Winter in the mountains was beautiful, but it was hardly fitting for people living in the outdoors, especially humans. Reiji, despite the cold and his companion's constant teeth-chattering, loved the snow, and held his hands outstretched.
"If I stand here still enough," Reiji told his friend, "I bet the snow will cover me."
His friend-who bore the name of Kuzuki-rolled his eyes, but an impish grin played on his face, slightly lopsided from the sake he was carrying with him. "I wonder if the youkai would eat you still if you were frozen."
"I already have snow covering my shoulders and hands! I bet they wouldn't even see me to eat me!"
Kuzuki laughed. "Yep, that's absolutely how that works."
Kuzuki grabbed Reiji's hand, shaking some of the snow off of him in the progress, and gestured up the mountain a little ways. "I wonder if anyone's been in that jinja in a while."
"You ruined my progress! I gotta start over covering myself in snow!"
"You can try again by the jinja! I wanna get my drink on, and I don't want the snow to cool my sake too much. Come on!" And so Kuzuki, being the stronger of the two, continued to yank Reiji, who was now seeing if snow could gather on the tip of his tongue, to the jinja he found.
It certainly seemed abandoned. The torii gate on the outside creaked with the wind, threatening to fall on the homeless adventurers. The shide papers were a bit stripped, the shimenawa ropes holding up the shide frayed. Icicles gathered beside the shide, and Reiji thought it was as though the winter itself wanted to protect them.
As they walked inside the shrine, planks on the side of the building and the roof were falling out, letting little drifts of snow into the structure. Kuzuki lit a match and lit his lantern in his pack to hang to the ceiling, which creaked and groaned over the weight of it.
"I'm gonna make a fire for dinner and drink. Do you wanna find a deer for us?"
"Sure!" Reiji scrambled to attention, patting his clothing until he found his trusty katana on him. With a wave, he was off to the woods behind the jinja.
The snow-covered branches in the woods looked like fingers reaching for him, but Reiji was too focused on finding food for his platonic soulmate to care. In fact, the energy of the woods in general seemed somehow darker than the rest of the mountain he had been scaling with Kuzuki.
"Aaa, night sure came fast," Reiji mumbled to himself, unsheathing his katana and holding it at the ready. As he waited for his dinner to show itself, he decided to retest the idea of being covered in snow. Perhaps the deer wouldn't see him if he was just a pile of snow!
However, his idea didn't get to pan out long. The smell of smoke coming from the jinja lured him out of the darkness. His brows furrowed as he wondered if Kuzuki was okay. Usually, he could come out of just about any situation unscathed, but the more he thought about it, the more he figured Kuzuki, alcohol, fire, and an old jinja didn't mix well.
Sure enough, the jinja was engulfed in flames. Reiji stumbled to the ground, sitting directly on the snow in shock. It was as though the fire itself was sentient and strong, pushing him back.
"Kuzuki?" he called out.
There was a loud crash in the distance, then Kuzuki's slurred voice saying, "I'm okay!"
Reiji exhaled. Everything was fine as long as Kuzuki was okay.
But then, he heard a scream, almost like a woman crying. The fire began to die down, and Reiji dusted himself off and ran toward the shrine. He waved his hands around in front of him, making sure no strange force-fields were keeping him at bay.
"I think I pissed someone off."
From the angle Reiji stood at, he could only see Kuzuki, pale in the face aside from the drunken flush beneath his eyes, staring open-mouthed at something inside the burning shrine.
"It's on fire! Who could be in there?" Reiji asked.
Kuzuki grabbed Reiji by the cheeks and turned his head to show him what was inside.
A woman stood in the shrine, her clothes burning with the surrounding wood. Her hair swam behind her, revealing pupilless eyes and a mouth open in a scream. Tears streamed down her cheeks as the flames devoured her, peeling off her skin in tiny flakes.
"How is she burning if it's snowing?" Reiji asked, staring in awe.
"Use the snow!" the woman cried. "Cool down the flames!"
"Oh," Reiji replied. He grabbed a fistful of snow and chucked it at the shrine. It melted almost instantly, landing on the wood with a sizzle.
"We'll need more than that," Kuzuki said finally. "Let's fill our gourds with it!"
And so the duo dumped the largest handfuls and gourdfuls of snow they could find, trying in vain to swallow up the flames.
"We need something bigger!" Kuzuki shouted.
But Reiji had a sudden stroke of genius. He took another gourdful of snow and threw it directly on the woman. And slowly, she began to relax, and the flames on the shrine began to fade.
"More," she rasped.
"Help me put her out!" Reiji yelled toward his friend.
Kuzuki looked confused. "The woman? She's not real!"
"Of course I'm real!" she screamed. "Help me!"
"You burnt her, not the shrine. I think. Getting the flames off of her is helping the whole shrine!"
"How does that work?" Kuzuki asked.
"I don't know. But it does!"
Kuzuki nodded, seeming as though this was sound logic, and helped him put out the flames on the strange woman's dress. And after not long at all, the woman collapsed to the blackened ground, gasping.
"Thank you for your help," she said. But her pupilless eyes looked anything but thankful. If anything, they were furious. "What were you thinking, lighting a fire inside my shrine?"
"It's cold outside," Kuzuki mumbled.
"Are you a kami?" Reiji asked.
"Yes," the woman said. "I'm the kami of this shrine. And flames under my roof will destroy me and all of my precious objects." She narrowed her eyes at Kuzuki, who was very intent on staring at his feet. "You are now indebted to me. Cook your food outside, and you may rest here...only if you agree to repair my jinja in the morning."
"I can help!" Reiji said, partially because he was excited to not be walking anywhere for awhile, but also because he didn't want to leave Kuzuki alone.
"So it's settled," she said.
"I didn't agree to anything," Kuzuki muttered.
"What was that?" Her long, black hair whipped behind her, eyes emitting an eerie glow.
Reiji's heart hammered. "Just tell the nice lady okay."
"Okay," said Kuzuki.
"You may go about your adventure once you've fixed what you've done."
"Did you manage to get a deer?" Kuzuki asked.
Reiji shook his head. "I smelled smoke."
Kuzuki rolled his eyes, but then said, "Alright, I'll get one."
"Let me come with you!"
"Alright, stay close."
The kami watched as the companions headed back into the forest. She smiled to herself, arms folded, until she noticed one of her matches had fallen out of her sleeves.
Shit. She threw it back into the forest. She couldn't let the drunk and the ditz know that she was the one who lit the fire in the first place. But how else would her jinja be repaired? It's been so long since humans had come to visit.
She'll have to keep them around for awhile...