The rain that had begun when she’d neared the complex showed no signs of stopping, and she was too exhausted to even try stopping it. As she padded across the yard towards the altar, a bolt of lightning illuminated a man’s shape on the roof, an enormous bow pulled back and aimed squarely at her.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” a strong, masculine voice called over the storm, causing her to stop and look up with fire in her eyes.
“I am Saori Kimura, also called The Daughter of Wind and Rain and I have come to my shrine to rest,” she answered, barely hiding the tension she felt. .
The bow creaked and lowered, the man hopping down onto the muddy ground. He sauntered over; the sinuous grace of a martial artist obvious in his every step. And it was then that she noticed it. The spark within him, the crackling energy of another divine spark, and it gave her pause. It was familiar, too familiar. When the goddess got a closer look her eyes widened in shock, while the man’s face turned ghastly white. For a long moment, the two divinities gaped at one another, until the man made the first move. He reached out a forefinger and poked Saori gently in the forehead, drawing an annoyed glance from her, as she responded in kind. Her lips tugged back in a smile that his broad face mirrored. This was the last thing she expected to find!
“You…are me?” she stammered, reaching up to touch his cheek.
“Seems so,” he answered with a wry grin, “I’m Shosuke Kimura, The Son of Storms, and I swear I never thought I’d run into another…me either.”
He led her into the tatami interior of the shrine and set about preparing tea, a local blend she’d missed fiercely while she took a seat by the fire. It was still winter, and quite cold despite the latitude, and while she was dry Saori felt a bone biting chill. When Shosuke had finished and they were seated across from one another, sipping the hot green liquid, they eyed one another with intense curiosity.
“How is this…possible?” they both said in unison, which drew a chuckle from the man and a nervous laugh from the woman. Silence fell between them as the gods thought, wracking their brains to figure out what was going on.
It was Shosuke who broke the silence first, his tone quizzical, “You have been gone, haven’t you? Izanagi-sama sensed you had left this reality, pulled by some dark force.”
From around the teacup held in near her chin, Saori nodded, her eyes sparkling with sudden understanding. “I have. I…take it he created you to act in my absence?”
“Hai,” came the expected response, “When you vanished, he called me up from Gama’s memories and set me to maintain things in your stead. Though, I was supposed to disappear when you returned to this existence. I don’t know what happened, but I shouldn’t still be here. You’ve been gone nearly two years. We feared the worst. What happened?”
In answer, the goddess slipped the mirrored locket from around her neck and bid him look into it. He did so, and his eyes widened in a mixture of understanding, fear, and anger.
“This! This is an outrage! How…DARE they contain one of us! We should make ready for war, to punish them and free these other people!” came the heated but again predictable, response.
“No,” she shook her head, “for the moment we should try and figure out how best to get the people who I brought with me settled. Carving through the Kakuriyo is not something I can do again anytime soon, and I fear that I am the only one who could lead the way back. It may take months or years before I am able to, and those people deserve our help. Without them I would be dead, and thanks to my actions they are cut off from their own homes. We owe them our hospitality.”
Shosuke grunted, his temper still ruling, but he nodded in agreement. The mirror had shared with him everything, memories and emotions of the world Saori had left and of the friends she’d pulled along with her. It had been better than simply leaving them to the devices of the Malnosso, but it was still going to present its own share of problems for them. She had a responsibility to help them, and when she spoke, her male counter-self knew he did too. That was her way, and by extension his way. The fact that he hadn’t disappeared meant something as well, perhaps that the greater Myojin were in agreement with her or perhaps that they felt she needed the help.
“Of course. We should go to them, then. And you should contact Yuuna. She’s been good to me, but never wavered from the idea that you’ll return.”
That drew a faint smile, and the goddess gulped down her tea, already feeling stronger just by being near the shrine. She closed her eyes and focused her will, and the storm faded. She’d had enough rain, and it was time to clear away the clouds. She rose and offered her arm to her double, his burly arm taking hers and out they went. Saori’s mind played out various scenarios of how her friends might react to meeting two of her, each one more amusing than the last. Yuffie would try and impress him, and Helios would fiddle with his glasses, exclaiming that it was fascinating. Adele would blink and act confused, while Obi-Wan would regard it all with his passive calm. Harry would probably be his usual self, polite but wary and she didn’t have any idea about how the young Loki or the Abhorsen sisters might react. But each one brought a smile to her face. It meant more of her to go around, and though they shared the same memories and auras, she imagined it was like suddenly having a brother.
Though, after Luceti? Nothing seemed strange anymore.
Lying under a large umbrella, Saori sighed heavily as she shifted atop her sandy towel. In the brief period she’d gone out from under the shade, she had already acquired a rather nasty sunburn despite taking every precaution. As someone accustomed to being followed by storm clouds, it wasn’t all that surprising that she burned so easily. The bathing suit that Adele had given her was equally discomforting, a simple one-piece suit that adequately covered her chest and hips by modern standards, but for someone accustomed to wearing long dresses it was quite different. It had taken the goddess almost an hour and quite a bit of pointed snark from her friend to change out of her loose fitting sundress and into the much snugger swim suit.
Grumbling, she rolled over, trying to find a position where the burned portions of her skin weren’t touching the ground. Finally, she settled in on her stomach and began to read. On the towel rested a worn copy of La Comtesse de Cagliosro, a gift from the doctor and an enticement for her to come out in the first place, exchanged for a copy of Oku no Hosomichi. One delicate hand turned the pages, while another clutched a sandy bottle of tea, carefully moving so as not to get sand or moisture on the well-loved tome. The condensation on the outside of the cool container had caused a great deal of muck to stick to the exterior, giving it a grainy texture in her hands as it clung to her palm.
“Blech,” Saori sourly pouted for a moment, attempting to wipe the slimy sand off onto a nearby towel, and failing. This wasn’t really an ideal day, but Adele loved the ocean as much as she loved the mountains, and it was a shared vacation.
“It can’t get any worse,” she grumbled, when all of a sudden a barking sound came from nearby. Before Saori could react, a large dog came barreling across the sand, chasing after a thrown Frisbee that had accidentally flown over her refuge. The enormous Great Dane sent sand, umbrella, and storm goddess in all directions as it charged on, heedless of the unfortunate woman’s anguished howl.
“Oh, why do I let myself get tricked into these situations!”
The first few days had been quite striking, wandering the streets and exploring the odd new world. It wasn’t long before she’d fell in with a group of Americans who seemed genuinely friendly and interested in what they called “Oriental” culture. She’d been taken in with promises of employment and interesting new experiences. It wasn’t long before they revealed themselves to be false friends, attempting to offer her up to a brothel, a common practice with regards to Chinese and Japanese immigrants at the time. The would-be profiteers found themselves beaten and bloodied, with the brothel set ablaze by a sudden thunderstorm while Saori fled the scene. Eventually, the confused goddess had made her way to Chinatown, where she met men returning from work on something called the Trans-Continental Railroad. It didn’t take her long to tire of city life and set out on her own along the tracks, drawing odd stares from immigrant and native alike. Anyone who dared impede her was met with a beating worthy of legend. After seeing her knock out a man four times her size an American had given her a curious nickname, the “Celestial Firebrand,” and told her that she should’ve been born a redhead. Not knowing what it meant, she’d smiled and bowed, moving on.
Eventually, Saori found her way to Arizona, walking along the tracks like a vagabond from one of the great fables. Out of every single place on the planet, this was the one that Saori hated most. Deserts, of all the horrible places for a storm god to find herself, were quite possibly the most difficult for her to deal with. The suckling dryness of such places had never, ever been her forte, and being here on business from Susanoo made her like it even less. The heat sapped her energy, and periodically she had begun to have to stop and head into a town to find shelter from the arid landscape.
Her most recent stop was a fairly sizeable mining town known as “Silver Bell.” The town wasn’t unlike many of the others she’d visited along the way, save for its relative isolation and its reputation as a den of thieves. Of course, being a foreigner, Saori had no idea of the town’s ill repute. When she first walked in down the main street, a large number of people stop what they were doing and simply stared, eyes narrowed at the lone “Celestial” woman who’d crossed their path.
“Hey, what are you doin’ all alone out here, little lady?” one man hooted from the front of a saloon, while a few of his friends cackled like a swarm of crows. “Lost? Lookin’ fer more o’ yer own kind? We don’t got none o’ yer yella types out here. And we don’t want none o’ ‘em either.”
“Sir, I’m not looking for anything more than water,” she began, but immediately stopped when the swarthy individual hopped off the wooden and began to swagger nearer, adjusting his oversized belt. He was easily twice her size, wearing denim breeches and a roughspun cotton shirt, stained with sweat. A scraggly blonde beard sprouted from his chin, and above a pair of beady blue eyes was a rough mop of golden hair. Metal spurs and a holstered pistol jangled with each step.
“I don’t care what yer lookin’ fer. Ya’d best be getting’ yer scrawy yella behind walkin’. Less’n o’course yer lookin’ fer me. Up close yer not as bad as some a’ them other Calico Queens,” he chuckled.
That immediately set Saori on the defensive, the goddess taking a martial stance, ready to stomp this insolent man into the dust. Her reaction drew a chorus of laughter from all the men around, while the big man merely patted his holster.
“I got me a shootin’ iron, missy. Best drop the act. A little celestial like you’s like ta get hurt.”
“You think me unarmed?” Saori asked, a dangerous glint in her eye as she altered the position of her fingers into a “pistol” shape, causing even more laughter from the gathering crowd. The big man took another step forward, and was immediately struck by a bolt of lightning, leaping from the divine champion's fingertips, blasting through his body and into the sky. He fell with a gurgle, sizzling.
“Fei Lian, why is it you mock me?” the figure shouted up, “I came for a vacation, not for your pranks.”
Saori crossed her arms, waiting for the other god to at least acknowledge her presence. She’d taken the time to conjure up a storm, several hours worth of work at least, and he’d unmade it with his wind in a matter of moments. The wind lord was renowned throughout the Heavens as a prankster, and like any good troublemaker he was incredibly difficult to locate. At least, until he thought it was funny.
A cheerful chuckle from behind caused her to whirl, facing an old man carrying a sheepskin bag under one arm. The ancient being’s skin sagged strangely, more wrinkles forming as he grinned gap-toothed at the younger deity’s consternation. A few wisps of grey hair drifted lazily, a light breeze flowing from his bag.
“Heeheehee, liked that didn’t ya?” Feng-Bo cackled, revealing himself as the human form of Fei Lian the Wind Lord. “You should know better than to try and work your magic when I’m around.”
“But why?” Saori protested, grumbling to herself. She never liked being one-upped by the other gods, her consternation and annoyance made plain by the irritable glower she offered the primeval elder. “This entire mountain range is deserted…”
“I wanted a sunny day, but…we could use a little bit of rain too, so I let you supply the shower. You should know better than to bother the weather in my territory. I dunno what they teach you on your little islands, but in China we’re mindful of the wishes of our elders.”
With that, Feng-Bo hooted with laughter and disappeared, leaving in his place an umbrella, a beach towel, and a coconut filled with some sort of mixed drink. Sitting on the towel was a note.
“Enjoy the vacation, kid,” it said, drawing a groan from the young storm goddess.
Far below stood a small, rustic cabin crafted entirely out of aged wood. The brown wood-grain was interspersed with grey streaks, signs of age. The windows sparkled in the post-storm light, the only part of the structure that was in relatively good repair. A low roof hung over the porch, a pair of rocking chairs creaking in the late afternoon sun. A lone figure lounged in one of the chairs, feet propped on a gnarled log with legs carved out of nobs in the wood. A dainty hand was clasped around a steaming mug of hot coffee, the owner’s olive skin glistening with sweat. Clothed in a faded green sundress, Saori Kimura took a long sip, drinking in the grainy aroma of her drink. Saori’s other hand held open a rather thick looking book entitled Legends of the American Southeast, which she seemed to be reading half-heartedly.
A small black cell-phone rested on a table nearby, a gift from one of her foreign friends. Saori had never used the phone, but when she had arranged this trip into the Appalachians the travel agent had insisted that she at least keep some sort of communication device on her. Such things were usually beneath her, but then again, so were vacations. This had started as a means to unwind, but had become quite an enlightening trip. In all her long years, she’d never once travelled to America, or anywhere in what the Europeans called the New World, instead preferring to stay within the confines of Eurasia. When she’d told Adele of her desire to see the United States, the other woman had been most surprised, almost seeming concerned. Ultimately, her friend had given her a reliable travel agent, a few books on American culture, and directed her to certain sites.
Upon discovery of Appalachia, Saori had become enchanted by the region. New York, Los Angeles, and the other big cities that were tourist must-see’s all paled in comparison. It was like no other place she’d visited before, with the low-hanging mist that permeated the landscape, the humidity, and the periods of rainfall. She’d cancelled the rest of her plans and decided to merely rent this cabin and read in contemplative silence. She’d blasted through a dozen books in a matter of days, as a storm blasted through the area, affording her all the time in the world...while drenching the rural backwoods.
The colossal stones were littered with broken chunks of wood, scraps of dirty cloth, a few pairs of shredded underwear and what appeared to be the remains of a handmade dresser. One woman stood fully armored, wearing all the trappings of a medieval knight save for a helm. The sun shone off the brilliant silver armor, while spray from the river refracted the light at odd angles, giving off an angelic aura of strength. Her face was rounded, with a long, hooked nose and full lips that were dribbling blood. The woman had a nasty cut on her forehead, a dribble of red visible through her short-cropped, ruddy red hair, a stark contrast to her milky pale skin. In one hand she held a long, European sword, and in the other the crushed remains of a helm. The woman’s gauntlets seemed to have suffered several severe blows as well, as the metal around the wrists was dented and scratched, clearly struck with the intent of limiting her movement. Curiously, a large portion of her breastplate was dripping with a sticky, black substance, and flecks of the same goo seemed matted into her hair and tabard.
The knight’s opponent seemed to be quite the mismatch for a heavily armed and fortified warrior. A slender woman possessed of a light Oriental complexion, wearing only a thin, torn silk robe hardly seemed capable of standing up to the armored, angelic fighter, but somehow she was. The smaller combatant had a few scratches, and her left arm was dripping blood, staining the blue fabric of her clothing crimson but it didn’t seem to even faze her. Her hair was a mess of wildly waving black, the wind causing it to dance manically, though this too didn’t seem to be troubling her. Saori’s jaw was set, her fine cheekbones protruding as her teeth clenched, her tiny nose wrinkled in concentration, and her lips pursed with barely restraint outrage. In her petite hands she clutched what appeared to have been a heavy, oaken table leg, her knuckles white. The wood appeared to have been used as a makeshift cudgel, its surface pitted and cracked.
“That was foul play, heathen. No true warrior uses furniture and such cheap tricks to fight with! Honestly, who wields a table leg and pudding!” the knightly woman shouted above the noise of the river, outrage plain in her voice.
“I thought knights were supposed to fight with honor, Edith, and yet you attack me when I have no sword or armor to defend myself? And yet you complain of foul play?” Saori quipped right back, her silken tone belying the storm spirit’s irritation.
“I gave you a chance to die with honor, she-devil. The Church has decreed that your life is forfeit, and that I must condemn you to Hell myself. Yet you chose to fight, rather than pray for salvation? You brought this on yourself, Saori. You never should have left your blasphemous homeland.”
With the words still hanging in the air, Edith rushed forward, charging her weapon with a jolt of holy power. Roaring in triumph as a torrent of energy raced along the sword, the knight swung her sanctified blade in a wide, cleaving arc that sent Saori backwards, her waist bending like a reed in the wind. The killing stroke whistled mere inches over the agile martial artist’s body, merely sheering off a small swatch of clothing. The knight blinked, unsure of what had just happened, which was all the opportunity the spiritual warrior required. Spinning as she ducked, she used her hands to hold herself up and lashed out with a bare foot, squarely striking Edith’s knee joint.
“Strike the Root,” Saori mumbled, ignoring the jolt of pain that accompanied kicking metal and continuing her attack. Her other foot crashed into the knight’s girdle, the flat ball of her foot crushing the heavy piece of metal into Edith’s stomach. The larger woman doubled over, the wind knocked out of her. “Strike the Base,” Saori added, in a louder tone. Still in motion, she allowed her momentum to pull her into a cartwheel, nimbly readjusting the position of her legs and pivoting on a single palm. Bringing her feet together, she whirled and pushed off with all of her divine might. Echoing an avenging angel, she screamed out with finality.
The final stroke fell as Saori’s legs slammed into Edith’s face, the sheer force of the momentum-driven kick sending the knight flying backwards, her balance lost on the wet stone. Dirt flew in all directions as the holy crusader crashed onto the flat, stone pillar, her nose shattered and her face a bloody mess. Groaning in pain, the paladin lost consciousness shortly thereafter.
“Next time, don’t bother someone who’s on vacation. I flew all the way to Europe to see the
Sunlight sparkled across the placid water of
Today, however, was quite different. Instead of the familiar, middle aged Mr. Komata, the supply truck rolled up with a woman at the wheel. As she parked, she couldn’t help but glance in the mirror, adjusting the worker’s cap that covered her silken black hair. A pony-tail hung out of the back of the hat, the tip reaching well below her shoulders. Smiling, she hopped out of the car and waved merrily at the old caretaker.
“I’m sorry, but Komata-san was feeling a bit under the weather today, so they sent me. I think I’ve got everything that was on your list, with a few extra potatoes and some shrimp too. I couldn’t get the peppers though, the shops were out. I’m sure they’ll come next time though,” the woman began with an apologetic look in her dark brown eyes.
“Thanks,” the elderly man gruffly replied, “Why don’t you get started and it all inside then?”
The unloading process was slowed, with Yoshiki being fairly demanding of the delivery girl, but each request was met with a polite smile and a curt bow. As she worked sweat began to trickle down her face, gradually streaming down her elegantly angled cheeks. Removing her hat, she wiped her brow clean with a gloved hand. It was clear from her thin frame that she wasn’t usually put into situations like this, her delicate hands better suited to acts of dexterity than physical strength.
The cranky old man never so much as lifted a finger to help, instead opting to begin sifting through the boxes and complain, but nothing seemed to perturb the young woman. After nearly an hour, she finally had the last box in her hands, a satisfied grin playing across her pale lips. When she moved to enter the open doorway of Yoshiki’s hut and drop it off, the spiteful man “unwittingly” slammed it shut. The heavy wooden door crashed into her arms, sending the already off-kilter woman falling backwards on her rear, the weighty supply carton crushed up against her tiny nose.
“O…Ohhh, OWWW,” she groaned as she pushed the container off herself, standing up dazedly. Gently the delivery girl dabbed her nose with the back of a grey work-glove, her almond shaped eyes widening at the sight of the blood that she cleaned off. With the other hand, she patted her legs and behind, brushing off the dirt from the fall.
“Whats the matter? Get that last box in here!” the old man shouted from inside, which elicited a moan in response.
“I’m trying, you mean old coot. You shut the door in my face and knocked me down.”
The woman had finally had enough, the cruel geezer finally having gotten under her skin. She tore open the door and darted past him to find a bathroom so she could clear up the blood. In her blind rush, she ended up making her way through the living area and into the main room of the shrine itself. Yoshiki growled and followed, his face a mask of rage at her sudden change in attitude. When he finally caught up to her, the spiteful man opened his mouth as if to bellow, but no words came out, as though his breath had just left him. In the center of the room the delivery girl stood, her eyes glossed over and fixated on the lonely sanctuary’s only treasure, a mirror. Moving closer, Yoshiki roughly grabbed her shoulder and tried to pull her away, but froze when he saw what was reflected in the silvery surface she was so entranced by.
The mirror’s image held her own, the same lithe girl with long, black hair, though it tumbled freely instead of being bound. The face, with its high, graceful cheekbones, pale lips, and small nose remained unchanged as well. But the mirror girl’s eyes were something more, twin pools of shining brown glass filled with wisdom and experience instead of tears. The clothing, too, was quite different. The sky-blue workman’s coveralls were replaced with a beautiful kimono, embroidered with orchids, herons, and stylized images of crows. For a long moment, both the delivery girl and Yoshiki stared into the mirror, a deafening silence filling the room.
Then, reflection moved, delicate fingers reaching out to touch the surface, stretching out from wherever they were, as though the mirror were a conduit to another world. There was a sound like breaking glass, and where once there was a delivery girl and the reflection, there now was only one. Coldly, the kimoni-clad woman turned to the old caretaker, who’s hands dropped to his sides instantly as he kowtowed as low as he could.
“D…d…don’t hurt me!” he blubbered, fear evident in his voice.
“I had not planned on it. Your unkindness undid a great wrong. A bloody nose is a small price to pay for my memories.”
“You’d not likely understand. Just remember, my name is Saori, and that mirror is mine. I expect it to be well cared for.”
Her opponent stood easily ten inches taller than her, and his heavily muscled frame was tensed with effort as he tried to bull-rush forward and break her guard. The thug's shaggy, matted black hair hung loose, and his equally scruffy clothes were shredded, blood running in streams down his sides, pooling at his feet. His enormous lips, pierced in a dozen places, flapped angrily as he vented his fury in a torrent of foul language.
"Fuck you, you stupid bitch. How the fuck was I supposed to know you were here? I'm gonna rip out your heart when I get ahold of you!"
Saori slid her blade down his, the rough forged iron of his weapon shrieking as a sliver of it peeled off, while the smaller fighter skipped back a few paces, readying for another savage attack from the big man. Daigotsu's ugly teeth cleaned in the late afternoon light, each filed to razor sharp points, while his black eyes smoldered with barely restraint hatred. They'd been doing this dance for nearly six hundred years, every reincarnation locked in an endless cycle of strife with the other.
In this lifetime, the hateful oni champion had been reborn in the body of a singularly massive man, a human standing just shy of seven feet tall. She'd finally gotten wind of his reincarnation when he'd stolen a thousand year old sword from an order of monks dwelling in the wilds of Hokkaido, and had immediately set out to send him back to hell where he belonged.
"I don't think so, asshole. Its been five-hundred years since you managed to get the drop on me, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let you do it again," she growled back, switching one foot into a more aggressive posture and leaping forward like a hawk.
The ogre-like man charged at the exact same moment, swinging his weapon down in a brutal, downward arc that would have cleaved Saori in two if she'd followed through with her strike. This was exactly what she'd been counting on, as a split second before the point of no return the divine warrior whipped sideways, raking her blade across Daigotsu's exposed shoulder. The razor-sharp weapon sheered through flesh and bone, severing the oni's arm cleanly.
"F...f...fUUCK YOU!" Daigotsu howled as he sank to his knees, clutching the stump.
"And now, its over. I denounce you, Daigotsu. For the agony you caused me five hundred years ago, I declare you an enemy of Heaven. For all the lives you have taken, I judge you guilty. And with the spirits of this land as my witness, I curse you to the blackest depths of Hell."
And with that, Saori ended it with a single, arcing strike. Electricity sparkled along her blade as it tore through his neck, cauterizing as it did so. She finished with a flick of her blade, sending a spray of dark oni-blood onto the forest floor. Reverently, she returned the weapon to its sheathe, delicate fingers readjusting the black obi she wore, compensating for the additional weight. Wiping her brow with the sleeve of her black and red hakama, she looked down at the stain. Blood mingled with sweat, soaking into the heavy cloth. This time was close, much closer than last, he'd managed to graze her several times. Still, feeling somewhat accomplished, the Daughter of Wind and Rain began to make her way back to her car. Her eternal foe was vanquished for another lifetime, and despite the difficulty in tracking him into the Hokkaido wilderness, the fight had been surprisingly short.
As she left the clearing, she paused. Sounds were coming from the corpse. Could he be alive, even without a head? Clutching the hilt of her weapon, she darted back to investigate. Her eyes widened as she heard a voice coming from...somewhere. It was singing...and there was music. Cautiously, Saori reached out to touch the body, trying to locate the source of the sound. Finally, she found it. A small, black cell-phone, blaring some sort of R&B ringtone.
Mildly amused, the woman snorted and dropped it, leaving both the corpse and the phone for the wolves, but something about that tune remained with Saori all the way back to Kyushu. Whenever there was dead air on the radio station, she found herself humming...
" I see you driving 'round town, With the girl I love and I'm like, Fuck you! Oo, oo, ooo"
Blankly, the divine champion’s eyes fixated on the landscape, as several more massive cloudbanks further darkened the world, blotting out even the moon. Below the clouds and central to her vision were the ancient trees surrounding the temple complex stoically accepted the downpour. No electrical lights, car horns, or other modern nuisances spoiled the scene, the sheer wildness of the place she dwelled was positively overwhelming. It was peaceful here, like stepping back five hundred years, when this area had been more than a park and place for teenagers to hide out and smoke. That at least had stopped the moment Saori had taken up residence in the sanctuary.
High in the rafters, Samjeok quorked and ruffled his feathers in the dim light cast by the candles burning along the fringes of the room. The crow’s head twitched slightly as a bolt of lightning slashed through the twilight, illuminating the exterior of the grounds. Saori’s sharp eyes narrowed as she spotted something moving through the torii arch and into the sanctified space. A small fox slinked its way across the complex, unaware that something not entirely natural was observing it. Cautiously, the animal skulked around the edges of the light coming from her candles, hopping boldly onto the covered porch of the shrine to escape the rain.
Saori was not fond of foxes, finding the earthbound canines to be not unlike their kitsune brothers, cunning and untrustworthy. As the creature grew even braver, perhaps thinking the lit room to be empty, it peeked it’s snout around the corner, testing the air before peering around the edges. When its sharp, yellow eyes met with hers, the fox let out a terrified yelp but didn’t move. Saori’s own eyes, almond-shaped pools of shimmering brown, shone coldly in the firelight.
“No. You may not cross that doorway,” she stated flatly, in a tone that indicated he’d regret it if he did.
Whining slightly, the animal inclined its head and stretched out on the porch, out of the rain but far enough away from her to indicate its deference to her command. The divine champion closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, taking in what she could of the fox. She sensed fear, awe, and respect, as well as a feeling of satisfaction. It was glad, it seemed to be out of the rain, but in awe of her. High above them both, Samjeok fluttered his wings once more, chirping smugly at the canine.
“Now now, the only reason I put up with you is because I can’t get rid of you,” Saori reprimanded the self-important crow. She wouldn’t turn the fox away, as all creatures deserved the chance to sit under a wooden roof in a summer storm, even nasty things like foxes. Perhaps it would look back on the experience of sharing a summer’s night with a storm-god, and remember her kindness. Or perhaps it would be one of the next little problems she had to deal with, a mad fox with a grudge against her. In this modern era, who could know anymore…
As she trudged on through the snow, her blue and white robe shifting in the chilly winter air, Saori silently wished that she'd been granted dominion over more than just rain and thunderstorms. She absolutely hated how she could pass through a torrential downpour completely dry, but even a hint of snow and she'd be soaked through. Perhaps it was all a nasty prank from the winter gods that ruled this sleepy stretch of backcountry, but in the modern age even they didn't have as much power as they had once held. Could they even command the elements as they had in times long past, or had science and reason encroached so far that there was no mystery left to winter in the mountains?
With several kilometers still ahead, Saori pulled her hood even more tightly over her head, small hands clutching at the sky-blue fabric. Covered in snow as she was, it was nearly impossible to note the herons lovingly embroidered all over the kimono, but the black crows that spotted it were even more plain. High above, feet clutching a telephone wire sat Samjeok, the enormous corvid that followed her wherever she went. The creature watched, cawwing merrily at its mistresses discomfort but never leaving its lofty hideaway. Had it been another time of year, he wouldn't have dared, but she was nearly powerless in this dreary winter, a fact the wicked bird was unlikely to forget.
"You know, there are times when I REALLY don't like you," she mumbled, only to receive a peculiarly loud squawk from Samjeok.
Up ahead, a truck loomed in the distance, its massive tires festooned with chains to allow it to move through the snow. The enormous metal monster roared past, spraying up muck and grime and coating the hem of Saori's robe. Snarling, she twirled and shook a fist at the driver, sparks crackling along her fingertips. The energy couldn't go far in this weather though, so she dismissed it with a grumble. Times were tough, and winter was the worst time of all.
"Asshole" was all she could think to say as she continued tromping down the road.
It twisted and turned, weaving its way through the sleepy village where she resided. The streets in front of the main shops were clear enough, the owners salting the sidewalks so that they could maybe get some business. Everybody suffered in winter, and as time went on, these little rural hamlets were the hardest hit. Tourism ground to a halt, and the locals barely left their homes, so most of the shops closed in the winter, with the majority of shopping being done at convenience stores and small, family markets. And high above it all loomed Mount Haguro, with its thousand year old shrine and massive temple complex. "Black Feather Mountain" as Westerners knew it had long remained an isolated locus of spiritual power, with few outsiders coming near until Saori had adopted it as a home. Her status as a divine champion had revitalized the area, bringing in pilgrims, New Agers, and even the odd occultist or hedge mage.
Quietly, she trudged onward until at last she stood before the massive torii gate that marked the entrance to the main complex. Resting atop the arch was Samjeok, his black, beady eyes narrowed down at her. Quorking merrily, he fluttered his wings and gave her as smug a look as a crow possibly could give.
"Quiet you," was all Saori could think to say as she slid open the wooden gate, opening the temple for another sleepy winter day.
"No I didn't, Grandpa. Why do you ask?"
"Daiki Kubo made the paper again. You know, that boy you used to go to school with? I never liked that boy, you know? He was nothing but trouble."
Saori sighed heavily, already knowing where this was going. Her long, dark hair swished as she turned to walk off, hopefully ending the lecture before it started. Whenever someone she went to school with came up in conversation, the old man would always rant and rave about how stupid it was of her parents to send her to that public high school instead of a respectable private one. The old man had been a teacher for almost forty years at St. Michael's Catholic School for Girls in Shinjuku, and he was very set in his ways regarding education.
"Bah, waste of space, that school of yours. Seriously, go check out the paper and see what they are saying about that rat Kubo," he went on, regardless of the fact that his granddaughter was ignoring him.
Flippantly waving one hand over her shoulder, Saori made her way into the next room and flopped down lazily into the recliner, staring blankly at the television which had been left on the local news station. Hazily, she felt around for the remote control, her hand scrabbling on the table next to the chair. Finding nothing, her fingers began probing into the seat cushions, her delicate digits sifting through the accumulated dust to no avail.
"Dammit, where did that thing go?" Saori mumbled, looking around the room. Groaning, she sank lower in the chair, looking for something, anything, to keep her distracted from the newspaper that was sitting on the table. She knew what had happened last night, and didn't want to read about it. But there the paper sat, just taunting her until finally she leaned over and snatched it. Tearing it open, she thumbed through until she found the article Grandfather had talked about. The more she tried to avoid reading it, the faster her eyes moved along the page.
"Dammit Daiki. How could you be so stupid?"