Written for Phoenix/Maya day at Court Records.
"Nick...you sure you want to do this?"
I want to sound certain, but my voice wobbles despite my good intentions. I mean, who would willingly sit on a block of ice chanting words in a foreign language 30,000 times while having ice water tipped on your head the whole time, all night!?
The answer; Me, that's who. First fire and lightning, now ice and freezing water. I do really stupid things for this girl.
"This is your last chance to back out," says Bikini gravely. "Are you absolutely certain that you wish to accompany Mystic Maya on the Special Course?"
"Yes," I say, firmly this time. I'm going to complete this, for Maya's sake. Even after the disastrous events of last week, she's signed up to take the 'Special Course' again. So I've made up my mind to do it with her. Even if that means that I'll have to wear a flu mask for the rest of my life.
A shadow crosses Maya's face – what's she thinking? Does she not want me along? Is she thankful? Relieved? Guilty? Worried? I'll never know, it seems, because within a second the flicker of deeper emotion has gone, leaving her smiling and jaunty. She's already wearing the traditional Hazakurain robes instead of her usual acolyte gear, topknot obscured by the Demon-Warding hood, and shows no sign of anxiety about the ordeal she's about to undergo. Considering that something so terrible happened last time she entered the Sacred Cavern, I was very surprised when she told me she wanted to do it again. Properly, this time.
"Alright, Nick!" she says cheerfully. "It's too late to back out now!" She turns to the chest leaning against the wall, old European oak looking out of place in the chilly Inner Temple, and removes a set of deep magenta shrine maiden robes, like the ones Iris and Bikini wear. "You'll have to wear these on the Course!" She thrusts the pile of rosy silk into my arms.
"She's right," puts in Bikini. "It's the custom for those taking the course to wear the Hazakurain traditional robes!" She laughs merrily as I stare, dumbfounded, at the two of them. Maya is grinning nervously. "Heh, Nick...it's OK, I mean, nothing wrong with wearing girl's clothes, right...?"
"It's fine," I respond. Gotta do this. I'm doing this for Maya...
Slowly, I remove my jacket and tie, shivering, and then my shirt. I'm keeping my trousers on, shrine maiden robes or not. I get a glimpse of Maya blushing madly and I try to convince myself that Bikini isn't snickering under her breath, before I slip on the white undergarment thing with long sleeves that cover the hands, then the baggy mauve dress thing, the magenta yukata and the crimson sash...
Wow. I'm quite the sight, aren't I?
"Nick, you look just like Iris now!" says Maya brightly, hands locked in place behind her back.
I scowl at them, but soon burst into laughter as well. I must look pretty hilarious.
"You've forgotten some things, Mystic Maya," says Bikini between bursts of laughter. "The Demon-Warding Hood. And the Magatama. Wa ha ha!"
I've already got them. I reach into the Court Record – which is currently Maya's duffel bag – and withdraw the Hood that Iris gave to me, and my Magatama. Bikini's eyes widen in surprise.
"You mean...that Magatama is real?"
Maya nods, clapping her hands together and grinning. "I gave it to him personally!"
I slip the object into the pouchy sleeves of the robe and tie the Hood over my head. "Alright, you ready?"
"It wouldn't be me if I wasn't!" she says cheekily, and has heaved open the door to the Cavern while I'm still working out what she just said. A blast of cold air rushes out, turning my face numb the moment it hits me.
And I've just volunteered to sit in these conditions all night. Apprehensively, I step forward. Bikini has set up an armchair outside the cavern, and has a shawl tossed over her back. Hopefully this means she won't be heading back to the main hall for a bath anytime soon. I take another step –
And we're in the Cavern. I shiver as Bikini shuts the door behind me with a bang.
"You know what the prayer is?" Maya says, her teeth chattering.
"Y-y-yeah," I manage to get out. There are two large blocks of ice on the cavern floor. "S-something Japanese, I think it's 'aishiteru wa '. Just 'aishiteru wa' over and over?"
"You're pronouncing it wrong, Nick!" says Maya, maintaining her cheerful tone as she dashes over to her iceblock. "It's 'aishiteru wa'! Not 'aishiteru wa'!"
"Um, OK," I say as I gingerly sit down on my block of ice. "AHH! That's cold!"
"Well, yeah," says Maya, then something else, but her words are drowned out by the achingly, bone chillingly FREEZING torrent of icy water that has just been poured on both of our heads.
"Aaaahhhh!" I gasp, trying to suck in air, but it's icy cold, like breathing in refrigerated knives. What was that thing we had to chant again? I look over at Maya, frosty air puffing from my nose and mouth, to see that she's sopping wet and shivering but is chanting the words.
Aishiteru wa, Phoenix.
I have to do this. I have to be strong for Maya. I open my mouth, and begin to chant.
My lips are numb. My nose is freezing off my face. My teeth are chattering.
Water. Ice water. Coursing over my body, seeping through my clothes, driving onto my face like needles. Frosting onto my hair, my nose, my hands.
I'm shivering. Shivering all over. Trembling all down my spine, in long, powerful shudders.
The words are coming out as breathy whispers. My muscles feel like slabs of burning ice. Cold. Cold. Cold. Cold.
I look at Maya from the corner of my (watering) eye. She's swaying slightly, her lips are purple, but they're moving, thank Ami Fey. Ha, I'm thanking Ami Fey? Must be going native.
The Demon-Warding Hood is clinging to me. It feels like ice.
My clothes feel like ice and snow.
I continue to chant.
The cold. So cold. So cold and numb, so painful. I can't feel my body anymore, it's so numb. I'm drifting on a cloud of ice water. I chant, and chant.
There's a break in the deluge. We get a break? Bikini is in a merciful mood. I shift closer to Maya and sit on her iceblock. She mumbles something in my ear – 'Aishiteru wa' – and drops her head into my lap. I enjoy the sensation of warmth and her silky hair spilling out of the Hood and onto my arms, but she has to finish the course, she can't give up. She's barely breathing. I prop her up, balance her against my shoulder. She looks at me gratefully, and I feel like she wants to say 'thanks, Nick...' but all that comes out is 'aishiteru wa'. But it doesn't matter, because I understand.
Then the water starts again, and I realise I'm still chanting. I pick up the pace and volume, saying the words louder, as the water courses down, drenching us farther and sending us spiralling into a vortex of cold.
That weightless feeling. The feeling of being so numb, so disconnected, that I'm floating. It's back.
The hood that Iris gave me is coming loose. I clutch the Magatama with the remaining feeling I have in my hands. Locks, chains, spirits and fire, ghostly nines and butterflies. Cold and water and flowers burning in the ice.
Ah, it can all go to hell. I shrug off the hood, and dare the demons to fight me.
I have her Magatama in my hand, and her blessing in my ears, and I'm never letting go. Water above, ice below...it's nothing, because Maya is beside me. I tilt my head back, so the water crashes onto my face like thunder and lightning -
I'm going to complete this. I'm going to do this. I'm being borne down by the torrent of water, it's beating me down to the ice, but Maya is there for me and we prop each other up, shouting into the darkness.
And nobody can pull us apart.
The water stops.
I blink, slowly.
It's stopped. I force myself to stop chanting. After saying the same words 30,000 times, it's kind of hard to stop.
Maya looks at me. A little, breathy sigh passes her lips and she collapses, the ordeal over.
I blink again, still clutching the Magatama, and fall to the ice.
I've endured storm, darkness, fire and water and ice. And I don't regret it. Because Maya is and always will be at my side, no matter what. No matter what.
Hehe, I fail at Japanese. I know under ten words.
So, yeah. I trawled Google for ancient Shinto prayers and came up with nothing. Eventually I just resorted to 'I love you' in Japanese. Puts a whole new spin on it, doesn't it?
Aishiteru wa = I love you
...I should probably have been more patient and actually come up with something logical.