IT'S FINALLY DOOOOOONNNEEEE!11!111! *shot dead*
Yes, I'm finally back, everyone! After a month-long hiatus, I finally manage to shrug of the procrastination and annoying little distractions of daily life to finally write out this chapter, the first of another two-parter!
All I hope is that I at least still have SOME of my old readers still hanging about, as I'm sure that some of them have likely stopped checking a while ago. BUT! No matter. I'll still keep writing, as long as you guys still keep reading! After all, I did said I'd get this in, and through all the blood, sweat, and tears, I finally did!
So be sure to enjoy it!
Chapter 40: The Warrior and the Fox, Part 1
The Moon Cave…a place that had once belonged to one of the mightiest demons in existence. It had been here, in this hole, in the middle of the small lake within Shinshu Fields, that the fate of Nippon had been rewritten…a fate that had been wrested from the claws of Orochi, who had ruled the land with fear and power prior to his defeat at the hands of the one called Nagi, and his faithful companion Shiranui.
Even with the demon gone, however, a certain taint had lingered over the place…a taint that had been restored with Orochi's rebirth barely a year ago, and coupled with yet another defeat, this time at the hands of Nagi's descendent Susano, and the current Brush God of the Sun, Amaterasu.
Descending into the depths of this legendary piece of Nippon's history, Nobunaga was once again reminded of the taint in question…and the primary reason why people had likely steered clear of it in the months following Orochi's second defeat.
The place, quite literally, STUNK.
Even with all of his adaption to the taint of demons, and the vile smell that usually came with it, the Lord of the Black Hand had to fight to keep his eyes from watering as he walked through the twisting caverns of the Moon Cave. The entire place reeked of demon feces and whatever vile concoction that the imps were cooking up for their master today.
Whether the two were connected or not, Nobunaga CERTAINLY didn't wish to know…and from the looks of it, neither did his normally stalwart and unwavering retinue of personal bodyguards, many of which couldn't help but make various sounds of quiet disgust, one of them even reaching underneath his skull-shaped faceplate to plug his nose as they descended deeper into the caves.
While such a break of composure among his ranks was punishable, Nobunaga had more important things to do than yell at his already skittish soldiers. There was a certain demon that he planned to have a chat with, and with that singular goal in mind, he pushed the horrible stink out of his mind and increased his pace, his group scattering a pack of imps carrying a large platter of some unpleasant "food" (if it could even be called that) and causing them to drop it with a frenzied chorus of frightened shrieks as they realized who they had nearly gotten in the way of.
They all feared him…as it should be.
A few minutes of trekking through twisting caverns and precarious platforms soon found the Lord of the Black Hand and his guards riding a slowly moving wooden platform upwards, the lone imp manning the crank huffing and puffing as he turned it as fast as he could…and going even faster when, at Nobunaga's gesture, one of the red samurai gave the imp a sharp kick to get things moving.
This was a place for demons. Nobunaga didn't want to be here any longer than he had to be, especially since the imps had apparently been too lazy to fix the gaping hole in the staircase that would have otherwise granted him direct access to Orochi's lair.
With a loud thunk, the elevator reached its uppermost position, the crank imp collapsing over the handle with a gasp and gulping precious air into its lungs as it heaved for breath. Slowly filing off of the platform, Nobunaga's group immediately made their way up the impressive spiraling pathway that would take them into the uppermost reaches of the Moon Cave where Orochi dwelled…
…Impressive, but a complete waste of space, Nobunaga was quick to observe. The amount of useful things that could otherwise have been done with so much empty space made him want to grind his teeth.
Just another small addition to his increasingly long list of recent annoyances.
Eventually getting to the top of the exceptionally long spiral pathway, Nobunaga and his now heavily panting retinue of bodyguards proceeded forward towards a large stone ledge, suspended on the edge of a huge drop...straight into what could only be Orochi's Main Chamber.
Another massive waste of space. The only things that took up space in the wide open cavern was decorated floor far below, save for the massive shrine in the center that nearly took up its entire width, and the illusion of the swirling storm of fire and smoke above them, casting an ominous air over the whole place.
His eyes lingering on the lattermost part of the cavern, Nobunaga could at least imagine the scent of brimstone, which would serve to dampen the horrendous smell that filled the entire cave.
"My lord?" one of his bodyguards muttered from his right, calling him back to the task at hand.
"Yes, yes, you are dismissed. This should not take long anyways…" the Lord of the Black Hand muttered, watching as the guards bowed their heads and slowly filed away back the way they had come.
Turning his gaze back to the wide open space before him, the twisted demonic grin of his helmet's faceplate hiding whatever emotion was on his face at the moment, Nobunaga reached behind himself and withdrew something from the depths of his billowing black cloak…
A clear glass sphere, filled with bright red fire, very similar to the one he had left behind at Kusa Village to occupy the awoken spirit of Aku-Hametsu while he had made his escape…only this one contained a very different symbol.
The symbol of a massive slab of earth…with eight long, serpentine heads protruding from it.
Reflecting on the events that had occurred in Kusa Village, Nobunaga distinctly remembered his aversion to running from a fight…but that had been before he realized that the cursed sword of the Takeda Clan could reawaken so soon. Never before in the Black Hand's recorded history had such an event occurred, at least not until the wielder was a full adult in age.
He was forced to admit, though, that such a sudden retreat had been fully necessary, in order for him to plan around the sudden occurrence. These were changing times, for both Nippon and the Land of Darkness…and such events, while certainly inconvenient, were bound to happen in one way or another.
Finally deciding that he couldn't put this off any longer, Nobunaga heaved a great sigh and held the orb out in front of him, both the red fire and glowing symbol within radiating light from in between the gauntleted fingers of his vice-like grip.
"Come forth, Orochi. We have business to discuss."
The orb pulsed once…and the cavern began to rumble. Far below, Nobunaga could see the shrine beginning to shift in its place, cracks spreading from it as something below the ground began to stir. Outside the cavern, the rumbling and shaking made his bodyguards begin to lose their balance, many of them grabbing for something to steady themselves as the shaking only intensified.
The dirt and stone beneath the shrine began to bulge upward, and with a sudden and tremendous blast of flying debris, the ground gave way and spiraled into the air, the shrine going right along with it as it was borne on the back of a massive slab of earth similar to the one depicted in Nobunaga's orb.
A loud cacophony of snake-like hissing filled the air, as the slab rose high enough to reveal long muscular appendages covered in scales. The eight long necks began to squirm sickeningly as they were revealed to the air, and with several more bursts of stone and dirt, pulled themselves out of the ground as chunks of earth fell from their pristine scales, glimmering as a bright golden glow filled the cave…a surprisingly inappropriate color for the monster that had finally been revealed.
Large as a mountain, with the heads of dragons and eyes of fire, malice, and hatred, the demon known as Orochi, the Scourge of Nippon, rose before the Lord of the Black Hand. Every single pair of eyes, hidden in the shadows beneath the glowing silver helmets that each bore a symbol of some worldly element, focused directly on the comparatively tiny being standing before them.
Any normal human would have cowered in fear, curled into a ball and begged for forgiveness…but Nobunaga simply reminded himself of the fortunate fact that he was, by far, NOT an ordinary human.
"Well, well, well…" a chorus of eight voices, speaking in unison with an underlying hiss, muttered within his mind. "Look who finally decided to drag himself out from his little shogun. To what do I owe the…pleasure, of this rare visit from the Lord of the Black Hand himself?"
Nobunaga responded by tightening his grip on the glass orb in his hand, and the fire within suddenly shrunk away from the edges of its prison…as did Orochi, who let out a loud hiss as his eight head shrunk in on themselves, the mighty mountain-sized demon actually shying away from this being that was merely a fraction of his size.
"You will show me respect, demon, or I will dispose of you like I disposed of your brood," Nobunaga spoke with a tone of voice completely devoid of emotion.
Recovering, Orochi narrowed his eyes at the human, standing so defiantly against him.
"You mean Crimson Helm? Surely you jest. I would hardly call that abomination my 'brood', even IF he rose from a pool of my own blood," the demon eventually replied. "I care nothing for that walking pile of bones…though using him to cover your escape after that botched affair of yours was an incredible waste."
Unsurprised by the fact that Orochi knew about the backlash that had been Nobunaga's attempt to destroy Kusa Village while gaining information about the reborn Sword Wielder, the Lord of the Black Hand nonetheless forced the sudden flare of anger down as Orochi stared down at him smugly. The demon was walking a fine line by taunting him beneath a thin layer of respect, but it wasn't enough to push Nobunaga's hand…at least, not yet.
A curious look came over Orochi's savage features, and he brought his eight heads in for a closer look at Nobunaga, the heat radiating from the demon being strong enough to be felt by Nobunaga's bodyguards standing outside, already shaken up by the demon's summoning and unwilling to stay in the demon-infested cavern much longer.
"…But enough of Crimson Helm. Why have you disturbed my slumber, Nobunaga?"
"Information," came the simple reply.
"Information?" the demon scoffed. "That is all? If you wanted information, why not get your useless gaggle of spies to gather it for you, instead of disturbing-"
Whatever else Orochi was about to say, it was suddenly cut off in another bout of surprised and pained hissing, as Nobunaga tightened his grip on the orb once more.
"Be silent, demon…I am not here to dilly-dally with useless banter. I am here for information that only you can provide, and nothing more. None of your taunts, snarky mannerisms, or snide remarks. Is that understood?" Nobunaga growled lowly, his patience for the Demon Lord's antics already beginning to wear thin.
"Nnnnggghhhh…" Orochi snarled, giving Nobunaga a fearsome glare. "Arrogant human!"
"Choose your next words carefully, demon…" Nobunaga warned.
"And why should I? You may hold my soul in your hand, but you possess NONE of my respect! What makes you think I, Orochi, the Lord of Demons, would answer YOUR questions?!" he hissed defiantly.
Silence opened up between them, save for the rumbling aura of power around Orochi's form, the demon's defiant glare met with an entirely unamused stare from Nobunaga.
After a moment of this, Nobunaga let out a long sigh, saying, "…I see there is no convincing you otherwise, then. Very well…", before raising his right hand and making a single gesture, motioning for someone behind him to come forward.
The idle banter that had been struck up among Nobunaga's bodyguards outside immediately went silent…so silent, that the soft patting of approaching footsteps could be heard, as a small, hooded being slowly emerged from the dark cavern behind the Lord of the Black Hand and stepped into the golden light.
All Orochi saw was a sinister, sharp-toothed smile from beneath the violet colored hood of the scantily-clad (and rather voluptuous) female figure…but it was a smile he recognized all too well.
"What is SHE doing here?!" the demon bellowed suddenly, the force of his shout causing the cavern to shake, although it did little to faze Nobunaga and the comparatively smaller person next to him.
"To ensure your cooperation…you wouldn't want her telling HIM about your little insubordination, now, would you?" Nobunaga calmly stated, allowing himself a bit of smug pleasure in the horrified look that came over Orochi's eight dragon faces at the mentioning. "You of all people should know that she has his ear at all times…"
"You…you wouldn't dare…!" the demon half-gasped, half-growled, sounding unsure of whether he should be scared or angry.
The female giggled lightly, making the demon reactively hiss in response, as if offering a retort to her laugh.
"DON'T YOU LAUGH AT ME, YOU LITTLE- AUUUUUUUGHHHHHHH!" Orochi made to shout, before his bellowing screech cut off whatever else he was about to say.
Nobunaga loosened his grip on the orb once more, handing it off to the woman next to him without looking, as if he were disposing of a piece of trash.
"Now then…shall we begin?" he calmly remarked, folding his arms behind his back.
Orochi hissed again, this time sounding a bit more submissive.
"Tell me everything you know about Idaina-yosai, and what you discovered in its depths when your army destroyed it…" the Lord of the Black Hand calmly demanded.
After his little moment with Ammy, Alex had made straight for Yuna's hut to go lie back down, his face burning red with embarrassment over Issun's horribly timed interruption. Now, he wanted to just lie down and go right back to sleep, hoping that some of the inevitable training Amunae had in store for him would take his mind off things. All he hoped was that the fox wasn't too angry with him for putting it off like he had when Ammy had first woken him up.
"Get over it Alex…so you got interrupted, what's the big deal?" he thought to himself as he walked. "I mean, come on, it's not like you were caught doing something REALLY embarrassing, right?"
He stopped for a moment as he replayed the conversation between him and Ammy over in his head.
"Jesus…" he thought, as if finally realizing something. "I really almost asked her that question, didn't I? I almost asked Ammy if she…"
Before completing that thought, Alex shook his head and resumed walking.
"Dammit, Grey! You can't afford a slip-up like that! Ammy's not your girlfriend, and she'll likely NEVER be either! What've you been telling yourself this whole time? It wouldn't work! Why can't you remember that?!" he berated himself for what was probably the thousandth time since he had first arrived in Nippon. "Oki's back in the picture now, which means you've gotta knock it the hell off and start playing it safe, or you're gonna have a REALLY pissed off wolf man to deal with! The LAST thing you want is for Oki, or ANYONE for that matter, to find out you've got a thing for Ammy!"
Arriving back at the hut and quietly going inside, he saw Wolf-Oki still passed out on the floor, bandaged paws twitching as he "ran" through some form of dream.
"…This is all YOUR fault," he muttered only half-seriously, probably as a result of his lack of sleep. He planned to remedy this as soon as possible, however, as he carefully stepped over the wolf man and lay back down in the hammock that he'd been sleeping in.
"Well?" Amunae's slightly irritable voice spoke in his mind, from the sword still propped up against the wall of the hut.
"…Nothing. Now let's get back to business," Alex replied, closing his eyes as he tried to go back to sleep.
"Oh, no, by all means, spend all of your valuable training time chasing down flights of fancy!" the kitsune spirit remarked sarcastically, which made Alex clench his teeth a bit in irritation, but quickly tempered it with a reminder that Amuane was likely justified with such a remark.
However, no sooner had his eyelids drifted down than he felt the sudden press of a hand over his mouth, and he opened them in shock, expecting some form of nighttime attacker.
What he saw instead were the bright, river blue orbs of what were unmistakably Yuna's eyes, looking at him from behind her lightly decorated mask as she slowly put a finger to the tip of her muzzle, signaling him to remain quiet as she removed her handpaw from his mouth. Her light blue kimono had been replaced with her more rugged hunting outfit, a leather vest and shorts that left most of her belly, arms, and legs exposed…the same outfit she had been wearing when she had saved him that fateful night.
"…Yuna?" he finally got around to whispering, propping himself up in the hammock. "What is it?"
She said nothing, merely smiling and stepping back, beckoning for him to follow as she silently stepped over Oki, out of the hut, and into the night.
"…The heck? What's this all about?" he wondered, as he swung his legs out of the hammock once again…before stopping and throwing a rather awkward glance at Aku-Hametsu in the process.
In his mind, he heard Amunae heave a great sigh and mutter, "I suppose I cannot stop you this time, either…just go."
"Tomorrow night, I promise," Alex replied meekly, moving to follow Yuna out the door as quickly as he could with his still-slung arm nestled within his thickly padded kimono.
(Shiki OST – Day and Night)
Going outside, he spotted a flash of her three grey-tipped tails as she vanished into the forest, leading him in the direction of the trail that led up towards the much larger hut that served as her chieftain father's dwelling.
"Huh…déjà vu," Alex thought to himself, realizing that this was basically the exact same method that Ammy had used to get him to follow her mere minutes ago, remaining just on the edge of his sight so that he'd be continually baited along in pursuit. Still, curious as to where Yuna was planning to lead him, and having no other choice but to follow, Alex set off at a slow jog, being careful not to exert his arm, which felt alright thanks to Yuna's soba elixir treatment, but could still very well be in the middle of mending back together for all he knew.
Running through the forest in the middle of the night proved to be something of a calming experience, Alex felt after a short while. The soft rustle of trees in the light evening breeze, carrying a refreshing chill from the mountains surrounding the valley, blew through the forest. The trees swayed gently, accompanying the faint echo of the river far away in a naturalistic symphony of sorts…almost like the forest was singing, in some odd way.
Then he caught a glimpse of her…her graceful, icy white shadow flitting in between the branches of the trees above. She leapt from the trees on one side of the path to the other without missing or stumbling in the slightest, her balance perfectly maintained as she stopped to sneak a quick glance back at him, to make sure he was still following.
Quickening his pace a bit, Alex moved to catch up, but again, she proved too quick for him. Barely shaking the limb she was on, she leapt to the next one ahead, weaving her way through the branches and maintaining more than enough speed to keep her lead on Alex...enough so that the young man doubted he could keep up with her unless he was going at a full sprint.
Further up the trail, she led him, only giving him the occasional glance of her icy white form as they went higher and higher up the side of the mountain. Alex did his best to keep up, only slowing in apprehension when they reached the indent in the mountain face where her father's hut was, fearful of what might happen if the chieftain in question were to look out and see them.
He heard a light giggle next to him, and looking around in surprise, saw Yuna standing right there, when he had been absolutely sure that she was ahead of him. Putting her clawed finger to the tip of her muzzle in another gesture of silence, she took him by his good hand and pulled him along, Alex unable to do much to resist her surprisingly strong grip and eventually deciding to go with it.
Leading him past Chieftain Keikai's hut, Yuna brought him to another opening in the trees, to what he realized was a much smaller trail off to the side of the building...something the he hadn't seen from the viewpoint from her own hut. Even now, standing right in front of it, Alex noticed that it was hidden by a great deal of brush and bramble…likely a deer trail of some sort, only followed rarely by more sentient beings.
Pulling him along some more, she led him up the trail that quickly became much steeper than the one they had just been following, the dirt ground beginning to give way to slightly rockier terrain as they climbed up onto higher parts of the mountain. Catching glimpses through the trees, Alex soon realized that they were going above them as well, their continually rising elevation carrying them above and beyond the fertile ground that the forest was growing on.
"…Where are we going?" he dared to asked.
She wouldn't say. Her gaze remained fixed on the trail ahead.
Clearing the way through a few more pieces of bramble, Yuna helped him up the last few high steps, led him towards the top of the rocky formation they were climbing…
…and they emerged into the most fantastic nighttime view that Alex had ever seen in his nineteen years.
In that moment of dawning realization, Alex had to admit something…the view he had when speaking with Ammy had been good, but this…this view was absolutely astonishing. From the rocky ledge that they were standing upon, Alex could see the entire sprawl of the forest within the bowl-shaped valley, and then some. He could see every peak of every mountain that surround the hidden valley of the river kitsune, the lands that stretched off in to the distance beyond the geological formations, and even the moonlight reflecting off of the thin layer of clouds forming around the peaks of said mountains.
It was like standing on top of the world, almost…and the chilly nighttime air, cool, pure, and causing his breath to mist in front of him, only contributed to that effect.
"Wow…" he breathed. "This is just…wow!"
"Do you like it?" Yuna finally asked, smiling at his amazement.
"Like it? Yuna, you just showed me what it feels like to stand on top of Mount Everest, save for the life threatening blizzards and below-zero temperatures! Of course I like it!" he exclaimed, stepping forward near the edge to take in as much of the view as he could.
"Then I am very glad!" she answered cheerfully, even if she didn't fully understand what Alex was talking about, as she stepped forward and stood next to him. "I have not exactly had many people to share this view with…but I am happy that you like it, at least."
"How did you even know about this place?" Alex asked, managing to peel his attention off the view for long enough to ask the question.
"I found it, many, many years ago…" she began. "In my early second century of life, to be exact. I discovered it while I was out practicing hunting, and when Kawa Village was only half the size it is now."
"…I'm guessing that was a long time ago?"
Yuna nodded, looking out at the horizon herself even as Alex turned to look at her, his eyebrow raised inquisitively.
"I eventually showed it to my mother, and she and I soon made a habit of coming up here every few months or so, to watch the sun as it rose up just behind those mountains over there…" she spoke, directing his gaze to the mountains across the valley from them.
Alex nodded a bit, before realizing what she had just said.
"Wait…her mother?" he thought to himself. "I haven't seen anyone like that since I got here! If her mother didn't come and see me like her dad Keikai did…then where is she?"
"…The hunting grounds have spread out since then, but I still come up here every once in a long while to take in the sunrise," Yuna remained silent afterwards, as she stared out over the valley, and Alex could tell that she was reminiscing about other times in her life…although he could see something else there, too.
"So…where is your mom?" he asked as gently as his choice of wording allowed.
"…Not among us," she answered quietly, if with only a slight hesitation.
"Oh…" Alex muttered, now feeling a little sorry for her as the words sunk in. "…sorry to hear that."
"Why?" came the unexpected answer, to which Alex looked at her a bit quizzically as she did the same, only with the additional slight tilt of her head.
"Huh? Well…uh…you said…" Alex began, unsure of how to explain.
"Oh…OH," she suddenly spoke. "You thought she was…!"
The somberness was suddenly broken when Yuna broke out laughing, nearly doubling over where she stood from the sheer mirth that was escaping her at that moment as she clutched at her exposed midriff.
"Ha ha ha, eee hee hee hee!" she giggled, wiping a tear from her eye. "Oh, no, Alex, she isn't dead, by ANY means! I was saying that she simply isn't here! She left on a trip to explore Nippon a few years ago, and I have not seen her since! And I am also certain she is perfectly fine because she has done this plenty of times before! That is ALL, I can assure you!"
"Well…you said…the way you put it…!" a rudely surprised Alex sputtered, before eventually just throwing up his hands and spitting out a loud "Forget it!" before sitting down in a huff and refusing to meet her gaze…although his relief at the small revelation was certainly palpable as well. Yuna's giggling eventually subsided after a few moments, and she sat down next to him with a friendly pat on his shoulder.
"I apologize, I should have explained it better," she said to him, a few lingering chuckles underlying her voice as Alex grumbled out an acceptance. "But as I was saying…I have been following this trail in the decades since then, even in my mother's absence. I must have walked this trail a hundred times and more in the last few years alone…and yet, even now, this view never fails to steal my breath away," she spoke.
"…Hey. That reminds me…" Alex finally started back up. "I'm, uh…sorta curious…how old are you, exactly?"
"I shall be three hundred and thirty seven years old by the next month," she answered casually, as though such a high number was nothing special. "Still quite young by kitsune standards," she added with a wink and a smile, after noticing his raised eyebrow.
"Wow…and you're still around my age in human years?" he surmised. "That's…well…uh…"
She giggled, saying, "Now, now, don't be shy. I am not sensitive about my own age. Rather, kitsune choose to respect old age, rather than hate it. I am fully aware that, Inari willing, I shall one day grow old, wise, and similar in looks to the withered old bark on some of the trees around here."
Alex tried to picture the rather beautiful young kitsune like that for a moment, and his chagrin over their little misunderstanding finally ended, the young man breaking into a fit of barely repressed snickering, earning himself a light smack on the shoulder and an amused grin from the healer kitsune.
There were worse ways to break the ice, he imagined.
They were silent for a good while after that, the two of them quietly watching the white orb that was the moon slowly drift down towards the horizon, as nighttime slowly drew to a close.
"Sun's gonna be rising soon…" Alex remarked quietly, his eyes fixed on the horizon as he suppressed a shiver and pulled the thick kimono more tightly around himself…not the easiest thing to do when one of his arms was in a sling.
His little comment might have been borne of relief, considering the sun's rays would warm him up...and apparently Yuna, with typical kitsune perceptiveness, didn't miss out on that little fact.
"Are you cold?" she asked, giving him another of her perfectly innocent looks.
Alex suddenly felt himself blush as his mind suddenly considered the possible ways the situation could turn out, and as a result, he didn't feel so cold anymore.
"Uh…well…no, no, I'm fine. I-It's just a little brisk out for me, that's all-"
He stopped when he suddenly felt the light press of warm fur against his neck and shoulders…and he barely suppressed his nervous gulp as he realized that Yuna had scooted closer to him and leaned against his side, draping her three tails around him like some kind of fur coat.
"Better?" she asked innocently, with a sweet little smile.
"Oh…oh man…" Alex thought to himself, his blush having intensified dramatically. While it was true that he was indeed better now, he wasn't entirely sure that Yuna's warm fur was the sole thing warming him up. "Suck it up, Grey, she's just being friendly…I think…"
Clearing his throat, Alex said as steadily as he could, "…Yeah…uh…thanks."
"You're welcome," Yuna replied, and Alex took a deep breath as he tried his best to settle down…which wasn't helped along at ALL, when Yuna decided to rest her head on his shoulder.
"Just a few more hours till sunrise…come on, Alex, you can do this!" he muttered to himself.
"How on Nippon did you manage to find me…?" was all she could ask.
After dealing with Issun (who was likely still peeling himself off the ground back where she had flattened him with her paw), Amaterasu had sought Alex out in what could be considered a half-brained attempt to try and get him to finish the sentence that the little poncle had interrupted…but after arriving at Yuna's hut, Alex was nowhere to be seen. This concerned her a bit…but it also told her that by going someplace other than where she thought she could find him, Alex likely wanted to be left alone.
As much as she didn't want to let the subject go, especially considering how close she had been to getting an answer to the questions that had been driving her crazy, the Goddess of the Sun also had to admit that things didn't go as well as they could have…so she decided to give Alex his space and instead check on Oki, the wolf still lying there asleep in the middle of the hut.
To have pushed himself so hard and so far…to bring his condition down to the level it had gone…the wolf man must have gone to extreme lengths in order to track her down. But how, exactly, was still a mystery.
It was then that she noticed Oki's pack in the corner, taken off of him by the kitsune when they had brought him into the village. Maybe it held the answer to her most recent question.
Padding over to it slowly, Amaterasu looked behind her to make sure Oki was still asleep, and nosed the flap open, digging into the pack as carefully as her wolf form allowed and sniffing around for anything interesting.
"Food…food…camping equipment…more food…" she thought as she went through the contents, forcing herself to stay on track when the smell of the food began to make her salivate.
It wasn't long before she picked up a scent that stood out from the rest...something that smelled like old ink. Gently closing her jaws around the item in question, she worked it out of the pack as quietly as she could, laying it out on the floor and holding it open with a paw.
It was her, she realized…a colored ink portrait of her, painted by the incredibly skilled hand of a master artist.
It was an art style that she recognized immediately: Issun's.
"I recognize this…this is one of the pamphlets that Issun used to spread the word about me, during my battle with…him."
Memories of that horrendous battle resurfaced at this, of cold darkness, suffocating shadows, and the feeling of her powers being ripped from her form in the most painful of ways…it was enough to make her shudder, before she managed to force the memories back down.
"Why would Oki have this in his pack? This painting is almost a year old…Oki must have carried it with him for all this time. I can only imagine that he must have kept this as a reminder of me…"
Shaking her head and filing yet another question away for later, Amaterasu returned the slip of paper to Oki's pack as best she could and continued her search…this time, picking up the smell of old ink and a much earthier smell along with it. The smell of something very aged reached her sensitive nose, something that must have been buried for a very long time.
Pulling it out, she realized that it was a scroll of sorts…a very old one, to be exact. Curious as to what could be written upon it, her curiosity eventually overwhelmed her and she nosed it open.
What she saw astounded her.
It was some kind of map, she realized…one that detailed a long winding passage through what appeared to be a cave with words and descriptions written at various intervals.
"Wait a moment…this is…this must be the cave beneath the Gale Shrine!" she realized. "I remember Alex telling me about this when I awoke. And there's the river that we followed…and the secret passage that we took as well! But if this is really the same path that we took, then it must be leading to…"
She rolled the scroll along further with some difficulty, but finally found herself staring at what could only have been a diagram of the massive underground city that she and Alex had eventually found themselves in.
"Where in Nippon did Oki find this?" she wondered. "This has to be an exact map of that city! The river, the rows of houses, the shogun…all of it is here! And these words…Idaina-yosai? Is that the name of the city? And this quote…gleaming light of Heaven…fire's fury and moon's light…the Takeda?"
The quietly whispered voice reached her ears, and she twisted around…seeing Wolf-Oki finally awake with his head raised off the ground.
"Oki!" she cried out, forgetting about the scroll and instead rushing over to give him a friendly nuzzle. "You had me worried for a while…how are you feeling?"
"…Well, fine now, I suppose…" he spoke after a moment, sounding a bit surprised by her gesture, but also sounding incredibly relived as well. Amaterasu had to remind herself that Oki had been searching for her this entire time, so he was likely as glad to see her alive and well as she was to see him finally awake. "I seem to have dozed off during my search for you…did I miss anything important? And what is this place?" he added, looking around the hut, as he moved to get to his feet before being promptly stopped by the white wolf.
"Don't push yourself, for the love of my godly brethren!" she chastised him. "From what I heard, you nearly killed yourself trying to find me! The last thing you need right now is to pass out again!"
"…Nice to see you too…" Oki muttered in an amused sort of way, although he hardly seemed put off by her concern over him. Choosing instead to examine his bandaged paws, he continued resting as Amaterasu filled him in on what had occurred…including her and Alex's battle with the assassin down in the caves, and their escape from Idaina-yosai. She did, however, leave out the parts where Kurenai had wounded her to within an inch of her life, out of concern for Oki who would most likely overreact as he usually did. Once she was finished, Oki decided to do the same for his side of the story, telling her all and leaving none of the details out. Unlike her, he hid few details, if any, perhaps because he knew that Amaterasu was more level-headed than him and wouldn't go off on a tirade.
"So, Yatsu knew of the city's existence the entire time? And he never told a soul?" she asked, once Oki had finished.
The wolf man nodded, having switched back to his human form mostly so he could peel the bandages off his hands and feet, as they were unneeded in that form. "It took a while, but we managed to discover the scrolls he hid and the information written upon them…hence, the map you were reading when I awoke."
"And that was how you found us…" she concluded. "Well, you certainly haven't lost your tenaciousness over the past year, I will give you that. I think few men could have persevered as long as you did."
"I know of one,"Oki remarked casually, fetching a parcel of food out of his pack and snacking on it to help regain his strength.
"Who else but Alexander?" the wolf man spoke, catching her by surprise, but appearing more concerned with filling his empty stomach for the moment. "Which reminds me…I have to thank him. To risk mortal injury like that, fighting an opponent far above his level, all to defend you…the man may not possess much confidence in himself, but he has a heart of gold and a soul of steel. And because of that, I feel that proper thanks are in order. Speaking of which, where is he?"
Amaterasu couldn't speak for a moment, considering the events that had occurred between her and Alex at that very night…a night that was drawing to a close, she quickly realized, as she glanced out the door.
"Somewhere around here…I imagine we will find him soon enough. But for now, I think the time has come for me to have the sun rise now," she spoke, partially to avoid going down a line of conversation that might expose some of her inner tension concerning the young man. "Wait here…I shall be back in a moment."
Before Oki had a chance to speak, Amaterasu was out the door, running back to the ledge where she and Alex had shared their small moment before Issun had interrupted.
"Oki…how could I possibly tell you this in a way that wouldn't break your stout, unyielding heart?" she thought to herself.
She wasn't blind: ever since she had first met the wolf man in Kamui, she had noticed some of his little advances…even his more recent ones…but her quest had been more pressing at the time, and though she certainly would have liked to spend more time with Oki back then, things were different now.
That one thought stuck out in her mind, the moment it had formed: Things were different now.
Different, as in…Alex.
"How could I possibly tell you, Oki? How could I possibly tell you that I might…just MIGHT…have feelings for another man besides you? How would you react? Would you fly into a rage and demand satisfaction from Alex in some bull-headed attempt at somehow winning my hand? Or would you calmly accept it…and then go back home, never to see me again? To cease being my friend?"
She growled angrily and shook her head, once again trying to dismiss the thoughts that were roiling about in her mind.
"It does NOT have to come to that!" she mentally yelled, trying to reaffirm her own faith in their relationship. "I still don't even know if Alex returns my feelings yet!"
Skidding to a stop on the ledge, Amaterasu took a deep breath and sat down, trying to slow her racing heartbeat as she looked up towards the slowly sinking moon.
Amaterasu pondered the option that had suddenly sprung up in her mind…but at that point, she was willing to ask just about anyone with a lick of sense for advice on how to handle the dicey situation that she had gotten herself into. So, deciding to throw caution to the wind, she followed the moon's aura along the tracing line that it had left in its slow wake and quickly located the constellation of a certain rabbit.
Taking another deep breath, Amaterasu lifted her ink-covered tail and quickly placed the necessary dots to complete the summoning…with a sudden burst of light, the constellation lit up, and the nighttime forest disappeared, replaced with the image of the godly realm and a large rabbit carrying an equally large wooden mallet over its shoulder.
Yumigami yawned, speaking, "Amaterasu? What on earth could you possibly want from me at this hour? The night is waning and I grow tired, yet here you are still wide awake!"
Amaterasu was silent for a moment, which began to concern the Moon Goddess.
"…What is wrong?" the rabbit goddess asked, hopping closer a few steps. "You seem…upset about something."
"Yumi…you and I have known each other for as long as I can remember. Despite the polar difference of the elements we represent, we have been the best of friends…and as such, I need to ask you something."
The rabbit considered the white wolf for a moment, perhaps realizing that the wolf had summoned her for a more personal subject of discussion, and eventually nodded, speaking, "Very well. Ask your question."
"First, promise me that you will not tell the others of this," Ammy demanded.
"Amaterasu, you know that-"
"Promise me," Amaterasu insisted, making the rabbit hesitate before slowly nodding again.
"Yumi…what do you know about relationships in the mortal realm?" the Sun Goddess asked, before she lost her nerve.
"What do I know? Well…not very much, I am afraid. Why do you wish to know?" Yumi asked.
"…There is this…woman, you see, and…well…she seems to like this one man…" Amaterasu slowly said, choosing her words VERY carefully.
"I…see…I think…" Yumi replied, not sounding that way at all.
"But there is a dilemma…there is also another man, who has been her friend for a very long time…and her enjoys her company, to the point where they might even be considered to have fancied each other," Amaterasu continued, hoping that the rabbit would eventually start understanding.
Her hopes proved to be legitimate, as it would seem, for the look in Yumi's eyes told the wolf goddess that she was catching on.
"So, this woman…" Yumi began. "…She does not know which man to pursue…the one who has caught her gaze and set her heart aflutter…or the one who has unfailingly been at her side, only now in a position to catch her eye?"
"Not the exact way I would have worded it, but close enough…" Amaterasu thought to herself, nodding to the rabbit anyways.
"Hmm…well it seems that this woman would be in quite the dilemma, then…" Yumi mused to herself, rubbing her chin with her free paw. "Is the woman forced to make a decision immediately, or does she have time to weigh her options?"
"That is partially what I wish to know myself…what is your opinion on it?" Amaterasu asked, leaning forward slightly in anticipation of an answer.
"…I would imagine that, if there were no pressing needs at the time, then yes, she should certainly consider the consequences of each choice. After all, she would be deciding whom to spend the rest of her life with."
"But what if there was a pressing need? Like, for example…demons to slay?" Amaterasu spoke gingerly, knowing she was treading on very thin ground, even though she knew she could trust Yumigami.
"Well in THAT case, all I could say is that the demons would have to be dealt with before such a decision could be made!" Yumi exclaimed. "One does not simply decide whom to marry in the midst of a vicious battle!"
Amaterasu hanged her head a bit, having at least somewhat expected the answer…it was true, after all: as long as the returned demons continued to roam Nippon, she couldn't possibly decide on this sort of thing right now. As much as it would drive her up the wall to do so, she would have to keep this sort of thing bottled up inside her until the time came where she could let it out and examine it in depth.
"That will be an extremely hard decision to make…" she realized glumly. "Do I choose Alex, the young man who recently caught my gaze? Or do I forget about him and return to my history with Oki, the Oina man who has been at my side since I first came to Nippon?"
Yumi, sensing the Sun Goddess' anguish, set her mallet down, hopped up to her, and lifted her head up with both paws.
"There, there…I imagine the choice will be clear enough to you once your duties as Goddess of the Sun are finished for the time being. Until then, keep your chin up, and for your own sake, keep them both alive and well!" the rabbit remarked in a friendly manner, confirming that she indeed had understood what Amaterasu was getting at.
Sighing, Amaterasu nodded and tried her best to smile, satisfying Yumigami as the rabbit picked her mallet back up.
"Now then…I would very much appreciate it if you allowed the moon to set and the sun to rise! Some of us do need sleep, after all!" the Goddess of the Moon spoke, vanishing in a cloud of sparkling light as the constellation above returned to normal.
Deciding that now was as good a time as any, Amaterasu raised her tail back up and drew in a near-perfect circle with a smooth and practiced motion that had been repeated dozens of times before.
And with the sun rising up beyond its resting place behind the mountains, the valley was soon bathed in warms rays of light, the various inhabitants of the forest emerging from their homes and welcoming the new day as it arrived.
High above, Alex and Yuna still sat upon the perch as they looked out over the valley, the magnificent sunrise painting it in a wonderful array of gold, yellow, and orange.
"Wonderful, isn't it?" Yuna remarked cheerfully from his side, finally removing her tails from his neck and shoulders as she stood up and paced forward, stretching her arms high above her head as she welcomed the morning as well. "A brand new day, full of adventure and excitement!"
"Uh, yeah, if you say so," Alex spoke, prompting her to turn around and stare at him with her usual mischievous look.
"What? Do you not believe me?" she asked, making sound as though Alex had challenged her in a way.
The young man simply responded with a large yawn, covering his mouth as he slumped down where he was still sitting.
"I'm not exactly a morning person, if you can tell…especially when I have to get up so freaking EARLY in the morning!" he finally belted out, sounding thoroughly exhausted from his lack of sleep over all of the times it had been interrupted.
"Come now, that's no way to talk!" she laughed, darting forward and pulling him to his feet before he could react. "Come on! There's still so much for me to show you! We had a date, after all!"
"Oh lord, she's STILL calling it that?" Alex moaned inwardly, unable to do much in his tired state other than get dragged back down the trail by Yuna as she swept past him and took him by the good arm.
A few miles away, there was also another person watching the sunrise…though this one watched it from the shadowed branches of a tall tree he was residing in.
Clouds, morning mist, valley wind…and something else, as well.
Leaping down from the tree and hitting the ground far below with nary a thump, even with all of his moderately heavy armor, Kurenai stood up tall and wrapped the Spidersilk Cloak around himself, the enchanted article of clothing still clinging to a few receding shadows that the sun hadn't yet driven away.
"Report," he growled below his breath, his assassin instincts causing him to lower his voice immediately in order to prevent giving away their position. At his voice, three of his assassins emerged from the brush, calm and collected as they usually were when on a mission.
"Nothing but birds and other animals," one said, to which the other silently nodded in confirmation that he too had found the same.
"And you?" Kurenai asked, turning to the third.
The assassin said nothing, only moving to reach behind him and pull out a single arrow.
A very exquisite arrow, unlike the ones the assassins carried…an arrow covered in demon blood.
"Pulled this from the back of an imp, slain just north of the river," he spoke. "I would have missed it, save for the stench of the flies."
Below his massive helm, Kurenai smiled.
They had found them.
And there you have it, once more! Be sure to rate, review, and check out my profile if you want, and I'll see you next time! Hopefully sooner, although I can't guarantee that. You're all probably aware by now of my horrible ability to keep my promised deadlines, but fear not! I'll still keep writing!