The laughter and music reached her ears on the balcony even with the huge doors closed behind her. Her husband was back from hunting and celebrating, probably so drunk he couldn’t even remember who was on the table. The greenette placed her crossed arms on the railing, looking over the walls.
She was from an old family tied to this land for centuries, her marriage was just the safest way to stop the bloodshed going wild on their country. The intruders had claimed half of the kingdom, killing innocents and burning their sacred woods, until she offered them a surrender: she could give the command of the country to their prince through marriage if they stopped the massacre.
After the walls used to be the old woods. She went there as a kid once every year, to offer prays to the divines and spirits of nature to protect their people along with the oldest priests. When the attacks started, they went there again asking for help to stop the intruders, but her people was not one of warriors, but of shepherds. The divines could do nothing.
Even so she missed the trees, as talls as the walls and that extended until the horizon.
Hisashi burned the woods. Now, it was only patches of grass growing besides the road that led to his kingdom, the shortest way to whenever he wanted to visit his father. He also burned her collars and she missed the familiar weight of the beads. She also missed everyone that used to work under her family, but they were sent to different parts of the country, some to Hisashi country.
She only wished she wasn’t alone to face these people everyday. To face their different gods and rituals, to not be ostracized because of her green hair.
Another song started to play. She should go inside. After hunting and drinking, he always looked for her. The night would be as unpleasant as any other. When she opened the door, the sounds were muffled inside. A soft tune came from behind her and she turned. A man was sitting on the railing, his hands moving on the flute to make the soft tune she recognized from her childhood.
Her hands moved to her neck, reaching for the beads that weren’t there anymore. Fireflies floated lazily around, illuminating the night and there was not a sound from the inside, even with the open door. He looked at her and she recognized his face. From the woods, from her childhood. Humbly, she lowered her body in a bow.
He stopped playing. She didn’t dare to look up until she felt his hands on her face, thin, long fingers guiding her to face him. Sharp chin, sunken cheeks, golden hair. He held her face, cleaning the lonely tear that run down her face. And guided her to a door.
She knew that door shouldn’t be there. Neither should it lead to a meadow. The enormous yew shouldn’t be there too, but it was. Fireflies danced around them and he guided her until the yew, sitting on the grass. She sat by his side, listening to him playing the flute again. The music eased her worries away, made her forget about Hisashi.
Waking up the next day, she never felt so light. Hisashi snored by her side on the bed and she covered her lips with her hand to hide her smile. He made her a promise, one she would hold on to.
Every tear will be paid.
Shouta considered himself a man of logic. The same logic that guided his training in Haja, the crushing evil expertise that took him ten years to perfect.
He never disregarded any kind of belief. Honestly speaking, most of them had so much elements in common, he couldn’t help but think that they all held a piece of the truth. If they could just put it all together, a whole image would be clear. He was also realistic enough to know that he alone could not know all the myths and tales of the world to prove this theory. Unfortunately, most people would rather cause a ruckus then listen to the other.
For this exact same reason, when the call for the kingdom came, he was surprised. King Hisashi didn’t believe in spirits or gods of other lands, he barely believed the ones from his own land, but even so wrote a letter telling of revengeful spirits.
Wandering spirits were a common problem, especially after a war or times of famine, but few become revengeful. Most of them were only able to move small things around, whisper curses to whoever crossed their paths and that was it. But there were always the stronger kind, the ones that possessed humans or entire houses, that could kill if given the chance. The longer the spirit stayed on this side without belonging here, the worse it would be.
“Are you going?” asked his traveling companion, a mask over his face had spirals on the place of eyes, two lines on either side of the cheeks and a different cut that allowed his mouth and chin to be visible.
“Yes.” It was his duty to at least check if there was a threat or if people were being too superstitious. He put the letter inside his kimono, looking over the field. “Are you done?”
The blond confirmed with a nod, blowing off the light and then hiding his flute on the large sleeve of his kimono. He never needed a bag to keep his things.
Hizashi was a good company on most days. He talked enough for the two of them and thanks to his infinity pocket, Shouta could travel lightly. They had to go on foot or boat most of the times because horses didn’t like the blond. Very few animals liked him.
After days of travel, he could see the place the second prince, now king of this land, chose to live. It looked like a small castle, surrounded by walls so thick that any enemy would have trouble to scale or take down.
“Hizashi, can you take a look?” the blond, turned his face to him, the mask tilting with his head “I don’t want to walk in there not knowing what I’ll face.”
He nodded and raised his hands to undo the small tie on his hair. The blond took of the mask and overlooked the land, his spiralling eyes taking time on the fields and walls. Shota had to hold the temptation to look at the blond’s eyes. Hizashi could send one straight to the other world if they dared to look into his eyes. He saw it happening once, a man stood on shaky legs before turning to dust, his eyes glued to Hizashi’s face and the same spiral of the mask visible on his eyes.
The thing is, this world didn’t have only spirits. Deities, spiritual guides, half-bloods. Any of them could be a problem, a really big and serious problem. But they were kept in line. By who, he had no idea. But the majority of them didn’t bother with mankind, the few that did had a specific task.
Like Hizashi. With the sound of his music, the wandering spirits of kids would gather and with the light of his lantern he would take them to the other world, so they could find the peace they lacked in life. Or at least, that’s what the blond told him.
“No wandering spirits here. Just a yew.”
“Yew?” the blond nodded, placing the mask over his face again
“Over a hill, besides the cemetery on the south.” he paused while tieing the mask again “It prevents the appearance of the fool’s fire.”
“So whatever trouble the king has, it’s the real thing.”
The blond nodded again and they walked on the path again, the grass reached his knees and waved lightly with the wind.
“What did you see about this land?”
“A lot of death. Hizashi didn’t take this place peacefully, even with their surrender.” he looked around, his long hair waving like the tall grass. “Old roots too. Sacred trees lined the walls until that hill we were. But most of them are burned.”
He turned his head, looking behind on his path. The path from the walls to the hill was half an hour long, the hill didn’t look that big near the walls anymore.
“That’s a lot of trees.”
“A pity. Old trees like those are the home of some of my people.” the blond moved his hand to the back of his head “Some of them are older than the kingdom of the land.”
“ This kingdom is pretty new.”
But he knew what Hizashi meant. If trees were older than the previous kingdom, it could be anything between a hundred and three thousand years. Walking inside the walls, he could see soldiers patrolling, villagers and small farmers doing their business. Most of them stopped when they walked through.
Hizashi’s hair color and mask brought that kind of attention. If it didn’t, Shouta’s completely black clothes would do the job. Most monks and priest used just one of the parts in a black color, the upper part if they were speechers, the lower part if they were healers. Both black meant exorcist.
People leaned over their stalls or friends to take a better look at them, whispering among themselves. They kept walking, not even the soldiers bothered to stop them. Most only spared them a glance and kept going, a couple breaking in cold sweat. He knew the latter happened because Hizashi would always turn their way and give a wicked grin.
One of those nervous soldiers stopped them, asking, a bit shakily, what was their business. He showed the letter he received, with the seal of the king. The soldier asked another pair to escort them to the castle. Hizashi was still looking to the nervous soldier, seeing him gulp and go back to his patrol.
“Midnight would have a feast here.” the blond whispered and he remained his face blank.
Nemuri was a being entirely different from Hizashi, but that walked around mankind the same way he did: following a haja. But the main difference was that Nemuri ate the sins that marked the souls of men. It usually left a little mark on the soul, a small part of it being taken forcefully with the sin. If there was too much sin, she would eat the whole soul.
“What kind are we talking about?”
“You name it, they have it.”
That was not a good start. No wandering spirits in a land full of sins could only mean two things: they became strong enough to possess or there was something more powerful keeping them at bay. He could deal with the first, not so sure about the second. But that’s why Hizashi was by his side, to help with the beings his specialized nullification could not deal with.
The king made them wait, like most landlords did. Not because he was extremely busy, but to show that he had no time for such trivial things, like their presence was not his request but their desire to go. He used the minutes to even his breath, feeling the energy around him. The faith level was low, the usual waver in the air came from a specific direction on the south. Footsteps around him almost made him sigh. He would have to check later.
“His Majesty will see you now.”
Letting out a slow breath before opening his eyes, he got up and went inside. The court was empty, most of the men had walked out when he was meditating, and the king looked them from above, his throne above five steps made him look down even on the tallest man.
“Your Majesty.” he bowed. Hizashi stayed on place, his hands inside of his kimono’s sleeves. He could almost feel the burning gaze of the king on the blond “We came at your request.”
“Why does he not bow?”
“It’s hard to ask a god to bow to man.”
“He doesn’t look like a god to me.” he waved his hand, nonchalant, deciding to ignore the blond. “I just want you to solve this trouble once and for all.” he snapped his fingers and some servants left the room. “A couple weeks ago, some of my soldiers and nobles started to die. Just one at first, then two at the same time, another in the other week. All of them throw up everything their miserable stomachs had before dying.”
Not common, but he saw some of those cases. Poisoning disguised as spirits attacking. The worst part of his job was that most of the attacks were actually people pretending to be revengeful spirits and he had to deal with them even so.
“We found another one this morning. My servants were going to burn him, but if you want to take a look.” the king gestured to the door, one servant waiting.
Bowing one last time, Shouta followed the small man until the outside. A pyre had been made, he could smell the oil over the branches. The servants that came earlier must have stopped before the corpse was burned. Putting a gloved hand over his face, he pulled the shroud. The victim, a soldier, had the unmistakable armor and colors of the king, a small bouquet by his side.
Other than the horrible odor of death, he could not see anything indicating possessing. No signs on his hands or chest, no burns or marks. Opening his mouth, he found a young branch, but no marks on the tongue and teeth were still clean considering his occupation. He placed the shroud over the body again and nodded, letting the men continue their job.
When it was all burned, they gathered the ashes and put on a small vase, a small group walking to the cemetery.
“You said the cemetery was southwards?” Hizashi nodded and they followed the group with some distance.
Shouta was looking around discreetly, but didn’t notice any wave on the air or misplaced shadows. They watched from the distance while the vase was buried, but Shouta eyes roamed until he saw a lonely figure under a yew tree, its trunk so large it would need tree man to hold it. Hizashi moved before him, walking ahead to the tree and the woman kneeling on the grass in front of it.
The first thing he noticed was her hair color, a deep green so much like the leaves of a forest. Two guards were a couple steps away and she prayed in front of a tombstone. Hizashi stopped by her side, glancing to the tree and bowing to it, a reverence he never see the blond do to any, before touching the trunk with a hand.
Ignoring the blond weird ways, he sat beside the woman, taking another look at her. He recognized her, she was on a corner on the throne room, but was out with the servants when they came in. With her deep red dress and the jewel on her left hand, she must be king Hisashi’s wife and the previous ruler of this land.
“I hope we are not bothering.” he mumbled in a low voice, aware of the guards behind them. She blinked, green eyes turning to him for just a moment. Green hair, green eyes, a land with forests. Maybe the locals had the royal family recognized because of this likeness to the trees.
“You are not.” she placed her hands on her lap and looked to Hizashi, still caressing the tree “Your friend. He’s not from here.”
Not a question. But something on her calm demeanor made him notice it was not just nationality she was talking about.
“He isn’t.” he looked to the tombstone, noticing there were not name only two drawings; one was similar to a bee and another of three spirals coming from the same point. “Praying for your family?”
“My parents.” she answered with a sigh.
“I’m sorry.” he offered and she closed her eyes again, pressing the palm of her hands together
There. He could feel the waves coming from her. There was just one power that the humans could use against any supernatural creature and that was faith . Most people only had the most basic belief of a superior being and their faith was like a subtle glow on their skin. Using his technique while watching her, he could see how her faith went beyond her skin, making a small aura around her body. A light color, so she not only believed strongly but was completely faithful to her deities. He waited until she finished her prayers, the aura diminishing just a little. He blinked, making his eyes go back to their normal color in time for she turned to face him.
“How much do you know this land Your Highness?”
“I was raised here.”
“About the faith and myths?”
“More than my husband and his guards.” he nodded. Not surprisingly, the winner forced the nation to obey their costumes.
“If I have any questions about it, may I have your permission to ask for help?”
“Any permission comes from my husband.” she got up, lightly patting the dress to remove any dirt spots “If he agrees, I could answer whatever question.”
The guards followed the woman back to the castle, one in front of her, another behind her. Shouta frowned, observing the tombstone for a while longer.
“She truly is strong.” Hizashi stopped by his side and he got up
“She’s being watched. Closely.” they walked back to the castle “At night, could you take a look around? See if you find anything.”
A servant guided both of them to a room. It was not a guest room, it was obvious, and Shouta asked to remove any decorations. Just the furniture was enough, paintings, carpet and flowers would be distractions or even means that helped the spirits to hide and attack, wood was not so easily moved specially the ones on his room.
Hizashi left before Shouta started his meditation. The brunet waited, busing himself reading the reports of the previous victims. A scream tore out the air and made him jump out of bed. He was out of the door and running before the guards watching his door could stop him. It came from down the hall and he turned.
People were watching a man convulse. A scared maiden was hugging a guard. There was something around the man’s waist, a long tail. His eyes became red and stretching his hand in the direction of the creature, he cried a spell. The spirit let go, a shriek echoing in the hall before it ran.
Shouta pursuited it for three hallways until it jumped out of a window, the moon was high and he saw the outlines of the figure. Not big enough to be an adult, so a teen spirit with a monkey-like tail. His clothes were too different from the ones of the castle. The shadowed figure disappeared after hitting the land. It was fast, the tail helped it push thing to block Shouta’s path.
The man . He run back, but the people were covering the man already. He stopped them with a gesture and kneeled beside the man, checking his hands, face, chest. Not a bruise, not a mark or even signs of a curse. And he died even when he pushed the spirit far away. A spell then? The spirit seemed strong enough to cast one, but he didn’t gave the figure enough time.
A symbol was drawn on the wall next to the body, shining silver against the pitch black. He recognized this, it was a number. Nineteen. Was this the nineteenth victim?
“What the hell is that?” the king, oh great.
“A man died.” he said bluntly.
“Shouldn’t you prevent that?” a woman held the king’s arm, both dressed in a hurry. Even with the pale light, he could see that one of the woman breast was outside of her sleep gown and the dark marks on her neck.
“That’s what I intend to do.” the woman whispered something, making the king turn his face in disgust and walk back to his rooms.
He went back to his room, the guards watching him cautiously now. He locked the door behind him with a gruff.
“Nice night hm?” Hizashi was laid on the bed, looking to the roof
“It was about time you came back.” he sat by his side “There is a wandering spirit here after all. A kid.”
“I’ll have to leave.” he blinked in surprise. The blond sat on the bed, fixing some strands of his hair “Superior orders.”
“From who?” Hizashi didn’t answer, instead, moving his hand on the inside of his long sleeves and taking random items from it.
“I’ll be close to give you information, but I’m forbidden to act on this land.”
“That never happened before.”
“It’s happening now.” he seemed to have found what he looked for. Offering a hand, he put a single prayer bracelet on his hand. “This is not for you to have, but to give. I can’t give it directly.”
“Should I use it?”
Putting the bracelet over his wrist, he noticed small carvings along the beads. Putting them closer to his face and turning a bit to use the light of the candle, he recognized it was the number eight. Hizashi said years ago it was a good luck number because it pointed to heaven. He turned his eyes to the blond again, but the other was facing the windows, all the trinkets kept inside his sleeve again.
“Be careful here.”
And easy like that, it was like his mask absorbed the man before falling innocently on the bed. He caught it, it had been some time since this kind of thing happened.
“Can you hear me?” he whispered
“I can always hear you.” came the voice and he allowed a small smile “I’m not leaving you Shouta, just this land. We made a promise, remember?”
He walked around the castle the next day, looking for any trace of spiritual energy that the monkey boy could have left, but found none. It was like he never appeared in the first place. Asking around, he also couldn’t find any information about a kid related to monkeys. No kid with a pet monkey, no kid that liked monkeys.
But he saw the king’s lover. She wore jewelry all over, her dress was opulent, hugging her body. The woman gave him a dirty look, exclaiming for whoever wanted to hear about the horrifying scene she watched. Loud, arrogant, exaggerated manners. Obviously a peasant that was gaining more warming the king’s bed.
He just turned the corridor wanting to ask a few more question to the guards, but stopped when he heard a insult to the queen. Eavesdropping was wrong, so he just stepped back.
The queen was being held by her wrist while the woman talked about shaving her head again to remove the horrible green from her hair. The woman said nothing, only a whimper escaping her lips when she tried to free her arm. The women following the lover laughed, some even suggesting where she could find a scissor or how witches deserved this. He was surprised the guards did nothing.
“Excuse me, but I believe that’s not the proper way to treat a queen.” they stopped, the woman letting go of the other with a ‘tch’. The guards stepped aside when he came closer to the queen and offered a hand “Your Highness?”
She gave a small, sad smile, but didn’t accept his hand. Instead, she kept walking down the corridor. There was a limp on her steps that was not there the day before.
Two women could not be more opposite to each other. He avoided coming closer to the queen for now, even if he crossed paths with her every now and then. She always dressed in the most simple of ways, even if the dress was made of finer material it lacked the opulence that many showed, he barely heard her voice and like the day before, she was followed by guards the whole day.
His questioning brought more questions than answers. Where the other bodies had been found, numbers were also engraved on wood or wall, but they didn’t follow any pattern. Fifteen, thirty-six, fifty-one . Some were too small, some were too big. When he went to ask the nobles living in the castle, none of them could give him a good lead to what was happening.
No exceptional murder happened, not any extraordinary event that could cause the anger of any spirit in particular. The current crimes could be divided between corruption and treasons. Some of the men and women confessed, mistaking him with a priest that could offer a pat on their back and a way to pay for their wrong doings. He didn’t. But at least this way he knew more.
It was a long and tedious job, took him a whole week to talk to every guard and servant. On the exact seventh day that he was there, another attack happened. When he run there, he saw an eagle like boy, claws digging deeply on a man’s shoulder. So not one, but two spirits. But before he could muster the haja spell, another scream behind him made him turn.
A frog like spirit had its tongue around a servant neck and the woman choked for air, her hand extended to him in a silent plea for help. Another one appeared in the end of the corridor, the figure was feminine but it had two small horns on her head, her hands held a man’s head and it was melting. The monkey-like boy from his first night had another woman held securely by his tail and held her at least a meter above the ground.
Four? Strong enough to even cause physical harm without possessing. Cursing in his mind, he muttered a spell and punched the air in front of him. A spiritual wave spread and the three spirits left the people they were holding, jumping out of windows to avoid the impact. He turned to the last, but he had run away too. Cursing again, he jumped from the window, giving chase.
The monkey disappeared the moment he touched the ground like the other time. The girl with horns two steps later. The eagled floated in the air, going south it’s darkness mixing him with the new moon night. The easier to follow was the frog, but it was also the fastest. It stopped, near a wall and disappeared on the ground. The eagle above her disappeared in a trembling wave of spiritual energy.
If that’s how they tried to play, so be it. Hitting both of his hand on the ground and screaming a spell, a wave crossed the ground, expelling anything that didn’t belong there. The four creatures jumped out of the ground and he could see them clearly for the first time. Without any cover of darkness from this world, their colors clashed.
The frog was a girl, with green hair and colored clothes. The monkey was a boy, dressed in white with blond hair on his head and tail. The eagle looked like a boy, but with a eagle like head and a dark cloth over his shoulder. The girl with horns had surprisingly pink skin and hair and blue and purple clothes.
All of them gave him a surprised look, but they weren’t as surprised as he was. They were not wandering spirits or even revengeful. Their presence was clear and bright and he didn’t recognized the symbol they wore on belts and dresses. The kids smiled, the girls even waved, and then disappeared on the air again.
The whole time, he couldn’t help but ask himself what the hell was that supposed to mean?
Before talking to the king and queen, he locked himself on his room, litting some fragrant candles and placing them in front of him. He held Hizashi’s mask with both hands and took a deep inhale before placing it over his face.
“It’s that bad hm?”
“Worse.” he admitted.
The familiar darkness was melting and changing while shapes started to take form. In a second, the trembling form of Hizashi was in front of him. The place was not his room, but a elevated hill and the blond was sitting in front of him, his fingers moving in the chords of a lute creating an melodious tune even while his eyes were closed.
He could also see the wandering spirits of children, their blue aura was unmistakable and they were gathering to the sound of his song, some already dancing around the blond. It reminded him of how they met.
Hizashi guided the spirit of lost children and Shouta had been freaked when he saw him walking through the window of his room, a couple of children following him. Whenever the blond turned his direction, he would try to hide, but as any curious children, he followed them. A living boy wandering between the world of the living and the dead was trouble.
But instead of locking him on the other side like he was supposed to, Hizashi sent him back. Because he could see spirits even before wandering to the land of the dead, he would give the boy a precious gift. The mask was a small part of his presence, but one he could give to him if he could help him travel as far as the boy could walk. Shouta learned haja spell by himself and after some good ten years discovered some others like him, people that had contact with spirits and new how to deal with them.
“The spirits were kids. Clean kids.” Bright auras like those belonged to those that went straight to paradise or were servants of powerful deities.
“Do you still have the bracelet I gave you?”
“Good.” he waited, expecting the blond to continue
“Can’t you help me a little more? Some thousand years wisdom on why clean spirits are killing would be a good help.”
“You told me you were forbidden to act, not to talk.”
A small smile graced the blond face and his eyes opened just a little.
“Ah, I raised you well didn’t I?” he chuckled, the music changing to a happier one “What I can say is this: you are looking to the right thing with the wrong perspective.”
“What?” he tried to think back. Clean spirits killing, random numbers with the dead bodies, no signs of evil ghost on the land.
“Good night Shouta.”
Darkness was all he could see again. Taking the mask of his face, he could finally breathe again. The time flowed in a different way on the spirit world and it helped that he could hold his breath for longer now. Even so, it wasn’t that much help.
Wrong perspective. What could be the right one then?
Even without the mask he could hear a soft tune on the distance. Was this Hizashi, still playing to calm his frustration?
The king said nothing that much different from his soldiers or his lover. More time wasted really.
“This cursed land is trying to take us out of it, but I’d rather burn it all then spoil my victory.” the brunet resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the man. His lover was holding his arms between her breasts and by the way the king kept moving on the seat, he couldn’t hold it any longer “Anything else?”
“I would also like to speak with your wife.” that made the man pause “Her witness is just as important as any of this household. Even more so because she may know the cause of this.”
“You’re saying she is killing my men?” the man hissed, getting up. “That pathetic woman?”
“No my lord.” he answered calmly “But she knows the land, the myths. Maybe religious rituals that have to be held every so-much years. One of those could be the cause of all this.”
“Fine, ask her. But stay in my child’s room with him all the time.”
“As you wish, Your Majesty.”
The queen was watching over her son lessons, correcting him gently when he wrote a name wrong. She spared him a look and kissed her son’s face before getting up and coming closer to the door.
“I’m very sorry to bother, but I would like to ask some question.” before she could even open her mouth “The king has authorized.”
She nodded, stepping aside to let him in. The boy raised his head and he could see his eyes gleaming with curiosity when he waved a hand. She asked her son to keep doing his lessons and to not bother him with questions for now, before sitting again and gesturing to a chair in front of her. The boy was still between them and she didn’t make any move to ask him to go out.
So he started the questions. No, she hadn’t witnessed any attack. Yes, she knew some of them, but not personally. Yes, there were anual rituals that her people did but none of them were related to keep a wrathful spirit content, they only did it in the times of the harvest to thank for what the earth gave them that year. Her aura was calming and strong, too strong for someone that only study and preached.
“Did you ever participate in any ritual?” she nodded, because of course she did. Noticing the guards watching and even one of the servants on the corner, he tried to change the question “One like a trial to face your god?” she looked surprised for a second
“Yes, in my youth.”
“Could you tell me how it happened?”
“I was ten and was chosen, with other seven girls, to go to the sacred forest and offer prayers, I was the youngest.” he nodded “It was chilly because we were in the middle of the fall. I stayed in front of one of the sacred trees and prayed and sang the required songs the whole night. Not much different then the one we did for the harvest, except that we had to start with the sunset and finish with the sunrise.”
“Anything remarkable about it?”
“One of the girls used the chance to run away with a lover.” she touched her chin with a finger, tilting her head a little with a frown “I’m not sure if this is remarkable but her parents were really disappointed” she placed her hands on her lap again “I think one went missing that night, nobody ever knew what happened to her. After that, I was chosen as the one who would overlook the sacred forest.”
So their reign depended on whoever survived the night? Even so, six out of eight got out, what made her so different from the others?
“I hope you don’t mind, but I would like to try something.” he offered her both of his hands over the table. She glanced to the guards, but nodded placing her fingers above his palms “Now please stay calm, this is just a safety measure.”
His eyes became deep red and his hair floated above his face. She tried to pull her hands but he held her fingers tightly. He heard one of the guards cursing and almost rolled his eyes, but that would made it lose the effect. The boy was besides his mother, both amazed and scared.
“Do not worry, this is a haja spell.” it actually wasn’t, but if he tried to explain that he had those blood red eyes because he wandered too much on the land of the dead, it may broke the small trust people had on him “It helps me see if there’s any kind of evil inflicted to someone.”
The land of the dead was more like a layer beneath the surface. It was there around the living world, but not everyone could see it. With his eyes and touching the person, he could always see if there was anything locked to someone’s soul. It was useful to most of his works against possession because this way he could fight the spirit directly. Downside was, he could not see the living world so if he run after a spirit that was in a meadow in the land of the dead, it didn’t mean that it was the same layout for the land of the living. He could hit a wall or a locked door or even a table. When he was learning, Hizashi was the one that went beneath the surface to fight the spirit but after he mastered it, the blond was responsible to move everything out of the way for him on the realm of the living and that sometimes included walls.
There was nothing attached to her. He was half-expecting that this was somehow a work of her ancestors trying to protect her and their old land, but there was nothing with her.
“Mommy, you okay?” and then something showed. A bright light. He only saw one of those on his life and the girl was living in the most secured temple he ever saw. A pure soul, touched by the heavens. A human closer to divinity. Even brighter than the girl he met.
Bringing his gaze back to the living world, he noticed that the young prince had put a hand on his mother’s arm. It was him. He blinked once, his hair falling in place and his eyes returning to their darker color. The boy shouldn’t be older than ten. How could a king that betrayed his wife have a kid with a blessed soul?
“There, it’s all good.” he let go of her hands and she smiled to her son.
“Hey, mister you...”
“Izuku.” his mother scolded him lightly, and the boy gave him a puppy eyed and he nodded, allowing him to continue
“This thing you do with your eyes, does it hurt?”
“Oh.” he sat back in front of his papers, grabbing his pen again “It’s a bit scary. You shouldn’t do it for long.” he snorted, rising from the chair. He shouldn't do it for long for a while different reason.
“I’ll try to keep that in mind. Thank you for your time.” he bowed to the queen and prince before leaving the room.
He looked the terrains around the castle during the rest of the day and some around the village, checking every cemetery and tombstone he found. Even so, other than a few different symbols on some of the older ones, there was nothing wrong there. That only left one solution: it was the work of a human.
The king was not happy with this answer.
“And those spirits you chased the other night?”
“They are clean.” he frowned, looking confused and angry “It means they went to heaven or are part of it.”
“And why would they attack my soldiers?”
“It was probably to save them.”
That made the man even more confused, but it was the only explanation he had. Clean spirits only affect the world of the living to protect people, never to kill. Even if it didn’t look like it and even if Shouta knew that it was not it, that was what he knew.
“My experience tells me it’s not the work of a spirit, but of a man trying to look like one.” he explained. The king drummed his finger on the table in front of him, the queen was standing near a wall on the back and the lover was sitting by his side. A weird setting, shouldn’t the queen be sitting even if it was by the other side of the king? “Probably someone close enough to know the shifts of guards and servants. I suggest you to look among some of the people that lives here since you took over. I can help, if that’s your wish.”
The man gestured with a hand and Shouta bowed before leaving the room. He noticed the troubled expression of the queen and how she tugged at her lip while thinking.
Waiting on the gardens, he noticed that she left not too long after him, holding her son with a hand while they talked. The boy waved at him but he and his mother went to a bench under some trees and sat there while talking, guards watching over both of them.
He remembered the faces of most of the guards, especially the ones that looked more guilty. Holding Hizashi’s mask on his hand while thinking, he made up his mind noticing again that the guards were neglecting their duties, one of them even pushing the young prince when he came too close. He put it over his face and looked at them.
“Can you see?”
“Of course.” the blond’s voice came easily “I really admire that woman.”
“The boy has a pure soul.” like he felt that they were talking about him, the young prince came closer. To anyone, he would look like a weirdo meditating with the painted mask over his face, but the prince was not looking to him, but to someone behind him.
“Hi.” he whispered waving a little and he could feel more than see Hizashi waving back
“Hello little one. Would you like a music?”
“No, thanks.” he answered in another whisper. No, not whispering. It was the same mental contact that Hizashi used to speak through the mask “You’re a spirit right? I saw you inside my room when you came here.”
“I’m a guide.” the blond answered “My friend is a priest.”
“Mommy told me guides can never open their eyes.” the boy tilted his head “Why? You can’t see?”
“Because if I look, they will never find peace. They will just… burn on their own resentments, sins and guilt until there’s nothing left.”
“Oh.” the boy gave him a small smile and spared a glance back to his mother “I have to go now.”
He picked up a flower next to Shouta and run back to his mother, offering it to her. She smiled, leaning forward so the boy could put it on her hair.
“She’s hurt.” Hizashi said suddenly “I can see the blood on her legs. Some old bruises on her back too. And she’s smiling through them.” he was silenced for some more moments, watching as she got up and run after her son in a mock play “No wonder she was chosen.”
“I wonder if that’s the only thing that made her be chosen to be the princess.”
“Princess?” Hizashi chuckled “She’s a priestess. A Midoriya. Old bloodlines from both her parents. Even her hair color proves how much she is tied to all here.”
“A priestess.” he hummed “Why didn’t you say it before?”
“Thought you would guess by yourself.” the guide had a smile on his voice “And that’s not so hard to figure. After all, before the Saito’s took over, the rulers and head priests were the same. That king only kept her because her people would riot.” he could feel the weight of Hizashi’s arms on his shoulders as if the blond was leaning on his back “Shepherds or not, he’s not stupid to fight twenty to one, especially after so many years. Unlike his army, the number of people here is growing.”
Hizashi was quiet for the rest of the day. The king, that barely dealt with Shouta because of his help with spirits, now wanted the priest as far from his life as possible. Not that the brunet minded, if he wanted to deal with people on his own way, that’s his problem.
But he was worried about the kid. Taint such a pure soul would be a waste and if the boy chose to be a priest he could do so much good. He wished to talk about this with his mother, she was far more understanding than the king, but with the boy as the only heir that was almost impossible.
“Shouta, get up.” he blinked, turning so he could see the mask over his belongings “You have to leave this place.”
“Now.” The urgency on the other’s voice made him get up even if a bit drowsy.
He blinked faster, trying to adjust his eyes to the darkness. Small objects floated around gathering above his bag and he quickly threw them all in without even looking. If Hizashi was in such a hurry that he was putting Shouta things inside his mask, he didn’t have much time. Actually he had no time at all. Four floating blue lights surrounded him and the brunet barely had time to be suspicious.
Why was Hizashi taking him through the other world?
“Move fast.” The light that was on his back pushed him a little and he started jogging, the lights moving a bit to the right and left very so many steps to help him avoid hitting anything on the real world.
“Why the hurry?”
“Unless you want to die, you better hurry.” The blond’s voice was an angry whisper and he only heard it a couple times on his life. He was very close to his death on both of them if not for the intervention of the blond.
But even the other world could not muffle the scream that tore the air, making it vibrate with the amount of power it carried. Shouta stopped on his track and turned. The image of the boy he talked with earlier clear on his mind. It was his plea, crossing both worlds to find help.
“It’s the kid.” He stepped in the direction of the sound. He was not the only one.
Something moved in the other world, something big enough to make part of Hizashi show to hold him in place. Only the blond’s arms and head floated above him, his eyes were partially open already.
“If you go back there, I can’t protect you.”
“I’ll bring him with me.” He assured the other, placing a hand over both arms
“No, you won’t.” the blond said with a sigh before disappearing
He could see the castle again and the change made him lightheaded. He was on a corridor and then he saw it, someone dragging the boy, trying to muffle his screams with a hand over his mouth. He ran to reach him, but he was not the only one. Something was moving, just underneath this layer of the world, but with such a strong presence that the candle lights flicked off. It started behind him and the force was too fast, running ahead of him. One meter, then two, then three.
Cursing on his mind, he kept running and extended his hand, crying a spell. It didn’t stop. The boy and his assaulter turned on the end of the corridor, the strange force one step behind them. When Shouta turned, what was left was a body convulsing and no sign of the kid. Panting, he looked both sides. The candles were lit on both corridors, except for the one he came from. Where? Where should he go? Hizashi’s mask tied around his neck shook when he started to run again.
If an evil spirit ate a soul, it got stronger. If it ate a pure, heavenly touched soul, it would be unstoppable. Not even twenty of the best priests would be able to lock it outside of the living world. He couldn’t let that happen to that kid.
Another scream. He stopped dead on his track, trying to even his breath. Someone was shouting and as sure as he heard the first, another scream tore through the air. It was not the kid, but he kicked the door open even so. The scene made him freeze.
The king had an iron rod, used to mix the embers, burning red like it just got out of fire and dripping blood. But the bigger pool of blood was coming from the queen. She held her face, crying in pain and blood oozed through her fingers. The man turned, his face livid.
“You were right priest.” The man hissed “This witch was the one killing my men. She killed my son!” He kicked her, making her whimper and cower “But now, I don’t need you anymore.”
He moved his eyes from the man to the weeping woman, slouching and trying to be smaller. The king raised the rod again, but before he had the chance to mark the woman any more, Shouta moved faster than he could think, holding the man’s wrist and twisting it to make him release the burning rod. Pushing the king to the ground, where he stayed frozen in place by his red eyes, Shouta turned to look at the woman.
Her faith was wavering, not as solid as the other day. No wonder why, the sickening smell of burnt skin made his stomach turn.
“She’s no witch. Just a simple woman.” he kneeled in front of the woman and held her shoulders as gently as he could. “Your Highness?” she kept her eyes down, shoulders shaking with sobs “High Priestess?” she raised her face just a little, her visible eye had a stream of tears while the other that was covered had a similar, but red trail. “What happen with your son?”
“She killed him!” the king screamed, and threw something over his feet. Sparing a glance, Shouta saw the gleaming of a blade and the redness of blood.
“Did you?” he asked in a low voice. She shook her head, her whole body shaking. Her faith was still wavering. He reached in his pocket for the rosary and offered her “Here.”
“That’s…” she removed one of her hands and held the beads with care. She brought them closer to her face, trembling. Hushed voices made him turn. The king had a bloodied piece of cloth and threw it to the fire.
“Burn her.” He said, the light of the fireplace making his eyes hard “Her life will appease Arelon’s wrath.”
Even if Shouta was a good fighter, he alone couldn’t defend the woman and himself against fifty. But when he raised his fists up to fight, something hit the room. The other didn’t feel it as much as he did, but the impact was strong enough to make him nauseous. Some guards held him and were dragging him outside, while the king screamed some nonsense about burning the whole place.
The lights went off, only the fireplace kept the room with some light. A shiver run up his spine and he looked around the room. It was here.
A figure appeared behind Inko and calmly walked around her, every step resonating and echoing in the air with the sound of the soft bells of the kagura suzu on the top of his staff. The figure was dressed in a dark blue kimono, but with a large hood that covered his face and even the bright blue of his eyes didn’t push away the darkness around his face. The brash king was too astonished to do anything, especially when he saw what the mysterious figure was holding. The young prince jumped from the figure’s arms to his mother’s at the same time that the cloaked figure kneeled in front of the queen, pushing his hood to reveal more of his face and a messa of blond hair.
“No please.” she held Izuku close to herself, trying to hide the boy between her chest and her arms “Don’t, I... “ a sob shook her whole body and the cloaked figure held her face between his hands “I don’t want to hurt you any more.”
“You would never hurt me.” and even if this should be a whisper, it was heard on the whole room. The voice was deep and strong, it didn’t fit the thin and gaunt figure. He moved one of the large sleeves of his kimono and cleaned the blood on Inko’s face. “They are all safe. Time to go.” she nodded, kissing her child’s forehead
“Priest! Do something!” the king snapped, turning to him. Shouta was as still as a statue.
The figure got up, turning his back to the crying woman and child, his hard eyes fixed on the king. In one swift movement, he pushed his kimono back, the fabric covering both Inko and Izuku at the same time. He barely had time to blink, Hizashi was on his back, pushing his face to the ground. He could feel the the fabric of his kimono above him.
The air vibrated again. This time it brought the scream of men and smell of burnt flesh. The bells chimed closer and closer as the other walked and he could see, in the small space between the kimono and the ground, the bare feet of the man.
“Please my lord, forgive him.” Hizashi said in the most humble and submissive voice he ever heard. He could feel the iron grip the blond had on his head, keeping it down and away from the new figure, how his fingers shook on his hair. Who was him that made even Hizashi fear?
The only kind that had more power than Hizashi were gods and only the most powerful ones, guides could trick some of the less popular.
“I have nothing against him. He served his purpose, even if a bit late.” the same voice, deep and strong echoing around. It made a chill go up his spine. Even without seeing, he could feel the aura of the man, the pressure it brought. “I’ll send him your way.”
“Thank you my lord for your kindness.”
Hizashi’s hand was loosened just enough for Shouta to raise his face a bit. The blond was not thin or gaunt anymore. He looked like a powerful warrior, tall and muscled like a bull. He was wearing a haori, even if it dangled on his waist leaving his bare chest to the cold air, and he could see a big something on his left. It looked like a drawing, but pulsed in red and purple like a bruise. The blond kneeled in front of the bundle that were Inko and easily held both of them on his arm, the kimono still enveloping both of them.
Inko’s face appeared in the middle of the fabric and she looked to him. He could see the surprise on her face, but he was even more. The burnt on her face was gone, leaving the skin as smooth as it was before, but there were drawings on her skin with a dark blue ink that glowed near the figure. The blond got up, the bells on his hand chimed once more and at least a dozen figures appeared. He recognized the four he chased and others he never saw.
“Clean this land, to the last men and women.”
“Yes father.” they said in unison.
The blond gave him a look over his shoulder. With another chime, walls appeared around and above, he was pushed to a seat and the thing was moving. By a tiny space that should be a window, he could see as those spirits moved quickly, hitting and killing men and women and child. Wherever they stepped on, fire would start.
Honestly, the whole thing didn’t last more than two minutes. He was crossing the walls, shaking inside the box and then he was in front of Hizashi. The moving box threw him out and disappeared on the ground. He blinked a couple of times, his breathings short and heavy.
“What was that?” he turned to the guide, Hizashi’s eyes were half open and the blond sighed, sitting on the grass. Shouta looked around, not recognizing it for the whole minute it took for his panic to settle enough that he could think rationally again. “My old home?”
He didn’t step there since he was ten or so, since Hizashi caught him wandering the land of the dead. Time moved differently on the other side and when he came back, his parents were not there anymore. Like any child, he waited there for a long time, long enough that when Hizashi came after him he was thin and barely had strength to move on his own. It took him time to understand that they had died while he wandered.
“It has a cherry blossom.” he pointed to the outside, the fallen flowers making a tapestry on the ground. “It’s a sacred tree too.”
Shouta took another look around. The air was so full of dust that it gave everything a gray shading. Hizashi was sitting on the old futon he used when he was a kid.
“Who was he?”
“You know who.”
“I don’t!” he cried in frustration “What the hell was all that? You said gods don’t meddle with humans unless they have some kind of blood sacrifice and that land was clean!”
“Because it’s the truth.” the blond watched as he walked and placed his mask over his face, protecting the other of his spiraled eyes. “He has a dozen names, probably more as you cross the countries.” he shrugged and Souta stopped pacing to watch the man “You know him Shouta, just think about it. What is the only thing that the whole land has in common even with hundreds of deities?”
“Pff…” he was pacing again “A dozen at least! Love, war, power, the list can go on forever!” and he didn’t know what could fit the unknown god. He was powerful, that he could notice from his movement on the other world. He came because of Inko and he healed her, so maybe love was there, but he also sent the order to kill hundreds on the land.
Hizashi was moving his hands, like plates on a balance, weighting what he said. The gesture made something click on his mind.
“Balance?” he also had two forms. The thin that healed Inko and saved Izuku, and the muscled that sent the order to kill “Duality?”
“Or Justice, Harmony and Equilibrium.” the blond suggested gesturing vaguely with his hands
“The bracelet, it was his?” the blond nodded “He was the one that asked you to stay far?” another nod “Why?”
“Have you heard that Justice may be delayed but not denied?” he stopped pacing again, this time astonished.
All the wrong signs suddenly made sense. The sudden killings, the lack of a possession or evil spirit, why clean spirits were helping to kill. It was not a revengeful spirit from day one, but a god making justice to his people.
“I told you were looking the right things but the wrong perspective.”
When she was a young girl, she learned about the divines. All of them had a history of how they got their titles. She didn’t have a favorite, but as any girl she sighed hearing about the tales of the divines Love and War and the challenges they went through to be together.
She participated in every ritual, every pray and council since she could remember. This year would not be different than any other in theory. Practically, it would, because it was time to chose the maiden that would be the head priestess of the council and her assistants. It was a high honour and a even greater responsibility.
Eight girls would enter the woods, the sun was still high in the sky, but the path to the deepest part was long and they would have to do it by themselves, to find one of each of the eight sacred trees and stay there vigilant from sunset to sunrise. Exchanging some smiles with the ones she knew, she headed north.
The yew was hard to miss, easily the biggest tree in the area and with the branches curved like it was trying to hug the ground. Looking around her, she could barely see with the dim light trying to break through between the leaves. She placed a couple objects on the ground in front of the tree: a couple of candles that would last through the whole night, a small dagger to protect her if any wild animal came too close, a simple bowl with water and the soft tapestry she would kneel in.
She lighted the first candle carefully and then started the prayer. When she was learning, her mother said that she could say whatever she wanted, like how she talked with a friend because that shows that she trusted them. So she did that, easily talking about her day on her mind.
The night fell, bringing a chill. A soft mist covered the ground, covering fallen leaves and branches. Goosebumps rose on her skin everytime a cold wind crossed the forest. Her clothes were more revealing than what she normally wore, but that was the tradition and use a coat was out of question for now because it would ruin the painting done on her skin. Not to mention, she didn’t bring one.
The white top left her shoulders and belly exposed and the skirt covered until her mid thighs only, with a longer part in the middle. Her bare feet were touching the ground every now and again when she moved. The painting was only on the right side of her body, drawings covering her hand and foot and going up her arm and leg, with smaller drawings on her belly and forehead.
No one could have both sides painted because while in this life, none of them were complete. The divines were the only exception, reaching the perfection while living, they had a place beside their god. More goosebumps rose on her arm and she rubbed the one not painted. It was a bad idea, now the one with the paint was itching to be touched too. She prayed that the itch would go away because she couldn’t focus that much while so cold.
She switched between prayers and songs, like they did on every festival, but because there was not a rule, she only sang her favorites. The songs prevented her from being scared when a loud howl came from the north and she just closed her eyes, singing just a little lower. Another howl made her stop singing so she could ask for protection in a quick prayer.
“Excuse me, young miss.” she looked up, a hunched man was just some steps away from the tree, supporting his weight on his shepherd crook. “There are some wolves around the forest tonight, I’m checking the maidens.”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
He smiled, a tired but happy smile in response to hers. She noticed how he covered part of his face with his cloak. Something shone on the man’s hand that held the hood and even in the darkness, there was no doubt that it was blood.
“Are you hurt mister?”
“Hm? Oh no, that’s…” he chuckled “It’s an old scar. It’s ugly.”
“I’m not afraid of scars.” she answered kindly “But I’m talking about your hand” he tried to hide his hand
“Just a scratch, one of the wolves came to close to another maiden.”
“Mind if I see?” she offered, extending her hand.
The man seemed surprised, but came closer even so. His face was gaunt and even if his cloak covered most of the left side of his face, she caught a glimpse of the scar he tried to hide. If he came that close to the yew, he wasn’t a bad spirit. She held a sigh, because it would be improper, and held the man’s hand, lifting the big sleeves to analyze. It was a large but not deep wound, the smell of blood would be bad for the man.
She moved aside, giving him space to kneel by her side on the tapestry. Examining his arms carefully, she cleaned the wound with the clean water and tore a part of her skirt to cover the wound, even with the protest from the man.
“You didn’t have to.” he spoke softly while she wrapped the wound
“I wanted to.” she assured him with a smile. “There, you should probably change with someone or the wolves could come after you.”
He blinked once then barked a laugh.
“Oh kid, I may look skinny, but this body faced more trouble than you can imagine.” he assured her, poking his very thin arm on where should be his biceps “I even fought a bear.”
“Why, of course. Even shepherds have to protect their flock from wild animals.” he narrowed his eyes, a brilliant blue color that she couldn’t really place where she saw before “Do you doubt me?”
“Not even in my wildest dreams mister. I heard about shepherd with half of your height fight a lion, how could I doubt your strength?” she smiled and he chuckled again, covering his arm again with the large sleeve.
“Thank you young lady. You’re very kind.” he smiled to her and put two of his fingers on the water, then moved them on her forehead lightly “Never stop being kind.” she smiled, recognizing the tracing meant for protection on her forehead, the same that her parents had drawn.
A weight settled on her shoulders. The movement was so unexpected she didn’t move, even when he smiled kindly and got up, disappearing on the darkness of the forest. The long kimono he dropped on her shoulders was still warm and had a dark blue tone. She touched her forehead lightly, afraid that the marking done with ink was blurred. But she couldn’t even feel the humidity of the water.
When she came back, still wearing the warm kimono over her clothes, she heard many gasping. Her parents had tears on their eyes. All of them kneeled when she came closer, calling her the chosen maiden and it made her want to go back to the forest. She didn’t do anything special, didn’t feel anything different. How could she be the chosen one? Where were the others?
She was taken to the temple and saw the other girls, all except two. Another two girls had more markings on their skin, instead of just half of their body painted like the others, the left side had mirrored drawings in a different color. They bowed when she crossed the door, murmuring a blessing.
Only when she was waiting for the head priest, she had the chance to look into a mirror. The drawing on her skin was also mirrored, but the drawing of protection on her head also had a circle around it. Some of the circle marks on her shoulders and arms now had more detailed drawing filling them, flowers and branches and trees. Too detailed to be the work of a man in a dark night.
The head priest welcomed the tree of them. They would work together to pray for the protection of the land. Most of the sacred dances and rituals were made in pairs, each representing the balance of the world. She always loved to see the twin-like priests dancing the kagura, their different colored kimono was identical and where one was black the other was white even on the small details like the birds at the sleeves.
She used the long blue kimono since the day she received, it was part of her being the chosen one to be the head priestess after the current one died. Refusing to change it to fit her better, the kimono looked like a long robe she had to tie on her waist, the large sleeves had small pockets sewed within that she could use to put small trinkets. She never felt like cutting because it felt like something borrowed and she wanted to keep it as close to how it was when she got it.
With time she noticed that the patterns and drawings changed. Sometimes they were butterflies, other flowers, sometimes cranes. The color never changed, nor the warm feeling of protection she had with the familiar weight over her should, but it felt like she received a new gift whenever she opened her eyes in the morning and noticed a new design, she could only smile and make a prayer of gratitude.
She was mostly supervising. Her two assistants did most of the work while she accompanied the head priest. Osamu-san had the foresight gift and even if he was old enough to be her grandpa, his hair was still mostly green with only some strands of gray. He taught her how to manage the temple, where and when to do every ritual around the country.
Her day started way before the sun rose. She did her morning prays, kept the temple clean, made breakfast for them all. Before seven she left to work on the fields, helping to take care of it with other farmers to not be a weight for them. She came back to the temple to make lunch and stayed the afternoon there, watching over Osamu-san and the head of villagers that arrived. People from the whole country came after Osamu-san for his predictions.
“Inko.” the priest called and she came closer, sitting beside the man. His eyes were glassy as he looked to the small lake on the table, the cherry blossoms leaving flowers to fall on the water.
“Let’s pretend that you can see your whole life.” oh no, another one of Osamu-san quizzes. They were so difficult, always making her think twice about her own choices and if she was choosing right. “There’s a moment it’s split. You had to make a choice between saving thousands of life but at the cost of losing the lives of people you love dearly and your own. Or you can chose to endure a long time of suffering to save thousands, but thousands would also be killed in the end.”
“Is there a way to save more lives in one of them?”
“The amount of death would be close.” she hummed while thinking. Quickly saving thousands with the death of thousands or waiting to save almost the same amount and still have the weight of so many deaths.
“I’m not sure.” she answered honestly. “Does it always have to end in bloodshed?”
Osamu-san lip quirked a bit on the corner. He glanced to the sky, closing his eyes. He got up and made a gesture for her to follow him. She walked around the temple, some people said it was and old castle long ago when her people first came. Now it was a place for prays and healings, the lower floors always having rooms for visitors, sick on both mind and spirit.
“That was the choice my grandfather had to face.” she frowned “When another country tried to conquer our lands, he had to make the choice. Resist and use the divine power to prevent it to happen or submit and hope that our lord will be merciful and save more people. He chose to resist.”
They walked until the old cemetery, where the yew tree moved with the strong wind that messed her kimono.
“Thanks to him, the invaders were killed but they had killed some villagers that lived closer to the borders. He never saw his wife giving birth or his kids and grandkids growing up because the price to bring our lord to the land, for just a simple minute, was his life and the ones of his assistants.”
He put a hand over the yew tree, caressing the old trunk
“All the head priest had a chance to see him, at least once during their lives. When I became the head priest I wanted to see him, this powerful god that my grandfather gave his whole life to have only one minute.” Inko was wide-eyed. Osamu-san always said that the experience was personal and she should not tell people how he looked like. “He was everything I expected and so much more. Truly, the warrior our people needed to fight for their lives.”
She recalled the man, with his longs finger and gentle face. He was far from a warrior. But their lord represented both sides of the coin. The mighty warrior and the meek shepherd. Maybe he was the side that Osamu-san needed to see. The man had brought a knife inside his kimono sleeve and gestured for Inko to come closer.
“This is a sacred ritual that only the head priests can know.” he advised and she nodded. He cut his palm and offered her the knife to do the same, before placing it in a specific place on the trunk, pointing to her where it should be “Can you feel it?”
She could. It was like a heart beating, pulsing strongly under her hands. It was such a foreign feeling, she was tempted to bring her hand back, but Osamu-san put his hand above hers.
“I don’t have much time left Inko, that’s why I’m showing it to you.” another pulse made her look back to the tree. She could feel something else too, a different weight settled on her shoulders. She was being watched. “If the time ever comes, you’ll know what to do.”
Months after Osamu-san died, she was solving problems and making predictions like he did. She was not good at it as Osamu-san, that could practically say what would happen every second afterwards, but she had hunches. With time she could hear a whispered voice, saying details about the people she was supposed to judge that helped her chose what was the best course of action. More than once, she could feel eyes watching her and not just the living ones.
When Hisashi moved his troops, killing hundreds upon hundreds, she remembered Osamu-san’s words. Running to the old yew tree, she did the same ritual, cutting her hand and placing it above the soft spot on the trunk. She just had to say it outloud and their god would fight those people, would stop the bloodshed.
Never stop being kind.
The gentle face of the man that offered her a blessing and his coat came to her mind. Osamu-san was right saying he was a warrior, but that was only half of who he was.
Even if it was an enemy, even if they killed her people, they were still people, their life meant the world to someone else. Who was she to make this judgement? So she asked the only thing that she could, with everything in her heart.
“Please, save our people. All of them.”
She repeated that simple prayer so much, during so much time, that when she raised her head, the troops were inside the walls. The sacred woods were on fire and the smoke was so high and thick it blocked the view of everything after the walls. She was shaking to the core, fear like she never felt before icing her blood and making her stomach drop when soldiers broke through the doors, the red and black standart making her shiver.
The offer of peace was accepted in the middle of laughs, the soldiers knew that they could not defend themselves and she was trying to keep some of her proud. Most of her people run south even so, trying to stay as far as they could from the soldiers marching through the country and occupying every city and village.
Every time she thought she couldn’t handle anymore, somehow, she found strength again and kept going.
Even when Hisashi raped her, even when she was so scared all the time, even if she slept in pain every night and had to be their slave every day, dealing with playful hands of soldiers on her clothes. Her assistants had also gone south and she didn’t knew how they were.
Hisashi answered that for her. He brought the two of them by the hairs, throwing them on the ground and tying their pulses to a table. The two women were left for the soldiers and didn’t survive the night.
They were forbidden to practice rituals and even prayers. Her long kimono, the one she slept with that made her feel safe, was torn in half. She couldn’t use it to anything, but she was able to grab one of the sleeves and put it inside her pillow. Even if it was just a little, the fabric reminded her of the family she lost during the invasion and it eased the pain and sorrow.
That’s why, when her lord showed almost five years after the invasion, she was a mess of feelings. She didn’t notice how hopeless she was until she saw him, until he took her to the meadow. She was so used to suffering she almost forgot how gentle a man’s hand could be. He moved his fingers on the flute, the soft tune was one of her favorite festival songs and it made her cry.
She cried for so long, for her parents that were killed trying to run away, for her friends that were so brutally murdered, for her country that was desolated in the command of a man that only cared about living excessively and only desired to fulfill his own pleasures. She only noticed that the flute stopped because his thumbs cleaned her tears, his long fingers holding her face gently.
“I’m so sorry.” she said, trying to bow her head and avoid his eyes, shame and guilt making a rock lodge on her throat making it hard to speak and even harder to breathe through “I was so weak. B-Because of me…”
“Being kind is never a weakness.” he said, the deep voice gentle and soothing. “It was what made me chose you in the first place.” his fingers moved on her hair, undoing tangles. Her tears were not done yet and he had a understanding smile, wiping them all away “Every tear will be paid my dear. Have faith.”
He held her close to his chest in a strong hug. How long it was since she started to be afraid of contact? Probably the same day that Hisashi decided that he liked her cries and started to beat her. But with him close, everything seemed to be of little importance and so far away.
“Close your eyes my dear. You’ll feel better.” she did as he told and felt his forehead touch hers.
It was easier to breath. Her fear was just a inofensive little thing instead of the monster haunting her every step. It was like putting things in perspective and she could feel her emotions settling where they should, her fears being pushed away. She sighed in relief, feeling her shoulders light and the tender hurt skin didn’t hurt like some hours before.
She tensed when he kissed the inside of her arm and opened her eyes. A purple bruised disappeared and he frowned, moving his fingers carefully on the skin. It was like the bruise was never there in the first place. He kissed her hair, where Hisashi had pulled so strongly she was afraid she would lose a patch of skin with it, and the pain was immediately turned in relief.
“Thank you.” she said, feeling new tears come to her eyes, but those were of relief.
“I came to take you.” she blinked once, then twice.
“Take me? Where?”
“To your people. To safety.” her eyes were wide. Did he really? For her? But then, her people was safe too right? She asked to save them!
“Are all of them safe?”
“Most of them.” that made her blink again, he must have understand her confusion “I came to set you free before going after the ones taken north.” he held her face gently with one hand “With you there, they can have the leader they deserve and I can guide others to you.”
She bit her tongue, because she was going to say something that could very much offend him. He sighed.
“You don’t want to go yet.” he said, but there was not disappointment on his voice. Just resignation and maybe some sadness.
“When all of them are safe I’ll go.” she blurted, feeling hopeful “Please. I… I can’t help but feel that this is all my fault. I can’t be safe while they are not.”
“That will take time my dear.”
“I can wait.” she tried to sound secure, but it was more a whimper “I can endure, I promise. Just make sure that everyone is safe.”
“Aren’t you lonely?”
Why did he have to ask that ? She could endure the beating and humiliation, but the loneliness was something she would never get used to. Was he trying to change her mind? She lowered her head, holding her hands on her lap.
Yes, she was lonely, yes, she was afraid, yes, she didn’t know how long she would survive with those barbarians whose only pleasure was wine, women and burn both of them when they were done.
One of his hands let go of her. One of his finger cut the air, dropping light and in some simple movements four symbols floated in the air. She recognized the number ‘eight’ and ‘wood’, one of his names was because of the eight sacred trees after the walls. The other two, she didn’t recognize.
“Toshinori?” she read, not sure.
“That’s how you can call me.” their foreheads bumped lightly “When you feel you can’t take it anymore, just say my name and I’ll destroy all of them.”
“But I didn’t…”
“If you ask me anything, with my name, I won’t refuse. After all…” his hands find their way to her face again, holding it gently “You are my chosen maiden.”
She felt her face becoming hot. He had such a loving gaze, like he saw something so big and worthy in her. What did she make to have the attention of their god?
“Toshinori, can I see you?” she asked, in a low voice “The other you.”
He was changing, right in front of her, the moment he opened his kimono. He looked younger, his cheeks were full and his hair was more tamed. His fingers were bulked just like everything in him, but even so she didn’t feel afraid. He was powerful yes, she could say that just a snap of his fingers could break her neck. He felt like a thundering storm ready to strike. It was so different from the calm and comfort from his other appearance, yet it made so much sense.
He had a big scar on is chest, with a flower like design. She carefully touched it and noticed that a small part of it was bruised, just like the bruise she had a moment ago.
“If you don’t want to go, I’ll at least ease your pain.” he said calmly and kissed her lips.
Her brain stopped working for a moment, maybe more than a moment, but when she came to it, he was already looking at her, the small smile on his face looked more cheeky than comforting. It was really easier to breath. She touched her ribs, where a deep purple bruise was stinging so much that even the clothes pained her, but felt nothing even when her fingers pressed it.
“I can share your burden my dear.” he answered simply and she saw, his scar was a bit more red. Like it was aggravated by something.
“I’m hurting you.” she touched his scar again, more careful this time “I’m sorry, you didn’t have to.”
“I wanted to.” and that reminded her of their first talk, so long ago even if it felt like yesterday.
She touched her lips with a blush. It felt so intimate. Usually Hisashi didn’t care what was above her neck unless he wanted to punch her for some screams. The thought made her curl her shoulders a bit. A gentle finger above hers made her look up, for the beautiful blue of his eyes.
“Can I… just... one more time”
He nodded and she brought their faces close, touching his lips first with the tip of her fingers and them with her own lips. She felt light headed, like she was floating above the earth and nothing bad could ever reach her. It was a chaste kiss, but even so… her body was shaking so badly and for the first time it was not for fear. With a sigh, she pulled away.
His face was different, thinner with high cheekbones marked and eyes deep in their shadows. Running a thumb over his skin, she felt the crow feet besides his eyes, the laughter lines near his mouth, the marks on his forehead made by constant frowning. She liked how he looked now more. It was the face of a man, a common man, who lived a common life in the best of his ability.
She kissed him again. One for each of his looks was good. He had a soft smile on his face.
“You truly are something else.” her blush reached her ears when he chuckled. A soft kiss on her forehead made her even more light headed. “Everything will be fine.”
Smiling to herself, she hid her face on his chest. He easily got up carrying her, even if he looked so thin. She was laying on her bed when she woke up, not a sign of his presence in the room. How long did they spend together? It felt like the whole night.
Hisashi stumbled inside the room. His unfocused eyes and curses would scare her, but she was not afraid. The fear only kicked in when he held her throat with both hands, suffocating her. But before she could panic, he fell by her side. Snoring.
Rubbing her throat, she watched his body. Even poked him once. He didn’t move.
“Do not worry love.” her lord was there. He sat by her side, giving her a gentle smile “He will not touch you like that again. No one ever will, unless you want to.” then he turned to the man with a disgusted face “Unfortunately, I can’t move him. It would be suspicious in the morning, and I can’t protect you from everything.”
“Thank you.” he got up, kissing her forehead and guiding her to under her blankets. He caressed her face enough for that light head feeling to come back.
“And while I’m not here.” his other hand moved over her belly once “I’ll give you a present.” he smiled one last time “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Be strong my dear.”
When Izuku was born, she had used the nine months to cut the fabric on the kimono and make it into a blanket. As he grew, she always made sure to keep a piece of it with him. She turned it into socks, then she dyed it and braided the thin straps to make a bracelet and scrunchies for both of them. Even if it was just a little bit, that small piece of him made endure everything a bit easier.
She could never blame the child for his father's action. Even so, Izuku resembled her more than he did with Hisashi. One night, she was watching him sleep and gave the baby a gentle smile and a goodnight kiss.
A mark appeared on his forehead. Like someone was drawing on his skin, blue ink formed drawings on his forehead, chest, arms and legs. She recognized them, as the head priest she did many of those. They usually draw symbols that meant what they wanted for the kid, such as protection, health, strength, compassion. But this was their lord drawing his skin, giving him the blessing that before she could only hope he gave to the children she blessed.
Divine protection. Strong health. Kind heart. Inner and outer strength. Intelligence and wisdom. Her tears prevented her to read the other properly. They shone on his skin and then disappeared. The deep and gentle voice whispering near her ear.
You won't be lonely anymore.
But as Izuku grew older, Hisashi was wilder. He couldn’t remember being in bed with her and even if he bruised and beated her, he was never satisfied with it. When he gave her to one of the soldiers, she thought that this was as far as her protection would go. But the guard dropped dead before he could even put down his pants.
It happened a couple more times before the guards gave up on her. They whispered that she was a witch and that the castle was in a curse. More people started to die and she not only heard more, but felt more too as bruises became more and more common. She always hid Izuku inside the wardrobe to keep him as far of all that as she could. The priest coming only kept the others on edge.
“Love.” she sat, keeping one hand on Izuku. The voice was not more than a whisper, but she could recognize it anywhere “It’s time.”
“Mommy?” Izuku was as awake as she was. But unlike her, he was looking to a very specific point in the room “Who is him?”
“We are leaving honey.” she assured him, getting up. A bag was waiting on her feet and she put it across her shoulders, helping Izuku tie his shoes “To our real home.”
“Follow the shadow. Don’t talk or they will see you.”
The shadow was his, tall and with hunching shoulders. Izuku noticed too and they navigated the hallways and rooms, sometimes having to stop for minutes before moving again. Sometimes the guards were too close and she only prayed that they could be blind and not see them while they hide behind any furniture close.
Maybe she was pulling Izuku too much or holding his hand too tight. One second, they were fine and hiding and almost there, the next he called her. A simple ‘mommy’ made the guards turn and saw them and then… Then Izuku was gone, the guards took him and they were beating her again. She tried to call their lord, but his name slipped in her tongue, like she was forgetting a important part that made the difference in the sound.
The burnt flesh was nothing compared to the guilt. It was all her fault. It happened because she was weak, if only she had listened to Osamu-san! Now she lost not only their Lord but her baby too. It was all her fault. She was so weak, so weak.
The priest was there too. He gave her a bracelet, made of the same beads as her previous. The number eight like the number of sacred trees, two lines like the two forms he had. The simple engraving helped the right sound to form on her mind again. What she did was probably the most coward prayer on history.
Please, I can't live in a world without my son. Please take me away.
And he was there. And Izuku was on his arms and the relief made her forget her burnt skin even if Izuku looked at it with worry. Her lord knelt in front of her, holding her face and she saw how he frowned more. She remembered the big scar on his side and how aggravated it looked when he healed her. Probably imagining what she was going to say, he gave her a kind smile.
She was covered in the familiar warmth and weight of his kimono and Izuku held her tightly and her face did not hurt anymore. But she could hear the screams and so could her son. He held her strongly and moved his hand over her face. The skin was tender, but not hurting.
They were moved only when they were held on their lord arms. Both her head and Izuku's was out of the fabric and she could see the drawing on her baby's skin, the same ones she saw were done while he could barely keep his eyes open.
A look back and she could see the priest and how wide eyed he was, his red eyes large. It was not a haja spell and she knew it. He was trading his life for a chance to see the other world, those eyes would kill him. And he was gone. Placed inside a carriage that run like the fire could burn it. With a chime of the bells, they floated above the ground for a second before the light made her close her eyes.
They reappeared somewhere else. The air was different, cooler and the shift made her tremble. But they were not alone. At least ten persons were watching them with wide eyes, some even dropping what they were holding. Their lord put her feet on the ground, the familiar weight of the kimono on her back and Izuku holding her waist.
"Make a temple here." it was his only saying before kissing her forehead, ruffling Izuku's hair and disappearing in a flash of light and warmness.
Even the nature was dead silent for some minutes before their people erupted in concerned and reliefed shouts.
She smiled to them, most yet had to come close. Her skin still had a soft glow and the marking were fading now. Izuku looked around, to the ground and the beginning of a construction site and the fog of early morning. She put a hand over his green curls, the color standing out more than ever.
"We're home Izuku."
The glow on her skin disappeared completely after almost an hour. More people had gathered, old friends she worked with in the fields or people she knew thanks to Osamu-san predictions or her assistants works to heal the sick. When it fade, she was light headed and horror struck the face of the man she was shaking hands that second. Her knees failed her, but the man was quick to hold her.
“A doctor! Someone call the doctor!”
That was probably the most horrible thing that ever happened to him. And because of something so stupid also. He was possessed by an evil spirit because the owner of the house couldn’t just listen and stay outside and he threw himself in the path of the evil. Kan was dealing with the other one with the help of Nemuri and Hizashi was trying to move the innocent souls of wandering kids out of the way.
It was the worst he had ever felt. Like someone was crushing his very soul, eating him from the inside out and burning his flesh at the same time. For the first time, he could see the real form of Hizashi and Nemuri without his eyes burning and consuming him to his death. Nemuri was an amalgam of crying souls and desperates cries making her form look even more nefarious with the bat-like wings while Hizashi was a burning yellow star whose eyes were the center of a spiral that descended through his whole body.
The wordless scream was enough to make Hizashi act and the mask on his pocket glowed bright, expelling the evil spirit from within his body. Kan was close enough to send it straight to the other side, but the damage had been done.
“Shouta!” he felt a soft tingle on his face, but he could see nothing, he couldn’t speak. “Dear gods, Shouta, can you hear me?” he could, but he was so far away, talking softly under a ocean. After some time, he couldn’t even feel.
But he could feel the brightness of Hizashi’s presence besides him, could also feel him touch his forehead.
“You utter fool.” the blond clicked his tongue, his spiraled eyes called his soul to go, to give in, to just flow without his control into the abyss of the brightness that he was “He needs a sacred ground.” he was silent for some seconds, probably hearing Kan “It’ll do. Take him as fast as you can.”
He was not sure how long it took him to wake up, only that he felt like shit when he did. He still couldn’t move, but he was at least seeing something even if it was just the blurred brown of a ceiling. The voices were clearer too, but still distant. The distinctive silver of Kan’ hair and black of his uniform came into his field of vision. His voice was still too far to make out the words, specially while he spoke so softly.
When he blinked again, another blurr was in front of him. A darker blurr in deep green.
“Ah, you’re awake again.” the voice was clearer this time even if he had to focus on the soft tone to understand the words “Can you hear me? If you can, blink twice.”
He did as he was told, even if this simple movement consumed all his strength. Where was he? Where was Kan? And Hizashi’s mask? How long was he out?
“I’ll have to close your eyes for a bit. but don’t worry okay.” a gentle touch on his forehead, the soft presence easing his fear “I’ll be here the whole time. Your eyes just need the rest or you could go blind.”
When he woke up the next time, it was to a dual colored boy. He took a rag from his eyes and he could open his eyes, needing to blink to focus on the place. The boy was young, but his eyes were fooling him. He was a young man, probably on his early twenties, and had a horrible burn on his face. His colored hair was long and held tightly in a high ponytail.
“Can you see me?” the boy asked and he frowned. Wasn’t he supposed to? Was the boy a spirit? The dual colored hair surely gave the feeling. But he nodded and received a small turn up on his lips “Good.”
He didn’t say anything else, but he could feel the man’s hand moving on his body. A wet rag moved on his skin, then a dry and soft one before he was moved in a uncomfortable way to be dressed in a new kimono. Soft tugs on his hair made him close his eyes. There was a numbness on his body, but even the softest feeling was uncomfortable.
“Shouto-san?” oh, there was Kan. He could only see him in the corner of his eye, but the man was sitting on his knees near a barely open door “The high priest asked me to come.”
“Yes, your friend is awake.” the tugs on his hair stopped and he could see the young man again, kneeled by his side, taking a small basket with him when he got up. There was a cool and calm manner to each and every movement. “I’ll give you a moment before continuing his treatment.” Kan thanked him with a small bow, which the young man mirrowed, before stepping in and the dual colored boy was gone when he closed the door
“Hey man.” his friend said with a smile. He took something out of his pocket and showed him “You’re probably worried about him.” Hizashi’s mask. His body relaxed when he saw it was intact. “He said he would stay away during your healing process but would look for you when you’re out of here.”
He wanted to thank the other, but couldn’t move his lips. Kan kissed his teeth with the most guilty look he had seen
“You’re safe here, it’s a sacred ground. You’d like this one, most of the people here love silence and do not disturb other’s nap or meditation.” he chuckled, before putting the mask besides his head were he could see if he moved his eyes. “I’ll have to go. Someone called for my help north from here. If you’re not recovered until then, I’ll come back to check on you. But the head priest said you’d be out in less than a month if rest properly.”
And rest he did. According to Shouto, the dual colored priest, he slept more than was awake for a better part of two weeks. The third had him sitting, with help and eating by himself even if his hands shook badly. He could see darker spots on his arms, his body showing how his soul was tainted by the spirit. The soft and irritating feeling came whenever Shouto cleaned those spots with a mix of water and herbs that would make him hiss if his own voice was not locked inside himself.
He was walking slowly in the end of the third week, always with a hand on the wall and the young priest close to hold in case his legs failed him (which happened more than once). Not too far, only taking some steps around the bare room. The tainted spots were becoming clearer and the less he could see them, the better he felt. One day, he was well enough to walk to the sliding door and Shouto opened it.
A garden met his eyes, the soft colors of wisterias, cherry and magnolia trees in full bloom was so different from the bare woods of his room it hurt. But in a good way. He sat down, putting his back against the door and watched them for the longest of time before his body was overcome with tiredness. The young priest never complained if he slept after watching them.
Kan came back, a couple days earlier than they expected, and was relieved to find him awake. They sat near the door, watching as people moved this way and that. From where his room was he could see that some of the priests were organizing what looked like a sacred ceremony, with spears being put in the ground in a certain distance to one another. It was easy to see Shouto in the middle of them thanks to his hair, and he measured if the space with some steps before putting the spears on the ground.
The ritual started just before the sunset, also a little before his usual tiredness overcame his senses. Kan moved closer to watch as two masked priests went to the center of the circle, which spears were decorated with flowers and leaves rings. The priest had identical kimonos, but where one was black, the other was white in every detail. The sight brought a familiar sense but he was not sure where from. Like the yin-yang symbol, he decided.
The kagura dance was beautifully made, one priest with a long stick with the kagura suzu on top, the other with what looked like a spear with soft bells near the hands of the priest. The movements were mirrowed, one always with their back to the other, the bells chiming every time the spear and stick were moved, making noise together. The wave of spiritual power was so big he felt the drowsiness hitting him.
When the priest in black moved, the one in white, which had been with his front to him all this time, turned. A glimpse of green hair surprised him and took away his breath, but then the priest moved and he was not sure if he was seeing right or if his eyes were playing tricks on him.
The dance was becoming more strong and fierce, looking more like battle movements than a dance. They did different movements now, where the stick was gentler, the spear was fast and the bells chimed both alone and together. Every time the bells chimed together, a strong wave of power run the property and the air was lighter and his head was spinning more. He didn’t even notice when they start to move as one, side by side. The priest were becoming blurry figures and his eyes closed.
But he was sure this time. He saw green hair.
When he woke up again, it was right before the sun rose and he didn’t know what to think. Did he really saw it? With the setting sun on the ritual, his eyes could have very well fooled him. Or he did see the green hair that haunted his mind whenever he allowed himself to dwell on the past.
He always regretted not being able to save the queen and her son. But after that meeting with a god, he never dared to step a foot in that land again. Only animals lived there, the trees growing again without people to cut them down. As far as he knew, even if not aware of it, people were avoiding that place as if they knew that a god had damned it. The woman and child were probably in the other world, hopefully having a better life in that god’s realm.
With a sigh, he closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the sun was high and Shouto was changing him into a new, clean kimono. He was feeling much better and walk was easier than the day before. Shouto walked by his side, more for company then for the need with how firm his steps were. The priest opened the door that led to a small corridor with the smallest of a smile, giving him the option to move outside for the first time since he arrived.
The temple was similar to dozen he saw before. Whenever he stopped near a open door, the young priest would explain what was in the room, but most of them were for meditation or a place to receive the sick and injured. One of the bigger rooms didn’t have the usual tapestry or furniture.
“That’s a meeting place. The high priest uses it to council with his assistants. Those would be me and one more.”
But what froze his steps was not the simple room, but a simple picture in the background. With a nod from Shouto, he moved inside putting a hand on the wall, afraid he would fall from shock instead of lack of strength. It was him. The picture was his. Two figures with their backs to each other, one thin and gaunt with shadows marking his face, the other with chiseled features and clear bright eyes.
“Who?” he asked, not able to take his eyes of the picture. Even if both drawings had their backs to each other, their figures joined in the shoulder. The younger one had a battle field as background, with spears and swords fallen on the ground. The older one had a spring field with a wisteria tree in the background.
“That’s Masayoshi.” the young priest said with reverence. “His name means both ‘flourishing goodness’ and ‘righteous justice’. But it’s possible that you heard about him with other name, he has dozens.” the young priest was by his side, one hand supporting his back. “You should go back.”
They made the little distance to his room in little time. The young priest noticed how he kept looking over his shoulders and probably thought that he wanted to go back to that room, instead of being afraid that a murderous shadow of a god might be chasing them.
“He’s the god of this temple” the young priest said when he finally sat down. “The people that were here years ago were planning to construct houses here when he showed up. The moment he touched the ground, the whole land was holy. We just work to keep it that way. He also chose the high priest in front of everyone.”
Well, who could fight a choice like that? Even if he couldn’t quite rest as easily as he had been before, he still could feel the spiritual power of the place. It was undeniable that this was a place of healing and resting, not of fighting. He wondered if that easy and light feeling in the air was also present in that land before he showed up to destroy it.
Even with the best of the priest abilities, his body was not done with healing and the tainted spots on his body had a lighter color but didn’t disappeared. He knew what that meant, if he was not healed, they would have to kick him out for good to not taint that holy ground with the curse of an angry spirit. When Shouto told him the high priest would come to see him, he was half expecting to be kicked out the next morning.
Who he found the last morning was a young man, pretty much like Shouto, with a freckled face. It was hard to see more, because he was sitting besides his head and had both of his hand on his forehead, making a blessing. The relief was immediate, like finally taking an extra weight of the shoulders after traveling with it for long. It was easier to breath, his whole body felt light.
When the young man put his hand on his lap, he could see him more clearly. And there was no doubt now, his hair was a deep shade of green just like his eyes. He gave a soft smile. Was it possible? Oh dear gods, he was dead. That was it. Either that or...
“You really should stop doing this, it’s scary.” he chuckled, moving a hand over his eyes to close them and he blinked again, the room coming to focus “No to mention, you shouldn’t risk your life for a chance to peek in the other. All of us will have the chance to see how it is in the right time.”
“My father.” he said the name with the same reverence that Shouto used to speak about the god in the picture “He brought us here, my mom and I. We rebuild the temple and now I’m the head priest.” his breath was shallow. All this time? They were alive for all those years and he never…
“I’m sorry.” he said. The weight of guilt making it hard to make the words past his lips “I’m so, so sorry. I shouldn’t have…”
“There’s no need for apologies. You did your best with what you knew.” he gently patted his shoulders. “We don’t blame you either.”
He nodded slowly and the young man smile was wider.
“Now, if you excuse me, I have to help with work down the mountain before my mom decides that she can do it without waiting for help.” he rolled his eyes a bit, before getting up.
After the breakfast, Shouto appeared and gave him a new kimono in the same colors of the old one and a bag with supplies for his travel. He bid the young man farewell and went on the path. Part of it had white and pearly stones to make it easier to go up and own with wagons and charts. The path was thin, with the face of the mountain in one side and trees in the other. The shadow from the leaves made the path seem faster without the sun to burn his back.
He found the young man in a field, halfway down the mountain. He had changed the dark blue kimono he wore for a simple yukata and had a (enxada) over a shoulder while he talked to a small group. He waved when he saw him. From behind the boy, the figure of his mother was holding a jar. Her hair had more greys than green and the scar on her face left one of her eyes milk white, but she smiled nonetheless.
When he reached the last thing separating him from the outside, a simple staircase with five steps, he paused and inspired that light air deeply one last time. Who knows how long it would take him to find sacred grounds again. The soft scent of cedars came with the breeze.
“You know, I always liked cedars.” he almost jumped out of his skin, turning so fast he stumbled in the last step. The god’s blue eyes shone mischievously with his stunned expression “I should make them my ninth sacred tree. What do you think?”
He could only open and close his mouth like a fish out of water. He was on his thin form, the blue kimono hanging on his frame and the stick on his shoulder. But before he could ask what the hell did he meant, the blond chuckled and was interrupted by a call.
“Shouta!” he turned, noticing Kan and Nemuri a bit ahead on the path. When he turned to look back to the god, there was nothing but a small cedar tree growing besides the path.
“Are you going to try gardening?” the man had a arched eyebrow
Shouta looked down. A little branch was on his fingers and he was pretty sure it was not there before.
The voice was deep and strong, close to his ear. He looked back to the mountains, the path going up and the trees shading the life blooming behind them.
He eventually carved the little branch in a wood ring, which he used on his little finger. Initially, because he was still afraid the god had come after him and if some curse was to befall him, it was easier to live without a little finger if he needed to cut it out. But now, he could barely feel it anymore. It was a part of him as much as Hizashi’s mask.
He only saw him one time after that.
He was on Kan’ house, their families joined for a special occasion, spending time in the garden while the meal was not ready. After everyone was served and he had a first bite, he saw him. And he was not alone.
The queen and priestess was with him. She had the drawings on her skin again and was dressed as a bride, with the traditional white kimono decorated with embroidery in dozens of colors, instead of using the traditional hood, her hair was decorated with flowers, not a single gray hair to be seen.
He was pretty sure there shouldn’t be a door there, but he saw a door behind them. She turned to him, just for a moment, smiled and waved, before holding the hand the god offered and turned her back to him. He could see the loving way they looked to each other.
A single tear ran down his cheek when she crossed the door.
“Shouta dear.” he recognized his wife’s voice, but he couldn’t stop looking, not until the door closed by itself and vanished the same way it had appeared.
Looks like she finally found the peace she lost during her life.