“Most people live out their days on an isle of vapid ignorance, shying away from the dark and hungry waters that surround it,” said the goddess. “But not you, child. You crave for more. I see it plain in your eyes.”
The child looked behind, where the lights of her hometown glowed dimly in the dark, just far enough for her to walk back. Back where her parents slept soundly at home, still unaware of her elopement. Back where an easy, uneventful life of prosaic toiling awaited her; where she saw herself laboring the fields from sun to sun, getting married off to some man from the neighboring village, siring children and working the kitchen until her skin withered and her bones were ground to dust. Mundanity was not the life for her. The child felt, no, knew, she was destined for something greater.
“I will bond you as my apprentice and my follower,” the goddess declared. “I will teach you everything I know. I will teach you every spell I have. You will become more powerful than any other person in the world, in history.”
The child’s dusty face lit up, greedy and covetous.
“But power and knowledge demand sacrifice, child. To seek magic is to brave the tides, but one who does should not expect to see those shores again,” continued the goddess, gravely. “Cast aside your old life, your old acquaintances, your old name. Only then I shall accept your plea.”
The child took one deep breath, then another. She did not need to ponder for long. That decision had already been made the moment she sneaked out of her room in the midst of dark.
“Very well,” the goddess smiled, brighter than the moon and stars above. “Eternity lies ahead, and behind. Will you drink your fill?”
It was a fine morning at Higan, the kind to make a woman happy to be alive. And probably the woman would have been happier to be alive. She was, in fact, dead. It would have been hard to be deader without the use of dark arts. The woman knew that better than anyone. Some number of fringe fields of thaumaturgy, like the ones she professed in life, studied the matters of death, and how to reverse it. The woman didn’t practice them any more, partly because she had got so good at it. Once she had learned enough to turn death into a temporary setback, the woman moved on from such nefarious domains and continued in her never-ending quest for knowledge.
It was unfortunate that the world was not as willing to let bygones be bygones. Humanity held life to be sacred, but they also accepted that life merely consisted of waiting until their flesh vessels perished so that their souls would transcend. Why then couldn’t she expedite the whole process? Are souls so fragile that daring to tamper with them is sufficient grounds for eternal damnation? Does the sacred brook no improvement? Sadly, the Yama would not hear any of it, and promptly shoved her straight into the deepest pit of Hell they could find, left to rot for eternity with no company but that of demons and their dreadful instruments of torture.
It was, in the woman’s opinion, a tad too excessive for a punishment. The first decades or so had been somewhat productive for her research of demonology, the woman had to admit, but it didn’t take long for her to conclude it was all, on the whole, a colossal waste of her time. The fact was that, as she had found out very quickly, there was a limit to what you could do to a soul with, for example, red-hot tweezers. Even fairly evil and corrupt souls were bright enough to realize that since they didn't have the concomitant body and nerve endings attached to them there was no real reason, other than force of habit, why they should suffer excruciating agony. So they didn't. Demons went on doing it anyway, because numb and mindless stupidity is part of what being a demon is all about, but since no one was suffering they didn't enjoy it much either and the whole thing was pointless. Centuries and centuries of pointlessness.
The woman eventually decided that enough was enough. Hell held no more mysteries for her, and she hated nothing more than having her time wasted in such unproductive ways. So she was leaving. Needless to say, the demons of Hell didn’t take kindly to a soul abandoning Hell before their allotted time. In response, the woman had had to stop and demonstrate to them that eternity in the company of Beelzebub and his hellish instruments of death were a picnic compared to five minutes with her and her athamé. And demons, not being the brightest learners around, had to be shown time and time again, and again and again. It was all starting to get on the woman’s nerves. The metaphorical ones.
Thankfully, the imps stopped bothering her once she had reached the field of spider lilies. In fact, the whole place was refreshingly deserted. Only an endless meadow of red, extending as far as the eye could see, and a gentle, warm breeze (so she figured, anyway) accompanied her in the last stretch of her getaway. The woman welcomed the solitude and silence, and took the chance to gather her thoughts. If memory served well, the river of the dead should be nearby. According to legend, only a shinigami could cross its waters on their boats; anything or anyone else attempting to wade through would inevitably sink into its bottomless depths. Yet in the woman’s experience, every impassable barrier had a backdoor for exclusive use of the local ruler – in this case, a Yama.
The woman took one deep breath, then another. She no longer had lungs to fill, but she found the act comforting nonetheless. Freedom was near, she could almost smell it. It was just a matter of finding it.
Waiting for a shinigami to show up and “borrow” their boat was the soundest course of action. She set off to find a Yama and “convince” them to let her past the river. Perhaps there was another unheard-of way to cross the river? Maybe she would stumble upon it.
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“All things are defined by names. Change the name, and you change the thing,” explained the goddess. She let the weight of her lesson fall on her new pupil’s shoulders, before waving her hand and adding: “There is a lot more to it than that, of course, but paracosmically that is what it boils down to. All truth is in naming, and all lies as well, for nothing distorts as a false name can, a false name that changes both the appearance and the reality.”
The child nodded, listening attentively, taking in every word the goddess spoke to her, like a thirsty man drinking from an oasis.
“Your name defines you in more ways that your mind can fathom,” the goddess went on. “It changes not only how others perceive you, but also how you perceive yourself.
“You have cast your old name out, and with it your old self. The new name you give yourself will shape who you will be. Choose carefully…”
[x] Perhaps there was another unheard-of way to cross the river? Maybe she would stumble upon it.
The woman set off, floating leisurely along the river’s endless shore. She prided herself in never taking things for granted; when she was presented with a crossroads, she always picked her own way and blazed through, conventions be damned. Hints and warnings were to the woman what a mosquito bite was to the average rhino because she knew that if you ignore the rules with enough audacity people will, half the time, quietly rewrite them so that they don't apply to you.
As pretty as it was to look at, Higan was a drearily uneventful place to visit. In its capacity as Pure Land, it had no cycle of day and night, seasons or weather – an ever unchanging last stop before afterlife. Recently departed souls had nothing to do there except contemplate their death, until they were picked by one of the Yama’s workers and brought before them.
It was one such worker who the woman eventually found after powers-only-know how long (time had very little meaning for a dead soul). She had been very hard to miss in the field of endless red, on account of her extremely bright wings and bushy tail poking out of her brown dress. The bird-like girl stood before an unending line of featureless spirits, with one foot raised and one arm stretched in a pose that reminded the woman of a picture of a divine statue she once saw in some book. On the other hand she held a thick ledger, which the bird-girl absentmindedly gave occasional ganders with her big, red eyes.
She was in fact so unfocused, she did not notice the woman floating near to her until a loud, shrill peep coming from atop her blonde hair snapped her out of her reverie. The rooster girl jumped in her spot, and put on the sudden bright smile of a very busy person at the end of a crowded day who's suddenly found in his schedule a reminder saying ‘7:00-7:05, Be Cheerful and Relaxed and a People Person.’
“Welcome to Higan, please wait warmly until the Yama is ready to pass judgement,” she recited mechanically. “Would you please be so kind as to give me your name if you still remember it? It’s fine if you don’t, but it would help us immensely with the paperwork, I’m sure you understand.”
The woman blinked, and looked back at the long row of floating ethereal blobs behind her. They didn’t seem to mind she had just cut them off. She heard the rooster girl tapping the ledger with her fingers in a barely hidden show of impatience. It seemed as if she wouldn’t listen to her until she acquiesced with her query.
 She gave her the name she was born with, the one she abandoned so long ago.  She gave her the name she gave herself that fateful night, the one she always used.  She gave her a name she came up on the spot, as she was wont to do in life. [Write-in]  She gave her no name. She had no patience to play charades.
“My name?” The goddess repeated. “I have many names, almost as many names as I have years... You’ve only had one name so far. In time you may get another – or even several. Some people collect multiple names as they go along through their lives. Why, you aren’t thinking of borrowing one from me, are you?”
The child shook her head emphatically. Her willow eyes opened in shock, like the very idea had never dared to cross her mind until then. The goddess laughed, and ruffled her pupil’s scraggly hair affectionately.
“Well, since you asked politely…” The deity breathed, and to the child it looked as if all the light around them was swallowed as she spoke. “I have been called Trimorphe, the Gatekeeper, Light-bringer, the Holder of Keys, Lady of the Below, Nurse of Children and She Who Turns Away, among many other epithets. But you, my pupil, may call me Hecate.”
The child tilted her head and blinked as she struggled to commit all of those monikers to memory.
“That… is an awful lot of titles,” she said after a long moment.
Hecate let out a wry chuckle. “The longer you live, the more you get. Mortals are incredibly fond of naming things.”
The child stood silent, ruminating on the long list and probing each item in her mind, looking for the metaphorical crumble of disgusting broccoli hidden in the word salad. Eventually, she found the offending tidbit, and stated it thus:
“You said you ‘have been called’ all those names,” she quoted the goddess. “Meaning you didn’t choose any of them?”
“Very perceptive of you, child,” Hecate nodded. “For all of our power, we gods cannot choose our own names. They are given to us by our believers, and thus we are shaped by them. In other words, we are who our followers believe us to be.”
The goddess let out a sigh, her sapphire eyes wandering beyond the horizon. The child almost didn’t catch her next words, a barely audible whisper that she figured wasn’t meant for her to hear:
“Mortals are truly enviable sometimes…”
[x] She gave her the name she gave herself that fateful night, the one she always used.
“My name?” The woman repeated. She gave the rooster-woman an innocent smile that promised nothing but cheekiness. “Oh dear, I’ve collected so many, I wouldn’t know which one I should give you! Names tend to wear out just like clothes, you see?”
In response, the chick-girl gave her only a flat look. “The one you were using when you died is fine, thank you.” “I've had so many names over the years, and likely will have many more in time, but…” The spirit woman scratched her chin pensively. “Why don't we go with Mima, hmm? That's a name to fit any age, and should do splendidly, don't you think?”
It was a curious feeling, going back to the name she first picked so long ago, the woman pondered. Like putting on that old, comfortable dress that you left to collect dust in your closet yet it miraculously still fits. The chicken-girl didn’t seem to pay any mind to her wistful moment, instead focused on flipping pages on her ledger.
“Um, it appears that name doesn’t appear on the list…” She muttered. “I’m sorry, but could you please wait at the shore while we sort this out with the Yama? It won’t take long.”
Mima let out a blithe laugh. “Oh no, no, no, it seems there has been a misunderstanding, Miss…”
“Niwatarijin,” the chicken-girl (no, the chicken-god, Mima corrected herself) finished the sentence, not without a small hint of pride. “Kutaka Niwatari, Gatekeeper of Hell.”
“Alright, Miss Kutaka–can I call you Kutaka?–the matter is that I am not supposed to be on that ledger in the first place. In fact, I’m not supposed to be here at all.”
The goddess of chicken squinted, finally paying the interloper spirit her full, undivided attention.
“I’m sorry, but that boat ride was a one-way trip. No spirit is allowed to go back to the world of the living before they’ve had an audience with the Yama,” she explained with the patience of a tourist guide explaining to the third senile old person in a row that there were no lifts to the shrine. “If you have any complaints about the unfairness and/or inconvenience of your passing, please refer them to the Yama once your judgment is being passed.”
“Already tried that. They were promptly ignored,” said Mima, waving her hand nonchalantly.
Kutaka reeled back in surprise, words stumbling among themselves to pour out of her mouth and getting stuck in her throat.
“H-hold up,” the chicken-god finally trilled. “You’ve… already met the Yama? What are you doing still in Higan, then?”
“Well, I figured since my complaints weren’t heard, and Hell’s customer service was a bit… lacking, all in all, that I would take my business elsewhere. So, I’m getting out of here.” Mima’s smile grew wider, no innocence left in it. “I was hoping you could help me with that, Kutaka.”
The ledger dropped from Niwatarijin’s trembling hands as the chicken god took a couple of fearful steps away from the evil spirit. Her feet tiptoed tautly, though whether for fight or flight, Mima couldn’t tell. Either way, she had to act fast before her chance slipped away.
 Shoot, and she won’t move. In a flash.  She was too tense for suggestions. She needed to be calmed down.
The village bustled with activity, townsfolk pacing to-and-fro over the main street, exchanging morning pleasantries, pulling their carts full of the day’s produce and putting up their stands to sell it. Nobody paid attention to the unassuming girl hungrily eyeing a pile of apples greener and shinier than her own hair, nor to the goddess who floated leisurely at her side, amused.
“Listen well, child. This will be your first lesson,” said Hecate. “In order to become a witch and harness what you call ‘magic’, you must learn to exact your will upon the world. You want to eat that apple? Then you’ll have to take it, if you can.”
Mima (the name still sounded alien to her) looked back at the azure goddess, who only raised a curious eyebrow, and then back at her target. She went through a number of scenarios in her head about how the goddess expected her to go about acquiring that tasty apple. Did she imply she could make it levitate and float to her? It couldn’t be; she had stared at it for long enough to know that wasn’t going to happen. Maybe she meant she could make another apple pop up right in her hand? Perhaps. But even Mima knew spontaneous creation was beyond the power of a simple human like her, will or no. No, her only feasible options were to either quickly snatch one of those apples and hope nobody saw her stealing (fat chance), or somehow make the stand owner give it to her for free.
The neophyte witch squared her shoulders and strode to the stand with all the reassurance her disheveled, slender build could muster. Whatever effect that could have had on the man was attenuated when Mima had to tiptoe to make herself seen behind the stand, but she didn’t let that deter her.
“Give me an apple, mister,” she said, her shrill voice barely a whisper.
The store owner gave the scraggly child a long look, and sniffed. “That’ll be a copper, missy.”
“I don’t have money.”
“Then scram,” he shooed her away with a greasy hand. “I don’t have time for the likes of you.”
Undeterred, Mima stood her ground. She took a deep breath, and projected all the self-confidence she didn’t really have. “I said, you will give me that apple. Now.”
The man blinked, confounded by the sight of a homeless, dirt-poor kid daring to order him around like she owned him. For a second, Mima harbored hopes that somehow she had done it, but they were quickly sunk when she saw his hairy eyebrows taking on a fearsome scowl.
“Who d’you think you are, the Duchess of Venice!?” He shouted. “Get lost afore I call the watch on you!”
Mima recoiled in fear, instinctively scooting away from the screaming man until her back bumped against someone behind her. She turned around to see Hecate grabbing her by the shoulders, holding her close to shield her against the rage of the offended clerk – or, another part of her figured, to prevent her from running.
“Now now, that is enough,” the goddess, all smiles, raised a pale, slender hand in placation. “There’s no need to get the watch involved in this little quarrel, is there?”
The owner, who likely had a long string of expletives ready at the tip of his tongue, found himself disarmed at the azure woman’s overwhelming presence. He swallowed his words audibly, and somehow managed to croak a response.
“Is-is that your kid, then?” He stammered, unable to look away from her. “You ought to be more careful with her. Ma’am.”
“Oh, I’m well aware how much of a troublemaker my protégé is,” Hecate laughed. “But really, how could she not crave these luscious apples you’ve got here?”
“T-thank you, ma’am. I grew them myself, y’see.”
“They look so appetizing, even I want to take a bite out of one…”
The goddess reached for the topmost apple and did just that, all while looking straight at him. He found himself unable to pry his eyes away from the sight of the fruit’s juice trickling down her chin.
“Hmhm, as tasty as it looks,” said the goddess, wiping her lips with a finger. “You should be proud of your harvest, mister. I am certain you will earn a good profit today.”
With that, Hecate turned around and took her leave with Mima in tow, all while the clerk broke down in lavish bows and thanks. It wasn’t until they had walked around the corner they had been standing at before that the novice witch noticed the bitten apple was still in the goddess’ hand.
“So, what have you learned, child?” Hecate asked her pupil.
“I expected something… flashier. Unpronounceable words. A flicker of light. Something magical,” Mima admitted. “Instead you only charmed him until he almost drooled all over you and took the apple from him before he realized. You acted like a common swindler. What you’ve done isn’t magic.”
“Ah, but does it stop being magic if you know how it works?” The goddess wagged her finger. “Conning and magic function on similar principles, after all – they both rely on convincing your mark to believe what you want. Be it a clueless farmer, a demonic entity, or even the forces of nature, it’s all a matter of asserting your will over theirs.”
Mima was sure it wasn’t as simple as that. Hadn’t she tried to do exactly that to that man? And yet she failed miserably. Was her will lacking? Or was there something else the goddess wasn’t telling her?
“The power of the will is something that most people do not understand, attributing to it mysterious qualities that it does not possess,” Hecate continued her lesson. “It being simply the power of ‘mind over matter’. Or, in the greater number of cases, the power of mind over mind. As that man’s mind succumbed to mine,” the goddess punctuated her verdict with another bite to the apple. She took a moment to savor it, before swallowing and adding: “Of course, there are many tricks you can learn to make it easier. Appearances matter, for starters. A man is much more likely to pay attention to a beautiful woman dressed in silk than a dirty kid in rags.”
Mima scoffed and crossed her arms, peeved. Hecate had sent her to commit an act of extreme senselessness and she knew it would definitely go wrong. That was shameful, but also... annoying. That was it – annoying.
“Oh, come on, don’t give me that pout,” Hecate chuckled. “This was a lesson you needed to learn as soon as possible, before all the others. As long as you keep your wits about, you will pick up on all the little tricks.”
The goddess tossed the half-eaten apple at Mima, who barely caught it in the air before it fell to the dirt.
“Now then, shall we go?” Her smile, bright as the moon, promised plenty of interesting times to be had. “The road ahead is long and full of mysteries, and you still have much to learn, my pupil.”
Part one of two of a fairly lengthy update. Choices will come up in the second half.
Also I am well aware I've missed two days of update. I will try to make up for those with double updates on a weekend, if not this one, then the next. Apologies.