I do not have much else in terms of negotiation.”
“So eager to exchange your life, hmm, rabbit?” You laughed. “You continue to keep me entertained. In fact, yes, that is it. I do know what I require from you now.”
Inaba stared at you with wary eyes. “What is it?”
You kept a knowing smile on your face. “Just a moment of your time, perhaps.”
“…And that is all?” she asked.
“And that is all,” you repeated.
“Hakurō—” Inaba said.
“—Hakurou,” Tewi says. She takes a seat next to you on top of the donation box. With how unnecessarily large the thing is, it had plenty of space for two. Heck, it could probably fit you plus four other bunnies if you all squeezed together.
You casually wave. “Well, hello there, Rabbit of Inaba. Isn’t it a lovely night out?”
“It’s cold, the clouds are blocking the moonlight, and you can’t see anything from here. I don’t know if you can say it’s exactly ‘lovely,’ per se.” Tewi breathes in the cool air and scoots herself closer to you, eventually settling into your lap. She leans her back to your chest—like she did in the past—and sighs comfortably. “Well, I guess it is now.”
A trusting rabbit is ever so defenseless. Under the wind that nips at the cheeks, you place a hand to her hair, gently stroking her head in rhythm. She patiently accepts the patting, even giggling when you brush your hand against her fluffed ears.
It’s too much for you, really.
[ ] You keep her in your arms regardless. [ ] You pull away.
And yet, you keep her in your arms. Of course, it’s just like you to stubbornly feign ignorance, but if you could stop yourself from doing it, you would not be here, berating yourself internally. Your need, though, is strikingly uncomplicated: This Rabbit of Inaba is soft and warm, and you desire that kind of physical intimacy from her.
Tewi is happy to reciprocate, which puts you severely at odds with yourself. As the rabbit nestles closer, you allow yourself to remain there idly—no more, and no less. Because this, too, shall pass.
“Tewi,” you say, withholding the lesser, foolish thoughts in your head.
She half-responds with, “Hmm?”
“You need to stop doing that.”
The rabbit blinks, lifting her head up. “Doing what exactly?”
“Everything you’re doing right now,” you articulate rather poorly.
She puts on a coy grin because she thinks you’re joking. “Oh? Are you tantalized? Allured by the sweetness of this little rabbit?”
“You… waver my resolve. I do not—” You stop to try and collect the rest of your words, but instead you scatter them into the night sky. “—I do not like that,” you conclude lamely, rhetoric failing you.
“Sucks for you.” Tewi deflects your brooding. “Because I’m going to stay right here, and you’re going to be my chair until I feel like getting up.”
“And you think you can order the Cursed White Wolf like that?” you say.
“I just did. I don’t see you going anywhere, Hakurou. Unless you’re just going to get up and leave right now. Wouldn’t that be a heartbreaker!”
You make a halfhearted effort to sit up, but Tewi redoubles her efforts in keeping you seated, pushing you back down with her butt.
Morning, with its accompanying halo, sweeps over the lands of Gensokyo. Dawn comes in waves: It first touches the rolling hills that shape the horizon then moves to envelop the village until everything but the greater forests and the Youkai Mountain are within light’s embrace. The rest are obscured from your lacking vantage point: There is only so much you can see from the shrine’s donation box.
Earlier that night, you had suggested to Tewi that she should leave for Eientei before the night was fully claimed, but the rabbit, obstinate and filled with haught, took to the guest room, stole a blanket, and sauntered back over as she draped the covers over herself, a mischievous glint in her eye. Despite your complaints, she insisted that she stayed for the night. Since you wanted to stay outside for the night and reminisce, you offered her the guest room, but she refused to lodge unless you were also there with her.
The needy rabbit now remains by your side, though she has since evacuated from your lap. Instead, she’s leaning on your shoulder, wrapped comfortably in a blanket, and breathing in rhythm to the tune of sleep. At some point, you’ve upgraded from her chair to her pillow. It’s arguably worse—you don’t have the subtlety required to move without waking her up, so you’re stuck on top of the donation box, waiting. You are good at that, though.
It’s always about waiting with you, ain’t it?
Reimu is the first to wake. The shrine door rustles as it slides open, breaking the calm of early day. You’re about to ask if she’s a morning person, but with the way she’s glaring at the entirety of Gensokyo, it’s a safe bet that she isn’t. She’s holding onto Isara—the poor dog you’ve almost already forgotten about—silently cursing to herself as the sunlight starts bleeding little by little into the shrine. Isara’s struggling to keep awake in the shrine maiden’s arms. The only acknowledgment you get is the slow wag of her tail when your eyes meet, but it soon stops when the dog closes her eyes to rest again.
“Morning, Hakurou,” Reimu says, though it’s more of a sigh.
“So it is. I didn’t think you’d get up this early in the day.”
“I didn’t want to waste any time investigating. You can only catch some of the villagers at this hour, so I figured it’d be prudent to find those people first and talk to them too.” She stifles a yawn. “The faster this investigation is over, the better. Anyway, I’m all set and ready to go.”
You point to the gently snoring Tewi, who’s still using your entire body as resting space.
[ ] Let Reimu go ahead. Since she’s your de-facto shrine maiden, you can observe her using more ethereal means. [ ] Try, and most likely fail, to tuck her into bed. [ ] You could just wake Tewi up.
You’re going to try, and most likely fail, to tuck Tewi into bed. How did the phrase go? Let sleeping rabbits lie? Yeah, let’s go with that. You scoop her up in your arms, blanket included, stopping to see if she’ll rouse from the sudden movement. The rabbit, though she twists around to get more comfortable, is surprisingly un-roused.
“Let me put Tewi away, or at least attempt to,” you say to Reimu. “I don’t feel like waking her up right now.”
“Sure,” Reimu replies dismissively.
You move along to the guest room, careful not to trip over anything and throw your precious rabbit loaf straight through the sliding door. But before you can make it to the finish line, you’re met with an unexpected obstacle: an oni.
Ibuki’s back in the guest room, and for the second time in two days, she stands there stupidly with her mouth agape, watching you enter.
“Why?” she asks.
“Why what?” You eye the oni. “As you may know, I happen to live in this shrine. I’m enthused over your dedication to steal my stuff, but you should really stop before you get what’s coming to ya.”
“I’m not stealing your stuff!” she hisses.
“Volume, Ibuki,” you say sternly. “Some people are trying to sleep.”
“I don’t really—” She stops herself as she glances over to the sleeping rabbit. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry. But anyway, I came back to fix the guestroom back up after I… mishandled it slightly. After I sobered up, I thought that it was kinda messed up to do that to Reimu’s place and leave.”
“Which you did,” you add.
“Yes, I know that, and I accept that I fucked up. So here I am.”
“Cool. Then where do I drop this rabbit off?”
“No need,” answers a drowsy rabbit. Tewi stirs inside the blanket, and she wearily opens an eye to take a look at her surroundings. “I’m awake.”
And you were so close, too. If Ibuki hadn’t been in the guestroom—well, that’s largely a moot point because you forgot that the guestroom was nigh obliterated after yesterday.
So what now?
[ ] See if you can weasel Ibuki into the investigation too. [ ] Let Ibuki do her own thing. Probably the last thing she wants to see is more of your face.
No update today for stupid reasons. The previous update is marked as number twenty-five, so technically I'm still one update ahead of schedule. The story should resume tomorrow. Regardless, I'm an idiot. Cheers.
You’ll let Ibuki go about her own business. You know for a fact that she’d rather go a full day sober than to see any more of you around, so you’ll leave her alone—this time, at least. While you would have loved to goad her some more, you have an investigation to watch over.
But even before that, you have a rabbit in your arms, and you don’t know what to do with her.
“Morning,” you say as you leave the guestroom.
She yawns in response. “Good morning. Could you turn off the sun for another few hours? Thanks.”
“It’s still dark out,” you say.
“I’m asking in advance.”
You peer outside. The sun’s being lazy as always, probably still climbing up the hillway stairs one step at a time. “Sure. Burying Gensokyo under a mantle of darkness that even the sun cannot reach? Sounds good to me. Are you aware of all the ramifications for a request like this, or should I start right away?”
“Oh, Hakurou.” Tewi sighs. The rabbit inches forward in your grasp and taps you lightly on the forehead. “You really know how to wake a girl up.”
“So is that a yes, or…?”
“No,” she says with a chuckle. “Now, I’d love to be carried around all day but let me down. I’d like to freshen up.”
Tewi comes along. You seriously thought that she would’ve rather slept than to conduct a boring investigation, but your expectations have been happily unmet. Now you got a real party going.
The village has yet to fully wake. Aside from the craftsmen, the roads are devoid of the usual clamoring that goes on. The few that have risen keep their heads bowed and their eyes trained to the ground when they spot you. If word that you’re the Hakurei god has spread to even the morning craftsmen, then you’re sure that everybody in the village now knows.
“Hey,” Reimu says, catching your attention. “Hakur—”
You stop her. “Might I remind you, Reimu, that you are to, under no circumstances, call me that when others are around?”
“Ah.” Her eyes faintly light up in recollection. “Right. I was going to say that it’s hard getting the attention of the villagers with you around.”
You fold your arms. “Deal with it.”
“We’re just here to observe.” Tewi laughs. It rings softly, so one could mistakenly describe it as gentle, but there’s only mischief in her laughter. “So show us why you’re indisputably the greatest shrine maiden of all time—ever.”
Reimu, with a look that screams, “You two are a pain in the ass,” lets her eyebrows drop in self-reproach. “I’m starting to think that this group investigation is a bad idea.”
“No, no, this is a great idea,” you assure her. “We’ll do no more than observe. Promise. Believe me, if we were trying to get in your way, then we’d do so much worse!”
“Like blot out the sun,” says Tewi.
“In which case, I am ever thankful,” she says back, throwing her arms up with a flourish.
You let Reimu wander through the village. Often, she’d stop craftsmen to ask them a few questions. It’s always the same—and by that, you mean different—it seems as if everyone had a story to tell, but not a single one matches up with another.
“I just don’t get it,” Reimu says. Frustration crawls up the edges of her brow. “It seems like every trader and craftsman has been targeted, so it’s apparently a frequent, if not daily thing. But it’s insane how widely different the features of the youkai are in every account.”
Tewi taps a foot on the ground in thought. “Maybe it’s using that inability to be described as a veil. A camouflage for its true self.”
“But why?” Reimu questions. “They aren’t being too subtle about it. All the youkai is doing is being a huge nuisance to the village. Nothing else.”
“It must be bait,” the rabbit concludes.
“Somehow, I don’t think that’s the case either.” Reimu lets out a heavy breath. “What a bother.”
You remain silent. It’s easy to recognize that the villagers are keeping a nervous eye on you—or perhaps Reimu. However, wariness does not stop the time of day. Eventually, they set their caution aside and go about their miserable, human day. All except for one. From the corner of your eye, you spot a lanky, black-haired man with an obscuring bamboo-woven hat and an unremarkable tanned robe. He bears a large sack over his shoulders, as if he were going somewhere with it, but the man has not moved an inch since you’ve gotten here. All he had been doing this entire time is stare.
You get it: You’re popular as hell. But that’s not why this cool fella catches your attention. The answer is simple, actually: He smells of a youkai.
[ ] Wordlessly apprehend him. You’re not sure if Reimu will notice. [ ] “Hey, Reimu. Don’t you sense that something’s a little… off?”
“Hey Reimu,” you say calmly. The last thing you want her to do is to start getting all conspicuous on you. “Don’t you sense that something’s a little… off?”
Her gaze sinks quickly from annoyance to sobriety. The shrine maiden’s head does a twitch, and you’re sure that’s because she just stopped herself from wildly glancing around. “...Explain.”
“You have divine power bestowed by yours truly. Try using it.”
“And just how do I do that?”
“It’ll come to you easily—trust me,” you insist. “Just close your eyes and feel.”
“This isn’t a joke?” Reimu’s gauging you skeptically.
“While I’d love to joke around, I’m afraid we have more important affairs to tend to, no?”
“Well, alright.” The shrine maiden closes her eyes. There’s nothing fancy like a pulsing light coming out of her, but you can feel something faint from her. “How do I use this… thing?”
“That’s enough hints from me. I’m only here to observe, remember?” You grin, though she can’t see you. With a more gentle tone, you add, “You’ll figure it out.”
“Something...” she trails off. “There’s something there. Something that shouldn’t belong? I don’t know. It’s just a feeling, but—”
“But?” you prompt her.
Reimu opens her eyes. Then, slowly, she turns her head towards the man keeping watch. He loiters, idly tapping a foot, but you can see that his leg starts moving to a faster beat as the shrine maiden turns to his direction.
Tewi sneaks a glance over to where Reimu’s looking. “So what’s his deal?”
“No idea,” the shrine maiden says. “All I felt was that he’s not like the rest of us humans.”
You and Tewi look at each other.
Reimu’s annoyance returns with reinforcements. “I meant the rest of the villagers. Not you guys. Regardless, the guy is suspicious—that much I know, so I’m gonna go have a chat with him.”
She goes to approach the man and starts asking him questions, but you notice that he’s keeping an anxious eye on you, never letting you out of his vision. Well, the man’s caught your interest now, so you take a step forward. He starts mumbling out his answers. You take another step forward. He breaks out in cold sweat. You continue until you’re hovering right behind Reimu, staring right into his eyes.
“Sorry to bother you, but do you need something from me?” you ask, interrupting their conversation.
The tension breaks, though you aren’t even sure why it was breaking in the first place. The man quickly turns tail and bursts into a sprint. Reimu immediately gives chase, kicking off the ground.
“What’d I do?” you ask Tewi.
“I would’ve ran too if you were walking at me all freaky-like.” She imitates you, taking exaggerated steps with her shoulders hunched. “I’d think to myself, ‘What’s going with this guy? I don’t want to be around him if he’s staring at me and doing that.’”
You and the rabbit observe Reimu, the predator, catch the man, the prey. It’s sad, really. Reimu’s way faster than the guy because she’s flying while the poor guy’s making a run for it with his disappointing legs. About an arm’s length away, Reimu pushes the man, and he goes off-balance, tripping over himself as he smashes into the ground. The man morphs back to his true form: His humanly facial features crack, and black-and-white fur sprouts from his skin. The man’s human nose sinks down his face until it protrudes out to form a darkened snout. A badger he is.
You reconvene with Reimu and her badger friend, who is now curled up into a ball on the ground.
“Well,” Tewi says, poking him lightly with a foot. “I can’t say that I expected that.”
“So it was him.” The shrine maiden nods in understanding. “He could shape-shift into any of the described youkai in the attacks, right?”
“No-no-no-no!” he pleads, still assuming fetal position. “It wasn’t me! Okay, no, it was me, but I didn’t want to do it—I hate interacting with humans. I—I mean, not in that way, like, as if, you know! Uh, um—!”
He’s a sad ball of a raccoon, blubbering on like that.
“Can it,” Reimu says, already tired of the thing. “We’re getting rid of you.”
“Getting rid of me?” he squeals. “Please-please-please-please-please-please. No! I want to die! They say it sucks dying!”
Reimu looks completely finished, but she clarifies. “We’re not going to kill you. All you did was prank the village, but you are going to leave and never come back. Ever. Understand?”
“And what about him? Won’t he kill me?” He meekly points to you.
“Why would I kill you?” you ask.
“Because—because of the way you...” He doesn’t finish his thought, instead he grovels before Reimu. “I’m sorry. I was just following orders, otherwise they’ll...”
“Oh, shut up with the excuses,” Reimu says, rolling her eyes.
“Actually, Reimu,” Tewi pitches in. “It does sound like there’s something more to this. Doesn’t seem like he’d gain much from scaring the village.”
The shrine maiden gives the rabbit a look that she’d rather finish up and get some tea but remains silent for a while.
[ ] Agree with Tewi. [ ] Reimu’s a big girl who can choose for herself. [ ] The case is solved. Time to go home and celebrate.
You remain silent. Reimu’s a big girl who can choose for herself. You personally are itching to do something, but it shouldn’t be said that you’re only here to observe. Yet you’re constantly reminding yourself, arentcha?
The shrine maiden’s racking her brains real hard on the eternal question: diligence or tea? The latter poses a tempting offer when one is weary from morning dispute. She moves her eyes back to the youkai, who’s content to continue being a whimpering pile of badger.
“So you said you were following orders?” Reimu looks like she still isn’t fully sold. “Who were you following orders from? And why did they tell you to scare the village?”
He finally stops kissing the ground to sit seiza-style. “Oh, no-no. They told me to… attack. But we mujina, we are no fighter-folk. And we’d normally never go outside the Great Mountain to scare people, but...” His face goes sullen—even more than it already is. “I had no choice. He would say that I may die a rat’s death if I did not follow his orders.”
“Again,” Reimu says in irritation, “Who is this ‘he’ person?”
“I do not know his name.” He hangs his head. “But I do know that he has the face of a bovine and the body of a man. He found me while I was wading through one of the creeks in the Great Mountain, and he caught me by the scruff of my neck. From then on, I’ve been following his orders. He never tells me why I should, but only that I must.”
“Why didn’t you run away after he let you go?” Tewi says.
He grimaces. “No, no-no. I do not believe I can run away forever. It is just my own misgivings, but it feels impossible to just… flee so freely. He would find me.”
The rabbit nods slowly. “So, since you can’t bother the village anymore, what are you going to do now?”
“Oh dear!” The badger gasps, going back to his usual blubbering. The guy’s hysterical in many interpretations of the word. “What am I going to do? He might… oh no!”
Reimu scratches her head. “Can’t we just beat him up?”
“The classic strategy,” Tewi says, ignoring the squinty look that the shrine maiden’s giving her.
“We could always use the badger as bait to find the leader,” you say.
Three sets of eyes turn to you.
[ ] “And then we can beat him up.” [ ] “We can negotiate.” [ ] “We could also let the village elders know what’s going on before doing anything.”