Author's Foreword: Well, if you have read the little final bits in the summary, I guess I won't have to remind you that this is a yuri story, which means female/female pairing. If you are offended by this, please do not proceed. I hold no responsibility if you do, ne.
1: Every event and person covered in this work is purely fictional and has no relation whatsoever to real life. Coincidence, if there is any, is unintentional.
2: Nikki means Diary in Japanese. -chan and -san are suffixes added after one's name. If the addresser uses -chan, that means he/she is rather childish and has a close, intimaterelationship with the addressee. If uses -san, that suggests formality and respect between them.
CHAPTER 01: IN THE SHRINE OF THE FALLING RAIN
Meiji Era twenty-fifth, fourth month, ninth day,
Um, good morning, Nikki-chan,
To tell you the truth, I don't really know how to start things off, as this is the first time I ever wrote a diary. I didn't even know what one was until a couple of weeks ago, when I found my housemate sitting in her room, writing neat characters in an elegant, flowing hand upon the pages of a small book under the flickering candlelight. When I gave her hair, tied at the nape of her neck by a snowy ribbon, a tug and asked her what she was doing, she had given such a violent start that her flailing arms nearly knocked over the table in front. It turned out that she never realized me standing behind her back, looking over her shoulder.
Nikki-chan, you'd probably think that it's nothing out of the blue, wouldn't you? What's unusual about a girl being startled? But you know ne, it's my housemate we're talking about, and saying that she's just a girl is the furthest thing from the truth. Her senses are so acute that no one – I mean no one, seriously! – had been able to get within twenty feet of her without being noticed. I should know, as my attempts to sneak up on her had always ended in failures. That probably explains why it had been so fun looking down at her that night, watching the panic in her obsidian eyes and listening to the unevenness of her breaths. In fact, it was so amusing that I actually rolled on the floor laughing and thumping my fist on the tatami mat. I couldn't stop until my side ached. Meanwhile, my companion never said a thing as she fixed me with an intimidating look, most likely trying to quiet me down. She gave up a while later, when she dropped her serious expression and began to laugh softly into her hand. Nikki-chan, you probably can't imagine how cute she looked doing that.
After our mirth had been suppressed, she explained to me that she was writing a diary, which I noticed was lying upon her laps, beneath her folded hands, its content safely away from my prying eyes. She said that a diary was something in which she recorded what had happened during the day, both good things and bad. She believed that putting her thoughts into words, onto the paper would help clear the heavy thoughts that clouded her mind. When I asked her why I never saw her doing that before, she said that it was because she only wrote things in her diary when she was alone in her room. Amused, I asked jokingly if she had some kind of secrets she was hiding from me, fully expecting her to shake her head frantically and assure me there was nothing like that. Surprisingly, she only gave me an odd look and kept silent.
Puzzled, I nagged her and tugged at her sleeves – trying to get an answer, of course – for the next hour or so but didn't get anywhere. The only thing she said to me in the end was that she was going to take a bath and that I should go back to my room. She wasn't quite amused when I offered to scrub her back, though. Well, I knew I wasn't supposed to but….
Anyways… I digressed. How silly of me, ne, Nikki-chan. Sorry. The point I'm trying to make is that I'm still new at this, that's all.
Nikki-chan, the weather today is totally better than usual. Um, well, it's still as cool as ever. I'm in Hokkaido after all, and you know how low the temperature here can drop. At least the clouds are nowhere to be seen, leaving a deep azure stretching across the heavens. The sun's out, casting its golden shine upon the ground of Furisame Jinja. I wish it could warm the air around me up a little bit, though.
Right now I'm sitting on the verandah around the residential area of the shrine, in a warm coat, legs dangling over the edge, with you propped on my laps, a brush clutched in my hand, and an ink tray on the wooden floor, within my arm's reach. Nikki-chan, I probably should put you on the table in my room, as my handwriting would be a little bit more legible that way, but I figure that staying outdoor is much healthier for both of us, don't you agree?
Let me give you more details about my place, ne, Nikki-chan. We're in Furisame Jinja, the Shrine of the Falling Rain, which was dedicated to Susanou no Mikoto, the God of Storms. I asked my housemate once why the people chose to worship him out of all deities in the Plains of Heaven. The answer I got was kinda unexpected.
"Practical reason, no more, no less," my housemate said wryly. "They picked Susanou no Mikoto because he is the one who twiddles their chance of survival around his fingers. You would understand, many people in this neighborhood are farmers living solely on the profit their rice fields yield each season. As such, they have good cause to be fearful of storms, which can destroy their crops. Think about it that way, and you can see clearly why they try so hard to appease Susanou, hoping to earn his good graces."
I know I shouldn't be telling you this, Nikki-chan, but I think out of all the people in our little town, my housemate's the only one the deity failed to impress. Isn't it ironic that the Chief Priestess of Susanou no Mikoto's Shrine regards him barely higher than a mere mortal?
In any event, our Shrine is pretty new, about half a dozen years old, just like others around this northern island. My housemate explained that the Meiji government was – still is, she added – using Shinto to unify the hearts of its citizens. No wonder why the Emperor introduces the state religion to Hokkaido, at the faraway edge of his empire. Furisame, located at the foothill of Asahi Mountain, was among the first to be built in that effort.
Well, whatever the purpose of this Shrine's existence is, it's still a nice place to live in, especially when the person in the room next to mine is a young Priestess who smiles fondly at me whenever our eyes meet. In her company, I doubt I can find sadness or boredom any place near where we live. In fact, I can gush about her all day, telling you about her good points but I'm rather afraid it would fill all your pages without being able to finish. Yes, she's that wonderful. I don't think I can find anyone like her even if I travel to the end of the world. She's kind, she's caring, she's gentle, and she's the prettiest girl I've met. She's…. Sorry, I'm doing that again.
You know ne, Nikki-chan; I think Furisame Jinja is the most beautiful shrine on Earth. Unfortunately, my lovely companion didn't share the same opinion, for she tried to point out to me once that our cozy and humble abode was much smaller and far inferior to Ise Daijin-guu or Izumo Taisha in both artistic sense and prominence. She asked me once why I insisted that even if the places she listed were a hundred times prettier, they would still be no match for Furisame Jinja. I answered that it was because she didn't live in the Grand Shrine of Ise, or the Great Palace of Izumo. She blushed bright red and changed the topic.
Dear Nikki-chan, the reason why I'm writing right now is because I was terribly lonely. I couldn't help but feel that way when I'm all by myself in this spacious Shrine of the Falling Rain. No, there is no one else except me here. I didn't expect that I would be in this situation, to be honest. If anything, I only thought that I could take advantage of this day to have fun with my lovely companion. You know what; I even spent the better part of last night planning ways to make her show once more the beautiful whole-hearted laughter I so dearly cherish.
With that said, you probably could tell how devastated I was when I woke up to her voice this morning, being told that she had urgent business in a town on the other side of the island so she had to leave in a minute. My heart sank upon realizing that she was already in traveling clothes, her luggage laid at her feet. My whole self ached as I followed her to the Main Gate of the Shrine of the Falling Rain. My eye stung watching her treading upon the road leading to the small town this Shrine's supposed to protect. My face was soaked with tears even before her slender figure faded completely into the distance. Only then did I realize that I had been too shocked to realize that she never once asked me to come with her, or gave me any idea of when she would return. I didn't stop crying in my room until a few hours ago, when fatigue defeated me and put me to sleep.
To sum it all up, the young Priestess's departure is the cause of my loneliness and misery. Without her presence nearby, I can hardly find anything that lifts my spirit. Without her voice, the deafening silence seems to solidify into something that weighs down on my shoulders. Without her beautiful face, everything in my eyes becomes dull. Even my favorite odango snack tastes like dust in my mouth. Even the melodious chirping of the birds around the Jinja, which I love listening to every moment awake, is now but an off-key note in the rhythm of life. Even the leaves, coated with the morning dew, have stopped being shiny.
Dear Nikki-chan, I just remember that there are a few things that require my immediate attention, so I'll stop. Since my friend the Priestess left in such a hurry, she didn't have time to prepare anything for my lunch or dinner, which means that I must do the cooking myself. By the way, I've noticed some cobwebs hanging at the corners of our rooms and the Hall of Offerings, so I guess I'll clean up the Shrine, too. I hope I'll be too tired to think of her when I'm done with all these chores. Hopefully, I won't have to cry myself to sleep….
See you later, ne.
Meiji Era twenty-fifth, fourth month, tenth day,
I've just realized that although I'd been bothering you for hours on end yesterday, I never introduced myself. How very rude of me, ne. My current name's Amano Hikari. Current… because it's not what my mom and dad gave me when I was born into this world. To tell you the truth, none of what I own right now belongs to me. Certainly not the clothes on my body, my name, my face, or even my past. You see, Nikki-chan, all I'm living is a lie. Worse, if my housemate the Priestess learned of the secret I've been keeping, she'd probably drive her sacred sword into my heart despite what we shared during the time I lived with her. Should I choose to run away from her – small chance I could – someone else would make me wish I had died at her hand. How did I get myself into such a mess? Well, it's a long story, but I'll tell you all about it, Nikki-chan.
Despite my appearance, as much mine as the identity I'm assuming, I'm not human. Are you guessing that I'm a demon? No, silly. How can a demon get inside a Shrine and live together with a Priestess? I think there's a word with which humans call my kind… what is it I wonder? It's on the tip of my tongue, so wait for me a second…. Ah, a half-breed. Yup, a half-breed.
As the name tells you, I'm the product of the love between a human and a demon. You know ne, Nikki-chan, my dad is a nine-tail kitsune youkai, a fox demon, who had lived for hundreds of years and accumulated powers beyond belief. Unlike his people, he never despised or looked down upon the 'pitiful' humans whose lives were at best ephemeral. What my dad harbored towards them were pity… and love. He even lived among them so he could silently protect them from the other demons who wreaked havocs across the land. I don't think there's a demon who has as much sense and honor as him in the darker side of the world.
My mom, on the other hand, was a human. Not just any normal human, she's a Priestess who once served in the Grand Shrine of Ise itself! Well, the most incredible thing about her wasn't her power or her rank at the Grand Shrine, but her attitude toward demons in general. She, heavens and earth apart from her colleagues, was fed up with seeing demons and humans trying to push each other toward the edge of extinction. Brought up as a guardian of humankind, she had been taught that the demon race must be wiped off the face of the Earth. She was sickened to the core by the teachings. It wasn't long until she resigned from Ise and decided that she wanted a quiet life on this faraway island, where demons and humans alike could pester her least. It was fate, because Hokkaido was the birthplace of my dad. It was here that my parents met one another, fell in love, and gave birth to me.
My childhood was filled with bliss. Both my mom and dad doted on me and spoiled me rotten the way they gave me everything I wanted. Of course I have a demon form, as you'd expect, but I would never transform unless I choose to. That was how I had the luxury of living a human's life without the fear of being detected. I could even play with the neighbors' kids as long as either my mom or dad was there to keep an eye on us. I had spent the first sixteen years of my life thinking that I was the happiest and luckiest child in the world. I never imagined that one day, all hell would break loose.
I suppose that the Immortals of Heaven either envied my mom and dad's relationship or were just cruel in general. I see no other reason why calamity would descend upon the roof of the most respectable family in this island. It all began with my dad's protectiveness over his human villagers, who of course were still kept in the dark about his true identity as a demon. You see, Nikki-chan, my dad prevented the other demons of this island from harming the villagers, driving them away every time there was a raid. One problem, my dad refused to kill his own kind, so in the end, what he essentially did was sowing enemies all over the place.
On my very sixteenth birthday, the demons decided that they had had enough. A horde of them converged upon the sky of our house and sent dad an ultimatum, declaring that he would either fight them to preserve this village or watch everyone in it die. My dad, being the righteous and merciful person he was, picked the first choice.
When he came back two hours later, he was a bloody mass of torn flesh. My mom and I felt our heart convulsing in pain as we watched him emerge from the barrier that kept whatever going on within invisible. Both of us burst into tears seeing him collapse on our doorstep. It had been a brutal fight, with my dad outnumbered a hundred to one. Thanks to his transcending power, he managed to kill them all – he couldn't afford letting them live this time, Nikki-chan, so don't think badly of him, ne – but not before he himself sustained grievous injuries.
We tried to help my dad, yet our efforts turned out to be in vain. We stopped the blood but we could do nothing to replenish the power he exerted during the battle. Nikki-chan, my dad was a full-blooded demon, whose human form was directly linked to his power. Without the latter, the former couldn't exist. We realized that we were in deep trouble when my dad's body started to glow so intensely it plunged the whole village in which we lived into a sea of white light.
When the villagers rushed to our house, where the light originated, what they found wasn't the gentleman who had set such a perfect example for everyone else to follow. What they saw lying on his bed was a fox twice as large as a man, whose fur was white as driven snow, whose nine tails were as long as his body. It didn't take them much time to realize that the kitsune youkai's fur was of the same color as my dad's hair. Even the dumbest person could figure out the rest. When my mom and I noticed that their faces were darkening with anger, some with fear, some with disgust, we knew something bad was going to happen. When we saw them running back to their houses, we knew we had to get my dad away.
Nikki-chan, you can't imagine how panicked my mom and I were at that time. We were aware that the villagers, those who had guts anyway, were fetching pitchforks and plows so they could come back later and kill my dad. Yet, there was nothing we could do. Having reverted into his true form and being covered with bleeding wounds only made the situation worse. He was too heavy for us to carry him to safety, and had too little of his powers left to teleport all three of us away. It didn't help, either, that we refused to leave him to mercy of the mob of villagers who would arrive in any minute. In the end, my parents came to a conclusion. Blessed with a good memory as I am, I still can remember every word they said on that fateful day.
"Dear, would you go prepare for our daughter?" my dad mumbled to my mom after a sigh, his voice barely audible. After every few words, he would cough a cough that tore at my heartstrings.
"Yes." My mom nodded and started rummaging hurriedly through the wardrobe. In no time at all, she pulled out some of my clothes and put them in a large piece of cloth, which she tied up in the end into a large bundle. "Here you go, child." She put the thing in my arms.
"Mom, dad… where are yours?" I asked, body trembling wildly, heart welling up with fright. I already had an inkling what kind of answer I would receive.
"I'm not going anywhere without your father," mom said, shaking her head sadly as she held on to dad's neck. I was right. They meant to die together.
"Then let me stay too, please!" I begged while tears dropped silently from my face.
"We can't," my dad said. "You're still too young. You have a future ahead."
"No!" I cried. "I'm not going to live without you!"
"My stubborn daughter," he sighed, "I'm sorry, but you don't have a choice." A magic circle appeared beneath my feet at the end of his sentence, which trapped me inside a pillar of white light. I knew what he was trying to do.
"Let me out, dad!" I slammed my hands on the circular wall of light, screaming as hard as I could. "Don't send me away!"
"For sixteen years you have made us the most fortunate parents in the world," mom said, hugging the pillar of light. She, too, was crying. "We don't want to lose you… but there's nothing we can do about it. So farewell, my child." The light around me grew so brilliant that I could no longer see either my mom or dad. Yet, I could hear the sound of people shouting getting louder and nearer. It was the villagers. And they were screaming for death and blood.
"We only have one final wish, daughter," my dad's voice said. "If you love us, please live on. If you appreciate our effort in raising you, please don't seek death."
"If we see you in the Afterlife shortly after we leave this world, we will hate you forever," was the last thing I head from my mom before the magic circle teleported me away.
Nikki-chan, I found myself on a forested hill behind our village after that, watching a column of pure white flame charging at the afternoon sky. No human could have created it. I think you could figure out what it meant, don't you? Yeah, my dad had invoked the final bits of his powers to weave a spell that would render both him and my mom to dust. They didn't want to die in the hands of the people they used to love, the people they had spent years protecting from the shadows… so they took their own lives. Nikki-chan, I spent the rest of the day on that same hill, crying my eyes out even after the column of flame had dissipated. When I sneaked back into town at midnight, all I found was a blackened ground where my house used to be… and a drawn picture of me everywhere else. The villagers meant to see me dead. The first thing I did after seeing that was running as if hell was on my heels.
From that day onward I lead a life where I didn't know whether I could live to see the next sunrise. I wandered from villages to villages, earning money from whatever jobs I found so I could ease my almost always empty stomach. I rarely stayed in one place for too long because the fear in my heart always urged me to leave before people recognized who I was. I couldn't take chances. Who knew when a wanted picture of me would arrive from the village I grew up? Who knew when the villagers around would try their best to kill me because I'm a half-breed?
After a few months of such a nomadic life, my journey came to an end. It was when I stepped into a town named Unomichi at the base of Asahi Mountain.
I think I'll call it a day here, Nikki-chan. I have to do my friend's and my laundry. The weather has been nice today too, so I'll take advantage of the sunshine when I can. I will see you tomorrow. Jaa, ne.
Meiji Era twenty-fifth, fourth month, eleventh day,
Yesterday was a total failure. When I finished washing the clothes, the sun was shining just like it did the day I first talked to you so I thought to myself that by the end of the day, the laundry would be all dried. Boy, how wrong I was. After I hung everything over the clotheslines, I decided that I'd like a little nap. Washing clothes was hard work, you know, especially when I spent a lot of time on each piece of clothing of my friend the Priestess. Not that they were very dirty, though; my housemate's one of the cleanliest persons I ever met. Somehow, I felt sorta happy knowing that I for once was doing something for the one I cherished so I kinda lost in the sensation, that's all.
You must be thinking that I'm a lazy girl, don't you, Nikki-chan? Um, I admit that I am one, but the reason why I haven't been helping much with the chores had nothing to do with that. I'm telling the truth, honest! My housemate likes to do everything herself. She doesn't let me cook. She doesn't let me clean the floor. She doesn't even let me wash my own dishes!
Um, I'm rambling, aren't I? Sorry, Nikki-chan. As I was saying, I took a nap once I was done with hanging the laundry on the clotheslines. I don't think I had slept for more than half an hour when a loud, rumbling noise woke me up. I was horrified upon realizing that it was raining cats and dogs outside. Everything was sodden as a result. I'll wash them again when it stops raining. The load isn't that much anyway, especially when I plan to take care of only my friend's clothes. Mine? I'll just dry them off. Yeah, yeah, I'm lazy, I know.
Anyways, I'll pick up where I left off yesterday, Nikki-chan.
The new chapter of my life started somewhere in the middle of the sixth month of last year. To tell you the truth, I was on the run from an exorcist – a monk – who arrived at my last dwelling, a village that was quite far away. Call me a coward all you want, Nikki-chan, and I'll agree with you whole-heartedly. I'm aware that my human blood completely dominates my other one, therefore erasing any and all demonic behaviors other half-breeds may have. I don't even exude the evil aura that my kind does, so unless an extremely powerful exorcism ritual was performed on my body, none would know I'm not entirely human. In other words, the exorcist couldn't possibly find out about me. Yet, the fear never stopped putting me on edge. I could barely keep myself from trembling every time I saw the monk passing by the takoyaki shop I was working in. I never had the courage to look him in the eye or wish him a good day when I saw him on the street. In the end, I couldn't take the pressure anymore. I fled the village.
A while later, I arrived at Unomichi, my final destination.
At that time, I didn't have anything with me except the clothes I was in. The little amount of money I earned from the takoyaki shop had been spent on the journey, the food I bought thoroughly consumed even before reaching this town. Upon my arrival at Unomichi, I hadn't had anything to eat for two days. I tried looking for work. None accepted me. The rest of the day dragged painfully by with me sitting in an empty alley while hunger clawed madly at my stomach.
As the darkness descended from the sky above, the situation got worse.
I was leaning against a wall of the alley, trying to put myself to sleep when three men emerged from the entrance. The moment I noticed the leer on their lips, I knew I had to run. There were only so many things men wanted to do when they looked at a girl that way, you know. One problem, though, the alley had but one way out, and they were blocking it. Frightened silly, I only stared as the men walked toward me, their grins growing wider after every step they took. I tried to stand up and run. All I managed to do was crawling away, all the while hearing the footsteps falling behind my back. I started to cry once they rolled me onto my back, two of them pinning my arms and legs to the ground while the last one towered over my sprawled body. I desperately screamed for help. Yet even when my voice became hoarse, even when the bastard ripped my clothes apart, no one came.
Ah, don't worry, Nikki-chan. They didn't manage to do anything to me at all. In fact, I even felt sorry for them afterwards. It was they who made a fatal mistake choosing to attack me. You remember, don't you, Nikki-chan, that the demonic blood in me would awaken at my command. The three men were able to pin me down because I was too frightened to remember that I was capable of tearing them into pieces. When the shock had faded and the anger arisen, I did.
Just like what had happened to my dad, a powerful wave of white light emerged and hauled the three men off of my body. What they found themselves confronting in the end was a kitsune youkai as tall as any man and thrice as large. Seeing my claws and sharp teeth, they weren't very happy. Unfortunately for them, neither was I.
My first strike severed an arm of the man who ripped my clothes. My second took away a leg. Blood splashed onto the ground and the walls of the alley, painting them red. My prey passed out on the spot without letting out the smallest cry. I was preparing to sink my claws into his throat and finish him once and for all when something flickered at the edge of my vision. The other two men were running away, abandoning their comrade. Knowing my anger wouldn't be sated unless I got all three, I chased after them.
Dear Nikki-chan, they only made it to the empty town square, where they found themselves pinned onto the ground under my paws. This time, it was they who started to scream. I silenced them by shifting all my weight onto my front limbs, driving all the air out of their lungs. I could even hear their ribs crack as they squirmed in pain. I could even smell the blood trickling out of their mouth. I could even see their eyes trying to jump out of their sockets. Truth be told, I would have pressed harder and crushed them to death had a voice even colder than the night winds not reached my ears.
"Release them, demon, now."
Looking up, I saw a slim figure cloaked in the shadow of the roof of a house nearby. Nikki-chan, I was pretty shocked at that. You probably don't know, but my demon form did gift me with extremely heightened senses. Despite the fact that I was occupied with my preys, I still should have noticed that someone was there. I never did.
The figure stepped forward into the silvery light radiating from the full moon on high. It was a girl perhaps a few years older than I was in my human form, but a hundred times prettier. Her long raven hair, tied at the nape of her neck with a snowy ribbon, formed a long, tidy tail that ended at her waist. The hair at the sides of her slender half-oval face fell all the way to each of her jawlines in a wide stream of glorious darkness. Her large eyes, pretty and deep, gleamed obsidian in the moonlight. Her small nose and lips delivered the finishing touches to the most dazzling face ever.
My breath caught when my eyes traveled below the girl's neck. Her upper body was clad in a white robe worn over a red kimono shirt. Her wide sleeves, fringed with red velvet, stopped at her wrists, revealing small, delicate hands. A divided red hibakama graced her lower body; white stockings and red tabi sandals adorned her feet. There was no doubt. The girl standing before me was what my mom used to be before she left the Grand Shrine of Ise. A Priestess.
In my kitsune youkai form, I slowly backed up from the two men, who crawled away from me as fast as they could while moaning in pain. The Priestess never paid any scrap of attention to them. Her obsidian eyes, glowing with hatred and distaste, were fixed on me alone. I didn't have to be a genius to guess that she meant to destroy me, which of course, neither the beast I had become nor my human self, locked inside the beast's head, could permit. My demonic blood sang in my veins, urging me to kill the pest. Nikki-chan, I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't take a lot of time reconsidering before I obeyed.
I jumped at her viciously, bared fangs and claws aiming for her throat. Unfazed, she only put up her left hand. Light flared from her fingertips in colorful sprays that painted concentric magic circles spinning about her palm in various angles and directions. In a deafening sound, my front body crashed into what I knew was a barrier wrought solely for physical defense, and was hurled back with a force much stronger than what I had employed. I landed at least thirty feet away from the girl, every muscle on my body sore from the impact. My front paws were in an even worse situation. They hurt so badly I could have thought I just stepped on a bush of thorns.
"How did you get in here without making the Sacred Crystals chime, demon?" the Priestess said icily. "Answer, and I shall grant you a quick, painless death." I favored her with a thunderous roar. Her expression never changed.
"You wish for it." She nodded as her right hand rose from her side, palm erected. "O Guardian of the Storms and Winds, O Watcher of the Hokuto Seal, I call upon thee. Answer my summons and come forth, Sennen no Inori!" she intoned, her voice ringing coldly across the night.
The silvery light of the moon on high gathered into a brilliant shaft that banished the darkness. It was as if she had succeeded in summoning the moon itself. Well, she didn't. What appeared in her hand afterwards was a very unusual sword. The hand-guard was nowhere in sight, and the hilt a white lacquered wood so well-polished that it seemed too slippery to hold. Yet, the rest of it was a wonder to look at. Slightly curved, the long blade was made entirely of transparent glass that made it seem more like a beautiful ornamental piece than an actual weapon.
"May you be reborn as something less repulsive in your next life, demon," the girl said. She swung the sword at me in a wide horizontal arc.
Nikki-chan, were you there, I'm sure you would laugh. Anyone would, really, seeing that there was no way a sword at most five feet in length could strike someone at least six times the distance away. There actually was.
Halfway in the swinging arc, the sword blazed at the same time brilliant sparks emerged around its blade. The latter, multiplying in a terrifying rate, then gathered into the former and made its length grow rapidly. In the blink of an eye, the prickly tip of Sennen no Inori had traversed the distance between us and arrived at my left side, ready to slice my leg off. Had I failed to react in time and leap a few steps backwards, it would have. And that was nothing compared to what happened next.
Despite the fact that the Priestess never moved an inch from her initial position, she was death incarnate. She merely stood on the ground, her body perfectly still except for her wrist, which directed Sennen no Inori, but the sword's blazing shaft – crisscrossing soundlessly in the air like a flexible thin ribbon, which seemed able to change direction at will – appeared everywhere within the empty space of the town square. Thanks to the darn thing, I accumulated at least a hundred wounds – none was fatal, I was grateful toward whatever power out there for that – within the first ten minutes of the fight.
Nikki-chan, the demonic blood surging in my vein made me extremely bold and overly confident; yet the blood that dyed my fur red and the pain that tore at my body slammed fear back into my head. Also, I had regained enough sense to realize that should this continue, I'd die. There was simply no way I could win. I fled Unomichi.
You know ne, Nikki-chan, the Priestess was full of surprises. While I was running so fast the winds howled fiercely in my ears and the scenery became a blur that rushed the opposite direction, she was right behind me. Taking leaps so wide and high she gave me impression that she was lighter than a feather, she continued to swing that monstrous – ironic, I know – Sennen no Inori. She scared the heck out of me every time her blade struck the ground around me and blew it up.
My chance to escape came when I caught sight of a forest straight ahead. Ducking my head to evade one last slash from Sennen no Inori, I threw myself between the trees bordering the darkness that grew thicker and thicker with every step. I immediately discarded my demon form and changed back into being a human, for a large kitsune would have a very tough time slipping past the trees.
Naked as the day I was born, I ventured deeper into the forest while the cold air bit at my skin and the rocks on the ground pricked my feet. I didn't stop running until I found a small cave the entrance to which was covered by thick bushes with thorny leaves. I heaved a great sigh of relieve after a while of feeling around of my hands in pitch darkness and finding that there was nothing else except me. Time passed in silence as I sat against the cave's rocky wall, where I hugged my knees as tightly as I could and listened for any sound that might warn me of the Priestess. I fell asleep shortly afterwards.
Stop laughing at me, Nikki-chan! I was only a teenage girl who had wrung out every drop of sweet running from an enemy. It was only natural that I became too tired to keep my eyes open, don't you think? And don't say anything about my choice of hiding inside a cave either, please? I know it wasn't the best idea, regarding how I would have become dead meat had the Priestess discovered that I was lurking in there, not to mention that I could have found a den of vipers waiting to sink their fangs into my flesh or a bear – are there bears in Hokkaido? – staring at his dinner…. Um… I'm not making myself look any better, am I?
When the light of dawn slipped past the foliage and woke me up, every muscle on my body was sore, and my skin was covered with cuts and bruises. It didn't help that my stomach was growling loudly, either. It was then that my nose caught a delicious smell and my ears heard the snapping sounds of a flame burning on dry twigs. 'Someone was cooking something out there', I thought. Mouth watering, I gingerly got on all four and peered through a small opening between the leaves of the bush hiding the entrance to the cave. What I saw increased my hunger ten-fold.
A young man dark of hair and eyes, in a samurai's armor and outfit, two katana hanging at his belt, was seated on a slab of stone behind a cooking fire, over which he was roasting a rabbit. I would have run out there and grabbed it had I not realized that I wasn't wearing a stitch on my body. I was wondering whether I should change into the kitsune form to chase the man away when he suddenly spoke, "Come out, girl, I know you're hungry."
I had been so startled that my head hit the low roof of the cave in a loud, painful CONK. I let out a small 'Oww' as colorful stars erupted in my vision. The man outside merely chuckled, sounding amused.
"If you don't come out," he said in a cheerful voice, "I can't guarantee there'll be any leftover."
"I can't," I answered him. "Would you please put the food into the cave for me instead?"
"You don't need to be shy, girl. I'm not interested in you whether you have clothes on or not." I gave another start hearing him say that.
Silence passed between us, with me wondering how the man could have known I was in the cave – naked! – and what he could possibly want with me, until he reached behind him and took out a large black cloak. Then he bundled it up and tossed it at the entrance.
After I had taken the piece of cloth and wrapped it decently around my body, I left my hiding place and sat down next to him. I wasn't afraid at all, despite him being a samurai bearing swords, as I could change back into my demon form and put him in his place.
We shared the roasted rabbit and ate, each of us pursuing our own thoughts. I would once in a while steal glances at the man to make sure he wasn't trying anything funny, and he would shake his head and chuckle quietly every time he caught me doing it. After the hundredth time or so, he threw up his hands in exasperation and said irritably, "Oh come on! Would you stop that? When I say I'm not interested, I mean it!"
"That's hardly believable coming from a man," I pointed out. "Men are beasts. Or at least most of them are."
"Such confidence," my companion commented. "You must've had some bad experience with men, no?"
"Some of them tried to rape me the last night," I muttered darkly to him. Nikki-chan, even now, I still think that it's hard to distinguish between men and monsters, and decide which were more dangerous. Demons killed men, true, but it wasn't as if men didn't anyway.
"Tried to," he repeated. "That means you weren't harmed, no?"
"No." I shook my head. "They were, though."
"Is that so? Is that so?" He laughed and ruffled the messy hair on my head. "Rest assured though, kiddo, you're safe now. I'll protect you from now on." Nikki-chan, I was both shocked and amused at that time. From the man's youthful face, I was sure that the age difference between us couldn't have been more than three years, yet he called me "kiddo" and acted as though he was my father. To tell you the truth, I didn't enjoy being treated that way, at all.
I studied him for a while, and suddenly had an idea why he was so detached when he had a young, seemingly helpless girl wearing nothing but a cloak at his side. I poked his shoulder with my finger and asked, "You like men, don't you?" The shocked look he gave me in return was most satisfying. It wouldn't be fair if I was the one surprised all the times, don't you think, Nikki-chan?
"You like to speak your mind, yes?"
I nodded, my eyes still fixed on him, demanding an answer.
Um, well, Nikki-chan, you must be thinking that I'm a rude girl without any manner at all. I'm not, really! I'm just curious in nature, so I couldn't have helped myself even if I had tried to, that's all!
"Well, yes," the man said after clearing his throat. He even looked a trifle embarrassed.
"Perv," I said off-handedly.
"Hey! What's that for?" He glared at me.
"Only a perv would go after someone of his own gender." I stuck out my tongue at him. "Isn't that true?"
"No it isn't, you ignoramus! You haven't heard that you can't choose the one you fall in love with, no?" he said.
I didn't buy a thing he said, for I thought he was just trying to find an excuse for his pervy nature. But of course, attacking his particular taste right after he had clothed me and fed me would turn me into ungrateful brat, so I held my tongue. Silence returned.
"How are you feeling, kiddo?" he spoke finally. "Are your wounds okay?"
"They aren't," I mumbled. "Still hurt a lot."
"Okay, then." He put his hand back on my head. At the contact, a wave of something, cool and soothing like a balm, swept over me. Next I knew, there wasn't a scratch left on my body. "There we go," he said, and I gave a start. Noticing the fear in my eyes, he added, "Don't worry, kiddo, I'm not an exorcist. I would have killed you already if I were one, agree?" He never withdrew his hand.
If he thought he could calm me down with his assurance, he was wrong. He only managed to make me more frightened. My whole body trembled, as did my voice, when I opened my mouth and spoke, "You're a demon, aren't you?" The casual nod he gave stilled my tongue and sent chills slithering down my back.
"Allow me to introduce myself, kiddo," he said, smiling. "I'm Kugimiya Karasu, from the Kugimiya Crow Demon Clan. Pleased to make your acquaintance." A pair of wings black as a moonless night unfolded from behind his back, which made the fear from the night before, staked into my heart by the Priestess, come alive stronger than ever. When it comes to a half-breed, a demon should be as loving and friendly as an exorcist.
"No need to be so afraid, kiddo," he said, his hand gently stroking my head. "As long as you cooperate, I won't harm you. I give you my word." I suddenly became aware that the fingernails on both of his hands had grown longer, sharper, and much pricklier. No doubt he would sink them into my brain as soon as I refused to 'cooperate'. The knowledge made me tremble even more wildly, and much more conscious of his hand at the top of my head.
"What… do you… want?" I asked him.
"Something only you can help me achieve," he answered. "You see, kiddo, my source in the town you visited last night told me what happened between you and the Priestess. He also revealed that despite being a demon, you could slip into town without alerting Seinaru Suishou. Would you tell me why?"
"Sei… naru… Suishou? What?" My teeth clattered. Karasu didn't radiate any menacing aura that I could sense, and he was quite the gentleman, yet somehow he scared me even more than the girl the night before did.
"Ah, sorry, sorry." He chuckled. "Seinaru Suishou, or the Sacred Crystals, are devices that detect demonic presence. To put it simply, they cast a large Ward around Unomichi. Every time a demon wanders inside, the Crystals would chime, and the Priestess would come to destroy him, or her," he added, winking at me.
In a cracking voice, I told him that I wasn't a demon, that I was only a half-breed, and that I had no idea why the Crystals or whatever failed to work in my case. I almost whimpered when he arched an eyebrow at me. Still, he only studied me intently, his dark eyes so unnerving that I actually sighed in relief when he shifted his gaze from me to the burning fire in front of us.
"Sounds like you have a dominating human trait…" he muttered. "But how? I've never seen such a half-breed in my life. And I've killed hundreds of them, you know." His casual words sent goosebumps rising all over my skin. Never noticing it, he became immersed in his own thoughts, eyes still fixed at the fire. After half an hour or so, Karasu demanded that I tell him all about my family. He didn't really say it out right, but he hinted that he could tell if I lied, and he'd make me regret ever doing it. So I told him what he wanted to know.
"Oh I see, I see!" Karasu burst into laughter. "You're the child of that famous Nine-Tail Shirazuki Rin and the Priestess Kazahara Kozue! You've inherited both of your pop and mom's powers at birth, which simply canceled each other out! That's why there isn't an ounce of demonic power in you. That's how you fooled the Crystals! This is just perfect! Perfect I say!"
"Perfect… for what?" I stared at him. When his hand slid from the top of my head to my face, which he gripped tightly, I knew something bad was going to happen. I was right.
"Oh, for a great many things," he said cheerfully. "You just don't need to know what yet." His palm and his fingertips grew warmer, his black wings blacker, and I more frightened with ever word he spoke.
"The process won't take too long, kiddo, so try to bear with it," Karasu whispered, and the heat of a thousand suns exploded within his grip while nerve-wrecking pain surged across my body. I screamed, feeling as though my limbs were tied to four horses running in different directions. Karasu… he only laughed harder and harder. I passed out shortly afterwards.
Dear Nikki-chan, I know it's bad to end my tale here, in such a cliff-hanger, but you know what, time really flies when you're absorbed in doing something. It's well-past midnight already, and I can hardly keep myself awake. So I'll talk to you tomorrow, ne.
Meiji Era twenty-fifth, fourth month, twelfth day,
The weather today isn't better than yesterday at all. It's already noon, but the sun's still hiding behind the dark clouds that threaten another heavy rain. It's because of them that I don't dare hang the laundry over the clotheslines. In times like this, I only wish I possess some sort of special powers. It'd be awesome if I could dry all the laundry with a wave of my hand, or prepare food without actually going into the kitchen. Silly, aren't I? If I had powers, the Sacred Crystals would have chimed the moment I stepped into Unomichi, and the people would have killed me before I could twitch. If I had powers, Kugimiya Karasu would have found me useless, and probably wouldn't have kept me alive. And of course, if I had an ounce of powers, I wouldn't have ended up in Furisame, where I found the most precious treasure in the world. But I'm jumping ahead.
Let me tell you about what happened after I regained my consciousness. When I opened my eyes, the sun was setting, and I was lying upon the grassy ground, with Karasu's sitting where he used to, black wings no where in sight. He broke into a smile the moment he noticed that I had woken up.
"Feeling alright, kiddo?" He grinned as I rose slowly to my feet. "Oh, be careful, or you'll ruin your clothes." It was only then did I realize that what I had on my body was no longer Karasu's black cloak, but a simple brown yukata any servant in any household would wear. I had stockings and tabi sandals on, too.
"You do look pretty." Karasu nodded. "But hey, why are you backing away from me?"
"What did you do to me?" I asked, feeling anger and fear rising in my heart, the latter overwhelming the former. I tried not to remember the pain he had caused me earlier in the day, lest it turn my knees into water. He was scary enough as it was already. I gave a start, however, noticing that my voice had changed.
"Well, instead of me answering, why don't you look at this?" Karasu snapped his fingers. A silvery surface that looked like a mirror as tall as I was appeared in front of me. I gasped aloud as I looked at my reflection. Everything about me had changed. My face had grown more slender, my eyes larger, my nose smaller, and my lips thinner. Even my hairstyle was no longer the same. What I used to have was hair long enough to reach my waist, not short straight hair with bangs ruffling in front of my forehead and ringlets brushing my ears. Admittedly, though, I had never looked more beautiful.
"Like what you see, yes?" Karasu chuckled softly.
"Whose face… is this?"
"Random chick," he said casually. "Born a peasant, I believe. Good thing I remember both her face and voice."
"Why did you change my face and voice into hers?" I muttered.
"Because I can't let you keep yours. You're wanted, remember?" He winked at me. "But forget about that for a second and listen. You're going back to Unomichi, for the Priestess would visit the town for some business the day after next. You'll approach her for me."
"No way!" I blurted before I could think. "I don't want to die!"
"Shush!" Annoyance flashed across Karasu's face. "There's nothing to worry about. If Seinaru Suishou can't identify you as a half-breed, neither can she. She'll take you for a human." His face hardened upon seeing that I still shook my head vigorously. Saying nothing, he glanced over his shoulder at a large tree, at which he flung his right hand. For the first five seconds or so, nothing happened. At the sixth, a gust of wind rose, and the tree along with its branches and leaves crumbled into to dust. As the winds continued to blow, nothing was left of the mighty wooden pillar that seemed more than able to survive the heaviest storms. Cold sweats rolled down my back, and my knees gave way. I sank to the ground, trembling.
"Oh, what was I saying kiddo?" Karasu looked at me, his lips widening in a smile, "you are to go back to Unomichi and approach the Priestess for me. You understand perfectly, yes?"
"Yes," I mumbled meekly. 'What am I going to tell her?"
Nikki-chan, Karasu gave me somewhat of an oral script, which was really short, but he spent the rest of the evening and the next day making me repeat it over and over until I could say every line without forgetting the next. The morning after, he took me to the border of the forest, from where there was a road leading to a large town perhaps five or six minutes of walking distance away. It wasn't where I entered the forest in hope of escaping the Priestess two days ago, though. Beyond the tiled roofs of Unomichi, fringed by numerous luxuriant rice fields halfway through the rice season, stood another forest that seemed much thicker and deeper than the one I was in at that time.
"See that one, kiddo?" Karasu said, hand gesturing toward a tall archway flanked by two watchtowers. I nodded, and he continued, "That's called the Southern Gate. See the two-story building tiled in red beyond it? Good. That's the local branch of the government's Colonization Office. The Priestess should be in there right now."
"Your source told you, I suppose?" I muttered.
"Exactly." He winked. "Oh, oh, our helper's here." A man, the same getup as Kugimiya Karasu but less handsome, a head taller, and much more severe-looking, stepped out from behind a tree to our left.
"Karasu-sama," the newcomer bowed deeply to my companion. "Everything's ready."
"Let me introduce you to my servant, kiddo." Karasu smiled pleasantly. "His name's Akiba. Akiba, this is your responsibility for the next half an hour or so." Strangely, although I gave him a polite bow, Akiba shot me a look that was barely friendlier than what the Priestess did before she proceeded to attack. At that time, I thought he was just hostile in nature, for there was no other reason why he should hate someone he met for the first time. Only later did I find out that I was sorely mistaken.
"We'll wait for the Priestess to leave, and then we'll execute our plan…." He paused. "Okay, that's freaky." The gates to the Colonization Office swung open, and a slender figure walked out. Young, yet somehow possessing a presence that could shame an Imperial princess, the Priestess's beauty seemed to even dwarf the glory of the sunlight. Nikki-chan, my new face's prettier than most girls' are, yet I would be nothing standing next to her. To compare us would be to compare a firefly and the sun, a wildflower grown at the side of the road and a rose tended with utmost care in one's precious garden. She's a gemstone, and I but a grain of sand one can find on any beach.
"Now, little kitsune-chan, you can go," Karasu pat me on the back. "Be quick, or Akiba will kill you." He was smiling as usual, he even winked, yet the mere curving of his lips and the glint in his dark eyes were so menacing that I thought I was a fox cornered by a hunter with a bow. "Well?" He arched an eyebrow at me, and I ran as though hell was on my heels. Akiba, on the other hand, didn't move an inch, his face grimmer by the minute.
After I had gotten around three or four yards away from the forest, I heard violent flaps of wings overhead. Looking up, I felt my heart sinking into my stomach upon seeing a giant crow as large as a small house. It was Akiba in his demon form, and he was chasing after me. Knowing that everything was an act didn't make me feel any safer, really. I ran harder, and faster, and screamed for help.
Nikki-chan, the plan that Karasu had drawn out was relatively simple. I was to leave the forest, followed by Akiba, screaming like any helpless girl chased after by a demon. Of course, the Priestess was nearby, so she would notice me. Obviously she would attack Akiba and rescue me, like any decent exorcist would. Well, the plan itself was simple, true, but the execution was hard. If I wanted to fool the Priestess, my acting needed to be as realistic as possible. To "help" me do that, Karasu told me he had ordered Akiba to attack me for real. Yeah, that meant Akiba was free to give me as many wounds as necessary without actually killing me. To tell you the truth, Nikki-chan, I didn't think Akiba would bat an eyelid if he ripped me apart. I couldn't have been more correct, really. The way Akiba, in his gigantic crow form, tried to grab me with his claws with his every dive, I believed he meant to send me to the grave, and Karasu's order be hanged. Had I not frantically tried to evade him, he would have.
With sweat drenching my face, blood surging in my veins, colorful sparks hurrying across my vision, and a terrible cramp crawling up my legs, not to count rocks and dirt blowing up all around me every five seconds or so, it was a wonder how I didn't fall and become minced meat beneath Akiba's claw. My heart was beating so fast it ached terribly in my chest; my throat hurt so much from shouting my voice grew weaker and weaker. Fortunately for me, the Priestess heard me, or perhaps saw me – I couldn't tell which – for she looked in my direction as she reached out her hand. Then she unleashed death.
A searing-bright column of liquid golden fire, thicker than any tree I had ever seen, soared forth from her hand. It only took a second for the spell to engulf the monstrosity that was Akiba in his true form. The gigantic demon crashed into the ground, where he thrashed and crowed out in pain as the flame consumed him alive. He started to change then. His feathers disappeared one by one, perhaps wilted by the heat, I couldn't say; his wings withdrew into his back as humans arms sprouted from his side. He grew smaller and smaller, too. In heartbeats, he reappeared as the man in samurai outfit with which he revealed himself to Kugimiya Karasu. Looking at Akiba, rolling on the ground just a few yards away, and hearing him screaming, I couldn't help but pity him.
I was turning around, intending to go toward the Priestess, when I heard her cry, "RUN, NOW!" at the same time that Akiba bellowed, "YOU DO NOT DESERVE TO LIVE!" The flame-wreathed figure of the demon towered over me from behind.
Frozen in fright and fazed by the scorching heat, I only stared wordlessly at Akiba, whose flesh was breaking apart from his body, trying to put him arms around me, undoubtedly wanting to take me along with him to the grave. He never succeeded – of course, if he did, I wouldn't be here writing to you, Nikki-chan – thanks to the Priestess. I never noticed it, but she already had her sword Sennen no Inori in hand, which she swung the way she would a whip. In the blink of an eye, the sword's blade extended soundlessly, overcame the distance, and pierced Akiba's heart, knocking him backwards.
You know ne, Nikki-chan, I was scared to death at that point. The Priestess's blade was dangerously close to the side of my face. Had she missed her target by a few inches, Sennen no Inori would have punched through my head. I could have died twice on the same day, you see. The knowledge was the last straw of a series of fatal moments and bad experiences I had undergone, which was too much for me to bear, so I crumbled into a heap on the ground and passed out.
Nikki-chan, everything in the world seemed to be against me at that point. Even after I was knocked out cold, I couldn't rest. A nightmare seized me and showed me the horrible sight of Kugimiya Karasu grabbing me by the throat, my feet dangling a few inches off the ground. The crow demon was laughing madly while tightening his grip and letting his knife-sharp fingernails cutting into my skin. "Remember, little kitsune-chan," he said. "Remember the price of failure." Nikki-chan, I don't know about how other people's dreams work, but when Karasu strangled me in mine, it hurt! Fortunately for me, I woke up before he managed to kill me. Yet, the pressure of his hand around my throat didn't fade, and it still hurt. Nikki-chan, my whole body was drenched with sweat at that time, and I was so busy gasping for breath that I never realized I wasn't alone until a cool, melodious voice spoke right next to me, "Are you alright?" I gave a start and screamed hearing that.
The Priestess, who once attempted to dissect me, was sitting in the seiza fashion next to the futon on which I sat, hands folded neatly on her laps, face a mask of unflappable serenity. The only thing that I didn't remember seeing on her the first time we met was the warm glow in her deep obsidian eyes, which made her more beautiful than ever. Nikki-chan, I think no man aside from the likes of Kugimiya Karasu could look at her and not want to pull her into his arms and kiss her. Small chance they can do that, though. If she's able to destroy a demon like Akiba seemingly without trying, she surely can crush any man who thinks he can have his ways with her.
"Are you alright?" the Priestess asked again.
"Uh, yes," I answered timidly. "Um, if I may ask, ane-san, who're you?" It was the first line of the script Kugimiya Karasu had taught me.
"Who… am… I?" she said, voice quiet, her eyebrows rising.
"I'm sorry, but do I know you?" I told her, and her face paled. Silence hung between us until it was broken by a man's voice coming from outside the room, "May I come in?"
"Please do, Shichou-san," the Priestess said, her eyes still fixed on my face. The shoji door slid aside, admitting a stocky man perhaps a few years into his forties, who donned a black kimono for men with a retractable paper fan stuck at the sash around his waist. Despite his fatherly appearance, he smiled as soon as he saw me, the very sight of him soured my stomach.
"How are you, ojou-chan?" the man, who should be the Mayor of Unomichi, said once he had settled down besides my futon.
"I'm okay, I guess," I said. "Sir, are you someone I should recognize, too?"
"Eh?" He blinked in evident surprise, then turned to look at the Priestess, who was too immersed in staring at me to notice. Her unrelenting gaze was most uncomfortable. "Why do you ask?" he told me finally.
"It's just that I've forgotten about many people," I muttered while thumping the side my head with my tiny fist. "I lost all my memory a year ago, when I fell on my head from the top of a stair, you see." The Priestess's beautiful eyes widened at the same time her lips compressed into a thin line, which I wasn't sure whether out of anger or shock. "This ane-san," I gestured my hand toward the raven-haired girl, "acted like I should know her, so I was wondering if you are as well."
"No, I'm not someone you know, ojou-chan," the Mayor said in a pleasant voice. "This is the first time we meet. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Sadamoto Shun'ichi, the Mayor of this wonderful town." He inclined his head slightly. "Pleased to meet you."
"I'm Amano Hikari," I bowed to him. "The pleasure's mine."
"Amano-san?" the Priestess asked suddenly. "Where do you live?"
"Um, in Kyoto, ane-san," I answered her while trying to avoid looking into her eyes. Nikki-chan, I have never been a good liar, which there's no way only two days of practice could change. So I wouldn't risk it.
"With your family?" the Priestess continued.
"No." I shook my head. "I lived there with my master and mistress. I'm a servant. So, do you know me after all, ane-san?" She froze suddenly, her face betraying as much emotion as a rock. Then she slowly shook her head.
"I am afraid I have mistaken you for someone else," the raven-haired girl answered coolly. Her voice was calm, expression gentle, but the sudden gleam in her obsidian eyes gave me the creeps.
"I see," I muttered.
"But a servant for a family in Kyoto, you said you were. I find that quite odd," the Priestess changed the topic. "What chanced your journey to such a faraway place like Hokkaido, Amano-san?"
"Ah, my master is a government official," I replied. "His superiors said that since they were building a new town in Hokkaido, they wanted him there to assume the Mayor's post. That's why our whole household moved here." I feigned a sudden start and asked in an anxious voice. "Where are they? Where is this place? Why am I here?" I cried, clutching my head with both of my hands, "Why don't I remember anything?"
"This is the second floor of the government's Colonization Office. You were chased to this town by a demon." the Mayor said. "And you collapsed, so we brought you here." He hesitated. "As to your master and mistress, I have bad news." The Priestess shot him a silencing look. He pretended that she didn't. "We found many broken carriages in the woods, and a lot of blood on the ground, but no sight of any humans or horses. We believe they have fallen victim to a demonic attack. May their souls rest in peace." He concluded in a commiserating voice.
"No! That can't be right!" I cried. "My poor master and mistress…. That's too cruel!"
"I'm sorry, ojou-chan," the Mayor sighed, "I'm afraid it's the truth. You perhaps are the only survivor."
"Danna-sama, Oku-sama…. Why did this have to happen to them? Kind people like them don't deserve this!" I said.
Dear Nikki-chan, I was just acting at first, trying to fake my grief in a way that could fool the Priestess… yet the more I elaborated on how blissful my fictitious life was, the more I was reminded of my own. The more I talked about my non-existent master and mistress, how they treated me like one of their children, the more I remembered my late mom and dad, and the more my eyes stung, my voice quivered, and my heart ached. In the end, I couldn't take it anymore, so I broke out crying for real. Both the Mayor and the Priestess were stunned, the latter quite angry with the former, both extremely uncomfortable. I soon forgot about them, though, as I buried my face in my hands and wept.
After a while, I couldn't tell how long, my grief subsided, and I was able to make myself stop crying. The raven-haired girl silently handed me a handkerchief, which I accepted with a nod of gratitude. When I dried my tears with the silky piece of cloth, elegantly sewn with a golden lily at one corner, I noticed a faint fragrance that didn't resemble that of any flower I knew. It smelled really nice, though.
"What're you going to do now, ojou-chan?" the Mayor said. "I mean with your master and mistress gone so…."
"Do you have to go there, Shichou-san?" the Priestess put in coolly; her eyes were obsidian augers boring at the stocky man. Face paled to the color of a blank sheet of paper, he clamped his mouth shut immediately. Nikki-chan, it was amazing, really, how she could intimidate a man at least twice her age, a government official at that.
"It's okay," I told the man in a tattered voice, "I... I think I'm going back to Kyoto. I hope I can find a new master there."
"It shall be difficult, Amano-san," the Priestess said. "Do you have money left?" She continued after a shake of my head, "The way from here to the nearest port is quite long and treacherous, as you have known. Worse, it would also mean that you will have to cross Sengimori Forest once more."
"Sengimori?" I asked curiously.
"The Forest of a Thousand Demons," the raven-haired girl answered smoothly. "Where you emerged from earlier this morning. I do not suppose you want to go in there ever again."
"No!" I frantically shook my head.
"Then would you consider staying here?" A smile lit up her dazzling face. She didn't look anything like the murderous exorcist who chased me into the forest, into Kugimiya Karasu's palm and his wretched scheme.
"You know a household that would take me in, ane-san?" I asked her while leaning slightly toward her, trying to appear hopeful. It looked like I succeeded, for the Priestess's smile broadened, and a faint color crept onto her cheeks.
"I am afraid I do not know any that needs a servant in this town," she said. "But I do know someone who is seeking a helper." Unbeknownst to the Priestess, the Mayor's lips curved upward in a satisfied smile. The man started to dry wash his hand in expectation, glee evident on his sweat-drenched face. He did have good cause to, of course, but I wished he wouldn't do that right next to the Priestess, though.
"Who is it?" I turned my attention back to the other girl.
"Myself. I manage a Shrine nearby, and am in desperate need for an assistant." She smiled again. "The pay is not as good as what you get from a distinguished household, of course, but at least food and shelter would be the last thing you need to worry about. So, would you consider my offer?"
Nikki-chan, you can only imagine how happy I was to finally hear that from the Priestess's mouth. After all, everything the Mayor and I said in this conversation was a calculated farce aimed at making her ask me to come to her Shrine. And yeah, Sadamoto Shun'ichi himself was Kugimiya Karasu's minion through and through. The Mayor was lying through his teeth when he claimed to have found broken carriages with blood sprayed all over them in the forest. I never had the chance to verify it but he should also be the one who informed the crow demon of what happened in the village the night I met the Priestess, of the fact that she would be coming to the Colonization Office on that day, and finally that the she had been walking around town asking people whether they would like to help her out at her Shrine. Kugimiya Karasu hadn't thought much of those pieces of information until he met me.
Nikki-chan, you must be thinking what Kugimiya Karasu hopes to achieve by sending me into the Priestess's Shrine. You know ne; the crow demon has an unquenchable thirst for power. Yeah, he really is, I tell you, although the Kugimiya is among the most powerful Clans of the Demon World, and Karasu himself stands higher than any in his own Clan except his father and his siblings. Karasu doesn't sit very well with that. He told me that his father, Kugimiya Ryuha, had been heading the Clan for almost a thousand years straight and refused to step down from power. The thing that upset Karasu the most was that even if Kugimiya Ryuha did, the throne would most likely fall into the hand of one of his numerous brothers or sisters. "Pop never approves my liking… ahem… other men," Karasu explained in a frustrated tone, "so there's no way in hell he'd let me succeed him." The man was determined to change that, so he planned ways to take his own father down. Ungrateful bastard of a son, isn't he?
This is where the Priestess comes into the picture. Nikki-chan, Karasu told me that in order to defeat Kugimiya Ryuha, he needed a powerful magical weapon, and that one of the most powerful of all was the sword Sennen no Inori, A Thousand Years of Prayers, in the Priestess's possession. Karasu wants it so very badly that he even dreams of it every night. One problem, he isn't strong enough to take it from the girl's hand. The Priestess's already as strong as him, maybe stronger, so with the aid of Sennen no Inori, she was way out his league. The knowledge infuriates him no end.
Of course, if brute force doesn't work, underhanded methods must be employed. Kugimiya Karasu decided to steal the sword, which happens to be the goshintai of the Priestess's Shrine. Another problem, even the most powerful demon in the world isn't capable of entering the Shrine, as it's protected by a Sacred Barrier so strong that a low-level demon can die just by standing next to it. Even Kugimiya Karasu wouldn't survive a direct contact with the thing. Such is the reason why the crow demon hasn't been able to snatch Sennen no Inori and launch himself at his father.
Nikki-chan, you've noticed why Karasu wants to use me, haven't you? Yeah, it's because I'm a half-breed whose dominating human trait renders any Ward or Barrier useless. I can get into the Shrine without any difficulty, and I can steal Sennen no Inori for him once I find out where it is. No, no, that's wrong, Nikki-chan, just picking a human to do his biddings won't work. You see, a human has many things to fear from a demon like Kugimiya Karasu, but none from an exorcist. There was no guarantee that the human, whomever the man chose, wouldn't betray him the moment they met the Priestess and revealed Karasu's scheme. It's a whole different story with me, for I had everything to fear from the Priestess. Humans treat our kind the same way they do full-blooded demons, you know. Any exorcist would skin me should they find out I'm a half-breed. Which, unfortunately, made me the perfect target for Kugimiya Karasu to bully. If I disobey him, I will die by either his hand or the Priestess's. The only way out is getting Karasu what he wanted, Sennen no Inori.
"You do not have to answer me immediately, Amano-san," the Priestess said, still smiling. From the painful experience of our first encounter, I never thought she was the type who liked to smile. I was wrong, obviously. "I can come back in three days and ask you again. Meanwhile, I believe I can find you lodging in the Izumi Inn across the street. Free of charge, of course. Since the inn keeper owes me a favor, she would be perfectly happy to accommodate you."
"No need, ane-san," I told her. "I agree." A broad smile split the girl's face into two.
"Are you quite sure? I would rather you think my offer through in a couple of days, perhaps after I have told you what I would require from an assistant," the Priestess advised. Nikki-chan, the girl wasn't telling the truth. The gleam in her obsidian eyes all but tell me she wanted me to ignore all she said and just answer yes. I did, and was stunned by the brilliant glow of joy that settled upon her already striking face. Nikki-chan, had you been there, I'm sure you would have thought that I had given her the Imperial Throne instead of a simple word. I never understood why until recently, though.
"Congratulation on finding a helper, Fuyuu-kun." The Mayor laughed a rich laughter, appearing infinitely relieved. Of course, failure in getting me employed by the Priestess would mean his death, which he couldn't possibly enjoy.
"Fuyuu? Is that your name, ane-san?"
"Ah, how very rude of me," the Priestess said ruefully. "We have been talking for so long yet I never introduce myself. I am called Fuyuu Kotonoha, Chief Priestess of Furisame Jinja."
Yeah, Nikki-chan, on that fateful day, I became Kotonoha's housemate and her personal assistant in the Shrine of the Falling Rain, where I'm living in now. You must be surprised, ne, how I've been speaking of her so fondly despite the fact that she almost killed me once, that I'm supposed to keep a distance from her and focus on stealing the goshintai of Furisame Jinja. Well, that's the story for another day. I'm really sorry, Nikki-chan, but I've got some urgent thing to do, which may take the rest of the evening, so I'll see you tomorrow. Jaa ne.