File 136686412348.jpg - (262.30KB, 500x627, case of nerves.jpg) [iqdb]
Guess who's baaaaaack~ ...Without further ado, the long-awaited continuation of the previous update.
“Now then, you were talking of past experiences?”
The question brings Kyouko out of her short reverie, drawing her attention away from the bustle of the village back to me. “Hmm? Yes, of course! Well, I am in training to become a nun. With that in mind, I can’t allow myself to wander off from the temple for too long. I have my responsibilities, tending to odd jobs and sweeping the pathway clean of obstructions.” She pauses to muse something, then continues, “I get the feeling too that the most unwanted, tedious jobs are given to the newest inductees. So I’m never able to join my sisters at our scheduled bedtime, and always come in several minutes late.”
Well, that’s unfortunate. “How many minutes is several?” I ask innocently.
Again my walking companion goes silent, actually stopping in the road this time. Her gaze trails to the packed dirt as she crunches numbers in her head, and finally responses a little unsurely, “Um...a couple hours?”
I freeze momentarily, even though I’d stopped walking as well. I know that the temple grounds are relatively substantial, but if what I just heard is true, it leads me to conclude one of two options. Either those grounds are much larger than I’m assuming, or Kyouko is a perfectionist of incalculable proportions. I can’t decide which choice startles me more, so I settle instead for mumbling a weak answer. “...I-I see.”
“It’s not as bad as you’d think it to be,” the yamabiko replies, her tone carrying a comforting weariness. “It actually reminds me of when I used to live in the mountains. The air is so thin and the bodies so few, you’re just able to concentrate on your given tasks. And I’m able to hear so much more clearly than in the daytime. I’ve grown used to picking out the subtlest of noises, listening to a particular one for a moment, then moving on to the next one, and the repeated pattern of my work combined with that...” She lets a long sigh escape her, the recollection of her routine seeming to put her mind at ease again. “It offers me some good bonus meditation,” she concludes as we start down the path once more, “or the opportunity to recite a few sutras. At least it did until recently. That’s when I started to notice, well, things.”
Right then, here’s where I bite the firecracker and hope it doesn’t spark in my mouth. “What sort of things?”
“Oh, things that aren’t anywhere close by. Strange noises, I mean. Sometimes in the direction where you said you have lunch at—” She makes a vague hand motion in the direction behind us— “Other times further out, or maybe even in the opposite direction. It varies from night to night where they start.”
So it moves around? That’s a troublesome thought. I don’t believe anyone inside the boundaries of the village has any need to worry, but if someone were caught out late at night and ran into whatever apparition Kyouko’s describing without formal danmaku training or a form of defense…
Wait, why am I thinking like this? There’s no definite proof there actually is some strange being making noises in the woods. Yet in the residue of one failed attempt at a joke, I’m letting myself be dragged into an unknown situation. Youkai or not, this is information being supplied to me by a young girl. She can’t completely know what she’s talking about.
Trying not to sound too dubious, I proceed to ask, “And have you gone out to investigate these noises?”
She shakes her head. “No, leaving the grounds after everyone’s gone to bed is a demerit of unnecessary action. If I let myself be distracted from my role as groundskeeper, I’d delay my own enlightenment and betray the trust my sisters have put in me. I couldn’t bear to disappoint them in such a manner.” Spoken in a resolute voice, with steeled eyes to boot. Her conviction to what she believes and learns is admirable, but still…
“But you don’t really know if what you’re hearing is real or not. If you haven’t even taken a crack at determining something is out there, what makes you so certain about this? What you’re talking about could turn out to be nothing.” I’m not trying to sound disbelieving or critical, but if she wants to convince me one hundred percent on this, there has to be an enormously strong reason why she feels this way.
Kyouko’s posture stiffens for a second. The words of doubt would appear to be ramming at her skull, looking for a weak point to pierce before ransacking the rest of her senses. It only lasts a second though—the expression she wears hasn’t change from her previously spoken words. Looking in my direction, a renewed sense of willpower spreads throughout her face and into the breath coming from her lips. “That isn’t the case,” she states firmly, “I know I’ve been hearing something, it can’t just be an illusion. In my experience growing up in the mountains, it’s crucial to one’s survival to know which sounds are fake and which aren’t.” Turning her head skyward toward the cloudy airspace, she continues, “If these had been illusions, echoes or atmospheric noises, they wouldn’t have held my attention for so long.”
…Okay then, I give credit when it’s due. Having an argument about the existence of a particular sound with a creature whose existence is reliant on the manipulation of sound does show a clear signal who possesses the right of way. Of course Kyouko would be an expert regarding the matter. But even ignoring that, I can’t help being impressed by her outlook on things. I only formally met her a few minutes ago, and already I feel like we’ve been friends for far longer than that. I can grasp an understanding of this young child, well wise beyond her years, and see for myself just how pure, kind and generous she truly is. Not only that, the optimism she scoops up in buckets from who knows what reservoir seems to flow infinitely out of her, taking all bad circumstances and putting them in a new light of hopefulness. It makes me feel bad for doubting her beforehand. After all, I was in a better position to find out about that music or melody or whatever, and I didn’t bother with it initially. That really gives me no right to call her out on her theories. And frankly, if I am wrong I probably couldn’t be happier about it.
That being said, I have noticed a quirk in her mannerisms—well, specifically that itself. Even with a heighten feeling of maturity, her tendency towards social situations seems a little too…official. Maybe I wasn’t realizing it before due to a lack of alertness, but her vocabulary is far more expansive than the average adult here, let alone any person in the age group she physically appears to belong. It just seems off and unusual to talk with somebody resembling an eleven-or-twelve-year-old girl, and then suddenly hear her speak in such a superfluously precocious style. Maybe her time in the temple has something to do with it?
At this point, the two of us have made it through whatever remains of the midday crowd. I can see the weapons shop ahead of me, the wooden structure sitting as plain as ever. Though only one-story tall, it extends out into the back quite a ways, as the building also houses a storage area for the materials needed to form the tools in question. It is situated between two other buildings, with a side alley on either side. I motion toward one of these alleys, and Kyouko follows with me. No need to look strange out front while talking with a youkai, causing everybody to further wonder about my allegiances. That and the two of us can be out of the street, taking up less space.
“I take it this is the shop?” she inquires, hers eyes carefully examining the grain of the exterior boards.
“It would be,” I affirm to her, setting my pack down to the ground and leaning myself against the wall. Man, my shoulder needs a bit of rest after that period of lugging. Even a little soreness heading back inside could prove detrimental to my progress. “So I’ve thought over what you said about your mystery noises, and I have made a decision.” Pausing for her full attention, Kyouko watches me in a mixture of wonder and anticipation. Then, my mouth twists into a smile and declares, “I would like to help you make it a mystery no more.”
The young yamabiko’s eyes widen and her mouth hangs slightly, before converting into the most joyous face that I’ve seen her express yet. “You would? Oh, thank you so much!” she cries unreservedly, the leaflets in her arms jiggling around with the syncopated bouncing up and down she exerts from her legs. After a few seconds of this she remembers where she is, and her composure returns. She then proceeds more subdued, “That is, I greatly appreciate your willingness to assist me in this matter, and look forward to the day when such an occasion may come.”
Yeah, there it is again. The whole overly formal tone of voice she uses. It’s far more obvious when following up a more childish episode, like what just happened. I really ought to address that with her…
“Um, but how exactly would you go about helping?” she asks, still maintaining the speaking role in our talk, “Not that I mean to deter you, but you don’t strike me as the experienced type when it comes to incidents such as this.”
Well, now she’s redirected the topic. I’ll have to bring up my point later. “You’re right—I’m not—but I do have an idea. You said you can’t leave the temple because it would upset the others, right?” She nods in response. “Well, maybe you could explain what’s been going on for the past…well, however long it’s been happening. Have you, by any chance, told any of your, erm, sisters about what you’ve been hearing?” Her answer is to hold her hands together fretfully and peek at the ground once more. I can see the outline of a faint grimace start to form, but I don’t let it. “Kyouko?”
“I haven’t yet.” Her voice is quiet and stressed, and she has to breathe a few times to calm down enough to continue in an even tone. “I know I should, and I really want to, but I’m...nervous.”
“What you mean by nervous? If there’s something strange you’re hearing, I don’t see why you wouldn’t call out to somebody for help.” Kyouko doesn’t reply. She just maintains that dour appearance, and when it’s apparent she has no retort to give me, I decide to help her out. “Do you think nobody would believe you?”
That certainly works. The moment I finish asking, her eyes dart back up to me, and she has a miniature freak out. “T-that’s not it! Uh, I-I’m sure they’d take the time to listen to me, but...they’ve been around so much longer than I have, they may not seriously consider what I tell them.” She’s had to put her free hand to her chest to keep herself from shaking. It seems pretty clear this is a topic that bothers her, but she manages to speak further, “They—well, Shou and Ichirin—they respect me for my commitment to the Truths, but to them I’m sure I resemble nothing more than another silly little kid. If I asked one of them for help, they’d probably think it was part of a joke I was scheming.”
So that’s what’s keeping her back. Insecurities so universal to man, nobody ever speaks of them aloud: fear of rejection, and self-doubt. Despite all her bravado in maturity, she really is a little girl at heart. I somehow doubt that Shou and this other person she mentioned would react so unsupportively. Still, if Kyouko is hesitant about asking a fellow peer in training, perhaps somebody she is more willing to reach out to is in order. “Have you thought about telling someone else? Say, Miss Hijiri for instance?”
“…I had pondered telling her, but as I’ve said she’s already managing so many other obligations I wouldn’t want to be a hindrance. It’d be best if she didn’t have one more thing to fret about.” She says it in such a slow, resigned way; she doesn’t seem to put any self-worth into the possibilities of her own future. It’s like she believes there’s no real chance she could ever go on an exploring assignment, or just kick back for a small dose of childhood whimsy. The poor girl, even in her chance at freedom she feels locked up and sealed to a fate of extreme faith, conforming to a single ideal that must never waver in the search of spiritual oneness with the cosmos. That, and her continued use of words she really has no reason to be saying, for it comes across as trying too hard to be accepted.
Even though that’s exactly what she wants, isn’t it? The acceptance of those close to her, and the acceptance by that family to let her wander and learn and still be young and enjoy the time while it lasts before inevitability in reality takes over and gives her the role she’ll assume for the remainder of her days…
Ugh, I’m getting too philosophical again. I can feel something in my gut tossing about, demanding I don’t just stand here but actually do something to comfort her, to help her out. I totally intend to do so, but I wish it wouldn’t nag me endlessly like this.
Leaning down to be eye level with her, I place my hand reassuringly on Kyouko’s shoulder. She doesn’t react in any way, just staring at me halfheartedly while I make my case heard, “You know, you don’t have to tell them the whole story. If you just briefly mentioned something was bothering you, and that somebody outside the temple could help you best, I’m sure that would be enough to explain your situation without expressing too much concern.”
“Do you really think that would work?” she quietly asks, though I can see the light in her eyes gradually brighten once more.
“Absolutely,” I beam softly. I have to relight the confidence I saw earlier, as much for her well-being as for my sense of closure. “So how about this for a plan; when you head back to the temple after you’re done distributing and do your usual daily routine, talk to Hijiri before bedtime and say you want to explore something tomorrow at lunch with someone you know. If she asks about me just say Shou knows me, and everything should be okay. Then you can explain everything to me more clearly, and we’ll have more time to look into this mystery.” I finish by squeezing on her shoulder supportively and posing a final interrogative remark. “Does that sound good?”
My plan appears to ignite a small flicker of hope from within Kyouko. She still has a faraway gaze in her eyes, but at least it’s joined by a minuscule smile—thin, but visible on close inspection. Her cheeks have heated up as well. In a far-off drone she replies, “Yeah, that could work…”
Before she gets any further, the world detonates behind me.
Or rather, it sounds that way, as the sharpest cracking noise imaginable between an iron window frame and the outside walls of the building echoes throughout the alleyway. Loud as it is, that’s not enough to startle me. To be more precise, it’s the booming, authoritative voice that accompanies it almost instantaneously.
“Boy![i]” I trip over myself with a yelp as the deepest, most oni-like instrument of sound a human could ever possess directs itself at me. For a moment, my breath is caught in my throat, shaking with horror. [i]No, this can’t be happening. I tried to time it perfectly. This can’t be happening!
And yet, it is. As I straighten up to face the inescapable scolding forthcoming, I look at Kyouko in front of me. Even though that brief assault wasn’t aimed at her, she clearly came away with splash damage. Her expression of shock is paired with some brewing tears in her eyes. I give her a brief exchange in my face, one I hope says something like, ‘Don’t be afraid. This has nothing to do with you.’ She seems to comprehend, and stiffens her lips close with a look of determination. Yeah, there’s a brave little solider.
Happy to know that my companion is standing firm, I turn around and do the same. From this point on, only my good fortune can guide me as I establish attention to the man glaring at me from the open window. The man whose job it is to make me into something important, and the most well-known and respected bladesmith in the human village.
My mentor and boss, Touma Osamu.
“You’re a full two minutes late,” he notes darkly, in a measured tone of voice. “Normally you return well before your lunch break is over, so I find this sudden deviance from the regular schedule to be…odd.” His nose scrunches up, the spectacles resting upon them shifting in a manner that makes his stare even more foreboding. “Care to explain why it’s so?”
I do my best to steel myself for a brief response. In trouble though I may be, it isn’t all that bad. If you can believe it, this is only his disappointed mood. I can still reason with them. “My deepest apologizes, Mr. Touma,” I state while bowing low, “I was on my way back from lunch but ran into a mutual acquaintance. We’ve been chatting while I prepared to return to work, and the talk ran longer than my walk back.” I straighten up and continue, looking at him dead on, “The two of us were just about to finish, sir. If you would permit me but a few more minutes, I’ll be back inside the shop making up lost time.”
The older man doesn’t budge. He simply continues to bore his eyes into my own, his crossed arms bulging like massive chains, for what feels like forever. After a few moments, his stare adjusts to the small girl behind me, remaining hard as ever. Though I dare not turn away to look—removing my attention from Mr. Touma would only result in further discipline—I can feel Kyouko’s nervous trembling right behind me. Understandable, of course; his ability to intimidate people who’ve erred or deliberately caused damage is legendary within the human settlement, and as far as I know he’s just as ordinary a mortal as I am.
“I take it you’re the ‘mutual acquaintance.’”
A shaky voice responds, “Y-yes, I would b-be.”
Following another pause, he says, “I’ve seen you walk around town, occasionally. You’re from that youkai integration cult, correct?”
“Um, w-well y-yes, although we n-normally t-think ourselves a Buddhist monastery.”
Further on with the staring, before he finally grunts out a simple, “Right,” and focuses back on me. “Keiichi, boy, I don’t think I need to remind you of the dangers of associating with strange youkai, especially radicals like that one.”
I swallow in my throat. I can already tell this is going to be a hard one. “With all due respect, sir, we weren’t discussing anything outside normal conversation. And I hardly believe someone as young as she is would have the knowledge or reason to attempt a hostile revolution. She doesn’t have a bad bone in her body.”
Mr. Touma’s eyes narrow at my assertion, and he counters, “None that it’s willing to show you, anyways. Listen, I’m not going to get into a debate on the trustability of one youkai species versus the next, as it’s neither the place nor time. Let me just say that it isn’t wise to go along with every single virtue a youkai leader preaches simply because they sent out a little dog girl to entice the more gullible among us.”
“A-actually,” Kyouko interjects feebly, “I’m not a dog species, sir. T-that’s a common misconception I get—”
She cuts herself off when the pair of piercing eyes returns to scrutinizing her. “Ah, my mistake then,” he muses momentarily, before slightly amending his previous statement, “Just because they send a goat girl to recruit the uneducated, or the occasional outsider.” I can’t see it, but I hear Kyouko audibly huff at the passive-aggressive slur.
“I understand what you mean, sir, but that isn’t—”
“Then if you understand the issue, there’s no reason to continue,” he interrupts, turning his full attention back to me. “Now then, back to the original point: your break is over. It’s time to resume work.” While he can certainly be vocal at times, Mr. Touma tends to keep to the main aspect of his lectures. He appears to have gone back to that mode.
“I will head inside, sir, when my previous conversation is finished. We honestly were almost done talking, and it won’t take much longer.” I mean, it would leave an extremely sour taste in my mouth if I were to just up and walk away from helping out a friend with a relatively serious problem…
“You will do as you are told boy, as long as you serve as my apprentice. Otherwise, I might just have to find someone who can listen properly.” …but I also realize how important it is for my future to keep at my task of sword manufacturing; if I managed to lose my coveted position, who knows if I could find another opportunity as good as this one.
Somewhere beyond me, I can almost feel panic start to set in.
 Listen to your boss, go back to work.
 Bargain with him; surely he’ll listen to reason.
Right then, so there was a bit of a setback, but I still managed to put something out this month. Got to be proud of that, I reckon. There was going to be another "behind the scenes" author's rant at the end of this post, but I feel too exhausted to write anymore tonight. It took all my will to simply get this section complete, and it still isn't everything I was initially going to type.
For now, I'll simply say you have a week to vote, and leave it at that. More substantial news shall follow in the next few days.