What are you doing?
Why are you hesitating?
Every fiber of your being is screaming to spring forward and attack. Begging for you to rip your hand through the woman’s throat and tear it open in a single flash. After all, isn’t that why you came here in the first place? Isn’t this just exactly what you wanted to confirm? You were preparing yourself for this, and right now, you shouldn’t be able to resist the urge to just kill them all where they stand, here and now, with your own bare hands if need be.
Yes, that’s right. You should just stop thinking about it and just let your body take you where it goes. It’s impossible, after all, for you to be happy. You just need to devote yourself to your continued existence. No matter what, you have to survive. And if that means to kill your own sense of self and become mindless, unaware of neither gain nor loss, then that’s what’s best for you. All you need to do is survive. Survive. Live. Continue to exist, no matter what. Because you don’t want to die.
Your feet start carrying you forward, closer toward the horned woman standing in front of you. The half-beasts gathered all around the two of you seem to tense up, watching you cautiously as you move forward. Their caution turns to hostility as you begin raising your hand, still gripped like a claw as you begin to lift it up to strike. But, you’re not paying attention to them. Your attention is focused on the woman before you.
She stands defiantly, her arms crossed in front of her chest. Her body’s tense, but she makes no movements to attack or run away. Her expression remains stern and unflinching. Why is it that she remains in front of you like this? Why won’t she be afraid of you? Why won’t she try to kill you? Is it... because she’s expecting something from you? Is it because she’s hoping against hope that perhaps you would... Ridiculous. Stupid. She’s stupid. She’s a stupid, meddling, annoying woman. She always was. Always so stupid.
Still. Still, still, still. Still, you can’t seem to bring your hand down. You weren’t able to do it before, and you aren’t able to do it now? Why is that...? Is it already too late to sever ties with her? Have you... already fallen into her trap? No, no, no, you can’t be bent so easily like that. But you already gave up, didn’t you? You already promised that you would...
You freeze as Kiyone reaches out her hand toward you. Her fingers wrap themselves around your palm, the slender digits transferring the warmth of her body to your cold, stiff skin. You want to back away, to rip your hand out of her grip immediately, but your feet remain planted on the ground, and you offer no resistance as she gently lowers your hand back down.
“You can’t pretend to feel nothing anymore,” she says, her tense body beginning to relax as a small little smile finds its way to her lips, her hand still gripping yours. “That’s no way to live, right?”
“I...” you mutter out, slowly turning your head to look all around yourself. “Are they all...?”
“That’s right,” she says, taking your hand in hers as she moves to your side. “...We’re all burdened by this curse, whether it was something that plagued us from birth, or acquired later in life, we have lived neither fully human nor fully youkai.”
“By our nature, we are considered unwelcome,” Kiyone continues to speak, her face tinged with a hint of sorrow even as she continues to smile. “Always caught in-between the hatred and the warring between youkai and humans. The former scorn us and the latter fear us and hate us. None of us have asked for this kind of life, born to suffer for what we are, but we haven’t given up on it. We continue to live, bearing the weight of this curse, and we attempt to create a kind of happiness for ourselves.”
“You are deceiving them all,” you say harshly.
“It’s not as though we do it because we want to. It’s just something that can’t be helped,” she says in return, shaking her head sadly, her downcast expression illuminated by the pale light of the full moon. “It’s true that we live hiding these forms even from our friends and family, but we don’t have a choice. Without doing that, all these people who have done nothing wrong would be shunned and driven out without a choice.”
...Treated as a pariah for something you can’t help...
“...And that’s why we gather here,” she continues to speak, letting out a sigh. “Once a month -- just one day each month -- we are free. We gather here, so that we may live a day around people we have nothing to hide from, around those we don’t have to deceive.”
A day when they are set free from the burden they carry every other day...
“I hope that one day... we will no longer need to hide ourselves. I hope that the day will come when the people of the village might be able to accept us, even if we are different from them. But that day is not today, and so we hide, and deceive, and wait for that day.”
She squeezes your hand.
“...You understand, right?”
These people, no matter what their origin may be, whether they were born like this, or had this curse placed on them... none of them chose to be that way. And yet, they continue to live. They live, bearing that curse, and though they may suffer, they continue to hold faith that someday, things will become better. They believe that their life won’t be dark eternally, that eventually they will be able to break through the darkness and out into a brighter future. These people have hope.
Slowly, you feel the muscles around your mouth moving involuntarily.
The corners of your mouth lift themselves up, your lips turning up into a faint smile as you look to her, your head nodding up and down just a bit.
Her eyes widen slightly, looking at your visage, but soon, gentleness is in those eyes once again, and she returns the smile. The half-beasts around you begin to relax as she did, some of them sitting down on the earth while others begin talking amongst one another. Kiyone parts her hand from yours, walking back to her child, resting against a tree. She squats down in front of her, and you follow close behind her.
“This child doesn’t know anything,” Kiyone says, reaching out and stroking the girl’s hair. “...Maybe someday, she’ll know. But I hope that won’t happen.”
“...Do you know about the mythical beast, the hakutaku?”
“A wise, benevolent beast that appears before rulers and kings, surfacing only once every few centuries, able to consume or change history, recording the present to turn it into the past, and changing the past to alter the perception of the present,” she says, standing straight again. “...But really, it’s more of a legacy than anything else.”
“That’s right,” Kiyone says, turning around to you. “I’m the current host of the hakutaku’s powers, and there were many hosts before me. Eventually, I will have to pass on this duty to someone else, whether I live to choose my successor or not.”
You look down at the sleeping form of the girl. “And... your successor is...?”
“Probably not her,” she says. “If at all possible, I don’t want her to live with this. But, if something were to happen to me, most likely the hakutaku’s powers will be passed onto her anyway. It’s not something I would wish for her to inherit. It’d be best if she could just live a normal life.”
“A normal life...” you repeat after her. You bend your knees, touching a hand to the girl’s face. “...Yes, that would be best.”
You stand back up, and Kiyone moves to wrap her arms around one of yours, linking them together. She stands beside you, her bushy tail swishing around in the air behind her. She looks up to the sky, the glow of the full moon reflected in her eyes. She stands there, silent, and taking your eyes off her, you follow her gaze and look up to the sky yourself.
“Hey,” she speaks up after a moment. “Don’t you think the full moon looks beautiful?”
You look up at the red glow of the moon, floating in the middle of a dark red sky. No, is it red? The world is losing its red. The leaves all around you have the healthy color of green, so full of life, and the dark sky is no longer the color of blood. The moon, the moon, the moon. The moon is no longer red. The world is no longer red. The pale light glow of the moon. It’s not red anymore. The world has lost its red. The moon... the moon is beautiful.
“...I don’t dislike it.”
You groan as you open your eyes, feeling a hard surface beneath your face. Pushing against that surface with your palms, you lift yourself up off of it, finding yourself staring at the top of a table. Immediately, you feel a sharp pain in your neck, making you wince as you hurriedly touch a hand to the side of it, trying to soothe it with a massage. Your throat feels dry and parched and in need of some water.
Groggily, you stare ahead, greeted by the blue light of the television. Spread on the floor all around you are empty videotape boxes. Sitting on the table next to where your head was resting, you find a bowl of snacks, left half-eaten. Judging by a look out the window, it’s still early morning. Why were you sleeping here? You must have been doing something before you... Ugh, now it all comes back to you. You spent almost the entire previous day marathoning a series together with...
Looking to your side, you find who you were looking for: Sanae’s curled up like a fetus on the floor, not far from where you’re sitting at the table, dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of shorts.
You let out a yawn as you survey the room again. There’re a lot of videotapes just lying around on the floor, and it’s going to be a pain to have to clean it all up by yourself. You shake your head, trying to clear the drowsiness from your head, and scoot yourself over to the still dozing shrine maiden.
[ ] Wake her up.
[ ] Pinch her cheek. Blow in her ear. Plug her nose.