Tendrils of smoke streamed from the incenses, hovering over the ground in wispy strands. In the eternal dusk of ThiarImeall, there was a strange comfort to be found in the half-light cast by the Sun that never rose or set in the sky. Distant and unreachable, its light forever slashed across the lower horizon where the Noon Gate led to ThiarImeall, casting the land in stark silhouette. But the darkness did nothing to mask the graves from her night-visioned eyes. Tiny graves mingled with those of adults that seemed so unnatural, particularly to a race unfamiliar with death.
“My Ancestors, who did this? Who committed this atrocity against our village?”
The Dusk Islands were an archipelago near the EarthWater Gate, the gate-way between ThiarImeall and ThuaidhImeall. Largely marshland like most places in the Realm of Water, they were covered in rice grass, paddies and swamp.
Getting to her feet, Aki stood amid the bald cypresses and weeping willows, looking out over what was left of her village. Like most Yugure Junin villages it consisted of networks of short footbridges, homes built on thick beams, shallow river ways and streets of water. But now the buildings were destroyed and left in ruin. Blood and viscera tainted the waterways.
Once the home of mostly rice farmers and fishermen, though there had been a smattering of soldiers among them, it now felt empty and lonely. As a people, both races of Junin were skilled martial artists and determined fighters, especially where their families and homes were concerned. She could not begin to wrap her mind around what type of creature had slaughtered so many, so efficiently.
Had it been demons, devils, oni or yōkai, she seriously doubted that the village itself would have still been standing. The same could be said if it was an attack by Yoake Junin, although the peasants would have been taken as prisoners rather than indiscriminately killed. Something wasn't adding up.
Gathering her things together, Aki stumbled through the maze of empty huts. Junin, she did not need as much sleep as those of the Mortal Races but she'd had no respite since her return. She'd been burying bodies and observing the proper rituals of burial ever since.
Sorrow weighed heavy on her heart as her zōri sank into the blood-soaked ground, the rice straw weave of the sandals turning red with each step. In some places it was so deep that it stained her white tabi socks, turning them a gruesome red-pink that strangely matched her red hakama. The flowing pants, like her once white kimono she wore them over, bore the marks of her toil, covered in smudges of dirt and blood.
Despite the death around her, she felt strangely numb as she made her way to the nearby waterfall and disrobed to bathe. Pulling the single white ribbon from her loose ponytail, she let her long, magenta hair fall loose past her waist. Covering her slightly pointed ears, it shadowed her face and hid her tears as she proceeded to wash the soot, dirt and blood from her skin.
She could not yet mourn. She would not. Anger festered in her heart making her gold eyes flash with a coldly detached fury. She had lost everyone. Her entire village was gone. Neighbors, friends, family... slaughtered by an un-known enemy. What was worse, she had not been there to protect them.
When she finished her ritual bathing, Aki carefully dressed in a clean white kosode, the loose shirt came past her waist and the sleeves fit close under her white hitoe. Tying the red strings running through the jacket's lapel to hold it closed, she pulled on a clean red hakama and tied a wide red obi about her waist.
Moving further into the forest, she made her way with familiar ease to the sacred pool that wound its way to the shrine. A secret place with waters so still that they reflected the surrounding trees in their perpetual autumnal color like a mirror, she set her fresh pair of tabi and her zōri on the shore and stepped into the cool water.
The waters swirled up and around her, carrying with them the voices of her people, her Ancestors and the kami that were the spirits of all things. With careful steps, she opened herself to the waters of ThiarImeall and sought their guidance. All too soon they answered with visions of events she had not been present to witness. A shadow in the dusk and a creature at his command that she did not know.
Startled, Aki took a step back, her eyes narrowing. She recognized the shadow.
Then the spirits filled her with their howling rage, their anguish of loss. Thoroughly possessed, she felt them touch her spiritual powers and ask inter-cession as they revealed all that had happened. Peasants, women and children cut down like sheaves of wheat. Mercilessly slaughtered, most before they even knew the danger was present. Blood filled her sight, pain wracked her body. Collapsing to her hands and knees in the water, she squeezed her eyes shut tight.
“I will” she gasped. “You have my sworn word, I will avenge your deaths.”
As suddenly as it began, everything stopped.
Struggling to catch her breath, Aki cautiously opened her eyes. For a long moment she stared into her reflection, watching her tears of blood send ripples across the water.
When she felt she could stand, she warily got to her feet and withdrew from the sacred pool. After pulling on her tabi socks, she slipped into her zōri and took off running back into the village. Now, she knew.
After retrieving her katana, bow and quiver full of sacred arrows from the shrine, she climbed the stone stairs beyond the grave mounds and empty homes. A steady incline up into the hillside, she made her way to the castle at the top, the Moon Palace of the Midori Clan that ruled their small island.
As befitting its name, the image of the moon and the Moon God, Tsukuyomi, dominated the engravings and statuary. The tiled roofs and stone path-ways were a vivid emerald green intricately laid against white crushed shells and marble. There were peaceful pools full of koi. A large pond filled with lotus flowers contained small islands and beautiful pavilion buildings. Sprawling pebble and water gardens spanned in between. Simpler gardens featuring bridges, rocks and gravel surrounded the temple balanced at the other end of the castle complex by a rustically simple tea garden with a stepping stone path that lined by stone lanterns led to the tea house and the washbasin used for ritual cleansing.
The emptiness echoed her footfalls as she crossed the open yards bathed in moonlight and navigated halls dressed in ghostly half-light. When she reached the Moon Chamber, the heart of the castle where its open roof allowed the fixed Dusk Moon to shine directly into the Moon Pool, she fell to her knees with her fists braced on the floor, her head bowed, her weapons lain beside her.
“My lord, forgive my intrusion.”
Dressed in a silvery white kimono and hakama fastened by a wide icy blue obi at the waist and the ankle of each leg tied off, creating a kind of ballooning effect that ended in soft black ankle-high boots, Lord Ryuunori was tall and slender. His straight silver hair was so long that it came down past his buttocks except where it was cut in bangs over his forehead. Although pushed behind his narrow pointy ears, combined with the tilt of his head it managed to shade his eyes from view as he turned from the torii gate framing the pool.
“Are the dead taken care of?”
“Yes, my lord.”
He had a heart-shaped face with two bright indigo slashes tattooed on each cheekbone, a mark of his nobility. Like others of their race, his skin was trans-lucent, radiating a glow like moonlight. In fact, his entire aura seemed filled with the cool pale mist, radiating a subdued anger.
“Have you spoken to the Ancestors? Or the kami?” Ryuunori lifted his head. The movement made his gold eyes flash with a fury that belied his calm voice. “Have the Gods themselves told you who slaughtered the village?”
Nodding, Aki didn't look up. “The Ancestors were eager to reveal the murderers, my lord. The Soulless One and one who travels in his company.”
“The Soulless One has dared to return to ThiarImeall.” It wasn't a question and Ryuunori's calm tone thinned. “And like the true coward he is, he comes when I am not here to defend my people.”
“Nor I, my lord.”
“I cannot abandon the Tuatha Dé Talamh. If they are left without guidance, they will be destroyed by the humans of Sorne.”
“As it was foreseen in the Moon Pool, my lord.”
“In the Material Realm, the mountainous lands of TuaisceartTalamh fall under my governance and protection. As do the people who live there.”
Leaning back with her fists on her lap, Aki nodded. The world of Kore` be-longed to the First Races long before the Second were even a glimmer in the Gods’ eyes. Although the Yoake and Yugure Junin were a First Race and originally came from beyond the Golden Veil Between Worlds, their nobles considered themselves lords of various regions and realms in the Material Realm for better or worse.
“I have no wish to see the world so many of my Ancestors died protecting the Material Realm for succumb to the very darkness they were slaughtered defeating.” Turning from her, Ryuunori looked up at the never-changing moon. “Nor do I wish for my people to be slaughtered by a soulless coward. Do you know where he is, Aki?”
“It seems he is no longer here, my lord. The Ancestors only know what they witnessed so long as one of our people remained alive to bear witness.” She lifted her head but kept her gaze respectfully averted, their gold color gleaming, and her fists tight with anger. “But the kami say he left with the monster he brought with him soon afterward.”
“Monster. What kind of beast has the Soulless taken up with?”
“I do not know, my lord. It was something the kami did not recognize as natural. It was the monster that killed at the Soulless' command.”
Ryuunori's eyes narrowed in thought. When he didn't say anything, Aki ventured to speak.
“My lord...I came here to ask a favor.”
“Really? And what is that?”
She fell forward with her hands braced on the floor in front of her. “I came to ask your permission to pass through the torii into the Material Realm. I ask permission to hunt down the Soulless and his companion and exact revenge for the death of my village.”
“You are a miko, Aki. A shrine maiden. You do not need my permission to pass into the Material Realm, regardless of your reasoning.”
“I see to avenge the village. I have given the souls of the slain my word to do so.”
“I understand.” Ryuunori continued to watch the moon. “You do not need my permission to pass through the torii. But you have my blessing.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
Standing, Aki slid her sheathed katana into the sash about her waist and shouldered her bow and quiver.
“Before you venture into the Material Realm, there is something you should know.”
“There is one in the Material Realm who seeks to open the First Gate.”
Aki stopped and looked up. “The Gate to Abaddon...?”
“The same. Three of the Seven Doorways have been opened. The Gate it-self is already weaker for it and demons and other evil spirits enter the Material Realm with greater ease.”
“As the Doorways are opened, the fabric of the Golden Veil will continue to weaken and tear.”
“You have chosen the path of vengeance for our people. But you are still a miko. You are still a shaman and it is still your duty to fight demons, whether here or in the Material Realm.”
“I will not fail in my duties, my lord. Nor will I fail to exact the revenge I have sworn on behalf of our people.” Aki climbed the steps past Ryuunori, her eyes on the moonlight shining down and through the torii. “I will return to you, my lord.”
She stepped under the gate into the Dusk Moon's reflection on the water. The cool light became blinding as it opened the way into the Material Realm, bringing her through.
“No, Aki, you will not.”