About damn time, the girl wanted to scream when she heard the bar on the outside being removed. Despite her anger, she managed to keep quiet and watch the villagers opening the door.
“Forgive me for taking so long,” an old woman said. She never even glanced at Ei and Tadayoshi as the men by her side closed the door.
Despite the words, the girl felt no regret on the old woman’s voice, and that only added to her anger. Ei had no idea for how long they waited, but she knew it had been too much.
In this windowless prison, it’s hard to tell how much time has passed… Maybe making us wait like this is a tactic to worn us down, she thought, observing the old woman and the men helping her walk.
The fire Tadayoshi had lit was almost out but the air was hot, stale, and hard to breathe. Both she and her master had undressed their heavy clothes, but even so, they still sweated. Not even the cold breeze when the villagers opened the door softened the heat.
The old woman dragged her feet slowly until she was before Tadayoshi and Ei. With the help of the two young men, she sat. More villagers entered the house and stood by the entrance like guards. After the last one entered, she closed the door quickly, but not before Ei saw more people standing outside.
In that brief moment, the girl saw many villagers holding tools. Without closing her eyes, she expanded her senses. The house’s surrounded, Ei realized, holding her breath as she glanced at her master. As discreetly as she could, she brought her sword closer.
The old woman took her time staring Tadayoshi and his sword, barely paying any attention to his disciple. This time the girl didn’t mind. She too wasn’t paying attention to the old woman. Ei was more interested in her bodyguards. The way they stare at Tadayoshi made her feel uneasy.
“My name Otose and I’m this village leader,” she said in a weak and frail voice. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before speaking again. “Sorry I took so long to come. This old body can’t stand the cold like before. It hurts my bones…”
“No, please. Don’t apologize. We’re glad we found a place to rest,” Tadayoshi said, speaking only to the leader, ignoring the men behind her. Even so, he never took his eyes off any of the people inside the room.
How can you do that, master? Ei should be used to that kind of stare too, but the men’s gazes were sinister. There was no hate nor anger nor anything else she was familiar.
It’s more like… they pity us like… as if we’re two pathetic and strange beings. That was what made her unease. She had no idea how to react to that. It’d be better if they feared us… She knew hate and fear more than she should.
Ei wanted to hold her sword, to wrap her fingers around the handle that was a perfect match for her hand. Her instincts told her to do that. But before she could do anything, her master placed a hand on her back and forced her to bow while he did the same.
“I’m Tadayoshi and this is my little sister, Eiko. We were traveling with a group, but we passed by the village at the foot of this mountain, some bandits ambushed us. Some of us managed to escape but we got separated and then lost. If not for that man’s kindness, me and my little sister would still be there in the forest.”
Tadayoshi shivered, and Ei realized half of it was real. So he was unease at that creepy forest too…. She felt both glad and relieved. So I wasn’t the only one…and he’s not completely obsessed with the rumors…
“If it’s not too much trouble, please, let us stay here and rest for a while before going back to our journey.” Tadayoshi lowered his head.
“Please. Just for a little while,” Ei said in a weak and frightened voice, showing a few fake tears before bowing like the swordsman. Without a word, the disciple could tell her master approved.
When the girl raised her head again, she saw the villagers exchanging glances among themselves. Ei could tell most didn’t want to let them stay, but they showed no reaction. They’re good, she thought, looking at each one.
There was only one villager, a woman, who had something akin to a smile. But Tadayoshi showed no sign he had noticed; he only had eyes for the leader. Even so, Ei knew her master had noticed their reactions.
The old woman also showed no reaction. She didn’t appear to be older than fifty, but the harsh life in the mountain had taken its toll on her appearance and left its marks. The leader was missing a couple fingers on her left hand, her face was covered with scars, part of her right ear was missing and one of her eyes was pale.
Is she blind from that eye? Ei wondered as she shifted on her place a little, her legs stiff from sitting in the same position for so long.
The leader’s good eye focused on her for a second before turning her attention back to the swordsman. The girl felt a shiver down her body. If it was me under that eye for so long, there’s no way I could take it… She closed her fist to stop the trembling.
It wasn’t the stare of someone full of hate. It was a cold and dead stare, of someone who wouldn’t hesitate to do anything in order to save those she cared. There’s no way she’ll let a couple of strangers stay… Even if she ends up condemning us to death, she’ll makes us leave right now…
“Of course we don’t expect it to be for free. Ei.”
Tadayoshi didn’t need to say much else. Inside the bag, there were items they had prepared for occasions like this. Though she didn’t like the idea, Ei knew what might help the old woman incline towards let them stay.
To hide the rest of the content from the villagers, Ei unwrapped the cloth around the blades of two axes without taking it from the bag. She took the two tool that could be used as weapon and handed it to her master. Hope they don’t try to use it on us, the disciple thought.
“I know it’s not much, but I hope this can help in these times,” Tadayoshi said, offering the gifts with both hands, making sure he didn’t close his fingers around the shaft.
As Ei closed the bag, she pulled her sword closer, ready to react to any sudden movements.
The old woman didn’t move. In fact, she didn’t even glance her eye at the axes her master offered. She kept staring at Tadayoshi with the cold and with the dead eye that seemed to look through one’s soul.
“You and your sister can stay until you’re well enough to travel,” she said at last, her voice in the same frail demeanor. But to Ei, there was something imposing on her tone. “But I recommend don’t staying too long. Despite building this house for lost travelers, times have changed. We don’t appreciate strangers that much.”
Like you had to say that. We’re not blind, Ei thought, breathing out in relief when one of the guards took the axes from Tadayoshi’s hands.
“Thank you very much for your kindness,” the swordsman said, bowing again. Ei imitated her master.
The old woman bowed, if barely, to them. Then, with the help of her bodyguards, she stood up.
“By any chance, did more people show up?” Tadayoshi asked when she was by the door. “I’m worried about my group. Perhaps the bandits followed us…”
“No. You’re the first ones to come up here in a while,” the leader said after some thinking. Some of the villagers exchanged quick nervous glances but kept quiet.
“No one…” Tadayoshi ran a hand on his worried face. “P-perhaps that’s good sign, right? I mean, the village at the foot of the mountain was destroyed but if the bandits don’t come up here, maybe they’re okay. Lost in the forest, but still alive…”
No one answered him.
“Could be,” Otose said curtly before leaving the house.
The villagers outside became serious when the door opened. Before anyone closed it again, Ei saw the leader saying something. The others seemed relieved and began to disperse, including the ones surrounding the house.
As the silence settled, a young woman opened the door. She had a tray with two portions of millet with an egg at the top and placed it before the outsiders.
Ei thanked for the food in the same weak and frightened voice, all still part of her act. Even so, her words were true. After the tense mood had gone, the girl realized how starving she was. Tadayoshi picked up the chopsticks and smelled the food.
“Seems delicious,” he said, smiling at the woman. She widened her eyes, made a reverence and left the house.
When she opened the door, Ei noticed there were still some villagers around their prison room. Finally alone, her master’s smile vanished as he massaged his shoulders.
“I thought the old lady would make us leave right now.” The swordsman stretched his arms while still sitting. “The last thing I wanted was to go back to that creepy forest… What’s wrong?” he asked when he noticed his disciple strangely quiet.
Ei hadn’t touched the food yet. She had enough experience to suspect anything given by suspicious people. Eyeing her food, she took a portion of the millet covered with the yolk with the chopsticks and smelled. It doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it, she thought, before nibbling. As she chewed, she realized there was nothing strange, and took a bigger portion.
“How did you know?” she asked with her mouth full.
“Their reaction,” he said with a serious expression. “If they’re not used to put anything suspicious on the food, most people will get nervous. That woman didn’t seem like she had. And before you asked, no one else around us seemed like that either. But to be honest, the most important clue is that if you’re okay after eating it, it must be safe.” With a smile, her master picked up a generous portion and ate.
Ei was too hungry to feel anger.
“What do you think it’s wrong with this village?” she asked when they finished.
“So much I don’t even know where to start.” Tadayoshi stopped drinking from the bamboo bottle and cleaned his mouth with the back of the hand. “From the tracks, the soldiers did run to this mountain. There’s no way the villagers wouldn’t notice that many people coming up in their land. Even with that creepy forest. Either they all got lost and died, or the old lady is lying. And they seemed too worried with only two travelers, one which was hurt. At the very least, they’re hiding something.”
Ei agreed with her master, but there was something else bothering her. Something she couldn’t put her finger on it. Maybe it was the villagers’ stare. And the old lady’s. I can understand her, but still… With no idea what to think, the girl gave up and went to sleep a restless sleep.
Despite her bad first impression, the village’s daily life was like any other. Every villager woke early and did their morning chores. But when Tadayoshi and Ei came closer, they stopped whatever they were doing and watched the outsiders with suspicion.
Even covering their swords with a cloth made no difference; the villager’s stares were the same as yesterday. As I thought, it’s not hate… It’s more as if they had never seen such deplorable existence… It’d be strange if a village accepted strangers just out of the goodness of their hearts but…
Something else also caught Ei’s attention. The children. The few she saw were playing onigokko. The kid chosen as oni would chase the others, and whomever the kid caught would become the new oni and would chase the others. By the end of the play, the kid who had been the oni most times would have to do a dare. Ei played it a lot back home and was proud of the fact she barely had to do any dare in her entire life.
But the swordswoman had never seen children playing in such a sad way. They ran, sweated, and shouted. All with smiles on their faces. But to Ei, it was hard to watch. She could tell they weren’t really having fun. All those smiles were fake.
It’s like they’re forcing themselves to play… to act like kids, the girl thought. She remembered their guide. If I’m right, he had just buried someone, maybe his kid… that would explain why these kids look so sad. But then, why would they force themselves to do play?
Knowing it would be hard to get any information from the grown-ups, Tadayoshi made his disciple approached the kids.
“Do you really think I can get anything from them?” she asked, but she knew she would end up doing anyway.
“Better than nothing,” he said, giving her a tug.
The disciple sighed and walked towards the kids. But she was right. The children weren’t playing for real. All of them, without exception, fled when Ei got close enough.
“I told you” she said when she got back.
“That was weird. Even though you look, you aren’t old enough for them to run away like that. Or do you smell that bad?”
“That’s the best you have today? Besides, compared to you, even a rotten corpse doesn’t smell so bad.”
After so long with her master, the disciple had developed a way to counter his constants jokes. But there was a limit. If Ei talked back too much, he would increase the jokes to an annoying level.
“It will be hard to get any information from anyone. What are we gonna do?” She changed the topic quickly.
Before he could say anything, his stomach answered for him, rumbling.
That’s the best way to shut him up, Ei thought, snorting and covering her mouth to hide her smile.
The villagers hadn’t talked to them, less alone offered any food. We’re ghosts to them… maybe that’s their not so subtle way of telling us to get out. The disciple would be glad to do that, but her master would never consider dismissing a rumor.
“We’ll hardly get any food from them… we should search if there’re any fruits outside the village…” Tadayoshi stopped talking when two villagers passed by them.
One of them carried a big sack while the other followed him carrying tools. They ignored the outsiders but greeted a couple cutting firewood. The woman placed the small logs on a tree stump and the man brought down the ax a couple times until they had two pieces. The wife collected the wood and placed it on top of the others close by.
Ei noticed the ax the husband used was one his master had given. So they think those axes are worth one meal each? They cost much more than that, she thought, staring.
As the woman cleaned the sweat and placed another log, she noticed the swordswoman looking at her. She smiled at the girl but when she saw Tadayoshi by her side, she got back to her chore with a frightened expression.
“She was inside our prison yesterday with the leader… she was the only one who didn’t stare at us like we were pitiful… well, to you,” Tadayoshi said.
So you noticed that too, Ei thought, not surprised. Even with so many people inside that cramped space, her master would hardly let something like that go by without noticing.
The swordsman stared at the woman for a while. So far, he only got her to glance at him a couple times. “Ask her if there’s a temple or sanctuary around here,” he ordered his disciple.
“Just ask,” he insisted.
Ei sighed and nodded, but on the inside, she thought it would hardly result in something. Who’d talk to a ghost asking where the temple is? That’s like, bad luck or something… Even so, she had to at least try.
As discreetly as she could, she pressed her lips as she handed Asahi to her master. Even if probably every villager saw or knew she too carried a sword, the chances of getting any information from anyone should be higher if she was unarmed. But, as a swordswoman, Ei hated walking around without her sword. It’s like I’m naked and expose in this strange and hostile place, she thought.
The woman was placing another log on the stump to her husband to cut. When she noticed Ei, she placed the cut firewood with the rest and turned to the girl.
“E-excuse me,” Ei said in a low voice, stuttering on purpose.
She made sure to glance at the man and then look at the ground, pretending to fear him. The girl had learned adults tended to drop their guard when she did that. Even bandits.
The man stopped the ax in midair and turned to her, cleaning the sweat from his brow with the free hand. With cold eyes, he stared at her.
“C-could you please t-tell me where the t-temple is?” she asked in a squeaking voice, looking at the woman all the time while trying to make herself as small as she could
The couple exchanged glances for a moment.
“Why do you wanna know?” There was no cordiality on the man’s voice. “What do you wanna do there?”
I have more chance of getting anything from that ax than from him, she thought. But even so, she was satisfied with his reaction. It was exactly what she had planned.
“You don’t need to be so rude, honey. She’s just a little girl who’s been through enough,” the woman said, giving her husband a hard look.
“She’s an outsider,” he said in a hushed voice. “We don’t need to speak with that kind.”
But the woman turned to Ei with a smile. The girl flashed a shy smile to her. “You’re Eiko-chan, right? The temple is a little north from here.” The man took a deep breath and shook his head, but that didn’t stop his wife. “But the path… it might be dangerous if you don’t know the area. Why do you want to visit it?”
Shit! She had to ask… I need to come up with a lie. Fast! Ei had been trying to think of a lie during the short walk to the couple. But she couldn’t come up with anything. Normally I’d think something beforehand… if not for Tadayoshi… Cursing her master in her mind, she looked at the ground and fidgeted her fingers, trying to buy some time.
“I… I…” If I say something without thinking, it could ruin our cover-up story… If it’s too bad, we might have to leave the village right away… “I wanna… I mean…we want… want to… make an offering… to our late mother…” Ei managed to say, surprising even herself.
As the words came out of her mouth, a sad smile appeared. It’s been a while since I thought mom…
Around the time of her death, Ei wanted to make some kind of offering to her. Nothing big or fancy. Just something so her mother wouldn’t think she had forgotten about her. But the daughter couldn’t.
At the time, Tadayoshi’s whereabouts were discovered, and they were being chased day and night. They couldn’t even think of something other than surviving. We managed to get rid of those guys, but I forgot about mom… maybe now I can offer her something.
Think about her mother so suddenly made the girl’s eyes teary. She wasn’t crying, but she forced herself to look down. Even though it would help to get more information, she didn’t use her tears. Pretend to be vulnerable was one thing; to show a real weakness to strangers was another.
But there was something else too. Ei knew she would feel too guilty if she used her mother like that.
“Eiko-chan… I’m so sorry for you lost,” the woman said in a voice filled with emotion.
Only after the girl had controlled her emotions she raised her head. The woman looked at her with pity in her while her husband looked away. Without a word, she raced inside her home. A few moments later, she came back with two rice balls and handed them to the girl.
“I know it’s not much, but take these as offering for you mom,” the woman said with a low voice.
With her mouth half open, Ei thanked the couple with a clumsy bow and walked away without saying a word. I shouldn’t have used my mom for this, she thought as she looked at the food offering. The swordswoman was already used to lies by now. But it was the first time she felt guilty.
Tadayoshi was eyeing the food the entire time. When the girl got close enough, his stomach reacted, but he didn’t ask for the rice balls. He looked at her in the eyes for a moment before handing his disciple’s sword back.
Ei could tell her master had realized what she was thinking. He’ll listen to me, but I don’t wanna talk about that. Not now, not here, in this creepy village. The girl looked at the ground, pressing her lips. Her master, instead of saying anything, turned around and walked to the nearest village exit. Thanks, master, she thought, going after him.
“A little north,” Tadayoshi mumbled as he pushed a branch out of the way. “These mountain idiots have no notion of distance. They think that if anything is within the damn mountain, is close…”
Ei had lost count of how many times her master had said that. But she couldn’t tell him to shut up; she felt the same.
Midday had come and gone, but the forest didn’t change, nor the temple appeared. It’s the same was yesterday, the girl thought, dropping her shoulders.
The path to the temple was the same as the fake path to the village. The trees seemed to lead them to nowhere and would let them there forever, in that cold and strange mountain.
At least this time they were more prepared. The moment they stepped inside the forest, and realized it was the same as the fake path, her master pulled a knife and began carving on the trunks. Despite having a trail back to the village, Ei felt couldn’t help but feel that they would still end up lost.
“I don’t know why you wanna go to a temple,” Ei mumbled while she tried to carve on a tree.
Halfway up the day, Tadayoshi gave up and handed her the knife with a sour mood, ordering her to do it. This shit is more tiresome than I imagined…
The trunks were hard and, using one hand on the small blade, the girl spent more time making a simple cut than she should. Ei thought about giving up as well, but the small marks where the only thing showing them the way back. We can’t count on another creepy guy showing up to lead us back to the village.
“Besides, it wouldn’t be so bad if we hadn’t left the path for too long. Now we can’t be sure we’re going north,” she said, looking up. Thanks to the treetops and the clouds, it was hard to tell where the sun was. Hope we’re still going north…
“Ah, well, I’m sorry that I don’t have your skill of walking through rocks,” her master snapped back.
Ei held back her answer. She knew he wasn’t just angry for getting lost. Most of his sour mood was due to hunger.
At first, Tadayoshi said nothing, even though he eyed the rice balls with envy. But after a while, his stomach spoke louder.
But Ei didn’t give the food to him. It might have started as a half lie, but now she truly wanted to make an offering to her mother.
Her master didn’t insist, feeling it was important to his disciple. But that didn’t make his hunger go away. They hadn’t seen a single animal around and the few fruits they found were old, shriveling and hard. Most were a step away from rotting.
Tadayoshi said it was better than staying hungry as he collected the fruits. Even though he ate many, Ei couldn’t eat more than one of those peaches. In fact, after the first bite, she ended up eating half a worm, and lost her appetite as she spat.
“Finally… a little to the north,” Tadayoshi said, snorting.
While she was making another carving, Ei realized her master had gone. The disciple had to race to keep up with him. When she caught up to him, she saw what lessened his bad mood.
Though they could hardly call it a temple, since wasn’t bigger than the prison-house in the village, the building was definitely religious. But as she stared at it, Ei couldn’t share her master’s happiness. There’s something strange here…
Ei had spent most of her time, when she wasn’t traveling, in a temple after she left her village and could recognize and spot the differences in the religious buildings. The one before she couldn’t be called religious. Not for its size. The place where most village prayed were nothing more than a small box that, according to them, it was where the spirit of the rice lived.
This building had no foundation. Even the simplest house had some sort of foundation. That way it wouldn’t stand directly on ground. The temples and sanctuaries were the same, with a wooden foundation or a solid rock base. Even the praying boxes were built in a similar way. But it wasn’t the case here.
And the roof, Ei stared at it. The edges were supposed to be round due to some religious purpose the girl couldn’t remember. But this roof was just like any other house, simple. The pillars supporting it were just carved trunks, with no symbol or painting. The walls were exposed and had no painting. The door, made of pure wood, had no drawing or even rice paper. There wasn’t even a small stair. No matter how low the foundation was, it needed stairs for rituals involving the elderly women.
“Was this really built the priests?” Ei knew it couldn’t be, but she still asked. This temple or sanctuary was so weird that even she, who had little knowledge, thought it was strange.
“I don’t know,” Tadayoshi admitted, feeling one of the pillars with a hand. “It doesn’t look like it… maybe the original structure broke or rotten and the villagers replaced it whatever way they could. Or perhaps this—”
“Isn’t… the real… one,” a panting voice spoke behind them.
I didn’t notice someone again? Despite her surprise, Ei drew her sword and turned around to the voice.
Tadayoshi turned around too, but without drawing his sword.
“When Masa said that idiot couple sent someone, I thought it was you,” Tadayoshi said, smiling and walking to the newcomer. “You’re the only priest who’d agree to come to this end-of-world place.”
When Ei realized who it was, she sheathed her sword and raced to the newcomer, wrapping her arms around him.
“It’s… been a while… Eiko-chan,” the priest said, smiling despite panting. Even as he rested against a tree to recover his breath, he hugged the girl back.
Ei took one of the bamboo bottles and gave to her teacher. Ryuu drank in two gulps, coughing. After he cleaned his mouth, he stared at the rice balls, his stomach growling.
His student handed one to him without him asking. Knowing him, I doubt he’d ever ask, Ei thought.
“Thanks… Eiko-chan… you’re a… lifesaver…” He ate the food in three bites and cleaned the leftover rice from his mouth with the back of the hand. “I hope… Tadayoshi isn’t… giving you… too much trouble.”
“Hey, why he can have one and not me? Give me the other.” Her master tried to take the rice ball from her hands.
“No!” Ei hugged the food and used her body as a shield, protecting the only rice ball left. “Ryuu-sensei is tired from coming all the way up here. That’s why he gets one.”
“Unlike me, who was flying so far, right? I’m exhausted too! Give me that!” Tadayoshi reached out, but Ei turned around, hitting him with the backpack.
The anger crossed her master’s face. Oh, shit… Without thinking, Ei raced to stand behind the priest.
“C’mon, Tadayoshi… don’t get angry… at your disciple… for something like this,” Ryuu said, smiling.
The anger on Tadayoshi’s face disappeared as he calmed down.
Ei smiled but made sure to hide it from her master. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him like this. Ryuu-sensei is one of the few people Tadayoshi could call a friend.
When Ei met the man, she couldn’t contain her surprise when she realized he and her master were friends. The priest and the swordsman were the complete opposites. Ryuu was gentle, polite and even complained about Tadayoshi’s constant teasing her.
“I’m glad Masa-san managed to find you, Tadayoshi. Ever since Kaguya-sama sent me on this mission, I have been looking for a way to tell you about it.”
“Yeah, and he almost killed my disciple. But that doesn’t matter.”
“Hey,” Ei complained.
“What do you mean this isn’t the real one?” Tadayoshi ignored Ei and ran a hand on one of the pillars. “It’s weird all right, but isn’t the real one?”
“I checked three times now and I’m sure this place isn’t marked on any of our maps.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
Ryuu’s cheeks became red as he avoided meeting Tadayoshi’s eyes. Ei could tell it wasn’t because of the exhaustion.
“I got lost in the forest,” the priest admitted in a low voice. “After days here, I finally heard some people and followed them. When I realized it was you two, I tried calling, but neither one heard me. You two walk too fast.”
The priest smiled. When Tadayoshi smiled back and gave him a friendly slap on the back, he almost fell down.
With Ei’s help, Ryuu stood up and took a carefully rolled up piece of paper from his inside his clothes, handing it to his friend.
As Tadayoshi unrolled, Ei saw it was a map of the mountain. Even though she couldn’t understand the land markings well, she observed it with great interest. Her master knew how to read maps, but since he rarely had one, he didn’t bother to teach her. The little she knew was thanks to old and unused maps she could find in the temples.
After a few instants, her master put a finger around the east part of the mountain. Ei knew the dot meant a village. There were other marks around like that, but that one was the closest to the center of the map, which she assumed it was the top of the mountain. She followed her master’s fingers to a mark isolated in the middle of the forest.
“Little north my ass… or those two are complete idiots, or they were trying to make a fool of us,” Tadayoshi said, breathing hard through his nose.
Ei stared at the map, trying to understand the reason of Tadayoshi’s anger. But no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t figure out on her own. “What’s the matter? Did the woman lied to me?”
With a gentle smile, the priest turned the map to her.
“Take a look, Eiko-chan. According to the map, the real temple is west of the village.” Ryuu looked at the building. “And there’s nothing on this map about this temple. Maybe the villagers abandoned the original one and now they’re using this one. That explains why they sent you two here… It’s been too long since we checked this region… we’ve been too busy in the last few years…”
Ei tried to cheer up her teacher with a smile. “Since you’re going to the temple, let’s go together.”
“What a brilliant idea. I’d never thought of that. Thank the heavens you’re here to share your wisdom,” her master said, bowing to her.
“Stop picking on her, Tadayoshi. She’s your precious disciple.” The priest rolled the map and put inside his clothes again.
“Unfortunately, I’m used to it.”
Before Ei went after the two men, she turned to the building. Even though she knew it wasn’t the real one, she couldn’t stop feel something spiritual about it. She walked to the entrance, placed the rice ball on the front door, and then put her hands together and prayed for her mother. Then she raced after her master and her teacher.
The map didn’t make much difference. There was no marking nor any kind of path. The villagers did really abandon the original temple, Ei thought.
The priest couldn’t keep with the girl and the swordsman, so they had to slow down, prolonging the walk. Their only luck was that they found a tree which still had some good fruits lefts. And by the looks of it, the only good ones in this area, the swordswoman thought.
Ei picked up as much she could; though the fruits weren’t exactly fresh, they were good enough to make her master shut up for a while. But to be sure, she sliced the fruit with the knife, checking if there weren’t any worm again before taking a bite.
It was almost completely dark by the time they finally reached the real temple. Or at least what was left.
The real one was about five times bigger, occupying from one side to the other of the huge clearing in the forest. The rock foundation was in complete ruins. Ei thought the temple would sink in on itself at any time. One of the outer walls had broken and part of the ceiling had given away. Only less than half seemed entire.
Ei and Ryuu approached the temple as Tadayoshi circled the building.
“Wait,” the girl asked when the priest was about to pull a pillar blocking the still usable part of the entrance. The swordswoman drew her sword as she pointed up.
The wood on the top was rotten and broken. Ryuu-sensei nodded nervously and took a few steps back. With one move, Ei cut the pillar.
The ceiling came down with a great crash. After the dust settled, they both moved the rubbles with care and cleared a usable path to the entrance.
The inner part was even worse than the outside. The temple had two rooms. The first was the ample one, where they made the rituals. But with the partially fallen ceiling, it was impossible to investigate much beyond the door.
But even so, Ei noticed one thing; the floor didn’t look as it had caved in. It had a huge hole. That looks more like something broke from beneath.
The priest noticed that as well. But unlike Ei, who was surprised and curious, his face filled with dread, the color leaving his cheeks.
Before she could ask, Tadayoshi appeared behind them, staring at the hole too. Just like the priest, the swordsman’s eyes filled with fear.
“What did you guys put in here?” Tadayoshi asked in a low and serious voice.
“Please, understand, Tadayoshi. We couldn’t transport it without awakening it. We had to leave it here…” Ryuu-sensei answered, his voice full of guilt.
Leave what here? Ei wanted to ask but knew she felt she shouldn’t interrupt the moment.
“W-we took all the necessary precautions… Once a year we came up here and made sure the seals were stable but…”
“But what, Ryuu?” Tadayoshi insisted, standing in his full height.
Ei couldn’t follow the conversation. She looked between her master and her teacher. The priest shook his head while Tadayoshi stared him.
“A while ago, we felt something wrong in this region. Kaguya-sama didn’t want to believe, but it must have awakened…”
“What awakened?” Ei asked, her curiosity too strong.
But before they answered, the images of the statues crossed her mind. Yashamaru… no… it’s not possible. Demons… they’re just stories to scare kids, Ei told herself, but without she realized it, she was clutching the handle of her sword, trying to believe in her own words.
Neither Tadayoshi nor Ryuu was looking at her.
But as the silence filled the temple, a scream echoed through the mountain, so loud Ei felt her entire body shaking.
It was as if the mountain itself had shrieked.
Tadayoshi left the temple with his sword in hand. Ei did the same and followed her master, with Ryuu right behind her.