barrierwatching: (afraid startled)
barrierwatching ([personal profile] barrierwatching) wrote in [community profile] ghostsugar2015-11-23 12:12 pm
Entry tags:

Trust and Mistrust

Who: Nao, Shichiro
What: Nao and Shichiro meet and cross wires badly. They get into it. Fight fight fight! Warnings: none



It was a Saturday in late March, and the cherry blossoms in the shrine grounds were just beginning to bloom. Nao had crept carefully into the ancient sanctuary of the building dedicated to the “Yama-no-mori-sama,” the god or gods of the surrounding mountain forest. Worshippers had long since dropped off from visiting the Kasuga Shrine, and this more remote sanctuary was no different. The offering box stood empty of all but dried leaves, and the petitioners’ rope had not been shaken in so long that there were spiderwebs between it and the offering box.

It was time to set this right! Nao tied up her wide white sleeves and got rid of all the cobwebs and cleaned the tatami with the tawashi scrubber. She swept everything out and polished all of the wood with orange oil, polished all of the brass fittings and the ark holding the relics of the forest kami. Nao couldn’t offer the god money or anything fancy, but she gave what treasures she did have to place on the altar: a cup of clean water, wildflowers, some oranges, a couple of origami swans and dinosaurs. Last, Nao tucked a little letter she’d written and folded under the oranges.

Now as the afternoon sun began to turn yellow as it shone through the bamboo and the cherry tree branches, Nao sat with her koto under the eaves, her kimono sleeves spread out carefully around her as she tuned up to play.

“What kind of song would you like to hear today, Yamanomori-sama?” Nao asked in a cheerful voice to the deity’s altar, through the wooden screens. She spoke attentively, just as if she were talking to a person sitting right beside her. “Would you please tell me?”

Nao took a few moments just to listen, closing her eyes and lowering her head. After a silence, she imagined being able to extend her feelings with her aura past her heart, out of her chest, and into the air. She felt like the clean golden-yellow warm sun inside, it was that kind of a day. So that was what she imagined sending out towards the waiting kami. And then, she turned that flow around and tried to pull what was outside of her body inwards, feeling for the forest’s mood. It was something akin to slowly exhaling and then inhaling energy through her chest. With this she could begin to listen to the kami around her, where they were, what they were feeling, what state they were in. At this stage in her training it wasn’t always effective, and there were just so many myriads of kami and other spiritual entities in the surrounding forest that it could start to blur all into one in her senses. But if they wanted her to feel, they would allow her to.

The breeze picked up and stirred the leaves of the bamboo on the hillside by the sanctuary, making the tall, thick green stalks creak with movement. Nao listened and heard the breeze become wind, whistling in the pines that surrounded the shrine.

A little smile dawned on her face. Whatever answer she had been looking for, it had evidently come to her. “All right then, Yamanomori-sama,” she said, keeping her eyes closed but letting go of the controlled push and pull of the spiritual energy. “‘The Winds of Spring.’ That’s a good choice for today.”

With that she started the tune, picking rhythmically at each of the notes she would use in the traditional way to tune up and start the rhythm for a song.

Some kami had all of the luck. Some just had to be, just do what they normally did, and that was enough to meet their responsibilities. Yet, as Shichiro considered the shrine, he had to admit that their approach didn’t seem to work all that well. If it hadn’t been for Kasuga Nao’s hard work- and it had to be her, no one else in the family got this far out- the place would look like an utter dump. He’d have thought that they’d take a little more interest in these sorts of things, but who was he to tell?

For now, though… it was that pull of energy that drew his attention. Over the years, he’d gotten familiar to certain energies, and Nao’s was one of them. At least on the other side of the barrier, there was little risk of that drawing any unwanted attention. That was a plus.

Shichiro approached that shrine, remaining quiet even in normal human clothes. Might as well get used to wearing the school uniform, even if it’d still be a few weeks before he was officially enrolled, right?

Hearing her play made him pause, and softly smile. He remembered when she’d first started playing, how she’d twanged the strings and made the poor koto lament its fate with each warbling pluck. But she’d learned, over time. Enough, in a few short years, to have it as a suitable offering for gods. How much humans changed, in so short a time…

Shichiro shook off that thought, and applauded as he approached. A student like any other, though he knew how weird it’d be to see one this far out. “That’s good playing. Shame there’s no audience.”

Nao jumped a good foot in the air, startled. Her hand went to her heart protectively, eyes wide. The sudden appearance of anyone in this isolated place was enough, but when she could see it was a strange male it made her quite nervous. “Eh?! Um, I’m sorry, Mr. Visitor, what did you say?”

“I said, you play well. Just a shame that there’s no audience.” He grinned, and he’d happily admit, getting that reaction did do his heart some good. “And I’m Tsukuda Shichiro. No need to be nervous around me, okay? I’m just here to see the shrine before I head back home.”

The statement that she shouldn’t be nervous didn’t help all that much, it seemed even more suspicious to say that. Anyone could be a danger after all, and anyone could tell lies. but at the very least she wasn't going to run away (yet). She blinked.

“Tsukuda-san, then,” she agreed. “There was an audience,” Nao pointed out with one finger raised, matter-of-fact. “You were listening, and so was the forest.”

“Huh… well, I’d like to think that I’m a better listener, or at least more of a responsive one.” He chuckled as he turned and started walking toward the offering box. Maybe putting some distance between them would be a way to get her to relax a bit. “Do you often play for the forest?”

Nao nodded, adjusting her kimono sleeves and taking a deep breath. “Yes. It seems too lonely here,” she stated, looking up towards the shrine’s timbers and eaves. “I don't think I would like staying much all alone, and I am sure that the god that lives here wouldn't either. It’s too sad. There’s nobody to talk to, or to listen to, or be with, or anything. I wouldn't much like living without anybody to visit me. That'd be like…. Like waiting for New Year's and it never comes! So… I visit.”

“You really think so?” Shichiro chuckled at that. It was kind of cute, really. Just what he’d expect from someone like Kasuga, and it kind of makes sense. Still, he can’t resist. “I dunno… I’ve been in the forests around here, and it’s never quiet. Maybe the god who lives here just isn’t as interested in the human-made things?”

A shrug, a sigh. “But it does feel kind of lonely here, doesn’t it? I’d have thought more students would come around…”

Nao nodded, interested in this subject. “Oh, I didn't say it was too quiet, it’s never silent here, there’s always something living and moving. But I do think that it is too lonely. No one comes to visit these kami anymore to pray.”

She quietly took the koto tsume off of her fingers and into a pocket in her sleeve. “They say that a god is only as powerful as people’s belief in it. So, if people forget about a god, and don’t believe in it anymore, then what?”

“I dunno if I’d buy that or not. I mean, if belief really was that important to them, don’t you think they’d work harder to keep people from forgetting. I mean, I’ll fight tooth and nail for my food, and that’s a lot harder to get than a little belief!”

Still… he approached the offering box, and then cocked his head to Nao. “So, how does this work, again? Offering first, then use the rope?” He probably sounded irreverent, but this truly was his first time doing this from the human side. Besides, all the kami talk was giving him a headache, especially since he didn’t have any of the answers, himself.

Nao knew there were more serious possibilities that could take place when a god was forgotten. They could pass from existence and no longer be there to protect their domain, leaving it open to spoilage or corruption by evil gods or monsters. They could become embittered against the humans who had abandoned worship, and then change into a hostile entity that hurt people. So she considered what she was doing important, to prevent those dangers.

As it was Nao wasn’t going to bother explaining those concepts to this strange boy. How did he not already know basic behavior at a shrine? He looked older than she did. Did he know how to boil water or tie his shoes?

“You drop the money in the box,” she explained, deciding to humor the question. “Then you shake the rope to ring the bell. Then clap twice. Then bow twice.” Nao stood brushing off her scarlet hakama and adjusting her white kimono sleeves and neckline. “You... don’t know already? Are you from an E.U.?” Ulf-sempai had told Nao about an E.U. It had its own money and everything.

“An… E.U….?” What on earth was that? Whatever it was, he couldn’t say that it was anything that he’d be from or that could possibly apply to him, so he didn’t worry about it.

Instead, as if by magic, a coin appeared in his hands and he danced it along his fingers, considering the box with a cocky jaunt to his head. “And no, I’ve never offered anything at a shrine before. Never really had the opportunity to, either.”

Another pause, and then he grinned over at Nao. “You know, that’s another question I wanted to ask. Do the kami care where the money comes from? Or if it actually has value in the human world?” Another question he didn’t know the answer to, himself, but maybe Nao would. In either case, he was kind of liking her bafflement. Sometimes it was good to shake things up, just for the sake of shaking them.

Of course they cared! Ill-gotten money was unacceptable as an offering. What a rude question to ask, honestly. She inhaled slow through her nose, making a strong effort to remain patient.

“If somebody gave you something with no value, would you like it?” Nao asked. She moved towards where Shichiro stood at the offering box, stopping to slip her worn out rag sandals back on over her now-totally-dusty gray tabi socks.

Ah, darn it. It looked like another strand of the strap of her left sandal was coming apart. She scowled at it in disappointment.

[OOC: Nao’s sandals are home-made things that you use rags or straw to weave. These are traditionally made by people to save resources. They are really uncomfortable imho but very quiet when walking. See: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/00/3a/59/003a59d8115f1fdb45a43cc3cb26c082.jpg ]

“Mm, depends.” He gave a cheeky grin at that. “If I could pass it off to someone else who did value it, I don’t think I’d mind at all.”

After all, that was the name of the game for someone like him. But an old stick-in-the-mud forest kami probably wouldn’t have that kind of creativity, would they? Probably wouldn’t get the joke, either. Ah well!

When he glanced over and saw that scowl, though… that gave him a thought. An evil little thought. But it’d be good for everyone, right? So it’d be a perfect thing! He gave a little showman’s gasp at the strap, and then hopped forward to scrutinize it. “Mm… you’d think working for a god would pay better…”

He knelt down to see it, then grinned up at her. Mischief in his eyes. “You know, I think you should ask for suitable compensation, for cleaning up that shrine!”

Nao flinched and her face went pale at Shichiro’s sudden kneeling down and getting close to her body. Instinctively she moved back a step, and stood, watching Shichiro carefully. It wasn’t only the usual feminine discomfort with having her feet inspected, nor the embarrassment of the condition of her clothing, but those were certainly part of it. She was frightened, and wary. There had been incidents of monsters attacking at the shrine lately that were cause to suspect danger anywhere. Was he going to do something to her? There wasn't anyone around to hear if she yelled for help.

She made a point of schooling her expression into neutral. Mentally, she ran over what she had on her for safety if this person was not safe to be around. Right now she had one omamori, her sasaki leaf, two pacification fuda, and two low-level purification fuda that she had made yesterday. Curses, why hadn’t she brought anything Grandpa had written?

“I am quite satisfied with my duty,” Nao said quietly, showing just the edge of a warning in her soft voice. She might accept and let slide a lot of things people said about her at school, but this was different. A sensitive subject that she didn’t want to think about even for a second. It wasn't smart.

“I am a miko of Kasuga-jinja,” Nao announced, planting her feet at shoulder-width and standing tall. Well, as tall as her diminutive height allowed for. “And I don’t want any compensation for doing what I need to do. That’s not the point.”

If she didn't serve here, who would? And if this shrine was not kept, terrible things would happen and everyone would suffer. She couldn’t, wouldn’t allow that. “To be honest, that's awfully rude of you to suggest, sir.”

She didn’t know who this very ignorant young man was, but he was saying blasphemous things right in front of the god’s sanctuary and Nao did not approve of that one bit. The shrine was struggling enough as it was without someone’s careless words or disrespectful behavior making it worse by angering a god. Nao had half a mind to kick him right out of the complex onto the street, before he did any damage to the shrine’s relationship with the gods with his irreverence.

Oh ho, so he’d struck a nerve, had he? Suddenly she’d gone from self-effacing to simply polite, no longer treating him as a guest and instead as a stranger. Hah, so that was what got to her, mm? And if he didn’t miss his guess, it was more than just rudeness and awkwardness that had her going that way.

So, despite her straightening up and clenching her fists, Shichiro remained kneeling down, still gazing down at her shabby, home-made sandals, with the frayed straps and dirty socks. Was that… really how it was? What a great deal for a kami, getting someone to look out for them and offer nothing of real value in return. If he could get that, that would be great, but… it felt wrong. He could be happy with stealing, with taking, anything like that, but… something like this just rubbed him the wrong way.

After a long pause, he softly murmured, “Is it… really so rude, to think that someone should be acknowledged for a valuable service? That I think it’s a little unfair, for you to take all of that effort, and the god won’t even give you enough for a nice pair of sandals?”

Shichiro sighed, long and low. His voice was quiet, and finally he looked up at Nao, less mischief and more concern in that gaze. “Do you not think that maybe the god would like to do something nice to you, but can’t because you haven’t asked? Come on, if you expect someone else to pray at a shrine, you should do the same, right? Even if it’s something as small as your sandals getting fixed. Just… trust me on this.”

Nao’s chin jutted out, her lips clamping shut hard in indignation. What… how dare he! What on earth did he know about the things she had on her plate to pray for! She already spent all of her time begging and pleading in her prayers, to no avail. Those things were important and hard to think about and painful, and certainly nothing as trivial as footwear. Now she felt herself practically bristling with hurt. She swallowed hard and tried to stuff down the urge to just yell at the stranger for saying such a thing to her when he had no idea.

“I don't choose to do what's right out of desire for material objects,” she informed him, her tone darkening. “And I don’t do good in order to get something back. That's a vulgar way of thinking. And it would just cancel out the meaning of anything I did. I’m proud of what I do with the life that I’ve been given. It’s not an after-school job to earn money. This is my life.”

“Other things like… like sandals or jackets or pencils or toilet paper or… Just, just anything!” She sputtered out, gesturing with a wave of her hands around her. She found her breath coming harder. Those were all things her family had not been able to buy this week. She found herself speaking without thinking a bit about what she should say, and some of it smacked of things she had been told by the adults in her family and was simply repeating. “Those are not what’s really important in life. They’ll be gone before long or used up or grown out of. And after they’re gone, the other things are the ones that you miss.”

Nao had plenty of those other things that she missed. More than missing any of that material stuff that her family never seemed to have enough of.

Vulgar, huh? Well, quite probably. He was a beast, and he’d gone without even the most basic of comforts, even the smallest of things to make life easier. And in those moments… yes, it was the memory of good things that had kept him going. The memory of fresh food. The warmth of a burrow, if he could only get back to it. The thrills that life could offer, that was worth fighting for, living for.

That… and he found himself getting angry. Not necessarily at Nao- how could she know any better?- but rather at the god in question. What lazy lump of a god could just… do nothing? Who could take and take without offering anything tangible back? Humans didn’t do that to each other, what made it okay for gods to do that? If that was what he was meant to be, he’d rather shove his sacred jewel down Inari’s throat.

Despite that anger, though, his smile remained unwavering, and he gently said, “That’s not what I said. I asked if you’d thought that the god might want to do something nice for you, but can’t, because you haven’t asked.”

That made him stop short, though, and suddenly he frowned. “Or would it be wrong, for the god to do that? Would it… really remove any point to what you’d did, if the kami did something nice for you, for it? Like I said, I don’t know how shrines work.”

“Kami do do nice things for me,” she protested, her soprano soft again. “I get to go to high school for free.” High school was not compulsory in Japan, and even public school was too expensive for her family to handle. “I’m alive and safe.”

Sort of, she thought. Safe in a manner of speaking, anyway? For the moment? But that was none of this immature boy’s business and she wasn't about to make it so.

“I have a lot of things to be thankful for. I have bigger things on my mind than how my clothes look,” she pointed out, and deep down wondered if she was trying to make him believe it, or herself. “There are more important things to worry about and ask for in life than sandals! Or, or dresses or cell phones or fancy stuff! I’ll just make new sandals with a pair of old pants that don't fit anymore. I can fix that problem.”

It hurt so badly, saying these things out loud. She felt humiliation coloring her cheeks as she said the part about the pants. It wasn’t like she didn’t want any of those things, deep down. But the way bad things kept happening, the path of her life and wasn't shaping up to be one in which having a pretty dress or a nice cell phone or lovely high school fun was going to happen.

Nao’s conscience reigned, though, always. It squashed those longings down again quick. She knew very well what she was supposed to say, as a good girl who didn't cause problems. Nao squared her shoulders and planted her feet apart beneath her hakama, as if ready to hop into action. “There’s no call for asking for help or handouts with a problem you could handle just fine yourself, with hard work.”

Nao had no way of knowing it, but years ago, another Kasuga used to say nearly the same thing.

All of that made Shichiro’s lips quirk upward. Safe? No, she was miles away from safe. Her and her entire family were the very last thing from safe. And, if he could be so bold, it was a lot more than a kami who had kept her safe. Huh, was that the trick to it? The kami’s greatest strength was in getting credit for what others did? Possible, and if so, there wasn’t too much difference between a kitsune and a god, at least on that score.

But it was that last part that hit him hardest. Yes, another Kasuga used to say that. Used to deny offers for the use of divine power, saying that he could handle it himself. Some of those offers had been baited hooks, and Shichiro had thought it was wisdom to see through them. But later… later, when he’d made serious offers, it was the same thing. Even to the very end.

And look where that left him…

Shichiro didn’t seem angry, though. Didn’t seem hurt. Still smiled, still with that curious question in his voice and tone. “Why would you trust your life to someone you wouldn’t trust with your sandals?”

Nao took a calming breath and looked down at the ground. “It’s not... that I wouldn't trust the sandals to them. It’s that I…” She stopped and thought hard.

“Well.” Her brow furrowed, the wheels visibly turning in her mind. “Well, I can make the sandals myself, so I want to do it. I don’t need to trust someone else to do something for me, I can do it myself,” she insisted.

She trailed off, unsure what she was trying to say. Now it was becoming hard to follow. She’d said that the kami gave her good things because she was alive. But on the other hand, she didn't really expect divine powers to keep her alive without action on her part. She was responsible for her own life. So was what she was saying a lie? Was she a liar?

Shichiro’d have to admit, Nao was being kind of cute, in one sense. Saying that she didn’t need help, that she could fix her sandals all on her own… hah, she was like that when she was younger, as was her father before her, and likely his father before him. It still didn’t quite answer his questions, though. He got that she didn’t need divine power to fix her sandals, that she wanted to do all of that herself. That was fine. But did she really think about if a kami would want to give her something? Did she really think of the kami at all, in a meaningful sense?

Clearly, though, she was running smack into some of the problems of her line of thinking, and it was at this precise moment that Shichiro finally stopped talking. Just looking at her, expectantly, waiting for her to either extricate herself or give up. He wasn’t going to toss a lifeline, though, not when this was getting interesting.

This was all getting so frustrating and confusing! Nao was feeling like her ideas were all crashing into each other in a way that just didn't fit together to make any sense. Did she expect to get good things in return after all? Did she really believe that the kami would help her when she needed it, or did she think she had to do it herself?

Her cheeks flushed with the effort of trying to sort this out quickly, but it wasn't working. She blinked hard three times and glared at the hard-packed earth at her feet, as if she were trying to drill right through it with her concentration.

Wait a second.

She raised her eyes and stared hard up at this strange, rude boy.

This was all his fault! It was him that was the problem here, she decided, not her! A strange person she had never seen before had snuck into her holy shrine and was purposely saying things to make her doubt her faith.

That was dangerous. She’d been warned about this.

He looked like a regular person, yes. But that didn't mean he was one, she couldn't sense things like that enough to tell. What he might actually be, and why he might be motivated to come here and say these things to her-- there were a few possibilities. He could be a demon, a youkai in human guise, a human with some kind of powers who wished to harm the shrine. The thought sent an icy shiver down her spine.

She was in a lot of danger.

Nao’s brown eyes caught a flicker of the setting sun as she looked up, and her right foot shifted just-so under her hakama skirt. Her hand tucked into her obi to touch the fuda inside.

“You may leave the shrine the way you came in,” she pronounced as coldly as she could manage to. She found she had to fight to keep her voice from faltering in fear or dismay. She had never had to do anything like this before. “It’s a big red torii. It should be very hard to miss, sir.”

He had to admit, he’d loved seeing her thoughts whirl around. It was flattering, really, thinking that he’d gotten her to react like that, when suddenly her voice and expression both grew cold. Cold as he’d never seen Kasuga Nao, of all people, get. More than that, she was demanding him to leave.

For a few seconds, he just stared at her. Disbelieving. Shocked. That… escalated a lot faster than he’d anticipated. But why?

Then he started thinking. Questions. Thoughts. The difference between himself as a beast and himself as a person was that moment when he’d started thinking about more than food and shelter and play. His mind had expanded, and in that moment, he’d changed. And it had been terrifying, facing it all on his own. Perhaps humans were kind of the same way. Maybe they feared not just things that they didn’t understand, but ideas, too. If that was the case, then… he really would be a threat to her, just as much as if he was any old bakemono.

His lips quirked upward. If that was what he was seen as, why not play it to the end? “You don’t even trust your kami to keep a dangerous being like me out? My, my...”

A shake of the head. “I’ll finish my prayers first, and then I’ll be gone.” When he was good and ready, not when Nao demanded it. No animal would ever easily show weakness in front of a potential threat, and an angry miko could well be one.

So he was dangerous. “Don’t you dare take another step forward,” Nao warned, quiet and low. She could feel her lip trembling and a cold sweat breaking out on her skin. If he got inside the shrine, he could take the holy objects sealed inside. They were very dangerous in the wrong hands, and she had to stop that from happening at all costs. She was much smaller than him, yes. But she would have time to be terrified later. All of the training she had done was to prepare her for danger, and here was possible danger staring her right in the face. She stepped between the tall boy and the holy offertory box.

“I-I don't know who or what you are, or what your objective is. But it is quite clear from the things you said about money and compensation, right here in front of this god’s house in its presence, that you don’t have respect or reverence for what is enshrined here.” Nao widened her stance and lowered her center of gravity as she drew out one of the purification fuda. She held it up between her index and middle fingers.

“I won’t let you get any nearer to this holy shrine,” she announced, trying to sound as intimidating as she could manage. Not very convincing, to her own ears. She had no practice at this. “I will protect it.”

Shichiro clenched his fists at that. It took effort, real effort, not to draw on his powers. Everything in him wanted to let out his power, release his tails, and pit his power against her own. At the least, he knew what a miko could do to a being, and he wasn’t one to risk himself recklessly. But… but he couldn’t let that go, either. Anger raged in him, blinded his thoughts, brought him back to who he’d used to be.

His voice was filled with bitterness as he spat, “You’re absolutely right. I have no respect for him. I have no reverence for a useless excuse for a god who can’t be bothered to treat his worshippers well. And I absolutely hate him for hiding behind a girl like you.”

All said before he took that fateful step. She’d likely act the instant he forced her hand, and he wanted to say his piece before that. With it said, he squared his shoulders, braced himself for the pain. “But I still have something for that kami, and you aren’t going to stop me from giving it. Do your worst, Shrine Maiden of the Kasugas.”

And then he took that fateful step, then another, planning to stride right past her, as though she was no obstacle at all.

“P-perha--,” she began, but her voice faltered. Her right hand holding the fuda was trembling, the paper rattling visibly. Sweat dripped down her face from the effort of channeling the purification spell into the paper.

How did Grandpa do this? she lamented, desperate. Grandpa’s hands were strong and steady. She had never seen him trembling in fear. She tightened her gut and pictured her grandfather’s strong hands holding his fuda, in her mind’s eye. His gentle, solid hands. She could see every line of them and feel their warmth and calluses and battle scars--

Then there was no more trembling. She opened her eyes and they were clear and intent.

“Instead of worrying about the one who’s hiding, you should worry about the one who’s right in front of you,” Nao rasped out, her voice dry with effort. And with a hard push of every scrap of willpower she could muster in her, she shoved with her consciousness into the paper. Nao lunged forward and smacked the fuda onto his right forearm, as hard as she could.

There was bright flash that felt as if it were sucking molecules right from the air around them, and a white-hot, dry explosion of holy purification, about three feet wide around the fuda on his arm. The force of it shoved her body back, and Nao fought to hold her footing steady as she grabbed for another fuda.

For a moment, Shichiro thought that Nao wouldn’t have the courage to use that fuda. Any animal worth the name could tell when another was afraid, and her trembling made that clear. He planned to walk right past her, get done what he needed to and leave.

But then, right at the last moment, she darted at him. For a moment that seemed to last an eon, he took in everything at once. The fuda on his arm, glowing with power. Nao’s eyes, hard and cold with determination. The sweat on her face, from the effort of using the purification talisman. And, of course, the heat of the spell itself.

Then it exploded. Blinding pain washed over his arm and up his shoulder, and the force of the purification spell knocked him backward. His feet furrowed the ground as he tried to keep his footing, and the stench of burned flesh assaulted his sensitive nose. He went to one knee and hand, quickly raising his arm to assess the worst of the damage. The delicate lines of the fuda were burned into his forearm, branding him like some pack animal, and the rest of him, from wrist to shoulder, looked raw. Not so bad he’d be crippled, but… he lowered his face to start licking at the worst of it. He’d need to stay off of that limb… no, he’d have to take care of his arm, rather.

As he soothed himself, his eyes flashed up to regard Nao. Now he was all the animal he once was, braced to run the instant she made a hostile motion, suddenly wary and all the mischief and smiles gone. Yet, too, so was the hatred. She was a threat, nothing more. He’d speak more once he got the pain down a little, and if she gave him the space for it. If not, though… survival took precedence over all else. Always and forever, survival was most important.

Nao had one more of her fuda in hand and was scrutinizing the inhuman way he licked his arm. This made her skin crawl dreadfully and her mind race. What was he? The fuda had affected him, so she knew for sure he was not fully human.

“I have more where that came from,” she warned, her voice fighting the strain she felt. Hopefully he wouldn’t call her bluff, because once the fuda were gone, she'd be useless. She took the second paper talisma between her two fingers, ready to charge it. “Now back away from this holy place. And back away from me.”

Oh, of that he had no doubt. She probably had a few more, tucked into her garb, and he wasn’t eager to be hit by another one. Even if it wasn’t a purification one, anything that hit so hard would sting just as much, and he couldn’t risk losing the use of a leg or another arm. That, and deep down, he didn’t want her to waste her energy. Just in case something which truly wanted to hurt her came around.

But that was only deep down. Here, he gave a smirk, slowly getting back up to his feet. Show no weakness. Show no fear. Never let anyone know how badly you’re hurt, because to be vulnerable is to die. “I suppose… that you’re right. A holy place like this is nowhere someone like me should be.”

He reached into his pocket and closed his fist around something. Then he slowly withdrew it, and as he did so, Nao could sense a substantial shift, both in the man before her and in the air around them. Something wild, something untamed… and most definitely not holy, not now. “I consider myself relieved of any obligation I might once have felt, to your family or to your gods. Trust me, Kasuga Nao, you will be free of my presence henceforth.”

A pause, and a twist of his lips, from pain and anger and despair. “Yomi take you, for all I care. But I will not break my word. I have something for your precious kami, and not you or your entire family can stop me.”

The item in his hand burned. Seared like the fuda had, as it had long ago, as it probably should. Then, with an almost careless motion, he flung it. Not at Nao, but rather in a high arc over her head, right into the offering box. Whatever it was, it felt clean and pure, completely unlike the boy now.

Unlike him… because in the instant the item landed, the young man disappeared, a gust of scattered leaves the only mark of where he might have gone.

Nao reeled in the wake of his disappearance. A strange feeling of vertigo mixed with nausea washed over her and she lost her balance momentarily. “What on earth,” she began, holding herself upright by clutching onto a stone lantern. Had he just cursed her to Yomi?! What was going on here? She followed the direction of the gust of leaves, alarmed.

“Obligation?! Family? What on earth are you talking about, you strange... person!” she sputtered, her body shaking in fear and indignation. She looked to and fro for where he may have gone, jumping down the steps of the path back to the torii. “Don’t you mention unclean places like you-know-where in front of my NICE CLEAN SHRINE!!!

Hadn’t he washed his mouth at the ceremonial well? Or… She thought back to his asking what to do to make obesiance. Uh, no. Most likely, he hadn’t known to do that. Nao smacked her hand to her face and groaned aloud in frustration. If she had an angry forest god on her hands now, she was going to find that boy and make him pay. Dearly.

The glowing thing. What had he put in the offertory box, was it some kind of danger? Worried, she ran back to the box to investigate.

There it was, she could see it as she looked through the wooden slats of the box lid. It looked like a strange glowing ball with iridescent colored light moving about and swirling inside. It didn't give off any scent or sound. It didn’t feel unholy or evil per se, just powerful. When Nao had watched it for a few moments and it hadn't done anything, she summoned her courage and opened the trap door for collecting the money from the bottom. The ball fell out and onto the ground. Nao braced herself in case it blew up.

It didn't blow up. Nao figured she should proceed in a scientific manner here. It was important to do it as carefully as possible.

She grabbed a stick and poked the glowing ball. Poke, poke.

It didn't do anything different, and nothing happened, so she breathed a sigh of relief and reached out a hand to pick it up casually.

Big mistake. The second she touched the jewel, there was a bright flash that went through her entire being, turning her vision white and overwhelming all of her senses, shaking her whole body with violent force, rattling her brain, bones, teeth. Nao let out a scream of pain and suddenly she was laying flat on her back, completely unable to stop her body's movements. Her whole body felt like it was convulsing and burning inside.

She lay there for a long time, frantically trying to regain control of her own body and gulp down air. As her breathing and heart rate finally came back to normal, her thoughts coalesced. She had never been in contact with anything like this power before. It was much more concentrated than the fuda or mirrors or anything else she was allowed to touch. What on earth was this powerful thing and why couldn't she pick it up?

She’d have to go get her grandpa to handle this ball. She didn’t like that one bit, but there it was. With a groan of pain, Nao crawled back to her feet slowly and hobbled off in the direction of the family’s house to get help.