A clunky old shrine was placed right on top of the hill right next to the human village. Its musty exterior and general inaccessibility made both travelers and compatriots of the shrine alike shy away from visiting it regularly, not to mention its close proximity to the Hakurei shrine draws hesitant visitors in the general vicinity. Rano, a lone man twenty years of age takes care of the shrine, as he is its only priest. Different from most priests, he wears civilian attire and talks to people in such a carefree way that they feel comfortable talking to him about anything. Neither youkai nor humans are considered beneath him.
Despite this, the priest displays surprise when the children of the human village now scurry to his ancient shrine to come over and play.
“Come on, Mister Miko, play tag with us!” A small child with tiny blond curls that dangle down to her shoulders. Her black dress with white frills at the end flourishes as she bounces up and down excitedly.
“My bones are too old to play tag.” He groans in mock pain, although he's just too lazy to get up and run. “And if you call me a 'miko' again, I will eat all of you like a youkai! I am not a shrine maiden!”
The children scream and flee, giggling all the while. The young priest chuckles to himself, as they run around the shrine, chasing each other with a youthful innocence that the priest envies lightheartedly. His daily worries seem to melt around him as he watches the children frolic through the old shrine's interior, exploring the place with a certain awe. From the corner of the priest's eye, he sees the jovial eyes of the children, all out on their own little adventure throughout the shrine. He sighs with inner contentment, watching them with restrained glee.
But when the sun comes down, all the little ones are exhausted from their “journey” so he escorts them back to the village. As the priest waves goodbye to all the grateful youths, he discovered that the way back was the hardest for him. It wasn't because of the steep cliff he had to climb, but it was the fact that he had to do it by himself. He shakes off his bitterness. It wasn't fitting for a priest. Still, he can't help but feel a tiny bit lonely on the tall hill he lived on.
However, it doesn't last long as he prepares for his usual routine of cleaning up the shrine and praying to the gods. By morning of tomorrow, the feeling dissipates, the priest having already forgotten it already. Again in the afternoon come the children, eager for another day of loitering around the shrine. They seemed to have already established it as their headquarters. He doesn't mind, allowing them to participate in their antics.
The priest lounges around, idly watches the blond girl with the black dress. The fringes of her flowing hair are well-kept, with a tiny hair clip keeping her front bangs in place. She points over the shrine and mentions something about a box. Suddenly, she dashes to the donation box, opens the cover, and jumps inside.
“Don't fool around with that, you might get hurt!” He hollers over to the girl. She peeks out from the box, allowing only a sliver of the cover to open up. The rest of her friends soon follow, everybody stuffing themselves inside. The priest wondered what would've happened if there were money filling the contents of the box instead. That was never the case, but he could always imagine.
Whisperings were heard inside the box, so the priest moves in closer to examine the youths. Just as he was about to open it, they spring out making faces imitating a ghost, or some sort of youkai.
“Mister! ...Mister? err, Mister...?” The blond girls says uncertainly.
“You can just call me Rano.” The priest says his name out of courtesy.
“Okay, Mister Rano!” She smiles, doing a small twirl. “I'm Rumia! Would you like to play hide and go seek with us?”
“I'll pass.” He bluntly remarks.
“Okay then~” She says with a lilt in her voice. A few head out to the thick forest aimlessly.
“Ah, wait!” All the children stop, glancing at the priest. “On second thought, I'll play too...” Although the forest has been peaceful for quite a while,he would rather not take chances if a stray youkai is loose. Discreetly packing a few seals and charms, he set out along with the rest of the kids. Rano makes sure to pick a place near the trees, where he can spot all of the others hiding in the vicinity.
“Ready or not, here I come!” Rumia cheers. “Oh? Found you!” She exclaims having found her first victim. When Rumia comes close to the priest's hiding spot, he makes a show of sneezing right when she was about to leave. “Hoh, you were there the whole time? I didn't notice you.”
“I have the worst luck sometimes.” He sighs, telling a half-truth. The priest makes quick work out of finding the other kids, shooing them all back to the shrine. “That was fun, but next time I think we should stay away from the forest. Sometimes, there's a lot of bad youkai wandering around, waiting for kids just like you guys to eat.” Although that wasn't fully true, the priest didn't want to tell them that the youkai nowadays just maim and kill humans for fun. It was similar to telling them a parental myth.
It seemed to get the job done, seeing as all the children nodded quickly and vowed not to go back to the forest again. Around halfway back to the shrine, the blond girl stumbles. “Eep!” Rumia yelps. Her foot trips on a lone root, causing her to trip. She manages to catch herself with her hands, but twists her ankle in the process. Lying on the ground, she does her best to hold in her tears. She sniffles for a bit before trying to hold herself up. It's obvious she can't, so Rano gently holds her up. He hoists her legs around his left arm, and supports her weight with the other one.
“Let's get you back to the village right away then.” He says seriously. It's best to get her back to her parents.
“O-Okay.” Rumia mumbles, biting her lip. Some tears escape from her eyes. Cradling her gently, Rano hurries over down to the village with the children following him like ducks.
He has difficulty locating her parents, but it took no less than fifteen minutes to figure out the right house. The children then rush out of the home. They must have an instinct to run when a parental yelling is about to occur. It turns out that her parents do not mince words. First, they go over to the priest and point out every instance where it was his fault. During this time, Rano questions why he became a priest.
Then, they turned their focus to Rumia. She quivered, tightening her grasp on the priest while her mother and father took turns yelling. But in the end, their anger deteriorated, and they wearily thanked Rano for bringing their daughter back. The father pats Rumia's head, giving her a tired grin.
Rano couldn't help but smile cheekily the whole time as he walked back to his shrine.
His giddiness soon disappears as the lively youths have not shown up for three days. He had spent the whole day meditating, secretly wishing they would visit soon. Rano can't say he isn't happy, but there was a different kind of joy that springs up, very much akin to a child's innocence.
On the fourth day, not even the occasional traveler would bat an eye at the shrine. He remains patient however, staying true to his duties as a priest. And eventually, his patience is rewarded.
“Mister Rano!” A lone voice calls out. Running up the stairs is Rumia, panting from the physical exertion. “Heeeey!”
The priest opens his eyes and crosses his legs on the altar. “Yes, what is it? Should you even be running on that leg?”
“It's fine now!” She replies, stretching out her leg for show. “But anyway, I wanted to come and say hello for everyone!” Rumia sits down next to Rano on the altar.
“Hmm? For what?”
“Because we couldn't come over and play for a while.” She puts her hands on her lap, pouting. “Our parents said not to hang around the shrine any more. They said you're mean, but I don't believe them. You're nice, aren't you?” Rumia smiles graciously. “So that's why I'll keep visiting.”
“You shouldn't really disobey your parents...” He announces, exasperated. Rano decides to leave out the part with conflicting ideologies in the human village. Coexistence has never been popular in both youkai and human terms.
Rumia, ignoring your statement, clasps her hands and tucks in her feet under her. She bows her head, seemingly deep in thought.
“What are you doing, Rumia?” The priest curiously asks.
She tilts her head. “I'm praying to the god of this altar, of course!” Rumia says this as if it was obvious to what she was doing.
“Do you even know the name of the god here?”
“Not a clue!”
“I'm not sure that's how praying works...” He chuckles.
Rumia looks at Rano with her bright amber eyes. “I pray for everybody to be able to play here equally. If I believe hard enough, the gods will surely grant my wish!” Then, she says with determination, “I'll visit this shrine every day until my prayer comes true!” She scoots closer to the priest, fiddling with her fingers. “What do you wish for, Mr. Rano?”
“I long for a shrine where everyone can visit without prejudice.” He closes his eyes. “Heh, In a way, you're right. If we believe, it will happen. We just need some faith for our gods, don't we?”
“Yeah!” She exclaims, throwing her arms up in the air. Standing up with her arms flaunting out, Rumia takes out a single coin and drops it into the donation box. It resounds with a plink as the metallic surface of the coin collides with the box's interior. She makes an effort to try to say something, but it only comes out as a mumble.
“Hm?” He tries to get her to enunciate better. “Could you repeat that?”
“No~” She replies with a lyrical voice, beaming serenely. Walking down the stairs, she disappears from view under the hill. Then, pops back up again for a moment. “I'll see you tomorrow Mr. Rano!”
And true to her word, she returned tomorrow. And the day after that. And so she continues visiting. In the ill-placed shrine, it seemed to Rano that he found his one and only regular follower.
“Mr. Rano.” Rumia declares one day, swinging her feet lazily on the steps of the shrine. “Aren't you lonely in this shrine?”
Having been asked this many times, the priest carefully recites his rehearsed lines. “No, not really. I have my duties to attend to. And besides... I've my followers.”
“Hmm, really?” She places her hand defiantly on her chin, smirking all the while. “Aren't I your only visitor?”
“I suppose so.” The priest sighs. “I'd rather not get reminded about just how many people actually visit this shrine.”
“That so?” Rumia leans back on Rano's shoulder, musing. “Well, I'm happy when I'm here with Mr. Rano!”
“I'm happy when you're here too.” He ruffles her blond hair affectionately.
“Mr. Rano?” She stands up, calling out to him. She twirls around, swaying her light curls.
“C'mere!” Rumia beckons, pulling on his hand. Rano complies, sitting down where she placed him. He is right on top of the shrine. “Now, close your eyes like you are praying!” She sounds impatient, so he does so immediately.
Rumia presses her light lips onto Rano's cheek. “I like you~” She giggles, her face glowing with glee and embarrassment. Still flitting about, she moves somewhere else. “Okay, you can open your eyes now!” She shouts from the distance.
When Rano opens his eyes, all he sees is the figure of Rumia speeding down the stairs of the shrine. He can only shake his head, chuckling in a low voice.
On the night before the new moon, the priest sits idly on his altar. He awaits his usual guest, but hasn't seen her all of the morning and afternoon. The shrine is oddly silent, the usual trills of the birds nearby had all but disappeared. Thinking it strange, Rano observes his surroundings. Though nothing of notice comes to his attention, he decides to go check out the nearby forest anyway.
It isn't until a chilling scream that Rano begins to sprint. Reaching inside his inner pocket, he brandishes some charms within his robe. A dark aura of energy encompasses the general area, blinding human sight. He does not falter however, and rushes quickly through the haze. Seeing an orb of darkness, Rano slams the charms down on its back. It howls a pained moan before fading out of view. In its place takes Rumia's figure, battered and bruised.
“Rumia! Are you alright?” Rano shouts to her, anxious.
“Tch, I'm fine!” She doesn't seem convincing with the cuts on her cheek protruding out. She smiles crookedly, but rubs her cheeks with tears in her eyes.
“Obviously you're not.” He chides, picking her up from the ground. The priest easily cradles Rumia's light body, holding her up with no trouble. “Why were you out here anyway?”
“Ehehe, I got sidetracked.” She grins, sticking her tongue out playfully. Her face is smudged with some dirt on her cheek. Licking your thumb, you wipe off some of the smears on her face. “I'm glad you came though, Mr. Rano!”
“It's my job to protect the weak.” He laments with an exhale.
“Protect me too then!” She remarks without missing a beat. Stopping in his tracks, Rano pauses to wheeze out a guffaw at her. Rumia frowns. “...What?”
“It's nothing.” He says in a light tone. She continues puffing her cheeks out at the priest while he resumes walking.
Once at the shrine, Rano rubs some cleaning alcohol on Rumia's wounds, much to her displeasure. She winces the whole time, attempting to wriggle out of his grasp. It is futile as he firmly holds her in place while treating her cuts and scratches. It isn't until after he is done treating her that she thanks him, albeit disgruntled. Her dress and vest is all wrinkled up due to the attack, but there wasn't anything Rano could do about that.
“That should help a bit.” He nods, patting Rumia's head. A familiar, damp sensation tingles through his fingers, alerting him. The side of his index finger was dabbed in blood. It wasn't severe of a laceration, but it worried Rano anyway. But other than cleaning the cut with his handkerchief, he couldn't really help fix the wound. The side of her head is cut up, but it is barely noticeable from a cursory glance. “Rumia...you're a strong girl. I'm sorry I couldn't help you earlier.”
She tilts her head and smiles warmly, standing on her tiptoes to hug Rano. “But you came for me~” She clasps her hands in giddiness. “That's the only thing that matters!” Rumia inches closer to the him ever so slowly. “Why do monsters-”
“Youkai.” The priest corrects the blond.
“-youkai attack humans?”
“Hmm...” He pauses to think for a second. To put it simply, he simply responds with, “Because attacking humans is a youkai's job. Sometimes the attacks bear malice, and sometimes it's just a way of life.” Personally, Rano held no contempt or spite over youkai.
“I see...” She nods sagely, pretending to understand. The puzzled look on her face betrays the fact that she has no clue what he was talking about.
The sun begins to drop closer to the horizon, making the sky a creamy orange hue blended in with red. “It's getting pretty late now. It'd be best to go soon before your parents scold you some more.”
Rumia however, refuses to budge. She looks up to Rano with a pleading gaze. “Can I stay a little longer? Please?” Her luminescent amber eyes sway him enough to allow her some more time.
“Just this once, okay? I want you at the village before sundown. No exceptions.”
“Yaay!” She giggles, scooting closer to the priest. She leans comfortably on his shoulder, watching the sun turn into a fiery red before it seemingly touches the tip of the horizon. Rano keeps his eyes on the dimming sun the whole time until it lies lazily halfway through the landscape.
“Rumia...” He gently nudges her to see if she fell asleep.
“Nnnn....yes, Mr. Rano..?” she replies, her eyes still closed. He shakes her lightly to see if she is really awake. Rumia is completely unresponsive, so he picks her up carefully so as not to wake her. With the young girl clutching Rano's back, he sets off in a stealthy fashion. The initial steps down the shrine were a pain. With every step, the priest had to check up to see if Rumia woke up. Only at the end of the stairs did she stir. “Mr. Rano...where are we going?”
“Back to the village, Rumia. We're almost there to your home.”
“Will you still be there at the shrine tomorrow?” She asks, sounding uncertain and frightened.
“Of course.” Rano reassures her. “It's not like I can leave the shrine for good. I'd say it's a part of me.”
The entrance to the village is his last stop. Before leaving, Rano sees her off with a wave. “Night Rumia.”
She stops to bow daintily, enthusiastically beaming. “Night, Mr. Rano!”
Rano watches Rumia clink her coins into the donation box under the shade of the shrine. She meticulously counts each and every one of her coins before dropping them as offering money. After she finished dropping her money in, Rumia closes her eyes and clasps her hand tightly to start her prayer.
“How have you been?” He asks the blond girl.
Shrugging, she replies, “Nothing much. When I woke up in the morning, I felt really tired... I didn't even want to go out for the day, and I felt really sick. But I got better, so I'm here now!” She waves her arms as if to provide confirmation that she is indeed here. She quickly stops however, and starts to clutch her head. “Owww...”
“Don't push yourself too much. You should go home early Rumia.” Rano says softly. Despite her initial objections, she doesn't put up much of a fight when he ushers her out of the shrine grounds and towards the human village. She's still in a daze, numbly walking down the tall stairs. The priest watches her until she's safely down all the way. Then returning back to the desolate shrine, he sits on the altar and closes his eyes. His mind returns to the deep cut on the side of Rumia's head. He dwells on it the whole time as he spends his time on the altar. Finally when he had enough, Rano takes some of the money he saved up and climbs down the shrine steps. He clicks his tongue and mutters, “Not like anybody will visit...”
He makes his way to a clothing and fabric store, not too far off from the central village. Though it was too expensive to purchase material for Rano himself, he was certain that something for Rumia would be a different case. He browsed through most of the merchandise, but only one thing struck out to him. A bright red ribbon stood, jutting out apart from rest of the items. A single, white lining laced the middle of it.
A middle-aged woman with a blue smock spots Rano staring intensely at the ribbon. She smiles knowingly and gently folds the ribbon into a small box. She adjusts her spectacles as she closes the box with a small seal.
“I don't have much money to pay for it...” To show her, Rano takes the money he stored in his pocket and lays it on the counter.
Pushing the money back, she chuckles. “No need to pay, I'm sure you'll do good with this gift. It'll make someone happy I think!”
He thanked the gods for the occasion. “I bless you, miss.”
She bows. “Thanks for your patronage.”
Rano walks out of the store, feeling embarrassed for some reason. But the woman's voice calls out to him. Holding his money, she puts it in his hand. Now he feels doubly embarrassed, forgetting the money that he didn't need to use. He waves goodbye to her in a rush.
By the time Rano gets back, it's already the eve of the new moon. A few crashing noises rattle the shrine. Upon his arrival, the rampant noises abruptly falter. The priest draws a small dagger under his blade in case of a robber. He takes a small step forward before stopping altogether. A set of red eyes pierce the darkness shrouding the shrine. Black haze emanates from the source, obscuring his vision. Rano drops his dagger. He knows it is useless against a youkai.
Making small movements, Rano inches closer to the shrine. The deep, red eyes follow his every step warily. Because of the low visibility, Rano trips on an unknown object on the floor, landing with a thud. The box with the ribbon crumples on the ground. The sounds startle the youkai, who instinctively lunges at him. Rolling forward, he narrowly misses its grip. But for a second, he swears he saw a flash of blond hair. He sprints towards the altar, grabbing the talismans and amulets hidden underneath the small pedestal. Before the youkai attempts to attack again, Rano counters by throwing a holy talisman filled with light. It lands right under its feet, illuminating the area. His eyes widen.
“Rumia!?” He calls out to the figure shining in bright light. A dark aura emanates from Rumia's figure. A pulsating black flows from her fingertips and eyes. Squinting, Rano recognizes the dark orb encircling her head. It is the small dark youkai from before, possessing her body. “Stop this...” He calmly tries to soothe her. She doesn't answer, but readies her sharp claws in blood lust. The youkai has latched onto her, and Rano knew he couldn't do anything about it. Her soft and amber eyes from before are now replaced with a cold, red glare. As the talisman loses its glow, she once more fades into the darkness. With a swift tackle, she knocks down Rano's lower body and sends his knees buckling. The youkai wastes no time, slicing through his soft flesh. His clothes offer no protection, as they tear and shred as easily as ripping paper. Rano pops another talisman on himself, exploding in a white flash.
“Gckh!” The youkai snarls, clutching at its head. The talisman disoriented it, but also temporarily blinded Rano. He is the quicker to recover, and opts to attack right after. He shoots a few amulets, exploding on the contact. It retaliates by blindly swiping its claws around itself. One random hit strikes the priest across the cheek, resulting in a deep gash that penetrates to the bone. It quickly starts bleeding profusely, abundantly trickling down his face. Rano grits his teeth, as he clutches at the wound.
The youkai wildly pounces him, seeing an opening. Pinning him down, it applies quick pressure on his arms and legs. It starts to splinter his bones, causing him to yell out in pain. He struggles to shake one of his arms free, but can't seem to do so. “Rumia...” Rano exerts out a strained voice. The youkai releases its grip for just a split second, but it allows him enough time to break free and latch a dozen amulets and talismans at point blank range. The light pulsates, engulfing the hazy darkness in a brilliant spectrum.
She opens her eyes again, this time filling with red softness. Her ill intent is gone from her gaze, instead replaced with a familiar warmness. “R-Rano...” She whispers. “I hurt you.” She says this in complete shock, tears starting to flow from her red eyes.
“But it's alright now,” He says to comfort her.
“It isn't though!” Rumia exclaims while sniffling. “I...hic, Mom and Dad...!” She wails, tears pouring down her cheeks in full streams. Rano can do nothing but offer his shoulder to her. She bawls on his clothes, not restraining her emotions. Her sobs make her tiny shoulders quiver. “They're gone now, aren't they? But I'll have to be strong now. I can't cry forever.” She smiles with a hint of hope.
“Then Rumia, what are you going to do? I could take you in, but things aren't so simple anymore. People will view you as an icon of hate. The people who visit my shrine will most likely come to despise you, without ever knowing who you are.”
Rumia looks downtrodden, a frown encompassing her face. “I don't think I can stay here. I'll drive away the only visitors you'll ever have!”
“Well, I'll manage somehow. Are you sure you don't want to stay?” Rano asks her one more time.
“I'm sure.” She replies, uncharacteristically serious. “I'll make sure to visit every day. But every time I do, you'll have to fight me.”
Rano was caught off guard. “Why?”
“Because it's a youkai's job to attack humans, right?” Rumia smiles with a thinly veiled bitterness.
“Then I'll fight and beat you every time.” He smiles. When Rano looks over to Rumia, she is utterly exhausted, lying down with her eyes closed on the cold ground of the shrine. He opens the ribbon box, beaten from when he threw it down. For now, he carries her over to the bed and and tucks her in. Making sure she was still asleep, Rano deftly ties the red ribbon around her blond hair. The ribbon covers the cut from the youkai's initial attack with its knotted loop. Remembering the small youkai, Rano clutches his amulets before slipping them into his pockets.
Rumia touches the altar of the shrine, unkempt from years of neglect. She wasn't exactly sure why she still visited the old shrine, now that there's nothing left of it. With the red-white shrine maiden's arrival, both humans and youkai were integrated into one society. Even so, the youkai girl always found herself lingering on the shrine grounds, just by force of habit.
The priest that once stood at the shrine is now gone, succumbed to an unknown disease. Rumia remembers standing at the place where she once battled him lightheartedly. Much to her chagrin, she did not expect to win. A form of despair held her when he gripped at the floor, coughing violently after the fight. Though he got up again shortly after, Rumia hated reminiscing his weak smile.
She can't clearly recollect the exact time when Rano fell to his demise, but can remember with clarity how he had passed away. His ailment grew to the point where it was incurable by traditional medicines alone, and Rumia had no choice but to watch him die. She had tears streaming down her cheeks, as she held him in her grasp for the remainder of the day. Rumia had buried Rano in the backyard of the shrine but couldn't bear to go there anymore.
And Rumia once again spent her time lingering around in the deserted shrine, recollecting her memories not so long ago.
“Oh?” A woman garbed in a blue dress utters. Her hat looks akin to a small house. A human, Rumia can tell. For once, she didn't bother attacking. “I thought this shrine was empty! I usually stop by the Hakure shrine. I'm just here to pay my respects to the deceased here.” She had no need to explain herself, but Rumia said nothing. “But it's strange to see a youkai praying here.” The woman smiles sweetly.