Eyes watched her every step. She could feel them, but every time she turned there was nothing to see, just the lingering feeling that she was momentarily too late. She pressed on, the air cooling as she continued to climb and yet nothing could quench the fire inside her. As she walked she burned with an inner fury that had come from nowhere and as far as she could tell for no reason. Four or five cycles ago she had been a normal girl and then it had happened, she shook her head to fight the memories.
The blisters on her feet were soothed by the soft carpet of pine needles covering the forest floor. She couldn’t remember when she had decided to abandon her slippers to the wilderness. A solitary snowflake danced down through the silent pines and landed on her shoulder. The gentle kiss of cold drew a small smile to the grim girl’s face, transforming her, a glimmer of who she was not long ago. As she watched it rapidly melted and the water began to sizzle and then it was gone. A mask of resolute determination settled back across her countenance and she gestured to her hidden followers the trek was resuming.
The snow picked up and eventually whirled around her obscuring her vision and hearing, she felt no adverse effect as the world turned white but a shiver of realisation shuddered through her. Whatever was following her would have the edge on her now. While she had never been much of a fighter she had managed to hold her own with the boys of her village and her new found curse at least meant she could deter most direct threats.
A sound from behind her stopped her in her tracks, spinning she turned and yet again there was nothing to see. She stood chest heaving up and down, frustration building within. Suddenly the serenity of the snow covered forest was shattered, from deep in the forest came the howl of a beast. As she waited the knee high snow melted around her, through the giant black pillars of the trees strode a giant demon, an Oni; it’s bare red chest latticed with the scars of battle. She felt a moment of doubt ‘Is this what I am to become?’ She feared. The demon stood staring at her, unmoving, an enormous war beast pulled on thick chains that wrapped around it’s throat and bound it to it’s owner. All around her horrible little demons emerged from the shadows, chittering and cackling. Another approached the oni, different to his fellows, a giant bat perched on his arm and what could only be a bear trap, no, she thought with grim realisation a man trap! It exchanged inaudible words and then slunk away, where it disappeared into the shadows it was hard to distinguish where the darkness ended and the Bakemono began.
As they stood there, solitary girl staring down her fate, the snowfall began to abate, as if the Kami’s themselves wanted a better view of the events about to unfold.
A pair of friends sat together in the temple gardens, deep in meditation. Perfect calm emanated from the two as younger monks played around them. Riku slyly opened one eye to watch the children at play, they noticed and looked on. Riku grinned, remaining in position he summoned two small balls of water, they slowly formed and became perfect spheres growing larger and larger. They shifted, floating through the air. The novices gasped as the water moved to hover over Kenko. The sudden collective sound returned Kenko to consciousness. He frowned happily across at his companion, playful suspicion creasing his features. The temple bell pealed out across the gardens causing Riku’s concentration to slip.
The temple seniors stood before Ekusa, concern on every face. Riku couldn’t help but smile sideways at Kenko, as he stood, dripping all over Ekusa’s floor. Ekusa merely raised an inquisitive eyebrow in their direction before explaining all… As they filed out Ekusa asked Riku to remain. “Riku this will be your biggest test yet, the threat to the temple is unparalleled,” Ekusa imparted gravely.
“Yes Master, I understand, and if I can’t contain it?” Riku replied with unnatural gravitas for the normally carefree monk. The question was left to hang in the air as Ekusa returned to his meditation.
Stock still, she watched. The chain unwound from the arm slowly but surely and like a hidden signal the Bakemono began their advance. Hotaru felt her power well up inside her, she tried to fight it but it wasn’t enough. The fire poured forth from her, covering her entire body in flames, she felt the flow and embraced it, relishing in it. A fiery dome pulsed out from her, immersing the nearest Bakemono, they screamed and skittered away from the girl and the fire. The Oni released the Nian, unleashed it raced forward, scattering the Bakemono. It entered the fire, slowing as the heat intensified, before the pain wrenched a pitiful howl and it withdrew.
As she watched her enemies fall back, hatred fuelled her and she let go of the power, of control, of herself.
Riku’s party had travelled far from the Temple of Ro-Kan and they trudged now through forest thick with snow. They had settled down and made camp for the night and then a bright flash lit up the sky. The camp erupted into a flurry of activity, each and every monk knowing this was exactly why they were here.
They left their provisions and ran through the forests silently, each monk focussing on the battle to come. The thick snow impeded their progress as they made way towards the dimming light downhill.
Riku was the first to emerge into the charred clearing. A girl lay in the centre of the blackened stumps, Riku judged she must have around 14 years to her name and was on her way to adulthood, she looked normal enough, hair tied up in two bunches. Normal that is, except for the raging fire storm that angrily swirled around her unconscious frame.
Riku scanned for threats, judging the threat to have passed he took the time to center himself and collect his strength. Even from the edge of the clearing the heat emanating from the girl gently warmed his cheeks, while the cold mountain winds clawed at his back. He got as close as was comfortable and drew forth the water. He forced the water closer to the flames and it balked at the heat, it’s edges hissing and steaming, he looked on incredulously as his water dissipated away before the strength of the girl. He dug deep inside of himself and pushed outwards, the water replenishing and expanding, slowly it took a foot hold against the fire and began to envelop it in a dome of water.
Riku, managed to envelop the fire but could go no further, he fought on but had no more to give. Strength waning he allowed himself to consider the meaning behind the silence he had faced in Ekusa’s office. He knew that if not containable the threat would be too great a threat to the people of the Jwar Isles. Here, now though, as he looked down on the girl he knew that he could never make the right choice for the greater good.
As he made his decision and was about to withdraw from the fight with what little strength he had left, he felt the icy winds fortify him. The cold pulsed it’s way down through his water to join the fray between the elements. At the very edges the water started to form into crystals, lattices rippled and then solidified across it, an icy cage. It forced downwards until it wrapped itself around the girl. And then it was done, Riku staggered backwards, voicing a silent prayer to the kami’s for their timely assistance.
He watched on as Kenko took control of the situation marshalling the awestruck monks, posting sentries and ordering others to create a pallet with which to pull the purpose of their mission back to the temple. Riku shook his head as the seemingly pointless donkeys which Ekusa insisted on accompanying them were hooked upto the pallet.
‘Sly old fox,’ thought Riku, signalling the return of his mischievous grin and lightening his fatigued face.