Description: A long trip in search of an ally, or at least information, hits a difficult wall in the form of a mysterious Preceptor and reclusive Order. In her ambitions concerning the violent beast Ayame set loose, time is of the essence.
Massachusetts countryside, 47 miles outside of Salem, 2:41 PM.
There is a certain dark beauty in the untamed forests of America. Within these primal landscapes, unsullied by glass and concrete, landmarks of a dying people can be found. Structures of crumbling brick and grey stone. Hard structures, bleak as the souls of those who built them. Monuments representing a people who can be seen only vaguely in the shallow descendants that trod on their graves, cell phones in hand, concerns made petty by wealth and excess.
If one were to exit the highway west of Salem, bypassing a tall iron fence with a heavy steel padlock, they would find themselves traveling south along a patchy dirt road. Or perhaps path would be a better term for the thin, grassy trail that threads its way between the towering trunks of ancient trees. Thick roots thrust their knobby knees out of the earth, making footing treacherous for the unobservant or careless.
it is dark, the branches overhead having long since woven together into an unbroken ceiling of dark green leaves.
it is quiet. The air is heavy.
This is a place full of pain and history. Years of blood and misery have soaked into the earth, tainting the ambient chi to the point that forest creatures now avoid this area entirely. But if one were to follow this path to its end, nearly a mile and a half south into the very heart of the forest, they would find what the simple iron gate is meant to hide.
Thrusting up from the earth, its dark grey walls draped with moss and ivy, is a monastery pulled straight from the darkest age of man. Four square towers rise to heights of nearly 30 feet, capped with battlements like pocked old teeth. Etched into the upper floors of the towers are thin, dark arrow slits, while slightly curved walls stretch between their bases to form an ancient defensible position.
Set within the north wall is a black iron portcullis, currently closed, that stretches 10 feet high and 10 across. Thick spikes at the base of the gateway are driven deep into slots in the stone foundation, barring the path of any who might wish to enter.
Visible through the gate, as well as peaking over the wall, squats a square stone structure in the center of a cobblestone yard. At this distance, details are difficult to make out, for all is dark, and all is quiet. There is not even a wind to sway the branches. Only weight, and silence, and the heavy hand of time pressing down upon the shoulders of any who gaze upon this grim monument of man.
Events have made something of a world traveler of the young demon hunter as of late. From Japan to Africa to try and gain an ally in dealing with one vexing annoyance, then back to Japan. A week later, and Ayame is on another trip around the globe. It isn't her first trip to the United States, though it isn't a region she frequents often. She travels in relative comfort, enjoying Business Class accommodations on the plane and being driven in a sleek black sedan from the airport out to the point of interest along the road.
There is no address placard here, no mailbox with a number on it, no sign that says that this is the place. But she's done her homework, studied the landscape on google maps, and when she sees the gate she knows this is the place. Exiting the vehicle, pauses to pull a wooden staff out of the back seat after her. A small suitcase is drawn over her left shoulder before she stands up straight and waves the vehicle on. The lone huntress doesn't look the role this afternoon. Except for the wooden staff that she sheathes along her back, she appears innocuous enough. A long sleeved, white button up blouse with a crimson neck tie is worn beneath a black blazer left unbuttoned as to hang open. The shirt is tucked into a knee length pleated skirt at her waist and her feet are concealed beneath white stockings and black buckled shoes. She hardly looks the exotic traditionalist those familiar with her in Japan might recognize as she looks at the tall iron fence quietly, her ride vanishing into the horizon along the road.
Her hair is worn long, straight as always, a crimson ribbon tied into a large bow at the back of her head. Glancing up and down the lengths of the road, she sighs softly, stepping forward to slide her suitcase through the fence. Waiting for a moment, ears listening for the sound of approaching traffic, she sucks in her breath and grips the fence tightly, pulling herself up along one of the bars with ease. A flip up and over the top once she is high enough serves to get her into the fenced off grounds from where her quiet journey alone truly begins.
No stranger to old forests, she walks slowly along the visible route. Most of this area was concealed on the satellite images beneath an impenetrable blanket of thick trees which means now that she's here, other than knowing the approximate direction of the building, the quiet wanderer doesn't know what to expect on the ground. The sense here is different than the forest around her home in Japan, the blood shed more recent than the ancient wars of the Sengoku Era that covered her island nation in death centuries ago.
She moves with purpose but without hurry, ears and eyes sharp, her guard never relaxed. It doesn't take long for the path to bring her to the point of interest and as she reaches the border of the clearing, the girl in white, black, and red comes to a stop to gaze upon its old walls. The architecture is impressive as it is dated, but she knows something of old buildings considering her home. Some places seem to survive the test of time simply due to sheer stubbornness.
Dark brown eyes look throughout the clearing, seeking signs of life but finding none. There is, she supposes, a chance that the order is extinct. Whatever calamity created the monstrosity that brings her here today could have been the end of them. It would be unfortunate... the world needs people like this to fight the good fight. The structure is clearly designed to withstand a siege - a strange concept to most in this modern America, no doubt. Well, no point in loitering around, she decides, moving closer to the gothic structure and approaching the closed portcullis, her suitcase clasped in front of her with both hands.
She will wait patiently at first, knowing full well if the order still exists, no one could possibly approach this gate without being noticed. But if she's left to wait too long, she will raise her voice, calling out with 'Hello?' to see if that gets anywhere. And if she really has to start getting annoying to bring someone out, she will give the old gate a solid thwack with her staff to send a loud, resounding bang throughout the somber environment. The traveler is willing to wake the dead to get the answers she seeks.
Even when standing beneath the shadow of the walls, the trees surrounding the ancient stone structure seem to dominate the area. Much taller, and much older than the monument of man, they demand respect, bowing not to the will of the creation in their midst. It is hard not to feel small in comparison, but if Ayame Ichijo lacked will, she would not be here.
There is very little waiting to be done. Mere moments after Ayame's buckled shoe sets foot upon the foundation stones at the base of the gate, a flicker of movement can be seen beyond the thick bars of the portcullis. A faint shift of shadows, that resolves itself into the figure of a man.
The hunter, for he could be nothing else, stands at roughly 5'8, with the thick, compacted musculature of a jaguar. His hair is pitch black and military short, complementing his dark brown skin. He could have once been a handsome man. However, His eyes have sunk deep in their sockets, making it impossible to gauge their color. Equally sunken are his stubbled cheeks, causing his strong jaw and roman nose to appear far too pronounced.
His apparent malnourishment matches that of the last brother the priestess met. It seems that not all of Benedict's ailments were caused by his monstrous transformation, for this man too shares his look. Over lean, aggressive, as if he were a dog that had been kicked too often and fed not enough.
His uniform is also familiar to the Miko. A long black greatcoat of wool and leather, worn over black shirt, belt, jeans, and boots. Black gloves cover his hands, and a gleaming silver chain has been wrapped many times about his left forearm. Crossed bandoliers of throwing knives X his muscular chest, and he carries a huge oak-handled halberd in both hands, the broad blade at its end made from hammered iron.
The brother's steps are slow and measured, his weapon swaying gently two and fro as he makes his way across the dimly lit courtyard. He looks like nothing more than an executioner, dressed in black and weapon ready, though he has no mask with which to hide his sins.
When he is still 15 feet out, the brawny hunter plants both feet and swings his enormous weapon into a horizontal grip, handling it as if it weighed less than Ayame's own staff. There he stands, his posture one of barring, though the gate between them makes it symbolic only.
"I am Preceptor Francis, of the Brotherhood of the Silver Lash," states the man, his deep voice little more than a murmur. His quiet words do not carry well across the divide distance, even with his surroundings being stone. "State your business quickly, lest I take offence to your intrusion."
Yet more eyes can be felt upon the young huntress's skin. Gazes hidden in the towers. concealed in the trees. There is only silence from the forest, but one knows when they are being hunted, and the Brotherhood never hunts alone.
She stands patiently as the first sign of life approaches with no evidence of haste. He looks worn, tired, but not defeated, and every bit as much as she feels herself being studied, she would observe with an astute level of awareness. Her staff remains sheathed at her back, longer than she is tall, it sports a nice angle as to avoid dragging along the ground or rising overly far over the height of her head. The air is still here, as if it hasn't been displaced in an age or two, and the sounds are muted, denying her some of the awareness her sharp senses would typically provide.
But she knows there are more than herself and the lone visible figure present even though she makes no point to cast her gaze anywhere besides the man she can see. Leaning forward, her hands still gripping her suitcase, she bows from the other side of the gate before shifting upright, her back completely straight. Opposed to the man who greets her, she is young, alive, unweathered, unscarred.
But the eyes of a Preceptor would know better than to dismiss her innocent visage - it is a youthful warrior that stands before him. While the wooden weapon at her back is the only visible weapon, the tinniest hints of energy would be detected along her arms, concealed by her blouse and jacket. She half-smiles back with only one side of her mouth creating the expression, and while it is far from hostile, the ascetic miko's smiles still somehow come across cold and aloof.
The moment fades, her face becoming neutral, her eyes closing briefly as if rehearsing something she had prepared for this moment. "Preceptor Francis," she speaks up. Her English is flawless and her accent would sound right at home in the United States. "I do apologize for the disturbance." she continues, even if one gets the impression that the apology is only a formality and perhaps not sincerely felt.
"My name is Ayame Ichijo." She continues after a slight pause. "I come to the Brotherhood of the Silver Lash from my home in Japan to discuss a very... urgent matter." She pauses again, eyes flicking to the side, as if considering another thought, before the girl's focus snaps back and she continues. "The matter may be one best discussed in private." Whether the organization as a whole knows what happened, she isn't sure. But certainly the Preceptor would, she thinks.
"If you require that I say more, I will certainly do so, but either way, I request a moment of your time. I hope that we can aid each other, even if just a little."
"Japan," the dark man murmurs, "lies far beyond our boundaries. It is not a land we hunt."
Where Ayame's accent is clean and modern, Francis's whispered English is blatantly archaic. He does not quite begin to openly speak Old English, but there is an odd quirk to his cadence. It is not the lilt of Hollywood English, far from it. His accent is much blunter. Far less refined.
The preceptor's shadowed eyes observe the youthful girl while his face remains set, lips pressed into an unreadable line. He does not twitch, nor does he shift his weight. Surely his arms must be tired, holding that great unbalanced weapon off to the side, but there are no signs of strain.
He is the lure.
The stillness, the ready posture, it is a distraction. Something to draw the curious girl's eyes and keep them focused upon him, banking on her attempting to read him. For while he is staring her down, two grey-coated shadows with lank black hair slither silently down the trunks of the trees flanking the path behind her.
Their boots kiss the grass with the softest of sounds, wickedly curved hunting knives hissing from sheathes as they move forward and apart. In moments they have slinked into position, 10 feet behind and to either side of the girl. They do not strike, but they are certainly in range to do so. And there they plan to stay, slinking first one way, then the other. Pacing like restless animals, the dim light reflecting off of their chain wrapped arms and gleaming silver blades.
For moments, there is silence. Tense silence during which Ayame may consider her situation, or in act one of many plans she has no doubt prepared for just this situation. But the grey-clad hunters, their pale faces sharp and sunken, do not attack. They are a warning. An immediate threat to drive home just how badly she may have misjudged the disposition of these hollow-eyed men.
"Speak, as if these are your final words, Ayame Ichijo." Francis does not lift his voice above a weak whisper, though it does not seem like a dramatic affectation. Everything about the dark-skinned figure seems grim.
How perfectly these men match the building in which they live. Spartan, humorless, and deathly serious. There is no true ceremony here. None of the warmth and tradition so familiar to the Japanese. These are not proud hunters, they are attack dogs. Poorly leashed, but well trained.
But, something is off. In none of the records were the Brothers said to be this aggressive. Terse, perhaps. Oddly quiet, and prone to hermitism, yes. But never has it been documented that to approach them respectfully would end in ambush.
"I do not normally expect it to be your concern." she replies regarding the distant land from which she ventured. "But it is mine."
The surrounded girl does not glance directly behind her, though her face turns to the side briefly, placing the other two by sound, but not turning around to look. Eyes close briefly before she faces forward once more, bending at the waist to place her suitcase on the ground then standing perfectly straight, her hands folded in front of her.
The demand and threat is made, men in position to carry out on it, but the Miko from Afar looks unaffected for the moment, her expression neutral, her face a mask concealing the thoughts that must certainly be racing through her head at this newfound threat. "Hmph," is her initial response, and she says nothing else for long enough that it almost begins to beg the question as to whether she intends to answer at all.
"One of your own has fallen to depravity." she finally states, facing the Preceptor still, keeping track of the other two only by the sounds they make. "A wretched shell of the hunter he once was, he tears a path of carnage wherever he goes, and leaves trails of blood in his wake." She frowns, her tone taking on a bit of a harder edge, "His blood lust brought him to my land, my home."
Finally, she looks over her shoulder, fixing the other two in their pacing, studying them briefly before she continues, slowly looking forward again, "If you men-" There is a special emphasis on 'men', as if to call their humanity into question. "-have any shred of honor and self-respect, you will help me understand the Living Cursed that now walks my land unabated."
She frowns, "If not, then we have no further business to discuss, and I will be on my way." The presumptuous girl seems to speak as if all the choice is in her own hands. The building is much of what she had expected, the severe men... actually not too far from what she expected, even if the welcoming is colder than anticipated, though she can understand it to some extent. In her land, demon hunters are valued members of society - high priests, monks, elders, adepts... positions of honor, prestige, and respect.
But in America, perhaps things are not the same. She is not unfamiliar with the history of Salem, considered a black stain on the tapestry of this country's history. Are those that fight the shadow wars so maligned here? These men, hidden away as if a disease, rotting out of sight from the rest of their civilization.
"We need not be at odds." she finally states, her last attempt to mollify the intense reception.
Throughout the young huntress's measured response, the ghostly men remain poised, hovering about her with barely contained energy. It seems that her 'last words' hold very little interest to them, right up to the point she questions their honor. At the mention of such wispy concepts, the ghost behind her left shoulder draws his thin lips back from his teeth in a feral smirk.
The barest twitch of Francis's dark lips shows his own amusement at the presumptions of the east, but he remains otherwise stoic, allowing her to finish her mild diatribe.
"You come to us too late, Ayame Ichijo." Francis replies in a low whisper, the deep shadows before his eyes giving him a skull-like stare that never seems to blink. "The blood starved beast that haunts your lands, endures only due to your sufferance. Bathe your merciful hands in the rich blood of your countrymen. You have earned it."
The black-clad man's words, while soft, are targeted and cruel. Wielding language like a blade, his intent is clearly to drive it into her guts and twist. To shove her face into her own failures with harsh indifference.
"Benedict Scorpium, the fallen brother."
Stepping forward, Francis swings his heavy polarm into an upright position, its massive blade cleaving the air with an audible 'wwwhoooof.'
"Perhaps once, we would have guessed what it is he has become. But time has passed, and we can no longer say with certainty what manner of beast he is. He was taken by our enemies, experimented upon, and made into the creature you have seen. Within him was combined the blood of many beasts. Vampire and Lycanthrope chief among these. But more. Things unknown to us, though not of this world."
The whispered explanation is punctuated by the soft footfalls of his steady approach, his muscular form looming ever closer out of the dark. And with his closeness, Ayame is afforded her first clear glimpse into his eyes.
Where there should be flesh, there are empty pits. Each barren socket is surrounded by a ragged circle of tattered skin, as whatever took the man's sight did so violently, and without care to preserve their lids.
Stopping only an arm's length through the dark iron bars of the gate, the blind preceptor slams the butt of his massive weapon to the ground between his booted feet. His sightless sockets stare past the shaft into Ayame's young face, while the knife-wielding hunters behind her shift restlessly on their feet.
"Tell me, young Ichijo," Francis whispers, "What is it that You think he is?"
If she notices the reactions her words are provoking, she shows no signs of it, nor does she alter her pitch or hesitate to state what she has in mind. But when the Preceptor speaks, she remains quiet, blinking once at his statement that she has come too late. But when he directly calls out her mercy having let the beast roam longer, Ayame's neutral expression finally breaks, the young miko recoiling slightly, eyes widening. "H-how could you possibly know-" she stammers, completely caught off guard for one of the very few times in her life. She glances behind her again then once more toward the wraith beyond the gate.
Gritting her teeth, her hands unclasp from in front of her to clench at her sides, her calm demeanor shaken by the clear advantage the old man has her at in terms of what she expected him to already know. "I tried to save him." she growls, cheeks a bit red now, her voice lowered just a little. "It is the least any respected hunter in such a situation deserves. We cannot cast aside our own lightly... for every one of us, there are hundreds of them in the dark places of the world. I make no apology for the attempt."
She sucks in her breath and holds it, as if trying to mentally count to ten before she loses her temper outright. The slow exhale that follows perhaps helps a little. "That was the name, yes." she murmurs, her tone more subdued now, falling quiet as he continues, approaching her with seemingly no hurry. He fills her in on what was done to the one named Benedict... and more importantly, by whom. A victim of experiments... infected with their corrupt blood. Then it isn't just a curse afflicted by ritual or spell. His very nature was altered. He only has the semblance of a man now.
She looks up into the old soldier's empty eyes, her jaw still set, mouth curled into a faint frown, still vexed at how he gained insight over her previous encounters with the bloodthirsty beast. He would know she was studying him even closer then, wondering at capabilities of the scarred one - what does he really see? There is no evidence of chi shaping, no presence of ritual she is familiar with. How then did he divine what she had already gone through?
He poses the question and her answer comes without hesitation.
"A problem to be solved."
Then he was created... the thought that somewhere, such a process exists... anyone could be subjected to it. To be one of these brothers in life, he would not have been weak. She had seen glimpses of his skill in their skirmish in the dark.
"The ones that did this... do they still exist? Is their dark craft still a threat?"
"Thine tongue flaps in useless gesture." Francis murmurs grimly, bluntly brushing aside Ayame's non response to his question. His grim features remain set and dark, hollow sockets fixed sightlessly upon her youthful face. There is no joy at striking a tender spot in her guard. NO triumph.
The grey hunters behind her shift, beginning to pull back toward the trees. it takes them very little time to lose themselves among the oppressive shadows that wait between the towering trunks. Soon, it is only Francis, and his guest.
"All known conspirators are dead." Whispers the preceptor. He stands tall, but remains quiet as a wraith, appearing to loom behind the gloomy bars before her despite his relative lack of height. "Those unknown, live."
There is a moment in which the grim commander is silent. Standing with his massive weapon braced before him, dark skin blending well with the dim light, he could be a statue. A coated warrior pulled from some horrific fantasy. But no. Alas, he is far too real.
"Soon, our fallen brother will join them. We will feed him to the fire, and put an end to his torment."
Muscles flex beneath Francis's black coat as he lifts his heavy polarm from the ground, tilting it deftly into a ready position. But rather than ram the vicious instrument through the bars, to impale the intruder and put an end to her presence, he turns. With soft, measured footfalls he begins to march off back into the gloom, returning to whatever hole from wince he came. But over his shoulder, the quiet murmur of his voice can be heard.
"The stench of demon hangs about you. You have failed in your duties as a slayer. Be gone."
"You are not welcome here."
She notices the other two slipping off. Well, at least the chances of getting stabbed in the back have gone down significantly. Her hands immediately feel less of the twitchy urge to reach for her staff, however well she managed to conceal the inclination throughout the exchange. She smirks faintly as her answer provokes another insult though the expression fades soon enough as he at least tells her what there is to know of the menagerie of monsters that inflicted one of the Brothers with the most ignoble of fates.
The thought that there might yet still exist those with the knowledge to recreate the vile experiment is unsettling. The Preceptor utters the impending fate for Benedict Scorpium, the judgment and pending execution hardly coming across as a surprise. "I see." she answers, her voice soft, not challenging the sentence declared for one of their own.
The intruding priestess doesn't flinch when the blade moves but that isn't to suggest she lets down her guard. Slowly, the old keeper turns, dismissing the miko with one further verbal stab. The girl's mouth twitches, hands clenching at her sides into small fists. But it is not the challenge of her derelict duties that provokes her now.
"Then you will not even try..." she snaps, her tone acerbic now that all pretense of polite discourse has been already been abandoned. "The ties of your brotherhood... are they so delicate that no effort will be made to reverse what was done?" She leans forward, "To kill him is easy enough. Did you..." She's glowering now, temper rising, a more hot blooded personality than the dispassionate huntress had presented at first coming to the surface. "...think that I left my home and came here to exchange such banal words just so I could figure out how to end his existence?!"
She leans forward, gripping her suitcase with both hands, before standing up straight and holding it in front of her thighs. "Is it that you do not care enough to try, or that you do not know /how/ and are too proud to try and learn?" She has no compunctions speaking to the Preceptor's back even as he demonstrates no further interest in dealing with her. "He is not the first to fall to a curse in the history of the world." Ayame finally takes a step back from the gate. "Tch. Provided you do not kill him too quickly, hurried on by the zeal of stung pride, /I/ will figure out how to expunge the anathema of his blood on my own."
The steady pace of Preceptor Francis's retreat does not abate. With each somber step, his outline grows less distinct, black coat blurring into the shadows cast by the crumbling stone walls of his fortress.
Surely it must have pained him to lose a brother. If nothing else, these half feral men know the value of the pack. Benedict was a wearer of the black. One of only three in their order allowed to do so. Francis must have known him well. But none of that shows through in the blind man's soft, dispassionate response.
"We do not concern ourselves with the thoughts of fools. Let the consequences of your actions speak for us."
The quiet scrapes of the guardian's footsteps are consumed by the heavy silence of the courtyard. Soon, It is only Ayame, seemingly alone before the gate of the forgotten monastery. Home to a sect of hunters cut off from the world, apparently lost to the shadows they have strove so hard to vanquish.
But still can be felt there eyes. The weighted gazes of sentinels, studying the young girl who has so brazenly approached their lare. And beyond them, above even the hidden eyes of the hunters, remains the ominous presence of the forest itself. Dark, and full of suffering. A truly unhealthy place to live.
Ayame's final sentence is spoken into the emptiness left in the wake of the preceptor. Perhaps they do not know how to save him . Perhaps they do not care.
The Brotherhood of the Silver Lash have always been a laconic bunch. Having originally carried out their duties with a certain stoic faith, trusting in god to see them through their missions, it is easy to see how far from their origins they have come. With nothing to preserve their spirits, the decades have leeched the light from them, molding them into creatures of the night. Savage men who prey upon evil, distinguishable from those they hunt only by their choice of targets. And when one falls. When a brother is finally pushed across the line to become a monster, they must respond with violence.
For if monsters can be made good, what is it they have become?
She lingers for a moment after falling silent, staring through the gate, knowing full well she is on hostile territory, an unwelcome disturbance in what must be a continuously dreary existence. Slowly, she breaths deeply then exhales softly, eyes half closing as she contemplates everything she had seen an heard in this dark corner of Massachusetts.
"So be it."
Finally, she turns, eyes raising slightly to scan the canopy of the old forest as she begins to stride away from the gothic structure. No wonder one of them ended up victim to such a fate, she can't help but wonder. They're already halfway there. What could the Brotherhood possibly be fighting for - when the sentinels become as fallen as the night creatures, the lines become such a blur.
She will leave back the way she came, following the path, vaulting the iron fence with the ease she trespassed less than half an hour ago. A ride, another flight home, and plenty of time to reflect on the decaying Order she had found awaits her now, their severe reticence just one more part of the puzzle surrounding the mysterious beast.
It seems if she is to succeed in her own ambition, a race against the pack hunters must be won.
Log created on 22:42:40 07/26/2016 by Ayame, and last modified on 01:29:20 07/29/2016.