They said, within the Onikurayama Shrine, there resided a god.Originally Posted by Contents
Normally, such a thing wouldn’t be noteworthy. A god within a shrine was practically a tautology, redundant. Gods were immaterial. They lived within the stones and rivers, the forests and mountains, ethereal beings bound to the land. Even if they couldn’t be seen or touched, humanity believed in them regardless. The shrine formed the gate, through which they descended from the world of gods to the world of men— but this one lived not with the gods.
It could be seen and touched. It lived and breathed. It was bound not to the land or the sea or the relics of the past, but to flesh— a god in human form, dwelling within the shrine. It began as a rumor.
Like most rumors, how it began had long been forgotten. They said, that through the offering hall screens, silhouetted figures could be seen. Voices could be heard. That within the closed-off sanctuary lived a girl of peerless beauty, clad in snow-white robes.
Some said that she was bound to the sanctuary, never to leave that room. Others said she wandered the forests, only descending to the halls to receive her worshippers behind the screens. One had even claimed that come nightfall, that once all the worshippers had gone and silence had fallen upon the grounds, she could be seen wading among the shallows. Not one had doubted that she was the god of the shrine.
So Akagane had heard, at least, from the other travellers at the inn. He and the escort had been travelling for— how long, now— six days? Seven? He had lost count of the time, his journey with the severe-faced guards proceeding in relative silence. They had not opted to make conversation, and he, in turn, was not in want of it. He was left alone, to mull in his thoughts.
He didn’t understand, and no one expected him to nor had they explained; what, really, could a child understand? On a day like any other, these men had arrived at their doorstep, exchanging grave words with his father that he did not catch, only their expressions visible to him— his father sorrowful, his mother resigned. He remembered, at the time, his sister had cried. And like that, he was gone, taken by those men. It was the last time he had seen his parents.
The men told him little, when they deigned to speak. That he committed no crime, nor was his family being punished. That their destination was in Nagaoka, the Onikurayama Shrine. That, upon their arrival, he would become a priest— a servant of their god, and a member of the Asagami family.
He didn’t quite fathom what they meant by that, but what he got out of that was adoption. Why him, he didn’t understand. They had no answers for him. Be it that they weren’t telling, or simply didn’t know, he hadn’t a clue.
And when they would arrive at the shrine, he would discover, then, that the rumors of the woman were true. That there really was a flesh-and-blood god, enshrined in the sanctuary. That he really was to become her servant.
That all gods needed a sacrifice.
On Sundays, she would buy dried persimmons.
It was a routine that Tsubaki had fallen into one day, though she couldn’t remember when or why it had started. Down at the markets, there would be street vendors along the riverside, hawking all varieties of wares and snacks— fried tofu and mochi cakes, fish tempura and buckwheat noodles— none of which she could buy.
She was here running errands, after all, and money was not infinite. The shrine sent her down to buy groceries, not snacks. And so, it broke her heart, as much as a heart could be broken by a world of snacks just out of reach, but she always had to abstain.
The tempura would just get cold by the time you get back, anyway.
Sunday was the exception. For whatever reason, on Sundays, they would always give her a little extra money for her own use— perhaps a show of gratitude, or generosity on their end. Money, which could be spent on snacks.
The vendors in the commercial districts changed day-by-day. Mondays through Thursdays, an old man would sell grilled eel by the entrance; she liked to amuse herself watching the eels swim about in the buckets. On Wednesdays, a bearded man would set up a stall for soba, and the days afterward, an old woman would set up her stall straight across the street from him; the two of them would exchange glares throughout the day, through the crowds of street goers.
On Sundays, they would sell persimmons. She found herself here again. The stand was run by a restless youth about her age, perhaps a bit older, alongside his aging mother. He was a boy with a jaunty smile, who dreamed of making it big, opening his own business in Edo. But until then, he sold persimmons.
How exactly he planned to make his dream come true, Tsubaki hadn’t a clue, and neither did the boy, she suspected. He wasn’t exactly making a fortune at his fruit stand, anyway.
An eager smile. “Back again, Yamanoue?”
Yamanoue. A nickname that had stuck, though she didn’t like it very much. She nodded, as she fiddled with her coin purse. She had forgotten his name.
Hopeless dreams aside, visiting the stand became a habit of hers, even if, she realized, she probably would’ve rather had something other than dried fruits. Today, she found herself craving tempura, but found herself buying persimmons— as usual. By the time she left the market, she had bought two packs. One for her, and one for Seidou.
The walk back always took a while; the shrine was a good distance away, hidden within the mountain forests. Her only solace was that the path was well-maintained for such a far out landmark, as the Onikurayama often received visitors. That, and that the long walk gave her time to work on those persimmons.
The sound of clashing blades from the road up ahead broke her out of her reverie.
She blinked. Froze. She strained her vision, her eyes darting wildly to find the source.
It was coming from a short distance away, on a small clearing on the forest path, where several men stood, and how many more lay on the ground, their bodies limp and bloodied— clearly dead.
Most of them men wore tattered robes and worn armor, their battered bows and blades drawn with unsteady hands, visibly unsettled. She recognized their kind and some of their faces, a band of outlaws recently made wanted by the local lords, who threatened the city outskirts. One of them stood taller and prouder at their forefront, his armor a bit more elaborate, a short sword and longsword sheathed by his side, one hand gripping each. Among them all, utterly surrounded, stood a single enemy, his face pristine and eyes calm, the paired blades slung by his waist. They were both sheathed. His hands were bloody.
He took a step forward. They took a step back. A second passed. The swordsmen gripped their blades. Two. The sun beat down, a breeze rustling through the forest leaves.
A piercing yell echoed throughout the clearing— perhaps one of them had lost their cool— as one of the bandits charged in, his blade brandished wildly above his head. His comrades deigned to follow; the leader stood rooted to the spot, wary.
The first one took a wild swing, as the man dodged it easily, landing a kick in his stomach, the sound of crunching bones audible throughout the glade. Another slashed at him from behind, only to have his arm grabbed, his body thrown to the ground, his head crushed by another blow. Several archers fired at the man in vain, as he grabbed a third by the neck, the bandit-turned-pincushion his shield as he charged into their ranks.
The leader stepped back, panic in his voice. “Cut him DOWN!”
The archers tossed away their bows and unsheathed their blades, the rest charging in all at once, all in vain. He weaved through them, his movements fluid and graceful, a short sword in one hand to block and parry, the other empty, his punches landing like sledgehammers. They fell, one-by-one, their organs crushed and bones broken, bodies crumpled on the ground, dead or soon-to-be dead. Dying cries echoed throughout the glade.
Tsubaki was reminded of a memory long past, when they would play by the shallows of the lake by the shrine as children. She remembered— when a crane had landed nearby, and Seidou had tried to scare it off with a stick. Every swing he took, every strike he made, no matter what he tried, the crane would weave through the attacks unscathed.
The storm settled. No one else stood alive in the clearing, but the man and the leader, a dead silence taking over the forest. The man sheathed his blades, and spread his arms wide open. His face was marred by a tinge of arrogance. “Well?”
They stood motionless, staring each other down, for seconds that felt like eternities. With a desperate yell like that of a beast, the leader charged, his blade gleaming white in the sunlight, primed to slash at the man’s throat—
It hit nothing but air. The leader’s eyes had widened in shock. With a single motion, the man’s hand had deflected the sword arm, almost gently, directing the blade out of the way. With a second motion, the bandit was on the ground, thrown over his head as the man grabbed him by the arm. A final blow to the chest caved it in, blood expelled from his throat. It had happened so quickly, she could barely make out their movements, the battle over in barely a second.
A lull settled over the forest, the man gazing over the bodies of the dead, seemingly lost in thought. Slowly, he raised his head, only just now noticing Tsubaki watching him in the clearing, his eyes, widening, meeting hers. They held their stares, the forest utterly silent.
Behind him, she had suddenly noticed, the bandit leader had gotten back on his feet, his gait unsteady, his hand grasping for his sword. He raised the blade above his head with a yell, a desperate, last attempt at the man’s life. The man had no time to react.
On the hilt of his blade, a blue lattice formed across its surface, like a spider’s web.
The bandit howled in pain, dropping his sword, cradling his hand as if he’d been burned. The man turned in alarm, and unsheathed his sword in a single motion, a single slash to take the leader’s head. The body crumpling over, the throat slashed, finally dead.
The man held his stance, even after the deed was done; his hands were slacking, his grip weak.
He slumped over and collapsed onto the ground.
When he came to, he found himself in the room of an inn.
By the bedside sat a girl, a camellia adorning her hair, nibbling on a dried persimmon. When she notice that he was awake, she offered him one. “Here. Eat.”
—Were that girl from the forest, the ronin was about to say. He remembered that final attempt on his life, how the bandit had suddenly dropped his sword in agony, as if cursed. The unasked question gnawed at him, but he thought better of it. “No thank you.”
She almost snorted “That wasn’t a request,” she said, as she brandished the fruit at his face. “You didn’t collapse out of injury; you were barely injured at all. You collapsed out of hunger. Eat.” Grudgingly, he took a persimmon and took a bite. He had only just now noticed the ache of hunger in his stomach, almost wincing at the fact. She watched him, until she was sure he had eaten the whole thing. He ended up wolfing down half the pack. She looked somewhat annoyed at this.
“Thank you. You saved my life.” His eyes darted around the unfamiliar room, the noise of the streets audible from just outside. It was still bright outside. “How long have I…?”
“Been unconscious?” A shrug. “Not long, I suppose. Maybe an hour or two.” She shot him a scrutinizing stare. “Considering your state, I was surprised you could fight like that. After all that, I thought you’d be out for, hmm… a few days?”
A short silence. She took that as her cue to continue. “What happened?”
“I was traveling. To Nagaoka.”
He nodded. “To visit a friend, yes. I’ve been on the road, travelling for quite a while, and, well… I was attacked, as you saw.”
“Well, then, I suppose you got here in one piece, haven’t you?” An unfamiliar voice, from right behind him. He hadn’t noticed the man standing there— a local samurai, from the looks of it. His swords were slung by his side, but from the looks of his robes, his general air, he seemed to be more the bureaucratic type.
“This is Nagaoka?”
The girl nodded. “You were almost there, by the time you collapsed. Only perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes away. The local samurai were alerted of a commotion nearby, but instead, they found you.” She got up from her seat, picking up her groceries from the floor. “Now that you’re awake, I’ll take my leave. If you’ll excuse me—”
A moment of hesitation. “What’s your name?”
She stared at him for a moment, eyebrow raised, but decided it wouldn’t do any harm to answer. “Tsubaki. Yamanoue Tsubaki.” And with that, she left the room, disappearing around the corner into the hall, back into the streets.
He found himself gripping the sheets, his knuckles white, at the sound of her name.
He and the official watched her leave in silence. When he was sure that she was gone, the official turned to him. “She told us your story, swordsman. That she found you among the bodies of the dead. Dead by your hand.”
The official seated himself directly across from him on the table, hands folded over his mouth, all business. He leaned in towards him. “You will tell us what you know.”
What followed was a barrage of scrutinizing questions; he asked of him his name, his hometown, his lord, his story. The ronin pursed his lips. Regardless, he could not conceal the fact that he was without a master. He decided to call himself Yoshirou, and bureaucrat had not questioned it, though the man still seemed wary of him.
He wondered what state they had found him in— among a blood-soaked glade, broken bodies, all dead by his hand? Perhaps the scene of the battle was all the convincing they needed, official measures aside? Whatever it was, it seemed to be enough to inspire fear in the man, however ill-concealed. He seemed eager to finish this as quickly as he could. The official asked of him the details of the encounter, nodding along as he listened, as if finding it satisfactory. He seemed in no mood to question him further, and just as well, Yoshirou was in no mood to answer. He fought an oncoming headache.
Finished with the interrogation, the official withdrew a small bag from his pocket, and placed it on the table, the sound of clinking coins audible as he set it down. Yoshirou raised an eyebrow. “And this is?”
“The bounty,” he said shortly. “Those outlaws you killed were a wanted band, a recent emergent threat to the town, and you wiped them out in a single battle. So the girl said. Well, who knows if there are any remnants, but the leader, at least, was killed. Consider it our lord’s sign of gratitude to you.”
He was taken aback. “I… thank you.”
The official gave a stiff bow, as he turned to leave. “A pleasure doing business with you.” The tone of his suggested it was anything but.
And with that, he was alone again. He looked at his hands; they were shaking. He couldn’t forget that name.
Yamanoue Tsubaki— a mountaintop flower.
Could it be…?
◇◇◇To Seidou, dried persimmons were the last strands of spider’s thread, connecting him to his past.
It brought back memories of his childhood. They used to own a persimmon tree out back, under whose shade they would take refuge as they played there during the summer. Come autumn, they’d harvest the fruits, bright and plump, eating half, and stringing the rest up to dry out in the sun. In the winter, they’d snack on them by the fireside as they took refuge from the cold. They had been Takara’s favorite food.
For whatever reason, Tsubaki liked to buy him some on Sundays.
Father liked to send her to do their shopping, sending her to town. It was a lowly task, he was told, but he almost envied her.
She’d tell him stories of the city, of swordsmen and artists performing in the streets, of the kabuki theaters and the yakusha-e plastered to the walls, of hawkers and street vendors selling every kind of food imaginable by the riverside. He was never allowed down there. He had a duty to the shrine. As children, they had once whispered to each other in secret, as she conspired grander and grander plans to sneak him out for a night, for him to see the city with his own eyes. Alas, such plans never came to fruition, they could only dream of it, eventually being forgotten as the days passed— but she’d still tell him stories.
He had concluded his duties for the day, as he sat on the shrine’s gate. He rubbed a small scar on his neck, taking care not to ruin the healing charm plastered on his skin, still feeling a little lightheaded. He always did, after the goddess took his offering.
Tsubaki should’ve been back by now.
It wasn’t dark yet, but it was about to be. The summer days were forgiving like that; he supposed there were a few more hours until nightfall. Seidou couldn’t help but worry. He heard rumors from the shrine’s visitors, of a band of outlaws preying on the roads that led to the mountains, of missing travelers and victims held for ransom. The local authorities were having trouble rooting them out. She had come back late before, and yet…
She should be able to defend herself. There’s no way she would’ve—
His ears perked up, as he heard footsteps in the distance. He stood up, eyes darting, and saw her, running up the steps. She looked tired, nearly out of breath, but she was smiling. Her arms were laden with groceries, a small package of persimmons on top. As usual.
He couldn’t help but return her smile.
“Welcome back, Tsubaki.”
AN: Insert copyright disclaimer here-- but you already know that, no?
Huge thanks to Frostyvale and Dullahan for betaing this, and helping me work out some of the kinks for the time-period. Long story short, this is a story about the demon hunter families in Edo period Japan, around the 1700s; that being so, it's heavily (probably entirely) OC based. The name "Shinkai" refers to a sort of hidden world in which kami reside; though admittedly the only source I can find that actually says anything about that is the Wikipedia page for kami. Welp.
Oh, and that first fight was inspired by that first one from Sword of the Stranger, here.