Truth of Perception

A field of golden flowers, sprawling endlessly beneath a magnificent sky. Lying prone among the sweet smelling grass, face turned to the sun and its warmth. Thinking that in this moment- she is the happiest person in the entire world- with his hand in hers.

She awakens from the black abyss of a formless sleep, so suddenly that it startles her. Again- there is that strange, nameless feeling like before. That same soul quivering dread. As if she were dreaming again, on the cusp of awakening. 'My hands-' in the dark she holds them before her, furiously scouring them in the dark. There is that same lingering thought- that something was missing, that something was lost. Something she could never get back-

-she vaguely remembers, if only for the briefest of moments- the feeling of her hand in his. The comforting warmth of it- and how easily, naturally he had held her own. There is a deep, restless sorrow blooming in her chest. There are memories whispering once more through the under current of her thoughts- of a pain so all consuming she wouldn't be able to survive it.

'Sleep, forget.' the dark seems to murmur gently, lulling her back to slumber. And his voice then is coaxing, calm, painfully tender- 'Go where pain cannot follow.' She feels her eyelids beginning to lower, a hazy fog of weariness sweeping over her. 'As long as I am here- you will never want, never worry. So sleep- and go where you can be at peace-' And she imagines that there is that hand again, the comforting warmth of it gently smoothing the bangs back from her dampened forehead. He says her name then, with all the tenderness of a lover's caress.

Sleep takes her before she is able to so much as murmur his name.

"My Lady! You must awaken!"

She awakens to the blinding glare of candle light, a thousand dancing flames tossing turbulent shadows like waves breaking against the walls. It is Ichi's voice that drags her from slumber suddenly with its urgency, and startled she sits up, rubbing the sleep from her bleary eyes and blinking owlishly to clear her vision. She feels dazed, confused, still drifting in and out of the world of slumber. There is the echo of a dream, lingering in her thoughts- a dream she desperately wants to remember- but it slips between her fingertips as she fights the remnants of sleep.

"A-Ano...w-what is-" She stops herself mid-sentence at the look on Ichi's face, illuminated by the somber glow of the candlelight. Her dark eyes- how bleak they seem! They are all consuming in her face, even blacker than before...immediately she feels her body stiffen in reply, a quiet dread over taking her. Fear. It is fear in Ichi's dark eyes- but it is not fear for herself, it is fear for-

"Rise My Lady, there is no time." She states firmly with purpose, as Ni hurriedly comes to her side, her arms already filled with a bright assortment of silken garments. "W-W-What is h-happening?" She stumbles out with visible confusion, still filled with discomforting trepidation at the almost frantic desperation to their normally precise movements.

"The Night Feast." Ni answers for her, causing her pale eyes to dart frantically in the girls direction. She says nothing more to explain herself, quickly vanishing into the confines of the adjoining bathing chamber. It is Ichi who is left to explain, as she gently but firmly untangles her from the silken sheets.

"A night of red moon. On such nights the gods meet to celebrate and adhere to the orders of fate. And on this night it is customary to share the tidings of fate."

"I-I'm sorry, I-I don't u-understand-" She managed to stammer as she was finally released from the confines of the bed, holding onto Ichi just in time for the girl to spirit them into the bathing chamber. The bathing pool was already filled and smelling sweeter than it ever had of delicate blossoms, but the normally delicate scents do nothing to lull her into a relaxed state of contemplation. The scent instead is nearly nauseating in its potency, clouding her mind and adding to her mounting confusion. 'Red-' The thought is flitting briefly, hastily through her mind, making her heart clench painfully tight in her chest. Ni is beside them, assisting her brethren in disrobing her with matching deft motions.

"It means Master is out of time." Ni elaborates, and even her toneless murmur sounds strained beyond definition. "He has no choice."

'No choice?' "W-What do you mean?" She mumbles out, just before she is all but thrown into the bathing pool, barely managing to rise and draw a gasping breath before cold hands are working on vigorously washing her hair and body.

"He must present you before the Council." Ichi murmured begrudgingly, somehow managing to convey her discontent in a way that made her heart sink. But there is no time to analyze her own growing panic before they are forcing her head back beneath the scented water.

Her mind is in a million places as they seem to dash through the winding halls, dimmer, darker now beneath the heady gloom of nightfall. The sky beyond the open archways- how black and unforgiving it seems to her in this moment! Bleak and starless- Her heart pounds with the fiercest of trepidation, echoing so loudly within the equally shaken confines of her mind that she feels as if she is on the edge of falling prey to some terrible madness herself.

Her skin is ashen, white as bone, a visual representation of her anxiety. She feels as if her tongue has been cut from her lips, as if she were wholly incapable of either thought or speech. Her fear, her apprehension, is real, raw as they hurriedly guide her forward, assisting her with her silken skirts.

The time had come then- the dreaded hour had finally arrived, and there was nothing in her power she could do to either halt or deny it! Lord Raiku and the rest of his kind would formally meet her, regardless of either her or her Master's say on the matter. They would finally meet her- the 'worthless mortal', the 'little bird'- 'Hanahime.'

She could see once more the look of bitter contempt, of the fierce disgust in Lord Raiku's cold eyes as they had gazed upon her. Whatever relationship there was between her and her Master- it had caused him nothing short of torment and shame. And what would the others think of her then? Frail, pitiful woman before such implausibly powerful beings? She wants to calm her heart although she cannot, desperately longing to strengthen her already shattered resolve. But how could she? Every frantic rattle of her heart seemed to echo with the reminder of her own mortality, her own pitiable weakness.

"Rest assured. Be confident My Lady." Ichi states to her with care, and with the utmost seriousness. Her distress was clearly apparent to them both. She knew the words were meant to give her some measure of confidence, to soothe her. And yet- she still cannot shake this feeling, as if some great and terrible trial was before her.

"Mortal you may be- that does not mean you are lacking in strength. It may not be your own, but you have the might and will of our Master on your side. Lord Raiku is the most outspoken of the counsel. As long as Master is present, I am sure the others will not dare speak against you."

'As long as he is present.' The words still unspoken seemed to shake her to her traitorous core. 'And what if he is not?' As if they would tear her to pieces the moment her Master left her side. She knows she is supposed to take some degree of comfort in those words, but they only seem to quicken the pounding of her heart. There is a familiar darkness lingering at the corners of her mind, coaxing her to succumb, to forget. To let the dark take her, to escape from the reality of the doors that will soon give her once more to the jaws of fate.

'I cannot-' she thinks with the clarity that comes with horror-fighting the silent screams of her body to faint- 'How can I face them?' Instinctively she wants to run, to flee as they draw closer to the massive ornate doors of the meeting chamber. Closer- closer! She wants to disappear, to vanish into nothing- she wants to-

-and suddenly, impossibly- she's dreaming.

["-My dream? To be the strongest in the whole world!" He said with the utmost confidence, puffing out his chest with pride.]

There is a fleeting memory of a time long past, dismantling the tremor of her thoughts. The sudden memory is so vivid, so starling clear to her in that moment that she can feel the warmth of a summer wind caressing her, breathes deeply of a cinnamon scented breeze. It had been a green- sweet smelling field. It stretched before her, around her, an endless sea of green beneath the blue of the sky overheard. She stood- staring at the back of that form she knew so well. 'And I do know you.' She thought suddenly, desperately clinging to the thought, the feeling that was blooming in her chest as she watched the wind gently ruffle his golden head.

[She had stared up at him with wide eyed wonder, uncertain as always of what to make of him. He was the embodiment of joy, of mirth, of something recklessly forward. Something with an air like a promise, a glimmer like hope.] To her, he was, and had been someone precious-

["And when that time comes-" There was the overwhelming blue of his eyes, drowning her-] she could feel her heart swell with a complete and awe inspiring adoration that danced on the edge of worship. 'I adored him.' She thought suddenly, with the finality of certain truth. With everything inside of her- she had adored him. Because he had- [-a smile that seemed to consume his entire being, a boisterous energy that seemed to permeate the air around him. He was all that she had ever wanted, as he turned and reached for her. He was all that she had ever hoped to be. For her, he was-]

Does she imagine it? Is she dreaming again? Or is it truly- him? Is she imagining the dazzling light of his form standing before her in the darkened gloom of the hall? Is she mistaken? Has she gone mad? She blinks to clear her vision, hoping he would disappear- but it is the same tall proud lines of his back before her. It is the same languid gait, striding forward with reckless abandon to meet whatever fate lay before him.

She feels her heart throb in her chest, clench and ache with indescribable pain. It is him- it is not- she is dreaming again- this is not real- he's not real- and yet with everything inside of her- she wants to believe. That if she would just extend her hand- that it would feel the soothing warmth of him, draw her nearer to the promise of protection, of strength echoing there. She wanted-

['When that time comes-'] He turns, tosses a boyish grin over his shoulder, hand outstretched. For her. His gaze is bright, open, beckoning. As if he had always known that all she had wanted then was to place her hand in his. That all she wanted now- ['I want you right there with me.']

Her heart cried out with yearning, singing a song of such tenderness that it brought tears to her eyes. She is overwhelmed with a feeling of delirious, indescribable joy, banishing her previous fears and anxiety. Without thought, without delay, she reaches for his hand, for all the promises it brings, reaches for-

"My Lady!"

-They are standing before the doors of the audience chamber, and there is nothing to meet her outstretched hand but the chill of the night wind. Ichi and Ni watch her with careful, muted resignation, eyeing her curiously at her unusual motion and expression. Her head rings, swims. Her heart lurches, aches- but she has come back to herself again, back to this frail, pitiful woman that even time had left behind.

'Ten years-' It echoes in her mind again, with a note of sobering reality. At this moment she felt as if there was only darkness behind her, and the scattered remnants of the girl she used to be. The man she has seen again- he was just a dream, a delusion, a fantasy. But more than anything- she was certain now, like she had never been before. At some point- he had been real. He was real. But who was he to her? What had he been? Who had he been? A man whose hold on her was so strong she could not forget him, despite the decade their had been since. But she knew his name, remembered it as clearly as if had always been on her lips.

"You must enter My Lady. But be not afraid." Ichi adds comfortingly, softly placing the chill of her fingertips against the warmth of her back. The touch was familiar, intimate, born of the mutual trust and respect that had sprung between them after all the time they had spent together.

"Afraid...?" She murmurs listlessly, if only to herself. That man's hand- did she imagine the warmth of it as it had ghosted through hers? There is the same strange affliction that strikes her, the same odd, poignant haze as if she is caught on the cusp of both dream and nightmare. But in that moment- ['I want you right there with me.'] There was a throbbing pain, resounding deep in her heart. And a feeling of such anguish brewing that she stands there feeling wretched, lost. The same restless longing. So powerful and heartrending that it overtook her fears in a moment that felt like destiny. 'He wanted...to be the strongest in the whole world.' She thinks to herself-

She takes a deep breath, to calm her nerves, to soothe her anxiety. For a moment, she thinks of nothing but those laughing Blue eyes, and how proud his back had been before her. 'How strong.' She thought. The strength and confidence she had lacked, the brash forwardness of his own self assurance etched into the lines of his smile.

'Are you...strong enough?' She has asked herself the same, many times hence. Since the awakening, since the cold bitter words of her Master at their first meeting. Was she truly strong enough to discover the truth of her slumber? Why she was being haunted, tormented by memories from a time before? Haunted by visions of someone she had once held dear? And could she, after all of that- still knowingly remain by her Master's side? Would she even want to?

She had made a promise to herself. And if she could not do it for her sake- then perhaps- for his. 'Would you...be proud of me?' It was an odd thought, pulled from the dark of her heart and the undercurrents of a distant past. But something in the words rang true.

'Somehow...I want you to be proud of me.'

"Lady Hanahime."

The muted murmur announces her arrival into the audience chamber, and all within cast their eyes towards her approaching form with ferocious curiosity, devouring the visage of the woman who comes between the doors like a quiet wind.

She enters the sobering gloom of the chamber to the bite of their stares, their eyes burning like gemstones, illuminated in the candlelight. There is the flash of their fangs, the low murmur of whispered oaths and words. The air is tense with the weight of it- their curiosity, their unbridled hostility and ferocity. It felt as if her hair was standing on end- as if every haggard breath she drew was crackling with energy beyond mortal understanding. She can almost feel the barely contained threat of their power, murmuring against her skin. There is the warmth of flame- a scent like sulfur- a soft wind like a caress- a chill like winter. There are a hundred conjoined energies mingling in the air overhead, reverberating through her body, making goosebumps breakout along her skin, accompanying the steady lull of her heart in her chest.

The room dances with a multitude of shadows thrown against the wall, the floor from the light of lit flames. There- her gaze follows the shadow of a serpent slithering across the wall- watches as a fiery bird flutters across the entrance way. Multifaceted wings are casting a colorful array of fragmented light on the path before her. Shadows both awe inspiring and fantastic to behold are there, beneath her feet. She can hear the flutter of wings, as if she is surrounded by birds in flight- and the taste in the air, is heavy and ancient.

It is at once both sobering and humbling. These were beings that had existed before mankind had even crawled from the pit, borne and created in a time before time. Their very existence was a testament to their strength, their might. To beings such as they- she wondered how laughably brief ten years would seem. To them that would be naught but a single, fleeting moment. But for her-

There is a haunting note of laughter that she could not follow, ringing as clear as a bell. She does not know why it strikes her, stands out amongst the many wordless whispers. On all sides they surround her, lining the aisle stretched out before her. She can hear them clearly- without shame they whisper, they murmur-

"-Hanahime-" It was the title he had given her, perhaps, to protect her. Flower Princess.

"-mortal-" Her own mortality was an impossible rarity in a realm where time was of no consequence, a reminder of her own pitiable weakness.

"-the world-" From which she had come, the world far below her where mortals continued to war for dominance, for control. A world that had fallen off the course of fate, that had slain the one who would save them. The world she had left behind...'And now'- suddenly there is the echo of Ichi's words, springing forward from the dark of her thoughts. 'Who is to say how this world shall end?'

But she shakes her head, clears it, and thinks of nothing save for the the subtle drawing of her own haggard breath. Ichi and Ni walk before her, casting handfuls of sunset colored petals on her path. She warns herself to think of nothing, as she makes her way to him, to where he waits for her. Before him- not even her thoughts were sacred.

He waits for her like a King, head in hand as if he would gladly wash his hands of everything and everyone, as if he were watching the world burn. The air around him snaps, smolders, tingles with the threat of his power. She could not help but flinch at the reminder of the threat it harbored- and it truly felt as if that darkness was pulled tight, ready to break.

But at her approach it stills, it murmurs- drawing near to her. She braces herself for a moment, uncertain. Would it taunt her? Harm her? Cripple her once more with its horrible might? She trembled at the thought of that foul shadow- but instead, it surprises her. That creeping darkness seems to linger in the air around her for a moment, drawing against her softly, as if it would caress her. The frank fondness of the black beast stuns her, nearly startling her out of her cautious calm.

She stares up at him with unspoken wonder as she comes before him. Was this not...unlike him? But something within her warned her that she could not, should not, take comfort in the motion. Surely it was the presence of his fellow god beings that caused it...surely it was nothing more than that? 'Do not think of it. Focus on this moment- if you waver-' Fear was lingering there, lurking in the undercurrents of her thoughts, waiting to overwhelm her. 'Be strong-' Are those her words? Or the murmur of the blue eyed man in her shadow now, ever present?

She demurely tucked her head silently before him, mindful of how he had warned her before not to bow or grovel. She understood the implication of such words now, with so many piercing eyes carefully watching the moment unfold between them. He arises from the gnarled throne, and as if a god were descending, the entire room stilled with a breathless silence of expectation.

She stood anxiously with her eyes cast downward, waiting patiently to hearken to his command. She hurried to hide the familiar creep of anxiety threatening to break her calm, at his approach. 'The heat-' She thinks- but it is the potent black of his shadow that reaches her first, so that she presses her lips tightly together, breathes another shallow breath. Despite how many moons she had been in his care, their meetings had been so far between...it was nearly impossible to prepare herself again, for the reality of his presence.

It is as if she has been placed before a newly kindled blaze as he draws nearer, and she can feel herself growing faint at his increasing proximity. She wavers before him timidly, uncertain of what more is expected of her. The crowd as well- waits, watches- the dark of their shadows as still as guarding sentinel. But the moment lengthens- extends- that grinning mask assesses her without delay or pause, unflinching. In the delicate length of her sleeves she wrings her hands to stop herself from trembling, to cease the involuntary shudder that passes through her entire form as he watches her.

But nothing transpires- the moment becomes one of such tormenting silence and intensity that she feels heat flood her cheeks. Was this it then? To be paraded before them, like a conquered queen? To be a spectacle for their amusement until they had gotten their fill? Had they not seen her enough? Had their curious eyes not yet been satisfied? The moment continues to extend uncomfortably- her will slowly wavering beneath the burn of their gazes, beneath the impassive chill of his own. But if he notices her increasing trepidation, he does nothing. It is only the mask of the grinning fox that faces her, silently observing her. She begins to fret, growing increasingly worried- 'Is my form displeasing? Is he expecting me to speak? What...what is it he wants of me? What is he waiting for?'

The panicked tremors of her thought were gathering speed, and her heart began to lurch uncomfortably in her chest. After an improbably long moment, he seemed to have finally gotten his fill of whatever it was he had been searching for in the depth of her gaze. He took one languid step forward.

She sucked in a breath as he came closer, at the latent threat of that unfathomable darkness still skulking in his shadow. With everything inside of her she fought the urge to retreat, to step back, tried to steel her heart - but nothing could have prepared her for the moment when he swiftly dropped to one knee before her and took her hand.

She went rigid, stricken with shock, as every cell within her body began to alight as if they had all caught aflame. 'The warmth of his hand!' How it burned! Such a burning, all consuming warmth! It was so intense that it felt as if her entire blood was beginning to boil beneath her skin, her face and neck flushing bright red with abrupt shock. In stunned reflex she shamefully tried to jerk her hand away- but his grip is firm, unrelenting. It does not release her- even though she knows he can feel the quickening of her pulse, can hear the rapid tempo of her heart accelerating in her chest.

She stares with wide eyed panic at the upturned mask of that grinning fox. She knew he could easily interpret the disjointed flutter of her thoughts for the panic it was- and yet how mocking that smile appears to her! And to the muffled gasps echoing in hushed tones around the room, he places the chill of that porcelain grin against the back of her hand.

Stunned, she releases a mangled cry of her own, a gasp filled with surprise. Even if it was a mock display of affection- it was still unlike anything he had shown towards her before. The motion struck here as being bold, so recklessly forward and intimate that she seems incapable of willing the blood from her cheeks. 'I-I do not understand-!' How was she supposed to respond? What could she possibly say? But the surrounding crowd spares her. Lifting her eyes, she finds that one by one- those dark forms dropped silently onto their knees, solemnly bowing their heads before her.

"Lady Hanahime." The voices stated in unison with begrudging respect- all of these powerful, otherworldly beings- these gods- bowing before her! Her! Her head whips around the room in equal parts bewilderment and embarrassment, in complete disbelief at the wholefully unnecessary display. Her distress most have been blatantly apparent and obvious, because in another moment Lord Kyuubi himself threw his head back and laughed.

"Newly crowned and already acting like a queen!" He stated with outright amusement, causing her cheeks to flame even further. Immediately she stammered, struggling to lash onto some semblance of words, thoroughly embarrassed and clearly overwhelmed. "M-My a-apologies My L-Lord." She stammered out in a muted whisper, "I-I don't-"

"Command them!" He barked with a snap of his jaws, stopping her mid sentence with a sudden firmness that startled her. The somber edge of that darkness that he wore like a shroud seemed to overtake him, ghosting through the chamber with a ghostly howl like laughter. 'What does he mean? Command them? To what purpose!' She was uncertain how to take this course of events. But his words were scorching, spoken with such searing arrogance that her very heart trembled.

"You are fated to he who rules this realm, and you answer to none but me! All bowed before you now are your subjects, to command as you please. Permit them to rise only if it pleases you. If it does not- then let them hang their heads like dogs for as long as you desire! Know this- all must obey your commands without question-"

"-We will not!" There is a moment of stunned silence at the words that suddenly ruptured the intensity of his oath. She jumped, turning her head sharply, eyes searching for the source of the bold words. There are a few shadows, scattered across the chamber who still stood, refusing to kneel or bow. One of them speaks, his words as harsh and sharp as a drawn blade. Even when that cold red grin turns towards him- his firm gaze did not waver. She can see nothing of the shadow save for the dark of his eyes, glimmering brilliantly like emeralds.

"Lord Kyuubi!" The man bellowed, his words echoing in the dark of the chamber as he flashed his pearl white fangs, his face contorted with visible disgust.

"We have gone along with your eccentricities long enough! Despite the matter of your ascent- we yet allowed you to take your place here among us. We have not questioned the birthright or bearing of this pathetic mortal that has so infatuated you. But to obey her? To heed her? To hearken to her? We will do no such thing-!"

She feels cut to the quick, to traitorous core by the scathing truth of his words. She says nothing- and feels she has no right to speak, or to reply in kind. Had she not thought the same words herself? Suddenly- she was ashamed. Of her weakness- of her mortality- of the burden she was and had been to him. She had been told- and she knew- that her Master had sacrificed much for her sake. And he had done so with his own might and power, and recklessly, disregarding his own station.

She felt as if she could understand his feelings. She mirrored them in the quiet depths of her own heart. If the other dark shadows shared his sentiment they did not speak of it- their heads were bowed, silent. She had been prepared for such scrutiny, such discontent- and she bore it silently, her expression one of mute resignation. But her lips trembled, and she hoped she could contribute the sudden flush of new heat in her cheeks to her Master's touch.

'He...is not wrong.' She reminded herself quietly, less she take the words to painfully to heart. She did not belong here. She had no place here- no footing, no way of possibly understanding the complexities of their society, or the significance of the moment unfolding around her. She had no power. No memory. Nothing- but the attention of this odd creature, whose gaze was firmly planted on her.

She stared down at him clearly, for what felt like the first time. Why was he watching her so carefully? What was it he saw in her now she wondered, or had seen in her then? This powerful creature had taken her from all she had known. Stolen her past, her truth, her future. Her entire world now was comprised of what he had given her, still marred by what he had taken. But even so- she had been assured he had taken nothing from her she had not freely given. And because of that- she found she could never find it in her heart to lament or hated him. 'I just...want to understand. Why? Why would you continue to do so much for my sake? Why have you gone so far for my sake?'

She stares at him with sudden wonder, with awe- and for a moment, felt the word rise to her lips "Why-?" She murmured quietly into the void between them, mirroring a moment long past. She is stricken by a feeling of acute familiarity, of deja-vu so sudden and striking that her head begins to ring.

A sound, high and piercing like a scream, rings again, sharply in her head, so that her vision begins to swim, waver, becoming- [The dark of a chamber, hazy with smoke. The smoldering glow of banked embers. The scent of flame- "I will give it to you." He had said-] Struck by a sudden weakness she stumbles forward, placing her free hand against the breadth of his shoulder to steady herself. He allows her, still holding her firmly as she wavers unsteadily on her feet.

She feels dizzy, faint- 'Who is speaking? Whose words are these? The Blue Eyed Man? The one called Naruto?'- but this voice is deeper, darker. There is a feeling- of resignation? Regret? Misery? Acceptance? ["A place where pain cannot follow. Where grief does not consume you. A world where you can be at peace-"] His hand, his body- burns- but the warmth rouses her, anchors her to this place, to this moment. She fights the tide threatening to take her, the darkness skirting the edge of the memory. Does he feel it, as she does? Can he feel the echo of it in her thoughts? And if he did-?

But the god-being's words continued, growing in volume with the might of his wrath. They rupture the tentative moment sprouting between them, ruptures the memory and brings her back to reality with a barely concealed shudder. Spited by their silence, his words grow harsher-

"She is mortal! She has no place here in this hallowed hall! No right! You know well the significance of this place, to those who measure their lives in centuries- and yet you bequeathed it to her?"

She raises her eyes at this, startled at the implication of those words. Her gaze whips towards those biting eyes, and then back to her Master's. This estate he had given her- was some place ancient? Some place sacred to these beings? And disregarding all of that- he had gifted it to her, as if it were worth less than nothing? She turned her gaze back towards him, wordlessly searching for answers she knew he would not give, her thoughts cloudy and convoluted. 'I do not understand you-' She thought firmly, timidly. And yet-

"You shame us in our antiquity! On such a sacred night it is our duty to adhere to the course of fate- and yet you use it instead to frivolously parade your mortal wench before us?!"

The additional insult sears her like a scar. Her face flushes anew with even deeper embarrassment at the callous reminder of the true nature of her position. 'You are his woman-'

There is a abrupt, striking sound- like the clash of steel, the gnashing of fangs, the grinding of teeth and bone. Her heart lurches. Her blood turns to ice in her veins. There is a rush of foul black wind, an inhuman howl filling the chamber, growing into a maddening crescendo of sound, sharp and piercing like a scream. Her dark hair whips violently about her form, tempered by the unseen tempest. 'W-What-?' She blinks involuntarily to clear her vision, struggling to comprehend- and finds that those emerald colored eyes are gone, along with the other shadows that had accompanied them.

She blinks rapidly, to right her vision. Was she mistaken? Was she dreaming again? She casts her gaze quickly, hastily through the length of the chamber- but she had not been mistaken. They were gone. As if they had never been there at all. As if...she had only imagined them. Something dark and heavy like a stone, drops into her chest.

His words are sharp, sudden. But she can feel the black of his grin, the mocking murmur of the beast in his shadow.

"I don't remember giving anyone permission to speak, much less a few loud mouthed insects." He tossed out the words casually, arrogantly over his shoulder- before settling that porcelain grin back onto her face and the haggard expression that awaited him there.

"Rejoice Hanahime! You will have a glorious collection of wings to adorn your chamber!" He added with a wild bark of laughter, solidifying the truth of that single fleeting moment.

Her blood runs cold, her skin overcome with a telling chill that robs her of color. They had vanished in the span of the time it took her to draw a breath. And now she finally understood- it was impossible to deny the extent of his power. It was absolute. The moment with Raiku comes full circle, the weight of her Lord's threat startling now. He had threatened to skin the sky dragon alive, to gift her his pelt. He had torn his wings from him. Had taken his arm. Her body began to quiver, to shake, her hand trembling in his grasp.

She was afraid. If these ancient, powerful beings were rendered silent, immobile by their dread of his power- then how much worse did she fare, with her feeble mortal heart? His words carried through the chamber, with all of the dark intent of promise. The hairs rose on the back of her neck as he deftly snapped his fangs, quivering at the startling harshness of the sound.

"Mind my words you fucking mongrels." His words were tight, taunt from the black of his rage, simmering just below the surface. She could hear it in every snap of his fangs, as he ground them together with startling violence. It was made even more frightening from behind that mask, the fox's expression cold and still.

"I have been lenient. I have been merciful. But now- I will say this only once. An affront against her- is an affront against me."

The tension sparked by her master's words filled the room with an air of such bitter contempt and loathing that even she could feel it. The air shifted, lurched, filled with such violent pressure that it nearly brought her knees. In that moment he had disposed of them because they had dared to speak their truth- and voice their discontent. Powerful, godly beings. The death of a man was nothing- his heirs could carry on his name. And no matter how much war took from them, mankind could always replenish itself without fear of extinction. 'But what does it mean...to kill a God?' The thought alarms her.

And there is nothing but the bitter, callous cruelty of his words echoing in the dark, grinding their egos beneath his heel.

"The only reason...I did not paint the room with the remains of their corpses…is because I didn't want to mar the scent of flowers with the stench of death. It is true. Hanahime is mortal. But I. am. not." His words seemed to be everywhere at once, echoing with such force that it felt as if they were being roared into the very black of her mind.

"I will adhere to my duty. I will right the course of fate. But do not mistake me. Do not for a moment allow yourselves to forget. I am not bound by the laws of this world. I create them. And if it but pleased me, I would see the sky fall and the earth tremble! If the rest of this council would like to hold onto their wretched lives- then they had best remember that."

The blatant thread of the words lingered there, filled with the extent of his hatred. And to think- he was the one who was supposed to lead them, to help them carry out some sacred duty bequeathed to them! But how easily he had gotten rid of them, without pause or contemplation! She knew then why he was capable of such cruelty, why he thought nothing of killing his brethren, could do it as easily as he drew breath. 'He...hates them.' She thought suddenly, and the thoughts vexes her, pains her. But why? Why did he seem to loath them so?

"I say let them grovel for as long as it pleases you Hanahime! Long enough to remember that their places are beneath you."

It only takes a moment for her to realize the true horror of his words and actions- sick with the weight of the burden he had so arrogantly placed on her shoulders. Lord Raiku was surely not the only one then! All who carried themselves to his command- how they must hate him! She could feel almost feel the extent of their loathing, thickening in the air- but they were powerless to do anything but as he bid. And- and such a command! 'He is mocking them!' Forcing them to bow their heads to a mere mortal, but with such an inflammatory and vile request after he had so easily slain one of their own! If Gods could not be replaced, if they could not be reborn- then he had wiped away an existence that would never appear again. He had killed them because they would not bow to her- and he expected such a shameless threat of violence would keep the others from doing the same? How could he even call himself a lord, if he was prince to such cruelty?

A moments glance revealed the scowls hidden on their faces, the words of resentment itching to leap from their lips- but they dared not voice their laments to him after such an abrupt display of power. Only one downcast face was marred by a look of pure bemusement, and she kept her bitter smile hidden. Had Ichi and Ni not told her before? That power was what ruled this realm? That they dared not speak against him, so that even they would endure this shame? Had she not seen it for herself-? What was he trying to prove by making her so clearly one to resent, to hate? How could she be expected to act in such a manner, when all clearly knew that in this world ruled by power she had none of her own?

She could feel her lips tremble- something inside of her quivering- but not with fear. Was this madness of which they had spoke, the one that came with power? He clearly cared nothing for his subjects- he had done everything in his power to have them shamed before her. But how could this be for her sake? She was merely an excuse, he could use to justify his will. She could not understand his reason for this- but she felt sick to her stomach, her heart.

She is not quite certain what compels her, what overtakes her in the next moment. She is not certain why she felt so strongly for these beings, infinitely more powerful and wise than her. Was it her own self deprecating spirit, who knew that next to them she was less than nothing? Why had he seen fit to kill them? For merely speaking their truth? Because it pleased him? But regardless of reason- she could not believe that he had done such a thing for her sake. And that cold grin was still watching her, had never left- as he gave another bark of dark laughter.

She is overcome with a feeling that is dark and undefinable. Something so potent that she is not sure what to make of it. Were she in her right mind she would have realized the folly of this, the absurdity of her actions. But she does not think. She snatches her hand from his burning grasp. And with every ounce of power she possessed, she struck him across the face.

"You may rise." She murmured softly, in a voice above a whisper, without pause or stammer. The very air of the room stills. Countless pairs of eyes are trained on her form, frozen with shock- at the audacity of the feeble mortal that had dared to strike a god. Immediately she turned, walking back down the petal strewn aisle from which she had just come. She didn't care in this moment that her hand hurt from the clash of flesh and porcelain as she gathered the edges of her silk kimono in her hand.

"My Lady-!" Is that Ichi that calls after her? But she does not pause- she was vexed, so much so that there were already angry tears making their way into her eyes. The bite of her own anger surprised her, stunned her. 'Why? Why must you be so cruel?'

She is numb to the sudden, haunting sound of his laughter following her as the chamber doors parted before her. The stunned audience of godly beings, all akin in their disdain and contempt for their lord, were struck with a feeling that it robs them of breath. But he says nothing- only the dark in his shadow seems to speak for him, to ask with its grinning black fangs. 'Spreading your wings then, little bird?'

And right up until they closed, she did not turn to spare him a single parting glance. She was frightened at the weight of this odd feeling, so at odds with the frail woman she was. But against herself, there was something in her that quivered, that shook at the reminder of what had transpired in the chamber.

She was vexed- but beneath- she was terribly somber.

Every step she takes back to her chamber seems to clear her head and return her senses. By the time she has managed to make her way to the doors of her chamber, she had returned to herself. She was a mortal woman in a realm of gods, and a kept woman to one whose strength had no equal.

The reminder of this reality made her entire body tremble with terror, with unfathomable horror at her own actions. 'What...have I done?!' How...how dare she! She had struck him! Struck him! Lord Kyuubi! For what reason? For what purpose? Had she gone mad? What had come over her? What frightful spirit had possessed her?

She could not logically explain her actions, could not understand now the dangerous train of thought that had bid her raise her hand- so stunned with her behavior that she dared not enter her chamber, less he come and retrieve her himself. What had led her to make such a hasty and out of character action?

'And to use violence!' A mortal against a god! She must be losing her mind, losing her sanity from so many peaceful days- there was no other way to explain why she had acted in such an unbecoming manner. And yet- she could not stop her lips from trembling again, at the reminder of his words, his actions. How had he dared? Had those beings not come to him for guidance, for instruction? And yet how spitefully he treated them! How cruelly! It was clear to her now- he loathed them as much as they did him. He had slain those brave souls without a thought, merely because it pleased him- and he would see them submit to her regardless of reason.

'Our lord can be merciful…' There is the reminder of the small girl's words- 'but he can also be merciless-' But there had been no mercy, no compassion, no understanding in that chamber. There had been nothing but the callous, arrogant, and blatant malice of his words. 'And the unforgiving might of his power.' She felt sick with remorse, with guilt- maybe he had killed them- because of her.

She retreated from her chamber doors, her haggard footsteps soon taking her to the great stone steps that overlooked the garden. She sunk down onto a step, throwing her head into her hands. For a moment she was glad for the coverage that her dark mane provided, hiding her face from sight so she could release a shuddering breath into her palms. Abruptly- she feels the overwhelming urge to cry with the convoluted assortment of emotions warring within her.

She feels shame and embarrassment- there is despair- resignation- reproach- 'But what should I have done? What should I have said? Should I have tried to understand him?' And beyond that again- the tell tale murmur of fear. Her lord had so clearly shown her in her first audience with him, exactly what manner of being he was. He had warned her then. 'Thinking I am kind is a mistake you can never allow yourself to make.' He had warned her, along with the lingering echo of his madness, his power, that proceeded him like a foul wind.

'Who...are you to me?' The intensity of the thought frightens her, makes the very essence of her being shudder once more as she took a moment to sort through the harshly murmured words. He had fought for her right to ascend- that she knew. He had faced down nine mighty beasts in a battle that saw him crowned as Lord and Master here. But Ichi and Ni had said that he as well...had lost something precious in the process. And in the end- he had heeded her wish, and had given her ten years of slumber, given her time to forget.

But again- forget what? She thought of that alarming memory, the one that had risen suddenly to the forefront of her mind in the chamber. "I will give it to you. A place where pain cannot follow. Where grief does not consume you. A world where you can be at peace-" But whose words had those been?And was that...this place? Had those words come from a time before the slumber that had robbed her of her past? It seemed her Lord had gifted her a place that was precious, regardless of the reservation of his fellow god beings. And again- there had been the mention of their 'duty.' 'To right the course of fate...'

If they had a collective duty, then why had he forced his will upon them? Why did he use his might to submit them to hers? 'To reassert his dominion over this realm? To silence them? Or more-?' If that man had continued speaking...what more would he have said? What other truths would he have unearthed? She had not considered it before- 'Could he have killed them...to stop them from speaking anymore of the past? To spare me?' She shudders, wraps her arms tight around her form- but she cannot get warm, cannot shake this restless, trembling feeling. Again the thought comes, unbidden- 'But still- why would you go so far?'

"He does what he must." It is Ni's voice she hears, reminding her. "- there are times where you may think him cruel, you may think him unmerciful- but this realm is different from the world of mortals. And My Lady must not forget that-"

'They said that everything he does...is for my sake.' And yet- to such an extent! How could she willingly allow it? How could her conscience- how could her heart bear it? But regardless, it was true that she did not fully understand the intricacies of this world. And despite that- she had raised her hand- and struck him. 'Why did I not try to understand? If he is truly cruel for my sake...'

"...w-what have I d-done?" She murmured brokenly to herself, fighting the strange mangled cry that seemed to be caught in her throat, the restless tears gathering in her eyes. Why had she run away like a coward, hiding her tears? Why not stay and hear his answer, and demand his reason? If she could have but minded herself, tempered her will in that moment-

"-You are only mortal after all," The lilted voice reaches her ears, like honey and smoke, "And how like your kind!...Mortals are always driven with a sense of their own righteousness and purpose."

Immediately she jumped to her feet, nearly losing her footing on the step as she turned to face the shadow hiding beneath the darkness of the archway. But it is not long before a woman reveals herself- a woman so beautiful that for a moment she loses her breath. It is a powerful, intoxicating beauty she possesses, beckoning in the dim. But there is an edge to her beauty- like a snake coiled to strike, or a powerful bird of prey. There was a scent of ashes, faintly blowing on the night's breeze. The woman smiled a tantalizing smile, one that while mysterious, did not seem dangerous.

Uncertain of what to say or how to proceed, she fumbled anxiously with her hands in her sleeve, eyeing the woman warily as she hurriedly dips her head in greeting. Abruptly it occurs to her that besides Lord Raiku, this was the only other outsider whom had addressed her directly. And without the amulet- she knew there was nothing to hide her from the woman's gaze, carefully observing her.

'And this woman-' she could feel it, tainting the cool night wind. A scent like sulfur, bitter and strong- like barely restrained power. Her hooded gaze was impossible to read or decipher. But the smile on her sumptuous lips remained, coaxing. She watched the woman warily, blinking through her unshed tears in an attempt to clear her vision. It was clear she had been a guest in the chamber, and had been witness to her hasty retreat. 'Did he perhaps- send someone to retrieve me?' The thought alone makes her throat tighten. But the woman's gaze was knowing as it assessed her, trained firmly on her own.

"Don't fret." She stated comfortingly, and she could not help but jump at the reply, wondering at her expression if her fears were so easy to discern. "I was not sent to put the naughty little bird back in her cage." The woman added with blatant amusement, staring out from under her dark lashes, her dark green eyes burning in the dark of the gloom. They seemed to glow, to smolder, as if lit from within. "I am certain he wants that pleasure for himself."

Although the woman seemed to be speaking in jest from her knowing smile, she could feel her heart sputter erratically in her chest at the significance of the words. She shuddered to think of what he must have murmured in her wake to hint at such, fighting back the very real dread brought on by her words.

"L-Lord Kyuubi...w-was he...terribly angry?" She managed to stammer out anxiously, trying to mentally prepare herself for the answer. She shuddered to think of that black, loathsome power turned against her in fury. Would he punish her for her transgression? Or worse- put her back to sleep? She felt sick, nauseous at the thought of ten more years of darkness.

"Angry?" The woman raised her eyebrow in surprise, before another coy smile spread across her face. "All the moons you have spent beneath his care and you cannot tell when he is pleased?"

"W-What?" She admitted in shock, as the woman descended, alighted down the steps to share one with her. She brought with her that same scent, potent and strong as she approached. Like the striking of a match- it called to mind a bright, burning flame- and immediately she remembers the shadow of the fiery winged bird thrown across the wall. And the beautiful bird of paradise, etched into the gilded halls of the estate from the time before. She smothers a gasp she did not know she had been holding as the woman drew nearer, the generous curves of her form towering over her own. The tall, graceful lines of her body nearly dwarfed her in comparison, and she resisted the urge to cower in her shadow.

"How rude of me-! My apologies My Lady! I have yet to introduce myself. I am Miho, the six winged phoenix. I am a member of the council. It is truly a pleasure, Lady Hanahime." She states carefully, with words that are neither cold or mocking. She speaks respectfully enough- but there is still something else lurking there. There is an odd light of sardonic amusement in her dark eyes, skirting the edge of her words.

But she finds that she cannot help but gasp, stammering as she remembered the tale spun into the walls of the estate. "Y-You are...one of the heavenly creatures?" She asks carefully, and Miho laughs lightly, a delicate, graceful sound. It is clear, feminine, like the ringing of a bell. She had heard it echoing in the dark of the chamber, remembered how starkly the sound stood out amongst all others.

Miho it seems, is not like she had imagined the other council members. She had been prepared to bare the brunt of her words, if she felt as Lord Raiku and the others did- but whatever the woman's opinions were of her mortality, she seemed to keep them to herself. She wavers uncertainly, not sure how to respond- but Miho continues, her eyes twinkling.

"What a pleasing reaction! But I suppose you have yet to meet any us aside from Raiku, and that one doesn't exactly leave a favorable impression." She added gently, crossing her arms beneath her generous bosom. Her kimono is tightly wrapped, various shades of red. She recognizes them in the dark as the vibrant red hues found in flickering flames.

"H-How did you...?" She begins, uncertain of how to voice her request, still stunned to be speaking so frankly with a being of such power. It is a moment before she remembers Ichi's words as they had told her the history of their world- 'Their knowledge of this world is almost infinite-' Perhaps then, there was much they did know, and such a thing was child's play to one such as her?

"I am not so omnipotent." Miho added with another smile, " It is merely that Raiku's contempt for mortals is known to all. He may be outspoken- but it is within reason, and he is no fool. Not like that unfortunate lot from earlier. You have seen it for yourself now have you not? Lord Kyuubi's power here is absolute and unquestionable."

She pressed her lips tightly together, casting her eyes to the ground at the reminder. She had seen it for herself. Even if it had been just a moment. She now understood why the other beings had hurried to hasten to his will, casting aside their pride to heed him without question. And without thought, how recklessly he had commanded them, insulted them with almost childlike spitefulness.

"W-What…h-happened to them?" She whispered quietly, wringing her hands. If Miho thinks anything of her visible distress, she says nothing. But easily, naturally- "Ah! That's right. You are mortal- so you were unable to follow. It's hardly a thing that needs to be mentioned in the presence of such an esteemed Lady but- he swallowed them whole." She finished, with an almost pleased quirk of her lips at the reminder.

She released a breath she hadn't known she had been holding, feeling faint. "S-Swallowed them?"

"That's right." She murmured quietly, clicking her tongue against her own porcelain fangs. "Have you seen our dear Lord's shadow?" She continued, and she could not help but nod quietly, shuddering at the thought of that foul black creature.

"Our Lord Kyuubi has a particular fondness for shadow arts- although his flames are hot enough to burn flesh from bone. I thought it quite considerate of him to refrain from creating a mess on your account! Would you not agree?"

Miho laughed at the memory, her dark eyes sparkling as she surveyed her. But the thought did not amuse her, or please her at the mention of his 'consideration.' Rather she felt ill, hopelessly unease. 'This is the manner of being he is-' And how easily Miho said the words, as if they were of little consequence. She frowned, feeling it deepen. 'Does she as well...think nothing of the loss of her companions? Of their sudden deaths?' Miho's hooded gaze watched her from beneath the dark fringe of her lashes, and she released an almost thoughtful murmur.

"Ah! I see- You're wondering- how could he be so cruel?" She smiled again at the word. "So callous? To have such little regard for life? To insult his fellow brethren in such a manner? You have much to learn of our Master, My Lady, if you think that cruel!"

"B-But-! Are you not...a-angry? Are you not displeased?" She stammered out suddenly, feeling her hands tighten again. How could they bear to know that at his side stood one who paled in age, in power, in comprehension of the world either above or below- was it not an affront to all that they were? He had already forced them to accept her with the threat of violence- why humiliate them any further? Why taunt them anymore than this? A confusing assortment of emotions made itself known in the crinkle of her brow, reflected in the still angry tears caught in the crux of her lashes.

Miho observed her expression almost fondly as she reached out, carefully wiping the tears from her eyes. She was stunned at the gentle consideration of the motion, especially from a creature who should have loathed her very existence. But Miho's gaze was oddly impassive, unreadable even as she smiled- drawing her delicately clawed fingertips to her own lips, tasting the salt of her tears.

"How dear you are!" She murmured appreciatively, her expression growing oddly tender. "How precious you mortals are! I had nearly forgotten- it has been so long! But remember this My Lady. In this realm all that we do is just. We are simple creatures that way. Strength is what rules us, what commands us. You will realize this in time. If you are powerful enough to enforce your will...then it becomes law. It becomes truth. So yes- Lord Kyuubi was right. They were insects. And he would not be pleased to see you waste tears on the passing of parasites. Those without the power to force their will- have no right to complain or speak. If it had been me- I would have devoured them too."

She reeled back, stunned at her equally heartless words, and the firmness with which she had said them. "B-But that..does not make it right." Miho's expression was openly affectionate- and for a moment the woman looked as if she wanted to reach out and touch her again.

"You are such a darling woman. Is it that innocent heart that moves him I wonder? That quiet, noble spirit? Or is it this expression-?" And then she does- reaching out to carefully lift her head with her finger, drawing it gently along the soft line of her jaw. She stands completely still beneath her hand, uncertain of how to interpret Miho's searching expression. The moment strikes her as odd, intimate, familiar in a way that made her cheeks flush again- "-cheeks warm and eyes filled with tears? Tell me My Lady." Milo's expression is open, curious and briefly, her smoldering eyes drop to her lips. "Why is it that he adores you so?"

The use of the words shocks her, and hastily she escapes the woman's grip, steps away from that entrancing gaze. 'Adores...?' She flushed unexpectedly, wondering at the term. Lord Kyuubi was many things to her perhaps- but it was impossible for her to view him as a being capable of affection. The extent of his affections seemed limited to gifts- hair combs encrusted with precious stones, kimonos so extravagant and beautiful they took her breath away, and jewelry that would surely be worth a king's ransom were she still in the world of men. The way he had held her hand in the chamber- had been the first time he had motioned to touch her, and such conditions were far from intimate. But still, to think- 'She believes...that he adores me?' She is not certain what to make of it, and tears her gaze from the woman, clearly flustered.

"I-I d-do not k-know...you are the first one I have spoken with about any of this..."

Milo's gaze had watched her as she drew away, and for a moment her gaze seems to darken, smoldering momentarily before she smiled. "-No matter. My apologies for such a brazen statement. It is just that My Lady Hanahime is the most precious of treasures. To even be able to behold you, the beast's beautiful flower- that in itself is quite the honor. I did not believe he would ever present you before us. Why I as well longed to see you for myself if he had not. We were curious-"

'The beast's flower.' Is that why he called her Hanahime? The thought was striking then- he had never referred to her by name, by the name she knew was hers. Ichi and Ni as well- saved the use of it for private moments between them. Lady Hanahime was a title, clearly meant to discourage familiarity. A title to protect her then? But why would he want to hide the truth of her name from them? Could there, perhaps...be another meaning? But she is aware that her thoughts have led to an extended silence, and she hurriedly speaks.

"P-Pardon me. There is much... I still do not know. But concerning what you s-said...is that why he calls me Lady Hanahime?" She was uncertain how the odd question would be preceived- was it a strange thing to ask? Would the woman even have any answers?

But Miho's expression shifts. Her gaze seems to sharpen, as did the lines of her smile. "Oh? That's a delightful question. But you will need to rephrase it if you want an answer My Lady. Our Lord...is very peculiar about matters that concern you. In fact- we are forbidden of speaking of such things. Shall I show you once more? What happens when you defy him?"

Miho's thinly veiled answer surprises her. 'She can't answer me? Because it is forbidden?' Her earlier thought, that he had killed them to stop them from speaking, suddenly has weight and merit. "What do you mean?" She asks, still not fully understanding, but desperate for an answer. Something, anything to give her even the slightest inkling of what truths he still kept hidden from her.

But Miho says nothing, raising her hand to silently lower the neckline of her kimono. She flushes in embarrassment, at the sudden exposure, preparing to avert her eyes- but what is revealed there surprises her. There is a ragged scar, shaped like a misshapen X, crossing the span of her chest. One of it's ragged lines seemed to run from the crux of her neck and shoulder, down between the valley of her glorious breasts- further- disappearing deeper into the exposed neckline of her kimono. The skin was raised, rough- and it seemed to shimmer faintly, as if it had once seared her like a brand.

She could tell with a shudder that it had once been a great and terrible wound. It stood out in stark contrast to Miho's beautifully golden skin, the only visible mar to the beauty of her form. But her eyes softened as they glanced over it, her fingertips tracing the mottled skin delicately, almost fondly.

"It is rather beautiful...is it not? Here's a secret My Lady. God beings...don't bleed. Because we are eternal, we are infinite. The only ones who can scar a god...who can kill a god...is a god. And wounds inflicted upon us by other god beings, by other eternal creatures...never fully heal. For an eternity we are left with these scars, with the echo of their pain. They are reminders of our failure. And unlike mortals- once we are killed- we do not return to the cycle of rebirth. We merely cease to exist. "

She opens her mouth- closes it. Acutely, she remembered the empty length of Lord Raiku's sleeve, the reminder that he had lost his wings. She is incapable of responding to that- and Miho knows it, slowly righting the line of her kimono with another knowing smile.

"Thank you for this pleasure you have given me, Lady Hanahime. I have enjoyed your company. I look forward to having it once more. I am sorry that I must leave you now- but the red moon will soon be rising."

"The Red Moon?" She stammers out as the woman turns towards the shadows but is barely able to say anything in reply before she had disappeared into the gloom. She stares after the odd woman, still feeling oddly unsettled. The words were ominous, foreboding- what had Ichi said? The gods met to adhere to the orders of, and share the tidings of fate...but what did that mean? Did it relate back to their duty, their vow- to maintain the balance of this world? 'What is it they have to do?' But she did not have time to wonder more - she turned and was stunned by the sudden proximity of Ichi by her side, as close as a shadow.

"My Lady." She murmured in greeting. "I have come to escort you back to your chamber." And then- her expression grew searching as it scours her form, her expression- and then the surrounding gloom. Imperceptibly- Ichi's gaze narrowed. Could she feel it then? The lingering odor of power?

She hurries to explain herself and her extended absence- but Ichi's gaze is still searching the shadows, her expression cold and firm. "I'm sorry- I was speaking with Lady Miho."

Ichi's gaze immediately comes back to her own, and she is incapable of deciphering what is flitting in her black eyes. Of course it stood to reason that Ichi would be concerned that she had been alone with one of those beings- but although Lady Miho had seemed strange, she had not been unkind. She was nothing like Lord Raiku, and had seemed to hold no contempt or hatred of her mortality in her heart. Oddly, she wondered if Lady Miho would come and see her again, as she had hinted. It would be a welcome relief- and she was already wondering if it would be possible to speak with her once more. If nothing else, Miho's frank nature could prove beneficial to helping her uncover more of this strange world.

"Lady Miho was an odd woman but...I-I did not mind her. I w-would...like to have her company again." She added hesitantly, searching Ichi's black eyes for any sign of outright dismissal. Up until this point in her exile she had never dreamed she would ever have company or audience aside from her faithful attendants. She wasn't even sure if such a thing was permitted without her Master's presence or approval.

Ichi's black eyes watch her carefully- but in them is a cold edge of warning, that was hard to define or interpret. "...Our Master's influence spreads far- but it would do well to be careful My Lady." She added instead, bidding her to follow as she turned her head.

"C-Careful?" She asked as she followed her lead, treading softly alongside her back into the darkened hall.

Ichi seems to hesitate briefly for a moment, as if she were choosing her words carefully. "Despite the appearances they choose for themselves- without fail- all within this realm are beings beyond mortal sensibilities and reasoning." The words were veiled, but she knew something was lingering there, unspoken. But the implication of the words made goosebumps break out along her skin.

"Is that...a warning?" And then- "W-What do you mean?"

"My Lady..." Ichi began, but paused again- as if at the last moment she had suddenly changed her mind. She halted her step, turning to cast those bleak black eyes onto her face.

"Our reason for being is to see to your safety and well being. That is all." Ichi finished resolutely, leaving her to reach her own conclusions to her query. But she was beginning to feel as if she understood her well enough-

'She...doesn't trust Lady Miho. No...it's not that- I understand now- it's him. He doesn't trust anyone. He put me in their care for my own safe keeping. If he is truly so careful, if he has done so much to keep the truth from me- he would surely not allow me in the company of anyone else.' He would deny her request then, that she knew for certain. Thinking on it now, even the words Miho had said had perhaps already been enough to put her in danger. She couldn't dare endanger anyone else, to burden another with her questions.

She had long since understood. If she wanted the truth- she would have to find it on her own.

But something in the words reminded her of the moment from before- and she sighed, casting her gaze downward. Ichi had yet to speak of what had happened in the chamber- but she needed to know. What had he said in her absence? What had he done?

"I...I hope you can convey my a-apologies to him." She murmured meekly, quietly beneath her breath. "I...d-don't know...what came over me. Do you think that I...t-terribly displeased him?"

For a moment Ichi's expression was curiously blank. And then- "Lord Kyuubi allowed you to strike him." She stated finally- but even though she said it clearly, her voice had an edge of complete bewilderment. "To what ends and for what purpose, I do not know."

He 'allowed' her. The thought humbled her, and she could not help but release a sudden gasp. She had not considered it before! He was a man who had slain gods, who had wounded immortal beings beyond repair. He could have easily avoided her blow, deflected it- even striking him- would have had all the effect of being assaulted by an insect. Ichi was right- 'why would he have allowed me to attack him?' Even if she had surprised him, there was no possible way she could have ever hoped to wound him. Then why allow her to put on such an unbecoming display? He was a being who- while he seemed to act recklessly- seemed to always have an agenda of his own. More and more she was beginning to realize that every moment had its significance to him. It only stood to reason now that in everything he did, it had it's purpose-

"There will be time to wonder of such things My Lady." Ichi added, turning her back on her and going back to striding briskly forward. She gathered her skirts, hurriedly reacclimating to Ichi's swift pace.

"I see. And t-thank you. I am...truly grateful." They both had done so much for her. And she did believe Ichi's words, that they both prioritized her safety and well being. She could never thank them enough- and she wondered if Ichi had felt slighted that she would ask for additional company, as if their own were not enough. But there was a briskness to Ichi's stride that was hurried- as if she had someplace else to be. Against herself she ventured to ask- "I-Is the Night Feast over?" And then, while she dared- "A-And..can you t-tell me what happens on the night of Red Moon?"

"...I am sorry My Lady." Ichi stated, but she wouldn't meet her eyes. "It is still too soon." 'Still too soon?' But Ichi refused to speak on it anymore, and quietly escorted her to her chamber. She had barely finished helping her disrobe and change into her sleeping gown before she dismissed herself, closing the chamber doors quietly behind her.

It occurred to her then that Miho's sudden absence, as well as their own, was an indicator that some kind of ceremony was occurring- and in her words- 'we all have a part to play.' Some manner of event was transpiring here- to what ends and for what purpose she did not know. It was likely the ceremony would be held in the audience chamber. If not here, then perhaps there was another on his end of the estate. And suddenly, as a climax to the wild spiral of events that had made up this evening- her chance was here.

She was not sure how much faith she could put into Miho's words that her Lord was 'pleased'- but even so- he would no doubt be angry. At the very least he may seek her out at the ceremony's end to reprimand her. Perhaps he would punish her with containment to her room- or worse. She shuddered at the thought of worse. She had but a moment to decide, to make up her mind. To take advantage of their absence- or wait in pensive silence for him to come.

There was no time- she had to decide. In a moment, a thousand thoughts seemed to flit through her mind. It was the reminder of his shadow, the echo of his laughter, the haunting blue of those eyes that spurred her her. She could not shake the memory- the warmth of his hands, his skin- his name- "Naruto." She murmured in the dark, to no one but herself.

The name gave her courage, gave her strength. Before her will could waver, before her resolve could crumble, she grabbed the amulet from the mantle. She dared not think of what would happen if she were wrong- of how much more crushing the dark in his shadow would be if he caught her. She knew this was impossibly reckless, that she had no way of knowing for certain- but she had to try. 'If the ceremony requires both Ichi and Ni- and him as well- then perhaps her as well-' Nana- the woman child who had stood guard over that room, in that place where the blue eyed man had been taking her. He had been guiding her there, to that room- because something in there was desperately important.

'That flower-' Miho had helped her, whether she was aware or not, with her off handed words. 'The beast's beautiful flower-' She wasn't sure how she knew- but she was convinced it was no longer a coincidence. Her Lord had in his keeping an odd flower that was guarded by a woman-child with the authority to kill if need be. 'Hanahime...means flower princess.' And she remembered the feeling that had transfixed her, drawn her forward. A feeling of dread, of horror- like a murmur of a nightmare. Pulling her closer. 'Red.' She had thought then- and the feeling of the pale eyed ghost again, skulking away into the dark of her mind. Warning her. 'You must not...'- but what had it been warning her from, and why? The blue eyed man had lead her there with a smile, right to that room, to that flower. And if she truly wanted to know, to understand- she knew she had to go back.

She couldn't think, couldn't linger on the thought of what he would do to her if she were captured. If she did- she would render herself immobile, helpless. Instead she focused on the weight of the amulet in her palm, remembering their words. Ichi and Ni had explained the gist of it to her before- and although she had yet to attempt it without their guidance, she knew she could do it.

'"Focus." They had said- "Concentration. Inner discipline. The crux of all three, the balance of mind and body, calls chakra forth. We have no need for jutsu, born of mortals to master chakra- and so we cannot teach you their ways. But for now- this will be enough-"

'Call it into being. Focus. Concentrate-' she feels it growing, building- something rising like a gentle tide within her, a comforting warmth spreading throughout her body. The ease- the familiarity of this feeling- was awe inspiring. Perhaps- once long ago- she had known of such things? Jutsu- were arts made by man to help them give chakra purpose and form, to help them control it. God beings had no need for jutsu. They could master that energy naturally, without thought.

There was a part of her that seemed to sigh, to savor the feeling, the quiet murmur of power spreading through her body. It would be nothing to her Lord- but it made her feel strong. She tried to concentrate, to will that steady flow into her hands, into the amulet. She was not certain if she succeeded. She was not strong enough for her chakra to be visible- but nonetheless she felt comforted somehow by the warmth of it.

This chakra felt warm, like the warmth of his hands. There was no time to regret, to cower. She moved quietly, decisively, with pronounced purpose. The halls beyond the doors of her chamber were dark, quiet as the tomb. 'Don't hesitate. Don't waver. Don't be afraid.' She moved silently- navigating the halls now with improbable ease. Outside, beyond the gilded archways was a starless night, black and bleak.

She would go to that place, to the ring of white walled towers. And to that room, where he kept that black flower. And- she prayed that if only for the briefest of moments- she would see him again.

AN: This chapter gave me a headache. I didn't release it for so long because I didn't like it and couldn't figure out what I thought was missing lol. But its long overdue. Happy new year ya'll. Hope it doesn't suck but I'm awful at editing ;-; -shameless plug for beta reader-