The air always smelled so much better away from the city, Souji thought. The damp earthy smell that they caught every time the wind shifted was a definite improvement from the deluge of smells that assailed them in the heart of Fenneca; however, the vast difference never quite struck them until they spotted evidence of civilization without being overcome by the festering stench of sun-warmed urine. That experience, if nothing else, was reason enough to visit their estranged uncle, even if he lived far from the city Souji Seta called home.
The view was another thing that made it all worth it. Clambering down endless trails was a trial, but the vantage point afforded to each place they found to rest displayed the Inaba valley in all of its greenery. That view was often the only motivation Souji had for not immediately giving up the adventure for a loss. They could hardly believe their journey was almost at an end, looking at it now.
Finally, Souji shook themself out of their reverie and tugged at Izanagi’s reins. “Come on, we’re almost there.” It was almost nightfall, after all, and they had already traversed too many unfamiliar pathways in the dark. Izanagi could do it again, Souji had no doubt, but it would be pointless this close to the end of their journey. They had finally arrived at Inaba.
What memories Souji had of the town depicted it as a secret meeting of houses and shops, nestled together so that they could whisper without being overheard. The large, rolling hills hid it from sight, and the mountains to the east served to only isolate it further. From what Souji’s mother had told them, the locals liked it best that way.
After spending what seemed like ages following the winding path described to them, Souji was inclined to believe the locals just didn’t see the point in putting in all the effort it took to make it to another town.
Souji’s suspicions seemed to be confirmed by the way they were greeted. The people of Inaba that were still outside certainly didn’t seem distressed by Souji’s appearance. If anything, they seemed relieved. One even asked if Souji needed a place for their horse to rest.
Souji’s lips quirked up, showing the barest hint of a smile. “I do, actually. Would you happen to have a place where I could quarter him?”
The villager tucked a lock of their long hair behind their ear, grinning. “I’ll see what I can do. I’m just a stable hand, but we’ve had a shortage of travelers for too long for the quartermaster to turn you away.” They hummed low in their throat, scratching the back of their head. “The stable’s not hard to find. It’s the first thing you see on your way out of town— when you’re going towards the mountains, that is.” They snorted. “I noticed you came through the easier way.”
“My mother used to live here, “ Souji explained. “I don’t really know much about Inaba, but I can find my way in well enough.” They didn’t add that they required explicit instructions to do so.
Regardless, the stable hand seemed impressed. “You have a fair bit of potential, don’t you?”
“I don’t know about that,” Souji said, ducking their head. “I just do what I can.” Unconsciously, they reached out to stroke Izanagi. “Anyway, I truly am grateful for the space. You really didn’t have to offer.”
The stable hand waved a hand. “You would’ve stopped by anyway. Where else would you keep your horse?”
Souji shrugged. “We’re used to camping out in unusual places.” They eyed Izanagi fondly. “I guess all that’s left is figuring out where I’m sleeping now. I’ll drop by the stable after I meet my uncle and see if I have a place to stay. Would you happen to know where the Dojima residence is?”
The stable hand’s face split into a grin. “Related to the constable, are you? Good for you, kid. Just head westward,” they pointed, “and you’ll find him right next to the gaol. Never stops working, that one.” Here, they stuck out their hand. “I look forward to seeing how your journey ends.”
Souji reached out to shake their hand. The moment they did so, Izanagi jolted back, snorting.
“Whoa, steady there,” Souji soothed, stepping back to make sure Izanagi was all right. They glanced around, trying to see what could have spooked the horse. Just as they were about to turn around to ask the stable hand if they had noticed anything, they were overcome with a sudden bout of dizziness.
“Are you alright there?” The stable hand asked, sounding as if they were muttering in the middle of a rainstorm.
“I— I, uh,” Souji opened their mouth once, twice, three times in an effort to respond, but it felt like every word they tried to speak was trapped in their throat. Every time one made a break for freedom, it would be stopped by the heavy weight forming in their mouth.
“Do you need to sit down?”
At these words, Souji’s sight began to focus, the world slowly came to a standstill, and the weight began to lessen. After a moment, they thought they could attempt to speak.
“I—I think I’m okay,” they said. “Or at least, I’m getting better.” After a moment, they added, “Thank you for your concern,” as an afterthought.
“No worries,” the stable hand responded. “Just get to your uncle’s place safely. It’d be a shame if you stumbled at this point in your journey.”
Souji nodded absentmindedly. “I’ll take my leave then. Thank you again for your help.”
The stable hand waved them off with a smile. “It was nothing at all. I was just giving you the tools you needed. Good luck.”
With nothing more to say, Souji tugged at Izanagi’s reins. It was time to greet their uncle.
The stable hand had been apt in their description of the house. It was indeed ‘right next to the gaol’ to the degree that one building looked as if it was swallowing the other. Luckily, both were sizeable buildings. Souji’s hope of receiving lodging grew exponentially at the sight of them.
In the letter they had received, their uncle had assured them there would be room for them, but they hadn’t dared to believe it until that moment. Souji inhaled, holding the breath for a long moment. Finally, they released it, turning to Izanagi.
“I’m going to tie you to the post for a few minutes, but I’ll be right out to take you to the stables soon.” Izanagi snorted, prompting a chuckle from Souji. “Mmnhmn. I know,” they responded, tying him to the post. “What an awful rider you have.” Izanagi turned his head towards Souji, nuzzling their hair for a moment.
“I’ll be right back,” they promised, turning away in the direction of the household. Steadying themself, they walked up to the door and knocked.
It was a long, tense moment before the door opened, and when it did, a brunet man who was just as tall as Souji, even if he was more than twice their age, answered. They stared at each other for a moment before the man grinned.
“You must be Souji, right? We’ve been expecting you,” he said, extending his hand. Souji shook it, smiling a bit in return. “Come on in,” the man, Souji’s uncle, invited.
“Thank you, sir, but I really have to bring my horse around to the stables before I get settled in.”
Their uncle’s forehead wrinkled in confusion until he suddenly began to chuckle. “Don’t worry, I’m not exactly strict about when you’re in or outside the house as long as you stay out of trouble. Well, outside of the trouble I wrote to you about, that is,” his voice lowered in volume at this point, prompting confusion on Souji’s part until they spotted a young girl frozen in the parlor.
“Nanako,” their uncle prompted, “this is your cousin, Souji. They’ll be staying with us for a bit. Remember when I told you about them?”
Nanako nodded, unfreezing slightly. She glanced at Souji before her eyes began to dart around, presumably searching for an escape.
“I cannot thank you enough for your hospitality,” Souji ventured, glancing between both figures. If anything, Nanako seemed to stiffen further.
“No need to be so formal, Souji. You can call me Dojima, for one, and it’s scaring Nanako for two.”
Nanako flushed, but did not dispute the claim. Souji inwardly winced. Interacting with people was hard, but they thought they were okay when it came to children and animals. Making Nanako uncomfortable was the last thing they wanted.
“Alright… Dojima,” Souji agreed. “I’d still like to thank you for sharing your home.”
Dojima waved a hand. “We have the space, and it’s the least I can do for you actually responding to my request.”
Souji glanced at Nanako. “About that trouble…?” They ventured quietly.
Dojima’s mouth stiffened into a line. “We can talk about that after you’ve found some accommodations for your horse.”
Souji nodded. “I’ll go take care of Izanagi then. It was nice meeting you, Nanako, Dojima.” They then ventured back outside to collect their belongings from Izanagi’s saddlebags, and eventually retire Izanagi to the stables.
It was a fairly efficient process, with the only strange element being the absence of the stable hand Souji had spoken with earlier. Souji spoke with the quartermaster about the rates charged for keeping Izanagi housed, and she was as enthused about having a customer as the stable hand had predicted.
Very few people owned or needed horses in Inaba, but the few that did kept them at the community stables. Souji would be renting for a lower rate than most, since Izanagi was only staying there on a temporary basis, but the expenses would be coming straight out of their pocket instead of being covered by the town’s taxes.
After negotiating and making sure that Izanagi was comfortable, Souji made their way back to the Dojima residence. They were rather proud that they only stopped to pet a stray cat or two since there was important business at hand, and they didn’t have time to waste. It wasn’t often that someone spotted a monster in a valley town.
When Dojima answered the door, his face was grim. “I’d rather discuss the problem in the gaol. It’s not the most comfortable place to do business, but I don’t like talking of evil in the house. Valley superstitions, you know? They don’t make much sense, but…” He trailed off, scratching at the scruff on his chin.
Souji nodded in understanding. Their mother had said similar things when Souji was small. “It’s a good thing I’m still outside, then.” They stepped backwards, allowing Dojima to lead the way. Their eyes fell on the unlit lantern he carried before looking to the thinnest sliver of sun that still sat on the horizon. It would be dark within five minutes’ time.
Dojima unlocked the front of the gaol, ushering Souji inside. “Be careful when you’re passing through. The door’s heavier than it looks.” Almost in confirmation of his words, the door closed with a heavy thump that rattled the frame around it.
Souji made a noise of confirmation, eyes flickering to the vibrating frame in concern. It would hurt like hell to catch something in the way of that thing.
Taking their eyes off of the door, they then examined the space around them. There were a few benches, as well as a long counter, but the room was bare for the most part.
“Most of the detainees are put in the back rooms,” Dojima explained. “I think we’d best chat up front, unless you’ve managed to break a law within the ten minutes you’ve been here.” He chuckled.
Souji shook their head. “I don’t think I have.” They hesitated, wondering if they should have nodded and agreed with staying in the front instead.
Dojima was already moving towards a bench and setting the lantern on the adjacent counter, however, so Souji didn’t have much time to worry over whether they misspoke.
Their uncle walked to the gas lantern on the nearest wall and lit it with a match, better illuminating the room. “Drives the darkness away as soon as the conversation’s over,” he said, frowning. After he finished, he sat down on the bench with a huff of breath and a slump. He seemed to rest for a moment, looking at the wall. Souji, feeling uncomfortable with the silence, looked anywhere else.
Finally, Dojima began to speak. “I don’t feel comfortable getting you involved with this mess. You’re my sister’s kid, no matter what your status, and battling monsters is an elder’s game. We have less to lose, usually.
“Still, going off and chasing after demons wouldn’t be fair to Nanako, and it would leave most of the town undefended. People here are too used to being protected by the mountains; they wouldn’t consider a threat a threat until someone ended up dead. I wouldn’t have asked you to come if I had had a choice. No offence.”
Souji nearly wrinkled their nose, but managed to keep a straight face. “The creature’s that dangerous, then?”
Dojima nodded. “Livestock’s been slaughtered— the remains usually end up on Konishi’s property for some fool reason. Sometimes you can hear howls so damn obscene that I had to rush to make sure Nanako was inside. I don’t want to think about the nightmares she’d have if she heard them. What’s worse is that it seems to be taunting us with mind games.”
Souji jolted. “Mind games?” they asked, skeptical. “How would a monster do that?”
Dojima sighed. “I told you about the entrails left for the Konishi family to discover, right? In addition to that, the monster carves out crude figures in trees. We aren’t sure if it’s some kind of warning, or if it’s meant to scare the shit out of whoever finds it so that they’re panicked by the time the beast finds them.”
Souji grimaced. “So the creature’s at least intelligent enough to plan ahead.”
“You see why I asked for your help?” Dojima asked, rubbing at his eyes with the curve of his palm. “Every time we go out to track it, it doubles back around and changes its base of operations. We’re a bunch of merchants and farmers led by one constable. The last lord Inaba died fifteen years ago. We aren’t prepared to fight this thing.”
“I think I do see,” Souji said. “I’m glad you asked me for help, Dojima. I’ll try not to disappoint you.”
“I don’t think you have a chance of doing that. My sister raised you right, Souji. You’ll do just fine,” Dojima affirmed, clapping his hands to his legs and standing up. “Alright. Get a good rest tonight because I managed to make an appointment with Saki Konishi for you tomorrow morning at ten. She should be able to tell you more about the livestock problem.”
Souji opened their mouth in surprise before closing it just as quickly. “Thank you, Dojima. You didn’t have to do that.”
Dojima waved his hand. “Eh, you would have had to do it anyway. I just made it easier for you. Now let’s go back to the house. It’s getting cold in here.”
Souji pursed their lips. People laying the groundwork for them seemed to be a running theme for them that day. It was odd, to say the least. They tried to shake off the feeling that some sort of choice was being made for them and followed their uncle back to the house.
Nanako had set the table by the time they had returned, and they had all enjoyed their first meal together with a kind of sombre thoughtfulness. After they had finished, Souji thanked them both for the meal and retired to their room.
Once there, however, Souji’s gaze fell upon their belongings, and they realized that they had yet to confirm their arrival with anyone outside of Inaba. As much as they hated initiating calls, they had to make sure to check in. It wouldn’t do to cause anyone to worry.
After a moment of consideration, they fumbled about, searching for their scrying glass. Eventually they found it, fingers scrabbling against its smooth edges. Quickly wiping it with a bit of their tunic, Souji squinted in the dark to see if it was clean enough to work.
They finally hummed in satisfaction and set it down before settling down themself. “Evoke mirror G-1,” Souji whispered. The glass began to emit a bright light before dimming, fogging over, and then clearing, as if it were a window into another scene. Souji waited a moment, wondering if Chie was too busy to answer, but then heard the clattering of someone’s blundering approach. However, it was not the person Souji had thought it would be.
“Seta! It’s nice to see your face after weeks of abandonment.” Tohru Adachi’s ever-present grin shined out of the depiction, illuminated by the window directly adjacent to his mirror. The sun had yet to leave the capital. “Left us to suffer training on our own, huh? I can’t say I blame you though.”
Souji blinked rapidly, both at the comparative brightness of the scene before them and the presence of Adachi. “Lieutenant-Commander Adachi, I would have been in separate training anyway.”
“Bah, that’s right! Probably a good thing, too— I would hate to have to romp around the country all the time like you palfrey knights do.”
Souji decided to keep the observation that Adachi had been based in another country as an ambassador’s guard to themself. “Lieutenant Commander, I have to admit, I’m surprised. I wasn’t exactly expecting your presence, as I thought Satonaka would answer.”
“Afraid not,” Adachi answered with a sympathetic smile. “She was put back on guard detail for the Princess. You know how it is. Everyone’s rushing about in preparation for the summer season.”
Souji winced. Chie had been put on the Princess’s guard every summer for the past three years, but they always forgot that she was assigned well before that. “In that case, I apologise for bothering you, Lieutenant-Commander.”
“Oh, it’s no problem! Besides, now I get to warn you ahead of time— you arrived in Inaba just as things got interesting.”
That captured Souji’s attention. “What do you mean?”
“One of the royal scribes was caught having an affair with an information dispensary worker,” at this, Souji’s attention flagged, “and the worker fled to Inaba.”
“What?” Souji stared at the glass in bemusement. “Are they travelling alone?”
“No, no,” Adachi crossed his arms, a knowing grin spread across his features. “She’s in Inaba. She’s an empathic teleport. Apparently her family lives there, and so when she felt unsafe— poof!” Adachi spread his palms and widened his eyes, presumably to mime her vanishing act.
“I see,” Souji said.
“Hey, act more excited, Seta! This is the most excitement Inaba has seen in years. Or it would be if you weren’t dealing with,” Adachi flapped his hand, “whatever’s going on there.”
“I’ll try to contain my enthusiasm, Lieutenant-Commander.”
“You need to lighten up one of these days, Seta. Live a little,” Adachi commanded. “Alright, I need to go do some real training, unlike a certain knight who’s frolicking about without appreciating the gift they’ve been given. Good afternoon— well, night for you— Seta.”
“Good afternoon, Lieutenant Commander.”
Souji stared down at the scrying glass as it went dark for a long moment before groaning. They’d have to try Chie’s personal glass. It would have been worlds easier if they had just asked Adachi to pass along the message that they were safe.
Frowning at their own thoughtlessness, they set up the glass once more. “Evoke Mirror P-1735,” they whispered before watching the mirror flare to life.
Luckily, Chie answered right away. “Souji! You’re not dead!”
“Amazingly, no,” Souji responded wryly. “I hope that’s all right with you.”
“Of course it’s all right with me, you weirdo. I’m happy you seem to have all your limbs intact. I, meanwhile, am about to lose my head.”
“You’ve done something worthy of execution, then?” Souji hummed. “Did you kick an ambassador again?”
“What? No! I would never do that! I promised Yuki- the Princess, remember?” Chie flushed at the accusation. “I was going to tell you that the Princess is overworking herself. I may have accidentally let slip that I thought as much.”
Souji nodded sympathetically. They’d had this conversation enough times that Souji knew when to react. Chie wasn’t done yet.
“I just wish that she’d admit to herself that she can’t do everything by herself, you know? She can depend on me— I mean, she can depend on all of us! We all really care about her, you know.” Chie was assuming that Souji knew a lot of things, but they prided themself in being well versed in this exchange, at least.
“She could afford to delegate some tasks,” Souji conceded.
“I know, right?” Chie exclaimed. “Anyway, I need to go apologise and get back to work. I’m glad you made it to Inaba okay— I told you that wilderness training would pay off! Now go sleep, or whatever you do at night.”
With that abrupt farewell, the glass dimmed. Souji smiled. At least Chie was enjoying herself.
They stowed the mirror away and readied themselves for bed. Tomorrow they would interview Saki Konishi, but for now they were ready to sleep.
Souji was surrounded. Trees arched high overhead, and fog incased them. The only light they had was filtered through the canopy above, illuminating the mist in streaks and blots. Their breath came in panicked pants, and the sweat on their palms slid on the handle of their sword, even as they realized how ridiculous that was.
They would never fight without a gauntlet if they had a choice. Besides, this is what grips were made for. What sense did it make for them to barely be able to hold on?
Souji whipped around, ready to strike. They hit something solid.
This time the voice came from their left. Souji turned once more, waiting to attack. Finally, they spotted movement, and they slashed at the source. There was a yelp, almost doglike in sound.
“Wrong.” There was a pause this time, notable in its brevity. “Maybe it was I who was wrong. Where is your potential?”
Souji took in everything around them, watching their surroundings. It took a long moment of observation, but they finally realized why the scene felt so wrong. The little light there was wasn’t creating shadows. The shadows were moving by themselves.
With this in mind, Souji struck out once more, this time attacking the shadow closest to them.
“There it is.”
The voice said this with the same inflection as it had while proclaiming everything wrong. It pissed Souji off a little bit. Still, they didn’t speak. They knew, somehow, that responding would be giving in.
“Maybe this journey will be interesting after all. Goodbye, Souji Seta. Goodbye, and good luck.”