The rest of the week flew by quickly.
When they reached the time to change to the next location all four of them and piled into a car and Stephanie drove for well over three hours to a remote area in the mountains far away from civilization and the bustling city of Tokyo. Apparently, they were supposed to meet a guide, but he never showed so Stephanie took the initiative knowing at least where the location was supposed to be.
During through parts of the ride Taryn and Rachael discussed planes on what they might do next for their webcomic. And even how it might come to an end. But eventually the topic of the webcomic changed to something else entirely.
“So how are things back at home?” Rachael asked as both Stephanie and Robert were talking about other things. “Your parents doing alright?”
“It’s pretty much the same before I left. There’s less reporters stopping and asking needless questions. Which my Mom says she’s grateful for, she always hated dealing with the press and the media in general. For some reason people want to know what goes on in my parents’ lives. And in mine too to a degree, it’s a pain in the ass really.”
“I don’t doubt it, but that good that there’s less annoyance with reporters. What about Isaac?” she said noticing how Robert seemed to visibly flinch at the mention. “Is he still interning with your mother?”
“Pretty much, he’s almost finished university, I think next year will be his final year.”
“Cool, hey doesn’t he live at your house?”
Taryn arched a brow at Rachael, why in the world would she be asking that, when Rachael already knew the answer. She then cast a glance to the front seat understanding why, Robert was now watching them and listening to their conversation.
She propped her arm near the car’s window. Her gaze turning towards the vast green trees that blurred past them as they drove. “No, but my Mom is currently trying to convince him. After all you know he has no family. My Mom is only thinking of ways he could save money since he’s currently living in shared housing with people that honestly don’t get along well. She doesn’t want him to lose anything because some ass decided to steal it for fun.”
“Isaac has no family? Do you mean he’s an orphan?” Stephanie chipped in with surprise. And when Taryn nodded in response, she added. “You never mentioned that when we talked before in the hotel’s bar.”
“I didn’t think it was relevant. Unless someone asks me right out what his family is like and I say, “I don’t know” a lot of people just assume that I’ve never met his parents when really, none of us know who they are.”
“He could always look.” Robert added. “But considering he’s what, five years older than you? He’s probably already thought about it.”
“Six years,” Taryn corrected. “And yes, I asked him once and he says he really has no interest. There’s a million and one reasons why he was left; he just can’t remember. He once told me that he’d rather not project an image that could very well be false. Besides, with how long he’s known my family he feels as though he’s apart of it. Regardless of blood, and it’s something I agree with.”
“You think he’ll live with you and your folks?” Stephanie asked, genuinely curious as she kept her eyes on the now winding road.
Taryn shrugged. “It’s up to him really. He doesn’t want to intrude, but it’s not like he would if he lived with us. If anything, I think my parents would be happy if he did.”
“And you?” Robert asked, a clear tone of aggression that she noted from his voice. “Would you be happy if he did?”
Taryn shrugged, she honestly didn’t know if she would or wouldn’t. She had known Isaac for so long that it felt like nothing changed much between them growing up. Hell, Roy had bunkbeds in his room so that if Isaac were to ever stay over, he’d have somewhere to sleep other then the floor. And those bunkbeds were still there in that room.
“Hey Rachael,” Stephanie spoke up changing the conversation quickly to something else before it became even more personal then what it already was. “I noticed that you started wearing a ring, it looks good on you. Where’d you get it?”
“Back at one of the shops, I got it when we left that store that had all those items in pink. Taryn was with me and she got something for her Mom.”
Her attention turned to Taryn. “That’s cool, what’d you get her?”
“Something for her hair, it has polished wood, silver and jade. There’s a dragon in the center that’s making the symbol for infinity. I thought she’d like it.”
“Didn’t she get her Dad a sword too?” Stephanie asked Rachael.
“Yup.” Rachael said with a nod. “And barely anything for herself.”
“That’s not true I bought a few things for me.” Taryn softly as pulled herself back further into her chair, suddenly feeling as though she were being judged by just how little she bought.
Stephanie laughed. “Hey, don’t worry Taryn, you buy or don’t buy whatever you want. Besides, buying that sword and that hair piece are expensive. Quality over quantity as they always say right?”
“Wait, there was that one thing you got.” Rachael said then instantly looking at Taryn’s neck. “You’re not wearing it are you?”
“Ah no,” Taryn said with a bit of a sheepish tone. “A ring is different from a necklace. And besides, I thought that if I’m going to wear it, it’ll only be on special occasions. You know that kind of thing.” Even though what the elderly man said bothered her she still couldn’t bring herself to just wear it.
“So, you bought yourself a necklace too?” Stephanie asked.
Taryn just glanced at Rachael for a moment before speaking. “Ah no, not really. We were kind of just given them. It was a bit weird really.”
She would have said more but Stephanie made the car stop to a halt, jerking everyone forwards before she spun around in her seat to look at the two of them like a woman possessed.
“Repeat that! Repeat what you just said, because I think I might have heard you wrong, did you just say that this old man gave those to you both?”
The two girls could only nod in response. This was an unexpected side to Stephanie that neither girl anticipated.
Before ether of them could speak Robert tapped Stephanie on the shoulder. “Stephanie we’re driving, you can ask them about jewelry when we’re there. Last thing any of us wants is to fall off a cliff or something.”
“We’ll finish this when we get to the drop off point.” She said as they continued to drive.
After another thirty to forty minutes of driving they finally reached the drop off point, or at least that’s what both Taryn and Rachael could only assume, for when they got out of the car, carrying only a few of what they had the group only could see miles and miles of green, a mix of trees, grass, and moss that grew on the stones that were visible to the eye.
The sounds of birds and wind rustling through the trees causing the suns light to sprinkle through the green leaves like rain.
“Isn’t someone supposed to be here to greet us?” Robert asked Stephanie when everyone saw no one around nearby.
“Maybe the person’s just late,” Rachael offered in response. “It’s really just an idea; if we have too, we might just have to head back to the hotel in Tokyo.”
“Or we could walk?” Stephanie said.
“How long would that take us?” Robert asked.
She thought about it for a moment. “If I’m remembering correctly it should nearly about an hour I think?”
“That might be a bad idea,” Rachael spoke as she looked at the density of the forest that surrounded them. “For all we know, we might go walking around in circles and not get anywhere before it becomes dark. And there have been known to have bears wander around in the mountains. It is bear country after all.”
Stephanie let out a nervous laugh. “Yeah you do have a good point there.” then asked. “What about wolves?”
Rachael shook her head. “Wolves have been extinct in Japan for over a hundred years now. They were hunted and killed until none were left, but as sad as that is it’s one less thing to worry about when your lost in an unfamiliar place.”
As the three of them talked about what to do Taryn began looking around the area that they were in and when she reached the edge of a path her foot tapped against a large stone. Or at least she thought it was until she crouched down and noticed that it was a small stone carving. A thick layer of moss grew over it, making it almost impossible to make out what the carving was, she was still able to make out the outline, in the center was the carving of a person in robs with gender practically undefinable. And it looked to have ropes from the neck, hands and feet, as if controlling the person like a marionette puppet at least from what she could tell.
It looks almost like the buddha statues, but it’s not, maybe some other kind of deity? Her thoughts drifted when she stood noticing that there were more of those same stones scattered about the small waiting place. She even found a few them in a small collected area, clustered against one another. But they didn’t look like they belonged, as though someone had placed them there. Puzzled she knelt to look closer wondering what they could mean when she saw something else; a few feet away hidden within the trees was the outline of a car.
A white Honda covered in dust and fallen leaves, as though it hadn’t been touched in a long time. Even though it looked to be in good condition. Wondering why it could be there she went to step closer before an unfamiliar voice called out in English.
“Please do not touch that!”
Startled, Taryn quickly moved away from the car before turning around and seeing a Japanese man in his mid to late fifties coming towards them from an unseen path.
“I’m very sorry if I startled you.” he said in English. “It’s just right now that car isn’t working properly, and it wouldn’t be good if anything else happened to it.”
“Is this your car?” she asked as everyone else came over to her.
“Yes,” said the man. “It is, I was going to use the car to get all of you and tried it a few days prior, but it had engine trouble and no longer works.” His eyes then locked on to Stephanie as he drew closer to them. “And you must be Stephanie Stratford-san; I finally get to meet you face to face rather than speaking on the phone. You look even lovelier than your photo.”
“It’s good to see you too Sato,” she said while shaking his. “I thought for a moment there that we might have to go back.”
“And miss this grand opportunity? I think not,” his eyes then went to Robert and greeted him before landing on Rachael and Taryn. “And you both must be Lowell-san and Blake-san.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Rachael said before shaking his offered hand.
“Hello,” Taryn followed suit.
“Stratford-san has told me a lot about the two of you, I hope you’re trip here will be fulfilling and worthwhile.” He then turned and began walking back in the direction he came. “If you would follow me please, the walk will take an hour at most so best to get started.”
As they followed their guide Taryn glanced back to the car, and could help but notice that it was covered in leaves and dust, if what the man said was true then why was that there to begin with? For some reason it didn’t sit right with her but still Taryn followed the others.
“So,” Stephanie said as they walked along the almost invisible path. “About our conversation before, the jewelry, were they actually given to you guys?”
Rachael nodded in response. “Basically, yeah, the elderly man at the store that gave them to us said it would keep us safe since they were our birthstones.”
Stephanie looked rather intrigued by this. “Really, what are your birthstones? I was born in February so I’m an amethyst. Not to mention I love the color.”
“I have topaz, turns out there are pinks ones, so he gave it to me.”
“Aww that’s cute, I can see you with pink, besides the fact that you bought all that stuff at that store that’s back in the car.”
Her expression became one of pride. “I regret nothing.”
Stephanie laughed. “Although, those can cost around a hundred dollars or more, so you should probably feel grateful that you didn’t have to spend money on it.”
“Believe me I am.”
“What about you Taryn?” She looked over her shoulder with a smile. “What’s your birthstone?”
She hesitated. “Uh… well…”
“She’s a diamond.” Robert said. “Same as me, only difference is that she’s born earlier in the month while I’m much closer to the end.”
“Oh, so you got a small diamond ring then?”
“No, not exactly. Remember then necklace I mentioned before? It’s that, though it’s not like a regular diamond.”
“Oh? What’s so different about it?”
“It’s red.” Stephanie stopped in her tracks, refusing to move. Her stuff slowly falling off her shoulders as she let it go to the ground.
“What did you say?”
She remained motionless. “Repeat what you said, the color it’s…”
“Red,” Taryn told her. “It’s a dark red almost like blood, why?”
Before anyone else realized it, Stephanie launched herself at the girl nearly pinning her to a nearby tree as she looked at her dead in the eye. “Show it to me!” she said. “Show me the necklace!”
“I can’t,” she said quickly. “I don’t have it on me. In fact, I sent it home.”
Rachael looked at her friend with surprise. “You did?”
Taryn nodded. “Along with the katana and hairpiece. I didn’t want to lose it, and with it being what it was it just made sense you know? But I do have a photo.” Pulling out her phone she showed it to Stephanie. “Here, it’s not like the real thing but it should do.”
Stephanie let out a gasp before looking at it more closely. “It’s sad that I couldn’t get to see the thing in person, but it makes sense to send it home. Do you have all of them tracked?”
Taryn nodded. “I do, but why are you making such a reaction to this?”
“She’s right,” Rachael added trying to pull Stephanie off her. “I know that it’s probably expensive, but you don’t have to make such a big deal, I mean mine is probably around a hundred or so, Taryn’s might be too.”
Instantly she whirled around and grabbed Rachael by her arms and began to practically shake the life out of her. “Are you kidding? Only a hundred? There’s no such thing with a red diamond that is such rich in color, if anything it’s more than that!”
Taryn glanced at Robert who looked slightly amused by this. “By chance is your girlfriend…?”
“A gem nut,” He nodded as he continued to watch Stephanie shake Rachael. “Yes, that she is. It’s one of the things she loves besides fashion and styling people’s hair.”
Somehow that explains at lot more than it should. “Stephanie?”
She snapped her head around to look at Taryn with an intense gaze that nearly caused Taryn to jump. “Yes?”
“You said that this necklace is more than a hundred dollars, how much would you rate its worth exactly?”
She let go of Rachael, who looked like she was going to be sick, and went back to Taryn’s side to look at the photo. “By the cut of the stone and judging from the size and its color. I’d say this is at least over ten to fifteen thousand or so.”
Taryn reeled backwards into a nearby tree; the item she sent home with everything else, without so much a second thought cost more than anything she could earn in a whole year. The notion of it all made her feel dizzy.
“Please tell me you’re joking.”
“I wish I was! A hundred dollars is no big deal, well for me, but that necklace! I can’t believe he gave you that for free lucky damn girl that you are!” she then closed the distance and hugged Taryn. “Marry me.”
“Knock it off, already would you?” Robert said while trying not to laugh before she finally let go while Rachael tried to supress her laughter.
It still made her feel dizzy. “How do I tell my parents this?”
All three, but the one who guiding them to the village said in unison. “You don’t.”
They continued after that, while Taryn was still left thinking about the necklace. “Try not to let it get to you Taryn,” Rachael said as they continued onwards up the mountain path.
“It’s not like I’m not trying but, ten thousand? What would you do if you had that amount of money?”
Rachael was quiet, Taryn could see the gears inside her friend’s head while thinking up the many possibilities that she would use that amount of money for. “Hard to say, it’s not a lot, but it’s not little ether. I guess for starters I’d buy that new manga program for our webcomic the second would be to pay off the remainder loan on the townhouse that my parents own.”
“How come the loan to the townhouse is last?”
She gave Taryn a knowing look. “Because it would. It’s how I am.”
Taryn understood completely and decided to leave it at that.
They then walked, giving small talk to the man who was guiding them, though Taryn kept seeing the same stones she saw before, it made her wonder just what they were for. She was about to ask before Robert spoke up to the guide.
“Hey how much longer do we have to keep walking like this? It’s freaking hot.”
Stephanie jabbed him lightly in the side before talking to him underneath her breath about how rude he was being to the guy that was keeping them from being lost in the forest. But the man didn’t seem to take it that way and smiled.
“Not long now; soon you will see the village itself over the horizon of the forests cliff.”
Rachael could understand some of Robert’s agitation, it was hot. The mountain air seemed to do little to cool them off. Yet their guide didn’t seem at all perturbed by the heat. She went to ask Taryn how she was holding up, wondering about her asthma then saw Taryn’s expression; she looked as if she was trying to figure out something.
Taryn shook her head. “Nothing, it’s just I keep seeing stones like this every so often, I’m just trying to figure out what they might mean.”
Sato noticed this. “Ah so you’ve seen the stones then,” when Taryn nodded, he then said. “Then I will tell you what they are, or more precisely who they are.” He stopped and stood near one of the larger stones and knelt before this time it was not worn away by the passage of time like so many others but clear as if the stone had just been cut. She could tell it was the outline of a woman with what looked to be rope bound to her neck, wrists and ankles. “This is Kuronochi-sama; she is the guardian of the village in which you shall be seeing shortly.”
Taryn gave a puzzled look when hearing the name. “Doesn’t her name translate to something along the lines of darkness and blood?”
He nodded. “It does, but her name dose not signify evil, originally she was simply called Kurono, for she was born during the night, when there was no moon, it was later changed when she became a priestess for the village. It’s said that when she became the village’s priestess a disaster struck. Swarms of demons came flooding down from the mountains and threatened to destroy the village if a sacrifice was not met.”
“What was the sacrifice?” Rachael asked, both intrigued all the while writing everything down the info in a small note book.
“The demons stated that a life of someone who was well loved by everyone. And that person was Kuronochi-sama, she was the one who had to give her own life, but the method was a rather unorthodox one. The priestess chose to cut her own wrists, ankles and throat before being held up by rope against a large tree at the base of the village.”
Everyone in the group cringed.
“That sounds horrible,” Taryn said. “Did she really have to do that?”
“It was the only way to appease the demons, but in doing so the ropes around her throat, wrists and ankles turned red from her blood, and when the demons touched it, they turned into ashes. Over the loss of Kuronochi-sama they took her body and enshrined both the body and the ropes that the villagers built for her in a secret place deep underground beneath the village itself. Her body is still there, or at least so the legend goes.”
“So that’s all there is to the story then?” Stephanie asked looking completely relieved. She didn’t seem all that big on ghost stories.
“Well there is something else, it is said that before her body was placed into the shrine her husband turned her body into a doll.”
Everyone just looked at the man with a mix of confusion and shock.
Rachael was the first to speak up trying to swallow the sudden lump in her throat. “Her husband turned her into a doll?” the edge in her voice increased with the mix of disgust and shock. “Why would he do that?”
“To preserve her youth, it was believed that she held immense beauty, that no one in the village or the whole of Japan could match.”
Robert spoke up next. “You said her body was put in a shrine, right? If anyone wanted too couldn’t they look inside?”
“Well they could. But it’s said that the shrine doors are locked and sealed off, so it’d be difficult to enter even if they wanted too. That is if you could locate it in the first place.” after a moment of silence Sato turned. “Now come on, we have a little more of a way to go before getting to our destination.”
During the remainder of the walk the sound of birds and cicadas could be heard in the distance as they climbed higher and higher into the mountains, every so often Taryn would stop and take photos of the view and just stand there watching it in contentment. And yet, there was just something in the back of her mind, a feeling. One that she knew all too well.
She stopped suddenly and grasped her chest. Something felt wrong, it was faint but still there. A faint stabbing pain that struck her, even though it was something she was aware of, the feeling of it still made her stop from it.
“Are you okay?” Stephanie asked noticing how Taryn had gone oddly quiet. “You don’t look too good.”
Taryn offered her a smile. “I’m okay.”
“Are you sure? Do you want to stop?”
“No, it’s okay, besides, I’m sure we’re almost at this place.”
“If your say so…” Stephanie left her be with a bit of reluctance, as Robert looked with a slight frown on his face.
Rachael leaned in and spoke softly, so the others couldn’t hear. “Hey what’s going on?”
“I’m not sure,” Taryn said honestly. “I know Stephanie said that this place is historical, so I knew this might happen. But something about it feels, different.”
Rachael’s frown deepened. “In what way? Is it like when we went to that abandoned hospital? You said you had a feeling of unease before entering the place.”
Taryn slowly shook her head. “No, it’s not like that. Sorry, I’m probably just overreacting since it’s been a while when I felt something like this. But I’ll let you know if something’s up.”
Her friend still looked at her with concern. “You’d better.”
After taking a deep breath and exhaling Taryn stood up and went to join the others, in the clearing of the forest. And past that clearing was a village, with so many houses it was heard to count them all, it looked like a small community, then just a simple village. At the far end of the village were a temple, with stone steps and a deep red Tori gate, with its steps disappearing into the woodlands as well. There was a small river that seemed to cut through the mountain like that of a knife making its way through the forest and close to the village.
Sato spoke as they looked down to the village. “Welcome, to Kōeihei Village.”