It was dark outside, the precise moment he returned. The classroom was abandoned and unlit and, for a terrifying moment, he considered the possibility that the child had lied, that he was trapped in that place with no chance of ever escaping.
As he forced a calm breath, a closer examination of the room showed him all the small things that he had initially missed; the little details that, though minuscule and normally unimportant, sent an overwhelming wave of comfort through his soul.
The blinking red numbers of a digital clock.
There had been no clocks there. No way to tell the time of day.
The pristine, smooth tile of the floor underneath his feet, all put together and whole.
There were no gaping chasms that lead to mass graves, just waiting for him to fall.
The chalkboard was in fact a modern white board, bereft of any shakily-scrawled messages.
“This memoir is the only thing I can give, to leave behind as a reminder that I was real, that I existed, even in this nightmare that takes us and erases us. You've never even heard my name, but you know our situation, and I pray to whoever will listen that you may be luckier than I.”
He shook his head and turned his eyes to the window. Therein lay the best detail, the most warming sight.
He could look out the window and see lights, see buildings and billboards and life.
With careful, near silent steps, he made his way toward them, and held his breath when he got there. Setting both hands against the glass, he stood there. Quietly, he stood there. Anticipating.
Then, with a great, big shove borne of desperation, he pushed against the window- -it opened!- -and breathed.
A quick glance downward, and a quiet sigh that was half exhale and half laughter. There were no bodies at the bottom.
Momozono Naname turned tail and raced toward the door, eager to get closer, to approach the city and find more proof that this wasn't just a hallucination. That this was real.
That he was finally home.
A ripped section of paper, smudged with red and crinkled with sweat, fluttered to the floor in his wake.
O O O
He didn't have a house.
It really hadn't been something he had thought he would need to worry about, but he honestly should have realized.
When he'd disappeared, he'd left his father by himself.
The man has a gambling problem; always had. He looked at money and saw, not the possibility of using it to make more money, but the image of a casino and all the games it contained.
Because he was a terrible gambler; he made bets that never cashed in, took risks that never paid off, and just didn't have the mental capacity to realize the consequences of it all.
Thinking about it, Naname really had no way of knowing if the man was even alive, or if one of the many debt collectors he'd fallen on the wrong side of had finally caught up to him and collected.
In the very least, the apartment Naname remembered was now home to a newlywed couple- -and, by the look of it, they had been living in it for a while now.
For longer than Naname had remembered being gone.
So, he had no idea where his possessions, his money, or his father was. He had no way of knowing if they even existed anymore, any of them. At the very least, he needed to figure out the date.
And if he'd ever been reported missing.
Maybe it wasn't death that erased them. Maybe it was just being in the closed spaces in the first place. So, if such was the case, would anyone even remember him?
It was certainly something to figure out.
A two mile walk and a very irritable, late-night secretary later, Naname had his answers.
The date was August 17th, 2015. He had been gone for two years.
Two years. Two years of death and insanity, and blood and gore, and vengeful, lost spirits scheming for his ultimate demise. Two years of nothing to eat or drink. Two years of endless running and blinding fear.
It hadn't seemed that long. It begged the question; How was he still alive?
Two years. In that time, his father had filed for bankruptcy, had lost the house, had acquired a frankly staggering number of unpaid debts, and was now sitting home in some penitentiary for not paying taxes.
In two years, the man hadn't even put in a missing person’s report on his son, who (if the documents and every newspaper he'd seen since leaving the building were telling the truth) hadn't shown his face since the February of the year before last.
And Naname wasn't even sure he was all that surprised.
In fact, he knew he wasn't. He'd been sitting on the razor-sharp edge with his father for quite a while now, before that… day. Finally breaking free and coming back to this, the sixteen year old (because apparently he was sixteen now- and Naname grasped desperately for anything within himself that wasn't breathless panic) couldn't even find it in himself to feel at all incredulous.
He was far too tired. Too exhausted. He hadn't even sat down since he'd returned, and after all of that, he was surprised he could even stand.
In fact, he trudged along only a few more steps before he gratefully collapsed onto a convenient bench located to his right. He settled down and found himself marveling at how comfortable rigid steel and concrete could be. It definitely beat rickety cots in an infirmary drowned in dark and ominous killing intent so thick it was like molasses oozing out of the very walls.
He closed his stinging eyes and laid his head back with a sharp breath. The muscles in his legs and torso and shoulders and- -everywhere burned, aching torturously in protest of all they'd been through. He sympathizes with them, truly. After all, he'd apparently been running for what had been the better part of years.
But. Time must run differently between the closed spaces than it did here. It had to have.
It couldn't have been that long. He had to believe it hadn't been that long. Naname’s perception of time couldn't have been so skewed as that, undead psychopaths and nightmare realms of eternally trapped, textured souls bearing down on him or not. Could it have?
He shook his head, then immediately desisted with a groan as a pounding headache made itself known. He wearily opened his eyes and glanced down at himself.
His clothes were musty and stiff, ripped and tearing. He'd smothered the bloodstains as best he could with a mud puddle he'd found before entering the busier section of the city, and had stolen a sports jacket he'd found at the school before running out. The soft cotton fabric felt different than he remembered, somehow. Like something was wrong with it. It had given him pause at first, making him panic- -was this not real?
Was it a dream? Had he fallen asleep, and was dreaming? If so, then he was most certainly dead now, as that place would not allow for him to let his guard down so atrociously as to fall asleep.
No. He'd try pinching himself, but pain was such a simple concept to him now. Pinching wouldn't have worked at all. The only thing that was holding him together right now were all of the other senses he had.
Sight. Bright lights of a city. Live, breathing, living people sometimes walking on the streets, from place to place; all of them in the midsts of a established routine born of longtime repetition that sounded oh-so appealing to him right now. And there were stars in the sky. How... peculiar.
Sound. The honking of car horns in the distance. The purring and roaring of their engines. The low bustling of the city’s nightlife. The whirring hiss of the train speeding past right behind him now.
Smell. Exhaust fumes, flowers, grass, a hint of sushi and yakisoba. No blood or other bodily fluids coming from anywhere but from him, below all the mud and grime.
He shuddered against the cold, despite the jacket. It hadn't really been cold there, per say. That said, it hadn't been hot either. Actually, he found himself unable to pinpoint the exact temperature of that place.
Maybe it didn't have one. It wouldn't have surprised him.
Still though; cold. He shivered and tugged the jacket tighter. He hadn't felt cold in what seemed like ages. He could remember feeling it before, clearly. But for some reason it all felt so foreign. It was unsettling.
With a harrowing sigh, he reached up and pressed his palm over his right eye. The rough line of skin that ran through it made the rest of his body twitch in disgust, and he scrunched that eye closed. His lip curled, and he decided his first order of business would be to find something to cover it up.
As usual, however, fate decided to remind Naname that he didn't get to have a say in the order of business.
“Help! Somebody please, help me!”
A scream rang through the relatively quiet night- -much quieter than he remembered his home city being, but at the same time it was too noisy. The familiar sound caused an icy chill to tingle down the teen’s spine, and he sat up from his slouched position, alert and ready for whatever thing had decided to happen.
O O O
His name was Mikage, and he was afraid of dogs.
Naname felt a heavy feeling of bone-deep exasperation overcome him as he shooed the barking canine away and helped the blond haired man down from the tree he'd managed to scramble up.
Mikage acted sheepish about it all, and even apologized. Naname pushed his annoyance down as deep as it would go.
It wasn't his fault, he told himself, that Mikage was scared of dogs. It was a common phobia among humans, really.
It was just, after so much time spent in that place, fears like this made him want to laugh until he cried over the complete silliness of it all.
It also made him wonder though, just when he'd started thinking of humans as if he somehow wasn't one?
“You’re a local here, right?” Mikage was leaning in, an eager smile on his face.
Naname leaned away from the man, already wistful of the time he'd had the bench all to himself. Now it was much too crowded, he felt, and the blond had no concept of personal space. It was irritating.
“I suppose that's right,” he answered anyway. It wouldn't hurt to talk back, would it? Maybe it would get the man away faster if he did. “But, perhaps only in the loosest sense.”
Mikage blinked, confused. He tilted his head and Naname had to stop himself from commenting that he was alike to the very animals he was so terrified of. He had a inkling that the man wouldn’t appreciate it.
It was actually kind of funny, and the teen found himself laughing.
“Ah! What's so funny? ... Are you alright?” Mikage questioned rapidly as Naname doubled over, arms tight around his stomach. His face grew gradually more concerned as the boy’s laughing soon gave way to gasping, shuddering sobs, pressed out of his mouth through a grin as tears raced themselves out his eyes.
“I-I haven't… laughed… for so long,” he wheezed out, to the man who was supporting him now so he wouldn't topple off the bench, “I think I'd... forgotten, what it felt like.”
Because the very worst part was that he wasn't entirely sure.
“I don't have a home anymore,” he murmured, grin still in place. It was painful, hurting his cheeks the longer he held it in place. But for some reason he couldn't drop it. His tilted his head down, letting his bangs cover his eyes as he spoke, telling Mikage all about his useless father and his shenanigans.
He didn't even know why he was telling him everything. It just felt- so good, to talk to someone. To have a real, breathing person sitting right next to him, a hand on his back, so close Naname could feel their warmth.
“It must be hard,” Mikage said, and for once his voice wasn't goofy or cheerful. It was more… understanding. “To have a father like that, such a neglectful parent. You’re very strong, to live through something like that and love him anyway.”
Naname caught that tone, and he clung to it. It felt nice, to be understood. Or to at least have someone who thought they understood. It was better than nothing, he supposed.
Though, it wasn't like Mikage was completely wrong, either. He did love his father, for all that the man was useless, absent, and he hadn't seen him for- -two years. He was still Naname’s father.
Maybe the teen hated himself for it, but he’d felt nothing but exasperation in all of this. He wanted to be angry, hurt- a part of him wished he hated his father for al that he'd done without thinking even once for his son, but... all he could manage to dredge up was faint irritation, and even that was coloured with resignation. That's all he could ever feel in regards to the man's latest screw-up, and he even wanted to angry about that, but, he couldn't. He never could.
He let his head drop into his hands, balancing his elbows on his knees, and released a loud, shaky breath. Mikage began to rub circles on his back, and it felt… also nice. But Naname also felt the urge to throw his hand off, as if it were a threat. He quelled the urge with vicious intent.
“Yeah, well,” he found himself chuckling, “loving that jerk isn’t going to make my house just magically come back. And that's not even the half of it. I've apparently been gone for a very long time- -”
Wait, no. He hadn't meant to just blurt that out, and his mind scrambled for something to say. Not a lie, but not the entire truth either. Explaining all that had happened to him to this complete stranger- -Naname would be in the nut house faster than someone could say “he’s mad!”
He leaned back against the bench again and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. “I don't remember it at all, and that's the problem. It sure didn't seem like two years, but I- -I don't know.”
Mikage stared at him for a moment, silent. Just when Naname thought the man was going to call him out on it, the other male assumed Naname’s previous position himself, huffing out a long breath.
“I sort of abandoned my own home as well, but it has been quite literally decades since then, and I'm just now returning here to it. I am… ashamed to say that I don't deserve it at all, now.”
There was more to the story, Naname could feel it. But he didn't press for anything, just as Mikage hasn't pressed him for any details on his story. A fair trade, and frankly it wasn't any of his business.
Though, Naname considered as he examined the man’s face, decades? Mikage didn't seem that old… Maybe it had been an exaggeration?
But, two years, Naname reminded himself. Honestly, with the things he's seen, anything was possible.
Mikage gave a self-deprecating chuckle.
“It really has been so long. I wonder how my family is doing? Tomoe will probably attack me as soon as I step foot into the house. I'd deserve it, too.”
“It's fortunate though,” Naname thought aloud, wriggling against the bench a bit in the hopes that his body heat and the friction would make his seat warmer. It really was absolutely freezing, and that made no sense as it was the middle of August.
“To have a home to go back to,” he elaborated when Mikage cast him a puzzled glance. “Even after all this time, and despite whatever anger you'll receive because of it, you still at least have that. Someplace warm and familiar and safe.”
The teen swallowed, turning his gaze toward the ground. “It must be nice.”
“...It is,” Mikage agreed morosely, face solemn. “But it's something I'm undeserving of. So, I guess I'll just give it to you, hm?”
Naname sat in thought for a moment, eyes locked on the gravel walk. Then, what the blonde had said really registered with his exhausted mind, and he looked up, startled.
But the man was already standing up. Naname jumped to his feet as well, but the sudden action caused him to sway.
Mikage caught him by the arm to steady him, eyes locked on the boy’s. Or rather, the scarred one. Naname lifted his hand to cover it, shaking, but it was too late.
He'd seen it.
With sad eyes, Mikage placed his own palm over Naname’s and shook his head.
“I said I didn't deserve it, didn't I? You can have it, then; you need it more than I, anyway. Besides, I think you'd make a much better master of the house than I ever did, and that's what matters.”
Gently tearing his hand away, the man leaned forward- -too close!- -and planted a kiss right over Naname’s eye, right above the eye they had both been covering a second before. Right on the scar. It tingled, and Naname flinched.
“Ox Road, 756. Just tell them that you came, as Mikage told you. I'm sure they'll welcome you warmly.”
The teen blinked up at him, stunned. His body was trembling, his muscles screaming at him to rest. It hadn't been a problem there, and he now wondered at that. Why? There were so many whys, and it didn't even matter.
He blinked, then peeled his eyes open, slowly. Mikage was gone.
Naname took a shaky step backward and collapsed on the bench. It didn't seem so crowded anymore.
He already missed the moment when it had been.
O O O
Ox Road, 756. Broken, uneven stone steps up a hill, to a run-down shrine. Missing planks from the outer walls, railings that were close to toppling over- -a roof, that seemed it was close to caving in. Dark shadows seemed to cling to the entire estate, seething out of the hanging doorways and bringing about a heavy, pressuring feeling that sank down onto his shoulders and made his spine twist and writhe.
His breath caught in his throat, and he almost turned around and left.
Because it was too close, too similar to that place for him to be able to access anything resembling comfort. If he walked in there, he’d never even be able to close his eyes. He was too conditioned for a grievious mistake like that. Who knows what could be lurking in the darkness?
Nothing good, that was what.
So, he almost turned around and ran. His muscles ached but he’d had far worse than that pain. He estimated that he would at least make it down the steps again and to the next street over before his legs collapsed on him. That would be far enough, right?
Voices in the echoes, too. That settled it; there was no way in hell Naname was ever trusting another adult again. He didn’t even know what had made him listen to the blond stranger in the first place. Had it been because he’d been out of options?
Living on the streets and begging for the rest of his life was better than here, though. Anywhere was better than here.
But… he had made a promise, and a life of beggary wouldn’t get him anywhere closer to his goal of keeping it. Then again, what would? It seemed almost impossible, now that he considered it.
But they’d been desperate, all of them.
“Welcome home, Lord Mikage!”
“I’m not Mikage...” Naname whispered helplessly to the ground, wrapping his arms around himself tightly. He squeezed his eyes shut and sank to the ground, unsure of what they would do when they realized he wasn’t the one they were so joyous to receive.
Had Mikage even told them he’d be coming here?
He didn’t know what was going on, but he wasn’t moving from where he knelt. He was just too tired to expend any energy- -he wasn’t sure he had any left.
Sorry… you guys… I haven’t even been back a whole day, and I already messed up...
“Something the matter?” Someone said, and a hand came to rest on his head.
He tried lifting it from where he’d buried his face into his knees, but his muscles had all but given up.
He hadn’t though, so he tried again.
Whoever it was sighed, and slipped their arms under his, heaving him up. His legs shook terribly, but he managed to glance up and see.
He had white hair, fox ears, and a tail.
Great, a demon. Naname had always had the very best of luck. Had Mikage been a demon as well? It wouldn’t surprise him.
“Onikiri,” the fox spirit called out, irritated, “Kotetsu! He’s not Mikage.”
“Preposterous!” Another voice said- -higher in pitch, like a child. It was echoing, like... them. The fox spirit’s voice was normal, but these weren’t.
Something patted him on the temple, right beside the right eye, and Naname flinched violently, holding in a gasp and he squeezed both his eyes shut.
“He’s got the mark of the land god right here, see?"
It was quiet for a moment, and then the larger hands returned, smoothing Naname’s bangs back with a gentle touch. He opened his eye- -his eye- -and peeked.
The fox was staring at him, brows brought down to meet in a soft, curious frown. “So he does. But he’s not Lord Mikage. Human, what is your name?”
“Naname,” He breathed, feeling tired- -just tired. He didn’t want to deal with this. He just wanted to sleep. His eyelids were feeling heavy, and the eyes behind them burned. He squeezed them again and felt his head fall forward.
Someone- -the fox most likely, the other spirits seemed too small- -caught him. Naname sighed and blinked his eyes open again, sucking in a trembling breath.
“Sit down here, then,” the fox helped him over to the front porch of the shrine house. The closer they got the more tense Naname become, until he choked up as the spirit sat him down.
His back was turned to all that darkness. Something would kill him if he didn’t turn around- -but, the fox was standing in front of him now, arms crossed.
“What are you doing here, then, Naname?”
“That idiotic man,” the teen sighed, voice quiet. He barely had the strength to sit up, much less project his voice. “I told him about my father, and he told me that I could have his house.”
“How joyous!” One of the smaller voices- -Onikiri or Kotetsu, is what the fox had called them- -cried. “A happy event! Let us prepare a feast!”
“What did you say,” Naname started, because he was a bit curious, “about… a land god?”
“Well,” the fox began wearily, rubbing the bridge of his nose. Apparently he’d been having a bad day and Naname had just made it worse. “That ‘idiotic man’ you spoke with happened to be the land god of this shrine. And he gave you his position of master of this house- -that’s the same thing as giving you his status as a god."
Wryly, to Naname's faintly disbelieving stare, he tacked on, "Congratulations.”
“Yes, yes!” Onikiri and Kotetsu sang, appearing before him again and holding out a platter of baked fish. Naname swallowed, staring down at the cooked meat. He should be starving- -he was- -but the sight of flesh, even though it wasn’t human, made him feel sick to his stomach.
“I…” He sighed, shaking his head. “I don’t…”
He let out another sigh, and let his head fall again into his hands, a position he’d been taking a lot today- -probably because it had been so long since he’d felt able to. He was hyper aware of the darkness that sat just behind him, and it made his skin crawl. He couldn’t focus on anything else.
“I don’t want to live here,” he told himself under his breath, and a hand landed on his shoulder.
“Lord Naname, are you okay?” One of the tiny spirits asked. The mask she wore looked decidedly female in design, so he assumed this one was Onikiri. That made the other one, who was hovering worriedly over his shoulder, Kotetsu.
He lifted his head sharply, ignoring them, to look at the fox spirit.
“Who are you?”
The kitsune crouched down before him, examining him with narrowed eyes. “I am called Tomoe.” Then, he smirked. “But, you can call me Master Tomoe.”
“No way in hell,” Naname refuted immediately. Tomoe’s ears twitched down the same time his lips did, making him take on the image of both a displeased puppy and a scowling schoolboy at the same time.
Like he had with Mikage, Naname felt the laughter bubbling up again. He took a few shaky breaths in an attempt to hold it down, but the grin and the tears were back and it all seemed so impossible.
“Hey, human, what’s so funny? Are you laughing at me?!”
The fox’s assumption was proven wrong as the laughter, once again, turned to sobs, and Naname only felt disgust for himself. He curled up and hugged his legs to his chest in an effort to appear smaller, wishing for a hole to come and swallow him up. That was two breakdowns in the span of three hours- -wasn’t he stronger than this? Hadn’t he proven he was better than this?
“Onikiri, Kotetsu, put that away. I think that he needs more rest than food, right now.”
“Yes, Master Tomoe!"
“Sleep well, Lord Naname!”
“Come here, troublesome human,” the teen felt himself being lifted up, but he was far too exhausted to care. Let the fox demon cart him into the dark haunted shrine- -what did it matter? He was already pathetic enough, he’d already failed.
“Let’s get you to bed.”
Okay, thats a wrap. Let me know what you think in comment section down below!
Healing will take a bit longer than assumed, in more ways than one.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
He sat up sharply, with a gasp. The heavy blankets that had been holding him down, pinning him down, tumbled off from around his shoulders and the wet cloth that had been covering his eyes landed in his lap. He shoved it off to the side, flinching at the damp feeling of it, and scrubbed hastily at his face.
He winced when he came in contact with the scar, but steadfastly ignored it.
Breathing in quick, short gasps, he thought back, desperately trying to figure out how he’d fallen asleep. He’d always been so careful; slapping himself or having someone slap him when he was feeling drowsy- -doing the same to them when their eyes began to droop. Devising new ways to stay awake, to stay alive.
Everyone had been grateful for him - half of them would have been dead if it weren’t for the wake-up calls. They weren’t used to staying up like he was.
But he wasn’t there.
That’s right, he realized, panic crawling up his throat. He wasn’t there. Normally, that would cause him a great measure of relief, but now he truly realized... He’d left them. They were on their own. Who would keep them awake now?
“Ah, good morning Lord Naname!”
He groaned pitifully, grabbing the pillow and burying his face into it. It was soft, and fluffy, and smelled so clean. The scent and texture made him both tense and relax all at once, and he realize that his muscles no longer burned. They ached terribly, yes, but it was mostly bearable at this point.
It almost hadn’t been, before.
“We’ve made you breakfast, Lord Naname!”
“Ah…” He blinked, lifting his head.
Onikiri and Kotetsu sat kneeled before him, their entire bodies bowed forward as they pushed a tray of food toward him. His stomach growled and twinged painfully. He grabbed at it with a short, startled noise, and glanced over the offered spread with newfound speculation.
It wasn’t anything excessive. Just a small bowl of miso soup, an even smaller plate of senbai, and a simple cup of green tea.
Naname sighed in relief at the lack of cooked meats, and gave the two spirits a wobbly smile.
“Thank you…” He mumbled, rubbing sleepily at his eye - the unmarred one, that is.
This thought made him pause, and he brought his hand around to touch the rough line of tissue that bisected his right. It was an actual scar, he noted with trepidation. Since when had his injuries had the time to heal over? They should still be bloodied and scabbed, he’d only gotten them recently!
He snaked a hesitant hand down beneath his shirt to finger his side, where the giant one had caught him with a hammer and broken a few of his ribs. He remembered it now, as he’d later been impaled on that same exact side. His hands met bandages, and he cringed.
“Oh, Lord Naname, you shouldn’t mess with that,” one of the spirits, Onikiri, told him quickly.
“You are still hurt!” Kotetsu said from beside her. “Please, eat your breakfast so that you may grow strong again!”
Naname set aside his alarming realizations and gave a short sigh, reaching for the bowl of miso instead.
They were right. He wouldn’t get any better if he didn’t eat. The food was gone before he could really acknowledge that he had even started eating, and he blinked at its disappearance. The shrine spirits stared at him in what felt like awe as he then picked up the still steaming tea.
“Lord Naname must have been very hungry,” Kotetsu whispered to his… sister, the teen supposed she was.
She nodded in agreement, making an impressed sound, and he chuckled tiredly at them.
“Do… do you know how long I slept for?” He asked suddenly.
“Yes!” Onikiri straightened. “Lord Naname is finally awake, after three long days of rest!”
Naname nodded thoughtfully. While not shocking or anything - he had been nearly dead, it had felt like - it still was a little surprising. He’d never slept a full three days before, even after a few days of not sleeping at all. It must have been due to the physical exhaustion and wounds, he decided.
Naname settled for looking around the room as he sipped at his tea, restraining himself from gulping it all down at once. He was completely parched to the bone, but small sips quenched thirst better, and he didn’t want to add a burned tongue to his apparently long list of maladies.
The room was well-kept and tidy, basically empty aside from himself, a fancy-looking shoji panel or two, and the equally fancily decorated shoji doors set into the wall to his immediate left. There was also a bowl of water set on a decorative crate-like table next to his tatami mat, where the cloth that had been resting over his face floated unassumingly.
At the reminder of his injuries, he realized he was once again fingering the scar. He forced both his hands to grip the cup tightly, and turned his attention to the two spirits.
“Is there anything that I can use to… to cover this?” He asked hesitantly, motioning to his disfigured eye. They both seemed to light up.
“Oh, yes! We will ask Master Tomoe to find something when he goes to the market today!”
“Master Tomoe said he was going to find something to cover that eye anyway; it wouldn’t do for any youkai to see the land god mark, when you are well enough to go out again.”
That made Naname pause, forgetting about his initial relief.
“Youkai?” He echoed warily, not liking the direction the conversation was heading at all.
The two sibling spirits shared a sheepish look.
“Ah-ha, maybe this would be better explained by Master Tomoe, yes?”
They headed for the door, backs straight with some sense of purpose, and Naname felt himself reach out for them in a blind panic. “Wait!”
“Wh… Where am I?” He asked, not wanting to be alone, especially if he was where he thought he was.
“Why, you are at the Mikage shrine, Lord Naname!” Kotetsu exclaimed.
“Do you not remember?” Onikiri asked worriedly.
Naname’s chest was tight, and all he could think about was the depilated, dark, and foreboding building he’d turned his back to the night previous - or rather, the night three days ago, to be more precise. He was inside of that? Moving on, this room was inside of that?
He frowned. Had it just looked different, because of the dark? No, there had been no mistaking the state of the shrine, even in the night, nor that all-encompassing feeling that something was wrong. And it was dark, still, though he could tell the sun was shining outside. The lighting in the room was dimmed as much as it could be.
“It, ah… it looks different,” he finally managed
“Master Tomoe repaired the structure with his kitsune magic!” Onikiri explained. “As long as his spells are in place, the shrine is whole again!”
“He’ll keep them up until we get around to repairing all of the shrine for real. It is only a temporary fix.” Kotetsu told him.
Of course! Magic. Obviously.
“That is what we must return to, Lord Naname.” Kotetsu announced, and Naname felt his stomach sink again.
“U-Um…” He bit his lip, poking his fingers together hesitantly as the two spirits stares at him curiously with their motionless mask faces.
He really didn’t want to be alone. Never again, preferably - especially in a place like this. It did look different and all fixed up, sure, but now he knew it was an illusion, not even real.
”Lord Naname, we are the will-o'-the-wisps - Spirits of this Mikage shrine!” Kotetsu informed him, sensing his hesitation. “We live to serve the master of the house, so please order us as you wish!”
Sure, just thrust a situation of servitude on him, Mikage. No pressure or anything, Naname wallowed. That annoying, pathetic old man.
“Could one of you stay with me? I… don’t want to be alone here.”
The wisps paused in surprise, sharing a look. Naname ducked his head in embarrassment.
“Oh, of course…”
They eyed each other rather competitively and Naname suddenly realized that they seked to be warring over who would stay with him and who would go help Tomoe repair the shrine. A surprised laugh escaped his mouth, and he slapped a hand over it, hiding a smile.
“Who was it who made me the breakfast? It was very good,” he complimented, watching them straighten from their aggressive staring contest and look back to him eagerly.
“It was I, Onikiri!” She cried, and Kotetsu seemed to pout, crossing his arms.
Naname graced her with a grateful smile, and she seemed to preen. It was kind of cute. “Thank you, I really appreciate it. After all that hard work you deserve a break, yes? Why don’t you stay with me today? Kotetsu, you can keep me company tomorrow, as I’m going to assume it will take me a bit longer to heal. Is that okay?”
“Y-Yes Lord Naname, of course,” the little spirit said, but his slumped shoulders told otherwise.
Naname felt bad for the adorable little guy, but… well, he had to be fair, didn’t he?
“I’m sure you have much to tell me about, Kotetsu.” He called after the departing spirit instead. “I can’t wait.”
The small spirit brightened up considerably, and waved back to the teen before exiting the room. Naname settled down nervously into the blankets around him, and looked to Onikiri, who remained kneeled on the ground.
He frowned. “Is that position comfortable?”
“I have held it for hour upon hour before now. I have grown used to it, Lord Naname, so it is no problem at all!”
He noticed she hadn’t answered his question. “But is it comfortable?”
She drooped a little. “Well, not entirely, no…”
The teen sat up slowly, wincing as his side pulled with the movement, under the bandages. “Then desist immediately. Why don’t you come here and sit with me?”
She jumped to her feet, staring at him. He imagined that her eyes were round with surprise behind her mask. That is, if she had a face underneath. He didn’t think he even wanted to know.
“O-Oh, but Lord Naname…”
“Come,” he interrupted her protest, giving her a small, teasing smile. “I ‘order’ you to sit with me.”
She paused, then giggled with her high-pitched, echoey voice. The sound made a shiver run down his spine, but Naname forced himself to ignore it.
“You tricked me!”
“Not at all!” He crossed his arms with a hurt pout. “Do you... not want to sit with me?”
She gasped, then hopped onto the blankets and gave him a hug. “No, no, of course I do!”
He stifled a laugh behind his hand, and smiled at her. “I’m relieved. Now, would you tell me what exactly all of this business implies?”
She released him and edged back, sitting in a lotus position at the end of the tatami mat. “Oh, certainly! Being a land god seems like a lot of responsibility, perhaps, but it really doesn’t require all that much work when you think about it.”
She went on to explain that the land god of the shrine was expected to oversee its staff and make sure it remained in good condition. Other duties of the god included regularly cleansing the spiritual state of the area, and annually cleansing the surrounding settlements - that included the city and any resident spirit homes (like Mount Kurama, which actually was home to tengu demons. Go figure).
There was one particular duty that interested Naname.
”Prayers?” Naname felt surely incredulous. He did not believe in praying. He’d tried, they’d all tried, and it hadn’t helped even a bit back in that place.
“Yes, there are some who still come to shrines and pray to the god there. They pray for many different kinds of reasons; they ask for favors, or they give a praise. Sometimes they even come just to talk. It is the shrine god’s job to stay in the shrine and listen and record all the prayers that they listen to.”
“Is that it?” Naname asked, voice quiet. “Do the gods just listen and write them down? Don’t they do anything to answer them?”
“If they are feeling up to it, they can use their divine spiritual powers to search for a solution to whatever problem it is, yes.”
“So they have to be at the shrine to pray to the god, then?” It was times like this that he seriously considered converting to Christianity. At least they could pray to their God anywhere at anytime. It seemed a whole lot more convenient.
“Most of the time, gods will only consider the prayers that are prayed at their shrine. But, if you have enough power, you can extend your range of reception to the entire city if you would like,” Onikiri told him dubiously. “It would certainly be a good exercise to grow your godly powers, but it might be dangerous to attempt right away. You probably need to work up your spiritual strength first.”
So, it was like a muscle then. It needed to be worked and conditioned in order to reach over long distances- -almost like training for a marathon that would never end. Naname considered it.
The teen flinched violently, looking around with a panicked gaze. Disembodied voices weren’t a good sign. Nothing good ever came of them. Onikiri seemed to smile at him, though.
“However, being the god of this shrine, you immediately have automatic access to the prayers that are spoken or thought here.”
She pointed to the window, and Naname narrowed his eyes. The rice paper was just thin enough for him to see vague shapes through it, and he realized that there was an older person standing still before the shrine’s ema, the plaque that bore spiritual prayers or wishes. She may have had her hands clasped, but Naname couldn’t really tell through the paper.
He could certainly hear her, though.
-Please watch over my daughter and her unborn child. I ask for the birth to bear a healthy baby.-
“How the hell am I supposed to do that?” Naname mused to himself doubtfully. He didn’t really think he had any control over whether her grandchild even survived its first birthday or not, much less the ability to make sure the kid was healthy.
Though, this was a useful gift. If only they’d all been gods. They would have been able to traverse across the closed spaces much easier than scribbling messages on chalkboards or carving kanji into desks with rusty nails pried from the broken floor boards. Especially since he hadn’t been sure whether it was actually rust, or something else.
Then again, if they’d all been gods, they probably wouldn’t have been trapped in that hellhole in the first place.
“Here!” A different voice said, and Naname looked up, blinking when Kotetsu’s face suddenly hovered in front of his.
The tiny spirit was handing a stack of notebooks to Onikiri, who’d leaped off the bed as soon as he’d entered. They both set them beside the tatami mat and stood at attention.
“What’s all this?” He asked curiously, staring at the admittedly tall stack.
“These are the last twenty years of prayers from people who offered money to the shrine.” Kotetsu answered.
Naname paused. “Only from people who offered money? What about those who couldn’t afford to spare any?”
The Wisps shuffled their feet. “Ah, it is only required that the prayers of those who offer to the shrine be recorded. Master Tomoe wrote all of these by hand while Lord Mikage was absent. But now you’re here.”
“All offerings, or only the monetary ones?” Naname questioned them, reaching out for the first notebook on the top of the stack. He opened it carefully and flipped through it, noticing the neat penmanship and the detailed accounts.
“Just the monetary ones,” Onikiri told him quietly.
That didn’t sit very well with the teen. He rubbed at his side absently, thinking. Kotetsu quietly snatched up his empty teacup and vanished away with it.
“Are the other prayers not accepted?”
“Th-that’s not it…” the Wisp poked her fingers together. “All of the prayers prayed at the shrine are heard by the shrine god. But only the ones who give money as an offering are recorded, normally.”
“That’s so... pretentious,” Naname muttered, reading through a few of the prayers. The names of the people who’d spoken them, as well as the date and the amount of money they’d offered was all written down next to the actual prayer. “It now falls to me to record the prayers, yes?”
“It is the duty of the shrine god,” Onikiri began slowly, “but since we are the shrine spirits, and Master Tomoe is Lord Mikage’s familiar, he occasionally delegated it to us. That is allowed.”
“I wouldn’t want to pile more work onto you,” the sixteen-year-old exclaimed, pursing his lips.
“Oh, no, we would be delighted to do it for you, Lord Naname!” Onikiri assured him. And then added, “Well, perhaps not Master Tomoe, since he is Lord Mikage’s familiar and not yours.”
“You said that before. What is a familiar?” It sounded like something out of a fiction book he’d once read for his English class, and Naname didn’t like the sound of it at all.
“A familiar is the personal servant of a god or goddess. They’re spiritual beings that make a familiar contract with the god, to serve them and only them for the rest of eternity.”
Naname had been correct. He didn’t like it. Though, Tomoe hadn’t seemed too horribly treated, and from what little Naname had gathered before he’d passed out, the kitsune had had a love-hate relationship with the pathetic old man.
“Why is he still here then?” Naname asked. “I would have thought that since Mikage doesn’t seem to intend to come back here, Tomoe would go and find him. Right?”
“Well, no.” Onikiri settled back down on the tatami beside him, and Naname granted her a small smile. “Tomoe is tied to this shrine just as much as he was to Mikage. Also, Lord Mikage kind of broke the familiar contract, when he branded you with the mark of the land god, successfully shifting his status all to you.”
So, pathetic and a scummy, cheating old man. Naname’s opinion of Mikage was dropping further and further the more he heard about the guy. Wait, but -
“B-Branded?” Naname’s hand flew to the scar, running over it to check for any changes.
In the back of his mind, a tiny voice scoffed at him and asked how he would have been able to realize any changes? The last he knew it had been a wide, bleeding gash still fresh and barely beginning to scab at the edges.
Onikiri waved her hands, realizing she’d caused him a sudden panic. “No, no! That isn’t what I meant, Lord Naname! When Lord Mikage kissed you, he shifted all his status to you, and a little bit of his power to give you a - what would you call it - a jumpstart? There is no physical effects from it!”
“Onikiri,” Naname breathed in steadily, calming himself. She fell silent. “Please bring me a mirror.”
“Y-Yes, Lord Naname.” She agreed, fleeing from the room.
It was just now that he’d realized; that it had been twenty-four months that he’d not seen his own reflection - unless you counted a vague impression in filthy, corroded washrooms where most of the glass had long been shattered and converted into weapons to kill. Or the dirty, crusted, hazy images in the windows that never would open. That didn’t count, of course. What with his injured eye, and then - well, he couldn’t really see all that well in the first place, at the time.
Curiously, his vision was repaired since then. It must’ve been something to do with all of this god, familiars and shrine business. Nothing healing could have come from the Elementary. That place only supported death. Still, seven-hundred and thirty days. He was a little curious as to how he looked now.
Onikiri reappeared with a handheld mirror, and handed it to him carefully. He decided to skip any theatrics and raised it immediately up to his face to get a look. It would be a waste of time to wait any longer in suspension.
He’d been right, he thought, as he lifted a hand to trace the scar that crossed his closed right eye. It was hideous.
The line of sickly white tissue began just barely below his brow, nearly intersecting it as well. It continued down through his eyelids and below, before abruptly cutting it’s journey off in a sharp, jagged turn to the right, running across the top of his cheek before ending. In the mirror, it formed a shaky, terrible L. But of course, reflections were always backwards.
He swallowed and moved on, noticing that his unsaturated hair was around to below his shoulders now, when previously it had been kept maintained at barely above his neck. The ends were frayed and shaggy. He considered that he’d at least need to get a trim soon, to get rid of the damaged stuff. He should probably think about growing it all out, as another way to cover up the scar; at this time, his bangs were just brushing his chin.
His skin was also rather pale. Sickly, somewhat ashen, blotchy and red around the eyes. It made sense. Even though he’d entered the Elementary with a nice healthy tan, it had been two years stuck in a sunless, black nightmare. Kind of hard to get any vitamin D in such a situation. There were dark bruises surrounded both eyes, and he gave a sigh.
With brief, choking hesitation, he opened the right one. His breath hitched. It wasn’t his eye.
His eyes had always been a deep honey color. now, though, his left had lightened a bit and likened more to white gold than anything. The other…
She had a pretty shade of lavender. He always said so, and she never failed to call him an idiot for it. She’d said she thought the color was embarrassing, and it didn’t match with any of the outfits she’d had back home.
He shut his eyes - not his eye, it didn’t belong to him - -and clapped his hand over it tightly. He had an almost overwhelming urge to dig his fingers into the socket and rip it out, but quickly smothered it with the bigger feeling of horror that followed soon after. That would be - wasteful.
He shoved the mirror into Onikiri’s hands and curled in on himself, feeling far too tired than three days of sleep really called for. He drew in a deep breath and let it out as slowly as he could, struggling to find something to ground him.
“Lord Naname?” Onikiri placed a hand on his shoulder.
He held back from flinching, not wanting to hurt her feelings, so his body made do with an aborted shudder. He let the breath escape his lungs all at once, flopping back against the bedding in exhaustion.
“I need something to cover this, Onikiri,” he told her uselessly. He’d already said it, and they’d told him they’d take care of it. It was a moot point now, but he needed to cover this… thing, in his skull. He couldn’t stand looking at it, and he knew he’d feel even worse if others saw it.
“Of course, Lord Naname.”
Let me know how it was in the comment section down below! Feel free to report any spelling or continuity errors you noticed while reading.