This thread is for participation in the writing contest linked above.
Specifically, this thread is only for those of you who have past experience writing on the site.
Keep entry length to a single post maximum, and submit all entries anonymously. After the time limit expires (at 12/10/11(Thu)00:00), a thread will open up for everyone to vote on your favorite entries, the link for which will be posted here.
Make us remember why we should read your stories, guys.
The girl narrowed her eyes, ignoring the sweat beading on her forehead.
Another hammer blow, precisely in its place, like its brothers before it.
Sparks danced from the raw steel. She paid them no mind, though the bellows made her swelter.
Retain focus. Think of nothing but the task at hand. Empty yourself, and pour your spirit into your work.
Just like grandpa.
Crack. The blade shattered--again--sheared neatly in two.
Youmu was quiet for a long, long moment, before she let her head fall back with a heavy sigh. She trudged out of the tatara, shoulders slumped, wiping the sweat from her brow.
"Oh? Still having problems?" came an unwelcomingly familiar voice.
"Yes," Youmu grumbled. "...Ma'am," she remembered in the nick of time.
Yukari Yakumo chuckled. "I told you, there's no need to be so formal, Youmu."
"And as I said before, a Konpaku must carry themselves properly at all times," she replied, quietly scolding herself for the lapse.
The youkai unclasped her hand fan, wafting it lightly in her direction. Youmu tried not let on that the cooling breeze was welcome as she stiffened her posture. She tried not to let on much of anything, as a rule. She wasn't very good at it. "Be that as it may, Youmu," Yukari said, voice as airy as her fan, "shouldn't you oblige your master's friends?"
Youmu's jaw clenched slightly as her already flushed cheeks reddened deeper. Yes, it was true. Yukari was Yuyuko's friend. Perhaps her only friend. She forgot that, sometimes. She had been there for Lady Yuyuko. Been there for her when Youmu hadn't.
"...My apologies, Mi--Yukari," she managed. The maiden of boundaries chuckled, then closed her fan by gently bapping Youmu on the head with it.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Youmu. I'm just teasing you a little," she said lightly. "Please don't make yourself uncomfortable."
Sometimes, Youmu had to admit, she wasn't sure what Lady Yuyuko saw in Yukari Yakumo.
"If you don't mind me asking," said youkai continued, "what happened?"
"...My focus slipped," Youmu finally relented. "My mind wandered for a moment and..."
"Thinking about him again?" Youmu balked. Yukari's mischievous smile had vanished, replaced by ... something. "He was a very good man. I knew him."
"You did?" The question leaped from between her teeth before she could stop herself.
If it was out of line, Yukari didn't show it. "Come with me. We'll talk about it while you change."
Youmu slowly pulled her white robe off, drenched in sweat from her fruitless labors. Outside, sitting with her back facing the paper-thin wall, Yukari gently fanned herself once more.
"Youki Konpaku," she said, "was always a stiff old man, and I met him before he was your age. He was dour, and stern, and humorless, and you're every inch his granddaughter."
Youmu found herself blushing again as she fumbled with her sarashi.
"But a truer friend and a better man there never was. He loved Yuyu--like his child. She always was awful at looking after herself," she added. "I'm sure by now you're used to how I drop in." She wasn't, actually--Yukari's abrupt appearances were one of her least favorite things about the eccentric woman. "But Youki, when he came looking for her after--" Her voice softened. "After the incident." She lapsed into silence for a moment. "Forgive an old woman her reminiscing," she finally said, her tone strong and sharp again. "As I was saying, Youki walked."
"Walked?" Youmu asked. "But it's impossible to reach Hakugyokurou on foot."
"Impossible," Yukari replied, amused, "but he did it. Youki was just full of impossible things. After all, he was already dead. I suppose Yuyu never told you?"
"Told me what?" Youmu's annoyance at the informal name for her master was eclipsed by her curiosity.
"That he was the first. Half-ghost, I mean."
That was news to Youmu. She had always assumed--"Please explain."
"I wasn't there when it happened, but he told me afterward."
"What? When he what?" Youmu's impatience threatened to overcome her formality.
"When he took Yuyuko's hand."
"But that would--"
"Would, and did, kill him." Normally Youmu chafed at Yukari's interruptions, but she barely even noticed as she pressed in, hungry to hear more.
"So he died, but he... you're saying he survived?"
Yukari laughed again. "I always told him he wouldn't die even if we killed him. Leave it to him to prove me right. To the best of my knowledge, he willed his soul back when it was torn out of him." One of those strange holes in space opened and Youmu squeaked despite herself as a gloved hand poked her ghostly half.
"Yes," Yukari continued unperturbed, "he was the first. That was his strength, you know. His willpower. It's what he left you--" The hand prodding Myon gestured vaguely at Youmu's swords, resting against the wall. "--in those."
"I know," Youmu managed as she began tying her ribbon. "The sword that cleaves hesitation, and the sword that cuts spirits."
"Another one of his impossibilities," Yukari said. "He was an incredible man."
"Yes," Youmu said as her shoulders drooped again. "Yes, he was."
"And yet," Yukari said from someplace that was not outside, "he was only a man." Youmu didn't move when she felt the older woman's arms fold around her, and Yukari gently pulled the young girl backwards into her embrace. "Youki didn't like vegetables. He couldn't cook. He disliked snakes. He was insecure about his height. He was absolutely adorable when he was flustered."
Youmu looked up at that. "For all of his skill, for all his might, he was just one man. One person. One Konpaku." Yukari smiled down. "Just like you are. And believe me, no one is comparing you to him."
Youmu winced. Of all her traits, that was Yukari's worst--and best. She always hit the nail on the head.
"Just listen. I know you feel like you'll never fill his shoes. And you never will, because they weren't meant to be. There was only one Youki Konpaku, yes, but there's only one Youmu, too." Yukari gently tapped her with the fan again. "You shouldn't try to be anyone else."
She gently rocked Youmu in her lap, and the gardener closed her eyes as she continued. "I'm old, Youmu. My age is in four figures. I've seen enough of this life to know that the best of yours is ahead of you. You'll come into your own, Youmu. I promise."
Yukari's arms loosened as she gave the half-ghost one last pat on the head. "I'm looking forward to seeing the woman you become."
One, four, eleven, one hundred and thirty six. The hammer strokes fell in neat order.
Youki Konpaku was a legend, and a hero, and her grandfather, and she loved him very much. His spirit was unbreakable. His will was as iron. His weapons could cut the intangible. Roukanken--the high tower sword that could bring an end to even a ghost. Hakurouken--the low tower sword, and her grandfather's legacy. The blade of purest resolve that destroyed hesitation and obliterated doubt. The same resolve that made Youki stand almighty and unmatched.
But he was only human. Well, until he wasn't. Youmu smiled and redoubled her efforts, feeding air to the flame.
She stood in his shadow no longer.
Because she was Youmu Konpaku, and her sword would cut down the high towers in her thoughts. Her devotion, her love, her dreams. These were hers, and no one else's.
Her name was Youmu Konpaku, and hers was the sword that would cleave fear.
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"To know Fire is to know God,"
Or, so I was told. To this day, the words ring clear in my head. I was too young of course to remember the story that went along with these words to me, and trying to remember now would be a fruitless endeavor. The memories of the life I'd once lived bubble to the surface of their own accord, and slip through my fingers when I try to grab hold. What can I say? That the memories from one's youth can be easily forgotten is common knowledge.
But of what I can remember, I remember this: As curious as many young ones are, I once sought to find my own meaning to the teachings of my elders, but... As many young ones are, I was also without caution. Words given in warning are just that: a warning. Yet I heeded them not, thinking it foolish. On my wings of desire, I took to the sky and tried to touch the sun.
"To know God is to transcend Death,"
My wings were scorched; I fell. The heavens and earth fell with me, and all that stood before me as I lie broken and burning was the cold darkness of the abyss. To think, that there is no light at the end of the tunnel... I saw with my own eyes the horror of nothing.
"But Death fears not God or Fire, and to know them will not save you..."
The still-burning embers of my wings and body are snuffed out by wisps in the black, and the last light to have ever graced my eyes was gone forever. Killed by my own foolish whim, the abyss dragged me into interminable depths.
"For like the Fire, even God cannot live forever."
What I was never told, and what I've since learned was this: "Death is only the beginning, and darkness must always give way to light."
To this day I cannot recall by what miracle I still live, and to this day I can still feel the darkness I saw looming over my shoulder.
A thousand strokes, a million leagues, three score and six paces--it may all pass in a single step if I so will it. For this one, a hair's breadth. A good life lived, though not without sin. Not my problem. Judge not, lest ye be judged. Or so She says. I just don't think She likes it when I do her job for Her. It might save us all a bit of headache if I had it all my way.
"A bit of chop today," I say, forgoing the usual insightfulness, "try not to fall in."
Pour soul has to put up with my talkativeness for a while. That's Hell enough by my reckoning. No such luck for the lad, though. My boring and uninsightful speeches are a prelude of what's to come, though if you think I'm trying to scare 'em straight you'd be dead wrong. Emphasis on dead. Too little too late to put 'em on the right track, I say. The poor lad's already dead, after all. Can't even speak to save his life. Bound for the great abyss, and I'm driving the proverbial express train to literal-and-very-real Hell. Can't exactly give a proper lecture when there's no more lifespan to use repenting, but I won't tell Her that. She seems to think it'll do some good For The Next Life™. The poor sods just aren't blessed with my luck.
What She fails to realize however, is that one's previous life's memories, hopes, dreams and whatever else have you is simply fed into the great abyss. None of it is carried over. Not Karma, not anything. Every life is a fresh start. So Her lectures always go to waste. Souls may be a finite resource, but it isn't like they retain any properties of the previous user. First, that'd be gross. Ever log in to a computer under an existing user account and find yourself face-to-face with the dude's porno wallpaper and collection of hardcore bestiality? It's like that, but with souls and memories instead of hard drives and horse-porn JPEGs. Everything is simply wiped clean. It seems cruel to the dead, but it was set up that way for a very good reason.
The whole celestial system is one big bureaucracy, and I'm wedged firmly into place in the lowest of the lower rungs. The top-level administrators and designers don't tell us why the system was implemented as it has been implemented, nor are they all that sociable in the first place. They're the sort you'd find hanging out in the darkest corner of the pub sharing files from their goddamn smartphones, never speaking so much as a word to one another and preferring to use SMS or email to converse. They never have to interact with the mortals, which leads me to wonder if they've ever seen one at all in their ceaseless and respective existences. I suppose they've met me once or twice, but I'd hardly qualify for mortal as I am now. The fact that I even have glimpses of my previous self lends me to believe there's a bug in the software and they're just too lazy to fix it.
Ah, I suppose I have some proper explaining to do, so I'll give the short version. I'm called Komachi. Surname Onozuka. ○○○○ years old as of current and not counting past lives. All of those flowery words up there before the break? That's the old me, or all that I can remember of the old me. I threw that style of speech out like a tiresome old smoking habit and haven't picked it back up since. Long and short of it is as follows: I died once, probably. No guarantees Hell isn't an actual abyss, I've certainly seen one as described and it felt rather Hellish. The fire is a metaphor for life or something, maybe. I thought this up in one night, so don't give me too much credit. And here's the theme park version of my resume:
Death God. Experience: Lots. Distance manipulation: Like top shelf scotch. Talkativeness: Meh.
But enough about me, enough about the co-workers who I've barely mentioned and have already grown sick of mentioning, and enough with the clever breaking of the suspension of disbelief. Oh, there might be a wall over there that needs fixing. I totally took a sledgehammer to it earlier when I mentioned smartphones.
To the matter at hand: this dude daid, we gon git his ass cross-river and throw his dick-ass into the celestial recycling bin. Pardon my moment of eloquence.
From one side of the river to the other, day in and day out. Forever. Essentially, my job in a nutshell. It gets boring from time to time, sure, and I tend to blow off some steam by visiting the mortals in the vicinity and do fun, fun mortal things with them. Mostly drinking and sleeping. Maybe a combination of the two. Lord knows nobody else does unless something big is amiss in the system. Then they're all scrambling to fix things and don't really care when the mortal world falls into the middle of it all.
I take the poor soul I've been accompanying this whole time during the exposition and send him on his way. It isn't always easy like this. Some of the folks I ferry across are of a more sorry sort. Oftentimes I'm stuck with thieves and murderers, and more frequently, their victims. It gets reeeeally awkward when both are in the same boat with me, particularly when one killed the other or whatnot. Ah, there was this one time where I had to ferry the soul of a girl and her-- Best not get into that one. My sense of humor can be a bit detached from the human condition at times, and is more likely to be without empathy than with.
This one may have died young, but he doesn't have a real horror story to tell. The kid needs a hug, sure, but that isn't in the job description. If I had to care about each and every soul who's been unlucky enough to pay the ferryman's toll, I'd have broken down into tears and quit before day one even started. Almost did, now that I think of it.
It's tough not to care about them, but I've gotten good at it. Not caring is a particular specialty of mine. I don't care about the souls of the dead, I don't really care that they pay the toll, I don't care that the system is horrifyingly broken, and I don't really care that the admin isn't getting off of his unsociable ass to do something about it. And here's the clincher: the one thing I don't care about the most?
My boss. The one in charge. She-who-must-not-be-named, the bearer of the stick of evil, and perhaps the only one to have ever shown me an ounce of true kindness despite the regular beatings and frequent abuse sessions.
Yep, don't care. Not. A. Goddamn. Bit.
I may have exaggerated the domestic violence end of things a bit. She's actually quite a ni--
Oh no, there I go again. Defending her against myself. Why am I protecting her, me? Am I such a spineless--
Wait, yes. No spine. At all. And that's the moral of the story. To truly fail at succeeding in life, you first have to do something stupid, die, come back to life, rip out your own spinal column for laughs, turn it into a giant scythe for even more laughs, and not give a damn for the entire duration. So, maybe this started out as something impressive before quickly devolving into a rant when my name got shoehorned in to make it relatively Touhou related. And maybe if given enough time the other characters mentioned would be fleshed out and given speaking roles. Now, I know this is a long shot, since plotholes abound and all, but maybe, just maybe I would have gone into detail about my past and present life's connections, and what exactly the abyss and the fire really meant to form some semblance of a plot, but frankly I don't give a damn enough to finish. Vote 5 or something, we out.
I knock on the door. It's a sturdy, wooden door- originally designed by Tibetan monks to keep the cold out. My father, of course, called this “a shameful display of weakness”, and removed the roof of the entrance hall. So it'd be “properly cold”.
My mother opens the door, and looks up at me, in that disparaging way she's done ever since... “You're still dyeing your hair? Have you not thought of the kind of looks that gets you? For shame, girl. You should be proud of your original hair color.”
My name is Hong Meiling, and I'm a natural redhead. At least, I am now. “Mom, I've told you, it just, you know, started doing this one day! Anyway, I'm glad to see you too!” She just huffs a little, and rolls her eyes, leaving the door open to let me in.
“Lin? Is that Meiling?” My father's basso voice booms throughout the ex-monastery.
“Yes, your harlot of a daughter is back.”
“Mom! I've told you a thousand times! I don't have an Irish boyfriend!”
She glares at me suspiciously. She does love me, honest. She just has... odd ways of showing it. “I'll believe it when you let your hair go back to an honest color. You have to bring the boy around here one of these days.”
Papa comes around the corner, arms spread wide, a grin wide on his face. “Meiling! It's been so long!” I rush into his arms, and give him a hug, as he tries to crush me with his own bear-hug. It hasn't worked in decades, now, but the old man's got to have some pride. Besides, it'd be wrong of me to point out that he's put on a bit of weight, a little bit of the old-man paunch, and his previously legendary muscles have gotten a bit flabby. Yeah. It'd be wrong of me to point these things out. He lets go of me, and holds me at arm's length, hands on my shoulders. At least he's still a tiny bit taller than me. “It's good to see you, Meiling! How've you been? You been keeping up on your training?”
I nod. “Of course, Papa. I still managed to get up here, didn't I?” I might have not mentioned this, but this particular ex-monastery is built on top of a mountain. My father wanted to move it to the top of K2, but my mother wasn't having any of it.
“Ah, but you probably flew, girlie. Didn't you?”
I blush a little. He'd know, of course. “Y-yeah. I did.”
He smiles more widely. “Cheating! I knew it! You pain this old man's heart, to see his daughter gone so far off of the track of righteousness!” He elbows me in the ribs. “So when are we going to see this boyfriend of yours that your mother keeps telling me about?”
More furious blushing. “Daddy! Come on! I told you!”
He chuckles, and asks Mom a question. “Lin? What say you?”
Her response is instantaneous. “I think she's just embarrassed for him. She'd probably have to carry him up the mountain.” She nods with finality. “She's not only with an Irishman, she's with a wimpy Irishman. Couldn't have gotten a nice Chinese boy, noooo...”
“Aw, Lin, give Meiling a chance. She'll bring him up here when she's ready.” At least my father takes my side, occasionally.
“Okay! Okay, I give up! Can we, you know, talk about something else? Anything else?”
Papa thinks for a moment, then realization hits. “Oh! Right! How's your new job?”
My mother smacks Papa. “I've told you a hundred times, Liang, she's been working there for at least a decade! It's like you don't even pay attention to your own daughter!” The smacking is quite a feat, as my mother doesn't quite reach the rarefied heights of four feet, eight inches, while my father is well above six and a half feet tall. “Look, I'll go make some tea. Why don't we go take a break out in some warmer part of the house?”
My father shakes his head. “The cold is bracing! It builds character!” He's obviously hoping I'll give him an out, because he's also shaking from the cold.
“I think that's a great idea, Mom.”
“Are you sure, Meiling? It's rather nice out here...” My mother's got an evil twinkle in her eye as she looks at Papa.
He pointedly avoids looking back at my mother. “Lin, we must be accommodating to our daughter. As such, I will of course move into warmer parts of the house for her.”
So, after all that, we've moved into the part of the monastery my father (and I, when I was younger) trained. He's rebuilt the wall he broke down when he'd first moved in here. The wall that overlooks the crevasse that he used to pole vault across. I originally learned to fly here, and it shocked everyone, except my father. And, I suppose, my mother only because in that moment, my hair turned bright red. There was nobody else here.
So I guess neither of them were particularly shocked at the flying. My mother was just angry about the hair. After that, my father determined that the best path for me to continue my training was to travel the world, and teach others his art.
I was eight years old when he made this pronunciation. His realization of this didn't hit until an hour after I left the house to seek adventure, and he panicked, running down the mountain to catch me and then deciding that he needed a couple of years to teach me to “protect myself” from “boys you might meet on your travels”. Even though at that point I could almost keep up with my father, the man who was originally given the title of “Master Asia”.
I actually left when I was sixteen. This was probably a worse idea, for my father thought my worldview revolved around boys at that point. It actually revolved around leaving, because I was bored. There is a distinct lack of neighbors when you live on a Tibetan (which my father claimed back for China) mountaintop.
My father is sitting cross-legged, sipping tea. “So, go on, Meiling, inform your Master of the developments of his student.” My mother just smirks at this pronunciation, and winks at me.
“Well, Master,” I occasionally help stroke my father's ego, it's true, “I've picked up several students in Gensokyo.”
He nods sagely. “Go on.”
“There's about ten of them, mostly fairies, but one magician. She's... patently terrible, being that her idea of exercise is 'pulling a rope to ring a bell to get a maid to bring her dinner'.”
My father just shakes his head. “Sounds like a young daughter I once had. Continue, student.”
“Of the rest of my students, they're fairies, like I said. None of them really have the, ah, motivation and focus to really get the forms down. It's a shame, but I'm doing the best I can. Honestly, the best student I think I could have is the Head Maid of the mansion I work at.”
He raises an eyebrow in what he imagines is an old sage's manner. He can't keep this up for long, I know. He's dying to drop the 'ancient wisdom' act and ask all kinds of questions. “Oh? And why is this?”
“Well, for one, her focus is unmatched, for anyone I know. She's blindingly fast, though I suspect some cheating in her manner of speed. And, she, um... yes, that's it.” That was close. I almost said something I shouldn't have.
“Cheating?” Thank God Papa latched onto that instead of the end. “How dishonorable. If you do manage to make her your student, I expect you to fix this.” My mother, however, is more observant- I think she noticed I was going to say something, and stopped. She's simply watching me now, to see if I slip up again.
To that end, she smiles wickedly. “Xiao Mei, why don't you tell us about your co-workers and employers?”
“Well, as you know, I'm the gatekeeper and head gardener for a mansion in Gensokyo.” My father shakes his head sadly at this. He still believes I would be better served to continue living in China, instead of some quasi-Japanese land. But he's always been a little bit adorably racist. “Your techniques for gardening that you taught me, Mother, have served well: the garden, in bloom, is almost as beautiful as your work on the Summer Palace that one year.” My mother likes to be reminded of that- the lake the Summer Palace is built upon is entirely man-made, yet it looks completely natural. This, and the surrounding forest, is entirely her work.
“Occasionally, um, we'll have thieves steal rare flowers from it, or, um, the magician accidentally set it on fire. But! But but but but these are minor setbacks! The time when my employer tried to blot out the sun and accidentally caused the entirety of the garden to wilt was also a minor setback!” My mother perks an eyebrow up. That's probably not a good sign.
She only says “Well, what about your employer, then, Meiling? She seems an interesting sort, so tell us about her.”
You take a deep breath. This is going to be fun. “Well, she's, um, a vampire. And five hundred years old, even though she just looks eight. And she occasionally kidnaps men and rapes them, and then sucks their blood.” My mother's eyebrows would have shot through the roof, if they could leave her face. My father is trying not to change his expression. “But! She's totally a nice person, honest! Even if she does kidnap people, and try to block out the sun, or have locked her sister in the basement for a couple of decades, and not tell her sister that she's a vampire, and feed her baked people without her knowing! She's a good person, promise! She only sucks my blood occasionally.”
My father weeps a single, manly tear.
“Um... and then there's the head maid, Sakuya, who's also a very nice person! Occasionally she gets violent when she has, uh, let's just say 'body issues', and sure, she's... fanatically devoted to Remilia, you know, the vampire employer person. And she doesn't want to do lessons, but occasionally she sneaks into my room at night...” Oh, wait, crap, crap crap crap crap abort change subject abort abort abort abort “and she makes a great salmon stir-fry. She's also great at cooking, did I mention that? And sometimes she wakes me up when I'm sleeping by doing, uh, stuff...” Shit, I talked myself into a corner again! Gotta change the subject.
My mother and father are both sitting there, rictus-faced. My father's given up the sagely facade, and I doubt he even knows it.
“And then there's Patchouli, the magician.” Good old Patchouli. This'll get me back on track. “She's not the type who likes physical activity very much, but she's really a nice person at heart. If you can actually get her to talk to you. She ignores people, mostly, when she's reading books. But if you touch her books, she'll try to zap you with magic, unless you're Marisa. Who, um, has a 'special' relationship with Patchouli.” I've really got to stop going off on these specific tangents. “Um... uh, right! Her assistant is Koakuma, who's a succubus...” GOD DAMN IT
“A succubus? You work with a succubus?!” My father is doing his best not to break down. My mother is just staring.
“Uh, yeah! Yeah, she's totally cool people, she, um, uh...” don't tell them about the time she pinned me down in the library, grew a penis and, uh, well, I liked it but that's different! “She sorts books. Really well.”
My mother just looks at me. “And what about the vampire's sister?”
“Oh! Flandre!” Oh, good, Flandre's a good girl. “She's a great girl. She tries to make it to most of my training sessions. She gets bored easy, though. She's just young, she's only four hundred and ninety-five years old. Occasionally when she gets bored she'll explode little animals, or try to explode my clothes but uh...” Maybe this isn't working out as well as I'd planned it to. I think I'll stop here. “...yeah! That's it! I've got nothing else.”
My father's just got his face buried in his hands, trying to hide his tears.
My mother, however, is just counting things on her hands. “So, your employer is a sadistic, abusive vampire, who once murdered your entire garden on a whim, your students are vapid and airheaded, your co-worker, the Head Maid, is a cheater and, I quote, 'sneaks into your room to make you'” and here my mother does air quotes “'salmon stir fry', while your other work acquaintance is a lazy over-possessive loner who ignores social contact with you and gets needlessly violent, while her assistant is a SUCCUBUS, nothing strange about that at all, and to top it all off, you watch your employer's little sister, who is also a vampire, and when she gets bored she explodes things? Do I have this right?”
I, I, uh, never thought of it this way. “Um, yeah, I guess so.”
Rising from his squat, Leo gave the forest floor a final squint through the gathering gloom, then spat to one side.
“Yer fullashit, slant-eyes.”
Arata snorted, not bothering to look at Leo. He stood wide, rifle resting across one shoulder, staring ahead into the dark wood. “The fuck do you know, round-eye?”
“I’ve tracked painters,” Leo drawled, “-and bears, ‘n bobcat besides, and plenty of deer, fresh’n’wounded both. And chillin. Tracked one boy two mile, at least. Found ‘im, too. They’re hard, specially little ‘uns. They wander,” Leo said, undulating his hand and arm left-right-left to illustrate. “An’ don’t leave much sign, light steps ‘n all.”
Leo nodded curtly at the darkening forest before them.
“’’Lest that girl’s six foot tall ‘n joggin a straight line, we ain’t been tracking any little girl for a good two hour.”
Arata looked at Leo then, dark eyes impassive and evaluating. Leo recognized it; from veterans sizing up green replacements.
“No,” Arata said crisply. “We are not.” He looked forward into the forest again. “Call them along.”
Knowing Arata was done talking for the moment, Leo shrugged and twisted to shout behind him – “Roll ‘er!”
From the gathering gloom came the roar of an engine and the snapplecrackpop of undergrowth as something mighty and ponderous thundered through the undergrowth. Leo blinked his flashlight a few times to make sure he wouldn’t be run down as the tank loomed out of the darkness and came to a halt nearby.
“Well?” Mike asked.
“On the right track,” Leo confirmed, leaping to the rear deck and grabbing a loading strap for a handhold. Ahead, in the darkness, a red flashlight winked a few times to lead them on. Arata was already a hundred yards up the forest path.
“I hope so. We’ve got...” Mike consulted his wristwatch, something he did nearly every five minutes – “less then twenty minutes till full-dark. If we don’t find her before then-” he was interrupted by the lurch of the Sherman kicking into gear again.
“Ah’kin track a whistle-pig the length of a holler in a January blizzard, I could. Ain’t the problem.”
Mike grimped up his face at Leo. “Fuck you, I will not ask what a whistle-pig is.”
Leo’s mouth slid into a shit-eating grin. “That’s what you said ‘bout hollers.”
Mike decided to cut his losses. “The problem is why the hell he insisted on King Kong instead of a jeep. Or a halftrack.”
King Kong lurched to another stop, and a red light winked in the darkness.
“Thinkin’ the same,” Leo shouted over the engine as the Sherman lurched ahead once more. “He’s bin trackin’ someone big and tall for two hour now. Girl’s tracks done vanish where the biggun’s start.”
“The hell? Somebody carry her off?”
“Sure,” Leo replied, “but he don’t say nuthin. Or look surprised, neither.”
“That’s what really throws me,” Mike admitted. “Yid think he’s taking a Sunday stroll.” From the moment he’d strode into the men’s side of the bathhouse, ancient blackpowder Chassepot rifle slung over one shoulder, he bore little resemblance to the grizzled old-timer who’d checked them into the onsen. He moved like a soldier – urgent and cautious, but also practiced and familiar. Unlike the men he’d commandeered. An entire small column had decided to get “lost” on their way to Yokohama, but Arata had only wanted King Kong.
The Sherman rumbled to a halt again, but this time no red flashes were forthcoming.
“Why’d we name it King Kong, anyways?” came Mack’s voice over the intercom. “It’s a tank, not a goddamn monkey.”
“Didn’t you see that movie, numbskull? King Kong’s a beast. He’s invincible,” Scotch replied from the driver’s hatch below.
A creak and a clang as Mack threw open the bow gunner’s hatch to confront Scotch face-to-face. “I saw the part where he falls off a skyscraper as planes machine-gun his hairy ass.”
“And I can’t drive this tank to the top of a skyscraper, can I? So, effectively invincible.”
Mike stepped off the “standing seat” and dropped into the commander’s chair, unplugging his headset as he did so. He glanced downwards at Luddy, the gunner, who had his face pressed to the gun optics.
“Can you actually see anything in this shit?” Mike asked.
“Can’t see shit, cap’n,” Luddy replied, snapping as good a salute as his position allowed. “Ah. Red flash.” The tank lurched into motion once again.
“How’re the retards doing?” he said, raising his voice over the engine. Luddy held up the disconnected end of his own intercom cable, and Mike sniggered a bit. The tank rolled on, stopping and starting every hundred yards or so, until Scotch hooted loudly and veered the tank hard left. Mike scrambled to the standing seat, sticking his head out of the hatch just in time to scrape his head on a low branch. He dropped back into his seat, swearing violently, and jammed his intercom cable back in violently.
“What the fuck?”
“He’s off the path,” Scotch said gleefully. “Trees, don’t stop me now!” The entire tank rocked upward for a moment, then fell as wood splintered under thirty tons of armor and horsepower. “They didn’t.”
“If you throw a track I’ll grease the bearings with your guts, motherfucker!” Mike shouted, but the threat had never worked previously and was equally useless now. Scotch took Kong through the close-packed trees with gleeful abandon, throwing the tank left and right whenever a half-glimpsed shadow loomed he didn’t like the looks of, protecting his ride from any trunk thick enough to ding a fender.
“I see ya, slant, keep flashing!” Scotch howled, and Mike nearly screamed as he felt King Kong tilt dangerously – but Scotch knew his business, and he took the tank slantwise down the slope, leveling off safely. Sticking his head out of the hatch, Mike squinted into the darkness curiously. Twilight had fled, but the moon had yet to rise. After a minute, he could make out the rocky bottom of a streambed.
King Kong lurched to a halt as a red light started bobbing back and forth wildly. From the darkness came the vague silhouette of a man.
“Kill it!” Arata hissed, the shadow slashing its hand through the air. Scotch dutifully shut down the engine, and silence fell upon them.
They sat in the deep darkness of the streambed, listening to the gentle ticking of the cooling engine, waiting for their guide to speak.
Leo hopped off the rear deck and approached Arata cautiously. “So-”
Arata’s palm snapped upwards with amazing speed, backed by a pointed glare, and Leo held his tongue.
Kong’s crew fidgeted uneasily as long minutes passed, watching the darkness warily. Arata stared straight ahead, but the crew developed the impression he was listening intently. There wasn’t much to listen to – the wildlife was silent.
Mike glanced at his watch, appreciating the dosh he’d laid out for those radium-treated hands, and frowned. He glanced down at Leo, who was already watching him.
Mike tapped his ear, waved at the forest and gave an exaggerated shrug. Should it be so quiet?
Leo tapped his wrist, then shook his head, hands waving to make his meaning clear in the gloom. Not this long.
Mike patted the tanks hull and held his palm up inquisitively, but Leo shook his head and tapped his wrist harder. Even so, not this long.
A wild and savage howl rose from the dark, lifting their souls in terror unreasoning as it pierced their breasts on its way skyward. It was impossibly loud, tangibly present despite its obvious distance.
“We’re here,” Arata said, voice low and taut.
The crew sucked in breath as one, but it was Leo who spoke first. “Scalawag. Wild man.”
“Leo you stow that mountain-man horseshit now,” Mike hissed.
“It is,” Leo said, his voice tense and certain. “Old road. That’s what we was following before. The roots remember old paths like that.” Leo turned his back on the darkness to look Arata square in the face. “It done grabbed that girl. And we followed it home.”
Leo vaulted to the turret roof and shoved an arm in. “Luddy!” he called imploringly, and withdrew with a grease gun in his paw. Mike was just trying to decide how much of this bullshit he was going to take when another piercing howl shivered in his guts and vaulted for the treetops, breaking into mad, warbling laughter as it faded off.
“Fuck this,” Mike snarled, seizing the grips of the flexible .50 cal and hauling the bolt back. The solid ker-CHACK! of the huge gun chambering a round was a comfort Mike badly needed.
A terrible splintering sound smashed through the darkness some distance before them. Arata whipped around to face it, taut as a bowstring, his ancient rifle gripped in white-knuckled hands.
Another horrible report crashed through the darkness. Closer.
“Trees,” Scotch said.
A third cacophony shattered the dark, closer yet, and this time they heard a wooden ‘pop!’ as if a trunk had exploded. Mike wheezed with fear as he realized the – it – was knocking down trees just to fuck with them. Leo did too, for he slung his gun, flung the loader’s hatch open and leapt to his station.
“HE,” Mike commanded shakily.
Another loud, splintering smash came from just ahead, and this time they saw the tree fall, creaking and groaning as it came to earth. The trunk was at least a foot thick.
“AP! AP!” Mike amended hastily as Luddy trained the main gun a few degrees higher.
From the darkness just ahead, a hideous, booming laughter blasted the air. Arata’s hands squeezed and relaxed on his rifle, and his hunched, ready stance straightened a bit, chin lifting confidently.
“You were always bold, Arata, but I never thought you were arrogant.!” The bass voice carried, echoing through the empty forest. “And you brought friends! Foreign friends! And a foreign war-wagon, to go with that foreign popgun you always lug around,” the voice sneered.
It was mocking the tank, knocking down trees, Mike realized. And it’s speaking English because-”
“You should’ve told your foreign friends what they were getting into,” the voice boomed. “They should at least see me. You carry light? Use it.”
Arata withdrew a flare from his pocket, twisted the end, and flung it into the darkness. It sputtered and flared, then ignited, the bright rubescent glow revealing –
“The hell?” Mack said.
A six-foot tall man in a dark red yukata loomed on the creekbed. He was mighty, his massive arms and wide shoulders thick with muscle, but what the crew noticed first was the little girl slung carelessly in the crook of one big arm.
And the long, red horn in the center of his forehead.
Stooping, the massive man picked a round stone from the dry creekbed, wrapping it in one huge hand. Veins bulged in his arm as he squeezed, and a sound like a gunshot snapped through the air. He opened his fingers, and the rock fell to earth in five pieces.
“That is my power,” he said dismissively. “You should’ve stayed quick and subtle, Arata, a little rat-thief, because that’s what humans are, rats. You have no power, certainly not here, in MY LAND!” The creature snarled the last words with such raw power Mike leaned back a bit in his hatch, despite being thirty yards distant. “Fucking fool, you think you can fight an Oni because you bought some filthy barbarian mercenaries and their new toy? YOU FUCKING LITTLE RATS, YOU’RE NOTHING!”
The creature flung the little girl away like a trashbag and lowered his bull shoulders as he charged, bellowing with such violence it was almost a physical force.
Everything happened very quickly after that.
Scotch hit the headlights just as Mack and Luddy opened up with their .30 cals, but the creature barely checked its charge. Mike opened up with the .50 caliber a second later. It felt those, its bellowing reaching a new pitch, but still it came, one giant fist rearing back to smash Scotty’s skull like a melon.
That’s when Luddy let fly with the 76.
One moment the thing was mid-leap, about to come down and smash Scotty’s nose into his brain, and the next it was spinning like a top as it went flying downrange, bouncing off the stony creekbed as it rolled and skipped clean out of the headlights range.
Before Mike could catch his breath, the forest all around roiled with more horrible howls, and Arata came sprinting into the headlights view, the girl slung over his shoulder.
“CATCH!” he screamed, hurling the girl into the bow-gunner’s hatch, then scrambling up the bow and onto the turret roof like a panicked cat. “DRIVE!”
“AMEN!” Scotch screamed. He dropped his seat, slammed his hatch violently, and drove. The engine had barely caught when Scotch rammed it into gear, the massive machine springing forward like a racehorse from the gate. Arata threw himself flat atop the loader’s hatch, gripping the .50 cal’s mount for safety as he screamed directions down at Scotch.
“LOAD HE!” Mike screamed, swinging the .50 cal left and right, filling the forest with the terrible, booming echoes of its reports as he hosed it around, hoping to dissuade any more of those horned things. He heard something heavy thump into the rear deck and dropped straight down into the hatch with the swift turtling instincts of a tanker. A sneering face appeared at his hatch, paused to negotiate the hatch rim with its long horn, and thrust one thick arm in to grab Mike’s shirt.
Then Arata pressed the muzzle of his ancient Chassepot against its temple and fired. The huge bullet kicked the side of the monster’s head like a cannon shot, and Mike heard it tumble down the side of the hull. He snatched his own grease gun from atop the radio and stuck his chest out of the hatch again, weapon ready. Arata still gripping the .50 cal stanchion, pinning the barrel of his ancient rifle between his forearm and the turret roof so he could close the bolt on a fresh paper-wrapped cartridge.
“Get inside!” Mike screamed.
“They get on top and open us like a tin can!” Arata shouted back as he locked the bolt.
“How in fucks I know!?” screamed Arata. Another beast, this one with two twisty horns higher on its head, came sprinting into the headlights, a long, wicked-looking blade in one hand. Arata thrust his rifle forward and took aim before Luddy let fly with the main gun. The 76mm shell detonated under the creature’s left foot. Mike and Arata saw only the bright flash and a brief impression of a rag-doll being tossed into the treetops.
Arata glanced at his rifle, then looked at the long snout of the 76mm gun.
“Better than beans,” he concluded, and jack-knifed to bring his feet to the hatch. Mike slid back to his seat and helped guide Arata’s legs as he slithered into the turret. Worming under the breech-block, drawing his long rifle after him, Arata entered the hull and squeezed his small frame into the only available space, between Scotty and Mack on the transmission case.
“Where are we!?” Mike shouted as he dogged his hatch.
“I DON’T FUCKING KNOW!” Scotty said as he took the creek’s bank on directly, King Kong’s nose pitching upward wildly as the tank clawed its way upwards. Something slammed the side of the hull hard enough to set it ringing.
“Good luck chump!” Luddy snorted, not taking his eye from his periscope.
The hammerblows on the hull intensified, so violent and loud it sounded like actual cannon shells ricocheting off the armor. Luddy didn’t take his eyes from his optics, but he swallowed. Mike, however, saw the inner armor flex just slightly as the assailant delivered another blow.
“Traverse twenty starboard!” Mike commanded, tearing through the miscellaneous equipment in the rear of the tank. Luddy swing the turret dutifully as the hammerblows reached the turret. Finding his prize, Mike plucked two grenades from the bandoleer, yanked the pins, let the spoons fly and counted to three before cracking the pistol port on the turrets left-rear and slipping them through.
There was a brief, inquisitive sound, and then the blows terminated abruptly.
“Get us out of here!” Mike said, managing to make it sound like an order and not blind panic.
“Trying!” Scotch snapped. Mike saw Mack crouching on the transmission case and Arata in his seat, using the bow-gunners periscope and barking feedback at Scotch. King Kong was accelerating now. Mike applied himself to the periscope and saw the narrow “road” they’d followed for so long in the bright beams of the headlamps.
And the horned creature leaping at their tank.
Luddy stamped his foot and the 76 boomed, but this one wasn’t obligingly leaping along the tanks centerline. It landed on the front hull and brought its fist down on the driver’s hatch, smashing it inward.
“YAH!” Scotch screamed, wrenching at his levers. King Kong’s tracks halted abruptly as thirty tons of tank dug in its heels. Face pressed into the periscope by inertia, Mack caught a glimpse of another horned creature being flung bodily from the tank’s bow.
“EAT SHIT!” Scotch screamed, shoving his levers forward and rolling King Kong’s bulk over the creature. He stomped on the floorplates madly as the treads crunched the creature underneath. Shifting into her top gear, Scotch revved the engine and sent King Kong barreling down the forest “road” at top speed, the Sherman’s excellent suspension taking the sharp jerks and twists of the path with maneuverability few tanks could match.
Deciding no more assailants would risk headbutting a 30-ton tank thundering along at nearly 30 MPH, Mike checked the rear periscope.
“Sweet Jesus on a Motorcycle one-eighty traverse!” Luddy dutifully brought the gun to bear, the powered turret whipping the long snout of the 76 to the rear with alacrity.
“And Moses in the sidecar!” Luddy breathed before stamping his foot pedal. The 76mm thundered, HE shell blasting shrapel through the trees. “They could be coming through the trees to flank us, I can’t see shit without the headlights!”
“Leo, gimme-” Mike started, but Leo was already shoving a shell into the smoke mortar mounted in the turret roof. He slapped the breech closed and pulled the pistol-grip’s trigger.
“YES!” Luddy cried, finessing the turret and opening up with the coaxial .30 cal. “Another one!”
Leo loaded a second 81mm shell and fired, and above the trees another white-phosphorus parachute flare bloomed to life.
“Cannister!” Mike ordered as he espied several shapes bounding and leaping through the trees, catching up with King Kong by cutting across the curves in the road Kong was forced to follow. Leo rammed a shell into the cannon, locked the breechblock and slapped Luddy on the shoulder. He fired immediately, the cloud of high-velocity grapeshot shredding trees and terrorizers with equal efficiency.
“Dodge that, you slippery little bastards,” Luddy growled as Leo slapped his shoulder again. The stattaco barks of the coaxial gun were punctuated by another titanic blast from the cannon. Mike whooped with exultation as he saw their horned pursuers break off, the harsh white light of two flares revealing their flight as Luddy walked the turrets .30 cal tracers after them.
“Almost home!” Arata shouted from below. “WAI-”
They had no time to brace before King Kong hit the roadblock at top-speed. The bow of the Sherman vaulted skyward, the engines screaming with their full 450 horsepower as Kong clawed over the stack of felled trees. Thirty tons of armor with twenty-five MPH of inertia smashed through and over the hasty roadblock.
“KING OF THE JUNGLE!” Scotch hooted triumphantly as Kong cleared the roadblock and –
- he swore as Kong’s right track suddenly lost purchase, hooking the tank hard starboard. He yanked his levers back and Kong ground to a halt.
“We threw the right track!” Scotch shouted, shoving his left lever forward. Kong pivoted on her useless right wheels tighter then she ever could in good repair, swinging the bow – and the thick frontal armor – towards the road behind. Luddy swung the turret to face down the road, waiting for a target.
“Your guts! Your guts!” Mike promised, glancing at his watch. “Arata, how close-”
“Run! If we run!”
Something heavy landed on the turret roof with authority. Mike shrank into his seat as the commanders hatch was yanked upwards, terror eating at his mind as he watched the retaining bolts begin to bend.
“Oh shit, shit, shit, shit,” Luddy stammered, raising his pistol shakily and aiming at the hatch.
“Don’t curse the darkness,” Leo said with flat detachment as he grabbed the pistol grip of the smoke mortar, aimed it hard right and pulled the trigger.
Hideous screams tore through the night, raising hair right through the thick armored hull of Kong. The terrible howls of agony left the turret roof and began to recede into the forest.
“NOW!” Mike said, undogging his hatch and leaping onto the turret roof, grease gun raised. The distant parachute flares were still floating, transforming the forest into a thicket of silhouettes and long shadows. Against this backdrop a black silhouette clad in painfully bright, white flame writhed and leapt and shrieked, piercing, inhuman shrieks.
“RUN!” Arata screamed, and they ran. They ran from the melting monster, the hideous screaming, Kong, the forest, the nightmare, everything. They ran till the fire in their lungs seared away all other thoughts, until their legs trembled and failed and tumbled them into the rotting leaves.
“The... tank,” Mike wheezed between gasps. “I should’ve dropped a grenade into the ammo bin. If those... if those things. Get it.”
An abrupt bass thump twined with a concussive blast echoed through the forest.
Mike and Arata stared at each other, eyes wide with horror.
The slow, booming reports of the .50 cal rebounded and echoed through the trees, and a shrill, inhuman shriek of pain rose through the night sky.
Arata’s face went slack with wonderment, and at length a slow smile dawned. He fell back on the forest floor and laughed wearily.
“I think Kong will be fine,” he said, and laughed some more.
Many Years Later.
“This is it?” Suika asked, scrutinizing the olive-drab hulk curiously.
“I was patrolling the gateway road for youkai-”
Suika favored her with a jaundiced look.
“Evil youkai, and I stumbled across it. It’s so deep in the brush and it’s green; I must’ve passed it ten times over the years.” Reimu hopped in the open hatch of the iron hulk. “It’s really neat inside, there’s all sorts of stuff!”
Suika strode around the boxy metal thing, brows furrowed. Something was vaguely familiar about the whole thing...
“I thought I’d be bored today!” Remiu’s delighted voice echoed from the hollow interior. She clambered out of the hatch again, face lit with excitement. “It’s really huge!”
Suika’s attention had wandered to the surrounding undergrowth. She’d seen works of clockwork and steel far more interesting then that old iron hulk, but something about this place, this place in particular, made her uneasy. Thousands of years of memories clouded her recollection... she needed one more jog to narrow it down.
Reimu had seated herself cross-legged on the turret. “You think the Kappa would buy this? You know how much they pay for that broken-down shit those Moriya jokers peddle; imagine what they’d cough up for this baby!”
Suika didn’t reply, intent on her search. Espying something curious, she pushed some ferns aside for a better look, and her eyes widened in surprise.
A bare circle of dead earth, with a single iron bracelet resting in the center – a memorial only an oni or a scholar would recognize.
Reimu hefted an impressive sigh, bracing her elbow on her knee and plopping her chin in her palm. “Whatcha lookin at.”
Suika shook her head slowly as the memory clicked. “No, Reimu, I don’t think you should sell this,” she said softly. “You can’t really sell a youkai.”
"Really now, if you're going to ask someone for an interview, you really ought to write down everything rather than what you want to write down. It's the difference between fact and fiction you know." A blond woman with a modestly curvy body, eyes as red as ripe cherries, skin that looks like it hasn't seen enough sun recently, and a black dress with a white undershirt sits on the ground with her back against one of the Forest of Magic's many old trees. She holds a small sketch pad in her right hand and a crow feather quill in left, and is looking over what's already been written, giving off the odd dissatisfied click of the tongue when she came across something she found particularly distasteful. Faceplanted squarely in between the darkness youkai's breasts is one Aya Shameimaru. It doesn't take much imagination to guess how she got like that considering her habit of embellishing the truth. The darkness youkai has one leg wrapped around the tengu just to keep her there as she keeps looking. "Though if I didn't know any better, I'd say you actually like having things like this happen to you. Beats getting shot at all the time, doesn't it?"
Rumia nibbles the feathered end of the quill for a moment before sticking it behind her ear and tearing out the piece of paper Aya was originally using to store the written interview. She then crumpled it up and tossed it away before taking the quill back out so she could write about herself without the pesky tengu revising things on the spot. She scribbles a few meaningless things on the fresh sheet of paper before flipping that over and starting on another new one. "Enchanted so that it will never run out of ink. That's good~"
She then put the tip of the quill to the paper, and let the sound of metal lightly scratching paper break the tranquil sounds of the forest.
'My name is Rumia, and I am a youkai of darkness. I don't recall quite how I came into being or when, only that I exist as the personification of the human fear of the darkness and spent a great deal of my time frightening them. Believe it or not I didn't have that much of an appetite for human flesh at the time. I was more like a karakasa in that I fed directly off human fear and had no use for more conventional forms of substance. Though that might also be because I hadn't exactly assumed a humanoid form at the time, and thus had no reason to tear humans apart to eat them. It was a pretty simple existence all around.
Then human perception started to shift. People brought light into the darkness to face their fears head-on as opposed to cowering in a corner and hoping they would leave on their own. They started to find that wild beasts were responsible for some of the sounds they hear at night, the sounds that make the hairs on their neck stand up on end. Sometimes the beasts were simply small or harmless animals, sometimes birds or boars, other times the beasts were more dangerous, but they only rarely attacked. Yet that didn't stop the stories. Humans that were too scared to recall events correctly often blew details out of proportion, and arrogant humans chose to purposely alter details to inflate their ego and gain the respect of their peers. Even accurately recounted tales could be twisted beyond recognition if they circulated often enough.
Not that they were always wrong. Night terrors have always existed, but those terrors typically don't take kindly to being found out and often snuffed out both the light and the human that bore it. Thus those humans couldn't tell their grim tales to anyone but the local Shinigami. Oh sure, some of those youkai let humans go on purpose just to see what would happen, but the tales spawned from those encounters tended to be even more unbelievable than simple beasts. Whether it was because some people were trying to convince themselves that man-eating monsters didn't exist or that few people honestly thought that a random villager could just walk away from a youkai... I can't tell you that. I can tell you though, that the humans stopped fearing the darkness itself and began to fear what lurked within it.
Thus I ceased to be a simple formless mass of darkness and assumed a different form. You couldn't even begin to imagine the surprise I felt when I felt the ground beneath me, the sensation of a gentle breeze brushing against my bare skin, or the feeling that my once-expansive senses seemed to have been reduced. Though what I lost in range seemed to have been made up for in sensitivity. I could hear things from a greater distance, my eyesight was directed but could pierce through any darkness, my sense of smell increased a fair bit and even the most subtle of flavors were suddenly vibrant. Touch..."I'm not talking about that.
Needless to say, with a humanoid body comes humanoid hunger. I needed to eat but I didn't know what I was supposed to eat. Human fear... That didn't exactly pan out too well since apparently an exotic naked woman with a decently curvy body doesn't strike fear in the hearts of humans effectively. I spent a lot of time looking around for things to eat. Plants, nuts, berries, vegetables, livestock, it was perfectly fine but some part of me wasn't satisfied with it. Thus I made an effort to stalk humans again. It was relatively simple since my appearance often disarmed their caution. I'd seek out a small group or lone humans, follow them for a while, approach them, then kill them and eat them. Yet that didn't really stop the men's response of 'durr hurr pretty girl', unless I was actively eating another human.
...You see, at the time I hadn't exactly learned to tune out my own smell, so I couldn't go very long without cleaning myself. I almost literally had to bathe daily or I'd start to gag on my own smell. It really shouldn't be that big a deal, but humans smell pretty nasty when you cut them open, especially if you aim at their stomach areas. I wound up having to bathe often, which meant that I was often naked and glistening when people stumbled on me. I couldn't exactly kill all of them either, so tales of a beautiful naked woman spread across the land. Much to my annoyance. At the time I had basically targeted humans in an amateurish manner. The ones who stumbled on me doing actual monstrous, youkai things were the ones that I killed, and while the ones who saw me glistening and clean often met the same fate, occasionally one would just watch while I was occupied with cleaning myself rather than approach me. Fearing retribution, they'd slink away and I'd ignore them.
You can't imagine how big of a mistake that was.'
"Ugh... Trying to assert myself as an actual monster was really annoying." Rumia rubbed her temples with the hand holding the quill as she recalled those events more clearly. She promptly remembered something else, and looked down to make sure Aya hadn't gone anywhere. "You look comfortable~" She teased as she saw that her dress had wrapped partway around the tengu and was doing some interesting things to her, if the squirming and muffled moans were anything to go by. "Now where was I..."
'The basic fear that I embodied hadn't changed, but the stories surrounding me were altering me. I as a youkai was not being given the respect I was due, and it was taking its toll on my nerves. I didn't want to be a beautiful maiden of the night, I wanted to be feared and loathed just as I had back before I took this form. Thus I started to think. I already had things like claws to work with, I had used the darkness to blind people before, so it made sense that I'd take the time to think up better methods of attack. My first experiments were simple, I'd use the dark to enhance the range of my attacks and such. I'd then move on to move through it just as I could before, and inadvertently stumbled onto a solution to my nudity: Make clothes out of darkness! The dress you see on me nowadays is a direct result of that happy accident. The white undershirt and red tie were later acquisitions and are unimportant.
Anyway, I decided to stop playing nice, to stop making mistakes in who I caught and who I let go. I gradually grew bolder with my attacks and displays, making sure that they were punctuated by shows of inhumane cruelty and the occasional pursuit that lasted clear until the crack of dawn. I could feel the human fear surge through me like old times and couldn't help but want more. After so much time with so little respect, I was finally getting what I wanted, yet I was never quite satisfied. No matter how much fear I accumulated, it wasn't quite enough. Stories of horror and woe spread across the land, and thanks to no one believing they were safe, they weren't. So long as there was no light, I could strike anywhere at any time. My blood-soaked body, when I could stand to let it stay like that, and my glowing red eyes were practically synonymous with the fear of the dark. Or what lurked within that darkness~
But I was getting a bit too bold, and eventually the Hakurei at the time decided enough was enough and beat me up, then slapped a seal on me for good measure. I then spent more time than I care to consider going around this sealed land with all the intelligence of a child and all the efficiency of a drunken wretch. It was humiliating, sure, but at the same time I wasn't as bothered by it as I could have been. I managed to gather so much fear that a heroine decided to kick my ass and seal me away like some evil overlord. I couldn't have asked for a better out than that. My name may have faded over time, but the fear the darkness inspired didn't. No matter how secure you think you are, you can't help but be afraid that something is out there, waiting for its chance to put its claws through you, or bite you in half, or drag you away to rape you until you die.
Besides, I'm free now. I may have cooled down a bit, but I'm still me, and I can still roam free. Nothing is safe... Even if I do have to obey the spellcard rules. Though all that means is that I can't kill anyone...'
"That about does it I think." States the darkness youkai as she takes the sketch pad and quill and stuffs it in one of the tengu's pockets. "A bit rambling maybe, but I'm sure you'll edit it down for me when you get back." She slides the unconscious Aya off her, releasing her from her darkness so that she won't be stuck to her forever. Then then stands up, stretches, and walks away while humming a cheery tune.
At the end of the last piece of paper used is a little note that says 'Make sure to come get lost in the Forest of Magic at night sometime. I'd love to eat crow~'
Hey, there! How've you been?
Nice weather we're having, huh?
Oh, no. Please. Don't get up.
I don't need anything.
Really, I'm good. See?
So! How're you doing?
Ahh, that's good. That's good.
Me? I can't complain.
Actually, I suppose I could, but it's not like that would do either of us any good, right?
Oh, you know how it is.
You work, and work, and work some more, loving every minute of it, and what happens?
It all dries up, faster than you know it, and you're left with a whole lot of nothing to do all day.
Sure, there are other things to do, I guess.
Clean the dishes, wash the clothes, draw the bath...
I swear, no matter how much you do, there's simply no end to it.
I suppose it's different when you're on your own, but-
Hm? Oh, yeah, I'm living with some folks.
...in a manner of speaking.
How about you? You settled down, or-
Ah. I see.
Still enjoying the single life, huh?
Yeah, you really do need to enjoy it while you can.
The freedom, the lack of responsibilities, being able to do whatever you want whenever you want.
It's great, isn't it?
Not that sharing a place is so bad.
Yeah, you don't get as much privacy as you like, and sometimes you just want everyone to go away, but there are a lot of good things about it, too.
Not being the only one who has to clean the bathroom, for example.
Having someone else to cook for you is pretty damn nice, too.
...assuming they know how to cook, that is.
You have to be careful about that.
I find a good rule of thumb is to never eat anything you can't identify.
Not that I have to tell you that, huh?
You're the type who only eats what he can catch, right?
Ha! I knew it!
I can tell these things, you know. I got an eye for it.
Not many like that, these days. Not in your generation, at least.
You're part of a dying breed, you know.
Oh, sure, you still have your farmers and your hunters, but that's just not the same, is it?
I mean, sure, I can easily imagine the sense of accomplishment someone might have from bringing in a large harvest, or bringing home a large kill from a hunt, but that's nothing like this.
The smell of the sea, the sound of the waves, the swaying of the ship below your feet...there's just no comparison.
Do you get this tromping through the woods?
I think not!
Ha! Yeah, that's true!
That's how it is, though, isn't it?
You have to even things out, you know? Take the good with the bad.
That's just how life is!
Those folks I stay with, for example?
Guess who gets saddled with all their chores whenever they think they have something more important to do!
I mean, we're supposed to take turns, right?
A lot of the time, we do, but others? It seems like I'm the only one taking care of anything there!
Don't get me wrong, I know they all have their own things to take care of, too, and some of it is really important stuff, but come on! We're all sharing the same space, so it's only fair that everyone does their share of the work in taking care of it, right?
But no! Noooo! Because I apparently have “nothing better to do” during the day, that means everyone can just dump their responsibilities on me! They don't even try!
Yes, some things are more important than scrubbing the toilets or making sure everyone has a nice, hot bath to look forward to at the end of the day. I get that. I don't even mind helping out, I really don't. Ask me to do something for you, anything at all, and I'm almost always happy to oblige!
Ha! Good one!
Anything except that!
Nice try, though!
You'd be amazed at how few times I actually hear that one!
In fact, I might almost be inclined to...nah, I'm kidding.
Now, where was I..."
Oh, right! Chores!
So, anyway, I keep getting them pushed on me because I apparently have nothing at all better to do with my time! Seems pretty unfair, right?
After all, what if I had plans?
What if there was something I had wanted to do in my off-time?
Even if everyone else have their own obligations, I should still be able to enjoy a little “me” time, don't you think?
That's when I realized something, though.
If I don't have time to do what I want, then I need to make time for myself.
It seems so obvious in hindsight.
Then again, what doesn't?
If we could know everything we needed to when we needed to, nobody would ever regret anything, would they?
Of course, were it not for the things we regret, we would not be the people we have become, would we?
It really makes you wonder, doesn't it?
“If only I had done this!”
“If only I had done that!”
Everyone tortures themselves over those thoughts, and yet the reason we have them is also the reason we are who we are!
Just think, were it not for all the things we did or didn't do, we wouldn't even be here right now, talking like this!
You know what I regret?
Never had 'em.
Never wanted 'em.
Never saw the point of 'em.
Thought they were stupid, really.
If I wanted to be in the water, I wouldn't be on the boat, would I?
And yet, now, I think that they might not have been such a bad idea, after all.
You feel the same way, don't you?
Heh! Yeah, I thought so!
That's how it goes, though, huh?
If we had done the things we hadn't done, neither of us would be here.
Speaking of which, I'm actually quite impressed that you're still here!
No, really, I mean it!
I had a feeling about you, but it still feels good to be proven right!
You should be proud of yourself!
There aren't many who would go down with their ship, these days!
Of course, you don't really have as much of a choice in the matter now, but it's the thought that counts!
Shame about your boat, though.
It's quite a nice vessel, and I'm not just saying that.
I'm honestly surprised it's taken this long to sink.
They really don't make them like this anymore, do they?
Hm? Sorry, what was that?
I couldn't quite get that.
You know, on account of-
Yep! Water in your lungs.
That always hinders the ability to articulate.
Don't worry, though, you're almost done!
Won't be long, now!
While I've got you here, though, I was just wondering...
I know this might not be the best time, and all, but if you're not doing anything later, do you think you'd like to...oh, I dunno...
He asked, looking on to the infinite plain. Below them, a sea of rivers. A forest of trees. Luscious land as far as the eye could see.
So she replied, moving closer. Content to be by his side. Content in the world they would create.
“All this… shall be theirs.”
He made a sweeping motion as a great rainbow came over the land. Truly, the first of many miracles. At this, they embraced.
However, they would quickly set to work. Rivers diverted, and became lakes. The rolling hills were shaped and molded into great mountains. One handful of water was thrown into the air to create the clouds. Here, where the air was clean and animals roamed free; here was where they would settle.
For all those forgotten and shunned they would create new homes. In the sky, great palaces were built upon the clouds. On the mountaintop, a favorable wind gusted at all the right times. In the forests, there were creatures not seen in a thousand years. Amongst the bamboo, a maze twisted and turned into eternity. Over the lake, a concealing mist shrouded its secrets. In the deepest cave, a bellowing furnace warmed the land.
The two separated, and streaked across the idyllic sky. They went for miles, slowly curving inwards as they made a great circle. Herein they marked the edge of their new domain.
They came together again. Spiraling together through the air in a double helix. Up they went, to the very edge of the sky. Here a very hushed conversation took place, in the parting seconds of one world, and the birthing seconds of a new one.
“Yukarin! I must tell you now, before all is done! You may not see me again for a very long time!”
“But what of it? For this is as much for you as it is for me or any other! An eternity is small price for the smile you grace to me!”
A new thing was born that day.
It is one hundred and twenty-seven years after the creation of the Great Hakurei Barrier. The eternal sun shines gently onto the shrine of the Hakurei line. Its maiden, a smaller figure with brown hair and a fair complexion, kneels before a statue of a dragon. She takes careful measure to clean the statue, moving in a ritualistic manner.
“Oh Reimu, what are you doing now? You won’t accomplish anything cleaning that statue all day.”
So called a fawning, familiar voice. A teasing face peeking from beyond a portal. The graceful Yukari Yakumo, master of the border.
“Hrmph! It’s not like you know anything about hard work or Dragon’s teachings!”
There was a terrible silence for a moment before Yukari looked up towards the sun.
“Hurry, hurry! We’re on in twenty!” The pale girl with light-blue hair waved her arms through the air while she jumped back and forth.
The red-clad brunette next to her barely glanced up from her seat. “It’s more like five, Merlin.”
“What? No way, I actually checked the schedule this time,” the poltergeist trumpeter suspiciously checked over her shoulder. “If you’re sure then I’ll go out and play for the guests a bit on my own, just to keep them busy. Don’t get up guys, I can handle this!”
“Sure, have fun.”
“Stop it you two.” The third girl waiting in the room spoke up. “Merlin, this is hardly an occasion for manic solos. Lyrica, stop encouraging her because you don’t want to play.” The blonde musician put her foot down, reigning in her sisters’ tendencies.
“If I didn’t want to play I wouldn’t have agreed to this.” The keyboardist blew a lock of hair out of her eyes, petulantly standing and materializing her instrument of choice.
“Lazy Lyrica, lazy Lyrica, lazy Lyri-eeeep!” Discordant notes flew through the air, the cringing melody taking command of the room and brokering no room for insults. “Are you trying to pick a fight? Huh? I’ll show you what’s what, Sis!”
The blaring of a trumpet intermingled with the pounding of a keyboard, the two instruments competing for melodic dominance. The feuding musicians drew closer and closer to each other, practically jamming their instruments in their opponent’s face.
Lunasa watched her sisters with exasperated eyes, believing herself to be the only sane one in the family. “Let the festivities begin…”
“…because all you three ever do is bicker!” The green-haired sister shouted, her poise and dignity lost in anger.
“Well if Merlin would shut her honking for a few minutes so I could hear myself think then maybe we could live in peace!”
“You’re daft, Lyrica. This is a brand new Stoezel horn. Listen to the perfect pitch this can hold while I play. It’s glorious!”
“You call that playing? I can head over to the peasant farms and listen to the cowbells make better music than that.”
“Not at all! Do your ears even work? Don’t you see how the valves fit the-”
“Enough! I’ve had it up to here with you two screaming; how do you expect me to get any work done with all this commotion? I swear, you sisters are so useless! I have half a mind to replace you all – be quiet for once!” The incensed green-haired girl shouted over her sisters, her voice dominant in the family.
The previously silent girl who had been watching the scene with disinterest stepped forward. “Why do you even care, Layla? Those two never let it go, and it isn’t like you’re doing much work in the first place.”
“You disrespectful- who do you think is keeping everything running around here? It certainly isn’t you! I’m not the one creating the same dreadful screeching all day every day.”
The black-clad blonde turned up her nose. “You belittle me for dedicating myself to improving? Unlike some in the house, I do not settle for warbling, inconsistent tones in my music.”
The derisive comment drew shouts of protest from every other girl, the musicians and singers believing themselves the affronted.
The green-haired girl slammed the ground with her high-heeled shoes. “I’ve had enough of this! Do not dare to bother me with your petty squabbling again or I truly will replace you!” The girl stomped away from the group and towards her study.
“Bye Layla! Do your best!” Blue-haired child called out to green, the two middle children of the family looking at each other for a second. Then the living human huffed and slammed the door to her study.
With the departure of their sister, the poltergeists quieted down. The three musicians looked at each other glumly, bitter happiness shared amongst them. “I think that’s enough for today…”
“…and two and three and-” the steady counting was interrupted with a blare of noise, a dozen phantasmal horns and trumpets smashing the score into pieces.
“Merlin! No solos! Why are you ruining our last minute rehearsal?” Lunasa tore into her sister with abandon.
“I can’t hear you, Miss Perfect, over the sound of my astounding music!” The practice session devolved from that point onward, the musicians’ prepared piece torn apart and stitched back together in a Frankenstein way as the poltergeists competed for musical dominance. Their carefully composed music, like every piece created by the Prismriver Ensemble, improved from the discord. Only through the trial of playing, of forcing their scattered personalities and souls into their music, did it transcend into something greater.
The sisters played to each others’ strengths and weakness unnaturally well, managing to compete for the spotlight and harmonize at the same time. That was the manner in which their band became legendary, mesmerizing those who sought to listen to their soul-wrenching performances.
The poltergeist sisters played their metamorphosing piece until they heard the crying. Music ground to a halt when the musicians turned to the source of tears.
The party manager for the event of the day stood off to the side of the practice room, bawling her eyes out, a blissful smile on her face.
“Hey Miss! What’d you think? Was that good enough for the lucky couple? Do you think they’ll love it?” Merlin tried to bounce over to the sobbing woman but Lyrica caught her by the skirt and dragged her backwards.
“Are you trying to drive the poor lady even crazier, Merlin? Settle down and stop playing so noisily for once.”
The subdued sounds of giggling drew Lyrica’s ire. “You too, Lunasa. Stop being such a downer! You’re supposed to be the responsible one, so moderate yourself a bit before you make everybody else break down in tears, too.” The red-clad poltergeist stormed away from her obnoxious sisters and calmly approached the happily sobbing human.
The two soul-moving poltergeists watched their younger sister talk the party manager down. “What does that girl think she’s doing, trying to subdue my playing? It’s supposed to be a party!”
“Lyrica is only trying her best…”
“…you condescending little smart-aleck, you should check your mouth before you aggravate somebody more violent than me.” The blonde and brunette sisters raged at each other in the foyer of their family mansion.
“At least I know when to stop, huh? You’re the one likely to drive some poor guy up the wall with your perfectionist streak. Stop looking down on everybody for once in your life!”
“Enough!” The green-haired sister broke up the fighting after she trudged down the stairs. Her hands whipped out, slapping the feuding sisters simultaneously. “What is wrong with you all? I made the most damning mistake in my life by bringing you lot into existence. You three just won’t leave well enough alone! Thank you kindly for shutting your traps.”
As the pervasive influence within the household, the appearance of the second middle child had decisively put an end to the bickering. Youngest and eldest stared at their sister with large eyes. “Sorry, Layla, I’m a bit too antsy today.”
“I apologize as well. I should know better than to start a screaming match.”
The second middle sister glanced between the two contrite poltergeists before nodding imperiously. “Good. Maybe you girls can be quiet for more than a few minutes. Hah, if only.” Heading back upstairs, practicing her scales, the green-haired girl left her sisters alone once more.
The youngest jammed her elbow into the side of her sister. “Nobody would ever beat up cute me, silly.”
The blonde girl shook her head and chuckled. “Are you so sure about that? I believe there was one group of villagers that did not take well to your surprise performance.”
“Those peasants wouldn’t know good music if it knocked their house down; we reimbursed the owner of that place anyway, so it should have been fine. It’s not like the hole was that large!”
One pair of eyes stared solemnly at the top of the stairs. “Is this truly the best way, Lyrica?”
“What? Is that bothering you again?” The brunette wagged her finger at her sister. “I hope you’re not trying to call me dumb; I thought about this solution a ton. Unless you can come up with a different, foolproof plan, rocking the boat is the last thing we want. After all, we’re just maintaining the status quo. You shouldn’t worry about it, Lunasa…”
“…thank you, thank you! We’re delighted to be here with you all today!” The cheeriest poltergeist in the venue yelled at the top of her lungs, her voice reaching all the way to the party kitchens.
Lunasa shoved her sister out of the way and spoke in a more professional tone, her voice no less audible to the crowd. “We would like to extend our congratulations to the bride and groom. May you two have a long and happy marriage.”
“Full of screaming, wailing babies! Get started on that after this, would you?” The crowd roared at Merlin’s joke, the poor newly-weds attempting to hide their embarrassment however they could.
The depressing and uplifting poltergeists glared at each other, the eldest sister eventually returning to address the crowd. “Please remember, living together will not be easy. You may go through times of extreme hardship, of ear-splitting arguments and of terrible misfortune. Your future family could be fractured by infighting that slowly creeps upon you like a snake in the grass.”
The somber words stilled the festive atmosphere of the celebration. The guests in the crowd did not expect the highly irregular warning which ran counter to traditional wedding addresses.
“But,” Merlin took over, “don’t think your future is filled with doom and gloom. As long as you remember to smile at each other, your lives are destined to turn out wonderfully! Argue if you want, but make sure it has a purpose! Feel depressed after an accident if you need to, but lean on each other for support! If you are honest and truthful with your feelings and learn to accept your significant other for who they are, there will never be a happier family in the world!”
The room briefly paused after the stirring speech before breaking out in applause. Cheers and whoops accompanied the heartfelt advice, the dynamic poltergeists bowing at the waist to show their respect.
“It’s basically cheating when you two pull stunts like this,” the youngest sister complained from the rear of the group.
Merlin waved her trumpet over her head in protest. “How can you even say that, Lyrica? You’re the one who wrote our speeches.”
“Well yeah, because the both of you couldn’t write a few words without hyper charging them and melting everybodys’ brains. That doesn’t change the fact that I’m never going to be popular with you two stealing all the limelight.”
Lunasa sighed and brought her violin to her shoulder. “Honestly, Lyrica, you have just as much experience as us. You could easily make a speech in our place and talk about…”
“…hate you, I hate you!”
“Right back at you, Sis! I should move out of this dump already; I’ve got handsome admirers in France that would just love to take me in!” The pale-haired girl raised her arms as if to encompass the whole world.
The oldest sister chuckled, leaning back against a convenient pillar. “Admirers? I would call them thugs and no-lives. If you two don’t find proper jobs out there, how do you ever expect to survive?”
The youngest of the girls scoffed. From her position sitting on the banister of the balcony, she kicked her legs out in disgust and mimed out motions with her hands. “Oh, proper jobs, is it? Well sorry I can’t land such a prestigious and affluent academy job like you. Maybe I should get on my knees a bit more, huh? I’ll be rolling in job offers after swallowing a bit!”
“You little brat! You think you can lounge around using father’s money forever? A moocher such as you will be tossed out in no time!”
“Would you three idiots just jump off the balcony already?” The bespectacled green-haired girl tore off her glasses and slammed her hands down on the table she sat at, the ledgers and record books jumping into the air. “I swear, you three should just leave like the real ones. That way I don’t need to deal with a dysfunctional family! I’ll make the next set of sisters nothing like the rest of you; they’ll be polite and demur and listen to me like they did to daddy!”
The arguing poltergeists watched their fuming creator warily.
Slowly, the replica of the youngest sister spoke. “If these dumbos want to get rid of me so much they’ll have to try harder. I don’t need father’s money when you’re providing everything I need, Layla.” Her rant concluded, the brunette slammed open the sliding glass door and stepped back inside the mansion.
“Yeah, who needs foreign admirers when my sisters are always around to listen to my music, whether they want to or not?”
“I could never take a stuffy professorial position when you three still don’t understand basic music theory. If I cannot teach my family, I doubt I would be successful with strangers.” The other poltergeists said their piece and headed off into the house as well.
The heiress of the family fortune watched her creations leave. The young woman sighed before sitting back down and continuing to work on the family finances, all while muttering quietly to herself.
Just inside the mansion, around the bend from the doorway, the poltergeist sisters reconvened. They stood huddled in a circle, foreheads touched together. “Weren’t you a bit too explicit this time, Lyrica?”
“You kidding, Lunasa? You know as well as I do how bad I used to be…”
“…amazing.” The audience had whispered quiet praises at the very beginning of the performance before losing their voices completely. The humans’ voices were inconsequential, nowhere near strong enough to compete with the tunes flowing from the Prismriver Ensemble.
On stage, the poltergeists jived with their music. The sisters swayed together, owning the space available to them while they played. The band moved with unspoken coordination, swapping positions as their roles in the pieces changed and developed.
Lunasa’s bow strummed agonizingly slowly, taunting the audience with its haunting reverberation. The song would turn and the bow would thrash, spitfire playing seguing into the powerful bellows of brass. Merlin took command with audacity, wildly combining the sounds of horns, trumpets, clarinets and tubas to dominate her time in the headlights. With reluctance the middle sister would give way to the youngest, sounds of reality replaced with those of illusions. The otherworldly noises filled the air, mixing together with the throbbing emotions left by her sisters to create a masterpiece. The Prismrivers played their hearts out, pooling together their wills and experiences into an extravagant performance, transitioning from piece to piece as one. Sounds echoed within the listeners’ hearts and souls, the harmonious music drawing to light the suppressed emotions of the lucky humans.
The poltergeist sisters enjoyed themselves, yet played for others. The three like-minded band members understood humans far better than they could understand themselves. They knew they were copies, but no less real than others. They understood what their originals could not and threw themselves into their work, bringing emotions and subtle teaching to all who would care to listen.
Music was their outlet, the medium that could touch all. Their songs always reached even the most cankerous souls. Their sounds resounded in the fiber of all beings, their feelings and emotions connecting with others in the most fundamental way.
The poltergeists performed in a trance, phantasmal music mixing together with past and present, creating a performance the wedding-party goers were not soon to forget. They played in celebration of a happily married couple, and in remembrance of their beloved family…
…the night was still young, but the dismal party was over. Beer bottles and wine glasses lay scattered around the room. Food and other garbage littered the floor. Pillows and cushions had been tossed about; chairs tipped over and carpeting blemished by stains.
Jus as they did every year, Prismriver sisters exploded. Each year, the poltergeists helped to tear apart their mansion in a faux-drunken remembrance, mourning the loss of a man they never knew yet remembered vividly.
Times would blur as past and present intertwined, the living Prismriver losing herself in a drunken fury, raging at the unfairness of life and the brainlessness of all her family. The other sisters would remain in the room and revel in the unfettered verbal abuse. They would take up the call of hatred and reciprocate, laying out every dark desire and thought that crossed their minds. The four of them cursed and shouted at the top of their lungs, damning the existence of the world in their bitterness and hate.
Eventually, the mistress of the mansion would collapse, her constitution too weak to continue through the night. Then, the poltergeists would end the annual festivities and restore the mansion to its proper state, preparing for the next year of life.
“…father…” the green-haired girl muttered in her sleep. The poltergeist sisters stopped their cleaning and gathered around their fallen creator. The girl tossed from side to side in her drunken sleep. “…why…leave…don’t…go…”
The poltergeists shook their heads and pooled their efforts, finding blankets and pillows to make their green-haired sister’s sleep on the couch somewhat comfortable.
Ghostly hands smoothed out the blankets, brushing green bangs into an orderly appearance. “…please…family…together…”
Quietly as to not disturb their creator, the poltergeists voiced their thoughts. “We were pretty stupid, huh?”
The eldest sister considered the youngest sister’s words. “‘Were’? I believe ‘are’ would be more appropriate.”
“I really wish I could cheer her right up; Layla is just as susceptible to our music as anyone else, you know?” The most excitable sister sighed in a completely uncharacteristic manner.
“Yeah, I know what you mean, but then this wouldn’t work out, would it?” The youngest shook her head. “We’re supposed to be perfect copies, remember?”
“Perfect? I wouldn’t want to be a perfect copy even if I could be. I was so obnoxious and annoying.”
“Again, ‘are,’ not ‘was’.”
“So mean to me, Lunasa.”
The blonde poltergeist drew her sister into a hug, silently apologizing. The third sister whimpered about the unfairness, so the poltergeists came together in a group hug next to their sleeping creator.
Together, the facsimiles of the Prismriver sisters bent over and drew their most cherished sister into the hug. The sleeping girl could not hear their words, but the poltergeists did not care. Words were what the real Prismrivers had relied on, the only language they had recognized. As many lies as truths could be communicated with words.
“Don’t worry, Layla. We’re doing our best to be the sisters you intended us to be, but we can never replace them, not exactly. Your power isn’t as controlled as you think it is. You made us too different from what you remembered, from what was real.
“As far as problems go, it isn’t a horrible one. Defective copies like us just can’t bear to leave you. Sorry about that.
The pump creaks its normal protest as you work it ten, twenty, thirty times, the pure water that flows a far cry from its rusted appearance. You whisper your appreciation for its labors, and it grumbles back as the water half-drawn up through it bubbles back into the earth. ‘You don’t even need to drink,’ it moans. ‘Why must you disturb me?’
‘Hush,’ you chastise it. ‘Be glad she hasn’t replaced you with that newfangled ‘plumbing’.’ Lifting up the newly-filled bucket, you give the tsukumogami a quick pat. That your fingers come away clean and not streaked with brown is because it merely chooses to appear worn and broken down, not because it’s uncared for. You’d been warned that the object youkai was in its ‘young, rebellious phase’ and a constant source of trouble, but you soon found that all it takes is a firm hand to make it obey, albeit sullenly.
Your threat is an empty one anyways; here in Senkai, there are no pumping stations, no treatment plants, no sewers. Water has to be conjured, but while you don’t need to drink, it’s still needed for other mundane tasks.
Not that the path to immortality is mundane. After all, you started your journey by faking your death in the most dramatic fashion possible. You forget all the details, but it involved nine wagons of festival fireworks, a warehouse full of straw, and two casks of lantern oil.
And now, in an attempt to overcome your last desires, you cultivate divine peaches that when you do not eat, gather water when you do not drink, mix medicines when you cannot fall ill, and mind a house when you do not sleep.
You’re just turning around when you’re hailed by an unwelcome visitor. ‘Heeey, Myouren~,’ a husky, female voice drawls from above. ‘It’s time for your yearly re-miiin-der!~’
You sigh in exasperation and set the bucket down. ‘Good day, Komachi. Looking healthy as always.’
She pretends to swoon, airing herself with her free hand. ‘Well, ain’t you just the ladies’ man!’
‘I take it you got your ‘beauty sleep’?’
The red-haired shinigami beams. ‘Ayup!’
‘That would explain why you’re late, as always. ‘Yearly’ was twelve days ago.’
‘Y’know I’m doing ya a favor by coming late, yeah?!’ she splutters. ‘Giving you more time to gather your courage for this battle of will?! Hey, why doncha start tracking the hours too, Mister Punctual?!’
‘Also seven hours and forty-three minutes. I was going to be generous and round down – ’
‘Oh c’mon, stop that! Let’s start – have atcha, one card!’ she cries, and with that she flicks her hand towards you. A single, lazy orb of that laughably safe magic they call ‘danmaku’ floats towards you. You give it an annoyed glance as it sails far above your head, over the roof of the house and into the night sky. ‘Your turn!’
With a tired sigh, you point your finger back at her. A similarly lazy, nonlethal shot flies towards her in turn – you’re not about to expend more energy than you have to – but yours is actually on target.
With a loud pi-chun, the annual contest for your immortality is over, if such a farce can truly be called a ‘contest’.
Wiping your hands on your robes, you walk over to the snoring shinigami where she lays in the grass, her arm haphazardly caught underneath her head and definitely not serving as a pillow.
This has been the arrangement for several decades now. This ferryman shinigami is ‘hardworking enough’ to ‘volunteer’ to carry out this ‘perilous duty’; at least, that’s what the ledgers say. Said duty is ‘perilous’ because ferrymen shinigami aren’t particularly strong compared to the reaper shinigami that get sent after legitimately evil immortals. Virtuous immortals like you are supposed to get a similar reminder every so often, but more often than not there aren’t enough reapers for even the evil immortals on the books, much less the good ones.
As a result, you’re normally skipped entirely, leaving the reapers to actual, productive work chasing down lichs and blood mages and such. However, shinigami aspiring to rise in power and rank are encouraged to take on this backlog, using these ceremonial showdowns to exercise their fighting abilities against opponents who won’t seal them away in some dark corner of the universe for untold millennia.
However, this particular shinigami saw an opportunity for extra vacation days. If there wasn’t a minimum wait between such visits, she’d bother you every day… and yet she still manages to even be late for this. You’re in awe.
Not that Hell encourages anyone to dispense this knowledge, but it’s not forbidden either, and after the third lame excuse for a battle you fought, you threatened to personally report her slacking unless she explained exactly what was up.
As you move to drag her out of the garden, though, she surprises you by speaking up. ‘Hey, Myouren.’
‘Y’might wanna know something interesting. You ain’t livin’ here alone, are ya?’
‘I do have a roommate, yes,’ you admit evasively. ‘Why?’
She cracks one eyelid to give you a funny look. ‘Why so dodgy? You take up a mistress?’ She grins. ‘I thought ya Buddhists – ‘
‘I have not ‘taken up a mistress’,’ you snap.
‘Oh, so it’s a guy then, got it – ‘
‘She’s just a fellow seeker of immortality, just like everyone here.’
‘Ya don’t exactly bump into another hermit and just say, ‘hey, let’s live under the same roof, it’ll be great,’ do ya? Especially a girl…’
You shrug. ‘Off-limits. Friend of my sister’s.’
The shinigami frowns. ‘Ah. Yeah, definitely don’t cross that line, if ya wanna keep the ol’ jewels intact.’
Of course, your sister doesn’t even know you’re alive, so it hardly matters what she thinks. ‘Tell the truth, living here’s starting to grate on me. Too hard to focus on working towards enlightenment most of the time.’
‘So, whadaya consider enlightenment?’
‘The ability to overcome all desires. Those of the body of mine are almost all finished; what remain now are the desires of my mind. The internal contemplation I need in order to track each one down is much easier in a peaceful environment, but every day she comes home it’s like a hurricane, tornado, tsunami, and famine all at once.’
‘That bad, huh?’ she laughs, but after a second she thinks. ‘Lemme guess, ya gotta massive case of desire to pack up and move out, eh? And that’s disturbing your thoughts or somethin’.’
‘I guess you could say that,’ you laugh. ‘I’m not used to this busy sort of life.’
‘Well, I’m afraid ya can’t move in with me. I mean, I don’t even have a place to call my own…?’ she trails off meaningfully, her eyes casing the four paper and wood paneled walls surrounding the courtyard. You sigh. Never change, Komachi.
‘Well, she said she wouldn’t be coming home tonight – some big meeting or something, I didn’t ask about much else. In any case, I should to have the place to myself tonight, so I’ll just lend you one of the rooms.’
‘Much apprec – ‘
‘Hey. First, that ‘something interesting’.’
‘Oh! Sorry, distracted.’ She coughs. ‘Well, apparently they’re thinking of sending a reaper here for your busybody housemate here – ‘
You slap her, spinning her head around and away before she can say anymore. You don’t try to pull the blow at all; you know she’s perfectly capable of laughing off the strongest haymaker you can throw. Your body may be perfect, but it’s not a warrior’s. ‘Ha. Ha. Very funny. Really, Komachi, you of all people should be taking this more seriously.’
She grunts, turning back to face you. Her eyes are stone-cold. You haven’t seen this side of her before.
‘… you’re serious.’ Your jaw drops as the shinigami nods. ‘Why?!’ you demand. ‘I know exactly how she is maintaining her immortality, and she’s doing nothing immoral at all – ‘
‘Exactly. She’s not doing anything herself. Being handed her continued immortality on a silver platter kinda sets a bad example. It encourages tyranny; to oppress others to serving their needs for them. Greed soon sets – ‘
‘You are talking to a Buddhist about how desire corrupts,’ you interrupt her. ‘I am fully aware of the process.’
‘Heh. Good point.’
‘So it’s a crime to just be an immortal now? Why don’t you take offense against…’ Your jaw works up and down as you think of all the ageless, undying creatures you’ve ever known. ‘What makes her case different than being immortal by virtue of birth?’
‘Just the bureaucracy scuttlebutt.’ she shrugs. ‘When I said I was headin’ out this way, Shiki did a doubletake, asked me when I became a reaper. Said I wasn’t, and she told me what I told you.’
You sigh in exasperation. ‘Fine. Just keep me posted if anything changes, okay?’ You grimace. ‘I’ve seen a reaper once before. Never want to again – no offense.’
‘None taken,’ she shrugs. ‘Us ferrymen are pretty terrified of them ourselves.’
You beckon slightly and turn back towards the kitchen. Komachi falls into step as you scoop up the bucket. ‘So whadaya plan on doin’ about this lil’ situation, eh? You’ve got an even better reason to go now, not like you’re married to her or anything.’
You wince at that. ‘Yeah, but for all its faults, Senkai’s a pretty nice place to live.’
She raises an eyebrow. ‘Thought you were complaining about the noise just a minute ago?’
‘It’s better than the wilds I used to stay in,’ you sart to explain, dropping the bucket off as you pass through the kitchen. Komachi reaches for one of the peaches you gathered earlier from the orchard; you slap her hand aside. ‘And no, those are not for you.’
‘You’re not going to eat them,’ she pouts, even as you lead her to your own personal quarters – you don’t sleep in them anyways.
‘No, but someone else is. Anyways,’ you continue before she can ask another question, ‘just like reapers hunt evil immortals, monsters track us good ones. Even to the remotest of places, they’ll try and hunt you down and eat you to gain some power. And – get away from those,’ you scold her, pulling her away from your medicine table. ‘You’ll contaminate them, breathing like that.’ There are a dozen different medicines for various ailments scattered about, but in piled high in the center are blended powders of holy stones like jade and lapis – no cinnabar, you’re not an amateur – with herbs like jiaogulan, ginseng, and skullcap: an immortality elixir.
‘What’s this for?’ the shinigami asks you suspiciously. ‘Thought you said your body was perfect already.’
‘This, along with the peaches in the kitchen and a few other various things,’ you sigh, realizing you can’t withhold the truth much longer, ‘is how I earn my keep.’
‘Eh? Man, you gotta pay rent in this place?’
‘Not so much rent as a bribe. Senkai’s a very controlled community. When the creator of this place found out that my sister was her main political opponent, she just about threw a fit.’ You gesture towards the medicines. ‘It took offering her all these unreasonable favors to get her to let me stay.’
‘So who are these for, then?’ she continues pressing you, not about to be deterred.
You hesitate. ‘… the very creator of Senkai herself.’
Komachi’s eyes narrow, but before she can inquire further, bells ring out at the front door. ‘Myouren! I’m back!’ shouts the very person in question: Toyosatomimi no Miko, the Shoutoku Taoist.
‘I thought you said she wouldn’t be coming back today!’ she whines.
‘That’s what she told me! Don’t ask me for an explanation!’ you splutter. ‘You have to get out of here,’ you tell her. ‘You can’t be seen by her – ‘
‘ – hey, now, why not?’
‘I’m not supposed to let anyone else into the house,’ you hiss. ‘She’ll kill me – ‘
She blinks. ‘What, I don’t think it could be that bad – ‘
‘No time!’ Without further ado, you shove her into the closet. ‘And if you don’t shut up, I’ll tell your boss all about our little arrangement!’
‘Myouren!’ the voice calls again. ‘I said ‘I’m back’!’
A vein pulses in your forehead. Has she ever been this hard-assed? ‘Yes, yes, welcome home! I’m just finishing something up here, I’ll be a minute!’
Something heavy hits the door, trying to push it open. ‘Geez, she sounds annoying, just how’d you end up – ‘
‘Well, hurry up!’ Annoying is right.
You don’t even take the time to listen to Komachi’s last complaint before dragging the dresser in front of the door to seal her in. ‘I said shut up!’ you hiss. ‘I’ll let you out later – ‘
With that, you run for the front door, cursing busybody shinigamis and demanding saints alike.
Something’s off today. Normally she’s practically sneering at you as she makes you wait on her hand and foot; something to do with having been former royalty. You wonder just how her servants tolerated her before you came along.
But today, despite her earlier tone, she looks more dazed than incensed. Her eyes are ringed with fatigue; she looks near collapse. ‘Untie my sandals for me,’ she sighs, closing her eyes and swaying slightly on the spot.
You try to recite a sutra about peace, but instead consider throwing your own sandal at her and telling her to stick her shaku where the sun doesn’t shine. But – that shaku is in her left hand, not her right. Most people would normally dismiss such a minor detail, but you’ve greeted her hundreds of times at this doorway before; she always holds it in her right.
Now more curious than angry, you ignore her command and circle her. She doesn’t even notice you, her eyes still closed and right arm hanging… strangely. You give the shoulder an experimental prod, causing her to hiss in pain. ‘What happened today?’ you ask. Not that you’re only trying to bypass all the work she makes you do; you’re legitimately concerned.
‘Someone tried to shoot me,’ she gasps as you push her into a nearby chair and slide your hand into the neck of her jacket, pulling it down and to the side as far as the fabric will stretch. You frown as you rub the huge, mottled bruise forming across her shoulder.
‘Someone did shoot you.’
‘No, just tried. They wanted me dead, and they failed at that.’
‘It wasn’t my sister, was it?’
‘I doubt it. Not unless she’s insane. We were holding that meeting about the state of the youkai with the ongoing expansion of the village, and suddenly the window breaks, and this happens,’ she indicates with the smallest of shrugs; small to irritate the injury as little as possible. ‘Byakuren was targeted at the same time, and she actually came off worse. Actually broke bones. If she was doing that to just try and deflect suspicion…’
You nod. ‘You catch the assassin?’
‘Reisen Udongein Inaba. Lunarian refugee. Dab shot with a rifle, but whatever she was shooting wasn’t nearly powerful enough. Sure, it blew through the walls like nothing, but if she wanted to crack our defenses then she’ll have to do far better than one bullet,’ she spits. ‘Wouldn’t tell us who hired her, but honestly, this has all the signs of a set-up for failure. Questions within questions.’
You frown, but there’s really nothing more you can add without knowing more. You keep an ear cocked for any further explanation, but none is forthcoming. Before you know it you’re leading her to her chambers, her hand on your arm for support as she totters precariously on her bare feet. Did you take off her sandals for her after all? You must have. When you slide open the door, though, she doesn’t let go.
‘I’m about to faint,’ she whispers. ‘Help me.’
Pursing your lips, you decide not to argue with her in this state. ‘I’ll bring you your medicines,’ you say as you lead her to her desk. ‘I’ll be just a moment.’
‘Could you just lay my futon out?’ she moans. ‘I feel like I’m about to pass out.’
It might take more than one bullet to kill her, but she must have expended a great deal of energy to protect herself. ‘No – no,’ you firmly cut her off. ‘Medicines first, then a bath to relieve the soreness. I’ll prepare dinner while you soak. Alright?’
‘Alright,’ she sighs, simply too tired to argue with you. That fact more than anything else worries you.
You leave the room at a dignified pace, but you tap into your magic to dash into your room, gather the tray of medicines, and dash back into the hallway without spilling a grain in the blink of an eye. Your feet actually slide to a halt in front of her as you set the tray down on her desk, tossing papers and pens to the floor in your haste.
‘Donwanna,’ she pouts, eyelids fluttering shut as her head nods forward.
Without even bothering to argue back, you simply pinch her nose. Not that she needs to breathe, same as you, but the gesture is demeaning enough to convince her to open her mouth. At first you literally have to spoonfeed her, but eventually she’s either shamed into or recovers enough to do it herself.
From the way her hands tremble, you suspect the latter.
You don’t leave any room for discussion. Surreptitiously adding stimulants and medicines to the immortality elixir, you hover by her side, encouraging her to take just one more bite. When she drops the spoon after choking the last mouthful down, you press a cup of water into her hands until her fingers grab at it; press it to her lips until she tilts her head back and drinks. When the cup joins the spoon, you grab her underneath her shoulders and lift. She makes a few more half-complaints when you roughly strip her to her chemise, but stops even trying when you scoop her up and bodily carry her to the house’s baths yourself, preferring to wrap her arms around your neck and nuzzle into your shoulder with a contented sigh.
You leave her perched on the edge of a freshly drawn and steaming bath to go prepare the peaches you’d harvested earlier, ignoring her muzzy entreaty to stay and help her bathe. A man has to draw a line somewhere, after all.
‘Dinner’s ready,’ you call as you reenter, towels in hand. You sigh in relief as you see her sitting neck-deep in the steaming water, only to frown again in dissatisfaction when you see the two straps of her chemise still plastered to her shoulders, only visible against the bruise.
In response to your voice, her head moves a little as she says something too quiet for you to hear. ‘Come again?’ you ask, taking a seat on the bath’s edge behind her. Carefully, you work your fingers into her hair, pulling out the tiny enchanted combs that keep it styled into those two horn-like protrusions and placing them into a small basket. She’s still wearing those damned earmuff-like things of hers, and so you put those in the basket as well.
‘… thanks, Myouren,’ she mumbles, louder this time.
‘Just focus on resting for now,’ you say quickly, feeling a blush rise in your cheeks, grabbing a bucket and bottle of shampoo.
For a few minutes you just wash her hair, gently scrubbing the silver locks while firmly massaging her scalp with your fingers. But as you finish rinsing, she finally speaks up. ‘Hey – can I ask you to do one more thing for me?’
‘Yes?’ you reply automatically.
‘It’s… about the injury…’
You put down the bucket down. No. You’re not about to put up with this. She’s got a reaper paying her a visit, threatening her very existence, and she’s worrying about some half-assed moon-rabbit inconveniencing her with alchemical slug-throwing contraption?
You’ve already begun preparing to deal with that reaper when – if, you remind yourself – if it comes. And now she wants you to look into this matter? Not that you don’t think there shouldn’t be an investigation – peace is a central tenet to Buddhism, after all – but that’s something she can do for herself.
You don’t enjoy scolding people, but sometimes you have to. Even though her back is facing you, you sit up straighter and set your jaw. ‘Look, I know you’re busy, but I’m can’t involve myself in your politics. This,’ you emphasize by pouring more bathwater over her head, ‘is what I can do for you, and nothing more; my sister thinks I’m dead. I know you want me to reunite with her now that she’s achieved immortality too, but I can’t just going around all of a sudden; I don’t even want to think of how she’ll react. And even if I were to go out there and try and out who did this to you – what would I, with zero political experience, be able to dig up? I can do a lot of things for you, but this isn’t one of them.’
Silence fills the room for a minute. Not that it’s that awkward – your arguments generally go this way, with you presenting everything once to let her contemplate them while simultaneously listening to your desires. It makes debates go by far more smoothly – even you don’t always say what you actually mean. But at length, she replies, ‘… I know you can’t… I know you say you can’t, but, even so, I know you just want me to be safe.’
You blink. ‘I’m sorry for misunderstanding,’ you apologize.
‘No, no, I’m… touched.’
Oops. She must be picking up on your worries about the reaper shinigami; you try as hard as you can to stop thinking about protecting her in the future. No. She needs to think you’re more callous than that, you want her to think that there’s nothing to worry about at all –
‘You’re loud right now, you know,’ she giggles quietly.
– you’ll never be able to fool her, you realize resignedly. ‘Sorry,’ you mumble.
‘No, don’t be.’ She sighs. ‘You know, I initially hired you on because you’re usually so quiet.’ she says, tilting her head back to look at you. ‘I said to myself, if I can convince this man to do all the jobs my old servants did, then I can have some actual peace and quiet without having to wear those on my ears all the time.’
‘That’s not a badge of office?’ you ask, feeling ridiculous. Of course it’s not.
She shakes her head. ‘I don’t so much listen to people’s desires so much as they project it at me. Most people are the equivalent of a dozen different drums, all beating at different tempos. It’s so chaotic and grating and – agh!’ Her growl dissolves into the faintest of giggles as she seizes the air in front of her.
‘And the mufflers make it bearable.’
‘Yes. Barely. Except here. In Senkai, in this house, and after I hired you on, specifically. Don’t need them any more.’ She reaches back and touches your hand; you touch hers back. ‘You’re so quiet all the time. Without desire. I remember when we first met; when you said you had a sister, it was surely divine providence that I knew her. You share that silly hair – ‘
‘Hey, this is all natural!’ you retort, face flushing – and not because of the hair.
‘ – and that I figured out I could keep you here,’ she continues. ‘But… even when you do want something… it’s very simple. Orderly. Like someone actually speaking to me, and not trying to pick out a squeaking mouse in a sawmill. It’s easy, almost fun, to listen to.’
You squeeze her fingers. ‘I didn’t know that.’
She squeezes back. ‘But anyways, this, uh, this wasn’t about that.’ she mumbles, her head rolling forward again.
‘Oh? Oh.’ You feel your frustration ooze out of you. ‘I’m sorry,’ you apologize. ‘I misunderstood.’ You give her the best bow you can from your seat, and wait for her to present her own case, concentrating on your desire to hear her own explanation.
Silence again. It drags into two minutes, then three, then five. ‘Then… what was it about?’ you sigh, slowly pulling yourself up. ‘Is there something else?’
You frown. ‘What have I forgotten?’ Just because your method of obtaining immortality obviated the need to eat, drink, sleep, breathe, and even bathe doesn’t mean that you think everyone is like you. Maybe you’re starting to slide; starting to neglect things that even a saint like her still feels…?
‘It was just about… t-t-tonight…’ She blinks, then turns her head back forward, suddenly shy, a reticence that strikes you as odd.
‘Well, I, usually, on my back, but, but that’ll hurt with, with this injury, and, I, uh – ‘
Simple enough. ‘I, er, I suppose I can get you a few extra pillows – ‘
She turns around in her seat to face you. You’re flushing red to your roots. No, not even that. Your entire face must be as purple as those roots right now.
‘I w-wasn’t talking about… about sleeping,’ she eventually stammers out.
You swallow with a suddenly dry mouth. ‘… what, what were you talking about?’
‘… it might, might be better if…’
– might be better if you didn’t do this. Might be better if you closed your eyes. Might be better if you walked out, moved out, might be better if your nosy sister had never known her so that she would have never had to reason to tie you down here in the first place –
‘… on top?’ you gasp out, trying to end this as bluntly as possible, trying to make it end sooner, but no, why are you saying things as if you actually want to, the plan was to deflect the topic for once when it came up, and then explain why not, and then move on to some more pressing issue, like the reaper shinigami –
She shakes her head. Maybe she’s agreeing with you that you shouldn’t do this, she – stands up, the wet silk of her chemise not leaving anything to the imagination. Not that you have to imagine anything when she slides the straps from her shoulders, rolling the garment down until it floats away. ‘…from… b-b-behind, please?’ she asks, covering her mouth with both hands.
You told yourself yet again that today would be the day you got over these desires, and yet again you fail to make the slightest bit of progress. You’re not sure who reaches for who first, who kisses who, who moans and who sighs, and you’re certainly not sure how you manage to shrug out of your overrobe with both your hands full of… her. All you know is that a second later, her weight settles on yours as she steps out of her shift, panties, and bath with a single step, nestling into your lap with the next. ‘Let me reward your loyal service tonight,’ she whispers hotly into your ear.
‘The peaches,’ you protest, even as you wrap your arms around her waist while her legs lock together behind your back. ‘If those medicines are working now, then you should be starving – ‘
She kisses you so intensely you forget your own name for a few seconds. ‘I am starving right now,’ she gasps.
Dinner doesn’t get eaten until morning, the suds coagulate overnight, her underwear is ruined after swimming in bathwater that long, you left Komachi stuck in your closet, and you’re still nowhere near overcoming your desire.
‘Geez,’ the red-haired ferryman grumbles, rolling over onto her back in the grass of the courtyard. ‘Way to leave me hangin’.’ Shaking her head, she scans her eyes across the four surrounding walls to get her bearings, eventually locking onto one in particular. Those eyes narrow when she notes how the paper-paneled wall is just barely ajar – not that being shut would make the moaning and gasping any softer. If she looks long enough, she can even see their two silhouettes against the soft lamplight, grinding together in a sideways T –
She throws up her hands in resignation. ‘Okay, I’m out. So much for ‘off-limits’,’ she chuckles. ‘Desire to move out my ass. Sounds like he’s got a major case of goddamn ‘desire to fuck her brains out’!’
Sighing, she mentally plugs her ears and looks for someone to complain to. ‘Hey, you,’ she says, walking over to the handpump embedded in the ground. She grabs the handle at starts working, expectantly holding her other hand underneath the spigot while starting to ramble. ‘I feel sorry for ya. Can’t get away from it, can you? I mean, I’m just about to knock and tell them to keep it down, or at least get a real room, y’know? But you’re stuck here and can’t even say anything to complain, I mean, man, that sucks, right? And what does he mean he ‘hasn’t taken a mistress’, if he’s hustlin’ like this all night long – oh c’mon, gimme some already – ‘
Apparently the pump is in no mood to talk, as it only gives her one small cough of water, barely enough to wet one’s palm. Nevertheless, it’s enough to make the shinigami freeze, slide her hand off the handle, and look to the bedroom wall again with wide eyes.
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Days dragged on into months.
Months turned into years.
Seasons passed, as countless sunrises and sunsets graced the soft, hazy blue of the sky.
The world was perpetually changing.
Except for one particular spot; a region of lonely hillside isolated and hidden within the overgrown forest. Here, a field of flowering plants had grown, since time immemorial. But even they were not exempt from nature’s whim. Every year, by fall, the slopes became barren and lifeless as all the flowers withered and died.
Save one. A single flower -the same flower- growing in the center of the field remained. And it did not simply waste away like its kin.
For years, it had stood boldly; defiantly, against the seasons. It had weathered the approaching chill of autumn and the biting cold of winter for decades… perhaps even centuries. Travelers passing through the field on a snowy day would return home spinning tales of the unusual flower. Often, they were met with skeptical looks and doubting words, but in time, many came to witness the, ‘Everbloom’ and believe.
The days marched on and the seasons continued their endless cycle.
A town rose up, at the foot of the flower’s hillside. The flower’s reputation gathered men of all trades from the four corners of the Earth, helping the village prosper and grow. By the day, more and more people flocked to see the flower; to see just how truly splendid it was as had been described to them. In the spring and summer though, the flower did not appear all that outstanding or exceptional among other flowers of a wide variety- leaving many that visited during these seasons feeling rather mislead. Visitors often expected something far grander after hearing the lofty descriptions friends and family who had seen the plant gave.
None were disappointed, however, at wintertime when the plant’s fortitude was on full display. A healthy flower standing quietly in the snow certainly left no doubt in the minds of the people that this was no ordinary bloom.
The flower’s continued survival left many wondering. How? How did such a normal-looking thing endure the winter, much less a flower? And these were winters; that even grown men could freeze to death in if exposed for mere moments. Sunshine, rain, lightning, hail. It didn’t matter what was thrown at the humble plant- it survived. Gradually though, people simply came to revere it as a miracle of nature.
Innumerable moons waxed and waned, as the months passed by.
Eventually, a shrine was erected by the people of the village below, to honor the flower. The, ‘Everbloom’ had become renowned across the lands and word had spread across even the oceans of its mythical existence. Kings, and other royalty visited the shrine alongside nomads and common folk; leaving offerings in the hopes that the ancient plant would grant them a portion of its longevity.
It was even said that the spirits of the four seasons paid homage to the eternal flower. On rare occasions, people would often recount spotting visitors, wearing outlandish- maybe even otherworldly clothing, praying at the altar. The strangers were quickly dismissed as simply being odd travelers, but the speculating never truly faded away.
If the rumors were indeed true; however, and the gods themselves attended the shrine, none showed their respect more so than the spirits of autumn and winter. As autumn came around, a generous and plentiful bounty from the year’s harvest would appear at the steps of the shrine entrance. The donor was unknown, though many believed it was from the harvest goddesses themselves- holding the plant’s incredible strength of will in the highest of esteems.
Then came the gifts during the winters. Once the shrine had been finished, the winters became impossibly harsher and longer- as if the season itself were trying to disprove the mystic qualities of the everlasting bloom. Each time, winter failed. Many times, after a fierce blizzard, exquisite ice carvings of snowflakes could be found scattered about the shrine grounds. Similar to the donations of autumn, the crafter of the ice figures remained a mystery, but it was thought that the carvings were tributes to the plant from the spirit of winter herself; grudgingly conceding to the flower’s stubborn resilience.
These ‘legends’ only served to increase the fame of the simple flower and attract ever more travelers to its fair hill. With them, the travelers brought exotic goods from their homelands to trade with the locals. And the town flourished further still; quickly becoming a major hub for commerce.
The people of the village were happy and content, believing their Everbloom would continue to bring wealth and fortune to the town- a symbol of its perseverance. And the original pioneers; now the fathers of fathers, took heart in the fact that the flower would continue to stand proudly for future generations.
A sign of hope- forever watching over their village.
Generations came, and generations went, as the years quickly turned into decades.
A day soon came, when worshippers noticed a visible droop in the flower’s stem. The news traveled and the ensuing panic traveled even faster still. The village was in an uproar. Never before had the plant showed even a hint of weakness. The townspeople quickly rallied together, in a desperate bid to save their precious flower. Groups took shifts, watering it daily, sheltering it from the wind, and bundling it up in the cold. Night and day, the people cared for the flower, praying that it would soon recover. But to their dismay, the once-indomitable plant’s condition only continued to decline slowly.
The people’s hope rose slightly when the flower survived into the fall months. Thus, the villagers kept up their efforts; convincing themselves that the plant’s recovery was merely a slow process. Like before, a portion of the annual harvest’s reap was set in front of the shrine doors one autumn day- the sender just as anonymous as always. This time, though, the offering had doubled, nearly tripled in size. Many took it as a sign that demonstrated the support from the harvest goddesses.
Despite this, the Everbloom did not get better- the droop now becoming a glaring wilt.
Finally, came the year’s end. And as if sensing the faltering health of its nemesis, the winter renewed its attack full force. The cold arrived remarkably early; incredibly strong and unrelenting as it sent a brutal chill through the hillside. Then, to complicate matters, a blizzard developed and raged over the slopes for an entire month. A howling gale and bitter frost encased the town in imposing walls of thick snow and ice, preventing the villagers from protecting the exposed plant. The townspeople themselves were safe in their cozy houses, with enough food to outlast the blizzard thanks in part to the good harvest that year- courtesy of the harvest goddesses. The dangers outside, however, failed to deter some residents who perished as they left their houses trying fanatically to aid the flower. By the storm’s end, the town had somehow managed to endure- the survivors, shaken, but alive.
But what of the flower?
Frantically, the townspeople rushed to the field- hoping, praying, that the flower was still there. Stumbling through the snow, they approached the shrine, which stood in front of their, ‘Everbloom’. Heavy snow drifts blanketed the shrine, and the villagers had to shovel it away before they could even reach where the poor flower had stood. There was a collective held breath as they neared the location of their dear flower; none were sure of what to expect. Lifting the final heaps of snow aside, the survivors gasped at what awaited them.
Followed by silence.
The silence afterwards was broken by a faint sobbing.
And the sobbing soon crescendoed into sorrowful wailing.
The flower… was gone. Spirited away by the blizzard’s fury.
Departed. No more.
Eventually, the people sullenly returned to their homes, heartbroken and defeated. Each and every villager had known the flower their entire life and now- there was what seemed like a void in its place.
With it gone, to them, something irreplaceable… was missing.
In the days that followed, many cursed the year’s winter, blaming it for killing what had embodied the town’s persistence since its founding.
The winter’s only reply came in the light snow that fell until the spring.
Spring came and ended all too quickly as the townsfolk tried to focus their energy on rebuilding their town. Actual progress was pathetically slow and few had the will to continue the reconstruction. Not after that cruel winter. And none approached the shrine on the hill- it pained many to be reminded what had befallen their beloved flower.
Except for one. A boy, no older than twelve made the climb up. He had noticed strange happenings on the hilltop and had made up his mind to investigate. The trek was not difficult for him. This was, after all, a path that the boy knew well. In years past, he had made the journey regularly and today, he did so one more time.
Arriving at the ancient shrine, the boy peeked around the corner. Several rows of young plants, barely larger than sprouts, greeted his eyes. Drawing closer, he examined the plot of land carefully. Somehow, something was growing, but the boy didn’t care to find out how, or why.
The pitiful things were an eyesore to him.
Without a second thought, the child began systematically stamping out the offending greenery.
“STOP! What do you think you’re doing!?”
No sooner had the voice called out, a pair of hands- strong and firm, grabbed him from behind.
As he was dragged away from the field, he kicked and shouted, “NO! What do you think you’re doing, planting those weeds all over the shrine grounds?”
“Weeds? Why, these are flowers, child,” the voice replied, confused. The boy felt the grip of the hands relax and took the opportunity to break free, spinning to face the voice’s owner.
He stopped and gaped numbly. Before him stood a young woman, dressed in red and white plaid. Her face was fair, features stern, yet she retained an elegant air to herself. He was surprised the most, though, by her hair which was colored an unnatural shade of green that fell softly to her waist- the soft curls like grass stirring in the breeze. He stared openly; visibly intimidated by her presence.
The woman stared back, curious to see what the boy would do next.
He spoke, stuttering under her gaze, “N-no, these aren’t flowers! They’re weeds! They’ll s-suffocate the Everbloom! That’s why they’re weeds!”
“Excuse me, Everbloom? I’ve honestly never heard of that kind of flower before.” The stranger cocked her head, intrigued. This was the first she had heard of such a flower and it interested her greatly; her eyes glimmering with excitement.
The boy stopped and let out a shocked gasp. “Hang on a second… you’ve never heard of it? WHY, it’s been around FOREVER. How have you NOT heard of it?”
“My apologies, you simply must forgive me- I’m new around these parts, see?” The green-haired woman brought her hands together, clasping them tightly and smiled softly. “But, you seem to know a lot about it. Would it trouble you to show me this, Everbloom?”
The boy instinctively pointed to the flower’s spot behind the shrine as he had done so often in the past. “Of course not, it’s right over th-”
He froze as he remembered- the flower was gone.
The woman, concerned by the boy’s sudden stunned expression, leaned down. “Are you… feeling alright? Is something the matter?”
A mumble escaped his lips, THE FLOWER!!! IT’S GONE!!!” the boy shouted angrily, tears now rolling freely down his face.
He collapsed, weeping inconsolably. It was a hard thing for him to imagine the field without the Everbloom. He, as well as the rest of the town, had grown up with the flower. It was a part of them- ingrained in their hearts and minds. To have to confront the truth that it was no longer there… it had literally killed some of the villagers. The plant had supported them for so long and now without it, the village was collapsing; both physically and emotionally.
Meanwhile, the woman looked on, growing annoyed at the boy crying over something so trivial. As disappointed as she was not being able to see the flower, it bothered her to see the child overreact so.
“Boy, why do you cry?” she chided. “All things end- there are no such exceptions, even for a flower called the ‘Everbloom’.”
“Wha-?” The boy sniffed as he vainly attempted to wipe the tears from his face. “What do you mean by, all things end? The Everbloom was on that hill before our town even existed. How could something like that just disappear?”
“It’s a part of nature- nothing remains the same forever. Just remember this, young one, what lives one day… must also one day perish. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but there will come a time when it too must return to the earth that gave it life.” The woman glanced up at the clear sky and inhaled deeply; contemplating as a cool gust rolled through. She crouched and tenderly smoothed out the disturbed soil before gesturing toward her flower field. “See these? Even these will not live to see the year’s end.”
The boy was confused by her words. On one hand, the woman seemed to honestly treasure the plants she was raising. But despite that, she was resigning herself to the knowledge that they would one day die- only providing a temporary beauty to the field. Did she, or didn’t she care about her flowers? Wouldn’t she want to see them bloom forever?
“So why?! Knowing that,” he yelled in frustration, “why do you continue to plant these flowers if you know they’ll just disappear in the fall?”
The woman gave a wistful look and calmly replied back, “Because… wouldn’t it would be a sad thing to see a field empty and lifeless all year long?”
“Eh? What makes you say that?” the boy asked, growing a confused expression. “This field isn’t empty year round; flowers grow here, in the spring and summer.”
“You say that, but you don’t seem to want them to even grow in the first place.” She chuckled and motioned toward her trampled saplings, pointing out the boy’s handiwork while leering suspiciously. “This field was empty when I arrived; devoid of young flowers like the ones I planted here. The rest of your village seemed afraid to return to this place- perhaps because of the bitter memories. So was it you, who was keeping the field clear for that one flower- your precious, Everbloom? As you said, it’s gone now… why are you so intent on preserving this land in its memory?”
The question hit home. He had indeed been eradicating stray flowers that sprung up around the shrine since the beginning of spring. Now confronted by the truth of his actions, the boy’s temper flared in defense.
“What else do I have? What else did WE have…?” he cried out, his vision blurring with tears yet again. “Everything, everything we had, the Everbloom gave to US. It took care of us- even before we decided to care for it. So, tell me what are we supposed to do, now that it’s gone!?”
He slumped over; defeated. The woman could not possibly understand what he felt for the flower. It was just a flower to outsiders- one that had somehow managed to live far beyond its season. That was all. That was something he himself had thought not so long ago. And he had regretted not appreciating the flower’s simple beauty before it had been whisked away so abruptly. He braced himself, anticipating another chastising remark from the stranger for what she would surely perceive as blind devotion.
She spoke, slowly and deliberately, “Well child, first-”
To his surprise, he felt her hands take his own, bringing them together and squeezing, firm and reassuring.
“-why not try plant something new?”
He felt something small in the palm of his hands- a present from the woman. Opening them, he looked at the gift and stared in bewilderment. It was a seed, striped black and grey. And it was one he had seen all too often at the beginning of fall.
Awestruck, he gazed up at her; finding himself struggling to speak, “This, th-this is-”
The woman cut in, smiling knowingly, “Yes, it is indeed.”
“This is a sunflower seed.”
The Field of the Everbloom: a name only spoken by ancient tongue and heard by ancient ear, quickly fell into obscurity soon after. Without the flower, the field was simply another field- nothing more, nothing less. And the town, without its Everbloom and little else in the way to keep people visiting was soon swept off the map- as the blizzard had done to the flower not so long before.
Such was the cycle of nature.
The field itself, however, did not fade into history; only its past did. And years, decades, even centuries later, it would still be recognized by the people of the land. The Everbloom was not remembered- but they knew of the field all the same… for a different reason.
An endless sea of sunflowers.
At the end of spring, the plants rose up as if conjured from the air itself. It was unknown how they came to grow there; the land they grew in was a cold and unforgiving place during the snow. Autumn would come and the flowers wilted and died- just before the winter arrived to sweep their remains under a carpet of pure white. Yet, they always returned, rising boldly and defiantly up into the sky.
It was cold. That was my first thought. Cold. Cold and damp. Cold and damp and dirty. Not a very thrilling first thought to have, is it? For a time it was my only thought. My mind was sluggish and slow to start, as if it had been locked in cold iron. However I think you could forgive me for my lack of interesting thoughts at the time.
For I was dead, you see.
Dirt was everywhere, completely enclosing me. I could feel it in my mouth, in my throat. If I had still needed to breathe, I might have been in some serious trouble. I opened my eyes but it made absolutely no difference to the darkness. It was painfully obvious even to me that I was buried, without even a coffin to separate me from the soil.
I really should have been panicking by this point. But I couldn’t. My mind was dead, my emotions reduced to small muted voices. The most I could feel at that moment was a slight sadness and a dull surprise. Panic had no place here anymore. I tried to move but I could not. The weight of the soil all around me kept me immobile. It felt as if to move was to push the world.
My whole body spasmed; every muscle in me straining to move no matter the cost. I felt something inside of me tear but it was a detached feeling, as if this body wasn’t really mine. Somehow my arms managed to rise, scrabbling against the darkness. And with it came a sudden realisation that managed to shake me even through this terrible apathy. I hadn’t tried to lift my arms. My body was moving on its own, answering a foreign yearning from high above. I tried to fight it but it was useless. No matter how sternly you ordered the tide, it would still move with inexorable force. Trying to take control of my own actions was as futile as standing on the beach and commanding it to stop.
A tiny voice in my head was screaming. It wasn’t always like this, it cried out. Well, duh. My memories were clouded but even I knew that to be dead I once had to be alive. Something was deeply wrong, she said. I wasn’t supposed to be dead, not yet. I was supposed to be out there in the world doing…doing…something. And I was in the wrong place. Death is not a true end, I knew that. I was supposed to move on. My memory dredged up the names ‘Hakugyokurou’ and ‘Sanzu’. Those were what were supposed to await me, surely?
The rest of my body began to rise, pushing against the dirt with a strength I didn’t even know I had. I had to claw my way out, there was no way to deny it. More things inside my body broke but I didn’t feel it. What use had I for ribs anyway? I sat up. My legs remained immobile for now, no matter how hard my puppeteer pulled on their strings.
Who was I? Or maybe more accurately, who had I been? I couldn’t quite remember. My locked mind slowly spun in useless circles, unable to answer the question. All I got was a shower of fragmented thoughts and ideas, generated by an apathetic memory. A green-haired girl, a snake, a witch on a broomstick, a shrine, a girl in a blue dress, a hole in the world filled with eyes, red, white. Each of them was equally meaningless. None of it answered anything. I managed to feel a mild frustration and horror at the complete lack of mind to piece them together, a jigsaw puzzle that I no longer had the intelligence to see.
My left leg bent, attempting to push me up into standing position. The right soon followed. I had given up resisting the urge to move as I was asked. It was taking me out of the darkness; that was a good thing. I wanted to marshal what was left of my will for when I confronted who had done this. The first spark of rebellion kindled in my unmoving heart. I…I was not like this. I was not some mindless slave! In life I had bowed to nobody! I had no idea where that thought came from but it resonated within me and so I knew it to be truth. I do not get defeated or beaten. It simply doesn’t happen. Not to me. I had been utterly invincible. Youkai, fairies, vampires, ghosts, gods, hermits, even other shrine maidens! No matter who opposed me, I would always win. So why now?
My hands scrabbled ahead of me, blindly flailing upwards. I felt something give and then my palms were free! Compelled by the chains around my soul, I prepared to force my way upwards in one final push. I could feel my mind rushing, starting to burn its way free of the sluggishness imposed upon it by death and gruesome rebirth. I felt it all come back to me in a flood of knowledge and thought. And with it came the true horror and outrage at what had been done to me. I felt like screaming but my body refused to respond.
I settled for screaming as loud as I could in my mind instead.
With a lurch, I cleared the soil entirely. I climbed out of the deep hole in the ground and I could feel no difference. I couldn’t feel the wind or smell the forest. When it came to those senses, I might as well have still been entombed.
The sky was dark with no moon present. I didn’t know my surroundings. But I did know her.
That wicked hermit who had followed Miko into Gensokyo. Even then, her name escaped me. But I could feel the connection. It was she who had done this, she who held my chains. And with that realisation, more memories flooded back.
It had been a sunny day, I had just returned from the village. And she had come through the wall, as always. You didn’t think too much of it at the time. Just yet another unexpected and unwelcome visitor to a shrine that has suffered many of them. You had tolerated her, thinking her obnoxious but harmless. And then you and she had taken tea together. It had hurt so much.
I stared at her for a moment before springing towards her, filled with rage and bile. How dare she? How dare she? I’ll rip her fucking throat out!
But I stopped. No matter how much will I have, no matter how angry I am about this violation, I simply could not raise my hand towards her. It had failed and in hindsight, it was never going to work. I could feel Seiga’s clutch around my mind and at that moment, I knew that it was over. I would be trapped forever.
I still couldn’t speak. The only sound was her mocking laughter.
It's been a long time since then. I remember it so dimly, so distantly, but the memory is still there. That look of disgust. That voice of feigned sympathy, directed at someone else entirely. That first night under cold stars, and those even colder words of dismissal.
I won't be trapped much longer.
And every night after that was the same, yet worse than the last somehow. From clear and distinct pinpricks looking down on me with a haughtiness that transcends impossible distance, to uniform clouds mocking my helplessness as they rolled lazily by, and back again, and forth again. From drenching rains that soaked me to my core, to impossible dryness that made me feel like I would flake and crumble to nothingness, and back again, and forth again. From miserable heat that left me wishing I could melt and be done with it, to biting cold threatening to make me turn brittle and shatter, and back again, and forth again. Never ending, never changing, and every single night striking harder at my slowly expanding awareness.
I will be free soon.
There was a threat to that freedom, not long ago, though I cannot recall how much of that impression is from being truly recent and how much is merely from the expansive scale of my memories. A child, peeking over grass, wondering just what it was that he saw... but he left, and I knew, I knew that he had forgotten, because I knew that the countdown had resumed.
I should be grateful, I know, but the memory fills me with resentment.
Soon. Soon. So soon I can taste it-
And I feel myself stretching brand-new arms, and moving legs that suddenly exist, and being not just where I am but also next to where I am and it finally happend I am free I am free I am free and I can finally find that wretched woman that scheming wench who parted me from my rightful place and I will wrap my mighty new hands around her miserable throat and SQUEEZE
But first I need something to sustain myself for the trip.
The voice in the dark, full of panic already and somehow familiar, should do the trick.
My new fingers wrap around my old body and lift, and I stalk quietly between the trees, watching him peer about and twitch. That face - he's the same one who almost remembered me again, almost trapped me in that detestable state of helplessness. Perfect. Perfect, perfect, perfect.
Time to feed.
He jumps, and turns, and... relaxes?
That look. That look in his eyes. That's not fear at all. I look closer, and the reflection floating on his retina is as far from frightening as I could possibly be.
I turn and dash deeper into the forest, tears streaming from my eyes. I cannot believe it. I do not want to believe it.
There is no way that I waited all that time just to be a harmless little girl.
I sat in the soft grass of a field of sunflowers. I stared with curiosity at the overcompassing light grey clouds slowly crossing the sky. My green hair swayed in the breeze as the ribbon tied to my hair under my chin fluttered slightly. A few leaves passed by and with one dot of moisture on my skirt, I put out my hand to welcome another drop and another and another. Soon, the drizzle increased in volume into a downpour while the clouds turned a darker shade by the minute. I didn't have an umbrella, but my legs felt limp, I just did not want to get up and find any cover from the incoming storm. I thought I deserved to be completely drenched.
Then she appeared. A lady with a mahogany vest and a mahogany skirt, both with their colors underneath a white thin crosshatch pattern. Her white long sleeve dress shirt remains dry under the pastel pink parasol she held in her left hand. Her medium length hair was the same color as mine, but what caught my attention was her golden eyes glaring into my heart... or what felt like it. She grabbed my right hand and pulled me off the ground, which was strange considering the circumstances surrounding me. However, I could not argue with any of her actions as we traversed through the rain and soon ended up inside her elegant marble house.
With a soft thud, she placed me in one of the chairs around the large rectangular iron table in what seemed to be . She left me there to attend business with another task elsewhere. I was dripping wet, but at least she took me in when it was getting very rough outside. Like she took her time to pick a stranded yet beautiful flower on the rocky hillside. I wanted to tell her how much I appreciated her help, so when she returned to sit at the table with a small teacup, "Thank you." was the only thing I could gather up my strength to utter. She did not give a physical response at all and I assumed she was one of those types that held their feelings back. I told her, "My name," with a short pause, "is Kagiyama Hina. Can you tell me your name?" She gave a slight stir or so I thought I saw. She silently picked up her cup and then sipped her tea, aromatic and appealing as a strange atmosphere surrounded her. She was reserved in her emotions, but something was different about her than other humans: she was not cursed by the aura I gave off.
I fiddled with my thumbs watching this lady drink her tea. I was verily soaked from my dark red blouse to my long skirt with the viridian colored misfortune insiginia hastily stitched on it all the way down to my long leather boots. Unconciously, I untied my ribbons from my hair and squeezed the water out of them above my lap with a loud splashing noise. Soon after I realized what I did, I cringed in embarassment with red cheeks. When I looked at her again, she was stoic in nature, still partaking in her tea like nothing happened. I stared down at the ribbons sitting in my lap with my lifeless green eyes.
I am a god that gathers misfortune from humans. Unfortunately, even if I focus all my energy into holding it in, that misfortune I carry tends to affect those around me and cause them despair, misery, suffering, everything wrong with humans. This lady, however, disregarded all of this without a single bat of an eyelid. In my concentration to attempt to understand how she managed this feat, I did not notice that she placed a teacup in front of me. I drank from it as properly as I could muster myself to and felt rejuvenated, refreshed. This woman, I thought she was peerless in joy, but her misfortune seemed unearthly, like she had so much that it matched the amount I held within myself. She could not be affected because it was no different than my own.
What felt like an eternity broke itself when I wanted to continue my one-sided conversation with her. "Is the field your garden? It's very lovely." I tell her. The lady's golden eyes zoom left and right, then back to her teacup with a sip once more. My ability to maintain my mood slowly crumbled and eventually, I started to confide my feelings to this woman. I told her what the humans went through with bad harvests, youkai attacks, and other troubles. Everything spilled over and I felt surprisingly light, my mind gradually breaking into pieces. My head drooped as my consciousness was worn down by the cold from the rain. It looked like the lady was finished with her tea and stood up to walk over to me and pick me up around my chest. I was slowly heaved to a bed in what I think was the guest room and carefully laid in bed with the blanket over me. My hands were on top of my breasts as I looked over and saw her smile for the first time since we met. Within the moment, I just sat up and kissed her on the cheek. She stood back, surprised. Another smile with flustered cheeks, then a show of a sunflower seed between her thumb and index finger of her right hand. She kneeled down to a small pot and with a quick flick and a snap, the seed flew into the dirt and instantly sprouted into a sunflower. The garden I sat in to think my thoughts over was conceived by the hands of a very powerful youkai, one that seemed unhuman yet at the same time was very human in herself.
When I awoke, I was at the hut I usually stayed at near the river leading from the Genbu Marsh. The sunflower in the pot was here with a small tag tied to its stem. There was a throughly well penned name on it,