Valentine

X Kindred Spirits

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OOC: Rated 'X' for violence, gore and dark themes. Wstfgl, Valentine, Kyo, HerculeHastings & Demonic Gate.
 

 
 
 
Kindred Spirits
 

The warm morning sun glistened over the lake waters, casting crystal reflections. In the summer, it could be unbearably hot, but it was spring now, the rainy season. The air was moist, as much of the land was taken up by valley and mountain. The forest surrounding the small lakeside inn was smothered by low hanging mist. One of the cloud forests common to this area. It gave the area a mysterious and enchanted feeling that was not lost on the inn's patrons.

A young woman in a floral kimono quickly and quietly walked down the corridor to the rooms, "Sakumoto-san, your morning wake-up call." Her voice easily carried through the paper walls, she heard a groan and a rustle as the man inside rolled over.
"Yeah..." He muttered back. She moved on. Walking down the corridor until she came to the next sliding door. Kneeling beside it she gently called through.
"Ankou-sama?" She called out, but no response. She waited for a few seconds, "Ankou-sama?" She called again. When she heard nothing this time she reached for the sliding door, hesitating for a moment but eventually her curiosity exceeded her manners. 
 
Staring into the darkness of the room, she had to wait for her eyes to acclimatize to the darkness, as the sun had yet to reach high enough in the sky to cast light into his room. Her eyes searched the room until at last she could see a small figure at the back, lying in the middle of the tatami mat floor. A small white fox. But it was no ordinary fox. It's ears seemed unusually large and long for it's head, and unlike other foxes who only had a single tail, this creature had five. The moment her eyes caught sight of the fox, she knelt right down, placing her hands on the floor in front of her and bowing until her head touched the mat.

"Ankou-sama, please bring my inn luck..." She said quietly, looking up for a moment to sneak a peek. The fox was still very much asleep, it yawned and turned onto its side, stretching out. "Please, bring my family luck, our inn is so quiet these days, nobody likes to travel with the war..." She looked up again, the fox was still asleep. It yawned, showcasing its little fangs before its clump of tails swished around and covered his face as though he was pulling a pillow over his head. "Ankou-sama, please--" She heard something.

Looking up, she found a sharp pair of crystal blue eyes quietly staring back at her. "G-good morning, Ankou-sama." She added, waiting patiently. The fox seemed to regard her with a mixture of curiosity and surprise. His bright blue irises lay in stark contrast against his brilliant white fur and the black rings that surrounded his almond-shaped eyes, and their black vertical slit-like pupils. She swallowed, wondering what he was thinking, but as her eyes closed to blink, when they opened again an instant later, the fox was gone. In it's stead, was a man. Or as close to a man as the fox could mimic. He was still pale-skinned, though handsome, but his large fox ears remained, as well as the five long tails which continued to swish as though absent of control from the rest of the man's body, sticking out from a hole in the back of the man's hakama pants. He favoured loose-fitting clothes, apparently. His face held a fox-like quality that he was obviously unable to shake and his eyes, which were almost identical to the fox's, had a sly, mischievous nature to them and he had a lop-sided grin that accentuated this.
 
"It's really early." He said, his voice smooth and light, and then he collapsed onto his back and yawned, stretching his arms and fingers the way a dog might stretch its paws, then he put his arms behind his head and brought one leg up and placed the foot on the mat so that he could rest the other leg over it, "I'm hungry." He added, musing.
"Breakfast is being prepared now... would you bless--"
"Later, later!" He chuckled, then yawned again, "I'm hungry." He repeated, then having decided that he'd had enough of lying around, he leapt up from on his back, straight onto his feet in a remarkable display of agility. "Can we eat?" He asked, with a wide grin, his bright eyes dancing with excitement. 

"A-alright." The inn owner replied, smiling back at his infectious grin. She stood up as Ankou picked up a katana from the floor in front of him and jammed it sheathe-first into his simple cloth belt, he adjusted it carefully so that it wouldn't be in his way as he walked or sat and then walked up to the owner, "Alright! Let's eat!!" He beamed, clapping his hands together.
 
 

 

Ankou was sat on the wooden porch outside the inn and watched the lake with a quiet satisfaction, chewing on the bones of a fish he'd eaten just a few minutes later. He sipped from a small saké cup, his pale skin getting a pink blush on the cheeks. He sighed and put the cup down and filled it up some more with the little jug beside him, though it was filled with milk rather than alcohol, yet he was treating it as though it might have been alcohol regardless. He took another sip as one of the inn workers came outside to shake a rug free of its dust.
"Hi!" He waved to her and she nervously waved back at him, staring at his unusual eyes and the unnatural presence of the telescopic fox ears that seemed to independently swivel at times, hearing things in certain directions. "Heard any rumours lately?" He asked, sipping his milk.

"A-about what, Fox-sama?" The girl asked, frowning.
Ankou grinned, "Oh all sorts," he replied, "Like Yokai, Yoma..." He paused, not wanting to upset the girl, "... Akuma." The girl's face tensed and she almost dropped her rug but held onto it like a life raft.
"A-Akuma...?" She shook her head fervently.
"What about... lotus flowers." He said, uncouthly spitting the fish skeleton onto his plate. 
"Lotus flowers?" She parroted, "I don't know. I mean, I know that the village to the north, Ichiya, sells lotus flowers. Is that what you mean?" She frowned.

"Mm, maybe." He mused, it was something at least. He would go to Ichiya, but first he'd have to cross the cloud forest. Most humans didn't like to travel through them, as spirits were rife in such places, but then, he wasn't human. It was the shortest route. Yes, he thought to himself, i'll go to Ichiya and maybe learn something while i'm there. "Good morning!" He broke his thoughtful silence and she smiled at him, "I'll be leaving then." He stood up and downed the last bit of milk in his saké cup.
"Y-your bill, Fox-sama?" She asked.

"Paid." He replied, grinning. The woman nodded slowly to his comment and frowned. She was sure he hadn't paid the owner, what did he mean his bill was paid for? She watched him walk away bare-foot, down the road that would lead into the cloud forest. There was a loud clutter of noise as a bunch of metal pans hit the ground from inside and out rushed the owner.
"W-what the hell?!" She barked, pointing at Ankou, "Just 'cus he's a spirit doesn't mean he gets to skip out on his bills!!" The owner's face was bright red, she looked like she was getting ready to sprint after the fox-man, but then something distracted her.

Out of the forest behind the inn, there was a loud rustle. The owner looked at her worker who shrugged back at her and both of them ran to the corner of the inn and watched the edge of the forest carefully. Suddenly the forest opened up and a traveller walked out, laughing and cheering, "Hey! Hey guys, we found the road at last!!" He called back, "Come on up, there's an inn!!" The owner watched on in silence, dumbfounded, as traveller after traveller poured out of the forest. She made it no less than twenty one at final count. She scratched her head as they jostled to get inside the inn at the same time, and looked back to see the fox-man disappearing into the cloud forest in the distance. "I... guess he did..." She muttered, her mouth hanging wide open.
 
 

 
 
The forest was beautiful, all the sights and smells invigorated him immensely. He sighed, enjoying his walk. He could hear birds calling from the branches overhead, monkeys swinging from the trees off to one side. The sweet smell of nectar filled the air, mixed with that unmistakable fresh smell after rainfall. It wasn't long however before he was soaked through to his skin, the moisture in the air was near saturation point, clearly there was a reason this was called a cloud forest. The sun also found it difficult to find its way through to the thickest parts of the forest. It was eerie to some, but to Ankou, it was a paradise.
 
He had been travelling for some time now, in peace and quiet. But though he knew he still had a ways to go before he reached the other side, he could hear music. It sounded like it might have been a flute. His ears pricked to the noise and he frowned, but despite his confusion, his eyes were gleaming with the excitement of what was around the next corner.
"Ahoy hoy!" He called out, waving his arms, "Who or what's out there? If you're friendly, we should have tea together, if you're not, we could have a duel if you like?!" He grinned wildly as the flute music stopped, whoever or whatever it was, was coming towards him.

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A man emerged around the corner. He was a tall and slim man in his mid 30's with pale skin and a long mane of gray hair that was normally wild and shaggy, however, in this soaking environment is was limp and clinging to his body. The sodden stranger was dressed in dark blue shorts with white bandages wrapped around his legs and feet. He walked in a pair of wooden geta that were keeping him above the damp ground. He was wearing a dark blue tunic that was almost entirely open at the front, exposing a bare chest. His collar was adorned with a variety of long necklaces strewn over his neck, adorned with various amulets and symbols, that looked older than he was. His arms were bare with the exception of a few simple bangles around his right wrist. He was carrying a fair-sized sack on his back, wrapped carefully in blankets to conceal what was within. Around the blankets were a series of ropes and belts, with pouches attached to them filled to the brim with various things. Most notably though were several gourds dangling from strings. That is, except, the one in his hand. He poured the contents of the gourd into his mouth and swallowed before addressing the spirit before him. 

 

"I'm not much for tea..." he said with a deep, calm drawl. "It does seem about time for a rest though. Would you care for a drink?" he continued, awkwardly sauntering up to the spirit and brandishing the gourd in his hand, waving it at the spirit like a parent would wave a toy at a child. 

Ankou's sensitive nose twitched at the strong smell coming from the gourd, and as it was presented to him, his nose curled, "What is that?" He asked, wrinkling his face in disgust. 

"Saké of course." He replied. "Have you been living under a rock?"

"Sometimes." Ankou took the gourd and peered into the darkness of the container before looking back at the man, "What's saké?" He asked, with the curious tone of a child.

 

The man pulled the gourd away, clutching it to his chest like a mother protecting it's young. The man was silent for a moment. He wasn't quite sure how to answer that. He took another sip from the gourd and gasped, clearly refreshed by the liquid's rejuvenating powers. "Saké is a devilish mistress." he said with fond admiration. "Her dry flavour, her warmth, all provide her with great charm that can send many a man to his knees. However she is wicked to those who suckle from her teat beyond their limitations. Do you understand, Kitsune-san?"

"I... don't think so." Ankou frowned, confused at the man's words.

 

"Alas...I did not think you would." the man said as he took another gulp of the saké. "It is not something you can understand without experience. Though now is probably not the time to sample her fruits, Kitsune-san. After all this place can be dangerous, even for a spirit such as yourself. Best to keep your senses sharp."

 

"I don't think there's anything dangerous here, strange man." Ankou replied, "Not nearby anyway." He looked down at the gourd, wondering about its contents. "So what are you doing out here? Not many humans like wandering through these woods. That must be a fascinating story." He grinned, ears pricking up at the idea of listening to a tale. The man smirked in response. He quickly dropped his sack and began to root around in the blankets. After a while he produced a large folded mat and a folded length of canvas. He folded out the mat along the ground nearby before taking a set of bamboo sticks he had collected and strapped to his sack, and placing them in the soft ground around the mat. Then he threw the canvas overhead and his small shelter was complete. He offered the spirit to join him and they sat inside. 

 

"Well..." he began as he continued rooting through his sack for other trinkets. "My name is Shironagi and I am something of a storyteller. I travel from town to town, telling tales of my life, and the things I have seen. In exchange for something of course. Either food or coin, or a place to lay my head for the night. All I can offer in exchange is a wealth of stories to provide fellows with some entertainment." 

While he was talking the man had pulled out a variety of objects. He produced the various components such as a bowl, some hosepipes, a long cylinder and some other strange artefacts. He slowly put them together as he spoke. 

"Oh okay!" Ankou put his hands on his knees excitedly and then stopped as he realised something, "I don't have anything to give you, storyteller. I don't carry money... I have no food." He looked around, "I could catch you some food?"

 

"Oh that's quite alright, Kitsune-san. I'm in the mood for rest and conversation. Perhaps we can eat later." Shironagi replied as he finished making the strange contraption. He took some flint from his sack and began striking them at the top of the hookah, igniting the coal that was kept at the top. After a moment he managed to ingite the coal and produced a tray of tobacco that smelled incredibly sweet. He placed it inside the contraption, the bowl of which was filled with water. Then he began sucking on one of the pipes, causing the water to bubble. "This is a wonderful trinket I procured on my travels." he said, nodding to the contraption he had just set up. "It's called a hookah. It originates from a far off land. Have you ever encountered one before?"

 

"No, what does it do? You carry a lot of strange things, storyteller." Ankou looked at the invention with an impressed look on his face, despite not knowing what it was. Shironagi took another deep draw of the hookah and held his breath for a moment. And then he exhaled, issuing out a billow of smoke with a sweet scent, combined with a flavour of obscure spices. "The hookah has been used in social rituals in some ancient cultures. Essentially it's a rather elaborate way to enjoy various strains of tobacco and incense. Many years ago I visited one such place and broke bread with some interesting men. One of them was a maker of fine silks, in the village I visited his wares were highly coveted. He very graciously offered for me to stay in his home with his family while I was in the village. It was customary to gather after meal times and enjoy conversation around the hookah. The tobacco allowed for the mind to flow freely and it is often said that those who partake in the act are elevated closer to God, if only for a brief moment."

 

He stopped for a moment to take another draw of the hookah, savoring it's taste, before issuing another billow of smoke into the air. Afterwards he took another swig from his gourd and waited to see if the kitsune was ready for him to continue. 

"Fascinating." Ankou laughed, "But I don't know what half of those things are you said. But keep going." He rested his arms on his legs and then his head on his hands, yawning to shake off his morning sleep. Shironagi smiled and continued his tale.

 

"A most interesting thing happened during my stay in this village. You see the village was in the middle of a very dry, arid land. Rainfall was a rarity, and so it was customary to bring offerings to a local spirit in order to ensure enough rainfall for survival.  However during my visit something terrible had happened. The village had been raided by bandits. The brutes had stolen the offerings for the spirit. The people were in great dismay. The spirit of the village was incredibly fickle and vain. If he was not provided with gifts, then he would not provide the rain they so desperately needed. All was thought to be lost, the village would struggle to survive the season without precious water." Shironagi stopped to take another draw, once again blanketing the area in the sweet scented smoke, which almost served to provide extra flavour to his story.

 

"Days passed and the villagers could no come to any resolution of the matter. However my friend, the silk weaver, was a man of determination. Using his finest silks he wove one of the finest robes I have ever laid eyes on. It was a wonderful, rich golden robe, with red detailings. Truly it would be fit for an Emperor. And so the silk weaver took his finest creation to the great spirit and offered it to him. The spirit, at first, was not amused. Although he could not fault the beauty of the robe, he was used to a larger offering, he valued quantity over quality it seemed. The silk weaver offered him a deal. He would make the spirit a new robe every year, each one finer than the last, on top of his usual offerings. The spirit, at last, seemed convinced. When he put on the robe his pride swelled, he adored it. It was a perfect fit, and the smooth silk was wonderfully light and comfortable. And so from that day the silk weaver did as promised, and every year he made the spirit another robe, each finer than the last. And when he died, his children took up their father's task. To this day whenever you pass through that village, you will always find the cheerful spirit, parading around in his wonderful robes. And every year it rains right on time."

 

"That's a strange story. But you're a strange man, with strange things." Ankou dragged his hand through the smoke, leaving trails, "So why are you in the forest?" he asked. Shironagi stared off thoughtfully for a moment before taking another drink from his gourd. 

"Well I was passing through from a neighboring town. I'm on my way to Ichiya. I haven't been there in a few years. And what about you, Kitsune-san?" he asked in response. 

 

"I'm going to Ichiya to find the man that took my memories." He replied nonchalantly. Then, without warning, Ankou suddenly leant forwards and grabbed the man's travelling sack and began routing through it, "There is a lot of strange things in here. Do you have any food?" Shironagi raised his brow at the spirit's behavior, but he did not act. "Mm." he said, "You do know some people might find it rude for someone to go rooting around in their belongings?"

 

"Okay." Ankou replied, dunking his head into the sack as he smelled the inside, "There are lots of strange smells in here, too." Ankou dropped the sack on the floor and inspected it appreciatingly. "Can I have this?" He held up the sack and then thought for a moment, "No, you can keep it. I wouldn't know what to do with it." He smiled, "Do you want to walk with me?" 

 

Shironagi thought for a moment. The fox spirit really was quite peculiar. However he had mentioned that he was on a quest to find his memories. A curious quest indeed. "Interesting..." Shironagi said finally. "Very well Kitsune-san. I shall accompany you to Ichiya. Oh, and do you have a name?"

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The room was a simple one, but tastefully furnished. The four walls were made of paper which looked white from afar but when one looked closer, there were specks of gold lightly powdered on them, giving the room a subtle golden glow. In the centre of it was Lord Suzuki, dressed in elegant white robes, looking at the visitor before him.

He was a strange man, diminutive in stature, clad in black-blue robes, who seemed to require effort just to make a sound. Lord Suzuki had been startled at first to see a man right behind him; he had expected a visitor, but assumed that there would be ample time for preparation, but the man had left hardly a sound of footsteps. He had apologised profusely for it later. This was definitely a ninja, still yet to accustom to the life of a normal person.

“Lord Suzuki,†said the visitor with a deep bow, kneeling on the cushion. “I have heard your name from far and wide; you are most knowledgeable in the lore of spirits and celestials. I would like to humbly ask your insight on a question that particularly confounds me.â€

“You flatter me. I will try to answer your question with my limited knowledge,†answered Lord Suzuki graciously. “But first, will you have tea? Saeki, please bring me the finest-grade tea to serve our guest.â€

One of the women kneeling at the side stood up and proceeded wordlessly out of the room.

“Lord Suzuki, I would like to know… all about the kirin,†said the visitor.

Lord Suzuki broke into a polite laugh. He beamed kindly at the figure, who looked a trifle confused.

“Hikaru-san,†he said, “anyone can tell you about the kirin. All of us know, I’m sure, of this hooved chimera which brings fortuitous prosperity or serenity whenever it arrives.â€

“That is so, Lord Suzuki,†said Hikaru uncertainly. “But I would like to know if there is more to it, more that maybe only an eminent sage as you would know. What does it signify, for instance, if one has seen it… appear before them?â€

Lord Suzuki looked at Hikaru with greater interest than before. Saeki arrived at this moment with the tea, which she laid carefully on the table before retreating back to her original place. Lord Suzuki took a sip of his tea and took his time to answer.

“If one has seen the kirin, it could signify a number of meanings. The kirin, it is said, appears with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler. It could be trying to tell you a message.â€

Hikaru silently took this in, while Lord Suzuki downed the whole cup unceremoniously.

“Maybe… it could be that I have been given the duty by the kirin to aid this sage or ruler,†he murmured to himself, his eyes glowing brighter with passion. Lord Suzuki found him very interesting indeed.

“I cannot pretend to guess at the motives of the kirin,†he said. “However, it is rare that it will appear before a person, and so I congratulate you. Now, unless there’re any other questions…?â€

This was Hikaru’s cue. He got up, thanked Lord Suzuki with a bow, and once again quietly left the house. He had come to seek meaning, and had gone away satisfied. He was a very interesting man indeed. But at this moment, he was less interested in finding out more about him – though he would do so at the nearest opportunity. It was time for bed. He got up and slipped his feet into his slippers.

“The tea is untouched, again,†he sighed. “Pour it away, Saeki.â€

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The Next Morning

 

Lord Suzuki had another guest today. This one was an interesting one -- he was young, barely more than a child in years, but he'd already built quite a reputation for himself, both as a skilled practitioner of the mystical arts and hot-headed troublemaker. Presently, he strode in; he was a tall young man who carried himself proudly, clad in rich red and white robes that marked him as one of the aristocracy. He stiffly bowed to Lord Suzuki, but it seemed stilted and awkward, as if he wasn't used to bowing his head to his betters.

 

"Have a seat, lad." Lord Suzuki motioned to the cushion. 

 

"Thank you," the visitor said, sitting down. "It's pleasure to meet you, Lord Suzuki. It's not often I meet a wise man of your caliber. By my experience, many of those proclaiming themselves as experts on spirits are senile old fools or charlatans."

 

"Saeki, please bring us some of our best tea," he said, motioning towards the retainer. "Pleased to meet you, too. It's rare that I get a guest of your stature. Abe no Seiryu, scion of the Abe family -- fancy that."

 

A look of disgust flashed across Seiryu's face for an instant. "Scion? Bah. Tell that to my father -- he has eyes only for his firstborn, the golden boy of the family. I'm merely a poor man's substitute at best... and a threat to my brother's authority at worst. I come to you as a young onmyouji seeking counsel."

 

"Interesting," Lord Suzuki nodded. "I presume you aren't just here to exchange small talk and gossip. You desire knowledge -- something that could bolster your prestige and power, and perhaps elevate you in your father's eyes."

 

"Perceptive as always, Lord Suzuki." Seiryu nodded, accepting the tea that Saeki proffered towards him. "I'm seeking information on a certain rumor I've heard. Have you heard the name 'Engimono Heiwa'?"

 

The old man chuckled, taking a long drag of his tea. "That's dangerous knowledge you seek, lad. I am no mere barkeeper or town gossip; knowledge like this doesn't come freely."

 

"So there's truth to the rumors, then." he said, his expression turning serious. "Name your price."

 

"I have no need for your money, and there is nothing that you could assist me with that I could not handle personally."

 

Seiryu scowled, and snapped his fingers. The talisman tied around his wrist flashed blue briefly, and suddenly, Lord Suzuki became aware of another presence in the room -- it stood silently behind him, its very presence alone making his skin prickle. "If this negotiation proves unfruitful, I might have to fall back on methods of last resort." The presence started manifesting itself corporeally, and the translucent image of a steel-skinned, masked giant shimmered into view. "My shikigami can be very thorough."

 

Lord Suzuki gave an inscrutable smile. "Saeki, please." The woman suddenly exploded into motion, pulling a four-pointed throwing star from the folds of her garment and hurling it towards Seiryu's neck. The spirit's arm became a blur, and when it came to a halt, it was holding the throwing star between its thumb and index finger. It squeezed its fingers, and the bent, mangled remains of the throwing star dropped to the ground.

 

"As expected of an Abe," Lord Suzuki said with a chuckle, draining his tea. "That little display of force told me plenty about your preferred brand of onmyodo. Consider it payment for what I'm about to tell you." Apart from Saeki, they were alone, but Suzuki leaned in towards Seiryu regardless. "Engimono Heiwa is a samurai who served Lord Tetsuo Daihatsu."

 

"Lord Daihatsu was killed in his chambers eighty years ago, wasn't he?"

 

"And Heiwa was the one who did the deed, no less. He committed seppuku after killing his lord, as expected, but he seemingly rose from the dead, and has been seen wandering the land over the intervening years, usually in the aftermath of bloody battles. He is no mere shade, too -- all accounts suggest he is, in fact, flesh and blood, and not just a spirit animating the man's corpse. The last account of his appearance was in the cloud forest near Ichiya a few weeks ago."

 

"You're saying a normal man not only rose from the grave, but became immortal." Seiryu frowned, giving him a skeptical look. "The Emperor's alchemists have sought those two miracles for centuries, and you're saying he managed that feat... by gutting himself."

 

"Precisely. There's a reason why I don't give out this information freely." Suzuki said grimly. "I advise that you leave here and forget what you just heard. Many of your betters have sought to learn his secret, and none have returned." 

 

"Thank you for your counsel. I shall take my leave now." Seiryu stood up and bowed, striding purposefully out of the chamber. Lord Suzuki sighed, gazing at the dregs in his emptied cup. What a promising young man. I hope I haven't just signed his death warrant.

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"Very well Kitsune-san. I shall accompany you to Ichiya." The Story-teller, Shironagi, then asked, "Oh, and do you have a name?" He thought about the question for a moment and shrugged his shoulders as he stood, "I do. But if I told you then you would control me, and I would rather not. But you can call me Ankou."

"Ankou." Shironagi repeated with a nod. "Excellent. Now, are you ready to travel?"

"Yes I am, Shironagi-chan." Ankou replied, smiling back at the traveller. He turned and once Shironagi had finished hastily packing up his possessions, they walked on through the forest. As they strolled along, Ankou whistled, and the forest seemed to react. Vines grew out from the trees, reaching to touch him while a trail of ants on the ground veered away from it's route and narrowly passed his bare feet. "Why are you going to Ichiya, Shironagi-chan?" He asked, interrupting his merry whistling.

 

"Mmm... no reason, really." Shironagi replied, his eyes watching the magical effect the fox spirit was having on the forest, yet saying nothing about it. While he had never met such a spirit before, he was no stranger to the strange properties of spirits. "I suppose it is because I haven't visited Ichiya in many years. Sometimes it is important to retread your steps. It can be fortuitous. As our encounter has already proven, don't you think?"
"I think it is good to keep moving forwards. I forget things when I try to go back." Ankou replied, somewhat joking about his loss of memory. "But I am pleased that you see our meeting as a good omen, I do not know what it is yet. The future is a hard thing to see. For me, anyway, it's as foggy as the past. I like the present. Right now, anyway. I might feel differently tomorrow, if it ever comes." Ankou smiled to himself, resuming his whistle for a moment and a flock of birds scattered and flew down low, flying over their heads and a couple hovering just long enough to examine Ankou before flying on.

 

"Interesting." Shironagi said with a hint of a smile. "For me it is rarely a displeasure to meet a spirit, especially one such as yourself. I confess to finding such beings far better company than my human brothers, for the most part."
"I enjoy the company of the generous." Ankou replied with a chuckle, half-joking. But as he opened his mouth to whistle again, his ears pricked up and he froze, as though a great force had taken hold of him. His eyes went wild with surprise, "Be quiet..." He said in a tense whisper. Suddenly, where there had been a man, there now stood a fox. But before the change could be appreciated, the white five-tailed fox disappeared into the forest brush.

 

Shironagi was puzzled by the sudden change. However as the fox ran off another faint smile crossed his face. "...Interesting." He said once more, before carefully pursuing Ankou into the forest. But before Shironagi had taken as many as five steps, there was a terrible roar close by and as quickly as he had disappeared, Ankou, still in his true form, reappeared from behind a tree and ran towards Shironagi, grabbing the storyteller by the cloth of his trouser leg and pulling on it furiously, urging him to stop. Another terrifying roar echoed through the forest. Birds flew into the sky, escaping the canopy and all manner of creatures that had been sleeping, hiding or otherwise unseen suddenly came rushing past the spirit and the storyteller. Hares, deer, wolves, foxes, birds and all manner of beasts. Fleeing from something that was getting closer with every step.

 

"Mmm... unfortunate." Shironagi said. "It appears this is one of the few times where I will have an unpleasant encounter with a spirit."

Ankou instinctively snapped at Shironagi's ankle, trying to silence him as a deep thud echoed through the forest and a tree just a stone's throw away fell to the ground. Another dull crunch and several more trees collapsed. Ankou turned to face the enormous shadow quickly approaching, then sat and became so still that you might have thought he was a statue. Shironagi seemed to understand Ankou's urgent actions and calmly remained still as the shadow loomed over them.

From the forest strode a creature, bestial in appearance, for it was not unlike a baboon. Yet so too was it so unlike one, in that it's size was equal or even greater to that of an elephant. The ferocious spirit creature roared angrily as it parted several more trees until it was just a couple of feet away from Ankou and Shironagi. Ankou's eyes were focused, unblinking, staring down the creature. It stared at them for a long while, snorting at the air then it looked to it's side, where a large red hole was oozing dark blood. It scratched at the wound and then looked back at the two travellers, almost looking through them. It smelled the air once again, taking a step towards them but then it changed its mind and stomped off into the forest, crushing the trees ahead of it. For a long time the forest was silent, and Ankou remained frozen, then as if at once, the forest came alive once more with the sounds of nature and when Shironagi looked to his travelling companion once again, there stood the humanoid form of the Kitsune.

 

"Are you alright, Shironagi-Chan?" Ankou asked, "I was concerned you would be killed, or worse."

"I'm alright." Shironagi replied, taking a swig from his gourd for good measure. "As sad as it is to say, I've seen a lot worse in my time."

Ankou looked off in the direction that the angry spirit had wandered, "That spirit has lost who he was..." Ankou's face saddened greatly, "He is in great pain..." He paused for a moment, his ears lowering in tune with his sadness, "Do you understand the difference, Shironagi-chan, amongst spirits?"

"Yes." Shironagi said with a sagely nod. "The thing that changes them... is humans."

"Sometimes..." Ankou replied, "That spirit was in great pain, he is not what he once was and yes, I think, because of humans. But this is not always true. Some evils are made, and some are born... we should continue." He smiled weakly.

"Let's." Shironagi replied, taking another swig from his gourd.

 

The rest of their walk was peaceful and without incident, the two travellers arrived in Ichiya. The town was of a reasonable size and seemed to be especially busy for some reason. People were milling in the streets in great numbers and merchants were hurriedly setting up extra stalls including all manner of food, clothing and trade goods. 
"Is this a festival?" Ankou asked, but before Shironagi could speak, a passing peasant man answered back.

"This is the Lotus festival. It's held here every year, isn't it wonderful? Oh--" The man's eyebrows rose suddenly, "You... are you a fox-spirit?" Ankou nodded, "Wonderful, wonderful... wonderful." He repeated, walking off.
"Wonderful?" Ankou parroted, looking at Shironagi with a bemused expression.

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