The whistling yowl of wind drowned out any calling for help as a blizzard ravaged the mountainside. Only those desperate enough or full of ill-intent would even attempt to make it through the pass at this time year. The total kill count for the region would forever be unknown, however, due to bodies never being recovered in the spring. It was a mystery as to where they ended up but that only furthered the legend and intrigue of the area.
One of the ever-prevalent legends was that of the woman in the snow said to lure unsuspecting victims to their deaths with her song. She was rumored to have skin as translucent as the full moon with hair the color of fresh fallen snow. Her eyes were rumored to always be closed for when they opened, her ice-colored eyes could freeze any living soul that had ventured into her hunting grounds. It didn't matter the victims' status whether it be rich or poor, young or old. Anyone who ventured up the mountainside was bound to encounter such a person and never be seen again.
Dark brown eyes turned towards the what could've been the sky before their owner stumbled through the ever-falling snow. The wind whipped equally dark and unkempt hair into the eyes of the man as he tried to keep his cloak from being stolen from him. Numb and frostbitten fingers curled tighter as a shiver racked his battered form and he had to mentally curse himself for choosing this route over the safer one. However, the safest route would've proved to be his end if he had taken it.
The sound of hounds barking in the distance had disappeared some time ago before the storm had even started. The several wounds sustained needed to be attended to, but he had to keep moving if he didn't want the dogs to catch up. Just because he couldn't see or hear them didn't mean they weren't still pursuing him.
An exceptionally strong gust knocked the man over, making him slip further down the mountain before his cloak was snatched away. Watching it until it disappeared in flurry, he clicked his tongue before rubbing at his arms as the snow started pile on his shoulders. Hearing the chattering of his teeth over the crunching of snow beneath worn shoes, he trudged on before slipping on ice and twisting his ankle.
Glancing up at the desolate sky for a moment more, the man slowly lowered his head as the whistling wind continued to pelt him with snow and ice. Shivering uncontrollably, he listened to the chatter of his teeth and surmised that that would be the last thing he'd hear. As numbness started to set in, he slowly closed his eyes before picking up on something faint. When it vanished, he figured it was his mind playing tricks before he heard it once more.
Soft notes permeated the howling of wind and steadily grew louder. When it sounded as if the source was only several feet away, he opened his eyes to see a slender hand reaching out to him before his world faded behind a white curtain.
The subtle rippling sound of water had the dark-haired man sliding his eyes open. A beige ceiling met his unfocused gaze though it cleared when he blinked several times. The scent of a candle, light and soothing, had him turning his head to see one sitting on a low table with a small cup placed nearby. As he sat up, he noted the damp towel that fell onto his lap prior to casting aside the silky, black throw.
Rubbing an eye, the man turned his attention to the fountain present as more water caused its wooden pipe to fall, spilling the water into a stone basin. The small, trickling waterfall off in the corner had him get out of the low-laying bed and shuffle across the tatami mats that covered the floor. Kneeling down, he watched the ripples forming from the miniature cataract before shifting to stare at the lone pink-tipped lotus floating at the center.
Splashes of orange, white, and black soon drew focus to the fish swimming about at a leisurely pace. A few would stop, looking up at the newcomer with their mouths agape then closing before they swam about once more beneath the blossom. Their flowing tails let curtains of color, allowing a small smile to grace the man's face as he leaned forward.
Hesitant at first, the man placed his fingers along the cool surface, causing more ripples before he slipped his hand into the water to brush against the smooth stones along the bottom. On occasion, one of the koi swam by, rubbing against his hand before swimming off to hide behind the tiny cascade. Feeling something raised, the man curled his fingers around a rounded rock and pulled it up.
A symbol engraved in the center met dark eyes filled with curiosity before the speckled stone was placed back into the water carefully. Gazing at the waterfall display for a while longer, the guest then looked out the window sitting just above the display. Getting to his feet, he made his way around the piece and was greeted by the sight of orchids in full bloom. Soft bird calls could be heard off in the distance as well as the strumming of an instrument unknown to him. Despite that, the man propped his elbow up on the sill, head resting on his hand as he listened in.
His gaze wandered the landscape noticing the faint pink blooms of the flowers. He found it odd to see these blossoms in full bloom, however, as he recalled being in the middle of a raging blizzard. Brushing aside that small fact, the fluttering petals was a nice touch. Picking up a lone petal that had fallen on the sill, dark eyes shifted towards the courtyard at the sound of laughter. It sounded close and with no one else in the vicinity, he moved away to the window, stretching as he made his way back towards the bed to see the neatly folded clothing resting nearby.
Eyeing the dark grey hakama follow by the white obi that had been resting beneath it, the guest eyes his tattered clothing before opting in swapping for the newer attire. His attention then shifted towards the simple dark blue kimono before putting that on as well, enjoying the satiny interior as it touched his skin. He rose to his feet soon after, adjusting the sleeves, before tying his obi around his waist. Spotting geta near the door, he slipped them on before stepping out the room.
With no one present, the guest walked the halls absentmindedly, admiring the swords and art displayed while his ears picked up on the occasional sound of laughter as well as music. As his gaze wandered the walls, they observed the painted scrolls and scriptures that hung in gold, filigreed frames. Seeing how several symbols were painted on the thin doors, he opened the closest one to find a room with a low table, three cups lining the sides of it while a case-like teapot sat in the center. Black pillows contrasted the matted floor while spiraling stalks of bamboo adorned the room's outer walls.
Crossing the room to get to another door, he looked onto a rock garden prior to stepping out to admire its intricacy. The sounds of strings being plucked outside the side door had him sliding it aside to be greeted by the blissful aroma of orchids, cherries, green tea, and something likened to lilies. Stepping into the space that was lit by just candles floating in glass basins, he watched as their glow reflected off the four waterfall displays angled at the center while a large black mat was placed at the center on a pedestal.
Making his way over, the man finally noticed the stark white pillow that had been left there. It looked vert comfortable and as he knelt, he realized how soft and warm it was. He was still a bit tired from climbing the mountain and figured another nap would suffice in such a peaceful atmosphere.
He smiled at the crisp, clean scent the cushion had as he slide down to rest his head. Burying his face into the downy exterior, the man ran his hand through it once more as his eyes closed.
A low purr then had him open his eyes lazily to stare at one of the corners containing the floating candles. When the sound died away, he closed his eyes once more letting out a contented sigh as he ran his hand through the soft, snow white pillow of fur.
"Aiko-chan…" The man opened his eyes. "…we can play later. Let me sleep for now."
Turning a bit, the man watched as something white shifted before flicking about. He then sat up, scooting away when he noticed something moving inches from his face Eyebrow arched, he watched as two more of the furry white objects swayed to and fro before easing away. He stopped once his hands landed on the flatter, beige tatami mat while his eyes remained trained on the moving pillow.
A lone yawn filled the room before it died off to give way to the distant strumming of strings. Scooting away a little more, the raven-haired man stilled as points flicked in his direction, one of the furry appendages moving to show a glacial blue eye flecked with silver. A hitch in his breathing had a white head raising, ears twitching in mild irritation before becoming still. Head cocked at an angle; a fox stared back at the panicking guest.
"You're not my Aiko-chan," it murmured sleepily as a bushy tail swept across the floor.
Brown eyes then focused on the swaying appendage until five had settled at either side of the animal. A nervous chuckle then flew from man's mouth as the snow colored creature stood up, stretching with another yawn to showcase a pair of pearly white canines. When it had finished, the fox tilted its head once more as the guest hurried to his feet.
"A talking fox…" he uttered half to himself. "This is a dream."
"I assure you it's not, Ryuu–"
The icy gaze watched the man run out the room before the fox stretched again. As it pawed at the black mat, its tails bristled back to their fluffier appearance as the creature sat up completely.
"I do believe its time to greet our guest," came a chuckle.
Paranoia hung suspended in the air as the man finally crept from the storage room he had been hiding in for the past hour or so. Glancing over his shoulder every now and then, he finally allowed himself a moment of peace when he didn't see the animal anywhere.
The light echo of strings being strummed had the raven looking towards a pair of double doors. Leaning against the entrance, the man slid them open to be greeted by the music as he stepped out onto a wooden veranda. The fallen petals of orchids swirled about his feet before drifting off in the same wind that carried away the notes.
Laughter had him looking up once more to see a child, perhaps no older than five or six, dressed in a red and gold kimono scampering across the grounds. Her long, black hair hung loose save the small ponytail that was at the top of her head. Her pallid skin made her ghost-like, reminding him of the tale of the woman of the snow, accompanied with the large smile that only a child could have. When she glanced his way, however, he couldn't suppress the shiver that ran down his spine as large, garnet-colored eyes looked at him. Her attention then went elsewhere before she scampered off into one of the other buildings.
"You've finally come out, Ryuusei-san" a light voice chuckled. "I do hope you're enjoying your stay here in Zen."
Looking to his right, the man jumped when he saw another sitting comfortably on a puffy floor pillow. They were busy running their fingers through long, white and silvery tresses. When the hair parted, giving view to glacial blue eyes flecked with silver, Ryuusei stepped back as a soft smile crossed their face once the hair was completely out the way.
"You look as if you have seen a ghost, Ryuusei-san." The man took a step back as they drank from a small porcelain cup. "Ah, where are my manners? I'm Yuki, the caretaker of this place."
The one named Yuki then rose to their feet after giving the man a small bow. They then turned on their heels and walked away in long, even strides. Watching them go, Ryuusei hesitantly trailed behind, watching the sway of the other's long, pale blue robes that trailed behind. Picking up his pace as Yuki started humming, Ryuusei maintained a respectable distance, only pausing when the caretaker stopped to withdraw an ornate kanzashi. The individual then slid the pin into their hair, twisting it around in fluid motion until the tresses were done up into a neat bun with only the sides hanging down.
Hurried footsteps against the veranda had Ryuusei looking over his shoulder to see a blur of red and gold go running by. As the child leapt forward, she froze the moment a poorly stifled hiss was heard. Looking down at the girl to see her taking a quick step back with one foot raised in a precarious fashion, Ryuusei then turned his attention to the white and flattened thing on the floor. When it jerked, fur bristling, Ryuusei realized that it was a tail. As he slid his gaze upwards, his eyes widened as he watched two, white points twitch before lying flat against the curator's head.
When blue and red eyes first looked at each other then focused on the guest, Ryuusei stumbled backwards. "Y-yokai!"
Yuki turned, ears swiveling. "Ryuus–" The caretaker sighed before looking down at the child tugging at the hems of their robes. "Yes, Aiko-chan?"
"I'm hungry, Yuki-kun~!"
Said person's ears twitched at the rumbling coming from the girl's stomach before taking her by the hand. "Very well, dear. Let's get you something to eat."
Out of breath from running through the maze-like compound, Ryuusei came to a staggering stop outside a pair of paper doors. Sweeping the wild strands from out his face, he balled up a fist before letting it go lax as he tried to figure out his situation.
He still had no clue to how it was that he had gotten to such a place, but he didn't plan on staying there with demons around. Splashing from the other side of the door grabbed his attention. Sliding aside the screen to be greeted by a cloud of steam, he fanned the vapors to be greeted by snow.
Eyebrow arched; he took a step inside only to jump as the door slid back into place behind him. Glancing over his shoulder one last time, he then continued onward, noting the crisp white snow that lined the steppingstone pathway.
The trail wound about but what struck the man as odd was that, despite all the snow. It was hardly cold. The air was humid actually and hearing the sound of water up ahead, he quickened his pace until he came to the end.
There was a pool ahead and kneeling, Ryuusei felt the steam hitting his skin once more. Sticking his hand into the water, he pulled it out to rub his reddening skin. Once the burn died down, e stuck his hand in the water once again, a smile crossing his face as he leaned forward. Rolling up his sleeve to his own kimono, he allowed the bubbles to tickle his arms.
The sound of rushing water was almost forgotten in the background as the area held its peaceful air. Making his way in the direction of the sound, Ryuusei crossed a bridge compiled of rounded stone before reaching the other bank. The cooler water was clear and with the waves of the falls, he could see white and blue lotus drifting lazily along the surface. The crisp scent of the place was enough to make him smile to himself until he heard splashing.
Looking over the rocks, the first thing that man saw were two white points breaching the surface before disappearing under the cluster of flowers. Tilting his head as they breached again, Ryuusei arched an eyebrow as the flicked some of the water away. Climbing over the rocks to get a better view, he watched as the flowers parted to allow the curator to come up.
White hair swayed almost ethereally in the gentle currents while the translucent skin had a pink tint to it, perhaps due to a previous dip in the hot spring. Dark eyes noted the tails swaying beneath the surface obscuring Yuki's lower half as the individual made their way to the rock wall to comb fingers through their hair, humming quietly as they did so.
'This yokai brought me here…' he mused as he continued listening to the song. 'They probably killed whoever was running this place in order to lure more people.'
Peering down at the individual that was in the middle of combing one of the tails, Ryuusei grit his teeth before creeping down the rock. When one of the ears twitched then swiveled, he shoved the curator's head beneath the water and held it down despite the nails that started scratching at his hands.
He would get rid of this demon to spare any other wandering soul that happened upon the place.
At least, that's what he told himself before he too was pulled into the pool of water.
Sputtering as he resurfaced, he was not prepared for the clawed hand that pinned him to the rock wall by the neck. Trembling as the fox-like ears breached the surface followed by a curtain of white hair, Ryuusei braced himself as the hair parted to show an ice-colored eye glaring from the shadows. The tense air then lightened almost immediately as Yuki tilted their head.
"Ryuusei-san?" came the confused inquiry as the hand released him immediately. "What are you doing?" The ears then twitched in a curious fashion. "One does not generally bathe in clothing… unless that is what they do where you are from." Yuki then offered a smile. "Is everything alright?" Brown eyes narrowed slightly before looking away. "Are you alright, Ryuu–?"
"Oh, where are my manners?"
Climbing out the water, Yuki perched upon the smooth rock above and began grooming the soaked tails. Watching the caretaker that was above Ryuusei watched curiously, and grudgingly, before noticing something as the other started shaking themselves dry.
"You're… you're…" Yuki hummed in question as their gaze landed on the one still in the water. "You're not a woman."
Yuki tilted their head again before looking down at themselves. An amused snort then came before they brushed aside dampened hair to give a good look to the guest. "I never said I was." They climbed down the rock a bit to smile in their guest's face. "Is that going to be a problem?"
"Manners," Yuki chided to himself as he backed up. He then set to work of fluffing his tails. "A new set of clothes will be waiting for you in your room."
"How do you leave this place?" Ryuusei muttered. Yuki hummed. "Yuki."
"Why would you want to leave?" The mischievous gaze drifted to view one of contempt. "No one can just leave Zen," he replied. "That would be foolish."
"Why?" Yuki hummed in response. "Yuki."
"A new set of clothes will be waiting for you in your room," came the response.
Pulling himself out the water, Ryuusei stepped around the fox demon that was still in the process of grooming before heading out of the onsen.
Avoiding the curator was a bit difficult but Ryuusei had managed to do so for the next few days. He had spent most of his time away from the main areas and managed to acquire one of the tantos that had been on display in one of the halls. He also noticed that he had not seen anyone else in his time there, leading him to believe that the fox had done away with everyone except for that red-eyed demon child that followed him everywhere.
Darting into a nearby room as he heard the small girl calling for the other, he listened to the padding of feet against the flooring until it faded away. Coming out once he was sure he was safe, the man crept down the hall before slipping out on the veranda. Looking around to see that there were still no other guests to be seen, Ryuusei snuck to the outer perimeter of the place to see if he could find a way out.
There was none to be seen, much to his frustration.
"Yuki-kun!" The man headed back towards the courtyard to see the child running in between the verandas with a crown of flowers in hand. "Yuki-kun!"
The small girl dressed in red had always clung to the fox it would seem. Every time he caught a glimpse of the child, she was tugging on the curator's robes or every time she called for the demon, Yuki would appear to appease the small girl.
It then got the man thinking.
Large, red eyes darted towards the man before a grin crossed the pale face. "Hello, Ryuu-san. Have you seen, Yuki-kun?"
"No, I haven't."
The smile waned as she toyed with the ring of blossoms. "Oh, I wanted to give them the flowers."
"Aiko-chan." The child looked up at the man with a trembling lip. "Where are the other guests?"
"Guests?" she questioned. "It's just you."
"Why?" he asked. "Do you not get many guests?"
The girl simply tilted her head, her ponytail falling in the same direction. "Many guests?" A wide smile then split her features. "That would be fun! Do you think there would be more guests?"
Ryuusei narrowed his eyes a bit. "Why don't you ask Yuki where the guests are?" A shiver then ran up the man's spine as red eyes continued to stare up at him in childlike curiosity. "Aiko-chan, do you know where the exit is?"
"The exit?" she murmured before tilting her head in the other direction. "Yuki-kun says not to go there. It's much more fun here!"
"Wouldn't it be better if there were more people?" he asked.
The man nodded as the corner of his eye twitched. "Yes, more. Maybe there is only you two because the guests don't know how to get in. Why don't you show me the exit so we can welcome more guests? I'm sure your Yuki-kun will be happy as well."
"Yuki-kun will be happy?" Ryuusei nodded. "Ok, follow me!"
Watching the girl run off ahead, Ryuusei hurried after her for several moments. Smiling at the idea of getting out of this place, the man picked up his pace when he saw a gate shrouded by the orchid trees.
"Is this the way out?" he asked as he tugged on the gilded bar. "It's locked."
"Well, Yuki-kun can open it."
His eyes narrowed once more at the child toying with the flowers in hand. "What?"
"I can get Yuk– "
"This was supposed to be a surprise remember? We were going to find the exit to let more guest in, right? That was the plan!" He massaged his temple before tugging on the gate again. "How does this open?!" His attention then went to Aiko. "You know how to open this, don't you?!"
"N-n-no," she stammered, taking a step back.
"Yes, you do."
"I-I don't know."
"Yes, you do." He took a step towards her. "Open the gate."
"I-I c-can't," she said shakily before having her arm seized. "Y-Yuki-kun!"
"Aiko-chan?" Ryuusei looked back towards the courtyard to see the curator hurrying over. "Ryuusei-san, what are you doing?" Yuki questioned as his ears went flat. "Please let her go."
"I want to leave."
"Please let her go," he requested as he took a step forward. He then held up his hands as Ryuusei withdrew the tanto from his waist. "Don't, Ryuu–"
Looking at the trembling eyes, Yuki turned his gaze to the curator as his ears went back. A low growl escaped before a cold gale swept across the courtyard, blowing the flowers off the trees. The tails that were usually swaying or tucked away bristled while the once manicured hands sharpened before the hands balled into fists.
"Let. Her. Go." A snarl was accompanied by a freezing gust as the curator took another stop forward, baring sharpened canines. "Let. Her. G-"
"Open the gate."
"The last thing you want is me angry with you, Ryuusei," Yuki growled, dropping honorifics, as he continued to approach. "I ignored you barging into my quarters, I dismissed the fact you called us yokai – demons – even, we've treated you to food, shelter, clothing. I even overlooked you trying to drown me in the onsen but one thing I will not forgive you for is if you touch my Aiko-chan. Despite my general disposition, I am very possessive when it comes to my things." The fox then held up a clawed hand flexing it slowly. "Everything else could've been overlooked. Those horrible manners of yours while in my care and even the more despicable things you done before you got here."
"I am very aware of what you've done before your arrival, Ryuusei." Yuki took another step. "You were an illusive thief but bit off a tad more than you were able to handle and wound up killing someone in the process." He closed the gap a tad more. "You then tried to escape by running up the mountain with the idea that no one would be foolish enough to follow you. It was your own judgement that brought you to where you are. Even knowing all of that, I still brought you here so you wouldn't have to suffer." Yuki leaned in slowly, growling quietly as he did. "If you want to leave so badly, let Aiko-chan go then I will do as you demand."
Looking down at the red-eyed child that was in tears, Ryuusei let the girl to see her run behind her guardian. Hearing the creaking of a gate, he looked over his shoulder to see the thing swing open. Sheathing the small sword as he took a step towards the exit, he glanced back at the fox to see him still glaring before scooping up the child into his arms. Taking that as his cue to leave, Ryuusei ran away before the curator changed his mind.
Hearing the gates swing shut as he ran, the smell of orchids faded as the surroundings grew darker, colder. The once present sound of music that had continuously filled the residence had long since went silent. Only the sound of footsteps could be heard. Despite this, Ryuusei continued forward as the unsettling notion of being alone crept into his thoughts. After several minutes, that was then replaced with the growing dread of being watched. He was uncertain, however, due to the unwavering blackness that had consumed the area. He could still see himself but there were no remarkable landmarks anywhere around him.
He had figured that he would at least encounter the snowy mountain.
Deciding it best to go back by this point, Ryuusei turned to return to the place of verandas and solace as the growing unease of surveillance continued to weigh on him. Picking up his pace when he heard what could have been a garbled growl, he withdrew the tanto for protection as he broke into a run. Seeing the outline of gates ahead, he ran faster before something snagged his ankle, making him fall face first.
When he glanced over his shoulder, he could make out the outline of something almost indistinguishable from its surroundings. As something yellow appeared, mimicking that of a blink, the man grabbed for the small sword before swinging it at the thing wrapped around his ankle as it began to burn. Once free, he scrambled to his feet as several more of the yellow spots came into view around him.
Running as the grating sounds continued to increase in volume, Ryuusei hardly allowed himself a moment of rest as he pulled at the gate. To his horror, it had been locked.
"Yuki!" he shouted as he rattled the thing barring his way. "Yuki-san!" That horrible sound reached his ears, making him whir around, swinging the sword he had taken with him to keep those things at bay. "Yuki-san!"
Said person glanced over their shoulder in the direction of the gate to see a hand wrapped tightly around the bars. The rattling sound of the gate were hardly heard over the strumming of strings as Yuki sat comfortably on one of the verandas with a cup of tea.
"Yuki-kun!" The fox turned his attention to the small child that had a ring of flowers in her hand. "I made you a crown!"
"Your so sweet, Aiko-chan," he replied, bowing his head so the girl could adorn his hair with the blossoms.
"What was that?" Aiko questioned, looking around until Yuki removed the flowers to place upon her head instead.
"Nothing," he replied as he caught a glimpse of the man being ripped away from the gate. A slight smile then crossed his face as he looked at the small child in his care. "Shall we go meet our next guest? They should be arriving any moment now."
"We have a guest?"
The smile widened as the curator got to his feet to take the girl by the hand. Walking as she skipped, Yuki hummed along with the Aiko's singing until they made it to the front of the establishment to be greeted by another dressed in a black, traditional kimono. The equally dark hair had been tied back though the longer strands framed the sides of their face.
Espresso colored eyes opened before sliding down to look at the small child that had run up to them. A gentle smile then crossed his face. "Hello there, Aiko-san."
"It's Aiko-chan!" she corrected as he patted her lightly on the head.
"Runihura-san, it's always a pleasure," Yuki greeted, only to receive a bow in return. "You know you don't have to do that every time you come here."
"Perhaps, but it doesn't hurt to exercise one's manners."
The fox smiled at that. "I do believe you are right."
"At any rate, may I ask where my charge is?" A slight frown pulled at his mouth as he watched the fox's ears go flat. "Yuki-san, where is Ryuusei-san?"
"He wanted to leave."
"You… let him go?" Runihura questioned as he narrowed his eyes a bit. "You cannot just… just let them go."
"He was insistent on leaving," Yuki pressed as his eyes slid towards the small girl playing with the crown of flowers.
Following his gaze, Runihura simply sighed before massaging the side of his head. "I see. Is she…?"
"I see." Looking back at the curator, the newcomer bowed at the waist. "I shall take my leave then."
"But you just got here," Aiko protested as she grabbed the end of Runihura's sleeve. "Can't you stay for a little bit?"
"I should go back, Aiko-san. Omega is going to want an explanation as to why I will be returning alone." The small girl pouted. "Don't be like that, dear. I'll be back again."
"Nonsense," Yuki said as he beckoned Aiko back to his side. "I will send you off with an explanation so Omega-sama doesn't give you too much trouble. In the meantime, why don't you stay for a couple hours for some tea and small talk? You are our guest after all."
Looking down at the child then at Yuki, Runihura offered a smile as he followed the pair inside. "Tea does sound lovely. Thank you for your hospitality."
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