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Retribution of the Fallen

Retribution of the Fallen

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853 readers have visited Retribution of the Fallen since Mihael created it.

Aethyia are listed as curators, giving them final say over any conflict & the ability to clean up mistakes.

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The Story So Far... Write a Post » as written by 2 authors

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Character Portrait: Kenji Tsukimono Character Portrait: Sachiko Tsukimono Character Portrait: Amaya Reijin
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"No."

"But-"

"No," was the curt reply Kenji gave to his sister, sending her a flat look. Sachiko sighed, lifting the heavy blade against her shoulders as Kenji put his sword back into its sheath. She pursed her lips together as Kenji bent down to collect the item that had fallen, and placed it into a sack, tying it back at his waist. "We do not have time for those things, Sachiko. You know that," he spoke, his voice monotonous as he continued to regard his sister. Sachiko sighed in defeat, and placed her blades back in the scabbard across her back. The sun was setting, painting the horizon in golds and purples, and it was also signaling the time for them to start their patrols.

"We need to find shelter for the night. We will continue in the morning," he stated, glancing at Sachiko from the corners of his eyes. His face softened for just a moment, but it was gone in the blink of an eye, and Sachiko shook her head. They had been searching for almost an entire week for someone, and that someone happened to be their next pay. He was wanted for some murder he committed back in the village of Sagae. There had been a sighting near Mt. Yudono, a place which housed one of the most sacred shrines in the Dewa Province, however; Kenji cared little to nothing for that. He just wanted the man, dead or alive, and collect his dues.

"We are close to Yudono-san Shrine. Hidenori has been spotted near the vicinity. We can ask the shrine for a place to stay if need be. Chances are high that we will run into him along the way," Sachiko suggested, touching Kenji's elbow gingerly. He glanced over his shoulder and contemplated the suggestion. "Worst case scenario, we get a good night's rest and Hidenori happens to be in the next town," she added, the edges of her lips tilting up slightly. Kenji sighed, shaking his head as he continued walking forward. Sachiko smiled softly behind her brother as she followed.

Reaching the shrine had taken a matter of three hours, and Sachiko stared up at it in wonder, her eyes glittering at the sight. "I see why it's considered one of the most holy places," she stated off-handedly. Kenji rolled his eyes, shifting in his spot, as he glanced around to see if there were any priests, or priestesses, about. "Hello?" Sachiko called forth, glancing in the other direction. It didn't appear to have people around, but there was bound to be at least a handful of people. Surely one person couldn't attend this shrine alone.

“Excuse me?” The voice, melodic and sweet, came from behind the two travelers. “Is there something I can help you with?” The inquiry sounded honest, and indeed she wore the expression to match. She was not nearly so tall as either of the others, but she was certainly distinctive-looking, considering the short-cropped silver-blonde hair, and the strange assortment of monks’ robes and pieces of armor she wore. Her only armament, however, appeared to be a traditional ringed shakujo staff, which clinked musically as she set the butt end of it against the ground.

She half-smiled, the expression gentle, and cocked her head, producing a bright vermilion glimmer as the large feather in her headpiece caught the light of the dying sun. It was long enough to arch over her head and drape to the level of her shoulderblades, and seemed to carry all the hues of the sun. “The traditional visiting hours for the shrine are over, but if you would like to see the Guardian, I’m sure she would be happy to make some time for you.” The young woman shifted her weight from one foot to the other, though it did not seem to be a nervous gesture. Rather, she—and the atmosphere around her even—exuded a palpable sense of calm and serenity, one that seemed almost to freshen the air about her. It was, however, a very subtle thing, and she had found that most people didn’t really notice it.

Sachiko stared at the woman who appeared, and tilted her head to the side. A smile graced her lips as she took a step forward, her arms outstretched, however; before she could embrace the shorter girl, Kenji's hand took hold of her shoulder, and firmly turned the red-haired woman around. He fixed her with a flat look as Sachiko pursed her lips together. He turned his attention back to the shorter woman and gave her an equally flat look. He regarded her for a minute, tilting his head to the side before coming to a decision. Sachiko glanced at Kenji, feeling her hand twitch before she turned back to the silver-haired girl.

"I am Kenji Tsukimono, and this is my sister, Sachiko," he stated, introducing himself at first. "We are in need of a place to stay," he spoke, quick to the point. "It is only for the night, we will be gone the moment the sun rises," he continued, crossing his arms over his chest. "Or if you know another place we may stay for the night," he added as an after thought. Sachiko's arm continued to twitch as she tried to resist the urge to hug the girl. Kenji turned to regard her, to keep her in place with a stare, however; she only had so much restraint on herself. A loud sigh escaped Kenji as Sachiko moved forward, grabbing the silver-haired woman in an embrace and nudging her head into the side of the woman's.

The young warrior-monk had parted her lips to respond to Kenji’s words when Sachiko swept her into an embrace. Unused to being touched in any capacity at all, she was at first too shocked to properly respond, her tawny-gold eyes wide with a mixture of surprise and the faintest hint of apprehension, but it faded quickly enough into outright embarrassment, dusting the bridge of her nose and the line of her cheekbones with a deep pink color. Of course, when Sachiko started rubbing her cheek against one of hers, she lost even that much. It was a little bizarre that this complete stranger was behaving in that way, and without any other frame of reference for it, she giggled softly, the sound bubbling up from somewhere in her chest and spilling from her lips in a gentle cascade. Reaching up, she patted the other woman’s head with a tender gesture, perhaps not so far out of the range of expectation for a professed member of the clergy.

“I hope,” she said kindly, a little thread of amusement laced into her voice, “that this is not how you greet everyone you’ve never met before. I would fear you find more knives than open arms.” A sad truth about the world, but she at least had no intention of doing Sachiko and her brother any harm. Easing herself out of the woman’s grip, she clasped one of the redheaded lady’s hands in both of her own, then bowed shallowly over it. Releasing the hand, she repeated the bow for her brother, though she did not touch him, sensing that he would not appreciate it very much.

“Then allow me to welcome you to the Shrine of the Holy Seal. My name is Amaya Reijin, though you are welcome to address me as you are most comfortable.” She straightened from her bow and regarded both with soft eyes. “The shrine does not turn away those in need of a roof—you are both welcome to stay the night if that is what you require." Amaya raised her staff, tilting it forward slightly so that it no longer touched the ground, and gestured with it. “The accommodations are somewhat modest, but if that is no object, then I will show you to them.”

"I fear that she has no restraint over that. She would embrace even her most deadly foe out of the need to touch things," Kenji replied, his eyes narrowing slightly as Sachiko released the woman. She shrugged her shoulders in a fashion before she fixed her eyes back on Amaya. "We thank you for the accommodations," he spoke, releasing his arms from his chest and reached into his satchel at his side. He pulled a gold coin from the purse and grabbed Amaya's hand, placing the coin into the palm of her hand before pulling away. "A donation to the shrine," he explained.

Most shrines required some sort of fee to be able to stay, and though she did not quite say so, he was obligated to make it anyway. Sachiko shook her head gently and placed a hand on her brother's shoulder. "What he means to say is, thank you, Ama," Sachiko corrected as she glanced around. "Have you, perchance, heard or seen of a man by the name of Hidenori?" she chanced, glancing towards Kenji as the lock in his jaw was made evident. He did not wish to bother this woman anymore than he wanted to stay in the shrine. "He is a Bakeneko," she added in case it would help.

"Sachiko," Kenji spoke, his voice low and emitting a bit of a rumble in his tone. Sachiko turned to him and tilted her head in confusion. "We will deal with that in the morning, for now, rest," he spoke, giving her a look as she opened her mouth to respond. She immediately closed it and sighed. "If it were not too much trouble, would you please show us to our room for the night," he stated, keeping his gaze on Sachiko. She merely pursed her lips together as he sighed. He didn't need other people knowing their business, especially a shrine maiden. It was not their business to know what he and his sister did.

The fingers of his hand were rough against the smooth, thin skin of hers, and she blinked in surprise when she found her hand enclosed over a ryo. She opened her fingers and looked down at it, then back up at them, of half a mind to give it back. She did not require such things in payment for the charity of the temple, but she knew the head priest would be mad at her if she refused it, so she sighed delicately through her nose and slid the object into a pocket. She shook her head at the name, then explained. “I haven’t met anyone by that name, to my knowledge. I can ask some of the others for you, though; I don’t get out very often, you see.”

Actually, she didn't get out very often at all. That she’d been away from the shrine today would likely have been noticed, and displeased the Head Priest greatly. With a nod, though, she started up the temple stairs—the spare monks’ rooms were located behind the main shrine. Sunset brought a sense of calm and peace over the area, painting everything with scarlet and vermilion hues. She thought it somehow suited them very well—and not just because of their hair color. There was something about them that seemed… regal was the word. Even when Sachiko was hugging her in a somewhat childlike fashion. Amaya would have given her left arm for that kind of natural impact on people, once, and her left arm was the good one. They were certainly unusual-looking—she’d never met humans with coloration like that. She was trying not to stare, but it was easy to notice that his eyes were violet and hers were golden. They were both very beautiful, too—she supposed they must not be human, but she didn’t know what they were.

Something about them almost reminded her of Lord Tomoyori, but… all the phoenixes had been killed years ago. Amaya reached up with her free hand to touch the feather in her circlet, but aborted the motion halfway through, shaking her head slightly. The ground leveled out as the staircase ended, and the threshold of the actual temple ground brightened and flashed beneath their feet as they passed over, the wards activating briefly and causing a light tingling sensation against the skin. It felt like coming home. The air here was somehow easier to breathe than that outside, and at once, a feeling of immediate contentment settled around them like a well-loved cloak. The slight lines of tension in Amaya’s shoulders relaxed and she took a deep breath of the sweet-smelling air and sighed gently.

“Kōkenhime-sama!” Amaya winced, glancing apologetically at her guests before turning slightly to meet the man hastening in their direction. He was older-looking, though like most tengu, he simply chose to appear as such for the sake of dignity. The black wings erupting from his back were proof enough of his heritage, and he carried a staff not unlike Amaya’s, a string of wooden prayer beads laid about his neck. “Where have you been? The Head Priest is in a panic trying to find you!” As if remembering himself, he stopped, bowed deeply, and then returned to his full height, poised to further scold her when she held up a hand. He immediately shut his mouth.

“It’s all right, Shusuke-kun. I’ll find him later. For the moment, I have guests to attend to.” Reaching into her pocket, she fished out the ryo and handed it over. “Would you mind putting this in the offertory box and praying for the safety of these travelers? I’m going to make them something to eat, and after they’re settled, tell Ojiisan I’ll be by to listen to his lecture, all right?” She smiled softly, and the tengu named Shusuke nodded slightly, bowing again.

“As you wish, Kōkenhime-sama,” he replied, turning on his heel and departing. Amaya shook her head.

“I keep telling him to call me Ama, but he’s very stuck on the whole titles bit.” Shrugging lightly, she turned back to her guests. “I’m sorry about that; your quarters are just this way.” She led them to a smaller building to the left of the shrine, which turned out to be mostly an assortment of monks’ cells, smallish rooms that contained a clean futon, a chest for storage, a small table and two cushions each. Picking two that were open next to each other, she slid open the screens and bowed lightly. “If these will do, I’ll leave you to settle in for a while and get you something to eat.”

Kenji was grateful to the fact that Amaya did not seem to know of whom they spoke of, and followed behind her as she led them through the temple. It felt almost familiar to him, as if he was walking back on the grounds of the small village of his home. Mount Zaō had been the home of the Phoenix, mainly due to the fact that the volcano kept the earth around it relatively warm enough to provide as a means of a nursery. It was where he was hatched, and where his sister was. Though the volcano they were raised in was once active, the events of that night have made it dormant. He shook the memory from his mind and glanced towards the newcomer.

Both he and Sachiko returned the bow, before his eyebrow ascended his forehead. Kōkenhime-sama? He glanced towards Amaya when she spoke, saying that he should not have called her that. "It is hard to kill a habit," he spoke, but said nothing more. Once they reached their quarters, Sachiko immediately made her way towards the futon, and laid herself on it, Kenji, however, rolled his eyes before glancing back towards Amaya, regarding her for a moment as if trying to study her. Peculiar hair she had, almost entirely white if he had to guess, and from the way the Shusuke appeared, it wasn't too hard to guess that she was a tengu. He didn't know many tengu with white-colored hair before, though.

"Those services are not needed. We only required a bed, not food," he spoke, shaking his head lightly. If it were up to him, the moment they slept at least four hours, they would be back on the road again. They would eat when it was afforded to them, not when they wanted to. Granted, it was best to keep up their strength when they faced Hidenori. He wasn't an ordinary Bakeneko, and most resources spoke of a strange kind of magic he possessed. Regardless, it would not work against him or his sister. Magics did not seem to work on them, perhaps because of their phoenix blood. Whatever it was, it would be his edge against the Bakeneko.

"Thank you, Reijin-san, but that will be all we require for the day," he stated, bowing slightly. Sachiko, however, pursed her lips together and rolled over so that she planted her feet firmly to the ground. Kenji shook his head, narrowing his eyes slightly as she held his gaze. A defeated sigh escaped through his nose as a smile pulled at Sachiko's lips. "Perhaps if it is not too much trouble, something to eat will be sufficient enough until tomorrow morning," he stated, giving Amaya a flat look as Sachiko smirked in victory.

Amaya’s eyes glittered with something approaching humor as she took in the silent war of wills waged between the two siblings, and at Kenji’s capitulation, she smiled softly. “I’m glad. I would feel terrible to accept a donation and offer so little in return. Please allow me the pleasure of doing this for you. I’ll be back soon.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Kenji Tsukimono Character Portrait: Sachiko Tsukimono Character Portrait: Amaya Reijin
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Amaya had learned a considerable amount about the preparation of food, having an inquisitive nature and living her life behind the walls of the shrine until quite recently. It had been something she wanted to learn, and though it was considered by some to be servants’ work and therefore unworthy of her, she had been rather stubborn, and eventually it had been declared harmless enough. She was excellent at it, in truth, and didn’t spare any of that talent now. The meal itself was light—she doubted travelers would want to be weighed down by excessively rich food, but she consciously chose dishes that would provide a lot of nourishment for relatively little consumption, and when these were done, she brewed a fragrant tea to compliment them, setting everything she needed on one very large tray and carrying it back to the rooms the siblings had received for the night.

Knocking cautiously on Sachiko’s shoji door, she knelt and set the tray beside her, opening the door politely and transferring everything inside. She even served the dishes and poured the tea herself. Likely, ojiisan would have had a small fit if he saw her doing such work, but that was his problem, not hers. Amaya liked being able to show personal hospitality to people, and there were no other visitors this evening.

Ordinarily, she would have offered them a tour of the grounds, but it did not seem like something they would be interested in, particularly. Kenji especially gave off the air of someone who only barely tolerated her presence, but Ama chose to ignore this as gracefully as possible, and when the lull in activity invited conversation, she addressed herself to Sachiko instead. “I apologize if the accommodations are less than you’re accustomed to,” she said softly, pausing to take another clump of sticky rice into her mouth, chew, and swallow. “Before the temple grew large enough to take in guests, it was really only the priests and monks here. Even I was a bit unusual at first, since all of my fellows and the attendants are male.” She judiciously refrained from mentioning why someone like Shusuke, evidently older than she was, would call her by such an elaborate title as the one he had. She was not one to take things like that to mean much, after all.

By the time Amaya had arrived with the food, Kenji had already dressed out of his attire and into something more simple. It wasn't much, just a basic, pale blue, yukata, and had set his traveling clothes into a neat pile on the side of his futon. His hair was not bound by the traditional tie, and instead, left to hover over his shoulders and spilled down his back. Luckily, his hair was not so long as Sachiko's, where even though it was tied, hers still managed to graze the floor. He didn't understand why she kept it so long, but never spoke anything about it. It was her hair, she could do what she wanted with it. Sachiko was dressed in a similar fashion, though her yukata was white. She didn't seem to mind it much, and smiled when Amaya arrived with the food.

Kenji sat to the far corner, occasionally touching his rice with his sticks and sipping at the tea. It was rather delicious, he would admit, but not out loud. He wasn't going to go on a praising spree. It was apparent that she could cook, and she would perhaps know this bit of information. Why should he reinforce that, or state the obvious? Sachiko, however, held no such reserves, and allowed her eyes to widen slightly when she began to eat, scrunching her nose in delight before she blinked slowly at Amaya. She thought about Amaya's statement, and placed her bowl down, pursing her lips together in the process.

"Kenji and I have slept in trees, on rocks, and on the ground. This is the first decent place we have been able to rest. It is of little consequence though, we are used to having to sleep out doors," she replied, offering Amaya a reassuring smile as Kenji sighed softly. He would admit, sleeping on a bed every now and then was pleasant, but that was a luxury neither of them could afford. Not that he wouldn't if he could, but the life he and his sister chose was not one for such comforts. "I would not worry about our accommodations, Ama," she added, picking her bowl back up to resume her meal.

"If you do not mind me asking, what exactly are your duties here?" that question caught Kenji's curiosity. He wasn't always curious to know things, however; she had mentioned that she was the only female in this place. Odd as it was, he did not doubt that her role her was important, given the way Shusuke had referred to her as Kōkenhime.

Amaya snorted softly at the recitation of the places they’d slept, but nodded her understanding. The life of a traveler must be hard, though she did not intend to pry any deeper than that into their business, despite her own curiosity on the matter. If they desired to speak to her of it, they would. If not, she had no need to snoop. “Ah, I see. Forgive me for presuming, then. It’s just… you remind me of someone I knew once. Someone quite noble. That’s all.” It didn’t matter that she knew they couldn’t be in any way related to Tomoyori. They still reminded her of him. But that was neither here nor there.

When Sachiko asked after her duties at the shrine, she tilted her head to the side, raising a finger to her lip as though contemplating. “I wonder,” she said noncommittally, but then she flashed a close-lipped smile and shook her head. “Actually, most of my duties are just the same as the others. I maintain the shrine, and advise people who come seeking spiritual guidance. I do my best to heal the sick and tend those whose souls are more wounded than bodies can be.” she looked down at her hands, white-gold lashes brushing her cheekbones for just a moment, and then she looked up again, an odd little half-smile adorning her face.

“I also reinforce the Seal, when that becomes necessary, and hear the prayers of the visitors. What Shusuke said… Kōken just means ‘Guardian.’ I’m meant to protect the Seal here.” She shrugged her shoulders slightly, as if to say that it wasn’t really all that interesting. “Because of that, I’m not really allowed to leave this place… it’s all I’ve known for most of my life. That’s why I like talking to visitors so much.” She really hoped she wasn’t annoying them, but there wasn’t a way for her to tell, exactly.

"It all seems like arduous labor if you ask me," she stated, shrugging her shoulders in the process. Kenji barely managed to keep from rolling his eyes at his sister. As if what they did was anything but arduous. They were mercenaries, warriors for hire, and most of the time, that required a lot of effort to just bring down the next bounty. He pinched the bridge of his nose, inhaling slowly, before closing his eyes. "Can we take her, Ji-Ji?" Sachiko asked as she turned to Kenji. He narrowed his eyes slightly, as if trying to contemplate the statement. Take her? She wasn't supposed to leave the shrine; her duty was to protect the seal. Though he did not know what exactly was sealed, if they took her from it, it would not be well.

"She needs to see the world," she continued, inching closer to Amaya before grabbing the girl and wrapping her arms around her. Kenji sighed heavily through his nose as Sachiko kept a firm grasp on Amaya, her arms wrapped around the smaller woman's shoulders. Kenji opened his eyes and narrowed them at his sister.

"No," he spoke finally, his gaze flat and unamused. Sachiko furrowed her brows as Kenji's gaze remained stoic. "She has her duty here, Sachi, and you would be put on the wanted list for kidnapping a Tengu," he continued. Sachiko sighed in defeat, releasing Amaya in the process. "Apologies, Reijin-san," he apologized on Sachiko's behalf. Really, he wondered why the sun was so slow to rise after just setting. He just wanted to be done with this place, and find the Bakeneko to collect their pay. He placed his empty bowl down upon the tray before him, and turned towards Amaya, bowing slightly. He said nothing as he disappeared back into his corner of the room. Sachiko shook her head lightly, but smiled nonetheless.

"Don't mind Ken, he wasn't always like that," she stated in a nonchalant manner, her gaze softening as she glanced in the direction he left. "But the meal was delicious, Ama-chan," she added as she turned to glance back at Amaya. It was a shame, really, that Amaya wasn't allowed to leave the shrine. As dark as the world may seem, there were still moments worth capturing, and the only way to find them was to explore. Perhaps one day, there wouldn't be a need for her to continue guarding the seal, and Amaya could finally explore the world. "So, if you don't leave the shrine, what do you do besides shrine duties?" Surely there were other things she did? If not, Sachiko felt a little bad for Amaya. She needed to be able to do other things... but it wasn't her place to say so.

Aside from making a small noise as she was suddenly pulled back into Sachiko’s embrace again, Amaya remained mostly silent throughout the exchange, studying the way the two siblings interacted with one another, and noting that, for a person of her size, Sachiko was extraordinarily warm. She wondered for a moment if they might not be dragons, because Yuu was warm like a furnace, too. But something about them wasn’t really dragonlike, and so perhaps they were something else. Flame elementals, perhaps, or kitsune or something. All of those seemed wrong, too. She had to admit, she wasn’t all that surprised by the fact that they’d guessed she was a tengu—most of those who worked at the temple were, after all. Tengu were one of the few other species that humans trusted fully, and so they didn’t need to worry too much about disguising themselves like the others did. Of course, Amaya herself was a different case, but that wasn’t really important at the moment.

“Ah, I couldn’t possibly,” she contributed. “We’ve only just met, after all—I’m sure traveling with me is a burden you do not need.” Only partially because she was an inexperienced traveler herself. Also partially because there were a lot of people out there who would not hesitate to kill her if they knew what she was. It was why she of all the tengu here moved in the guise of an actual human being. Besides that, the seal would need reinforcement again soon, and she had to be at her best for that. It was probably better if, from tomorrow, she closed herself off from others and started her purification. It was a lonely thought, and she almost sighed, but Sachiko’s last question brought her back to herself.

“Oh, um… I mean, I greet the visitors, and tend the gardens. I read quite a lot, too, and practice my martial arts. I even get to teach some of the little ones, so really, I have very little free time. I’m never bored.” She smiled in a reassuring manner and leaned backwards against Sachiko behind her. The prolonged contact was surprisingly nice. Others at the shrine and surrounding grounds rarely touched her save in emergencies, something about worldly corruption. Likely, they’d be upset with Sachiko for doing so, but they didn’t have to know. It was true that Amaya was never bored, but she felt bad for being unable to say that she was never lonely. The others tried their best, she knew, and she would never tell them that sometimes, it wasn’t enough. He’d known how to chase away the loneliness, to break the barriers between her and everything else in the world, but he was gone now. Even the brief time she’d known him seemed like a dream.

Slowly, she extricated herself from Sachiko, and turned to face her, bowing slightly. “But I’m keeping you from your rest. I don’t know what the two of you are doing, and I don’t expect you to tell me, but it seems serious, and I wouldn’t want to hinder you. So please, take your rest, and know that you’re welcome here any time you need to come.” Her eyes were soft, her smile small but genuine. “It was truly a pleasure meeting you and your brother. I will pray for your happiness.”

Sachiko shook her head slightly, a small smile gracing her as Amaya leaned back against her. She really did like it when people were not afraid to touch in return, and it brought her a small amount of comfort. It made her remember that she was still alive, that her brother was still breathing and that they were, and would always be, the last of their kind. Phoenix were immortal in the truest sense. They could not be killed, and if they were, they ressurected from the ashes of which they perished in, however; they were not entirely immortal. Her kind had still been driven to extinction because of them, and there were times when she forgot that she was alive, that she was living a nightmare instead of a dream. She almost snorted at Amaya's statement of being a burden. If anything, Sachiko was the burden in this.

She knew her brother was searching for someone, and it just so happened that in order to find this someone, they were required to do mercenary work in exchange for information and the ryo that gave them places to stay and food to eat. Sachiko was only trying to steer her brother away from this cause, however; she had so far been unsuccessful. She sighed softly, leaning forward when Amaya removed herself from her spot, and glanced towards Amaya. The Tengu said she would pray for their happiness, and something broke behind Sachiko's eyes. It was too soft to notice, however, and she shook her head from it. Happiness was stolen from them a long time ago... and whether they could retrieve it has yet to be seen. She hoped they could.

"We are searching for a man named Hidenori, as you know," Sachiko stated, her voice low so that Kenji would not be able to hear her. "He is wanted in the village of Sagae for a murder he committed. My brother and I," she paused, glancing to stare at the door that separated them and turned her attention back to Amaya. "We are searching for him to take him back to face his punishment. It is preferred that he brought back alive, but it is hard to do so when they resist," she concluded, letting her eyes falter. Kenji didn't have a problem with killing people, and it was something that continued to break Sachiko's heart. She missed her brother, the one who couldn't harm anything and wanted to save things.

Where had he gone? She, however, could not bring herself to kill someone so readily. She was still a phoenix, and part of her just wanted to heal something that could not be healed. Taking a deep breath, Sachiko raised her eyes to meet Amaya's and offered her a broken smile. "I am afraid this will be the first and last time you will see us. We do not linger in one spot for long," otherwise their secret would be discovered. That was something they could not afford and it was something that meant life and death for the both of them. "I hope your prayers reach the god of whom you pray to, happiness is but a dream to us now," she spoke, bidding Amaya a goodnight before retiring to her room. They would have to leave first thing in the morning. She said too much, and though it didn't seem like it, Sachiko wanted to tell this Tengu everything. She wept, instead.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Kenji Tsukimono Character Portrait: Sachiko Tsukimono Character Portrait: Yuu Isei
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#, as written by Mihael


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As they had promised, Kenji and Sachiko were gone the next morning, moving towards the next village. They were graced with information of a possible sighting of Hidenori, and they were not going to let this opportunity pass them by. They did not bid farewell to Amaya, and instead, left before any of the others were up to start their morning duties. Sachiko glanced towards her brother, watching as his eyes remained glued to the dirt road they traveled on. They were only a few more miles away from the city of Murayama. It wasn't too far from the Yudono-san Shrine, and if they were lucky, they would reach the city before nightfall.

"They do not have information on him, Kenji," she spoke, reaching out to her brother's hand, however; she withdrew it almost immediately, as if he were going to burn her. Her eyes faltered slightly, glancing out in front of them as the outline of the city gates were made prominent. "Bringing Hidenori will not give you the information you seek," she continued, earning a flat glare from Kenji. She sighed softly, falling a few steps behind Kenji as he moved his gaze back forward. What did she know of what they knew? She didn't know anything, she wasn't a seer. Kenji stopped abruptly, almost causing Sachiko to crash into his back. He turned so that his attention was fully on her.

"It is a chance I am willing to take, Sachiko. You do not understand, and I do not expect you to," he stated, his voice low and deep. Sachiko's eyes hardened slightly, however; a shout caught their attention as they both turned towards the source. In the distance, they could see a small figure running from a group of about five different shapes of men. As the figures drew closer, they could both make out the visages of a young boy, no more than thirteen years of age, and held a bag closely to his chest. Sachiko turned to Kenji who kept his eyes glued to the men who were chasing the boy. The boy's eyes grew wide and fearful when he spotted the two travelers, however; he quickly hid behind Sachiko, who turned to greet the men.

"Hand the boy over!" one of the men shouted, reaching out for the boy, however; Sachiko intercepted and grabbed the man's wrist. She wasn't a violent creature by nature, however; five grown men against one young child hardly seemed appropriate, at least to her. She snapped the man's arm back, causing him to cry out in pain before twisting it against his back, and holding him down with one of her legs. "What the hell, you crazy bi--" he never finished the sentence as Sachiko pulled him back to his feet, and kicked him back to his friends.

"Sachiko," Kenji warned as she kept her gaze narrowed at the men. He then turned his attention towards the group, giving them a flat glare. "What crime has this boy committed that it takes five men to give chase?" he questioned. The men all growled their responses. So, they were Inu Yokai. Kenji sighed heavily through his nose as he glanced towards the boy. "What did you do, boy?" he turned the question to the young one. The boy stood, trembling behind Sachiko as she laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"I didn't do anything!" he spoke, his bottom lip trembling. "They accused me of stealing from them, but I haven't stolen anything!" he continued. Sachiko sighed this time, as she heard most of the men call the boy a liar. "It's true! I really didn't steal anything, please you have to believe me," he almost pleaded. Sachiko, the bleeding heart she was, glanced towards the men, her red gaze set almost ablaze. She could hear Kenji giving her another warning, however; she stayed her hand for the moment.

"What is it--" she began, a caught fist barely inches from her nose. She blinked slowly, watching as Kenji set one of the man's hands down, hand still grasped firmly in his, before the sound of something breaking entered her ears. "It seems you wish to do this the hard way then without even listening" she spoke, Kenji's glare turning deadly on the men. Had they listened to her proposal, they might not have ended up with broken bones and could have had ryo in their pockets instead. As it were, Kenji and Sachiko currently sat in one of the inns, sipping on water as they listened for any leads regarding Hidenori.

The inn was comprised mostly of humans, though there were a few assorted yokai in the place as well. Most of these were oni, or prototypical lower-ranked demons of that sort. The atmosphere was boisterous, but for the most part amiable, large groups of people drinking together and playing cards. Here and there, hired company populated the tables as well, but there was nothing especially seedy about the establishment, and the waitresses went unmolested about their business. Much of the conversation was light, and there was nothing said about anything relating to Hidenori for several hours.

After night fell, however, the door to the inn opened, and a new customer entered. A regular, if the responses of the staff were anything to go by. The man appeared to be some kind of soldier or fighter-for-hire, if the swords at his waist and the scar over the bridge of his nose were anything to go by. His haori was a bright crimson, one of the sleeves presently empty, the hand that usually belonged in it suspended in the bottom of the left half of his shirt, above where his obi cinched the garment together. The tanned flesh bared by such a casual state of dress was partially obscured by the sarashi wound around his waist and halfway up his chest, but it was nevertheless evident that he was somehow tattooed, in red and black, if what little was visible was any indication. His hair was dark, enough so that it seemed to absorb the light around it without reflecting, and some of it hung over his right eye, all the way down to his jaw.

The man wore a placid expression, raising his visible eyebrow slightly when a few men at one of the larger tables waved in his direction, bidding him over. With a sly sort of half-smile, he shook his head ruefully and lifted a long-stemmed pipe to his mouth, making his way over with a lazy gait. His step never did hitch, but when he passed the table Kenji and Sachiko shared, his visible eye flickered to them, resting first on his face and then hers. The iris was just as red as his haori. The eye narrowed slightly, but he did not pause, and instead sat at the table with the others.

“Ne, Yukio-san. You’re late!” one of the women scolded, her face faintly flushed with the sake she’d been drinking. She scooted in closer to him, her advance rather obvious and drawing the amusement of the others at the table. For just the barest flicker of a second, the man’s face showed a measure of irritation, but it disappeared quickly, melting into a visage of indulgent satisfaction, a tiny half-smirk and a cocked brow.

“Mm… forgive me, Yoko-chan. Hidenori is a rather demanding client.” She pouted until he raised his sleeved hand and brushed a thumb carelessly over her jawline, drawing chuckles from the others at the table when she blushed and stammered in response. With the hand, he gestured to be dealt into the card game, smoke curling languidly from the end of his pipe.

Kenji's own gaze narrowed at the newcomer, and immediately, one of his hands was resting on the hilt of his wakizashi. He could sense the fire in that one's soul, and it burned so brightly that it almost felt it was burning Kenji's flesh. He knew that feeling, it wasn't one he would ever forget. It was the feeling of them, of the dragons. He wasn't a white dragon, that much he could tell, but it did not change the fact that the man was a dragon. Sachiko, however, had been paying attention to the conversation that was going on, and she glanced over her shoulder to where the newcomer was situated. She made to stand, however; Kenji brought her back down with a hand placed on her shoulder.

"I will handle it," he spoke in a low tone. Sachiko made a face, and was about to protest when he continued. "You stay and keep an eye out for him. He may show up here if this man happens to be one of his employees," he gave her a reassuring squeeze on her shoulder before making his way towards the table. The smoke didn't bother him much, being a creature as he was. He wouldn't suffer from the side-effects of such things, at least not like the humans would. He approached the table and stood a respectable distance away. He contemplated for a moment of how he would approach this. He could be straightforward about it, as he always was, however; it didn't seem that type of tactic would work here. He needed to do something a little different.

"You there, Yukio," he spoke, calling the man by the name the woman had stated earlier. He wasn't so sure that was his real name, however; he was not here for this man. "You mentioned Hidenori, where may I find him? I will pay you for any information you give," he stated, his eyes narrowing just slightly. He didn't wish to do business with a dragon, but it was apparent that he knew where his target was. Sachiko, however, remained in her seat, her eyes glued to the water in front of her as she kept her ears open. She could faintly hear the sounds of the people outside, and almost groaned outwardly when she heard them. Did they not get the hint the first time? Chances were, the group was looking for her brother and herself now. Instead of bothering her brother about it, Sachiko stood and made her way outside, quietly. If she could spare their lives this time, she would do so. She knew Kenji would not be so lenient a second time.

The eyes of everyone at the table turned to Kenji, ranging from simple curiosity to wariness. Yukio himself appeared unconcerned, blinking slowly at the stranger and leaning back so that he was laying against the tatami mat that surrounded the table, braced up on his elbows. He exhaled through his nose, a stream of smoke issuing outwards and coiling up towards the ceiling. “Pretty arrogant of you,” he said off-handedly, shifting his weight onto one eyebrow and taking hold of his pipe-stem with the other. “To assume I’ll just tell you whatever you want to know. I may be a mercenary, but that doesn’t mean I’m an honorless bastard who can be bought. Let’s say I do know where he is right now. He’s my employer… so give me one good reason I should part with that information.”

It was rather bold of this guy, to just waltz up here and demand the information like that. Hell, if he’d been Hidenori’s bodyguard, he probably would have had to fight him or something. Not that this necessarily seemed like a bad idea. He could sense that the man in front of him was strong—maybe if he and that woman from earlier both came at him simultaneously, he’d actually have a hard time winning. That would be fun.

“Besides, do you really have time to be wasting with me? The woman’s gone out—and she ain’t meeting friends, if you catch my drift.” He took another drag from the pipe, clearly entirely unconcerned with either matter, but he was at least a little bit interested to see what the man would prioritize here.

Kenji narrowed his eyes at the man, and before he could speak anything in retaliation, his eyes went to the spot where Sachiko was supposed to be, and emitted a low growl in the back of his throat. Odd, considering he was a bird. He turned his attention back to Yukio and narrowed his eyes. "You and I have unfinished business," he spoke before making his way outside. The sight that greeted him, however, was not a pleasant one. Sachiko held both weapons in her hands, holding off an Inuyokai on each arm, while another seemed to be charging with a rather long naginata pole. She blinked as the pole barely missed her face, cutting a few strands of the crimson locks, as she pushed the two Inuyokai off of her.

"I told you to stay inside, Sachiko," he spoke as Sachiko turned and shrugged her shoulders. "Why do you never listen," he stated more than questioned, pulling out the katana at his waist and parrying a dagger thrown his way. Sachiko merely shook her head, opening her mouth to respond to the statement, however; one of the yokai managed to hook a kusarigama into her shoulder blade. Her eyes widened slightly at the sudden pain, however, she glared over her shoulder at the yokai responsible. Sachiko wasn't known for her temper, however; there were moments where even she could snap. She didn't like being injured in front of her brother, as it normally did not end well for anyone, really.

"You should not have done that," she spoke, hand shooting out to grasp the yokai's throat. She was crushing his windpipe, and she could feel the need for air becoming desperate in the yokai as he clawed at her hands. She applied more pressure until she dropped him. "But I am not a murderer," she whispered softly as the yokai scrambled to his feet, gasping for air in the process. Kenji sighed harshly, shaking his head as his blade sliced through one of the yokai, severing the arm at the bicep, and flicked the blood off of his blade. "Kenji is not so merciful," she stated, watching as the other yokai took their fallen comrade and ran. Kenji's gaze did not falter as the glare lingered on his face.

"Why did you not stay inside? They could have hurt you, Sachi," he spoke, his voice monotonous, but stilll laced with concern. Sachiko pursed her lips together and shook her head, placing her blades back in the scabbard. Kenji should have known better by now. She wasn't invincible, she knew that, but it would take more than just a handful of Inuyokai to bring her to her knees. They weren't exactly trained warriors as she and her brother were.

"It is nice to see that you are concerned, brother, but did you get the information on Hidenori?" she stated. Kenji shook his head, causing her to sigh. Really, he was the one after Hidenori, and he passed up the opportunity to come and save her. "You just blew your chance, Ji-Ji."

“Mm, I dunno about that,” a voice said from behind them. Yukio, it turned out, had followed them from inside, and now leaned casually against the doorframe of the inn, his arms crossed over his chest. The pipe still dangled from between his lips as he studied them, with the air of someone looking at a particularly-fascinating insect. Maybe a scarab beetle. Whatever the case, the gleam in his one visible eye was highly predatory. Slowly, a smile spread over his face, but it was not one of mirth. Rather, it belonged to the crueler kinds of satisfaction, those that came from the contests of hunters and hunted.

“Turns out, I just thought of a way you can pay me for my information.” Pushing forward from the doorway, he turned himself so that he was facing both of them dead-on, cocking his head to the side. “Fight me for it. Both of you, at once.”

Sachiko was never one to mimic her brother's facial features, however; the man, Yukio, spoke of a way for them to pay him for his information. She gave him a flat look and blinked slowly. "Really?" she stated almost incredulously. He seemed like a formidable warrior, one who could probably best the both of them, however; it was an odd request, one that Sachiko tilted her head in confusion for. "By fighting you, you will give us information on Hidenori?" she almost questioned, her eyes narrowing slightly. She didn't like the gleam behind this man's eye, and something about it sent the hairs along the back of her neck on ends. Something just seemed off about the whole ordeal. Kenji, however, did not hesitate to remove his sash from his waist, and dropped his weapons on the floor.

"If that is what you desire as payment, I will oblige," he stated, glancing towards Sachiko. She gave her brother an equally incredulous stare, however; he merely regarded her with a flat look. "This is partially your fault, Sachiko. You will do this so we may leave and find Hidenori," he continued, causing Sachiko to furrow her brows. How was this her fault? She wasn't the one who told him to come outside. She sighed in defeat and turned towards Yukio. Both Kenji and Sachiko bowed in respect to their opponent and stood in a defensive nature.

"I'm only doing this because I get to touch him." Kenji scoffed. He wondered about her fascination with touching things, sometimes.

Well, now. That was an interesting statement if he’d ever heard one. Unlike one might expect of someone with his attitude, however, the man called Yukio did not immediately take it the wrong way. He snorted when the other man dropped his weapons, then shrugged. He hadn’t specified how they were to fight, after all, and how they wanted to go about it was their business. He too removed his swords from his obi and laid them carefully down on the ground, mirroring the bows. “You’re assuming I’ll let you,” he said to Sachiko, rolling his shoulders and studying their stances for a moment. Defensive, both of them. Well, he didn’t much mind being the aggressor.

Pulling his left arm through his sleeve, he draped it inside his haori again, obviously intending not to use it, at least for the moment. It was a habit of his, handicapping himself in such a fashion. It made the fights he got into more interesting. If they’d been human, he would have chosen not to use either of his arms, but until he had a more precise read on how strong they were, this would do.

Without warning, he shot forward, aiming the heel of his hand towards the man’s jaw in an upward jab. His left knee, on the other hand, sought the woman’s stomach. There was enough force behind either blow to break bones, but he did not foresee hitting either of them at this stage. Rather, he wanted them to engage, so he could get a better sense of them. There was no point in ending a fight too soon, after all.

Sachiko resisted the urge to roll her eyes, however; Kenji merely kept his gaze on Yukio. The man discarded his weapons as well, and seemed intended on using only one arm. Not that he would mind, the man didn't exactly lay about the rules of how the fight was to be fought. It mattered very little to Kenji if he won or lost this fight. The man asked for them to fight him, that was all. There was nothing about winning or losing, and as such, he would do as he said. He would fight. As expected, the man charged first, aiming for Kenji's jaw and Sachiko's stomach. Kenji titled backwards, watching as the man's hand barely brushed past him. Sachiko, however, brought both of her hands down in an attempt to block the knee, and only partially succeeded.

She could hear something in the collision, something like a crack, but paid no attention to it. It would heal in a matter of seconds if her wrists were sprained, and a matter of minutes if they were broken. She might not have had Kenji's regeneration abilities, but her own body healed just as fast as his. Kenji, in retaliation, continued to tilt backwards until the palms of his hands rested against the dirt, lifting himself back in an attempt to kick the man's own jaw. Sachiko took the opportunity to switch from defense to something more offensive. Keeping her hands on Yukio's knee, she pushed downwards with as much strength (which was something considering what she was) as she could muster. It would have forced him forward to meet Kenji's leg.

As strong as she was though, Yukio was clearly stronger, and simply spun away from her, wrenching his leg from her grip and shifting his weight, abruptly carrying himself out of Kenji’s range. Fluidly, he dropped, sweeping one of his legs out to hook around Sachiko’s in an attempt to bring her down onto her back.

Yukio's leg managed to catch Sachiko's, and she found herself falling backwards. She wasn't expecting the sudden shift in his position. Though she was on her back, Sachiko took the opportunity to twist her legs, locking them with Yukio's and flipped herself back up. Kenji took the opportunity to bring his elbow down upon Yukio's shoulder.

As the legs tangled with his prevented him from moving, Yukio moved his one hand up to catch the incoming elbow, shoving back against it with enormous strength, buying himself some time to deal with his entangled position. It was not an easy thing to get his feet free of her legs, but with a twist and a wrench, he did so, spinning effortlessly and positioning himself such that his foot pressed lightly into her throat. The point was clear—if he desired to, he could crush her windpipe, which meant the technical victory was his.

“Mm… that’s enough, I think.” It had been an interesting exchange, if a quick one, due to the speeds of which all three of them were capable. He moved his foot away from the woman’s neck—it shouldn’t have been painful anyway. Though he preferred his fights deadly, neither of them had come at him with the real intention to kill, and so he had responded in kind. “You might be able to kill him, if that’s what you're after.” Something in him doubted that was really it, though. He offered the woman a hand, the smile he’d been wearing throughout the fight fading back into a nonchalant expression.

“I was going to do it myself, but… seems boring, really.” He shrugged—he wasn’t unaware of the orders out for Hidenori’s arrest, but he generally didn’t care about things like that unless he was paid to. “As it happens, he hired me to gather information. He wanted everything I knew about other mercenaries in the area. I suppose he’s building an army.” He sighed with a long-suffering air, and rolled his eyes. “Rumor has it he wants to attack Ifuki Village—it’s the settlement right below the Temple of the Seal, which is about half a day from here.”

The fight was over almost as quickly as it began, and once Yukio removed his foot from Sachiko's throat, she gave him a flat look as he offered his hand out to her. Kenji, however, was the one to take her hand and hoisted her up, setting her back on her feet as she dusted the dirt from her form. Kenji retrieved his weapons and tied them back around his waist, a frown marring his face when Yukio gave them the information. They were not going to kill Hidenori, they needed him alive if they were going to collect the bounty, however; the news about Ifuki village being attacked caused Kenji's jaw to lock. Sachiko noticed it and gave him a look.

"That's just below Ama-chan's shrine. If he attacks the village..." she stated, pausing only momentarily to gaze Kenji's reaction. He spoke and did nothing, instead, contemplating his decisions. If he was heading towards Ifuki village, they could at least warn the people of the oncoming attack. It would give them enough time to pack whatever valuables they owned and make their way to one of the other cities, or villages. The shrine, however, wouldn't be so easily convinced, and they had a seal to protect. That wasn't something they could just abandon. "We have to go back," to at least help.

"Killing Hidenori was not a preferable option, however; it appears we will have no choice," he spoke, his hand resting at the hilt of his katana. "Sachiko, we are leaving," he stated, causing Sachiko to release a small breath of relief. He began walking back in the direction of Mount Yudono, pausing only momentarily to regard Yukio. "You have our gratitude," he spoke, his way of saying thanks if Sachiko had to guess. She turned to regard Yukio and bowed before trailing behind Kenji. If they were not in hiding, flying back to Ifuki Village would only take about two hours, three at most, however; they could not risk exposure.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Kenji Tsukimono Character Portrait: Sachiko Tsukimono Character Portrait: Yuu Isei Character Portrait: Amaya Reijin
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#, as written by Aethyia


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Ifuki Village was a small place, known mostly for its production of excellent sake. Most people speculated that this was due to the purity of the water in the area, attributed to the holy radiance of the temple grounds and the people who tended the Shrine of the Seal. As a place of peace, it was not well-fortified, for it was generally viewed as foolishness to attack the region. Though not officially affiliated with the dragon monarchy, it had historically been under the protection of the dragon lords because of its proximity to the shrine proper, a place that they had a great interest in protecting.

Whatever the reason, though, Hidenori and his mercenary army seemed hell-bent on attacking it, and the army was already gathering in the hills just beyond the village by the next morning. Atop the stairs that led to the temple grounds, Amaya looked down over the valley and pursed her lips. She had sensed the disturbance in the area late the previous night, but only now was the sun affording her a clear view of what was going on. Hidenori… she remembered that the name had been mentioned by the two travelers she saw just the day before. She wondered if they were down there, amidst that army, or if their connection to the yokai was something less favorable. It was hard for her to imagine them attacking the town, but they had both been armed, and she had sensed great strength in them. It would be unwise to dismiss the possibility.

A breeze gently stirred the branches of blooming sakura trees, caressing her hair like the touch of a mother, and Amaya closed her eyes against the comforting feel of it. It was as though nature itself were trying to reassure her, but something in her heart was disquiet at this development. Was it something more than just a greedy man trying to steal the wealth of a town? She could not help but think so. Something dark was on the horizon. The villagers were scared, too—they’d been to the shrine in droves today, all praying for peace and safety.

“Don’t worry,” she murmured softly, opening her eyes again as the breeze carried her voice away. “I will protect you.” Ojiisan said it wasn’t her job to interfere with the village, only to protect the shrine, but she herself did not and could not see it that way. Those people… they were praying, asking the gods for their protection, and she was supposed to be the hand of the gods, wasn’t she? Didn’t it fall to her more than anyone else to keep them safe? Her purification and the Seal Ceremony would have to wait. She could not risk secluding herself now.

Kenji and Sachiko had reached the small village before Hidenori's army had. Though it was greatly advised against, under the cloak of night, the both of them had turned to their true-forms in order to reach the village faster. They were unseen, thankfully, and had reverted to their humanoid forms by the time they reached the village. Sachiko's eyes searched the faces, looking for Amaya, as Kenji left to seek the elders of the village. It wouldn't be enough, considering that Hidenori's army was just outside the gates, and though the army itself was small, there was no way he or Sachiko could take it on by themselves. Perhaps, if they had help, they could probably save the village, though there might be another way.

It wasn't an ideal option, and it risked exposing himself and Sachiko for what they truly were. They could save these people in their true-forms, however; who is to say that there is not a White Dragon amongst the army? He had not seen any, however; that was last night. Reinforcements were sure to have reached the main army by now. He sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose as the sound of his name caught his attention. He spotted Sachiko as she motioned for him to come over to her. He obliged, and glanced at what she was calling him over for. It was a small circular object made of golden hues and two jades placed in the center.

"It's his emblem," she spoke as Kenji took the emblem from her. "He's already here," she continued, glancing up to spot the shrine situated high above the grounds. She gave Kenji a look before she took off running, her legs carrying her as fast as she could up the stairs to the shrine. He might not have physically been in the village itself, however; his emblem was a sure-sign that he was around somewhere. She wanted to get to Amaya before he did. Kenji did not follow suit, instead, making his way towards the entrance of the village. He could at least protect the entrance for the time being until everyone was packed and ready to move. Time was very limited to them, he could feel it in his bones.

It was at about that moment that Amaya straightened to her full height, turning to look over one of her shoulders. “I know you’re there,” she said softly, though pinpointing the exact location of the intruders was difficult. “Won’t you stay your hand? Nothing good will come of this.” Her voice sounded melancholy, even weak, but that much at least was not quite as it seemed.

At the last statement, several shuriken whizzed through the air towards her, only to stop half a dozen feet from her as though they’d hit a wall. For a brief moment, something flashed, the spiritual barrier turning white and luminous, but then it faded again, and Amaya turned, raising her chin and drawing her staff in front of her. She knew there were other monks nearby, but she would not make them fight for her. This, as with many things, was her burden to bear. She was not exactly used to attempts on her life, but she had been raised to be prepared for them.

A man jumped from one of the sakura trees, landing with a catlike grace that betrayed his heritage. His hair was a dark brown color, but his eyes flashed golden, their pupils slitted and the irises reflective. Bakeneko. Surely this was Hidenori himself. She wondered if the attack on the village was merely a distraction for this, or if he really did intend to take it. Likely, it didn’t matter—the struggle would be the same regardless. Amaya pursed her lips. “So it is you,” he said coolly, drawing a sword from his waist. It was straight-bladed, like a wakizashi, but longer than average. “You’re everything they said you were, Kōkenhime.”

He leaped for her, slashing downwards with the blade, and she brought her shakujo up to block with a ringing sound, diverting his attack sideways and pivoting lightly on her let foot, swinging the staff for his side. Hidenori twisted and ducked away, however, bending at a truly extraordinary angle. She supposed that was a strength of being a cat demon.

Sachiko lept forward, her palms grazing the cold floor of the shrine, as she sent her body forward, legs outstretched. She caught Hidenori between her legs as he twisted away from Amaya, and threw him even further away from the Tengu woman. She straightened herself back up, pulling one of her swords from the scabbard and stood defensively in front of Amaya. She glanced over her shoulder for a moment to inspect if the other woman was injured, and a sigh of relief washed over her. She wasn't harmed, for now. Sachiko turned her attention back to Hidenori, her eyes narrowing slightly.

"Hidenori of the Bakeneko clan, Shiramasu, you are wanted on five counts of murder, three counts of attempted murder, and one count of trying to hurt my acquaintance," she couldn't exactly say Amaya was her friend, she'd just met her last night, however; it did not change the fact that he still tried. "You have one of two options, you can either go willingly, or I will make you," she stated, her grip tightening on the hilt of her sword. Hidenori wasn't like typical Bakeneko, and his abilities were greater than most. He would not be an easy opponent to defeat on her own, and she couldn't ask the priestess for her help. Instead, she summoned a small blue flame to encircle her blade, not enough to engulf it, but just enough to tinge the red engraved into it, blue.

Amaya had at first been hesitant to interfere, because doing so could hinder Sachiko if she was not expecting the assistance, but from the way things were looking, Hidenori was more than a match for the woman on her own. Though her healing factor was clearly good, she was still losing a lot of blood, because Hidenori was freakishly fast, and too flexible to hit in most conventional fashions. He himself sorted only a few cuts, but it wasn’t until he landed a kick that sent Sachiko bodily slamming into a sakura tree that Amaya intervened, this time blocking the horizontal blow meant to cleave the other woman’s head from her shoulders. Nobody would die for her sake—this was something she had decided for herself long ago.

The blow was heavy, for Hidenori was stronger than most of his kind, and Amaya’s arms were shaking with the block, but she managed to leverage the sword away, following up with a quick, light jab for his face, which forced him to back off a few steps. Bakeneko were known for being creatures of lesser fire, and Hidenori sent a gout of these for her, the orange flames flying for Amaya’s head. Raising a hand, Ama lifted her first two fingers straight up, bending the others down against her palm. “Scatter.” The focus word drew out her power, and the flames dispelled in all directions, fading away until they were harmless. Hidenori followed his fire, swinging downwards in a cleaving arc with his sword.

Blocking one handed was incredibly difficult, but fortunately she didn’t need to do so for long. “Seal,” she whispered, and her index finger brushed Hidenori’s forehead. There was a small flash of light, and there on his skin appeared an intricate mark, shining like silvered moonlight. At once, she could feel his will pushing back against hers; someone must have told him what she could do. It was more than passing strange for anyone to even know, and it surprised her enough that his next hit landed, biting deep into her shoulder. The pain caused red and black to flicker at the edges of her vision, but there was no additional heat to it—his fire was truly sealed.

Kenji stood, his blade coated in blood as he pulled it from an Oni, watching the beast fall before flicking the blood off of the blade. He hated Oni, probably not as much as the White Dragons, but because of their rage. It made them difficult opponents to deal with, and made them extremely hard to kill. He released a small breath as another demon attacked him, this one just a less common one, and not all entirely strong. There had been a few humans in the army as well, but Kenji could not spare them because of what they were. They were humans in a demon army, and they knew the risk of such things. He planted his left leg into the dirt, and braced himself as the demon lunged at him.

It fell straight onto the wakizashi he held, having placed his katana back in its sheath, and brought the blade upwards, cutting the demon's abdomen wide open. As the demon fell, Kenji found himself surrounded on all sides. He glanced around, counting how many enemies he had before he sheathed the wakizashi. Taking a deep breath, Kenji summoned the white flames that belonged to him, and with a great amount of force, plunged his fist deep into the ground. The wave of white flames scorched the demons that surrounded him, the screams of their pain filling his ears. Once the ashes faded away, he turned and glanced up towards the shrine.

"Sachiko."

Something wasn't right... he could feel it.

The numbers of the demon army were growing only thicker, however, and it would seem that Hidenori had left an elite rear guard to block the passage from the town to the temple grounds. It would be a serious uphill battle for anyone who wanted to get through. The vast majority of the shrine’s monks, humans and tengu, mostly, were down in the town, having been helping the people prepare to evacuate the area when the army attacked. They were doing a fairly good job keeping the town itself from being overrun, assisted of course by the strangely-hued man who held the entire southern gat by himself, but unfortunately, their numbers in the town meant there were few of them to protect the Seal Shrine proper, a mistake that was clearly causing many of them great distress, as they continued to throw worried glances behind them to the massive stone staircase that led up into the sacred ground.

Unfortunately, even their efforts to protect Ifuki were looking less and less successful, as the army surrounding it only seemed to grow in size. Clearly, reinforcements had been deployed, and each gate was facing down several hundred men. With perhaps a hundred monks total, the odds were three-to-one at best.

It was at this point that a great tremor in the earth shook the ground beneath their feet. At the south gate, where Kenji was, the ground itself seemed to open up and swallow at least a hundred people, as though a massive sinkhole had appeared from nowhere. A mighty gust of wind followed, knocking several more to the ground, and the ordered ranks of that battalion descended into chaos. The cause was an attack from behind—and the one responsible did not bother hiding himself. Indeed, he cut through several more people on his way to the gate, where he spotted Kenji and gave the man a knowing smile.

“I thought I might run into you here,” Yukio said, laying his bloody sword over his shoulders in a nonchalant fashion. “Color me impressed.”

Sachiko's breathing was labored, her muscles feeling a bit weak. She should have known Hidenori wasn't going to be that easy to defeat, and should have sent Kenji instead. But he would be fitted better at protecting the gates, not fighting a Bakeneko. She closed her eyes, awaiting the blade that was aiming for her head, to sever it from her body. She would die, but that would not mean the end of her. She'd never died before. She had heard that dying wasn't a pleasant thing, and being reborn wasn't all that pleasant either. One learned to build a tolerance to it after so many times, but this would be her first death. When the blow never came, her eyes immediately snapped open to see Hidenori's weapon biting into Amaya's shoulder.

"Amaya!" she shouted, immediately up on her feet and making her way to Amaya. A gout of blue flames released from the palm of her hands, made their way towards Hidenori, forcing the Bakeneko away from Amaya as Sachiko stood by her side. Though she was heavily injured, the adrenaline coursing through her veins was enough to keep her on her feet. How long it would last, though, was not something she knew. So long as the adrenaline was flowing through her, she needed to deal with Hidenori quickly. Her eyes narrowed dangerously at the Bakeneko, her body glowing faintly as the anger seethed into her being. The temperature around them became warmer, and was rising slowly, like a cloak of fire caressing their skin before it scorched them.

"Bringing harm to me is one thing, harming Amaya and desecrating this holy shrine is another. Harming me, I can forgive, but I will not forgive you for this," she stated, the blue flames once small, were now raging against her blades. She charged Hidenori, moving with a svelte grace only a bird would know.

Kenji's gaze did not falter, even as the ground seemed to open up and swallow his enemies, his eyes zeroed in on the one responsible. He cocked his head to the left as Yukio spoke before his eyes narrowed. "Why would you be impressed? You knew we were coming here," he spoke in a matter-of-fact tone. "Unless you are either deaf or did not hear what we said last night, I do not know why you would be impressed of my appearance here," he continued, jumping back slightly when an arrow pierced the ground he was momentarily standing on. Another arrow whipped past him, however; he twisted to catch the arrow, setting his wakizashi back in the sheath, and grabbed one of the fallen demon's bows.

He fitted the arrow onto the bow, setting a hint of white flames at the tip, and released it. He watched as it caught a demon in the eye, and turned his attention back to Yukio. "I do not have time for you," he merely spoke, turning towards the shrine, but made no movement. He continued to stare in the direction of the shrine, and allowed his eyes to wonder back to Yukio. "Hidenori is at the shrine," he merely spoke before making his way towards his sister and Amaya. He did not like the way the unsettling feeling in his stomach was causing it to twist uncomfortably. Once he reached the bottom of the shrine, his eyes narrowed dangerously at the guards.

"You will move, one way or another. With your lives, I do not guarantee," he spoke, grabbing hold of his katana. He did not have time for them. His sister was in trouble, as was the shrine maiden.

Yukio released an exaggerated sigh. Apparently he had been misunderstood. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time; usually, he banked on it. Regardless, it seemed that the other man was heading to the stairs, which, whether he liked it or not, meant they were heading the same way. “I don’t care about Hidenori,” he replied coldly, slicing through the first person stupid enough to charge him. Hebi, by the scent of the blood. “There is someone in that shrine that matters to me. That’s all.” With a shrug, he decided it was his turn to charge, and he honestly didn’t really care one way or another if the other man was able to keep up or take advantage of the chaos he left behind him. All that mattered now was reaching that shrine in time.

Amaya




The pair of them arrived just in time for Hidenori’s final rush. The combination of the two women and his sealed powers had him on the defensive, and it did not help that most of his attacks were now deflected by holy barriers. Amaya still bled from the shoulder, the scent light and somehow like sunshine and sakura and honey. The man who called himself Yukio knew it well, because it was the same way the rest of her smelled, even underneath the incense, sandalwood, and elderberry of the temple grounds themselves.

“Please, he must not die.” Amaya’s voice was exactly how he remembered it, even under the strain of prolonged physical exertion. “Death cannot be allowed so close to the seal.”

"The time for caring is long gone. You are not the only one with someone precious to protect," Kenji replied, slicing through one of the demons and setting another one on fire. Kenji had no choice in the matter, he charged with the man, cutting through the demons that fell behind Yukio and the ones that managed to evade the man before him. By the time they reached Amaya and Sachiko, it was to witness Hidenori making a final attempt, however; the only thing that registered in Kenji's mind was the man going for his sister, and she seemingly too exhausted to fend it off. Before he could move, however, Sachiko brought her blades together into one, and swung it as hard as she could, with as much force as she could, into Hidenori.

The blade stopped inches from the juncture of where his neck met his shoulder blades, and Sachiko glanced towards Amaya. Spare his life? She would, if only because she could not bring herself to kill this man. On the many hunts Kenji and she shared, she was never the one to kill their bounty. It was always Kenji. She could kill, had the will to kill, but she also had the will to not kill. It wasn't in her blood, and it did not flow as strongly as it did in Kenji's. Slowly, she straightened herself back up, the blade still resting on Hidenori's neck. She could still go through with it, if she wanted. She could feel Kenji's stare on her, as if silently telling her to do it, however; she turned to him instead, and removed her blade.

"I will not taint this place any more than he already has," she spoke simply, before glancing back at Hidenori. "You will live, for today," she stated, her eyes narrowing into dangerous slits. "But know that your life is no longer yours. We will find you, again, and I will not be so staying of my hand," though in truth, it would be best if Kenji dealt the blow. She removed the blade from his neck, keeping a stance in case he decided he was going to try and finish them off, however; he was gone in the blink of an eye, and her body went rigid. Kenji was by her side in a moments notice, checking her once before glancing towards Amaya.

"What did he want from you?" he spoke, as if he knew it was she that Hidenori was after. And he was. Hidenori was not a man who killed randomly. All of his victims shared a similar quality, something about them that had drawn him to kill the ones he had. And he would have not attacked her by himself. He would have sent lower demons to do his work for him. Sachiko, however, laid a hand on her brother's shoulder, shaking her head in the process. The time for questions was not now, they were both injured. Sachiko's wounds were already healing, but the woman, she guessed, did not possess the same regeneration abilities she shared with her brother. Healing, perhaps, but she would heal in a matter of days.

"Here, this will help," she stated, pulling a crystal clear jar from her satchel. It appeared to be filled with water, however; the color wasn't entirely clear. There were hints of a pink and blues, greens, and a faint hint of purple, mixed in. Sachiko knew what it was. She had collected them the night before they had left. They would come in handy eventually, and right now, they could at least heal the small wounds Amaya had sported. "You don't have to drink them. Just... pour them over your wounds, and they will do the rest." though it would probably work faster if she drank them. The taste wasn't as salty as one would think. Phoenix tears were as pure as any mountain spring, and if anything, had a hint of sakura blossoms flavoring it. Or at least that was what they used to say. She wouldn't know for sure.

“Phoenix tears…” Amaya whispered softly, reaching forward just enough to brush a finger against the jar. She had seen them more than once in her childhood. As soon as her finger came into contact with the vessel, a pure note rang out, like a windchime in the spring breeze. Amaya smiled softly, then shook her head and looked up at Sachiko. “Thank you for your kindness, but these are not necessary.” She momentarily slid aside the part of her haori that covered her injured shoulder. Though smears of drying blood remained, the wound itself was closed. She was not invulnerable, but being so close to the seal had its advantages. The ground was sacred here, and so she healed much faster than she usually would. The inverse was true in places of great corruption.

Shrugging her haori back into place, she glanced behind Sachiko. Kenji was present as well, but she could almost have sworn there was someone else… and yet the two of them were all that was before her eyes. Sighing softly, she decided she must have imagined it and raised her gaze to Kenji. It was not usual practice to entrust outsiders with such information as he was asking for, but… they were phoenixes. Some part of her had known it from the very beginning, and that meant… she wanted to trust them. She would trust them, with this secret she guarded.

“The answer to that question is more complex than you might think,” she replied softly. “Help me protect the village, and I will tell you everything.”

Setting

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Character Portrait: [NPC] Bartender Character Portrait: Kenji Tsukimono Character Portrait: Sachiko Tsukimono Character Portrait: Amaya Reijin
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#, as written by Mihael


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Sachiko tensed at the word Phoenix, when Amaya spoke, and Kenji's jaw locked, however; he would ignore it for now. He narrowed his gaze at her, but the look Sachiko gave him caused an irritated sigh to escape him. "We will do what we can, to help you," he spoke, causing Sachiko's posture to relax a bit.





The battle had been more of a massacre than anything. Bodies lay about the ground, some torn and shredded, others burnt and unrecognizable. The scent alone helped Kenji identify who was who, and he glanced at the half-burnt homes. The village was almost completely destroyed. There were a few houses that remained intact, but who was to say that they would not fall underneath the weight of the debris that littered them? There were bodies on the roofs of some of the houses, and there was a body, a young boy, slain in the middle of the street. Sachiko approached the body, and tenderly picked him up. She did not weep for him, but her shoulders shook regardless.

"There is not much of your village left, Reijin-san," he spoke, his gaze as flat and neutral as he could make it. The bodies did not phase him, though he could not ignore the quiet tug that pulled at him. He could feel something crushing him from within, but instead of allowing it forward, he smothered it. He could not allow that part of him to surface, not now. He had done what he could to help them, by warning them to leave. There was nothing more he could do for them, and he would not mourn for them. "There is not much you can salvage. The villagers will not be able to rebuild on their own," since most of them were human, and could only do so much on their own.

Amaya stood in the middle of the wreckage, a solitary figure. She had known what she would see when she’d descended the temple stairs, but that made the reality of it no easier to bear. In utter silence and stillness, she wept for these people, and everything she lost. She wept for her fellows, many of whom had died. More than half of the monks in total, her friend Shusuke among them. They had given their immortal lives in hopes of salvaging some of what could be found here, but in the end, most of what remained was rubble and dust. “They will not,” she said, her voice surprisingly steady, and she turned to face Kanji thereafter. Though she was crying, everything else about her was clear, and focused. Her grief itself seemed to be a pure expression of the emotion, unsullied by blame or hate or guilt. It was all and only grief.

“They will not be alone.” Her temple would take them in, every last one of them, and she and those still left would work with their own hands to build. Not rebuild—they would not taint the new with the memory of the old. What had been must be allowed to rest, and then things could begin again. Simple, pure, and clean. A cleansing was what this place needed, the stench of death removed from the grounds. And a cleansing was what she would give it.

That night, there were many funerals, the bodies burned on pyres, souls sent along into the afterlife with keening voices and greater anguish than she would have imagined even so early as that very morning. The earth was scarred, and the ashes drifted to heaven. Perhaps it was the part of her that had been raised in the company of phoenix lords, but Amaya had always seen fire as something fundamentally clean. For did not death need to be burned away for life to begin afresh?




The next morning, Amaya once again descended the stairs into the ruined village grounds. Overnight, the remaining monks had burned everything for several miles around, and what remained was a rough circle of desecrated earth, where the blood of innocents had been spilled. Alongside her was the Head Priest, Sakamoto, whom she had always referred to simply as ojiisan. Today, however, he was here not as her grandfather-figure, but as her attendant. With him were many members of the village, several other priests, and the two phoenixes. She had disclosed their nature to nobody else. The only reason she’d even told ojiisan to bid them to join her here was because it would serve well enough as the beginning of the explanation she had promised them.

With them was Rennoshin, Shusuke’s younger brother, who had been assigned to answer any questions they might have. Amaya, however, stood apart from everyone else, wearing a completely white kimono and nothing on her feet, the shakujo she carried made from a white wood and capped in silver, the rings glimmering brightly. Against the blight surrounding them, she stood out sharply. When everyone was still and quiet, she slowly stepped out into the very center of the burned circle.

Beside his charges, Rennoshin lowered his head slightly and clapped his hands together three times, even as all the others present did the same, as though they were making a prayer and an offering at the shrine itself. Slowly, Amaya’s body began to glow, only at the edges at first, and then later the light swallowed her entire form, until it was almost painful to look at her. “O gods, masters of heavens and earth, hear this plea. We beseech thee, on behalf of those who have gone before us, and those who will come after. We beseech thee, that we might know the touch of your mercy. We beseech thee, that what was destroyed may not be lost in vain.” The words were ritual, delivered with the cadence almost of a chant.

“Thou who art above us, bless us with thy mercy and thine power. For those who lay in fallow fields and starve, we ask nourishment. For those who wander in desert and heat, we ask water. For those who are lost in sin and darkness, we ask the blessing of light. We be not worthy, but we are repentant of our corruption. We seek only to know thee, that we might become worthy of thy love.” She paused, for just a moment, and the last part of the prayer had the distinct sense of being somehow personal, as though she really was talking to someone far away. “To this vessel, this unworthy instrument, grant your favor, for the sake of those who cannot reach you.”

Lowering herself to her knees on the ground, Amaya touched both palms to the earth. Slowly, from her hands and feet spread a riot of colors, grass springing up from the once-barren ground, arcing outwards over everything that had been corrupted. The ashes of the village were swallowed into the renewed ground, and flowers bloomed from the field, opening their many-colored faces to the sun. Motes of light seemed to dance along the green stalks, and a breeze stirred them from behind. The sound of faint chimes tickled the ears, like a memory just out of reach. “Deliver us,” Amaya whispered, and then she fell forward, collapsing into the refreshed field.

Kenji watched, his eyes focusing in on what Amaya was doing. Even as her body started to glow to the point it hurt the others, his eyes remained glued to her form. It wasn't hard to see, the reason why Hidenori was after her now. Sachiko might not have known, but he did. It was one of the last things he learned before his race was annihilated. White Tengu were one of the rarest in the world, and they held more spiritual power than any of their kind. The real question now was, why did they need a being that strong to protect a seal. What was sealed? He glanced towards Rennoshin, and gave the monk a questioning look.

"Why is a White Tengu being used to guard a seal? What exactly is sealed here?" he questioned, his gaze never leaving Amaya's form, even as she fell forward and collapsed. Sachiko turned to her brother, her head tilting to the side in a questioning movement. A White Tengu? What was a White Tengu? How were they different than the others? She shook the questions from her mind and turned back towards Amaya. It had almost been too much for her to not join in on the song, but in order to do so, would only bring unwanted questions towards them as well. Phoenix voices carried everything, and were as distinct as night and day. Someone would recognize it. Instead, she kept her head down.

This place was full of grief, and it was all his fault. They should have found him sooner, killed him sooner, and this place would not have suffered as it did. The people who lost their lives would not have, and they would still be living today. She could not help but feel that it was somehow her fault, their fault. They were supposed to protect those who could not, heal those who could not be, and instead, they allowed this to happen. It was slowly eating her up inside. Kenji, however, finally moved his gaze to the Tengu, awaiting the answer that was to be given. If a White Tengu was here, being used as she was, whatever was sealed had to have been what Hidenori was after. That, or the prize of killing such a being was what he was after. His fame wouldn't be all he would think it to be.

As the head priest and a few of the other moved to Amaya to pick her up, Rennoshin turned to his charges, pursing his lips slightly. The Kōkenhime had instructed him to tell them anything they wanted to know, but he didn’t really know what justified her trust in such outsiders. Nevertheless, he did trust her, and he would do as she had asked of him. “Not a White Tengu,” he corrected gently, trailing behind the rest of the procession as they made their way back up to the temple grounds. The White Tengu. Only one of them exists in the world at any given time. Right now, Kōkenhime-sama is that one.” If she died, one more would be born, but on the other hand, it would take at least two decades to train that one to the level of strength she now possessed.

“What is Sealed here is a matter of ancient history. I know not if anyone has ever recounted the story of the first Dragon-Prince to you, but here lies the soul of his eldest son. The first of all white dragons, the tyrant. He waged a massive military campaign on the whole world many hundreds of years ago, and he was sealed away due to the actions of his brother, the first black dragon. It cost the younger his life, but the elder’s soul remains still here… and Kōkenhime-sama’s power is all that keeps him sealed.” Rennoshin folded his arms into his sleeves, his wings rustling with some slight discomfort. In truth, he still mourned his brother, but more even than that, he was concerned about what would become of the Guardian. It wasn’t widely known who she was or what she guarded, but this attempt on her life proved that someone not only knew, but wanted to kill her for it. How were the remains of the temple’s monks and a few scared villagers supposed to protect her?

“She is considered to be a vessel of the gods. Some believe that she is herself a goddess, and there is some merit to the theory. Her powers behave much as those few recorded gods’ have done. But… she refuses to remain enshrined. Since the incident a few years ago, she has been insistent on venturing further and further out of the shrine, into the outside world.” His disapproval was mild, but still present in his voice. Still, it was not for him to contradict her. Even the head priest had difficulty doing that.

He recalled the story, but barely. The elder, at the time, Tomoyori, had been in the process of recounting the tale to the hatchlings, so that they would understand the land's history. Sachiko was still too young to have heard the tale, but Kenji knew it by just a little. It explained now, why Hidenori was after Amaya. Kenji's eyes narrowed slightly. This wasn't his problem. The only thing that concerned him was Hidenori, and the promise of information on him. The lock in his jaw, however, kept him from saying anything. The White-Dragon Prince was sealed here, and that alone gave Kenji reason to want to keep him sealed. He did not want a half-crazed dragon, White Dragon, out on the rampage. He sighed harshly through his nose. There was only one thing they could do.

"Her duty is to the seal, because she is the," he emphasized on that part, "White Tengu. As great of a burden that is, do you not think she would be well suited to protect it even further if she were allowed out into the world, to see it as it is because of what the White Prince did? Do you not think it would make her want to stay here and keep the seal safe?" he stated. "I do not trust you, and I do not trust her, however; it is evident that she trusts us, for whatever reason," he had a guess though. "But I do believe in the duty of this shrine keeping the seal from being broken. There is not much my sister and I can afford to you, but being as we are and what we are, we cannot simply allow this seal to be broken either."

He wasn't implying that they would stay and help protect the shrine. What could two Phoenixes do to help that? "You say she continues to sneak out, perhaps it would be best if one of us accompanies her. Though, what is this incident you refer to?" he would admit, he was a little curious as to what would make her want to just leave her duties as the guardian.

“I certainly did not mean to imply that she was your responsibility,” Rennoshin replied stiffly. He was not especially fond of his lady being spoken of in such dismissive tones—if there was anyone in the world worthy of trust, it was a vessel of the gods themselves, but he hardly expected anyone without the proper training to understand that. “To be perfectly clear, you are here as her guests for as long as you wish to be, but you are not beholden to the temple in anyway, and may quit the area at any time it should suit you. She, however, cannot follow. If she draws too far away from the seal, it naturally weakens, and that is something that must not be allowed to happen.”

He did not expect them to understand everything about what they did, but he had his reasons for being against the Guardian’s recent tendency to venture further afield. She knew her duty well enough, and never remained too far away for long, but it had been much easier in the days when she was content to remain enshrined, hidden away from the common and vulgar people who lived in the world outside. “Her purity is the source of her power. Too much exposure to those who are not themselves pure runs the risk of weakening her. Even we are not allowed that close, for we too are stained with sin and temptation.” He sounded melancholy when he said it, and indeed sighed softly. He did feel sorry for her solitude, but it was the way things had to be. Alone, she could strive for increasing perfection. In the company of others, she would only be tempted to stray from that path, and fall from her position of grace.

“The incident I refer to was the first time Kōkenhime-sama showed her face to an outsider. We were paid a visit here by the former Dragon-Prince. It was he who convinced her to visit the village below for the first time. A mixed blessing, at best.” Of course, no one in his or her right mind would defy the will of the Dragon-Prince. “His death was a matter of great grief for her. She has not been the same since.”

"And I never said she was our responsibility. I made an offer, and whether or not you take it is for you to decide. Either way, the only thing I care about is keeping another White Dragon from ruining this place. They have taken enough from my sister and myself," he replied curtly, the tone in his voice dropping a few notches. He really did not care what happened to these people. The only thing he truly cared about was killing Masahiro and keeping his sister safe until then. Really, he had no other reason to keep their identity as phoenixes hidden when he was dead. It was, after all, only he who managed to wipe out his race. Kenji's face fell flat when Rennoshin continued talking.

"You speak as if you understand sin. We are all sinners, yes, and that includes her," he spoke, his eyes narrowing slightly. "We are never pure, and even the process of cleansing oneself does not purify us. We do not become so until the day we die," but he could never die unless by the hands of them. Being immortal wasn't what it was cracked up to be. There were times he wondered what life would have been like as a human, however; even then it would not have been pleasant. Kenji stood from his spot, Sachiko turning to stare up at him. She had heard the entire conversation, and was trying to make sense of it. Kenji excused himself, and she watched him leave.

"I apologize for my brother," Sachiko spoke solemnly, offering Rennoshin a curteous bow. "I remember my mother said Tengu used to serve our kind, and that you were all loyal to us," she spoke, her eyes sliding to watch her brother leave. Though she may not have directly said it, she hinted to the fact of what she and her brother were. She may not have known much about the Tengu, but she recalled that they used to be extremely loyal to the phoenix race. They were, in essential, like indentured servants, however; they were free to come and go as they pleased.

"There is no doubt that Hidenori will try and attack again, if the seal is what he is after. We... will stay and help only until Hidenori is brought to judgement. It is the least we can do to repay the kindness you have shown us, and the kindness she has shown us," she spoke, offering her services to them. They needed to be ready if Hidenori returned. And he would. If he was trying to kill Amaya to break the seal, she wanted to be here to help protect it. Masahiro could wait.

Rennoshin said nothing until both siblings had spoken, and then regarded Sachiko solemnly. He was not stupid; her meaning was simple enough to divine. In the end, he sighed through his nose. “Times have changed,” he said quietly, gently. “And those of us here have only ever served the Guardian of the Seal. That is our only purpose.” It was his way of telling her as gently as possible that what they were did not matter here. It was both a warning, but also a reassurance. He would simply behave as though he did not know, and their secret was safe with him.

“But… there is something you must understand. Your brother is right about one thing—I cannot say for certain that Kōkenhime-sama is without sin completely. But I can say that, of everyone left in this world, she is the closest. Whatever grievances people have with one another, whatever grudges or wars they wage, nothing is as important as the sacred duty she bears to keep Shiro-dono from entering the world again. Do as you wish, both of you, but do not bring your conflicts to this place. It must remain as consecrated as possible. She will want to help you—this is in her nature. I am asking you not to let her.” Pursing his lips, Rennoshin bowed respectfully, then took his leave.

Setting

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Character Portrait: Kenji Tsukimono Character Portrait: Amaya Reijin
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#, as written by Aethyia


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Even in sleep, Amaya was not granted much peace. Her unconsciousness was fitful, plagued by flickering, indistinct visions of things she did not understand, and other things she was almost certain she remembered. She had been told that this was normal, that at times she would glimpse fragments of lives she had lived in the past, but some of the things she dreamed… they seemed different from that. She could feel emotions, manifesting as colored lights and interweaving in front of her eyes. Black and white danced around one another, rarely touching, only to explode in multi-hued rainbows when they did, and then back off again. Reds and blues and greens threaded from these points of contact outwards, expanding long beyond her perception. She felt sound and smelled music—she tasted anger and darkness and the bitter tang of betrayal on her tongue.

Something danced through her veins where the blood in her body used to lie, something electric and tinged with spice. She could feel the foreign sensation more keenly than anything else she remembered, and just barely catch the edge of some whispered mantra, in a voice she knew perhaps better than her own. It had been the one constant in her life since she had come to be here—it was his voice.

Shiro’s.

But she could not quite make out the words, and unwillingly, she was dragged from sleep and into wakefulness, cracking her eyelids and sitting up in her futon with a groan. Her head swam for a moment, but eventually, she was able to blink everything into some semblance of clarity. She realized she’d woken in her own room, which was simply another monk’s cell with little more than a futon and a trunk. She had several pieces of simple art on the walls as well, but other than that, it was basically identical to every other bedchamber in the place.

Pushing several strands of white-blonde hair out of her face, as she’d apparently come down with a major case of bedhead, she was unsurprised to find that she was still dressed in the white kimono from yesterday… or whenever that had been. It could have been a week, for all she knew—her dreams tended to distort her sense of time. The angle of the sunlight indicated that it was early morning still, which meant the baths would probably be free. Well, technically, hers was always free, because nobody used it but her. Fishing around in her trunk, she retrieved the usual tan monk’s robes she wore and rose to her feet, heading for the hot spring pool designated for her use.

About fifteen minutes and a lot of scrubbing later, she felt clean enough to emerge, dressing herself and squeezing the water out of the ends of her hair. The sun would do the rest well enough—it was not so long that it took a great deal of work to maintain.

Amaya made breakfast then, helped along by a few of the village women, and they had enough to go around. Ojiisan had been concerned that they might not, but the gods were generous… and the monks had planned for this contingency, and stored a lot of rice and other grains for use in emergencies. There would be no elaborate meals, but then, that was normal. They were monks, after all, not lords. Amaya smiled a little to herself at the recollections of the lords she’d used to know and the one she’d met since coming here. They hadn’t been like lords were supposed to be, either. The smile turned melancholy shortly afterwards, however, as she remembered that all of those people were now gone. Pursing her lips, she sighed, going with the younger monks to deliver breakfast to the rooms.

By chance, she wound up with the trays for the two phoenixes, and so found herself outside their chambers once more, kneeling as was appropriate and knocking gently on the wooden frame of the screen door to the one on the left.

The three days Amaya had been out, Kenji and Sachiko had done their best to make themselves useful. Sachiko helped tend to the ones recovering from the attack, using her vial of tears to help the wounded ones still, and tried her best to comfort those who were in need. Kenji had patrolled the borders during the nights, barely sleeping any at all. He did not wish to be here, however; something in the back of his mind would not allow him to leave. It was none of his business to be in this place. He had his own problems to take care of. Hidenori was one of them, however; perhaps that was what kept him here. His problem had become theirs simply because of the White Tengu. Hidenori was after her, to kill her and remove the seal, or so it seemed.

He couldn't be entirely sure. Perhaps he just wanted the glory of killing the White Tengu, and that it would only act as a bonus for breaking the seal? He couldn't allow himself to be immersed in that, though. He needed to find Masahiro. Once the threat of Hidenori was vanquished, he could move on to the next lead. Whatever threat came after that, was not his concern. If someone knew who she was, she would always be targeted for that, and he could not bring himself to simply care. The only thing he wanted to care about was keeping his sister alive, and exacting his vengeance on the one who took everything from him. His eyes softened as an image of her fluttered across his mind.

His hand reached out, trying to grasp at it, to keep it with him, however; her smile vanished as quickly as it appeared, and his hand fell back beside him. The sound of a knock caught his attention, rolling his head to stare at the wooden frame door. He could see the outline of someone, however; he knew who it was. Sighing gently, he lifted himself from his futon, glancing to the spot where Sachiko slept, but found it empty. She was probably back with the healers or sunbathing. He was going to bet on the latter. When was the last time he allowed himself to bathe in the sun? He shook the thought from his head and opened the door to the chambers, his face pulling into a blank stare.

"If you are looking for Sachiko, she is not here," he simply stated, however; he spotted the tray she was holding and sighed a little harder than he should have. "I have told the monks already, this is unnecessary. We do not need someone bringing us something that can be saved and stored for use elsewhere," he spoke, his voice firm, yet with a hint of restraint. Sachiko and himself could go out to find their own food. Whatever they had should be saved and used for those who could not. He had to keep telling himself it wasn't because he cared. How could he care about a people who did not matter to him?

Amaya smiled slightly, nothing more than the barest upward tilt to her lips, and bowed her head a bit. “Then you are arguing with them on the wrong terms,” she advised gently. “We do not do only what is necessary. Is it so wrong, to do what is kind, when we can?” Carefully, she moved to set Sachiko’s food down on the low table, so that it would not be disturbed. She was worried the tea might go a bit cold before she got back, and it never tasted quite the same when reheated after that, but she supposed she could try having a fresh pot brought by later. She herself would be unable to do it—the pitched battle had likely weakened the seal, and she would be soon needed to strengthen it again. That took more out of her than what she had done to the village grounds—she might be out of commission for as much as a week afterwards.

“We are not in such dire straits that two more mouths to feed will harm us.” Setting Kenji’s plate on the table as well, she gracefully poured a cup of tea with the ease of long practice and set the pot back down on the tray. Technically, this much was not needed either, but here she saw the ability to engage in a bit of conversation with him, and that didn’t seem like a bad thing to her. She knew she was doing it partly to put off her cleansing and the Ritual of the Seal, but she was also interested to know more about him. She couldn't help it—she was interested in both of them. She’d never thought she would see another living phoenix again in all her life, and here there were two.

She paused for a moment, and folded her hands into her lap. “If it is more palatable to consider this the fulfillment of a debt, then please do. I owe much to Tomoyori-sama. I had feared there would never be a way to begin reciprocating his kindness to me.” Her smile was tinged with sadness, an old pain, long healed perhaps, but one that had left a scar all the same. One did not lose such precious people without accumulating scars, and she firmly believed the entire world bore one for what had happened to the Phoenix King and his people, even if most people would never recognize it. “It may be too forward of me to say so, but something in you reminds me of him, a little. I thought so before I knew what you and Sachiko were, actually.”

"Whether it is a kind thing to do is irrelevant to the fact that it should not be done, still," he spoke, his tone calm and flat. He blinked slowly when she poured a cup of tea and set his plate (what he assumed was his plate) on the table. "Two more mouths to feed will not harm you, however; they should not be fed when they are capable of feeding themselves. This food should have not been made for us," he continued, however; he sighed in defeat. He could see that arguing the point would not reach her, and instead, gently picked the plate up and set it down properly. He flinched visibly when she mentioned Tomoyori, and he set his chop sticks down. His eyes darkened considerably, however, and there was a noticeable tightness in his jaw.

"Tomoyori was like that with everyone. And perhaps, he should not have been," he spoke, his tone picking up a little more something in it. He could not fully blame Tomoyori for what happened to the Phoenix, but he could not say it wasn't his fault. Perhaps it was just the nature of the Phoenix, but it was because of that nature that they were all gone now... except him and his sister. "You owe Tomoyori nothing, he would be as kind today as he was then. Perhaps, he is a little more like you than he is of me," he spoke, regarding her through the corners of his eyes. Tomoyori was like his grandfather, and perhaps he might have been, Kenji could not remember such things.

They mattered very little to him now. "Consider your debt paid, otherwise what is left of his soul would not rest in peace," it was hard to tell if he was being considerate or not. The lack of emotion in his voice was making it difficult to tell, and he knew that. Perhaps he was being a little too considerate? He sighed, closing his eyes briefly before reopening them. "Rennoshin says you are refusing to remain enshrined. Tell me, is it something you wished for?" he spoke, diverting the questions to her. He did not like speaking of what happened to his family, and it was a very sore subject for him. But... if she wanted to know, he would consider telling her more.

There was a great amount of raw pain behind his rudeness, and she was now certain of that much. It would seem that he was unable to let go of something about what had happened, unable to forgive it. Not that she expected anything of the sort, exactly. It was in Amaya’s nature to forgive, even such grievous things as those, so that the wounds could close and scar cleanly as possible. But Kenji… his wounds were festering, poisoned by something she did not understand. She said nothing for a while, quite conscious of the fact that the topic had been changed because he didn’t wish to speak further of what had happened. That much, she could and would respect.

She held few such reservations herself, but there were things that even she could become uneasy speaking about. This, fortunately, was not one of them. “Something I wished for…” she mused quietly, shaking her head just slightly. “To me, that is a very strange question.” She didn’t seem upset, though, only pensive. “Things that we wish for, things that we desire… I have always been taught that these things are to be suppressed. My wishes, as Amaya Reijin… these things are not important. I am Kōkenhime to them, and so it is Kōkenhime that I must be for them.” More than just the monks at the shrine though—the Guardian was something the world needed, would always need. Whatever else she might be was naturally secondary to that.

“But finding the right way to be that person… that has not always been simple. I am told that many of my predecessors remained as secluded as possible, to preserve their power and their purity. They kept themselves as far away from sinners as they could, so that their love for the world and their sacrifice was not tainted by that stain. So that they were as much like the gods as beings in this world could be.” In the beginning, she had been the same, remaining veiled, behind a screen, even when meeting the most powerful of dignitaries or the most faithful of the shrine’s devotees. Isolated, alone. And deeply, deeply lonely.

“But I suppose I thought… that to love the world means to love the sinners in it most of all. For is it not those who walk in darkness who most need the blessing of light? Should I not love most of all those people who have not known it, or have forgotten what it really means?” She sighed softly, and glanced up at him. “I suppose that sounds childish to you. Or perhaps hopelessly naïve. But it is what I feel. The courage to act on it was what eluded me, until a very dear friend reminded me that I’d had it all along.”

"You will learn in time that, finding the way to be the right person isn't always the way you expect. Do not forget, for us to be truly pure, we must learn to sin, and then forgive ourselves for those sins if we can. We cannot have one without the other, no matter how hard you try," he spoke, his voice taking on a calmer edge to it. It was strange, to him, that she had no wish for herself other than what they wished for her to be. Had he still been the same phoenix he was all those years ago, he might have agreed with the monks. He would have agreed that her purpose and duty was to the shrine and the seal, however; he was no longer that person. He could not believe in such things any longer, though that did not mean he would ignore it.

"You must choose what you wish to do for yourself. It is not so bad as to do that once and awhile. I do not believe you would leave your duties intentionally, after all," he continued, taking a long drink of the tea settled before him. "You should do well to remember that you are not a god, or goddess, Reijin-san. You are simply you. We who live on this plane of existence can never be considered as such, even with all the gifts you have been granted. If the gods wanted you to be as them, like them, they would have made you so," he spoke, turning to fully stare at her. He only spoke what he believed, and she did not have to take his words any particular way. It was simply what he thought.

"I do not believe you childish, Reijin-San," he spoke truthfully, because he did not. "But not all the love in the world could save these sinners you speak of. Trust me when I say they have not forgotten how to love, or how to be loved. No one truly forgets that. They have simply put it past them to a point where it can no longer return to hurt them," for he had known that to be truth himself. "It is because love is the biggest sin we could commit. To love is to divide, and it is to bring chaos to those whose hearts are filled with it," and he remained silent after that. For him, that was all love had ever done for him. Though they say it was better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all, Kenji believed the opposite. It was better to have lost than loved for losing something he never loved could never hurt him, nor anyone else, as it did to love.

She got the sense that he was talking about himself more than talking about her, but she didn’t mind. She considered everything he was saying another new insight into just who he was, and she was grateful for that. She liked getting to know people for who they really were—it was one of the rare pleasures in life, she thought. Something that she’d never have been able to do if she hadn’t taken down that wall between herself and everyone else. It was still there sometimes, she knew that—to do her duty, she could never be just another citizen in the world. She could not travel it as she liked, or pick up a trade, or fall in love and marry and have children. These were things for others to do, and Amaya must do different things.

“Never have I dared think myself a god, Tsukimono-san. Never would I. But I could scarce allow myself to displease them.” Not when she was their messenger. Not when she relied on her ability to beg their assistance to protect people who needed it. If cleansing and ritual pleased the gods as it seemed to, then these were things that she would do. “But… if to love is to sin, then I have sinned. And I have forgiven myself for it. Perhaps I will continue to sin, if things are as you say, but I will do it without regret.” She smiled, then placed her palms against the ground and touched her forehead to it.

“My thanks, for speaking with me. I am sorry if I have disturbed you. Tomorrow I must perform the Ritual of the Seal, and so I will be gone for perhaps another week afterwards. I suppose that if you leave in the meantime, we may not meet again. May your path be always illuminated. And… if you would, please tell Sachiko-san that I am grateful for the way she assisted the healers. The people here mean a great deal to me, and she has done them much good.” Returning to a kneeling position, she rose gracefully from where she was sitting. The Ritual was not the most pleasant of experiences for her, but it was needed, and she was the only one who could do it.

The beginnings of a smile pulled at Kenji's lips, however; he crushed the notion before it could fully bloom and shook his head. "Then perhaps Rennoshin-san did not lie after all," he simply spoke. He tilted his head curiously to one side. "Do not thank me, Reijin-san, and do not apologize. You have not disturbed me, and I will inform Sachiko of your message when she returns. If we are gone by that time, do not waste your prayers on us... keep them on those who truly need you," he stated. He did not need her prayers, nor did he want them. He was damned the moment Masahiro betrayed him. The light would no longer light his way. Darkness would be his home, now, and forever more.

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Character Portrait: Sachiko Tsukimono Character Portrait: Yuu Isei
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At the first sign of sunrise, Sachiko left the room she shared with her brother, making her way as quietly as she could through the shrine grounds. It was comforting, being in this place, and one that felt familiar, like the warmth and glow her home used to have. She missed it, in truth. She missed her family, the little friends she had, and as odd as it might seem, she missed him. She missed the person her brother used to be, and she missed the dragon responsible for his change in demeanor. She would never tell her brother that, though. He would fly into a rage that not even she wanted to be the victim of. But was that so wrong of her? To miss something that once was? Perhaps, in some ways it was. She missed her people's murderer, her brother's murderer.

He had been her friend once too. She shook the thoughts from her as she descended the stairs that lead to the shrine, finding the cold comfort of rock against her bare feet soothing. She was never one for shoes, after all, and enjoyed feeling the earth on her feet as much as she enjoyed the air passing through her wings. The days of flight were long gone, but that did not mean she had to give up her other source of enjoyment. She paused, after walking a good distance from the shrine, and stared up at a rather large tree. A small smile crossed her lips as she pressed her hand against the trunk, closing her eyes momentarily just to feel it. She reopened her eyes and made an effortless jump to the nearest limb.

She proceeded to climb it until she was at the very top, standing at the tip and watching as the sun rose over the horizon. The sky began to illuminate in shades of pink and violet, the subtle hints of blue crossing through to the surface. She smiled and closed her eyes to it, enjoying the feeling of the sun as it washed over her. It did not provide the sense of vitality as it did for Kenji, but it did provide a sense of comfort. The sun was always an object of comfort to her kind, and perhaps it would remain to be so. She could feel the morning breeze pass through her, combing her crimson locks as she opened her eyes to take in the morning. "I miss the morning sun," what she meant by that, was not entirely something one could guess correctly.

Yukio had been up since just slightly before dawn proper, and had taken the opportunity to bathe before the baths were occupied by too many people. Having accomplished that goal, he now mostly wandered the shrine grounds absently, wondering if perhaps he should go see her after all. She of all people would be able to forgive his implicit deception—his allowing her to believe that he was really dead. And surely she of all people would keep the secret that he in fact still lived. Yet… he found the idea of simply approaching her to be intimidating somehow, which was ridiculous because she was, without doubt, the kindest person he had ever met. Perhaps in some strange way, it was that which stayed him in place, moving about the grounds, helping under the guise of a human being but always staying well out of her perception. He’d grown quite good at that sort of thing in recent years, though not so long ago, he’d been the opposite.

To be perceived as weak was already a weakness, and so there was hardly much point in concealing his strength. He wasn’t that person anymore, though, at least not when he could avoid it. So for now he would wait, perhaps give things some time to settle. She didn’t need a lot of shocks in such quick succession, after all. Muttering something incoherent to himself, he chose the base of a random tree and sat. He didn’t bother to extend his senses very much here, because at times, Amaya’s power was overwhelming even to him, mostly because the nature of it was so different. It didn’t hurt, by any means, but it was easy to lose oneself in her essence so near the center of her power. Also… she’d warned him that Shiro’s spirit might react to his if he didn’t keep himself in check. They were the same species, so he supposed it made sense in a way.

Crossing his legs lazily, he lit his pipe with a gesture and leaned his back against the rough, his wet hair dripping over one of his shoulders, darkening the front of his red haori. It wasn’t like he much cared, anyway. Drawing deeply from the pipe, he exhaled just as someone else spoke, and he realized belatedly that there was another scent intermingling with the thick smell of sakura blossoms here. “That’s a bit of a strange thing to say, isn’t it?” he inquired conversationally. His tone was on the deadpan side of expressive, but it wasn’t entirely flat. “It’s just as close as it was yesterday, no?”

"Perhaps it might sound strange to one who is not accustomed to being one with the sun," Sachiko replied simply, rolling her eyes slightly before making herself comfortable on the limb. She laid one hand against her knee, dangling her legs from the branch as she kept her eyes on the sun. "And no, it is not quite the same as it was yesterday," she added, glancing down to spot Yukio beneath the tree she was currently inhabiting. "It may appear to be so to you, but to me, it is growing further and further away. There will be a day when I can no longer reach out to it as I do now," she spoke, allowing her eyes to linger a bit longer on the dragon below. Kenji didn't like him simply because of the fact that he was a dragon, a fact he had spoken to her of when they had left.

It didn't bother her. He wasn't the one responsible for the massacre of her race, but that did not mean she had to like him quickly either. She shrugged her shoulders in a nonchalant fashion before returning her gaze to the sun. "Have you never wondered what it would be like to touch the sun? To just bathe in it's strength?" she questioned, and realized that perhaps that too sounded a bit strange to the man. Shaking her head, she sighed softly and allowed herself to fall from the tree, landing a few feet away from him and his pipe. She pursed her lips together at the smell. She never really did like the smell of smoke, but she had a choice to be there or not. Instead, she simply chose to sit down in front of him, crossing her legs beneath her as if waiting for his answers.

Yukio appeared unfazed by her counterpoint, and indeed simply shrugged. He might not have even said anything further, except she dropped down in front of him and appeared to be waiting for him to say something. With a slight snort, he tipped out the bowl of his pipe onto his hand, an action which would have surely burned an ordinary person. His skin, however, remained unmarred, even when he crushed the embers in his hands, then turned to the side and blew the ash away into the wind. It wouldn’t pollute the ground, that way, but settle naturally and sink into the soil, where it would help new things grow. It was on a much smaller scale the same general principle as that of a volcano—the remains of what was nurtured what was to be.

“One with the sun? That’s a lofty sentiment.” He felt some affinity to it as well, of course, being what he was, but it never seemed to be anything so spiritual in his mind. That was really more of Amaya’s thing than his, anyway. He opened one side of his haori, exposing part of an elaborate tattoo pattern of fire lilies, and tucked his pipe into an inside pocket before setting the garment back to rights. After that, he rubbed absently at the side of his jaw and glanced up at the great flaming orb in question. “But I have to say I don’t see the problem. If you want to hold it so badly, just reach further. Don’t lament that it’s leaving, go after it and keep it close. Otherwise, you’ve nobody to blame but yourself when it’s gone.” He raised a brow slightly in her direction, but then just shrugged.

That was the way he’d learned to do things after all. If he wanted something, he pursued it until it was his, and then kept it for as long as it took him to grow weary of it. If he was not initially capable of achieving or obtaining something, he worked harder until he was. People who thought they couldn’t do that either lacked the ability or the drive to go after what they really desired. If they lacked the ability, well, he could understand, and that was unfortunate for them. But those who lacked only the drive had no right to complain. “As for ‘bathing’ in it, no. I can’t say I’ve ever had the desire to do that. Why would I want to borrow power from something else? If it’s not something I can achieve on my own, then I’ve no right to it and no interest in it.” He wasn’t particularly critical of what she’d said, just of a very different mind, it seemed.

Sachiko raised a brow in his direction. That... was an interesting way of putting it. She turned her attention back towards the sun, her face falling back into a neutral stare as she continued gazing at it. "I never said anything about borrowing it's power, just bathing in it is all. And perhaps you are right, that it is no one's fault but my own for not going after it," she replied. As much as she wanted to go after it, she could not risk any more exposure. She'd said too much to Rennoshin, and Amaya already knew what they were, of that she was certain. Maybe, once Masahiro was dead, she'd be able to spread her wings once more and chase after the sun as she once did as a child.

"Unfortunately, it's a bit hard to fly on clipped wings. Once they grow back, however, might be another story. We are all not so strong a creature as yourself, you know. To each his own thoughts," she spoke, rolling her shoulders in the process. She could feel her hand twitching slightly as she stared at the dragon before her, the scar along his nose causing her eye to twitch slightly. Really, this odd fascination with touching things was beyond even herself now, but she supposed it had a lot to do with just feeling something. Of feeling alive still. She narrowed her eyes slightly as she leaned forward, her lips pursing together as her brows furrowed.

Without so much a warning, her index finger touched the side of his scar slightly and traced it before pulling back, nodding in a satisfied manner. "Now that that's out of the way," she spoke, placing her hand on her knee and placing her jaw in the cup of her hand. "What brings you here to this small village? You did not seem so concerned with it that night," she spoke, raising a questioning brow in the process.

If the metaphor wasn’t hint enough, everything made much more sense when she touched him. He wasn’t nearly as sensitive to these things as the phoenixes themselves, but he’d have been a blind idiot if he couldn’t sense the flame within her spirit. He didn't flinch away from the contact—it wasn’t like he was afraid she was going to hurt him, and he could say without arrogance that women touched him fairly often. Though not usually in this fashion. Still, all he did was blink. At least now she had it out of her system, he supposed. “I understand now,” he muttered, more to himself than to her. Still, it wasn’t like he cared much. What she did, what she was… none of it was any of his business.

Snorting softly, he folded both arms into his sleeves, cocking his head slightly to the side. The motion exposed his second eye, which happened to be a match for the other, sharing the same ruby coloration. “The village is one thing. It’s not really my business what happens to it—but there is someone here I care about. I just wanted to be sure the Little Bird was all right. That’s all.” It wasn’t difficult to guess who he referred to, and he didn’t intend for it to be that obscure anyway. “She’s just the kind of person who would make what happens to the town her business, and so by extension, it became mine for a little while.”

Sachiko snorted, not bothering to hide the fact that it wasn't exactly lady-like of her, however; what he said was a little amusing. "So it is true that a dragon can care for something other than itself," she stated, a grin spreading over her lips as she scoffed. "But I suppose it is understanding to think that way. Ama-chan tends to affect everyone differently, from what I can see. Though...," she paused slightly, shaking her head. She pursed her lips together as she pulled back from her leaning position. She did feel a little bad for Amaya, having to remain here and not having a real choice in the matter. Being born as she was, it was as if it were pre-ordained that her life would not be hers, and something inside of Sachiko felt like it had broke in twain. She sighed softly.

"I do not believe it is fair of them to cage her as they have. Perhaps, it is none of my business, and perhaps it is not her fault being born as she was, but she should have been allowed to fly... at least once. Every bird desires that, not a cage," even though the cage wasn't entirely a metaphor. The shrine itself was a cage, housing Amaya in it and giving her false hopes of seeing the world, but never truly being able to see it. "Her duties, I understand, are important to the world, but she shouldn't have to be hidden from it," she stated, her voice growing a bit deeper. She was never one to be angry, however; this caused her to feel just a little angry. It wasn't fair to Amaya, just because she was born a White Tengu did not mean she had to have something enforced upon her.

"She is a good person, though, and fully capable of making her own decisions. I will say nothing more for her on that," because it wasn't really her place to do so. Instead, Sachiko sighed, throwing her head back to glance at the sky as it continued to rise higher into the sky. The others would still be asleep still, and very little of them would barely be awakening to prepare the morning meals. She snorted softly as she recalled Kenji had become angry with a few of the monks for taking them breakfast. She didn't blame them, really, since Kenji was just that type of person. He might not appear to care, but he cared more than he let on.

"Couldn't say the same for you though," she stated, rubbing at her throat absentmindedly. He didn't hurt her nor crush anything that night, but the feeling of his foot never really left her throat. It felt odd sometimes, but she passed it off as just the fact that she lost to him. Sometimes, she really did not like losing.

His response to that was to laugh. Not at great volume, more a dark chuckle than anything. “And you caught me in one of my better moments, at that. On a different day, I might have insisted the fight be lethal.” He certainly didn’t claim to be a good person, not by any stretch of the imagination. But he wasn’t really all that concerned about good, or evil, or whatever names other people gave those things. Dragons tended to frame actions in terms of strength and weakness. What was strong was good, and what was weak was bad. That was about the long and short of it. He wasn’t quite so simplistic in his views anymore… or perhaps he’d just come to understand that there was more than one kind of strength.

“For once, I’m glad I didn’t though,” he mused thoughtfully, turning his eyes from the sky to the woman in front of him. “Not even I’m such a bastard that I’d want to kill the last of the phoenixes, after all.” He shrugged. The massacre had happened long before he reached maturity, and besides that, it had occurred outside the authority of the previous Dragon Prince. Most of those responsible had been executed for it—not for killing the phoenixes as such, but for doing such a thing without permission. Some still lived, though, because not all of the conspirators were known to the central government.

“I imagine that’s not something you want anyone else to know though, so you’re going to have to give me something to call you that isn’t ‘phoenix girl.’” It wasn’t like they’d bothered with introductions as such when they’d met, all things considered.

"If you had desired the fight to be lethal, I would not have fought you. Kenji, on the other hand, would have done so regardless. I do not kill, Mr. Dragon. I have not killed anyone, in the entirety of my existence," which as true. She had never intentionally killed someone. Seen someone slain, yes, but never been the one to do the slaying. All of the bounties her brother and she found were either slain already, or Kenji did it. "Since you know what we are, then you should not be afraid of killing us, unless you intended to use your flames. If you did, then perhaps I shall agree with you on that," she continued, scoffing slightly in the process. Phoenixes were not so easily killed, and even if they were, they would just rebirth themselves. The only way a phoenix could perish forever, was through the flames of another, stronger creature such as the dragons.

"Phoenix girl?" she echoed, a hint of amusement lacing her voice. "No, I suppose that wouldn't really do. You could have just said Tori, I'd be okay with that," she stated, shrugging her shoulders in a care-free manner. Truthfully, he could call her phoenix girl for all she cared. Hiding wasn't something she liked doing, and she hated constantly hiding because of him. She pushed the thoughts from her mind, studying the dragon before her as her eyes narrowed. She sighed softly, though and leaned back on the palms of her hands.

"To be honest, I do not care if others know what I am. It is not a life I wish to live, however; it is because my brother believes it will keep us alive long enough until he can be found," she spoke, her eyes faltering. She raised them back up to meet the dragon's, and pursed her lips together. "Sachiko, if you must call me something," she finally stated, giving the dragon her name in response. "The other one is Kenji, or Ken to some. I just call him Ji-Ji," she stated in a nonchalant fashion. It wasn't like anyone would call him that other than her, though. She'd be surprised if someone did. Probably a little amused as well.

“Sachiko,” he repeated, rolling the word around on his tongue. It seemed a little… girlish, for someone like her, but then it wasn’t like he really had much of an opinion on the matter. Shrugging slightly, he figured he could at least return the courtesy. Though he’d gone by ‘Yukio’ in a large number of villages to this point, it was not his actual name. “Call me Yuu. Mr. Dragon is my father.” He cracked a grin at that, actually. His name probably wouldn’t have been all that recognizable even if he’d given her the full one, but he was a little too careful to provide his real surname. The given one, though, wasn’t likely to ring any bells, as such, so he sometimes used it as well.

As to who the mysterious he was, Yuu could only assume that she referred to the instigator of the phoenix massacre, considering. He didn’t know the identity of that person, else he’d have had him executed himself, in accordance with the judgement of the previous Dragon-Prince. Likely, though, he was still in court somewhere, fighting viciously for position like the rest of them. Well, whatever the case, it wasn’t his business.

“If you want to find a dragon,” he offered offhandedly, “most of them will be gathering in the capital in a few months. They’ll be holding a tournament—anyone who still considers themselves part of the hierarchy will be there. Hard to get into, but if you can… you’ll probably be able to find him.”

Sachiko laughed, the sound coming out nothing as she appeared to be. It wasn't obnoxious, nor boisterous, but it was neither soft or melodic. It was simply there. She shook her head, rolling her eyes as she raised an amused brow. "And here I just thought you were a happy man, not someone who appeared to be tender. You don't look like a very tender person. Chewy, perhaps, but not tender," she chided, though the meaning of his name Yuu could have meant something else entirely, she did not care. She furrowed her brows at his last statement though, and sat back in a proper posture. A tournament, for dragons? She did not care what happened to Masahiro, but her brother would want to know of this. It was still a few months away, however; they couldn't just leave either.

"I do not wish to see my brother head to something so drastic as that. Perhaps, once Hidenori has been dealt with, I will mention the tournament to him. For now, however, I ask you this," she stated, staring Yuu straight in the eye and holding his gaze. "Do not mention it to him. He will get himself killed trying to find him. You understand that I cannot allow my brother to die quite yet, but I do not desire anything to befall Ama-chan, either. Kenji may be strong, but he is not strong enough that he could kill a dragon. Ama-chan... this place needs us more than Kenji's revenge," she asked, lowering her gaze slightly. She, perhaps, was asking a lot, but she cared too much for her brother to throw his life away so carelessly. And she cared enough to want to keep this place safe from the Bakeneko.

Kenji was strong, perhaps, but Masahiro was stronger. One day, Kenji might be strong enough that he could succeed in his revenge, however; as was his duty to find Masahiro, Sachiko considered it her duty to keep her brother alive for as long as possible. For now, she just wanted life to continue to flourish. She was, after all, a creature who loved life.

“You think any dragon would name her son anything about tenderness?” Yuu retorted lazily, raising a brow. Nevertheless, he snorted, slightly amused by her amusement, perhaps. It faded shortly enough, however, and he shook his head slightly. “I don’t plan to tell him—it has nothing to do with me, after all. Do as you like.” She didn’t have to worry about Amaya so much, though. As long as he was around, nothing bad would happen to the Little Bird. He would make damn sure of that much.

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The morning of the ritual brought light rain to the area, and for this, Amaya was grateful. It would help nourish the replenished land, wash away the last of the stink of death. It was, she was sure, small consolation to those who had lost people they loved, or those who had lost everything they had. But it was something, and she knew that, though there was much that could never be restored, at the very least, life could be renewed.

Such things, however, were far from her immediate concern at the moment. She sighed softly as an attendant slid the soft fabric of the black kimono over her shoulders. It was entirely plain, save that the obi was a deep crimson red. She went today not as an agent of renewal and light, but as a warden, a gatekeeper, the last remaining embodiment of the power to keep evil at bay, and for this, she wore the colors of night and fire, the colors of the shrine’s creator, the temple’s founder: Kurohiko. Absent her usual shakujo staff, she instead took a long knife, encased in black lacquer, and slid it into her obi. Her headpiece and the feather attached to it were left behind, her white-silver hair freely trailing to the nape of her neck. She was entirely unadorned, and that was the way it was supposed to be.

Her bare feet made no noise on the tatami mat floors that surrounded the Chamber of the Seal, and she passed the door guards without saying anything, ignoring them as they knelt and bowed, standing again to pull the sliding doors shut behind her. The Chamber itself was circular, the floor stone. Pressed into that unnaturally-white rock was a carved seal—the personal sigil of the Third Dragon Prince, Kurohiko. It was what he’d used to focus his power, and trap his brother in the boundless Void between worlds. She’d always thought it a cruel fate, to be bound there, not in the world of the living, but also not able to pass into the next and reincarnate. The one time she’d ever said so, her teachers had scolded her so badly she’d never dared say it again. She had never stopped thinking it, however.

Even she knew better than to release him, though. Instead, the first time she had completed this ritual on her own, she’d reached out, into the Void, and spoken. To her surprise, someone had answered, a soul that she could feel echoing inside herself somehow. He was everywhere and nowhere, everything and nothing at all. For all these years, she had never quite understood what his nature was now, fragmented by so many eons in utter oblivion. But it was as though her presence was some kind of magnet, drawing those fragments together, still unwhole but no longer so scattered, until at least now she felt like she was speaking to a coherent person. Someone who was more than just his wickedness. She did not pity him, as such—Amaya knew that, at least to some extent, he had earned his fate. But… she knew what it was like to feel utterly alone, and she didn’t think he deserved that, so she was his company, when she could be.

Padding to the center of the chamber, she stood for a time in the very middle of the crest, before gracefully descending to her knees. For a while, she simply sat like that, her power slowly building around her, allowing her what she needed to pass part of herself into the Void. It was utterly empty within, blank to every sense. There wasn’t even darkness pressed against her eyes, just… nothing. At least not until she felt him. Up, down, left, right—space was impossible here, so he wasn’t in any direction in particular. He simply was. His voice most of all.

As she usually did, she imposed her will on the Void, giving it just enough form to make sense to her. And so she became a coherent entity in the Void, and he became the other, and then he was before her, and she before him. Concentrating, she started to influence their surroundings as well, to show him something, let him hear something, and to herself, she gave a physical form, a thin, translucent echo of her actual person. She looked down, and had half-visible hands and legs. Even her kimono translated. She dare not force him into any physical form he did not desire to occupy, and so he remained a presence that she could sense, but not with any of the usual five. It was the first time she’d done this, and she was surprised at the result. The mental image had transferred well, if not wholly, and she now stood in a replica of the shrine garden, the tricking sound of water behind her and birdsong in her ears.

“Shiro,” she said, and surprisingly, the voice issued from the mouth of her almost-self rather than from all around as it usually did. She smiled softly, and then shut her eyes. The images were not for her benefit, after all, and it was easier to find him, in that odd mental sense, when she wasn’t worried about any of her others. There it was, the same odd connection as always, and she translated everything there as well. The smile, her tiny bit of pleasure at a successful experiment, her hope that having something to see, something to hear, would please him. Though she knew she had to be wary of the sealed Prince, she did not want him to suffer, after all.

How long had it been since he's seen the light? Touched the sky, breathed the air in? How long? An eternity, it seems. An eternity since Shirohiko, the first son and rightful King, was placed into this void, this hell. An eternity since he last spoke with anyone. The only comfort he had was that of his own mind, and even that was not much. An eternity can deteriorate one's mind, and Shirohiko could say with certainty that his mind, was anything of the sort. Something shifted in the void, capturing the White Prince's attention. He knew that shift, knew it like he knew how to breathe. It was time. Time for her to come, to do her duty, and it only caused a smirk to pull at his seemingly void lips.

"The priestess has come to do her duties, has she not?" he spoke, his voice in a low rumble. If one were to compare it to a sound, they would consider it closer to the sounds of a volcano on the verge of eruption. Though, it wasn't as powerful as that sound. "Or has the priestess come to actually neglect those duties?" Either way didn't matter to him. In the last thousand, she was the first to speak with him. In over a thousand years, it was her voice who had entered his dreams, filled his nightmares, and caressed the void in a soft blanket of something. He wasn't entirely sure he knew what that something was, however; he knew he would never want to let go of it.

That blanket was his, and he did not like the idea of sharing it with anyone else. He shifted in his prison, feeling the cold shackles biting into his skin. He wasn't necessarily chained, but the void had a tendency to make it feel like he was. He would leave this place one day. He would leave, return to the plane of existence, and reclaim all that his brother had stolen from him. Everything. His life, his title, and he would make a new future. And that future included having the little bird by his side, whether she wanted to be or not. She was his, and his alone. He would make it so when he escaped. She would be his queen, his salvation, and more importantly, his. The sounds he heard, the visions he saw when she pressed them forward, almost made him loathe his fate.

It was a fate he earned, perhaps, but who were they to say he did? He was as any other, trying to right a wrong, and for that, he was paying. Instead, he focused on her and her presence. This was the first time she had ever manifested herself into the void, and even then he could see her loveliness. She sported silver-blonde hair, cut short, much too short than what he would have preferred, however; it was of little consequence. He manifested himself, adorned in the same attire he wore when his wretched brother sealed him. Nothing seemed to have changed upon his appearance. His snow-white hair contrasted drastically against the emptiness of the void, and the ice-blue of his eyes pierced through even more. They seemed almost translucent, as if one could see past them.

He reached out towards her, trailing a long finger down the side of her face, however; he could not feel anything. Such as it was to be as they were, transparent. "Does she intend to release these?" he continued, raising his wrists towards her. Chained to his wrists were silver bonds, created with a special kind of seal. It was created by the first White Tengu, and his powers. He'd be released one way or another, however; he would suffice himself for now with being able to see and hear the outside world. He wanted to know before he returned to destroy it all.

Amaya shook her head slightly, studying this new aspect to someone she’d known for so long and also knew not at all. Shiro was a stranger, and yet she knew him better than anyone. He certainly knew her better than nearly anyone ever would, some product of this, their strange, fated connection. Neither of them had any choice in the matter, really. Raising her own hands, she laid her palms gently over the shackles, almost able to perceive cold metal and warm skin under her hands. “That is not for me to decide,” she said quietly. He was imprisoned here by the authority of his brother and the Dragon-Princes in succession, and it was only on order from they and the High Council that he could ever be set free. The choice was not hers, even if she was perhaps physically capable of doing as he suggested.

It wasn’t as though she relished keeping him here, though she could see the necessity in it. Still, that necessity was somehow lesser when she was looking at a person, rather than feeling a scattered consciousness. Even so, it would be dangerous to let a living face lull her into what a collection of thoughts alone could not do. For what did a face tell you of the truth? Much less, that was to be sure. “But I… I can show you things, if you want to see them. Tell you what little I know of the world beyond the shrine…” It wasn’t much, but it was all she had to give.

Outside the Void, her body began to move in ritualistic motions. She loosened the kimono she wore, the soft fabric sliding down her shoulders to rest at her elbows, exposing her neck and much of her back. Her voice, at once hers and not-hers, the voice belonging to the soul which had inhabited many bodies, but always of the same kin, chanting as though with every set of lungs it had ever occupied. Her hand drew the dagger from her obi, sliding the lower sheath off in a practiced motion. The price of keeping him here was steep indeed—she, as every White Tengu that had come before her, sacrificed parts of her very life force to strengthen the seal. He knew that much, surely—it explained why his guardian changed every hundred years or so, when they should have been just as immortal as any other Tengu. But she doubted he knew how it was done… and perhaps that was for the best. None were permitted to see this, and that was just as well.

Flowing into a stand without breaking her meditation, she let the rest of the kimono fall to pool on the ground. Her manifestation, however, remained as she was.

"And what makes you think I want to see the outside world, hm?" he questioned, pulling away as he turned his back to her. What use did he have just to see the outside world when he would rather feel it? Seeing it brought very little to him, very little. It wasn't a comfort, it was misery. It was a constant reminder that he was forever bound into this wretched void, with only one way out. Her. Her, and her previous predecessors were his only way out, however; none before her had ever dared to speak with him. They always ignored his pleas, his calls, his cries. But not her. In a way, he knew she would be gone in another millenia or so, perhaps sooner. Who was to say with the world she lived in? It wasn't a kind place, he was no fool to not know that. He narrowed his eyes before peering over his shoulder.

"Do you wish to die, Tengu?" he stated, quirking an eyebrow as he gauged her, watching her as she stood in place. "Others have, before you, and you shall perish as well. I do not know what it is that keeps your kind from changing every so years," he spoke, stepping towards her before circling her. She would die... eventually, but if he could prevent that, if she wanted to prevent that, all she had to do was say so. He extended his hand, holding it out to her as his face emptied of everything he was feeling. "All you need to do is remove these, free me, and you will have no need to perish for those ungrateful vermin," the vermin who kept him bound inside this place.

Amaya tilted her head at him. It was strange, to think that he wouldn’t know why they died. She’d have thought someone would have told him by now. But then, she didn’t know her predecessors, what kinds of people they were. In the end, she knew very little at all. But she did know that she could not give him what he was asking for. She let the image, the sounds, the smells she had created fade away. If they troubled him, and she believed they just might, she would abandon them.

She would not, however, tell him lies. She had never done that. Not even once. “It’s you,” she confessed softly. “You kill us. Keeping you here, containing your power. The ritual requires part of our life every time we do it. In time, I will die, just as those before me have died.” On the other plane, her hand moved, flicking the knife ever so gently over her closed eyelids, producing just a little trickle of blood from each. They ran down her pale flesh like red tears. Next, the blade caressed her lips, and these bled down her chin. Last of all, she raised the knife to her throat. If done improperly, these cuts could cripple or kill her, to say nothing of the scars they might leave.

Her figure in the Void touched each place the knife kissed with the tip of a finger. “Eyes to watch you, lips to grant the power to speak with you… and our lifeblood, to strengthen it.” Her physical counterpart drew the knife over the junction of her neck and shoulder, the blood welling from the wound and trailing down her exposed skin, pooling at her feet, filling the carven rivulets that comprised the seal, until all of the grooves were swollen with crimson. Her healing factor closed the wounds, but not before she had lost a lot of blood. From there, it was a matter of applying her spiritual power to the seal, of giving the sacrifice proper direction.

“I think I was meant to be glad to do it. But no part of me is glad for this.” She did it anyway, because it was necessary and her duty. It was, in fact, the very reason she existed at all. She was the only one who could hold back the destruction he would visit upon the world if ever freed. “But because I die, there are many more who do not.” She knew his nature; she knew what would come of his freedom, and he would not bother to spare any he thought beneath him. It was their lives she was protecting, and that was what gave her the strength to do it, even if she did, in some strange way, feel a sense of affection for her prisoner. Misplaced at best, but present all the same. Perhaps that was simply her nature.

Shiro scoffed, a light sound if any. He was the one who killed them? Odd, he never saw it like that. If anything, it was they whom were killing themselves. They need not do that, if any part of them had ever been selfish. Were that the case, none of them needed to die for him. He wasn't a sentimental being, and he could care less if those before her gave their life to keep him from returning, however; some part, a little spark perhaps, cared that it was her that was dying. He narrowed his eyes at her, lowering his wrists as he disappeared, becoming one with the void again. His voice was the only thing left she could sense, and it was darker than when it first began.

"It is not I who kills you," he spoke, his voice as close to her as if he were whispering it in her ear. "It is that damn conscience of yours, and what you all perceive as the right thing to do. Tell me, do you really believe it is true, those things that I have done, have did? The crimes I committed because I was insane?" he used the term loosely. Perhaps he was insane, and only those around him were providing a sense of sanity to the world, however; it could have been the other way around. Perhaps... all he ever wanted to do was provide sanity to an insane world. He dismissed the thought, becoming nothing, as even his voice faded away.

"It matters not, what you believe, Hime. You will not always be strong enough to fortify this seal. You would do well to remember that. You should be enjoying what little precious freedom you have. I will come for you when I am free," he stated, his voice laced with a certain confidence that did not lie. He would be free soon, and once he was, he would come for her. "I will be in your nightmares, tonight."

Amaya shivered, almost feeling a hot gust of breath on her neck. She closed both her facsimile’s eyes and those belonging to the version of herself on the mortal plane. But she smiled softly all the same, because she did not hate him, not even when she feared him. “You always are,” she replied softly, and then slowly, she withdrew from the Void, drained of just about everything she had and much weaker than she had woken this morning. It would take her days to recover, if not a week. But that, like so much of her life, was simply the way it had to be.

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