Isolex 2017/10/12 (Thu) 14:29 No. 198060 ▼
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It was night and I’d decided to damn the risk and light a fire by the time Minoriko marched back out from between the trees with her sister in tow. Despite being shorter, the smaller girl’s near leaping strides forced the other girl to take hurried steps just to keep up.
Shizuha, the ‘autumn goddess,’ was a fitting contrast to her sister: tall and slightly more slender than most girls of age would like to be. Her dress was patterned with maple leaves (Autumn colours, naturally), fading attractively from their characteristic red to the natural straw colour of dry leaves, down above her knees – scandalously short, although I doubt supernatural beings are concerned with such things. She went barefoot, like her sister, and her hair was the same bright, foreign shade of field-gold.
Other than the nice colors and foreign feel to her, there wasn’t much remarkable about her; a moderately pretty girl dressed strangely, no more than that. I wasn’t impressed – she didn’t have a quarter of the presence Mother did. Goddess? Not likely.
Minoriko skidded to a stop near the fire, her smiling face coming into the firelight clearly, looking proud of herself. The older sister composed herself, crossing her arms and studying us. Me and Aya were both a ways from the fire, so as long as I stayed put, there was a good chance neither would spot the sign on my dress.
Screw that, I thought.
I slowly got up, then moved closer to the fire. Just to make sure they didn’t miss it, I mimicked Minoriko’s earlier curtsy. The unfamiliar, foreign gesture felt awkward on me, but it did its job, deliberately and unmissably drawing attention to the swirl pattern on my clothes as I fanned out the wide shrine maiden dress and bowed shallowly. I heard Aya heave a tired sigh off to the side. I would play along, sure, but that didn’t mean I’d hide what I was. That was a little too much like being ashamed of mother for me to go along with.
Minoriko gave a small gasp while her sister furrowed her brows, glancing between her and me. I didn’t allow them the initiative.
“My name is Kagiyama Yoshiko,” I said, stressing the surname. I circled the small fire and stalked over to the boy, moving smoothly. I didn’t know what issue these two had with mother, but they’d be in the wrong, so it’d be okay to antagonize them a little. Enough to make me smile, but not to jeopardize the current situation. “I’m currently responsible for this… young man.”
That was the moment to play it up. I possessively laid a hand on his head, glaring as if I dared them to say something. I didn’t smirk, didn’t yell it out, didn’t do anything overt – but I put every ounce of intensity I dared into that stare. Looking down to see his reaction would break character, but I counted it as a win that he didn’t push my hand away.
After the initial surprise, Shizuha seemed unimpressed, glancing over to her sister. Minoriko looked nervously between Aya and I, but followed her sister’s example and said nothing.
The staredown, such as it was, ended quickly. Shizuha let out a breath I hadn’t noticed she was holding, seeming somewhat disappointed, and we all followed suit, after a fashion. The tension noticeably lowered. That was preferable; it’s not like I wanted to get belligerent. I just wasn’t going to stand here and let Mother’s reputation get tread on in return for nothing. The taller girl looked me up and down, clearly noting my outfit, then turned her attention to Aya, her voice a touch cold. “Would you explain, Hieda?”
“I didn’t lie to your sister,” he lied, nodding – respectfully? – towards her. “The village was attacked, then, on the way here, we were. We’ve come to investigate, since the mountain is clearly the epicenter. And this… er, she is…” he hesitated. I still hadn’t let go of him, virtually laying claim to the boy. “She’s been helping since the first attack. It was happenstance.”
My frown deepened. I didn’t need excuses made for me, and why were they talking like I wasn’t even here? I stood up straighter. “Is there a problem?”
Shizuha raised one thin eyebrow and gave me another quick look over. “You’re supposed to be a shrine maiden,” she stated, her tone making it a question.
“I’m a shrine maiden. There’s no ‘supposed’ about it.”
The two girls shared a very obvious look between them – pity from Minoriko’s side, disbelief from Shizuha. I felt keenly out of the loop for that moment. What was it? Did I not look enough like a shrine maiden? I could make trouble out of this, but I wasn’t keen on it, at least not as long as they were only talking about me.
Speaking hurriedly, Aya intervened, wilfully derailing the conversation with all the subtlety of a runaway locomotive. “Minoriko told us there’s some disturbance with the tengu. Can you tell us what’s happening?”
Shizuha lingered on me, her eyes suspicious, but she shifted her focus to the boy and answered. “We’re not certain. They keep to themselves.”
Aya clicked his tongue, for a flash seeming much older than he was.. “I’m aware. What do you know?”
“Well.” Shizuha paused, gathering her thoughts and finally seeming to forget about me. Minoriko wordlessly hovered closer and closer to her sister as she spoke. “Everything was as usual until it happened,” she said, looking upwards. Someone would have to name this event at some point. “I don’t know how much you know about our politics...” she trailed off, looking at the boy. Why would a rich human boy from a village days away know about that? When he gave no response, she continued. “The tengu and the oni keep a tight hold over the mountain and the surrounding forest, and us more civilized folk have settled around it.”
There was no question of the kind of ‘folk’ she was talking about. “The wolves are the ones that do the manual patrol work and the ones that interact with us the most, although usually not more than necessary. They’re still tengu, after all.”
Aya nodded, silently urging her along. She continued. “When it happened, the wild youkai made a big fuss. Even though the wolves keep our piece of the forest clear, the ones nearer the border made an awful racket for nearly a full day.” I nodded despite myself, recalling the sudden attack back in the village. Even the dogs went crazy; not that I could blame them. “They piped down eventually, but after dealing with the initial ‘wave’, the tengu disappeared.”
Aya didn’t need to ask for clarification. The autumn ‘goddess’ considered, and I noticed idly she was holding hands with her sister. “Not disappeared, actually. They’re obviously still in the mountain. You can see some lights at night.”
Lights? What for? I tried to imagine a black-winged tengu, dread youkai of spear and claw, reading by lamplight and failed utterly. Then again, the one I’d met earlier didn’t match the old descriptions, either.
She continued. “But I’ve seen at most three white wolves since it happened. They’re all holing up and nobody seems to know why. At least nobody I’ve spoken to.”
Aya and I sat quietly, digesting the information. It wasn’t much to go on, but it explained why we weren’t stopped by any tengu.
“And, maybe more importantly, there’s some unrest”
“Unrest,” the boy repeated, prodding for more.
Shizuha nodded. “This close to the mountain, you can hear and feel every fight an oni participates in. They’re not subtle, and they’ve happened often in the past few days.
“Plus, there’s the fires. They get put out quickly, but I’ve seen black smoke rising from their tunnels more than once. There’s definitely some infighting going on in there.” Minoriko nodded behind her sister, absently looking up at the mountain. “I suppose it’s no great wonder.”
Aya spoke for me. “It isn’t?”
“They’re at each other’s throats even when everything is as usual. A power spike like this was bound to upset the little system they have going. They’ll get a handle on it, eventually.”
That... made no sense. I’d been trying to stay quiet, but my patience had already been ground short by that point, and I blurted it out before Aya had the time to. “What do you mean, power spike? It’s just the color of the sky.”
Shizuha stopped dead, looking at me with undisguised surprise, then at Aya, who looked questioningly back at her as well. It seemed I wasn’t the only one missing something.
“Ah, Shizuha!” Minoriko popped up earnestly from behind her sister. “They’re both human! Maybe it doesn’t affect them?”
“Oh. Oh, of course,” she said, still surprised. “That changes things. Well. I should explain, in that case.” She cleared her throat. “It wasn’t just the color of the sky. When it happened, it was immediately obvious to everyone around here, so I assumed you two knew as well, but at exactly the same time as the sky changed colors, the two of us and every other youkai, spirit, or whatever else in this mountain got a boost.”
“A boost?” Aya asked.
Shizuha coloured lightly. “There’s nothing else you can call it! All of us suddenly gained in power.”
“Sister! We could show it to them! It’s the same as the festival trick, you know?” Minoriko grinned, pulling on her sister’s hand, then jumped excitedly, throwing both hands in the air. “Like, zoom!”
With those two words, she released something, a pressure in the air, a sudden but subtle flow of power all around – and a pair of seconds later, it would’ve become obvious even if I hadn’t noticed it. Around her feet, a ring of tiny saplings and sprouts emerged from the fertile forest ground, gently pushing the cover of dead leaves out of the way. It expanded, first quickly, stopping once we were all ankle-deep in delicate newborn plants and trees.
Aside from mother, it was the most impressive display of power I’d ever witnessed. Not that I was about to let them know about that.
Shizuha suffered silently through her sister’s giggling hug. MInoriko turned to us, sporting an infectious smile. “Cool, right? Usually It’d be a huge effort to do even a tiny square of them! But now it’s this easy.”
Shizuha gave her sister a brief annoyed look, but said nothing. “Yes, that’s the gist of it. This means hanging around here is even more dangerous than usual. The offer to escort you back to the village–”
“No,” Aya said, cutting her off. “But thank you.”
‘Power spike’. Youkai getting stronger. Thinking back, a few pieces shifted into place. This must be why that tengu was so cheerful, why the youkai back in the village seemed so much stronger than what I’d have expected, and it was more proof of who was behind it.
I doubted I could cleanly defeat even a single tengu, much less a whole mountain full of powered youkai. At least, not without going against mother’s orders in the process. It pained me, but I couldn’t fulfill my duty of exterminating them, at least not yet. For now, I’d have to be content going after my main goal, finding mother in this mountain. She would know what to do after that.
The boy was still considering those words, thinking as he plucked saplings from the newly-grown brush. The sisters, in turn, were whispering back and forth in soft tones. I figured I had one good chance to say something before they remembered whatever issue they were supposed to have against me.
[ ] Ask what relationship they have with mother.
[ ] Ask what’s so strange about being a shrine maiden.
[ ] Ask for advice on what to do next.
[ ] Ask more about the mountain.
[ ] Taunt them. They’re not real goddesses, anyway.