CHAPTER 05: A THOUSAND YEARS OF PRAYERS
Meiji Era twenty-fifth, fourth month, sixteenth day,
As I told you yesterday, I no longer slept in Koto-chan's room since that incident with the alcohol. Thanks to that, I spent every night of the last four months and sixteen days lying in solitude in my futon, staring at the dark ceiling, most of the times unable to sleep until it was past midnight. Well, unfortunate as it might seem, it did give me a chance to reflect on my situation without my girlfriend lying in my arm and tangling my wits. I do realize that things wouldn't stay this way forever, and that sooner or later, I would have to deal with Kugimiya Karasu who, after learning of Koto-chan's survival the day following her return to Furisame Jinja, repealed the last command he gave me and ordered me to steal Sennen no Inori – A Thousand Years of Prayers by whatever means I could think of.
Of course, there are only two paths I can take. It's either that I must find some way to kill the man to protect the secret of my identity… or tell Koto-chan the whole truth. The first one would lead to certain death; the crow demon was too powerful and too smart for a half-breed like me. The second… well… I can't say that it won't get me killed… but honestly, the fear of death would be the last thing I had on my mind.
As if sleeping on my own wasn't enough, other misfortunes just had to befall me. It started with a minor one, which happened in the third week into the second month after New Year, when my Koto-chan saw me washing the bloodstained handkerchief. She repeated the question she had asked on the very day of her return. Where, when, and how did I get the piece of cloth she lost in the ruined town of Kiyozumi. I never expected her to, so when she did, all I felt was panic and fright. I stared at her for a good five minutes before I managed to answer that Sadamoto Shun'ichi's spies had brought it back for me. My girlfriend didn't buy that, but for some reason she dropped the question and acted as though she never asked. Before I could heave a sigh of relief, a second question came. Why did I act so coldly toward after she performed the exorcism on little Nakayama Kohaku? This one I didn't find an answer for no matter how hard I searched.
Perhaps the raven-haired girl sensed my desperation to come up with something to tell her and my reluctance to tell the truth, for she told me in the end that I shouldn't worry about it anymore, that right then, she was only glad that I had confessed to her and made her the luckiest girl in the world. She never asked about it ever again… but it wounded me dearly to be reminded that I was, and am still keeping all sorts of secrets from the one girl I love. The better she treated me, the more she showed that she loved me, the worse I felt. Lately, before she went away on her trip that is, every kiss she gave me and every touch she made on my face hurt me the way a needle would.
The second misfortune that I suffered from came from no one but Kugimiya Karasu himself. It was just two weeks ago, actually, on the day following my Koto-chan's departure from Furisame Jinja to pick up an envoy of the Grand Shrine of Ise from the port at the southern end of the island. What did an envoy from Ise came here for, Nikki-chan? Oh, I'm sorry, I thought I already told you that. Guess I'll need to re-read what I had written from times to times.
Well, it's like this, Nikki-chan. Remember the Gingetsu no Kosen bow that used to be the goshintai of Kokuin Jinja? Yes, it's the same one which Koto-chan had brought along when she returned to the Shrine of the Falling Rain. I forgot to mention this to you, but as soon as she had time, she sent a message all the way to Ise to tell the Council of Priests there that someone had to take the thing away from Furisame before any demon learned that it was here. My girlfriend had explained to me why she did that. You see, Nikki-chan, with the addition of the Arc of the Silver Moon, Furisame possessed three exceedingly powerful objects in total. Who would say that the demons, who leveled Kokuin to the ground, wouldn't drool at such a large trove of treasure and decide that they wanted it? However strong the defense that the Sacred Barrier held up was, it still would crumble if the enemies tried had enough. "Sennen no Koe's powers is by no means limitless, and the Sacred Barrier indestructible, Hikari," Koto-chan had said in a grim voice. "Besides, the Barrier provides no protection against physical projectiles. The demon legion I saw in Kiyozumi that day had enough siege machines and firepower to crush us." If that were to happen, even all three goshintai together wouldn't be able to save us.
And so, that's why an envoy from the Grand Shrine of Ise had to come and get Gingetsu no Kosen the hell away from us, or Hokkaido would risk being turned into a sea of blood and corpses. As to why the envoy, whoever or however important he – yeah, Koto-chan told me it was a he – was, didn't come to Furisame to pick it up instead of making my girlfriend go all the way to the port to hand it over…. Well, you see, Nikki-chan, the plan was that the envoy must not stay in Hokkaido a second longer than necessary. His duty was to take the Arc of the Silver Moon and return to Ise the moment the Priestess handed him the goshintai. Remember, Nikki-chan, no one, demons and humans alike, must learn that the bow was going to the port.
The day after Koto-chan brought the Arc of the Silver Moon to the Ise envoy, the Mayor Sadamoto Shun'ichi asked her to come to the Colonization Office to discuss with her yet another governmental proposal concerning the Shrine. I went with her, of course, but he blocked the door to his office right after Koto-chan entered and refused to let me in. Then he said in a dead serious voice that what he got to say to my Koto-chan wasn't my business. I was about to argue with him when I suddenly realized that he had unfolded his paper fan to show me what was written on it. 'Come to Sengimori, kitsune-chan. My patience grows thin enough already.' I didn't have to be told to know that line was a summons from Kugimiya Karasu. I properly excused myself right away and hurried to the spot where the crow demon usually met me in the forest.
He wasn't pleased. The first thing he did was slapping me across the face so hard that my cheek became swollen immediately and blood trickled out of the corner of my mouth.
"Where's my sword, wench?" he roared. "Four months since her return, and I still haven't got what I need! Answer me! WHERE'S MY SWORD?"
"In the Inner Sanctuary," I said, staring at him insolently. That earned me another slap. My ears rang.
"THEN WHY THE HELL WAS IT STILL THERE?" His mouth was so close to my face that his second roar, delivered at the top of his lung, almost hurt my ears enough to bleed. Strangely though, no echoes were made inside the forest despite the amplitude of his voice. He must have warded the surrounding with some sort of spells so no one could overhear us unless they got past the warding, I suppose. Once they did… well… without a doubt Karasu would rip them to pieces.
"BECAUSE I CAN'T GET PAST THE DEFENSE!" I screamed back at him, my voice as loud and fierce, if not more. "HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I TOLD YOU THAT ALREADY?"
"Oh, really?" His hand moved so quickly all I saw was a blur before his fingers wrapped themselves around my throat. The tips of his fingernails, sharp as any razor, pricked against my skin short of drawing blood. His teeth, normally white and even, had suddenly borne a striking resemblance to those of a saw. With his then anger-twisted face, he looked every inch a monster. "Was it the defense that stopped you, or was it that you spent too much time making out with your lover to remember your duty in the first place?" He stilled my tongue with that one single word.
"What?" I managed, voice hoarse, throat suddenly dry.
"Don't play dumb with me, filthy half-breed," Karasu barked. "You think you can hide your little affair from me?" The gaze he fixed upon me was searing-hot, and his grip made his eyes seem cool. I but wondered if my neck was on fire. "One piece of advice, wench; Unlike Furisame or Unomichi, Kagemori Forest itself isn't warded. The ravens there are my spies. What they see, I see!"
Obscured as Karasu's words were, they managed to explain how he found out about Koto-chan and my relationship. His ravens, wherever they were stationed in the Shadow Forest, ought to have seen me giving my girlfriend a goodbye kiss on the lips when I saw her off under the Torii Archway, from where she departed to deliver the goshintai of Kokuin Jinja. It had to be that, for it was the only time I showed my affection to her outside of the safe haven protected by the closed doors of the Shrine of the Falling Rain.
In my head, I hurriedly searched for an answer that would help me disabuse Karasu of his assumption, however correct, that Koto-chan and I were more than just housemates, or employer and employee. It was a weakness of mine that I didn't want him to know I had. I couldn't even begin to imagine what he could do with it otherwise. I found one.
"She isn't my lover," I said deliberately. Thankfully, my voice didn't waver as much as I feared it would.
"Then why the hell did you act as if she was?" Karasu didn't buy it, and he showed his disbelief by tightening his fingers around my throat a little bit more. Although the man had made sure that his extremely sharp fingernails would not cut into my skin, the force he employed still managed to make colorful fireworks explode in my vision. "Well? Speak!"
"How… do… you…" I croaked, "expect me… to…." Only then did the crow demon let go of me and allowed me to gasp for breath. "Why did I act as if she were my lover?" I repeated Karasu's question and regarded him contemptuously. His face hardened, but he did nothing about it. "Because the sword will be easier to get that way, you idiot!" A light of comprehension dawned on the man's face. "You don't seriously think that I'm in love with her, do you?" I continued, feeling my heart clench at the words I spoke. "Me? In love with someone who will tear me apart if she learns that I'm a half-breed? I'm not that much of a fool! I repeat, Kugimiya Karasu, I don't love her. I'm only trying to use her to get you the sword and protect my own life!"
Nikki-chan, please don't think so badly of me. I only said those awful lies because I couldn't afford letting the crow demon know the truth. You know as well as I do how much I love my Koto-chan, don't you? At least no one else could have heard me, though, which gave me the confidence and courage.
"Is that so?" The demon sounded skeptical, but only slightly. My explanation seemed to have convinced him.
"That is so." I nodded.
"Very well," he said. "I don't care what you do, kiddo, as long as you bring me Sennen no Inori in the end. In fact, if I don't have it by the end of the week after next, I'm going to kill you." Malice shone in his dark eyes. "There has to be some other weapon in this country that's as powerful as Sennen no Inori and less of a hassle to get!" His words sent chills slithering down my spine. At that moment I knew that Karasu had grown sick of waiting and would carry out his threat even if he had to forfeit the chance of getting the sword. That made him even more dangerous than he already was. And that was a lot….
I came back to the Colonization Office that day, face so pale that Koto-chan asked me whether I was sick. I couldn't tell her that a demon had just scared the living daylight out of me, so I said yes, I wasn't feeling quite well. We returned to Furisame shortly after that.
Nikki-chan, that's the second piece of misfortune that befell me last month. The third, also the final one, happened ten days ago, two days before Koto-chan's departure to the other side of the island. Early that morning, Koto-chan said that she was going to go to the portion of Kagemori Forest that lay north of Furisame to look for some herbs. She said that it was rather dangerous there so she was going to go alone. Of course, I would never be willing to stay home and suffer from boredom and the lack of her presence by my side, so I tried talking her into letting me tag along. She was against such an idea since the beginning, but I managed to persuade her in the end.
Out little journey into northern Kagemori Forest, at the foothill of Asahi mountain, started out quite fine, actually. As we treaded under the trees on the hills behind Furisame Jinja, we could see the roofs of the buildings in the Shrine. When we climbed even higher, I was able to take in the full view of the Shrine of the Falling Rain from above. Only then did I start to notice something strange.
"What is it, Hikari?" My girlfriend asked when she saw that I had stopped walking.
"What are those, Koto-chan?" I pointed at the shining objects that reigned atop the roofs of the Inner Sanctuary, the Hall of Offerings, the Hall of Sacred Dance, the Hall of Worship, the Purification Font, the Main Gate, and the Torii Archway. Under the glorious sunlight, the objects gleamed as brightly as any mirror would.
"The second set of Seinaru Suishou," the raven-haired girl said with a smile. "I never told you about them before?"
I shook my head. "I thought there was only one set of Sacred Crystals"
"There are two," Koto-chan explained. "The first one is in Unomichi, stored on the highest roofs of the town. Those Crystals were designed specifically to detect demonic presence, as you already know. The second set, ours, however, acts as a power source."
"A power source?" I asked curiously.
"Yes." She nodded. "A power source for Sennen no Koe itself. You see, the seven Crystals in Furisame, arranged in the shape of Hokuto Shichisei the Northern Stars, are capable of absorbing the ambient powers of nature around us, like the sun, the moon, the trees, the earth, which will be fed to Sennen no Koe to create the Sacred Barrier. Without Seinaru Suishou, the Shrine would have been wide open to demonic attacks."
"I see," I said in amazement.
We resumed our hiking trip. As we went deeper and deeper into the Forest of Shadows, the trees grew thicker, the light dimmer, and the roads more treacherous. Knowing that a wrong step could land me into some unseen cliff and crack my head open on some rock, I stuck to my girlfriend and walked hand in hand with her all the time. Koto-chan, of course, would hold my hand tightly and smiled at me once in a while in both fondness and exasperation. I could even read "Told you that you should not come, did I not?" written across her face. I only chuckled in return.
We came to a halt upon encountering a cliff that towered at least thirty feet or so above our heads. Trees surrounded us, the highest of them reached even higher than the cliff itself and knitted their branches with those of the trees on top of the cliff into a thick blanket that allowed little light through the rare openings. I caught myself wishing that I had brought some lanterns along.
"The herbs are up there?" I asked.
She nodded and said, "It is a rare type of plants the flowers of which only bloom once a year, around this time. Their petals, surprisingly, contain substances that are quite helpful in curing severe sickness. It is a pity that such flowers are only available in this particular section of Kagemori Forest, into where no doctors have enough courage or climbing skills to venture."
"Is that why they asked you to collect the flowers for them instead?" I said, and she nodded again.
"Stay here and do not go anywhere, Hikari," she said and laid a hand gently on my shoulder. "I will be back in a moment."
"Be careful, Koto-chan," I murmured into her ear as I gave her a quick hug.
"You also," she whispered back before she left my arms and leapt off the ground. In an instant, her slender frame vanished above the top of the cliff.
Not long after my girlfriend's departure, disaster decided to strike.
I knew I was in great peril when a dozen of the trees around me uprooted themselves from the ground and transformed into some hideous figures that had large branches for arms and a multitude of strong roots for legs. The tips of the branches, noticeably, resembled prickly spears. They turned my bowel into water. I could guess what they were. My dad, the mighty Nine Tail Shirazuki Rin once mentioned when he was alive that sometimes, the denizens of nature gained enough powers from their surrounding to become sentient beings. Sometimes, they ended up as benevolent spirits… sometimes… demons.
I screamed, "KOTO-CHAN!" No sooner had the words left my mouth than the leaves on those trees left the branches and shot at me like darts from a blowing tube. Although I knew they were just leaves, I didn't want to take foolish chances, so I hurled myself out of the way to evade them. When I looked back at where I had stood, I was glad that I had chosen to move. Nikki-chan, all those leaves, flimsy as they might seem, were so sharp and driven with a force so great that they ended up being buried halfway into the soft ground. Had I been struck by one of those, I am sure it would have punched right through my body. Worse, when the trees, alive as any person, trampled on those leaves with their roots, the leaves shattered like glass. Liquid terror coursed in my veins.
The onslaught continued, and I had to work every muscle in my legs to run as fast as I could. Of course, I kept screaming my girlfriend's name at the top of my lung, hoping she could come back and save me. Yet, as my throat began to hurt, my voice became hoarse, the raven-haired girl was nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, the leaves kept making terrifying piercing and punching sounds right behind me, telling me that had I run a little bit more slowly, I would have become a pin cushion. Fear and desperation welled in my heart. I tried to run even faster.
I wasn't fast enough.
A leaf struck my left leg from behind the same moment another parted the flesh of my left arm. Screaming, I fell down flat on my stomach. Slowly, blood soaked the clothes I was wearing red while the wounds on my arm and leg throbbed and continuously sent waves of nerve-racking pain across my body. It hurt so much that I couldn't help but let out full-throated cries as hot tears washed down my cheeks. I couldn't force myself to stop doing that even when I realized that all the man-shaped trees had gathered around me, not leaving enough space between them for me to escape. Their branches, covered with green, seemingly harmless leaves, reached out and laced together to form a light-proofed layer five or six feet above my body. Darkness engulfed me. Thinking to myself that I was about to be killed, I screamed one last time for the name of the one I love, "SAVE ME, KOTO-CHAN!"
As if it was a true summoning, flame burst from the blanket that was woven with branches and leaves. Shrieks, high-pitched and loud, rose from the lipless, moving trees as they broke apart and ran in every direction, most likely trying to extinguish the fire. Soon, they vanished among the inanimate trees of Kagemori Forest. From above, like a messenger of the Gods, Koto-chan descended, her right hand bearing A Thousand Years of Prayers, her left holding a golden flame that burned as brilliantly as the midday sun. Yet, her expression then wasn't the mask of icy serenity and determination that she usually wore when she entered a battle. Grief and worries were all I could see on her beautiful face.
"You are hurt," she said as she got down on one knee next to where I was. The flame in her hand were blown out, Sennen no Inori un-summoned, as she gently took me into her embrace, where I pressed my face against her tender bosom and wept as hard as I could.
"I was so scared, Koto-chan…" I cried. "Koto-chan!"
Droplets of hot water landed on my face. It was tears. The raven-haired girl, too, was crying.
"I am sorry… Hikari…" she managed between the sobs. "I am sorry… I left you there by yourself… It is my fault… those things attacked you…. I am sorry…."
She hugged me tightly and continued to cry her heart out, her voice full of pain. She wept so hard that I ended up having to sooth her and ease her crying as though she were the one who got hurt. Once I succeeded, she carried me in her arms back to Furisame Jinja, where she invoked every ounce of her healing powers to mend the wounds those demon-blasted trees had inflicted on my arm and leg. By the end of the day, not even a scratch was left on my skin. Yet, Koto-chan only appeared more depressed than ever. When I asked her why, she only responded that she was the reason that I was hurt, that she should never have taken me along in the first place. Even during the following day, one day before her departure, she sat motionlessly in her room and refused to talk or even eat. She scared the heck out of me. That very night, I tried to devise ways that could cheer her up and bring back the whole-hearted laughter I always love. To my dismay, she departed hastily the following morning without informing me of the date when she might come back.
That was also the day I first started writing to you, dear Nikki-chan. So there you have it, my entire life story in a nutshell. I'm very glad I had a chance to tell someone about myself, for all of these secrets have been weighing down in my heart for a long time, waiting to get out. So thank you, my dear Diary, for listening to me patiently for the last week. I will be grateful to you forever.
Nikki-chan, it's time for me to go again. I will see you tomorrow, ne.
I close the diary, put down the brush, then do a stretch of my arms and back, my mouth open wide to let out a quiet yawn. After rising to my feet, I open the window of my room and peer at the rain, which has been falling from the heavily clouded heavens for… what… a few days now? It can't have been more than several hours since I woke up – living with Koto-chan gave me the habit of rising at the first light of dawn – but the darkness hanging from the sky gives me the impression that it's still midnight. In the dim light provided by the stone lanterns scattered about the Shrine's sacred vicinity, I look at the trees beyond the low wall and see them tremble in the cold, howling wind that brought a slew of raindrops into my room earlier when I opened the window and carelessly left it that way. Sighing, I close the window. Of course, I dread the thought of going out in such a terrible weather… but what can I do?
I proceed to do what I have been doing for the last four days: slipping into two more layers of warm clothes, carefully putting the things I need into a large sheet of water-resistant paper then wrap it up in a piece of cotton cloth, fetching a lantern and an umbrella, blow out the candle on my table, and finally leave Furisame Jinja after locking the Main Gates. One very strange thing, though, I have the feeling that I'm forgetting about something very important… but I can't remember what.
Under my umbrella, which is constantly pummeled by the rain, within the pool of light my flimsy lantern created, I tread the roads of the Forest of Shadows. Another person would never have done something like this, they may even call crossing Kagemori in darkness and under the rain suicidal, but to me, it's nothing more than a pleasant walk. After all… I have become too familiar with this Forest to be intimidated. After all… with this ever growing feeling of happiness inside my heart, no darkness, however thick, and no rain, however heavy, can dampen my spirit. As the trees ahead give way to the sight of the Northern Gate, I smile quietly to myself and walk faster.
A short walk brings me to the Izumi Inn, at the counter of which the innkeeper, a middle-aged plump lady named Hayase Keiko, greets me with a warm smile on her stout lips, "Good morning, child." Her nose is too big and her eyes too far apart for her to be called pretty but everyone knows for a fact that it's Keiko-san's hospitality and friendliness that make her one of the most popular people in this town.
"Hello, Hayase-san," I say with a bow, which deepens the smile of the innkeeper. The woman, strangely agile despite her plumpness, steps out from behind the counter and helps me take care of the umbrella and lantern in my hands. Then she grabs a towel from a serving girl nearby and uses it to dry the water on my hair and face. I simply smile and let her do as she wishes. She once said that she liked taking care of the young girls who chanced upon her inn, for they always reminded her of her deceased daughter.
"I don't see why you insist on going back and forth between Izumi and Furisame Jinja in this dreadful weather, child," the kind-faced woman muttered. "Had you all but asked, I would have given you a room here, free of charge!"
I laughed softly and said, "Perhaps I'm the type that likes to suffer, Hayase-san?"
"I'm not kidding." Hayase Keiko watched me sternly. "What if you get sick? Who will care for you?"
"Well, I'll cross that bridge when I cross it," I say. "Anyways, is she upstairs?"
The large innkeeper nods impatiently and frowns at my attempt to change the topic. Still, she lets it slide. "She came down a few times and waited for you. I think she's worried."
"Oh, I see," I say hurriedly, knowing full well that the motherly woman's going to come back to lecturing me about how I shouldn't go out in this kind of wretched weather. "I better go to her quickly. See you later, Keiko-san." Without getting an assent from the innkeeper, I walk to the stairway and begin to climb it while sighing deeply. I'm quite sure that later, when it's time for me to leave, Hayase Keiko'll try to corner me and coerce me into staying in her inn again. She just doesn't get it no matter how hard I tried to explain to her that there are things that need my attention in the Jinja.
"Hikari," the low, throaty voice of Cathy Hawthorne says. The lanky, gray-haired sixty-five-year-old lady, in a fitting blue dress and gray shawl, is standing at the top of the stair, looking down at me with a gentle smile that lights up her wrinkle-creased face. "You've come," she says. The words sound awkward in her accented tongue, yet the affection radiating from them is unmistakable. If I had a grandmother, I'm sure she would talk to me in the very same way.
"Hello, Cathy-san." I return her smile. I have never been able to pronounce her name correctly, though. The closest I can get to is something like Kaashi. Of course, learning how to say her family name correctly is out of the question. I know I can't.
Cathy Hawthorne, a historian and linguist who came all the way from a distant land called America, was someone who visited Furisame Jinja four days ago. The elderly lady, strangely fluent in Japanese despite her alien accent, told me that she had been living in Japan for almost thirteen years now, and that she considered the country her second homeland because of her love for the people, the culture, and the language. The day I met her was also the day she arrived at Unomichi after a long journey from the nearest seaport, but since she had a deep fondness for Shinto Shrines, she decided to come to Furisame shortly right after dropping her luggage at the Izumi Inn. I was impressed, for I never thought that such an elderly person could cross Kagemori with just a map… and under the dripping rain.
Our first conversation in Furisame Jinja began with me telling her about the Shrine's history – which I heard from my beloved Koto-chan – but somehow, I ended up listening and marveling in silent wonder at all the oddities she encountered during her journey across Japan. If I had been impressed when I learned that she disregarded the rain and the treacherous Kagemori Forest to come to Furisame, I was twice so by the end of the conversation, when she unknowingly proved to me that she knew much more about my land than I did. Maybe more than Koto-chan did as well, but I can hardly be sure unless I get them together and let them talk.
As Cathy Hawthorne prepared to cross the Forest of Shadows again to return to Unomichi, as I saw her off at the Main Gates, I noticed something she wore around her neck. It was a gray piece of cloth, about a hand in width but ten times as much in length. When I asked her, Cathy replied that it was something the Westerners called a scarf, a piece of textile they wore in winters to keep their necks warm. She even lent the scarf to me to put it on my own neck for a while. I liked it a lot, for I thought that the feel of the material – she said it was made from sheep wool – was very nice, as was how it looked. Cathy ended up staying for another hour in the Shrine, telling me how one used a technique called hand-knitting to make a scarf. Seeing how much I was interested, Cathy offered to teach me hand-knitting if I was willing to try. I agreed without a second thought. As I accompanied Cathy Hawthorne back to Unomichi, the only thing I had in my mind was if Koto-chan would like the scarf I was going to knit for her.
Every day after that, I would come to the Izumi Inn in Unomichi and learn how to deal with knitting needles and yarn. I was very clumsy at first, of course; had the tip of the needles been prickly, I would have nicked myself bloody numerous times on the very first session. Thankfully, though, I grew familiar with them and gradually decreased the frequency of mistakes. I started to enjoy it, partly because it was a fun thing to do, partly because of the possibility that I was going to make Koto-chan smile once I gave the finished scarf to her as a present when she came back.
"Come in, child, come in," Cathy urges, her wiry hand gesturing toward her room. "Why, you must be freezing."
Respectfully replying to her that I'm not, thanks to the warm clothes I'm wearing, I follow her into her room, a moderately large rectangular space that is filled with piles and piles of books placed along the walls and concentrated in the corners. In my first visit, Cathy Hawthorne honestly professed that those books – an impressive portion of which comprised of her own written notes – were her life, her devotion to the history of the world, and her greatest treasure. I don't doubt for one second that, Heaven forbid, should the Izumi Inn fall victim to arson or some kind of accidental fire, Cathy will disregard her own safety and try to save the books.
"Although I do wish to see you everyday and learn more about your fascinating Shrine," the historian speaks in her strange accent once we have settled comfortably on the tatami mat, around the low table, "I would say that you have no reason to continue knitting here, child. You are a quick learner and a very deft hand in knitting; you can finish making the scarf at your place even without my guidance." She glances at the piece of textile that I'm taking out of my carefully wrapped bundle. "Besides, it is almost done! Why, it will only take you at most two or three hours, I bet!"
"I just want to be sure, Cathy-san," I tell her, my hands meanwhile putting the balls of yarn and knitting needles on the table. "If I work on it alone, I'll try to get it done as soon as I can and end up making mistakes."
"Then perhaps you should take it more slowly?" the elderly lady suggests. "It pains me, Hikari, to see you having to endure the rain and the danger of that forest to come here everyday."
"I can't afford slowing down, Cathy-san." I shake my head as I start working on the scarf. "I want to give it to Koto-chan as soon as she comes back to the Shrine." During the previous knitting session I had with Cathy Hawthorne, the linguist sometimes asked questions about Fuyuu Kotonoha, whom the townsfolk seemed to hold in great respect. Cathy wished to know if the Chief Priestess of Furisame Jinja was actually capable of bringing back a man from the verge of death, expelling demons, or any other miraculous thing of the sort. Of course, I took advantage of the opportunities to gush about my lovely housemate. Cathy Hawthorne, strangely enough, listened to me so attentively anyone could have thought I was speaking words of great wisdom.
"In having someone like you for a lover, your Koto-chan is very fortunate indeed," Cathy comments casually, and I drop the long, blunt needles in my hands. The historian, on the other hand, merely studies me with a small smile on her lips while I stare at her in shock.
"She… she isn't my…" I say hastily but stop at a raised hand from the gray-haired linguist.
"Oh no need to deny it, child." Cathy Hawthorne laughs. "Unlike some of the people in your land, I have no objection to a girl choosing another girl for her romantic interest. After all, who am I to meddle in others' love life?"
"How did you know? And when?" I ask quietly, my face warming up.
"Well, I started to suspect it in our first session." The historian smiles in amusement as I give a small squeak. First Kugimiya Karasu, now Cathy Hawthorne.... I can't help but wonder if the whole town also knows of this. "As to how…. You probably never know, Hikari, but whenever you talked about your housemate," Cathy pauses to make some weird movements that include raising both of her hands and bending her fore and middle fingers inwards, "you always smiled and you always blushed. Besides, it is not as though I had never seen a girl in love before." She winks.
Thankfully, the historian pursues no further on the subject, so I'm able to return to working on the scarf, despite the fact that my face feels like a burning furnace. Eventually, the heat subsides and the embarrassment fades, allowing me full concentration upon wielding the knitting needles in my hands. Immersed in what I'm doing and the happiness that fills my heart, I lose the grip on time. When Hayase Keiko the Inn Keeper enters – bringing along a tray of upon which lay a tea kettle, two cups, and a dishful of sweet snacks – the small clock on the table is about to strike six in the afternoon.
Politely declining tea offered by the occupant of the room, I once again busy myself with the needles and the scarf, which is growing longer and longer. A while later, perhaps one hour or two, I'm not quite sure, I look up once again, this time in joy, to announce to Cathy that the scarf has been completed.
"Very good!" the linguist exclaims as she examines the fruit of my labor. "You truly have a talent for this, child! Why, I have never seen someone do this well the very first time! And it has only been five days!" I beam proudly at her, my cheeks growing somewhat hot from the compliments. I guess staying over here and knitting under Cathy's supervision for at least eight or nine hours straight during the last five days makes a difference, after all.
"Thanks, Cathy-san," I give Cathy Hawthorne a bow from where I sit. "Without you, I would never have been able to do it."
"You are most welcome, Hikari." The historian smiles fondly at me, hand ruffling my head.
I want to go back to the Shrine right away, of course, but when I try to leave, both Cathy and the Hayase Keiko insist that I stay for dinner. I have no reason to decline – besides, I'm rather hungry as I've had nothing to eat since lunch in Furisame Jinja – so I accompany them to the common dining room, where a feast has already been prepared for the three of us. While I am eating, I can't help but notice that the gray-haired historian and the Innkeeper are looking at me with an identical expression of fondness and exasperation on their faces. Once in a while, one of the two glances at the open window and stares into the night, where the dripping rain is slowing down toward a halt. When the serving girls come to take the trays away, the last raindrop has fallen long since, the clouds upon the heavens have cleared for the first time in days, and the full moon has emerged. The ocean of sparkling stars that attends the silver disc of light makes this evening sky over the roofs of Unomichi one of the most beautiful scenery I have seen in my life.
As usual, Hayase Keiko sends her niece, a freckled young woman in her mid twenties named Rie to take me home. The Innkeeper once confided in me that she would have sent a man instead had there been some ways of making sure that he wouldn't try anything funny with me while in the wood. I only smiled at her and said nothing. Given my experience with men, I wouldn't trust them, either.
Once Rie and I have crossed Kagemori and reached the Torii Archway, the young woman turns back without sparing me a glance. Well, she declared to my face that she hated me the very first time she escorted me back to Furisame under her aunt's order. Well… I know that, too, but way before she told me. Hayase Rie, like Yamazaki Shizuka, was also one who harbored a deep crush on Fuyuu Kotonoha the Priestess. She confessed to Koto-chan a few weeks after New Year, I believe, and was turned down with the excuse that the raven-haired girl already had a girlfriend. It never sits well with Hayase Rie that the girlfriend in question is me, not her.
I offer a slight bow of gratitude, however, toward her retreating figure and proceed to walk under the Torii Archway toward the Main Gate of Furisame Jinja, where I find myself dumbstruck. The two slabs of wood have swung open, leaving a large opening that leads directly into the precinct of the Shrine. Since I did lock them before I left for the Izumi Inn, this can only mean that the Main Gates were opened by someone who had a copy of the key I possessed. There is but one person in this whole world who has it…. Koto-chan…. She has returned!
Heart brimming with hope and joy, I let go of the umbrella and the lantern in my hand and hurry inside, toward the Residential Area the rooms of which, as I notice, are lit. The silvery moonlight around me seems to glow more brightly with every step I make on the wooden verandah. Yet, the world stops turning in my mind the very moment I arrive at the door to my room and catch a glimpse of Koto-chan sitting inside, upon the tatami mat. She's as stunning as ever in her Priestess robe… yet what makes me stop dead in my track isn't her beauty… but the sight of the book that is in her hand. It's my diary, which contains all my secrets. Now I remember what I forgot to do before leaving Furisame Jinja… hiding the thing in a safe place like I usually did.
The raven-haired girl rises to her feet… and the whole world seems to be flickering like a candle flame in my eyes.
Judging by Koto-chan's face, which betrays no emotion, and the sword Sennen no Inori, which appears in her hand the moment it lets go of the diary, there's no doubt she has read it. Yet, somehow… the knowledge that the one I love has learned of what I wish to keep hidden saddens me much more than the fact that she's going to kill me.
"Would you be willing to wait for a few moments, Koto-chan?" I ask quietly. Neither of us has moved a step, and she's about five or six feet away from me. My voice's strangely calm, inhumanly so in such a situation I would say, and my head quite empty. I used to think that I would freak out once Koto-chan learned the truth, that I would desperately beg her to forgive me, and that I would cry my eyes out until she cut my throat. I was wrong. Right now, I only feel sad that I'm not going to be able to spend more time by the side of the one I so dearly love. I but wonder if it's the guilt that makes it easier for me to accept my fate or if it's the hopelessness of the whole situation…. Maybe both….
Silence answers me.
"It won't take too long," I plead. "And I promise I won't try to run away." Even if I do wish to, there's simply no way in hell I can make my escape. Not from her.
She nods, very grudgingly I'll say, but she does nod.
"Would it be okay if I… step into the room?"
She nods again.
I go inside and sit down in front of the table, ignoring the diary that's lying on the floor, next to my feet. There I untie the knot that keeps my bundle hanging over my shoulder and on my back. Silently, I unwrap it, take out the finished scarf, and stand up to face the one I love, the one by whose hands I'm going to die. That thought, most disturbingly, comes quite naturally to me now. It's as if I were thinking about what to eat for the evening, or how I want to spend the following day….
"I'm glad I chose the color red," I murmur while tying the scarf around her neck. "It does look good on you." I take a step back and look at her from head to toe. "I wonder if it's fate…. I would have regretted it very much had you come back before I finished knitting it." I give her a small smile that's not returned. It has indeed been a very long time since I last saw this icily calm expression on her face like this. Can't say I miss it, though.
"What… is this…?" the raven-haired girl speaks, which slightly takes me aback.
"The foreigners call it a scarf, Koto-chan," I smile sadly as I step backward. I stop when we're about seven feet apart. There should be enough space for her to wield her sword now…. "It's meant to keep your neck warm in winter."
As if Koto-chan could tell what I'm thinking – well, I think she can read my mind sometimes – she slightly shifts her stance and raises her sword over her shoulder with both of her hands; her icy gaze and Sennen no Inori's prickly tip aiming straight ahead. I heave a long sigh. I would have liked to embrace her one last time…. I would have loved to give her one final kiss…. But I guess it's pointless to do that now. Closing my eyes, I wait for the death that will reunite me with mom and dad.
Several minutes pass in dead silence before I open my eyes and become dumbstruck. Koto-chan hasn't moved an inch. She's still standing there, in the same stance… but her countenance is no longer so icy it makes ice seem hot. My heart throbs as I realize what it is that is painted on her face…. Pain and grief. Why does she look that way when a moment ago she appeared to be in a hurry to snuff out the fire of my existence? And why do her hands, tightly wrapped around the hilt of the sword that has taken countless demons' lives, tremble so?
All of a sudden, Koto-chan turns Sennen no Inori in her hands and plunges half the sword's blade into the tatami mat, mouth letting out a scream that's full of heartbreak and despair. The raven-haired girl then sinks to her knees and looks bleakly at the opening to my room.
"Koto-chan… why…?" I mumble in disbelief, my feet instinctively stepping forward, my hands reaching for the one I love. Yet, one step is all I can manage, for before I can take the second, a fierce gust of wind blows in from the opening of my room and hits me on my side the same way a carriage driven by four horses would. My unharmed side, ironically, slams against the wall as a result. It hurts so much that all I can do is letting out a wordless scream before I fall flat on my stomach and lay there while feeling the pain ravage my body.
"Hikari!" I hear Koto-chan's scream and her hurried approaching footsteps. However, those sounds cease altogether when a woman's voice speaks sternly and coldly, "You shall not touch the filth, Kotonoha."
Struggling to get back on my feet, I catch the sight of the stranger standing at my door. It's a middle-aged woman whose abnormally tall frame – at least fix feet in height – is clad in a Priestess outfit like Koto-chan's, only much finer and richer in texture. She possesses an imposing presence, mostly contributed by her stony face, which brims with authority and power. Fuyuu Kotonoha on her best day would never be able to match that.
Speaking of whom, Koto-chan's kneeling meekly at the older woman's feet as though a servant waiting for a command from her master. My eyes widen in shock. There's probably one and only one person in this world who can do this to the raven-haired girl. The woman has to be Hiiragi Mikazuki, High Priestess of the Ise Grand Shrine!
"Why did you not obey my order and kill the abomination, child?" Her mouth twists around the word in distaste. "Why?" She glances at the raven-haired girl, whose eyes are downcast, whose lips are thinned into a straight line, and whose clenched hands are quivering on her laps. She makes no attempt to answer the question, though.
Something in the woman's words strikes me.
"You ordered her to kill me?" I say, confused. I thought that Koto-chan wanted to do that on her own volition….
"Be quiet, repulsive creature!" The glance the High Priestess throws my way speaks volumes of her hatred. It seems pointed enough to punch holes through my body, too. Strangely enough, I don't feel a scrap of fear while confronting a woman that can possibly wring my neck without breaking a drop of sweat. What I do feel, however, is anger, unspeakable anger hotter than lava and fiercer than any wave of an ocean under a storming sky.
"Who are you to call me names?" I demand heatedly. Perhaps startled by my raised voice, Koto-chan looks up at me, her obsidian eyes begging me to stand down and stop trying to provoke her Master. The woman, meanwhile, narrows her eyes dangerously and opens her mouth as if to speak. I don't give her any chance. "Who are you to meddle between Koto-chan and my relationship? Telling her to kill me? WHAT RIGHT DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE?" The last sentence comes out as a snarl and makes the woman's face harden enough to crack rocks.
"It has been a while since I last saw a half-breed with so much backbone," Hiiragi Mikazuki says contemptuously. "Very well. For that alone, you will have to suffer much pain before I grant you death."
With inhuman speed, the High Priestess glides toward me. I don't have even a second to try to evade before I feel her steely grip on my face. She immediately casts a spell on me, I guess, for all of a sudden, I can't move a muscle in my body.
"So, little half-breed, here is the plan. I will first break your every bone, boil your blood, then reduce your internal organs to ashes. If you still survive by the end – unlikely, that – I will crush your head, the woman speaks with a tone suitable for discussing business.
"NO!" Koto-chan cries somewhere in the background. I can't see her, for my captor's large figure all but blocks my view. Still, the High Priestess pays her disciple no heed. All of her attention is placed upon me, her eyes locked with mine.
"And you call yourself a Priestess?" I laugh softly and say in an accusing tone. "You're no different from a demon. Why, you're just as cruel as they are!"
Hiiragi Mikazuki blinks, surprise evident on her hateful face. She cloaks herself with icy serenity a heartbeat later, though. I but wonder if all Ise Priestesses have to learn that.
"How dare you bandy words with me, garbage?" Her grip tightens around my head. "You who corrupted my disciple! You who made her challenge my will!" Her eyes are glowing with an intense light that dwarfs that of the candle on the table. They give me the feeling that I'm confronting a predator thirsting for blood, not a human reigning at the top of society. They disgust me no end. "I shall not bother with torturing you. No, I will do something worse. I will destroy you, both body and soul! You will never again be reborn into this world!" Heat begins to radiate from her palm. For the second time in the evening, I prepare to embrace death.
Death never comes. The heat from the hateful woman – I think I like the way Kugimiya Karasu called her an old hag – fades at the same instant winds rise in the room and snuff out the frail candle flame. Yet, the illumination only grows stronger. I can tell where the white light, cold and brilliant, comes from. I've seen it too many times to not know…. Koto-chan, unbelievable as it may seem, has invoked the powers of A Thousand Years of Prayers, Sennen no Inori. And I don't think she did it because she wished to help her mentor carry out the execution.
"What is this supposed to mean, Kotonoha?" Hiiragi Mikazuki's voice is clear even amidst the fierce howling of the winds. Her hand still on my head and sustaining whatever spell she cast on my body, the old hag turns around and fixes her ominous gaze at my beloved Koto-chan, who's clutching the goshintai of Furisame in her trembling hands. Somehow… the raven-haired girl's face is even paler than the white shaft of light that is the sword. "Why are you brandishing the Sword of Storms in my presence?"
"Hiiragi-sama, I beg of you," Koto-chan says pleadingly. "Let her go." My eyes try to jump out of their sockets.
"And if I do not?" comes the quiet reply. "Will you slay me?"
"No." The nineteen-year-old girl shakes her head. "You are the one who saved my life, who brought me up, and taught me the ways of powers. I will never harm you." Her obsidian eyes become aglow as she turns Sennen no Inori and puts its edge against her throat. "But if you kill Hikari, I will not linger in this world." The old hag's hand quivers.
"Why?" Hiiragi demands. "First you refused to kill this wench, now you tell me that you want to die with her? WHY?"
"Because I love her," Koto-chan replies, tears streaking down her cheeks.
"No you do not!" I don't think the old hag's aware of it… but she's raising her voice. Her last word comes out as something very close to a shriek. "How many times more must I tell you that? The one you love is the true Amano Hikari, not this imposter!"
The raven-haired girl opens her mouth as if to protest but her mentor cuts her short. "I believe this pretty face has been confusing you for far too long," she says, voice decidedly unpleasant. "Very well." The old hag fixes her attention upon me once again… and I feel as though I've been tossed into a roaring furnace.
The same pain which rendered me unconscious during the time Karasu changed my face return… only that this time I don't have the luxury of being able to pass out. Perhaps the High Priestess's working a different kind of spell, or perhaps she deliberately keeps me conscious with her powers so that I have to experience the full force of agony… I don't really know. What I do, is that it hurts a whole lot. The bones in my face appear to be moving, my nose melting, and my throat burning. I scream… in my true voice, which Kugimiya Karasu replaced with that of Amano Hikari.
"STOP HURTING HER, PLEASE!" Koto-chan's voice cries out in pain and desperation.
Then as unexpectedly as it has arrived, the pain departs, leaving in me a vague sense of what has just happened.
"Now see for yourself!" Hiiragi Mikazuki says. There's no mirror in front of me to check, but I know for sure that the High Priestess has managed to undo whatever change the crow demon Kugimiya Karasu wrought upon me. There's no doubt that I've been reverted to my true appearance, what I was born with. I weep faintly. What will Koto-chan think of me now? What if what the woman said about her loving only the face I wore is the truth?
Tears flow down my cheeks as I close my eyes, refusing to look at the one I love. If there is some way to block sounds from coming into my ears, I will do it.
"It does not change anything, Hiiragi-sama." My eyes spring open at the raven-haired girl's soft but unwavering answer. My captor looks just as shocked. "Please, let her go!" For emphasis, she makes a shallow cut on her neck with Sennen no Inori. Blood trickles down the sword's blade as a result and seeps into her white Priestess robe. I feel like it was me who had been wounded.
Silence hangs in the air for the next ten minutes or so. After that, Hiiragi Mikazuki does what her disciple asked of her and removes her large hand from my head. I'm about to heave a sigh of relief when I realize that Koto-chan hasn't put the sword away. At her throat the edge of Sennen no Inori remains, and its bearer's eyeing the High Priestess with great apprehension. The reason dawns on me.
"I give you my word that I will not harm this abomination. Now drop the sword!" the old hag commands exasperatedly. Only then does the raven-haired girl lower A Thousand Years of Prayers and relax. She and I tense up again, however, when Hiiragi lunges toward her disciple and grabs her head the way she did mine. Sennen no Inori drops from Koto-chan's hands and lies motionlessly on the tatami mat, where it fades into nothingness. The shadow of the full moon on high illuminates the room.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" I scream. Were I able to twitch a muscle, I would hurl myself at the woman and force her to free the one I love.
"You have fallen too deep into the darkness, Kotonoha," the High Priestess says in a mournful voice. "I will not let someone with so much power serve the darkness. Too bad… you could have become the strongest Priestess in history. Too bad…." Koto-chan didn't say anything to that in reply, nor did she put up any sort of struggle. She simply looks at me, obsidian eyes tinged by sadness, and smiles.
"NO!" I scream once again as light, glorious light more brilliant than whatever Sennen no Inori is capable of, floods out from the old hag's hand and obliterates my vision. That's also when I hear a loud thudding sound that indicates that someone has just fallen on the tatami mat.
When I can see again, Koto-chan's lying motionlessly on the floor and Hiiragi Mikazuki is hurrying toward the Main Gates of the Shrine.
Ignoring the fading figure of the old hag, I run to Koto-chan's side. To my relief, she's alive despite the fact that she's breathing very weakly, that her body feels like ice, and that her complexion has turned even paler than the silver light of the moon that is spilling into the room. Miraculously, the bleeding on her heck has already stopped. All I can see is a half-healed scar surrounded by dried blood. I guess it has something to do with the spell Hiiragi Mikazuki cast on her.
Thinking that she must be freezing, I put her down on the mat, close the shoji door, go fetch a blanket and come back to where she is. There I sit down, take her into my arms, let her head rest on my shoulder, and finally wrap the blanket around us. I shiver. She does feel like ice. I hold her more tightly, trying to offer more of my body heat.
It seems to have worked, for soon after that, the raven-haired girl regains her consciousness.
"Are you okay?" Koto-chan mumbles. "Did Hiiragi-sama hurt you anywhere?"
"Worry about yourself first, please, Koto-chan!" I give a sligh shake of my head. Well… so I said but actually I'm jumping up and down in joy inside. The raven-haired girl has just proved how much she cares about my well-being, and it would be an understatement to say that I appreciate it.
"There's nothing wrong with me." She sighs. "No need to worry." She favors me with a small smile.
"What did she do to you?"
"She took away all my powers." Koto-chan chuckles quietly. "That is what she meant by not letting me serve the darkness."
"I'm sorry," I mutter apologetically. "It's all because of me that you ended up like this."
"Do not be sorry," the soft girl in my arms says tenderly, her obsidian gaze locking with mine. "It is my choice. It is my wish. Besides, I will trade even my life for yours if need be. My powers, in comparison, are just a small price to pay." She raises her hand and lets it touch my cheek. It's a little warmer than it used to be.
"Do you really mean it?" I whisper, my hand placed atop hers. "After all, I have been deceiving you for so long…. I will understand if you hate me forever…."
"I have been trying to do that for the last two weeks." She lets out a weak laughter. "It does not work. My life would have been so much simpler if it had."
"Two weeks?" I say faintly.
"Yes." The raven-haired girl nods. "Ever since I found out the truth about you." Her voice turns quiet.
"But… but… I thought you just did earlier," I stammer, surprised.
"No, earlier than that." She shakes her head. "It was on the very day I came to the seaport to deliver the Gingetsu no Kosen bow to the Ise envoy."
"The real Amano Hikari was there," Koto-chan says slowly, and my eyes go wide. "I was speaking to the envoy on the deck of the soon-to-depart ship when I noticed that someone was hiding behind the door leading to the cabins beneath. It turned out to be her. At first, I mistook her to be you, but I soon realized that she was not, when I put her to the question. I was shocked to the core."
"What did she come to Hokkaido for?"
"She wished to see me," Koto-chan answers. "To see how I was doing, to be exact. Hikari told me that she had always felt guilty of having betrayed me to my Master while in Ise. She knew that because of her, I was shuffled off to this island, so she came back to the Grand Shrine and begged Hiiragi-sama to show her the way to where I was in Hokkaido. Hiiragi-sama agreed and allowed her to tag along with the envoy as long as she promised to stay hidden on the ship."
"But if… if you already knew that I was an imposter… why didn't you expose me right then and there?"
"Because I wanted to learn why you decided to masquerade as someone I loved and infiltrate the Shrine." She sighed again. "I did the following day, though. And the truth hurt so much it nearly killed me."
"The following day…." My breath catches. "That means… that means…."
"Yes, I was aware of everything you said during your entire conversation with Kugimiya Karasu."
My skin crawls as I recall what that was…. "You don't seriously think that I'm in love with her, do you? Me? In love with someone who will tear me apart if she learns that I'm a half-breed? I'm not that much of a fool! I repeat, Kugimiya Karasu, I don't love her. I'm only trying to use her to get you the sword and protect my own life!" Those were the most vicious lies I ever uttered in my life, evidently, but Koto-chan had had no ways to know that. The raven-haired girl must have taken it for the truth. I can only imagine how much those words hurt her….
"Did you… follow me there?" I feel stupid for asking that. Of course she didn't, for even if she did, she still couldn't be able to listen in on the conversation I had with the crow demon. The ward he wove against eavesdroppers made sure of that.
She shakes her head slightly, as I expected. "I did not need to follow you to know what you two talked about. You were not aware, but I had secretly cast a spell on you the previous night. It enabled me to listen in on you although I was speaking to the Mayor in his office the whole time."
But of course…. Upon returning to the Colonization Office after the meeting with Kugimiya Karasu, I did notice that Koto-chan was somewhat quiet and distant. During the whole walk back to Furisame Jinja from the Office, she never smiled, nor did she speak a word despite my effort to keep the conversation going. When I asked about her gloomy mood later in the day, she only answered that she wasn't feeling well and went straight to bed.
"Why… didn't you do anything… after knowing that I was a half-breed?" I hesitate, fearful of the answer I may get.
"I... did," she says, her hand withdrawing, her obsidian daze lowering, and her head turning away. "That very night, I tried to kill you in your sleep. I failed." My internal organs turn to ice. It isn't a pleasant thing to hear, really, especially when the one who says it is the girl I'm cuddling in my arms, the one I love. Koto-chan continues, "No matter how hard I tried to drive Sennen no Inori through your heart, I could not force myself to, so I came back to my room that night, not really knowing why I could not kill you.
"At first, I thought that it was your face that made it so hard. I managed to convince myself that perhaps as long as you wore Hikari's face, I would never be able to harm you, let alone kill you. That was when I remembered that there was a grove of trees that had gained sentience in the northern Kagemori Forest. I thought that perhaps… perhaps…." Her voice falters as she wriggles out of my embrace and settles herself on her knees upon the tatami mat, her back facing me. She trembles.
"Perhaps you could lead me straight to them and have them finish me for you," I say weakly. "That was why you brought me there the next day."
"Yes," She says, voice heavy with guilt and shame. "I purposely let slip to you that I needed to gather the herbs for the physicians in town. As usual, you insisted on following, so I managed to bring you along without arousing any suspicion. Then I left you at the cliff, where the Trees were…."
Images flash across my vision. The sight of the monstrous trees, the feeling of hopelessness, and the pain of being struck come alive in my head stronger than ever.
"Yet you saved me from them in the end…. Why?" I move to sit in front of her. Koto-chan, however, keeps staring at the floor and refuses to meet my gaze, so I gently cup her face with both of my hands and lift it up. Her wet obsidian eyes tell me that she's on the verge of tears. Her agonized expression more than just informs me that guilt is tearing her apart. "Why did you do that if you left me there to die?" I ask.
"Because I heard your voice," she says, voice breaking. "I tried to plug my ears…. I tried to ignore your screams… but whenever you called my name, my heart ached so terribly I could barely hold myself erect. Before I knew it, I had already leapt off the cliff and rushed to where you were. I was so relieved when I saw that you still lived…."
My skin crawls.
"I am sorry… Hikari…" Koto-chan's voice from that day whispers faintly in my head. "I am sorry… I left you there by yourself… It is my fault… those things attacked you…. I am sorry…." Now I can see what she actually meant when she said those words….
"I did not know what I should do after that," she continues. "I did not know what was wrong with me. You were a half-demon who came into my shrine to steal my sword, I thought; you were only pretending to love me just so you could keep your own hide, I thought. But even though I kept telling myself all that, I still could not kill you. I could not bear staying by your side either, so I decided to leave for some place in the mainland where I could forget about you."
I stare at her. So that's the reason for her sudden departure a week ago. She wasn't leaving for a town on the other side of the island. She wanted to get away from the island itself!
"How far did you go?" I inquire.
"Not far." She shakes her head in what seems to be sadness. "I was staying at a city near the seaport during the last week."
"Eh?" I blink in surprise. One would imagine that the raven-haired girl could have gotten maybe as far as Tokyo itself….
"I... stepped onto the ship numerous times," the raven-haired girl says "Yet… I always get off at the last minute."
"I did not know then," Koto-chan professes timidly. "All I did, was that staying on the ship gave me the same feeling I had when I tried to kill you. Something I can never accomplish."
A warm sensation wells in my heart.
"On the seventh day, Hiiragi-sama and her retainers arrived at the city in which I stayed." A grim shadow stole across the raven-haired girl's face. "She sensed the presence of my powers, so she went straight to my inn, where she bended me to her will and demanded to know why I was not tending to my duties at the Shrine." She sighs. "I have never been able to stand up to her, so I ended up telling her about everything." Both of us happen to wince at the same time. "After that… she commanded me to lead her to Furisame and…."
"Ordered you to kill me," I finish the sentence for her.
"You can't imagine how gladdened I was when Hiiragi-sama and I arrived at the Shrine and saw that you weren't in your room," Koto-chan says. "Hiiragi-sama, on the other hand, was furious. Saying that we would wait for you to come back, she went into my room and rested. It was then that I noticed your diary lying on the floor. I could not suppress my curiosity, so I read it." She winces again. "I know I should not have… but I am happy that I did. Without it, I would never have known how much you love me, and how much I love you in return." Her expression grows so gentle and affectionate it makes my heart skip a beat. My face burns.
"Are you sure it's me you love?" I ask hesitantly. "You thought I was Amano Hikari all the while, didn't you? She may be the one you really want…." I stop the moment the girl gives a firm shake of her head.
"That is not true," she says determinedly. "It is you I want, not her. The real Hikari, grateful to me as she was, never acknowledged my feelings. She refused to be anything more than my personal page, and when I confessed to her, she panicked and went straight to my Master. She never harbored any sort of romantic feelings toward me.
"You, on the other hand, are heavens and earth apart from her." The raven-haired girl smiles tenderly. Her face's still pale, her skin cold to touch, but in my eyes, she shines like the midday sun. She's almost too dazzling to look at. "During the first eighteen years of my life in Ise, no one, including my Master, had ever told me a word of care or comfort. All they wanted was to make me Hiiragi-sama's worthy successor. I grew up without knowing love. You, my dear one, were the first person who showed me its meaning. You were the only one who made me be thankful to the Gods of Heaven that I was born into this world. I was finally able to realize that when I read your diary." She pauses to take a breath. "I do not care about your face, your voice, or even your being only half-human, for it is your heart with which I fall in love."
Those honest words move me so greatly I start to cry. One thing leads to another, we end up in a tight embrace while crying our heart out in joy and relief. Between the sobs, we exchange heartfelt apologies and equally so forgiveness. I did deceive her… and she did try to kill me… and we're both sorry for what we had done. However, those things are no longer of any importance to us. What is, is the fact that we're still alive afterwards, that all misunderstandings have been cleared away, and that perhaps, hopefully, nothing's going to stand in our way in the future.
"Are you still cold, Koto-chan?" I ask. We have resumed our original position, with the girl I love nesting cozily in my arms, her head on my shoulder, her arms around my back. My thick blanket once more drapes over us, preserving and augmenting the heat we share. "I can go get another blanket for you if you are." The raven-haired girl's condition has improved vastly compared to the time when she first regained consciousness. Her face has regained much color, and her skin doesn't seem as cold, although she's still shivering every so often.
"A little bit," she murmurs. "But do not go anywhere. I will get better soon." She tightens her grip around me as though wanting to make sure that I'm not going to leave her by herself. "It will not take much longer for my body to cope with the absence of my powers."
I give her a light kiss on her forehead and let my hand comb through her stream of glossy raven hair. "Try to sleep, Koto-chan. You will feel better when you wake up, I'm sure."
"Will you stay here with me tonight?"
"You didn't have to ask." I chuckle softly. "I'm not going to leave you on your own in such a condition, you know."
"Thank you, Hi…." She stops, her face coloring. "I cannot call you that. Will you tell me your name?" She raises her head to look up at me, expectant obsidian eyes filled with love.
"Hotaru," I whisper. "Shirazuki Hotaru."
"Such a pretty name." Koto-chan smiles fondly at me. She makes me blush. It's as if this were our first meeting… it's as if I had fallen in love with her all over again.
Soon after that, we find ourselves lying on our sides upon a futon laid neatly at the center of the room. Koto-chan's head's on my arm, one of hers draped across my body. Eyes half closed, lips slightly curved upward in a little smile, face brimming with bliss, she snuggles as close to me as she can. If any stranger sees us this way, I bet they won't be able to tell that the sweet and adorable girl I'm cuddling is actually three years my senior. Well, Koto-chan has always been childlike in nature… except when seriousness is required, I suppose. It's a miracle she has remained that way despite the discipline she had to undergo in Ise. It's open wonder how someone like me, a plain-faced girl who's probably good at nothing, managed to have her for a lover.
"I miss sleeping by your side," the raven-haired girl murmurs. "I really do."
"You won't have to sleep alone anymore," I assure her. I want to say something else to her, too, but my tongue freezes dead when I suddenly recall why we had to sleep apart. Blood rises in my face.
"Is something the matter, Hotaru?" Koto-chan asks. "Why is your face so red?" She touches my cheek with her hand, surprised at the heat.
"Nothing," I say hastily.
"Did we not vow that we will never keep secrets from each other?" The raven-haired girl frowns, slightly displeased.
"Well." I clear my throat. "I... I was just wondering that since you've lost all your powers… I was wondering… if… if…." Words die in my throat. Gods, but this is embarrassing.
Thankfully, Koto-chan can guess the rest of it. This time, it's the raven-haired girl who blushes hotly.
"Yes…" she mumbles. "The barrier that protects my Innocence is… also gone. It feeds on my own powers to work… so with them taken away, it simply… vanishes."
Awkward silence ensues, with both of us, red-faced and deathly embarrassed, unable to look into each other's eyes. However, it all ends when I decide to be brave and save both of us from spending the rest of the night not knowing what to do. I roll her onto her back and press my lips against hers. Koto-chan's perfectly still at first but after several heartbeats, she closes her obsidian eyes and kisses me back. I can feel the full force of her passion; I can understand what it is that she wishes to tell me. She's mine tonight.
I have a little of a problem disrobing her. My hand won't stop trembling while I remove every piece of her clothing, and the more of her skin is shown, the redder her complexion grows, and the clumsier I become. After what seems to be longer than a century, her entire Priestess ensembles and my plain yukata lay unfolded somewhere near the futon, no longer able to hinder us. Our first night together moves on as we wordlessly offer each other all that we have. Lips seek lips, tongue finding tongue, hands roaming wherever they can reach, eliciting soft whimpers and cries. The waves of earthly pleasures slowly build up with every touch, every ministration, and keep on going higher and higher until they crest and finally crash upon our bodies.
Silence, punctuated only by our efforts to gasp for breath, returns, only this time, we're perfectly happy to let it stay. Koto-chan, sweaty and tired, once again lay on her side, cuddled tightly in my embrace. Once every often she would look up at me and smile just to have her face redden the moment I draw my face closer and offer her a kiss. Floating upon a sea of contentment and happiness, I let my hands gently travel up and down her back, relishing the silky and soft texture of her bare skin and body until sleep takes us away.
The morning after, I awake to the sunlight that shines through the paper on the shoji door… and my breath catches as my eyes dawn upon something that's much more dazzling. Koto-chan's face, decorated with a pair of large, shiny obsidian eyes that are gazing up at me with great affection, completely eclipses the golden orb beyond my window. My gaze then travels downward and settles upon her bare neck and shoulders, those which my blanket fails to envelop. The sight, heightened by the feel of her unclothed body pressing against mine, revives last night's memory of our reckless abandon. Heat flares from every particle of my face.
As if able to guess what I'm thinking – I do believe that she can most of the times – the raven-haired girl also blushes and decides to hide her face by burying it in my neck.
After spending a few moments in embarrassment and awkwardness, I slightly pull away from her and kiss her on the lips. Then I whisper in her ear, "I would have been mad had I waken up without you in my arms, Koto-chan." I wink at her.
"I know." The raven-haired girl laughs softly. "That is why I stay here although I am starving." She gives me an apologetic look. "I... have not had anything in my stomach since yesterday's lunch, you see."
"Well." I chuckle. "Let's go prepare breakfast then." That brings a smile – too brilliant a smile in fact – to her face. She gives me a passionate kiss, partly out of gratitude I'm sure, then pushes back the blanket, and rises to her feet. Only then does she realize that she doesn't even have a stitch to cover her body, and that I, sitting on the futon with the blanket wrapped around myself, am studying her naked figure most appreciatively with a smile on my lips.
With a loud yelp, Koto-chan grabs her Priestess ensembles lying on the floor and puts them on so quickly I would have thought she had somehow retained a little bit of her powers. Even after she has decently clothed herself, the color on her face doesn't show any sign that it's going to fade any time soon. I only laugh and remind her that after what happened last night, it's a little bit too late for that. Tight-lipped, she stares at me as though it were my fault she was embarrassed. I laugh again and decide to get dressed.
An hour and a half later, after we've prepared the food and properly fed our rumbling stomachs, we find ourselves reclining against a wall in my room, side by side, her hand in mine, her head on my shoulder.
"What are we going to do from now on, Koto-chan?" I ask. "I mean, with your powers gone, we can't stay in Furisame anymore, can we?"
"You are right." The raven-haired girl sighs. "There is no point in lingering if I can no longer be of any help to the people of this town. Besides, I am certain that Hiiragi-sama is going to send someone here to replace me."
"You don't have to say that woman's name with so much respect, you know," I say, slightly vexed at the mentioning of the old hag. I really can't stand her, and thinking of what she had done to the one I love only makes me hate her more.
"You dislike her but I do not, Hotaru." She smiles softly at me. "Had she not taken me in when my parents abandoned me, I would have never lived beyond the day I was born. Had she not sent me here, I would have never been able to meet you. I am only grateful to her."
"About that." I tap my lips. "Why did she send her disciple to such a faraway place like Hokkaido?"
"Firstly, it is because Hokkaido is a land that does not have enough exorcists to deal with the demons," she answers. "Secondly, Hiiragi-sama wanted me to learn how to manage a Shrine so that I could prepare myself to take over the High Priestess post when she retired. And lastly, the real reason behind it all, she was tired of seeing me wandering around like a lost soul in Ise Daijin-guu. Master knew that everything I laid my eyes on reminded me of Hikari, and that I would never recover as long as I stayed there." She gives me a rueful grimace and moves on hurriedly, "That was why she decided to shuffle me off to this island."
"That reminds me. Why did she come here all of a sudden?" I ask curiously. "The old… I mean your Master is the High Priestess. Doesn't she have a lot to take care of in Ise?"
"She does," the raven-haired girl agrees. "She told me that there was a mountain of work for her to do." Her expression turns serious and somewhat grim. "However, she had to come all the way here because of an emergency. Do you remember the Gingetsu no Kosen bow, Hotaru?" She continues at a nod of my head, "It has been two weeks since I delivered it to the Ise envoy, but the man never made it back to the Grand Shrine. Hikari's missing, also."
"Are you worried about her?" I ask.
"Would you be angry if I were?" she says timidly.
"I would be a little bit annoyed," I admit. "But not angry. I would be, though, if you said you didn't worry about her at all. I don't want a girlfriend that is so heartless."
"That is very nice of you." The raven-haired girl smiles up at me. "I am glad." I return her smile and give her a light kiss. It then grows more and more passionate with every second we keep our lips pressed together. My hand makes its way to the sash at the waist of Koto-chan's Priestess outfit, ready to untie it. The raven-haired girl, bashful as she is even after all that happened, gives a start and goes red all the way to her ears. At first, she puts her hand atop mine, acting as though wanting to push it off of her. I guess it's some sort of reflex, for immediately after she did that, she removes her hand and lets me lower her to the floor, all the while never breaking the kiss.
That's exactly when a chiming sound choose to echo loudly in the air and disturb us. She and I spring up from where we lay in shock. We know that kind of sound it was. After all, we have heard it many times over in Unomichi, whenever a demon stepped past one of the Gates. It's the warning of Seinaru Suishou, the Sacred Crystals! Although the set of Seinaru Suishou in Furisame is mainly used as a power source for the scabbard Sennen no Koe, it does have the same function as the one in Unomichi, which is to say that it's capable of detecting nearby demonic presence.
Exchanging troubled looks, we hurry out of the room and stop dead near the pond, where we look upward and become dumbstruck. High in the sky, about a hundred feet above the ground, a man in samurai outfit stood. Behind his back flap three wings, each as black as a moonless night. I can't see his face very well, and he currently has one more wing than I remember… but I know who he is. There's but one person in this island whose appearance matches his.
Koto-chan and I don't pay much attention to the crow demon, though. Even if he were to sprout ten more wings, we still wouldn't, for our eyes are glued on the object he's holding in his left hand. It's a bow that's made entirely out of silver. Koto-chan showed it to me the day following her return from Kiyozumi, so there's no way I cannot recognize it. My skin crawls.
In the blaring sirens of Seinaru Suishou, in the horror that threatens to unnerve me, I wordlessly mouth the weapon's name, "Gingetsu no Kosen." The Arc of the Silver Moon. How in goodness's name did the crow demon lay his hand on the thing?
Karasu puts his hand right on the middle of the bowstring and starts to draw. A thin shaft of silver light protrudes from the crow demon's fingers as probably a myriad more materialize around his body, all of their tips aiming straight downward. He looses his arrow and unleashes the heaviest rain I have ever seen in my life upon the roofs of the Shrine of the Falling Rain.
In the beginning, these arrows of light shatter upon encountering the invisible layer of the Sacred Barrier protecting Furisame. Yet… as Karasu keeps shooting more and more of them out of the Arc of the Silver Moon, something disturbing happens. First, the Sacred Barrier starts to reveal its shape, a dome of white light that encompasses everything within the glade standing amid the Forest of Shadows. Then the Barrier's layer, as thick as a man originally, grows thinner and thinner until it crumbles in a flash of light and a deafening roar. At that same moment, the sirens of Seinaru Suishou ceases and are replaced with a loud shattering sound. I don't have to see to know that they, too, have been destroyed.
"Hurry, Hotaru!" Koto-chan grabs my hand and pulls me along as she starts for the Inner Sanctuary. No physical-repelling barrier is there to stop her from opening the doors to the Sanctuary with her bare hands and revealing the horrible sight within. Sennen no Inori still lies on the altar, safe and untouched, but its scabbard, what maintained the Sacred Barrier, is nowhere in sight. I gasp in horror when I notice that there's a small dune of white dust on the wooden floor. I shiver. Who could have thought that Gingetsu no Kosen can actually disintegrate Sennen no Koe?
Although I'm sure Koto-chan saw the same thing I did, she pays it no heed. The raven-haired girl only steps forward and grabs the sword A Thousand Years of Prayers and runs back to the yard, upon the paved ground of which Kugimiya Karasu waits. His handsome face is stony, his dark gaze, ice. The hand with which he clutches the silver bow is trembling and the three wings behind his back, two on his left side and one on his right, are quivering in what I know to be rage.
"You," Koto-chan mutters softly.
"Yes, me," Karasu replies, voice equally quiet. "Long time no see, Fuyuu Kotonoha, yes?" Sheer malice and hate flash in his dark eyes.
"You… know Karasu, Koto-chan?" I ask, somewhat surprised.
"Karasu…. Kugimiya Karasu?" she says, obsidian eyes widening. "He is the one who sent you to Furisame to steal my sword?"
"Indeed I was," the man answers before I can. "And yes she knows me, kiddo. Although this is actually the first time we speak to each other, I suppose."
I look questioningly at my girlfriend, who in turn fixes her eyes upon Kugimiya Karasu. She notices that I'm confused, though.
"That is correct," Koto-chan nods, "except one little detail. I do not know him. I only saw him once about a year ago. He was with someone else, then." That bit seems to have pour oil into the flame that is Karasu's anger. His face darkens, his eyes blaze with hatred, and his knuckles go white around the bow shaft of Gingetsu no Kosen. "I believe I was responsible for the death of that someone else, and also the absence of his gentleman's fourth wing." Each of her words is delivered in a very calm and polite fashion, but a look at Karasu's face tells me that to him, they are as bad as any swear word.
"Do not speak of him that way!" the crow demon roars. "His name is Kei!" He makes my hackle rise.
"Ah, I did not know that." Koto-chan gives her lips a thoughtful tap. "I will ask someone to carve his name into his tombstone the next time I come to the Cemetery." There isn't even a slightest hint of sarcasm in her voice… but I'm sure Karasu must have heard one, for all of a sudden, dark lightning flares from each of his feather tips.
"ENOUGH!" Karasu's roar this time is so loud that my ears hurt. Koto-chan, on the other hand, gives no outward sign that it has any effect on her. She merely studies the crow demon with an imperturbable face. "First you killed my lover, now you mock his memory?! UNFORGIVABLE!" the crow demon bellows at the top of his lungs.
"You never wanted the sword Sennen no Inori because you needed it to strike at your father, now did you?" I ask quietly.
Karasu shifts his fiery attention on me, mouth forming a twisted sneer. "You'd be surprised. I did mean to use that sword against my father, for the reason I have told you. However, I also needed you to take it away from your damned Priestess so that I could have a chance at killing her." My lips compress into a thin line in anger. When Kugimiya Karasu revealed the reasons why he wanted Sennen no Inori, I never thought that he would hold back on one of them. Had I known that he was trying to kill Koto-chan from the beginning, I would have found ways to make him regret it.
"But you," Karasu says, his face hardening, his sneer fading. "You chose to betray me and make me wait month after month without giving me any result! How dare you?"
"Betray?" I laugh. "You bullied me, threatened me, then expected me to be loyal? Are you out of your mind?" That doesn't improve the man's mood, I can tell. He looks as though he wants to skin me alive now.
"Speak, demon," Koto-chan says suddenly. "How did you acquire Gingetsu no Kosen?"
"Don't you want to know?" Karasu's gaze swivels to the raven-haired girl. "Very well, I'll tell you. Two weeks ago a band of pirates, by one way or another, managed to lay their filthy hands on this little cutie," he pats the bow with his vacant hand, "Those idiots' home base was in Hokkaido, where my network of spies was stationed, so it wasn't long before I learned of the Arc of the Silver Moon's existence. Actually, it was last night!" Karasu barks a satisfied laughter. "The pirates must be regretting having ever found the weapon right at this moment, in the Afterlife."
Koto-chan's standing very still, face betraying no emotions but the gleam of sadness in her obsidian eyes belies her cool façade. I know why she looks this way. Of course, if what Kugimiya said were true, that could only mean that the ship the envoy was on had encountered a pirate ship on its way back to Ise Daijin-guu. Knowing how ruthlessly pirates behave these days, knowing that the envoy himself has been missing for the last two weeks, I doubt that he still lives. And since Amano Hikari was with him… she could have suffered from the same fate. Not that I would mourn for her, though. I never did like her, after all.
Another thought strikes me. It suddenly comes to me why was it that Karasu attacked Furisame Jinja despite the fact that he hasn't gotten Sennen no Inori yet. Of course, the bastard's impatient. He can't wait any longer, judging by his attitude. Besides, he must have known that Gingetsu no Kosen is a very powerful weapon once it came into his hands. The thing must have augmented his confidence and lead him to believe that he could best Koto-chan and Sennen no Inori with it.
"Now, Priestess," Karasu's voice ends my train of thought and brings me back to reality with a jerk, "Kei sacrificed his life to preserve mine on that night, when you found us in Sengimori. It's high time I pay back the favor!"
"What makes you think you can defeat me, with or without that silver bow?" Koto-chan says coolly as she signals for me to move away from both of them with one hand and points the tip of Sennen no Inori at Kugimiya Karasu with the other. Knowing that a fierce battle's going to take place and that I can offer no help, I do as Koto-chan wishes and runs back to my room, where I stand and watch them. Karasu makes no move to stop me.
The fight begins the moment Karasu raises Gingetsu no Kosen and nocks a silver light-wrought arrow. That's a grave mistake on his part. The crow demon never realizes that it takes much more time to wield a bow than does a sword, that when he has his arrow ready to shoot, Koto-chan has managed to arrive at his side, her hand bringing down A Thousand Years of Prayers.
It's pretty much a one-sided fight after that. I watch in satisfaction and delight as Koto-chan, grace incarnate, forces Kugimiya into total defense, as the crow demon can only parry each and every stroke of Sennen no Inori with the bow shaft of Gingetsu no Kosen, which he barely manages. I'm sure he must have known by now that not only is the raven-haired girl fast, she's also a skillful swordswoman. Actually, the strained and disturbed look on his sweaty face tells me he knows that. Of course, there have been instances in which he could have lost an arm, a leg, or even his head, had he not reacted fast enough.
Satisfaction dies when I notice that Koto-chan's sword slashing more and more slowly. Her face is still emotionless like it was at the beginning of the fight, but sweat is beading on her forehead, which has never happened before regardless of the opponent she had. It won't take a genius, maybe even a halfwit, to realize that fatigue is taking over her. Koto-chan once said that her vigor and her godly endurance rely heavily on the amount of magical powers that rest in her body. Without the latter….
Delight fades when I realize that Kugimiya Karasu's expression has changed. Shock and fear become puzzlement, which is finally replaced by something I can only name glee. He has realized that for some reason, Koto-chan has not wielded the true powers of Sennen no Inori or herself against him since the very start, that she only relies on her sword skill, and that it isn't enough. The crow demon ought to know what that means.
Karasu decides to put his knowledge to the test.
As Koto-chan's sword is making a curve that aims at the crow demon's side, he raises his left hand to catch the blade instead of parrying it with the shaft of Gingetsu no Kosen like he did. A thunderous roar erupts the moment Sennen no Inori's edge comes into contact with the black light enveloping Karasu's hand. As expected from the incredible sharpness of A Thousand Years of Prayers, its blade slices through the defense barrier and cuts into the man's palm. Still, the defense barrier wasn't as useless as it appeared. It did manage to slow down the sword, reduce its strength, and most importantly, give Karasu the time he needed to leap into the sky, where Koto-chan's sword cannot reach.
"What's wrong, Priestess? Why haven't you invoked the full power of the Sword of Storms?" Karasu laughs mockingly, his voice booming, his body suspending in midair about twenty feet or so above the ground. "Why aren't you using the Hilt of the Wind to soar into the sky and chase after me? Why aren't you extending the Blade of Water to slay me where I stand? Or… perhaps you no longer can do that?" He glances at me. "Perhaps it was thanks to that little twerp over there? I guess it wasn't entirely useless to have sent her to this Shrine after all." Tension drains from his face. The raven-haired girl's, on the other hand, hardens enough to crack rock.
I grit my teeth. If only that stupid old hag hadn't stolen all of Koto-chan's powers….
"I guess this is it," Karasu says. He puts his left hand on the bowstring of Gingetsu no Kosen and draws one more. Tens of thousands of those airborne arrows emerge and dwarf the light of the sun with their brilliant silver glow. "DIE!" he bellows as he lets go of the bowstring.
My heart leaps into my throat as the volley of magical projectiles converges upon my girlfriend and engulfs her with silver flashes, blackened smoke, and loud explosion noises. Disregarding all thoughts of safety, I run to her while crying out her name in utmost pain. As the smoke starts to clear, I find her lying motionlessly on her back upon the ground, clothes tattered and burned in some places, skin bruised, her lapels dyed red with the blood that came from her mouth, and Sennen no Inori nowhere in sight. I know where it is. It must have returned to the altar in the Inner Sanctuary the moment it left the raven-haired girl's hand.
When I almost reach my beloved Koto-chan, the air solidifies around me and freezes all my movement. I stand there, a step away from the raven-haired girl, unable to twitch a muscle. Slowly, Koto-chan's body lifts up and stands erect, her feet dangling a few inches off the ground. There she coughs violently as blood spurts out from her open mouth in sprays. She glances at me afterwards, desperation and hopelessness evident in her obsidian eyes.
"I am sorry, Hotaru," she says weakly, tears leaking out of her eyes. "It is all my fault…."
"Koto-chan…" I call, voice breaking.
"How moving," Karasu commented. The crow demon's facing both of us, his left hand – the wound on which has been completely healed – scratching his chin with great satisfaction. "Looking at you two very much reminds me of how Kei always treated me before he was murdered." His eyes narrow, his right hand rises along with the Gingetsu no Kosen bow, and his left hand nocks another silver arrow. "You should pray that he won't rip your soul apart when he sees you in the Afterlife. Farewell, damned Priestess and filthy half-breed."
His final word is very quiet but to me, it's as loud as thunder. I start to laugh.
"What's so funny, half-breed?" Karasu demands heatedly.
"I just remembered something that both you and I have forgotten, Karasu," I say as my whole body glows. The crow demon's eyes widen just a fraction of a second before an intense light erupts and drowns the space around us in a sea of white aura. In that light, I call upon my demon blood and command it to change me into my kitsune youkai form. It obeys.
The invisible bindings around my body burst as it grows larger and transforms. In less than a heartbeat, before the light can fade, I reemerge as a white fox that's as tall as any man and twice as wide, armed with fangs and claws sharp enough to match razors. Anger, hatred, and disgust sing in my head while the demonic blood courses in my veins like a river in flood. Of course, the light itself also blocks my vision, but I don't need my eyes to know where Karasu is when I can hear his heart racing in fear, when I can sense his body heat. I lunge forward and feel my claws sinking into flesh.
The light fades, revealing what's in front of me… or below me, to be exact. Karasu's body is twitching beneath my right paw, his clothes soaked with blood. My claws have pierced his heart. In but a moment, his wretched demonic life shall end.
"How… foolish of me…" the dying man mumbles. "How ironic…. The tool I chose… ended up giving me my doom…." Suddenly, he grabs my claw with both of his hands and lets out a final roar, "But don't feel victorious just yet, for you shall not find your happy ending where I could not! You shall die with me!" I only stare in shock as the world around me explodes. Darkness seizes me, and I pass out.
When I wake up, I'm lying on a futon and beneath a thick blanket. I'm in my room, where the only source of illumination is provided by the candles, for the night has already come to dominate the heavens. Ignoring the pain that is smoldering beneath my skin and inside my every bone, I strain my neck to look around for the only person I care for in the world. Thanks the Heaven, Koto-chan's lying just to my right, in another futon, soundly asleep. I heave a sigh of relief. She doesn't look like she's in any sort of dangerous condition.
"You've come to, child," Cathy Hawthorne's throaty voice says softly. The historian's sitting on my left side, eyes studying me worriedly. "No, no, do not try to sit up. Some of your ribs are broken, as is your left arm, so just stay there and rest." Cathy clucks her tongue in exasperation. "How did you become so badly hurt?"
"Long story, Cathy-san." I sigh.
"How do you know my name?" Cathy blinks at me in surprise. "Do I… know you?"
I stare at her for one second, then finally understand why Cathy's talking to me like a stranger. Of course, I'm not wearing the face of the real Amano Hikari anymore, nor do I possess her voice. Cathy can't possibly recognize me.
"It's me, Hikari," I say and watch Cathy's blue eyes widen in disbelief.
Suppressing a groan, I decide to tell the historian everything… even the fact that I'm not entirely human. The historian's reaction varies greatly during the whole time I tell her the tale of my life up to this very moment. She's surprised upon learning that I'm not entirely human. She looks mournful hearing that my mom and dad sacrificed themselves to save my life. She becomes enraged knowing how Karasu tried to bully me into his own scheme. She chuckles quietly listening to me talking about how I fell in love with the other girl in this room. Her face becomes unreadable once I finish talking, though.
"Why are you telling me this, Hi… I mean Hotaru, child?" she asks. "Are you not afraid I would try to kill you upon learning that you are half-demon."
"I trust you, Cathy-san," I answer simply. "We've only become acquainted for a few days, but I've always thought of you as a grandma I never had. I don't believe you would harm me." It's the truth. Cathy's too nice to harm an ant, let alone any other living being.
"And I will not," comes the equally simple reply. "I thank you for your confidence and trust, child." She pats my head gently. "You can rest assured that no one else will ever learn of this."
"How come you're here, Cathy-san?" I ask.
"Well, I heard the sound of the Sacred Crystals this morning," the elderly lady explains. "I thought some demon attacked the town but Hayase-san told me that it was not so. She said that the sound did not come from the set of Crystals in the town, but was carried all the way from Furisame Jinja. Although I was worried about you, I could not go, for Hayase-san stopped me, saying that some sort of Barrier would keep you safe." She pauses to take a breath. "Only after the sound has ceased did the good Innkeeper allow me to leave for the Shrine. And to think that I would find both of you lying in blood, unconscious here!"
"I see," I mumble. "You've saved both of our lives, Cathy-san. How can we ever repay you?"
"Repay? Pish posh!" The historian makes an emphatic dismissive wave with her hand. "Do not ever think of that. It is my duty to help anyone in need, especially you, my little student. All you have to worry about is rest. I will take care of both of you until you recover."
Cathy Hawthorne does exactly that. For the following month, she takes care of my and Koto-chan's every need. She cooks for us, she helps nurse us, and she even stays in the room and talks to us so we aren't bored to death. Not that I can be bored, though, not when Koto-chan's always there by my side, holding my hand until we fall asleep. If Cathy is amused by the affection the raven-haired girl and I show one another, she gives no sign of it.
As I expected, my girlfriend and the elderly historian get along very well. Actually, they get along so well that sometimes they manage to make me jealous by discussing for hours on end about some foolish war two or three hundred years ago. Very rarely I'd try to remind Koto-chan that she should pay more attention to her girlfriend instead of some Shogun whose name I don't even know. The rest of the times… well… I just sit there and let the sounds of their conversation lull me to sleep.
One month after the day Koto-chan and I was injured, we've pretty much recovered. That's also when Cathy Hawthorne decides to ask us about what we'd like to do in the future. We honestly confess that we don't know.
"How about this, children. Would you like to come into my service?" the linguist proposes, excitement gleaming in her bright blue eyes. "I plan to open a bookstore here. I already have enough funds for it, as well as the new Mayor's approval." It turns out that the High Priestess Hiiragi Mikazuki, acting in the name of the Emperor himself, has ordered an arrest for Sadamoto Shun'ichi, who was Kugimiya Karasu's secret servant in town. Unomichi has a new Mayor now. "What I only need now are hardworking employers!" Cathy adds.
We never pause for a second thought before we agree. I don't think we would refuse her even if she offered us a job in washing dishes in some restaurant in town.
And that's how I find myself sitting at the counter of Cathy's grand bookstore four months later, helping out customers who come in to look for books. The second floor of the store has two rooms, each at one end of the hallway. Cathy lives in one and we live in the other, of course. Koto-chan once asks the historian why the two rooms aren't built side by side. The elderly lady replies in a half joking voice that this way, she can sleep without hearing strange noises coming from our room at night. We can only blush and change the topic.
A new Chief Priest has been installed in Furisame Jinja, which is now tended to by the staff members the Chief Priest brought along from Ise. The townsfolk are surprised about the whole transfer of position business, of course, but no one tells them the reason for it, so they can only gossip between themselves and start spreading unfounded rumors. Koto-chan and I pay them no heed. They have no idea where the girl named Amano Hikari went off to either, or how was it that another girl named Shirazuki Hotaru came to take her place next to their former Chief Priestess. That causes more rumors floating around, obviously. But again, we ignore them. My and Koto-chan's life together has just begun, and we're not letting anybody ruin it.
"I'll take this book, Shirazuki-san." The only customer in the store at the moment, a middle-aged man, puts a thick book on the counter. Coincidentally, it's a used version of "The Tale of Genji".
Smiling to myself, I tell him the price – actually I give him a nice discount – and watch him depart with a delighted face, probably thinking that he has gotten a bargain.
I feel myself overwhelmed with boredom after that, Cathy has gone to the Mayor's Office to talk about a few things, and Koto-chan's preparing lunch in the kitchen, so there's nothing else for me to do until the next customer steps into the store.
I open one of the drawers of the counter and take out a small book. I open it to a blank page, grab a brush and an ink tray, and start to write.
Meiji Era twenty fifth, ninth month, ninth day,