Description: Seeking answers for the inexplicable, Aya Hazuki turns to the lonely Ichijo priestess of the Meian Jinja for her expert analysis. But it appears that it may not have been entirely her choice in the first place as fate brings the haunted swordswoman to the most qualified individual alive to know exactly what is going on... and why.
Located miles outside of Southtown, the Meian Jinja is hardly the hub of activity it was once upon a time. Where once hundreds of people would visit per day to walk the trails surrounding it or pay homage to the sacred sanctuaries within its mighty structure, now only a trickle wander by day to day. Miles outside of Southtown, the shrine draws a fraction of the tourism that the more easily accessible historical sites within the city receive. But it is not without its own patrons, those who appreciate the remote site or who always come this way by force of tradition rather than convenience.
There was a time when the Ichijo family was called upon by dignitaries and rulers alike, as shoguns and emperors would turn to them for aid in the gravest of supernatural matters or to seek the guidance of the gods through divination and prayer. But in this modern age, when stories of hauntings and demonic threats struggle for credibility, the demand for action from the lineage of powerful holy warriors has certainly waned, much to one single-minded scion's chagrin.
By evening, what little activity persists during the day has died down. Maintenance not yet completed can wait until tomorrow, prayers unsaid can be whispered beneath one's breath on the long walk back to the parking lot. The trail out is only lit halfway, with the second half winding through a thick bamboo forest, so it is common for those who do not spend the night within the walls of the compound to leave at the first hint of sunset.
Still, even with the blue sky yielding to gold, the gates are open, and one will find ancient stone lanterns through the sakura grove outside the walls lit to illuminate the stone path leading up to the gates that remain open at all hours. The courtyard has additional lanterns that have been lit, allowing one free reign to move about though the shrine attendants that would normally be milling about during the day are no where to be found. Only the gate to the inner courtyard where the main shrine itself sits would be closed off for the night. One might get the impression that this shrine was built more like a fortress with all the walls surrounding it compared to many of the more open layouts found in other historical sites.
To the right of the gate would be a long, low building against the wall that would be easily recognized as the housing for those who make the shrine their home. Lights would be visible through rice paper doors and opened windows, and some sounds of chatter as a few gather for a meal or to catch up on each other's day.
To the left of the gate is another small opening in the wall that allows access to the enclosed gardens. Someone clearly appears to still be out and about that way, as the occasional sound of a stringed instrument being tested echoes from that direction. Stepping into the gardens of the Meian Jinja, one would find far fewer lit lanterns, allowing the long shadows created by the setting sun to cast most of the verdant, well tended landscape to be cast in darkness. The enclosure is large, encompassing rock gardens, arranged flower planters, a stream, countless trees, some fruit bearing, a vineyard. Toward the center of it is a large koi pond surrounded by small rocks, soft grass, and a few larger, smooth rocks that can make for convenient seats. A wooden footbridge spans the pond and on a small island in the middle of it, a small wooden gazebo with benches within it allows one a three-sixty view of the garden from its center-most part.
Hanging from the roof of the gazebo is a flickering lantern. Beneath it, kneeling next to one of the benches, appears to be one of the resident mikos of the Meian Jinja, dressed in the iconic whites and crimsons of her station. Nestled against her legs, held up by her left hand, is a large wooden lute. The strums that occasionally interrupt the still night are coming from her. From the way she keeps repeating the same few notes with slight variations in pitch and cadence makes it appear as if she is trying to sound something out, her faint frown formed either by concentration or frustration at the inability to conjure the exact notes she is trying to call forth from the instrument.
At first, she considered wearing the kimono.
The complexity of ceremonial dress in east Asian culture is as much to do with ostentation as it is about literal wealth. The more voluminous your outfit, the more it reflected your ability to buy greater and more expensive cloth, for example. But there is also something about the kimono as a garment that suggests respect... perhaps because they are legendarily difficult to walk or move in if you're observing protocol.
When Aya Hazuki planned this out, she thought perhaps that a traditional kimono -- of which she owned plenty -- would be a worthwhile show of respect, but in the end, she decided not to wear one after all. Better, she surmised, that whoever might greet her when she arrived to see things as they are. Like everything about the past few years, Aya's choice in wardrobe is suspect in her own eyes. What decisions were hers? And which were... well...
The presence of her sword, however, is not up for debate. It goes with her, wherever she goes. Perhaps the last of her mannerisms that she knows, without question, is 'hers'.
The trip to Meian Shrine from Kyoto by shinkansen is only a few hours long, but even still, by the time Aya reaches the city, gets directions, and actually travels to the location, it's well into the reaches of sunset, the summer night fast approaching. It certainly gives her time to read, collect her thoughts, and think about what she's doing.
In feudal Japan, the onmyouji -- workers of spirits and sorceries -- were favored among the ruling class, treated with great respect for their apparent ability to alter the fortunes of man, read phenomena, and most importantly, to banish and control hostile spirits. Aya's ancestors, meanwhile, were renowned for something entirely different and not nearly so spiritual; assassins for the Tokugawa, descendants of Yagyu Jubei himself. But both families have something in common: once the modern age of science and firearms came to Japan, the need for both of their services waned, and with them the prestige they once enjoyed.
As Aya approaches the shrine, feeling oddly calmed by the pastoral setting, she can only hope that the Ichijo clan's reputation and history are not exaggerations.
It is some time before she finally happens upon someone; or rather, before she hears the distant plucking of lute strings and decides to follow it, finally happening upon a priestess who happens to be pla--
'I do not know if what we are about to do will work for someone in your... circumstances. But I believe a world where these extremes continue to exist... will still need someone like you.'
The sudden burst of pain is almost blinding, whiting out her vision. If Ayame looks up in that key brief moment of vulnerability, what she finds is a strange woman, teeth clenched, hand to her forehead, staring vacantly toward the ground.
In an instant, it passes.
When she's regained herself, Aya finally looks at the priestess, regardless of if eyes are already on her or not, and says a simple: "Good evening."
Another strum, another long pause. Her eyes are searching yet focused on nothing, her face slightly bowed, her mouth still forming a faint frown, as if trying to recall something from the past. She tries the note again only for her right hand to clench, arm trembling, eyes closing, betraying a level of exasperation that seems at odds with the tranquil place and her calm posture.
The garden itself is so idyllic it might have come straight out of a painting. Rabbits hop around nearby grassy patches, ears twitching as they take notice of Aya's approach. The stream alongside the path chortles over stones worn smooth by decades worth of flowing water. Occasionally a fish in the pond creates a soft splash, exploring the surface over the still water and leaving ripples in its wake.
By the time the new arrival is able to greet her, the miko's eyes are already on her - whether she was watching her through the brief flash of disorienting agony or only just then took notice of her would be hard to say with certainty. Either way, the woman's greeting is met with abject silence at first, as the younger denizen of the shrine just stares at her like she hadn't heard her speak.
Finally the girl blinks as if finally becoming aware again. A second blink before she suddenly shoots up to her feet with a swish of cloth and a loud clattering as the lute is dropped unceremoniously on the floor of the gazebo.
Her voice is soft, the girl looking visibly spooked. Was she that lost in concentration?!
Another half-choked word before the girl seems to freeze, catching herself as she looks to the side, eyes closing, less than half a second passing before she looks back at the swordswoman. In that instant, everything concerning her demeanor, her outward surprise, her startled words, has vanished. Her left hand lifting over her mouth in a half closed fist, she coughs once, focus finally falling back on Aya again as the priestess folds her hands beneath her sleeves.
Her face is calm, her composure perfect, as if the previous outburst hadn't happened, as if her abandoned lute wasn't resting on its face on the wooden floor at her side.
There is a hint of a smile though it lacks particular warmth. "I mistook you for another." A slight bow forward is offered. "The shadows," she continues right hand sweeping to her side as if to gesture at the garden in general.
"Can play such tricks at eventide."
Standing up straight, her hands crossed in front of her, vanishing beneath her voluminous sleeves. "Welcome to the Meian Jinja. I trust you are leaving soon... I can fetch someone to accompany you back to the car lot. Unless you brought your own flashlight, the way can be just a bit treacherous in the dark."
If it had been any other time, any other day. If she had been any other person. Then maybe, MAYBE, that momentary stumble might have gone unnoticed, unremarked-upon. The reason Ayame offers isn't particularly artificial; the light is fading, and it would be very easy to mistake Aya for someone else in this situation, especially if you were distracted or concentrating. A part of her almost, almost wants to buy it... if only because that would mean perhaps there was a way out of the truth that she is attempting to deny.
But it's inescapable. That haunting sense of familiarity. Before now, it was a curiosity, nothing more; perhaps a little eccentric detail, like the particularly vivid dreams. Before, there was no anchor by which these disparate details could be threaded together. Now, though... just like Alma, or the balding American, or the girl Honoka.
But perhaps the scariest thing of all is that, when Aya examines that feeling, she feels the most bizarre sense of... relief? Relief... and a hint of implicit trust.
"That's a kind offer," Aya says carefully, examining the young miko closely, before taking a breath and shaking her head. "Unfortunately I'm not ready to leave just yet. I've come rather a long way to speak to a member of the Ichijo clan... ideally, one that's inherited the family's particular set of skills." With that, she feels as if she has said enough. Better to tell the truth and no farther until this young woman makes up *her* mind about how to respond.
The shrine maiden's expression betrays nothing as Aya indicates that her journey to the Jinja has not come to an end, that there remains yet a point to this evening encounter, nor does she reply in haste when the request has been made clear. A moment passes before her faint smile fades, eyes flicking to the side as if actually giving thought to the response that should follow.
Finally, she exhales softly, eyes once more on the shrine visitor, "Well then." The faint smile returns, just as reserved as before. "Then you are welcome to stay for as long as you like." Another bow is offered, "I am Ayame Ichijo." She stands upright again, "If you are interested in the skills our family is renown for... well, you will find no better." Humble.
Taking a step back, she starts to sweep toward one of the gazebo benches only for her foot to brush against the discarded lute. Blinking, she glances down, eying it as if trying to figure out how it got there in the first place, before crouching down to pick it up in her arms. The surface is scratched from where she dropped it, and one of the tuning pins in the end of it have broken off, but the girl doesn't look particularly upset over its condition. With a heft of her arm, she chucks the instrument backward over her shoulder, sending it over the gazebo railing right into the pond with a loud, disruptive splash. The lute continues to float on the water's surface, bobbing for a while, sending ripples throughout the pond before eventually becoming still as well.
The instrument disposed of, Ayame gestures toward one of the two benches that sit within close proximity parallel to each other beneath the flickering lantern above. "Please, join me then. Far be it for me to make your journey to the Meian Jinja a waste."
Taking a step back, she sits down next to her damaged lute, hands going to rest in her lap, attention remaining on Aya the whole while as she waits. "If there is anything we can do to be of help..." She shrugs slightly, grin materializing then fading just as quick, "Well, that is what we are here for."
The treatment of the lute does bring a raised eyebrow to Aya's face. The gesture is almost... casually slapstick, entirely counter to Ayame's presented impression of calm, cool competence. Still, it's not Aya's place to question. Maybe she really, really hates the lute and needs half an excuse to chuck the thing in a koi pond. Inclining her head in acceptance of the welcome gesture, the swordswoman follows the shrine maiden to the benches, waiting for her host to select and seat and then taking the opposite for herself, as one might expect.
The dark brown of her blade's saya catches the fading sunlight with its lacquered surface, a flicker of brightness before it rests, parallel to the ground, across Aya's lap, with her hands folded atop it. Even sheathed, it's clear to anyone with knowledge that the blade is of the finest possible make, clearly cared for... but also well-used.
Leaning back somewhat, Aya turns her face to the sky for a moment, a somewhat unusual gesture for two people sitting in close proximity to converse. The truth is, she needs that moment -- or two -- to collect her thoughts before she continues.
After a moment, she brings her face back down, locking eyes with Ayame. There is something familiar in the green-eyed gaze... and yet, this is clearly not a person Ayame knows, given her reactions. When Aya speaks, though, it is with confidence. "When you first saw me... you thought I was someone else, didn't you." It's a statement, not a question; Aya's expression says without a doubt that she is convinced what she has said to be true. "Someone you thought you knew or recognized." There is a pause, and then Aya exhales shortly. "I can imagine that you might be inclined to make your answer evasive, but I'd encourage you not to do so. You wouldn't be the first to see someone else's face in mine. I suspect you won't be the last, either."
The young priestess offers no explanation for the ambivalent disposal of the lute. Presumably someone will have to fish it out in the morning, making it another's problem now provided she doesn't retrieve it herself. Instead, she waits, eyes flicking toward Aya occasionally though finding other things to focus on as well - the lantern, her lap, the floor...
It is only when the sword is produced that the Ichijo miko appears to take keen interest, watching the saya be placed across the woman's lap. Her focus lingers, her eyes not straying from the sheathed weapon for along time. It takes a few seconds for her gaze to become reflective, still directed for the covered sword yet lacking focus. How long had it been since she had taken up a sword herself? And what is the story of this blade... and the woman who bears it? She thought she had enough mysteries in her life already but then one strides right in through the front gate. How can she not explore it?
When Aya looks down, she would find the girl's attention still in the direction of the exquisite blade. She glances up to meet her eyes after a moment, her expression neutral, unreadable now, clearly a deliberate effort to keep her cards close to her chest for now as she tries to feel out her visitor. Just what does she know? What did she see? And how close is this playing out to other experiences the swordswoman has been through?
Aya addresses her directly, cutting straight to the chase and even predicting the response she anticipated from the strawberry blonde. "For the sake of argument," the girl begins, her tone leaning neither defensive nor aggressive. "Let us say that I did." There is a faint lift at the right corner of her lip and a sparkle in her eyes that is impossible to suppress. She's intrigued now.
"Please," she continues, the word coming across sounding more like an imperative than a pleading, "May I know your name? The curiosity I have regarding it will make it hard for me to concentrate on little else before I know." she finishes, lifting her right hand from her lap to offer an apologetic half-shrug as if to suggest she will share no further information until she has that much. "If it would not be too much trouble... if you could share a few of the family names present in your genealogy as well? Maybe that could explain the family resemblance..."
An eyebrow goes back up at 'family resemblence', for certain. Aya expected that Ayame, despite prompting, not exactly leap to disclose anything. Yet at the same time, the prompting for more information at least means that the young miko is taking her seriously rather than dismissing her out of hand... all told, Aya thinks, a positive sign for this meeting. "My name is Aya. My family name is Hazuki, which I imagine you've heard before." The name is common enough... and even if it weren't, Hazuki Heavy Industries is a known name in Japan, even if it lacks the super science-y world-spanning ridiculousness of the Kanzuki or Mishima zaibatsus.
"We share a historical connection to the good old feudal days," she says, a trace of humor finally finding its way into her expression. She lifts the saya with one hand, holding it up in front of her, horizontally. "Three branch schools of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryuu style, and three families that served the Tokugawa with their blades. One were the Hazuki and their style, Hazuki Ittou-ryuu. Another, the Shirayama, though their style was lost to the ages a long time ago. And finally, the Tsukitomi, using Musou Tenkei-ryuu."
Bringing the sword back into her lap, Aya turns her head to the side, looking into the pond where the lute was discarded just a bit ago, seeming distracted. "Of those three related clans, only the Hazuki still carry on the tradition. The Shirayama still exist, but they're largely in the business of politics and trade now. And as for the Tsukitomi... there aren't any left. The last successor died giving birth to her first child over 80 years ago, and the baby didn't make it."
After that, she's silent for a moment, still gazing off into the distance. Eventually, she shrugs, before turning back to Ayame. "I sound like a History Channel documentary, don't I?" she asks, a bit of dry humor coming back into her tone. "You know, you're the first person who's ever asked about this. The others I've met with the same... phenomenon? They took it at face value, didn't question it. You, though... you barely hesitated."
She has a captive audience in the priestess, Ayame's attention never wavering even as Aya beings to look away. As before, the girl's facial expressions reveal little other than that she is interested in what the woman has to say. If she is surprised by any detail, she keeps it hidden as she takes mental notes on the family tree being explained to her.
The swordswoman does get a nod of acknowledgement at the last name of Hazuki, eyes flicking down toward the sword then back to her face as if connecting the dots between the value of the blade and the undoubtedly extensive fortune accessible to her visitor. The lifted sword gets another nod. The old days, the old ways. Sitting here in the garden of a centuries old jinja, one can't help but feel a little bit closer to the nation's past.
"Perhaps." she answers when Aya compares herself to a documentary. "But one of the really interesting ones." she finishes, that faint glimmer of amusement back once more. "It is what I wanted to know, after all. Thank you for indulging my inquiry, Miss Hazuki."
She averts her eyes briefly, focusing on the bridge connecting the small island back to the nearby pond shore. "Well..." she considers her words carefully. "In my line of work, the unusual tends to be common place enough to become the usual." Eyes glance back at her then, lifting her hands, palms facing up toward the lantern above. "May I?" she nods at the sheathed blade. "I give my word that it will be treated better than that treacherous instrument." she adds. "I just have not seen a sword of this caliber for... a long time."
She wouldn't press if her request is refused, but if honored she would cradle the saya gentle, fingers curling over it as she tests its heft while still holding it horizontally.
"So this has happened before? Do you mind telling me a little about your prior experiences with..." she glances up toward Aya, her shoulders offering the faintest of shrugs, "Mistaken identity?"
The request to see the blade does strike Aya as being slightly odd, but it's not so unusual as to not be granted. "If this were the old days," Aya says, standing up and taking the step or two required to hand it over to the young miko, "I'm told this is a killing offense, touching a samurai's blade. Really makes you wonder what sort of things go on in men's heads, doesn't it?." Taking a step back, she sits back down, crossing one leg over the other. "And yet they seem to rule the world. One of life's quirks."
For a moment, she does simply watch Ayame and her treatment and examination of that sword. At first out of an impossible to mask concern, but one which quickly becomes a detached curiosity, given her careful -- one might even say 'skillful' -- handling of the weapon. A priestess, a lute player, scion of a long line of powerful spiritualists. Skilled with the katana. A curious thing, and yet...
'But then you were unarmed, playing with a child's sword as if it was a weapon. This time you come with your real strength.'
A burning temple.
Somehow it seems normal that she's holding it.
Exhaling slowly through her mouth, Aya closes her eyes for a moment, before clearing her throat. "A good investigator starts at the beginning. Which is what you're doing, and I understand why. But I'm afraid I'm going to have to start at the end and work my way back." Now that the discussion has begun in earnest, the confident carriage she's shown since Aya arrived begins to crack a bit... not so much revealed as a facade, as rather the threaded lines of uncertainty running through it become more noticable.
Leaning forward, Aya looks directly at Ayame. "What would you say if I told you... that I am possessed?"
Ayame remains seated as she is offered the sword, focusing on the covered weapon itself as she studies it up close. There is a slight curve of her lips as she smiles at the woman's observation about older traditions, but it is easy to tell that for the moment, her fascination is with the workmanship of the heirloom blade. Her fingers reach for the handle, folding around it, but she seems to be testing the width of it, never once tugging at it as if to draw it even one iota from its sheath. She releases the handle, opening and closing her fingers a few time as if gauging something before lifting the saya and looking along the length of it, holding it horizontally across her at the level of her face so that she can lean her head forward slightly and see how the lantern glow above reflects off the blade's housing.
"Yes..." she finally acknowledges thoughtfully, lowering Aya's weapon back to her lap. "Or so they seem to think. Does it have a name?" she inquires, looking almost conspiratorial as if trying to pry some kind of secret out of the very proper and, now that she knows more about her, wealthy woman.
She's quiet, listening to the answer she gets regarding her request to know about prior strange encounters. The Hazuki heiress wants to cut to the chase though, to set the stage on which all other elements of Ayame's questioning can find context. She gets a slight nod in reply before leaning closer to the miko who continues to sit with her back ramrod straight.
The question posed, Ayame is slow to answer. "It would not have been the first time I had heard someone think that might be the case." Her lips curl into a slight frown. "Honestly, I am not sure which would be the more mollifying response - to let you know that in truth, I have never encountered a verifiable case of possession which would suggest that you are in fact suffering from a psychological issue." She cants her head to the side slightly. "Or... if I told you that for once, I wonder if it might be true, in which case you may very well be my first encounter with such a phenomenon." By the time she finishes, her expression is once again neutral.
The priestess closes her eyes for a moment's contemplation before opening them again, rising to her feet and taking a step forward. The saya is held near the top in her left hand, her right hand coming to rest on the handle with the perfect angle with which to quick draw the weapon as she takes a step toward Aya. But for as perfect her form, she radiates no killing intent, and, as her other foot comes down, she slides the sheath forward onto both of her palms, bowing forward as she offers it back to its rightful owner. "Thank you."
She would return to her own bench, hands resting in her lap beneath her lengthy sleeves. "Tell me about your possession. Such things are not as commonplace as..." she looks vaguely displeased, "Media might suggest, but that is not to suggest that there are not some ideas as to what to do about them."
If Aya thought -- TRULY thought -- that Ayame Ichijo would try to do her harm with that blade, she would have never handed it over. Perhaps ironically, the beliefs about the art of the sword that the ghost haunting this conversation (metaphorically or otherwise) that Ayame would have called childish in another lifetime, are entirely absent in Aya Hazuki. To her, a sword is a weapon meant to kill. If you carry it, let alone draw it, then you need to be prepared for the consequences at all times. Her expression does not change an iota as Ayame stands and moves, before accepting the sheathed blade back into her own possession.
When the well-cared for wooden saya is lying back on her lap once more, it looks... almost comfortable, there, if an inanimate object could be said to exhibit something so human as 'comfort'.
But the miko has asked her a question, and it is in Aya's best interest to answer it. When she does speak, though, there are obvious cracks forming in the composed demeanor she's exhibited up until now. It doesn't exactly dissolve on the spot; she still seems calm and businesslike. But there are little things, the more she talks. Eyes that dart in and out of eye contact mid-sentence. Movements of the hand and fingers. Gaps, starts and stops, in her diction.
"A month or so ago, there was... do you remember hearing about the walking dead in China? It had something to do with this... 'King of Fighters' tournament. A congregation of spiritualists from across the continent met to try and put those souls to rights. It wasn't well-publicized, but one tends to hear things."
Looking up and out, away from Ayame and toward the quiet grounds of the shrine, Aya continues. "At first I thought nothing of it. But then I began to have... dreams. Disturbing, abstract dreams. Hungry shapes in the dark. Voices calling out for aid. And as the dreams got stronger, I felt... compelled to head to this monastery where the monks were meeting. And I mean COMPELLED," she says, turning back to Ayame, face all seriousness. "An irresistable pull. So I went."
AOnce she's said this, there is a very long pause... the sort of uncomfortably long pause that might compel an interlocutor to speak up, just to break it, but eventually, Aya continues. "What I found was... men. Two mooks, forgettable except for their strength, but the third... blue skin. A deep voice. And he was..." Another pause, and if Ayame is the type to notice, she can see Aya's right hand clench into a fist, her left going white-knuckled around the saya in her lap. "_Harvesting_ the souls of the monks. Or something like that. But the truth is, I don't really _kn0w_ what happened, because..."
Another pause, and now Aya's resolve begins to crack. The tremulous anxiety of suppressed emotion is visible all across her, now; the twitchy eyelid movements of someone attempting not to weep. The flexing muscle of someone suppressing the adrenaline burst of their fight-or-flight instinct. "The other men were clearly minions of some kind. I fought one of them, but midway through I... blacked out. Or more accurately, I lost control of my body." Closing her eyes, Aya shakes her head. "I don't know how to accurately describe it. For a bit, it was like being at the bottom of a lake, looking up at the surface. As if I could vaguely tell the shape and sound of things, but it was too muffled, too murky, to be sensible. And yet, my _body_ was acting. I had the injuries and aches to prove it."
Sitting with her back straight, her hands hidden beneath her sleeves in her lap, Ayame listens. She is not one for encouraging Aya along, providing almost no nods of acknowledgement, nor grunts of agreement or any of the other audio or visual queues most people will give to show that they are paying attention. But the haunted woman need only glance at the girl for an instant to be reassured that she is paying the utmost in attention the entire time.
At the long pause, she makes not a sound, only blinking once, then twice, but otherwise not stirring. When she resumes, the girl leans her head to the side slightly, as if playing out a visual image of what Aya is describing verbally in her mind, setting the pieces of the stage, the monastery, and then the actors... The clenched hand is noticed, as is every other subtle detail of Aya's recounting of her harrowing experience.
It's only when she looks on the verge of crying that Ayame starts to visibly react, looking almost like she's recoiling, a bit nervous, eyes blinking more as she shuffles in her seat, as if the threat of an open display of emotions is making /her/ uncomfortable. She lifts her right hand from her lap to rub at her cheek, but never interrupts Aya as she speaks.
"The blue skinned one," she finally speaks, circling back to that as if the subject was more interesting to her than Aya's loss of control over her own body. "Can you..." her voice fades, mouth forming a frown, before she shakes her head. "Nevermind," she lowers her hand slightly to rest the edge of her forefinger at her chin. "Do you remember anything from that time? Anything you were able to perceive or hear?" She considers another moment, "Had anything even vaguely similar happened before? Any impressions... thoughts around others you encountered?"
She leans back a little, shifting her hands to rest on the bench at either side. "Anything else you can share? How does it make you feel?"
To this point, Aya has not seemed angry; her emotional range has tended more toward 'clearly distraught' than anything else. But when she's asked how what happened makes her feel, the speed with which her head whirls to the miko that asked the question, the intensity of the gaze she delivers, is momentarily and quite intensely furious. "How do you _think_ it felt?!" Aya demands, voice taut and low, nearly a growl.
And then, in a moment, it passes, and the swordswoman brings a hand up to her face, pinching the bridge of her nose, taking a deep breath. "Please forgive that outburst," she says a bit hoarsely, eyes shut. "I felt _violated_, Miss Ichijo-san. Violated enough that I've come here to find you, and to tell you this story, which to date has not been told to another living soul." Not, Aya reflects internally, that she would have had anyone else to tell in the first place. "And the fact that I can remember so little only makes it worse."
There's a brief pause, Aya clearly collecting herself again, before she folds both hands over the sheathed sword in her lap and looks up at the sky, its sunset orange quickly giving way to the approaching velvet purple of twilight. "For the past few years, I have been plagued with... strange dreams. It was after the dreams started that I began to experience what happened when I first arrived: being mistaken for someone else, or others feeling familiarity with me even though we'd never met. And there are... other things." She holds up the sheathed blade with one hand, bringing her gaze back to Ayame. "I know about chi, of course, as all martial artists past a certain level of expertise do. Hazuki Ittou-ryuu is not a spiritual art, however. We have no specific techniques focusing on its external use. And yet..."
Unfolding upward, she stands, stepping well clear of the benches, facing one of the pools. There is a beat, the space of an inhaled breath, and then Aya draws the blade, lightning fast, barely visible. In its wake, whorls of green-tinted wind push outward in a line, in the path of the strike. Not enough to damage anything, but decidedly noticable; the grass rustles all the harder, water parts before settling back into stillness.
She turns back to Ayame, remaining standing, blade at her side resheathed. "At first it was wild, unpredictable, and thus dangerous. Over the years I learned to control it, out of necessity."
Pausing, Aya shakes her head, then resumes sitting on the bench as if none of that had happened. "I'm no fool, Ichijo-san. Dreams like a second set of memories? Skills that just... fall into place that aren't mine? And a feeling like I know people I've never met. Combine that with what happened at Wudangshan... there is _someone else here_. That is who they are seeing. It MUST be. What other explanation is there?"
The spark of anger Ayame's question provokes doesn't seem to deter the girl in the slightest. If anything, the reaction Aya might perceive through her flash of riled temper is closer to open curiosity, eyes searching her face, looking for something she may or may not have found given how inscrutable the Meian Jinja's miko expressions seem to be. When she apologizes, Ayame lifts her hand slightly from her lap, waves it once and shakes her head, suggesting there is nothing to worry about; her thoughts are on things other than getting yelled at, perhaps.
Only when she says she remembers so little of the experience does Ayame's mouth exhibit a faint frown, perhaps disappointed at finding a dead end along a potential path of inquiry. The shadows grow long in the garden before losing their shape all together with the encroaching night. To the west, the sun has already vanished beyond the canopy of trees towering over the sturdy stone wall encompassing the plot of land as the serene setting becomes a place fitting for discussing dreams and fears.
When Aya takes to her feet, Ayame stands likewise, still having said so very little. She steps to the side behind the woman, eyes studying her from head to toe, settling on her saya and the handle of the beautiful sword, her mouth curling into a faint smile as if anticipating the opportunity to see the pending draw in action.
And she is not disappointed, the demonstration every bit as instant as she had imagined, eyes shifting to the energy made manifest external by the slash, even the faintest of glows more easily visible in the growing dim. She remains standing as Aya faces her again, eyes flicking to the blade concealed once more.
She takes a step back, the back of her knees against the bench now, but she doesn't sit down when Aya does. Turning to the side, she lifts her right hand to her chin, face bowed slightly. Turning slowly, she stands with her side facing the Hazuki heiress, her eyes sweeping along the surface of the pond as if searching it for answers. Her finger taps her chin a couple of times before the girl finally looks toward Aya along her shoulder.
"You mentioned something about first arriving? Did you mean arriving in Japan? Where were you before?" She pauses, "The... chi, did it always have that hue of green or were there other colors as well? Anything that implied another element or anything?"
Ayame exhales softly, lowering her right hand, fingers closed into a fist before it vanishes beneath her sleeve falling back into place, face turning back to stare at the surface of the pond, her mental search resuming.
"May I ask... coming to Japan, were there any other impressions or impulses you found you had that you did not recall having before? Any shift in interests or priorities?" Her right hand lifts again, this time to brush a length of her hair back behind her right ear, "I do agree with your assessment." she continues, turning to face her visitor directly now. "We need to talk to hi- ah, -it. I have an idea. Please, come with me." She gestures across the bridge back toward the courtyard Aya had come from in the first place.
"Tell me, what level of experience do you have with meditation?"
The question about meditation makes Aya's lip curl in a surprisingly wry smile. "Not any more than any student of the sword develops... as I'm sure you understand." This is the first real intimation on Aya's part that she knows Ayame must have martial skills that she hasn't discussed so far, but the casualness of the comment certainly suggests that she doesn't care one way or the other. "Useful exercises for entering a state of focus and clarity might transfer. That being said..."
She wants Aya to actually converse with this possessing... force, or person, and the expression on Aya's face, her palpable hesitation not just in speaking, but the halting nature of her body language, says everything about how she feels about that. For a beat, possibly two, that go on too long, she is silent. To willingly ask a force that made her feel more violated than she ever has in her entire life, to take over her body a second time... to enter that bizarre, hibernal state of semi-awareness, the lack of control over her own person... it's asking a lot.
Her green-eyed gazes centers on Ayame, watching her carefully. Trying to determine: are you trustworthy? If something bad happens, do I want _you_ to be the person watching over my body, in charge of handling it?
Ironically: that same intuition, the sixth sense that she now recognizes as the subtle influence of that second soul, tells her that she _can_ trust her.
"...tell me what you want me to do," Aya says, guardedly. "Before I change my mind or lose my nerve."
"Good." comes her laconic reply at the first answer she gets, the younger of the two pausing, looking over her shoulder as if sensing the hesitation in her visitor. She waits, watching, no doubt aware of the thoughts playing out behind the concerned expression of the swordswoman but not giving voice to them herself. Each step forward has to come from the one afflicted, it seems, the priestess uninterested in cajoling or pleading her along after she already came so far.
When she asks her question, however, the strawberry-blonde turns, arms resting at her sides, her eyes on Aya's now. "You are right to be wary. I am not sure I could so easily trust another with even the information you have already given me." Her mouth flickers with a hint of a smile that vanishes just as quickly. "But I am not the one afflicted. You see, the thing about possession is that it is such a..." her right hand lifts to wave absently, "Generalized term. The presence of another... it could mean a number of things. Literal corporeal occupation of a spirit or elemental perhaps, or a psychic sliver of another's mind or personality... It could be the company of one deceased or an essence yet alive."
Her hands clasp in front of her, once again buried in her sleeves. "The first step to helping you is understanding more about what it is that affects you. Your sword slash created wind chi, a skill you feel you should not even have. Perhaps it is a kamaitachi that has lost its form and latched on to the first one to pass it by in its desperate moment. But you mentioned second memories, impressions of another life... it could be an ancestor? We have to find out."
She glances over her shoulder, looking toward the towering tori over the front gate visible even from the gardens. "You could leave. I would not blame you. You may find another who will tell you what you want to hear... aware of your affluence, they will say whatever you want them to for the right price. Perhaps that would bring you comfort for a while."
Ayame looks back toward the wary woman, "But I am not interested in your money. Or even particularly your thanks. You have brought to me tonight an interesting problem, a mystery in need of an answer, a challenge I have yet to face." She looks off to the side at another angle, eyes coming to rest on the massive jinja building back in the main courtyard.
"I intend to lead you inside. The rites of passage and wards we will cross in doing so will rule out several possible explanations for what you are experiencing. From there, we will go upstairs to one of the great shrines where we will sit in repose for a while and see what we can draw out... failing progress, there are three other rooms we will try in and see if anything happens."
She leans her head to the side a little. "Of course it is not without risk. But at that monastery, you survived an encounter with a devil and are alive to visit me this night. If whatever walks with you had meant you harm..." The girl dips her head slightly, "Well, there has been ample opportunity, I imagine."
Looking up again, she waits patiently, "The question is if you will be facing this challenge with me. If not, I merely hope that I have given you enough insight to further your journey to discover just what exactly it is you are burdened with and wish that your efforts are rewarded appropriately."
For a long time, Aya doesn't say anything. She stands and stares at the shrine... or more accurately, her face is pointed at the shrine, but what she's actually looking at is anyone's guess. Her arms hang loosely at her sides; her right hand grasps the saya of her blade just below the hilt, the sunset-orange scabbard cord fluttering intermittently with the rustling summer breeze. It would be so easy, as Ayame has said, to turn and go, now. She's heard much that was useful, perhaps the first such thing being that she's not losing her mind, that there really is something here.
For a second, she turns back to look at Ayame. For all her composure, the miko's occasional slips have not gone unnoticed. There is something here that she's not sharing with Aya, that much is obvious. But what is it? What is it the miko knows? If Ayame meant harm, real harm, she had her chance to do it well before now, and not only the time that Aya handed her weapon over. The gentlest movement of the swordswoman's eyebrow suggests her analysis brings her to some sort of conclusion.
Maybe the miko needs to see this through herself.
Finally, turning her head forward again, Aya lets out a long exhalation of a breath she didn't entirely know she was holding, one so long that her whole body tingles for a moment as her breathing rhythm kicks back into normality. When she speaks, it is in a clear but quiet voice, not turning to look at Ayame despite clearly addressing her. "I have one question, first. It is perhaps the most important question of them all, so I must insist on an honest answer."
When Aya tilts her head to the side, regarding Ayame sidelong, there is a surprising weariness in her features. "If this goes wrong... if something bad happens... what will you do?"
As she finally speaks, Ayame turns to face her directly once more, waiting to hear the question upon which her final decision may likely hinge. Her attention on Aya is focused, the girl bearing a certain quiet intensity that ripples just beneath the surface of her controlled expressions. Is she really so indifferent as to whether Aya stays or leaves? Can she let this mystery go? And just how honest is the girl being with her?
For that matter, are the occasional slips of the tongue truly an accident or is she leading the haunted woman along, carefully piquing her curiosity just the right amount?
But the question posed now seems to provoke no easy answer from the priestess, eyes flicking to the side for a long moment as if contemplating the question thoroughly. Had she not considered what she was chancing with what she thought to do? Shouldn't she have?
Eyes shift back to Aya a moment later, "There are many ways this could go wrong... Unfortunately, I can guarantee little, only that I will act first to preserve my life if I must, and second to preserve the life of any other person threatened, including yourself. My third duty would be to this place itself."
Lowering her eyes, she glances slightly to the side to gaze at the pond, focusing on the water soaked lute that continues to bob among the reeds. Her hands clench beneath her sleeves. "I hope you understand that there are risks to this... and I am not even anticipating that we will discover a solution immediately. There is more to figure out, to verify, before I can study what the next step would be."
She looks up again, focus back on Aya. "As I said before, afflictions like your own are exceptionally rare. A lot has to be figured out on a case by case basis." She pauses for another moment, offering a flicker of a fading smile before she continues, "My hope to find a way to pull it forward, seeking out compatible environments or settings that may resonate with whatever you carry with you."
Her expression sobers by degrees before she adds, "If that fails to provide results, well... based on your experience at the monastery, it would seem that even more extreme measures would have to be pursued. But we should not bother to speak of such things unless nothing else seems to get us anywhere."
The owlish expression that Aya fixes on Ayame, during the somewhat lengthy response the miko gives, suggests that if there was an ideal answer she'd been waiting for, that wasn't it. She doesn't seem angry, or disappointed... more a brief moment of surprise, followed by relative silence. The swordswoman exhales slowly, bringing a hand up to her face, scratching her cheek. When she finally speaks, it's with a haltingness that actually suggests more embarassment than anything.
"If you'd asked me two years ago if I even believed in something like a 'soul'..." she begins, looking at Ayame, "...I'd have laughed in your face. And we live in a world where someone can train themselves to throw fire from their hands. Where the sort of monsters we scare children with apparently are real. But a 'soul'?"
She shakes her head. "You asked me about the *color* of chi, before. Because you know about it. There's a *system*. Perhaps a somewhat mystical-sounding system, but it's a system. But the soul is something else. We don't know anything, not really. But now?"
She trails off, then sighs, shoulders slumping. "You don't need to tell me all the warnings, all the complexities. My mind's made up. But I want to know that if something goes wrong, if it looks like I won't..." Her eyes close briefly as Aya pauses. "...be me anymore, that you'll do..."
Her hand comes forward, and held in its grip, parallel to the ground, is her sword. Offered to Ayame, freely. "...what needs to be done. If you can, then let's begin."
"I am a firm believer that skepticism is healthy for the mind. Question everything." the priestess replies with resolve in her voice, conveying perhaps the impression that even the religion her occupation is built around is subject to doubt and scrutiny at every opportunity. "But when irrefutable proof to the contrary presents itself, only the willfully ignorant can continue to ignore it. You do not strike me as one of those." She offers a faint smile again before melts away like all the others before.
She's quiet as Aya continues. Before a year ago, Ayame wasn't even sure what to make of the idea of an afterlife or underworld... and then through ritual, she sent an Apache into the Egyptian underworld to steal an American's soul from the altar of a God of Death. That tends to change one's perspective on the life beyond just a little.
"Miss Hazuki, once I have committed to help someone, I will not recant my word. I will pursue every option, study every shred of information I can find, and pull from any resource available to me to accomplish what I set out to do." Her right hand clenches at her side. "I understand your wishes and will take them to heart." A soft exhale, a faint smile, her tone becoming a degree more gentle. "I know you are afraid. But you would not ask a physician to prepare to administer euthanasia prior to having the opportunity to diagnose an ailment. Please do not ask the same of me. Give me a chance."
She turns toward the opening in the wall that leads back to the main courtyard Aya would have entered upon first arriving. "This way, if you will."
She would lead the way through the courtyard toward the shrine itself. A smaller, inner wall surrounds the large structure with a gate. As the jinja had already been closed for the night, no one else is about. Visitors are gone, family and residents have retired to the living quarters; the occasional whisper of conversation or drifting laughter echoing from the building many call home.
Outside of the shrine is a water basin built of stone and marble. Water streams in from one side of it via a small spigot while it flows out of the other end of the long trough through an overflow drain. Placed along the basin are small cups attached to wooden rods clearly designed for scooping up water "Have you ever worshipped at a shrine before, Miss Hazuki?" Ayame would ask with bemused curiosity. Given her expression of nonbelief just moments prior, she isn't so sure... even tourists in Japan tend to go through the washing ritual at least once though when visiting one of the many historic shrines throughout the nation.
Either way, Ayame would step through the custom, washing her left hand, then right, then pouring water into her palm and rinsing her mouth. She'd watch and wait to see Aya go through the same process... the woman might get the feeling the girl is waiting to see if she starts smoking or melting or sprouts demon horns or something with the way the miko observes her. "I wonder if your situation prompted you to explore religion at all. After all, the very idea of what you feel is happening to you suggests that at least some concepts of the various faiths are tenable..."
Aya watches the miko in long moments of silence as Ayame lays out her response, and then she quirks a bit of a dry smile, more of the self-assured woman who first came in to speak with Ayame rather than the slightly more vulnerable one who's presented herself here. She brings the sword back, letting the arm hold it fall very visibly to the side, slack and casual... perhaps a gesture of de-escalation? "I expect you will take every precaution," Aya says at last, turning to walk after her host. "And I'd rather you not leap *directly* to decapitating me. But it would put my heart at ease to know that..." She pauses, trails off, shakes her head. Ayame is a professional, insofar as that's possible in these matters. She knows what to do.
The swordswoman visibly balks at the implication that she is afraid, but says nothing... particularly because, in her head, a voice cannot help but agree. The idea of spending her life as a hazy-visioned passenger in her own body... there's a reason she has all but said that death is preferable.
As they walk, the miko asks about Aya's spiritual observances, and despite herself she chuckles. "There are shrines in Kyoto that I visit during festivals, mostly out of social obligation. I'm not exactly devout, but I'm familiar with the ritual of it all." She cranes her neck a bit to look ahead at where they are going, continuing the conversation idly. "Would you believe my omikuji from New Year's last year was dai-kichi?" 'Excellent fortune' indeed.
When Ayame stops to sip the water, Aya watches, careful to let the miko completely finish whatever she is doing before making any move herself. As soon as Ayame has finished, however, the swordswoman stoops and, eyes closed, washes her hand and sips the water without incident. Straightening, she raises an eyebrow. "I do not particularly trust religion. They claim to have the 'right' answer to things but we live in a world where I think the entire idea of a 'right' answer is unstable. Though it should be said... I respect faithful individuals. Like yourself, maybe? I find faith more comforting than religion."
"Well," Ayame considers regarding her prophesized Excellent Fortune. "The year is not over yet." The hesitant smile suggests she's making an effort to lighten the mood, or at the very least, distract Aya from the stress she might be feeling. At least she didn't crumble to ash at the cleansing ritual!
Ayame approaches the closed gate of the inner wall and pulls it open - closing it is just to help keep visitors from wandering in after hours. As remote as this place is, standard security measures like actual door locks do not seem to be common place. "A reasonable perspective." the priestess replies, nodding slightly when she is included among those who are faithful. "Maybe someone will come back from the other side someday and clear it all up for us." The sentence is punctuated with a soft exhale - perhaps the thought is not just an idle comment before the girl passes under the smaller tori before the shrine.
Approaching the entrance of the building, the usual ornamentation is present - scared paper strips suspended on thin white strings hang idle in the still night air, old, weather worn ropes wrap around the trunks of adjacent trees, and even a sizeable shimenawa is mounted on the underside of overhang of the second floor balcony above.
Ayame moves past all these things without comment, leading around to a small entryway further beneath the balcony. There is no door to close off the way and the hallway beyond is illuminated by a dim glow. Operating on rote habit, the resident priestess reaches inside and retrieves a lantern from a hook inside the entryway and the small candle that was providing the glow next to it. A moment later, the lantern is lit, the candle returned to its metal dish, and Ayame steps further into the hall.
The entryway provides the familiar place to shed one's shoes and leave them on the wooden shelves nearby, a process Ayame executes with her sandals without a bit of thought, the lantern in her right hand barely jostled in the process. "Green chi... have you ever seen any other hue in prior manifestations?"
The girl would lead the way further down the hall. The floor beneath their shoeless feet is of polished wood. Patterns are engraved in places, and some sections are painted with emblems and symbols that have been worn over the centuries of traffic through this holy place. To the right as the two walk, sounds of running water splashing over stone can be heard down one long corridor along the way. A matching corridor runs the opposite direction, though only silence can be heard from that direction.
"Watch your step," Ayame encourages as she starts her way up the wooden stairs, each footfall provoking a weary creak even though they seem solid enough. She holds the lantern out to make sure that her own shadow doesn't block Aya's view of the steps.
The stairs open onto a hallway on the second floor of the large building and it is along this corridor the girl leads now, the lantern in her hand providing the only illumination.
Finally, she turns a corner into a smaller hallway and waves Aya forward. A curious sound would reach the woman's ears as she approaches the room at the end of the hall - the steady, swift rush of wind as if being driven by some giant, silent fan. Holding her left hand up to shield the small opening on the lantern, Ayame steps into the large room to light it up.
The chamber is large, using roughly one quarter of the second floor of the jinja, with a polished wood floor and smooth wooden walls. Wooden benches line the wall and are also arranged into rows down the center with wide spaces between them. From the eastern wall several horizontal slats open and close slowly with the pressure of wind blowing in past them from somewhere else in the building. The air current is hardly going to give either girl a bad hair day, but it is brisk and cool, and somewhat surprising considering the night air outside was perfectly still.
"Welcome to the Cloister of the Secret Word," the girl remarks with a half shrug as she glances around the simple looking chamber. She has to raise her voice to be heard over the continuous rush of air that moves through the room. Exactly how the wind is generated for the room is not something that can be ascertained simply by looking and listening, only that it seems to flow in steadily from the east and exit to the night air outside through the vents in the western wall. "An honor to the wind. It was also called the Murmurs of the Firmaments, from what I have read of this place's history. Please," she leads the way to the center of the large room, keeping the lantern's open side away from the wind before putting the light source down atop one of the benches.
Heading to the back of the cloister where a few shelves and cabinets are housed, the girl retrieves two matts, carrying one beneath each arm. Returning to the enter, she rolls the two mats out over the hardwood floor. "If you do not mind," she states a she gets down on her knees on one the mats, reaching for the lantern and putting it down on the floor between them. "I would like you to try to meditate here."
The miko rests her hands in her lap, her hair playing around her shoulders slightly from the ebb and flow of the draft. The cool air has a certain quality of life to it, slightly damp, like it was blowing through an ancient forest at night. There is enough white noise that tuning out their surroundings might prove surprisingly easy. "I want you to reflect on what happened at the monastery... Specifically, what you felt and perhaps what you heard. But do not force it. Focus more on relaxing, letting go the tension and worry you brought with you, and reflecting on every new, unsual experience that comes to mind since you came to Japan." Ayame sits quietly, eyes open, apparently intending to simply watch and wait.
"There was nothing to *have* a color, before a few years ago," Aya explains, trailing after Ayame as they enter the shrine. Despite some of its more quaint, old world touches, she seems perfectly at home in the setting, comfortable. "Just another in our long line of confusing situations that brought me here at all, I guess. The dreams... those came first. But after that, it was like..."
She pauses, looking down at her hand as she walks, palm open. For most of her life, the flow of life energy -- chi -- was white noise. After a certain point of martial arts training, that awareness becomes possible, even for those fighters who never learn the seemingly magical ability to externalize or shape that energy. But when the dreams started, that became a distant memory. Now... now it was like standing in the real world with a cartoon overlay, like the holographic augmented reality interfaces popular in movies, if the interface were painted by Hokusai. She could see them all, but the wind in particular was always present, always with her.
By the time Aya emerges from that reverie, the pair have shed their shoes, ascended stairs, into a room alive with... well, the wind. As they walk through the Cloister, Aya can indeed feel the very thing she was just reflecting on. The movement of the literal, physical wind has plenty of echo in the metaphysical world, cloud-like swirls of pale green and misty gold. As one might expect from a clan with such deep ties to the shadowy world of spirits and demons, the place feels alive with... not so much power, but 'connection'.
"Maybe I'm imagining it..." Aya mutters, quietly, but pehraps loud enough for Ayame to hear.
When the miko rolls out the mats, Aya settles herself into seiza with practiced ease, setting her gaze on Ayame. She is attentive, but quiet; when she's instructed to meditate, there is no nodding, no murmur of acknowledgment, but the light in her eyes suggests she is hearing and internalizing every word. As soon as the miko stops talking, Aya's eyes gently shut, her hands palms down on her folded knees, her breathing becoming slow and regular. Meditation... a not unfamiliar practice. After all, a battousha's sense of absolute timing depends on the ability to extend one's perception outward through awareness.
In her mind's eye, the swordswoman tries not to clear her mind -- an effective impossibility -- but rather to let her subconscious guide her thoughts. The image that possesses her is of standing alone in a circle of blue, surrounded by a twilight-like velvet gloom, until one by one, images intrude.
An awkward but earnest man with an iron pipe. A girl yearning for a home she hadn't known she'd lost. Countless others -- a priestess surrounded by whorls of frost. A youth with a burning rage but a strong sense of justice. An angry but honest, swarthy man. An idealistic man fueled by passions like a newborn star.
A young woman whose belief in a man kept his spirit from the abyss of death.
Reaching out to some of these images with a hand, Aya finds a few of them disappear entirely, dissolving into mist. But some... some remain, changing shape. The awkward man is bald... or is he? The faithful girl is a tough street smart thief... or is she? Did the girl searching for her home find it at last, or does she continue to wander?
Through her own eyes, she sees Jedah Dohma harvesting souls. And with her own ears, she hears her voice, though it sounds strange, like it's someone else speaking:
'Without me she wouldn't be sensitive to this sort of thing. She wouldn't have known to be here, you know? ... I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing right now. She's going to be angry. But she doesn't have the tools to deal with you, and I do. So I made a choice.'
The sun shines brightly overhead, reflecting off the peaceful waters of a lake. At the end of a dock sits a young man, shoes at his side, feet splashing idly in the waters of the lake. He watches the sky. He waits.
There is a sound, like the striking of a tuning fork. Through the auburn of Aya's hair appear sudden streaks of dark red.
"Long time no see..." she says.
Her eyes open.
It is difficult to say how much time passes as Ayame sits vigilantly. The sun has long set and only darkness can be seen through the eastern vents as the wind continues to swirl around tonight's final two worshippers. The girl barely moves, hardly fidgeting at all. The first several times she tried to sit still for so long, it was an exercise in tested resolve. But now days, sitting still for so long is effortless with nothing to keep track of but her own thoughts, the slow breaths of her present company, and the whispering wind. If this doesn't work, there are other chambers in the shrine, other sanctuaries to elements and concepts. The large building was built at a nexus of geological phenomenon... if wind is not the right element to attune to, another will have to do. But for now, she waits and thinks.
In reading she had done on the history of the Meian Jinja, she had found mention of some who said they heard voices in the wind, that the veil between worlds always seemed strangely thin within this simple room. Smiling faintly, she glances over her shoulder toward the western vents through which the wind comes and goes in gentle surges. Of course, she knows the trick behind it all - and spirits from the beyond have nothing to do with it. There will be no whispers in the wind for her.
She gets something else entirely.
The miko's attention snaps back to Aya, right hand lifting from her lap on reflex as if preparing to defend herself, though she remains kneeling in place. Did she just hear something in the wind after all? Or was it her imagination?
Sharp, attentive, and slightly frantic brown eyes study the young woman's features, noticing immediately the splash of color in her hair. The girl's mouth opens slightly then closes, eyes blinking in quiet astonishment. Is it working then? She wasn't sure what to expect. There is a first time for everything and while her young career has been full of varied experiences, no once had she encountered a situation like this.
But then she's addressed. The voice is the same but the cadence is not - it belongs to another, in another time, yet is so immediately familiar, as if plucked fresh from a recent memory.
"So..." her voice is hushed, barely audible over the wind, but from wonder and from a desire to not wake the heiress from her trance. "...it is you."
The priestess leans forward slightly, hand dropping back to her lap, peering intently. "I don't understand, what-" her voice loses its stilted edge immediately, the girl dropping back into more familiar diction, "It's because of the sphere... what've you been seeing? How long've you been like this?"
The questions are relentless - patience never was a virtue of hers. "Are you... alive or dead? D-do you remember... everything?"
Are you alive... or dead?
Whoever it is that's inhabiting Aya's body right now, they have definitively different mannerisms than she does, a hand coming up to rub the back of her neck as she looks away. "That's, uh... a lot of questions. I guess that's understandable. But I don't think I'm going to have good answers for all of them. Let's, uh... let's start from the top."
Her head goes up, eyes closed, a deep breath taken in through the nose before 'Aya' exhales slowly, rolling her neck somewhat as if she'd just woken up from a long nap instead of swapping which consciousness is in control of her body. "What if I told you I might not even be the person you think I am? Before even thinking about 'alive' or 'dead'. I mean..." Grimacing, Aya shakes her head and looks off to the side, exhaling in frustration.
"After I... died... things started to get a little... abstract," she says at last, brow furrowed in concentration and consternation all at once. "My body was gone, obviously. But what was left was... I guess you'd call it the 'memory' of who I was. So the 'me' that existed in what you'd call the real world... it was like there was an imprint left over. Enough of me to sometimes show up and..." A pause, then a shrug. "I don't really know how it works. But that also means I don't know the answer to your question. Is this me? REALLY me? Or just a... memory of me that found its way here?"
She runs a hand through her hair and looks off to the side, at the slats through which the wind is blowing through this room. "I have a theory, though. Whatever you and Seishirou did... I guess because I didn't have a physical form it didn't work quite the same. You warned me it wouldn't, after all," she adds, giving Ayame a smile of genuine warm humor. "And in this... world...? Anyhow, you heard Aya. In this world the Tsukitomi died off a long time ago. There was no 'me' to be born into this reality. So maybe it found the next best thing, someone from the same bloodline? And so here I am. It's been... a couple years, I think?"
Aya turns her eyes to the ceiling, brushing her hands off on her knees. "Most of the time, for me, it's like the way she described when I... took over... in China. Muddled, hazy. But I've got more practice at this spiritual stuff than she does, so sometimes I get moments of clarity, and I can see and hear and feel what Aya does. I think that's why her ability to use her chi awakened. And sometimes, well..."
Her eyes squeeze shut, and the emotion on her face is clearly visible, fully expressed, unlike before. A combination of sadness and happiness. "So many faces I remember. Rust, Alma, you, even Honoka... alive! Living happily, or so it seems. I couldn't... I couldn't say anything, not really. But it kept me going. Knowing that a few of us lived on. That our memory was still going."
"Mn," Ayame grunts, hand lifting to rest at her chin as she bows her face slightly in thought. For as many questions as she asked, even more are spawned by the answers she gets. She's attentive though, making note of every word uttered by the mouth of the woman playing host to someone far more familiar to the girl... or at least, who comes across familiar. His phrasing even makes that idea murky in her mind.
She glances up as Aya talks about what Seishirou and she did in the time before, a faint smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. So the memory really does persist... at least as well as hers has, the warning already fresh in her mind as if she had said it yesterday. "Yes, I suppose I did. It was a guess... there wasn't a lot of time for research." There is a slight nod a at the mention of the Tsukitomi line having ended generations ago, quietly surprised at how casually the information is rattled off, as if idea that the entire family the man known as Frei had ever known simply does not exist. Maybe being... whatever one becomes in a situation like this changes ones perspective about such concepts as family or relationships?
She lets the answers continue coming, wanting to soak it all in, fascinated by every detail she can glean. So he has only been able to watch the world from behind a clouded mirror as well, she considers. "It sounds like you're getting her into trouble," she observes, a hint of a 'tsk' in her voice that goes unsaid. "She had no business being at that monastery."
Names are rattled off and Ayame's expression softens as if an emotional chord was struck. "Ah... yes, I have actually looked into the whereabouts and situations of everyone I was even aware of before..." Her expression is somber, eyes averted, "I found most of them." But not all. She glances up, looking into Aya's eyes, searching for a long moment, as if still trying to decide just how real this all even is. Is she really speaking openly with someone else who remembers? She had her brushes with some occasionally, but she proved evasive each time.
"Seishirou is lost. And Rust..." her expression becomes a bit puzzled, "Well... things have turned out different for many, some in small ways, and others..." A shake of her head, before looking at Aya pointedly. "Find themselves in quite different circumstances." Her expression breaks into a wry grin, "Such as myself, I suppose."
The priestess sits up straighter, her back upright, hands still in her lap as she sucks in her breath and closes her eyes before exhaling slowly.
"She has asked me to help her. That is why she is here." she states, not quite sure how much was already known or at least intuited. "I honestly don't know how yet. This is new ground. But the thing is... I... well..." She presses her lips into a thin line before continuing, eyes fixed on the woman's. "Exorcisms do not tend to concern themselves with the fate of the excised, you know."
'She had no business being at that monastery.'
When Ayame says that, Aya's face does indeed fall, but she doesn't reply or interrupt. It's only once the miko has said her peace that the person in control of the swordswoman's body can actually find the energy to speak, and when she does, her voice is thick and low, heavy with regret. "I know. Believe me, I know."
Running a hand through her hair, Aya looks up at the ceiling again, trying to puzzle out how to explain this. "I can't imagine how she feels. When she 'wakes up' from this, she's going to be mortified. And if I could have done it any other way, Ayame, I would have. But... ugh, this isn't... let me start over." With the rustle of cloth, she moves from sitting seiza, instead pulling one leg over the other, sitting in a half lotus. "That... _whoever_ it was... was literally stealing, maybe even eating souls. Over 40 of them. And all Aya knew -- now that her, uh, sixth sense had awakened -- was that something was Wrong. And she is a moral person, so she tried to stand up to this guy and his two ridiculous cartoon lackeys, but it wasn't..." Gritting her teeth, she shakes her head in annoyance. "I took control. Maybe it was because there was a lot of... spiritual energy in the air, or because Aya's emotions were high. But I knew she wasn't going to be able to deal with what was going on. I did it to save her life, which thankfully I could. But..."
With a shrug, she clutches the shoulder of one arm with the hand of the other. "To do that I had to violate her in the worst possible way. I took away what it meant for her to BE HER. And I did it for her own good, but... you can explain a lot with 'I did it for their own good'. And that's why..."
There's a long pause, and then Aya locks eyes with Ayame. Perhaps now that it's all out in the open, the miko might remember Frei's eyes were the same color, perhaps the only thing about Aya that ISN'T subtly different with him in the driver's seat. "I don't... want to disappear, obviously. But it's like... it's like I'm not REAL. And as long as she knows I'm there -- as long as she's afraid that at any time I'm going to snatch her body away from her -- she'll never be happy. Not TRULY happy. I don't... I don't want that for her. I wouldn't want it for anyone."
There's a pause, and then she smiles, wanly. "I guess what I mean is... you should do what you have to. I'm prepared for whatever it is. It's okay, honest."
There was a time, she remembers, that she would actively use the spoken word to inflict pain, her tongue a vicious blade, her knowledge of others weaknesses a cunning tool used to manipulate and torment or... simply hurt others because she could. As she sees the reaction her blunt observation about the monastery provokes, she finds her thoughts wandering back other similar situations. This one with whom she speaks now was... often a target of said verbal abuse. Yet here they sit, speaking, some kind of understanding having eventually evolved.
She no longer seeks to twist the knife when her point has been clearly made, content to sit and listen, the explanation she gets prompting a slight nod of how things played out. How strange, she thinks for a moment, to find herself here, resolved to help Aya rather than exploit the woman's desperation. How much of this is because of her interactions with the remorseful soul from across the divide of time?
She lays out her warning, that in the end, there may not be a happy ending to this extra chapter to his story. Maybe she would have preferred he plead otherwise, that she not do anything, that he lean on their strange association from before to get her to let him be. That might be easier even if it would mean recanting her word to the Hazuki heiress.
But of course that isn't what she's told. Instead, she's given permission... even encouragement in a way, and Ayame scowls, glancing to the side, fingers curling into her crimson hakama over her thighs. "Tch. You were always were so self-sacrificing. It made me sick then, it makes me sick now!" But in spite her insistence, her voice lacks a convincing vehemence to back it up.
Frowning, she looks back toward him. "Now that I know... I might be able to give her some comfort, but I'm also obligated to solve this problem and will pursue it to the best of my ability." She puffs up a little, eyes half lidded as she looks down her nose slightly, "Which, I will note, is quite impressive."
Self-aggrandizing aside, she settles back into a more relaxed posture, though still on her knees. Shaking her head, she exhales with a roll of her eyes, "This isn't your fault, you know. You can stop beating yourself up over it. Just... well, keep her out of trouble until I can figure something out, okay?"
She might not actively try to twist the knife, but in her own way, Ayame is able to catch Aya unawares, in the end, the swordswoman's eyes widening a bit in obvious surprise at... well, relatively gentler words than were expected, that much is certain. And... perhaps, feeling a little humbled at the vehemence (or lack thereof, telling in its own right) with which Ayame expresses herself at the idea of Frei's spirit -- for it can be none other than he -- sacrificing itself to save the woman whose body keeps it anchored to this world.
But in the end, it makes her smile.
"I can probably do that. She's strong, you know... not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. But -- and this is just a guess -- I think she's very lonely." A pause, and then nothing more is said about that subject. Instead, Aya changes tracks almost instantly... perhaps a little TOO abruptly. "Tell her the truth, Ayame. That's all I ask. Don't sugarcoat it or hide it. She can handle it. And... I want her to be able to make decisions by her own will. So tell her! Be honest with her. Let her make up her own mind."
For a moment, there is silence. And then Aya shakes out her arms, stretches her legs... a host of small physical movements, as if she weren't used to having a body at all and was test driving it to make sure it all works for a second. But then she very carefully situates herself back into sitting seiza, as if she were a housesitter getting everything ready for the owner to come home... which might not be far from the truth.
That done, the green-eyed gaze settles itself on Ayame for a moment, and perhaps surprisingly, the look on Aya's face is... almost agonized. Clearly an internal struggle is going on, until finally, she clears her throat. "I wanted to tell you..."
Her mouth hangs open a moment, silent, then closes. Another awkward beat passes. "I wanted... whuf." Shaking her head, she takes one deep breath. "I wanted you to know: your love saved Seishirou, you know. In its own way, in the end. And I think... I think if you love him still, then maybe... that could still happen."
Hands come up, resting on her knees. Eyes are closed. Aya is still for a moment, until one eye opens, glinting with genuine mirth. "But don't tell him I said that."
The eye closes again. Her breathing resumes being long and deep, until the dark red streaks fade from her hair, and... in fact, the swordswoman topples over on her side unceremoniously, blissfully unconscious.
"Nn," the miko grunts regarding the swordswoman's strength. She lacks the context to judge, having only just met the woman tonight, her response neither agreeing or disagreeing with the assessment offered. He remarks that she is very lonely and Ayame exhales softly, looking for a moment as if she's irritated at having to hear about the woman's problem, arms lifting to fold in front of her. Maybe it touched a bit too close to home.
"Yes, yes, I will." she states when he tells her to be straight forward with his host, right arm lifting to wave away the topic dismissively. "I was only evasive to keep her interested. Couldn't have her wandering off to some crack pot instead once I knew her lineage. I'll tell her what I know. Well." she frowns slightly, "Half of it, anyway. I'm not going to talk about the past like some kind of whack job. That'll just send her running for the gate out of here before I get through explaining anything."
She falls quiet then as well, watching her client move about slightly before finally settling down again. There is no doubt in her mind that their dialogue is nearly at an end and thought is sobering, her mouth forming a faint frown, her hands once more in her lap.
Eyes widen slightly when it becomes clear that there is something else to share, though it doesn't come as easily as his window of control is fading fast. A thin eyebrow arcs slightly - something to tell her? Her head cants ever so slightly to the right, the girl leaning forward a little. The message better get delivered at this rate or she's going to end up strangling someone!!
But when it finally comes, Ayame recoils, drawn back, brown eyes widened, her mouth opening with the intent of immediately protesting such a ludicrous idea only to not find herself capable of uttering a word. She closes her mouth, lips pressed together tightly to the point of them actually being sucked in a little, cheeks blushing with a touch of rosiness.
Her eyes stay wide for a moment before she realizes her company has fallen completely asleep. "Hmph." Leaning forward, she presses her hands against the wooden floor before using the leverage to get up to her feet. She stands in place for a long moment, lifting her face to the ceiling above, her hair continuing to play about her shoulders from the wind blowing from behind her.
He's right, she tells herself, as she moves back over to the shelving in the back where she retrieves a large cloth used for placing relics and decorations on during various ceremonies within the room. If anyone can pull the Ryouhara scion back from the edge of madness, it would be herself, right? Who else possibly could?
Returning to the resting Aya, the girl drapes it over like a blanket before settling back down to sit on her own mat, pulling her knees up against her chest as she wraps her arms around her legs and rests her chin on her knees. She can only wonder at what the experience tonight has taken from the woman who has entrusted so much to her. She'll let her rest...
Whenever she wakes, the lightly snoozing priestess will fulfill her promise to explain everything she can to the mystified, wearied host... And then her research will have to begin.
"I have a feeling I might have to /write/ the book on this one," she murmurs beneath her breath as she allows her eyes to close in order to catch a light nap herself.
Log created on 22:18:59 08/19/2016 by Ayame, and last modified on 04:23:02 08/28/2016.