June 26, 2019, 07:55:44 AM

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Messages - OhGodHelpMe

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1
Siblings
Spoiler

The morning wind scattered the falling snow like ashes upon the land. On that day, the gates to Tsukiakari's gates remained tightly shut and guarded. That day marked a very poignant occasion that could not be disturbed. It was Yachi's funeral. The courtyard was filled to the brim with tearful men, women and children, many of whom knew and respected Yachi as they would any other Senkumo. Whoever could not fit in the courtyard watched from the patios of the surrounding buildings or the windows of their bedrooms. With the crowd of mourning soldiers behind her, Chiya stood before Yachi's flower-adorned casket, still holding onto the bag of Azalea seeds her sister never got to plant. Tsukiakari stood among her troops in the front row, silent tears streaming down her face.


"My dearest Yachi..." Chiya began. "Welcome home."


Tsukiakari looked upon Chiya with a mix of sorrow and deep respect. She could barely hold herself together, and yet, Chiya had agreed to prepare an open letter to her sister. Her voice broke and cracked with every word she spoke, every breath she took. It was taking every ounce of Chiya's inner strength to keep her heart from shattering right then and there. And still, she continued to speak.

"We were all so worried when you didn't return. And you know me. I've always been the biggest worry wort when it comes to you. Though, we never imagined that you would come back to us like this." Chiya paused, collecting herself. "I received your gift, the azalea seeds. Gekko gave them to me after you returned. Thank you so much, Yachi. It's winter now, but when the spring comes, I'll be sure to plant them. We'll make the day they bloom a holiday, Azalea Day, where no one will fight or kill anyone. For just one day, the clan will celebrate life, love, and peace, just like you wanted. That's my gift to you, for being such a one of a kind sister. I love you, Sis."

Chiya wiped her tears with her sleeve and continued on. "Yachi, there's no more pain. No more suffering. No more tears or sorrow. Please, rest in peace."

While Tsukiakari and her men mourned the loss of Yachi Otonougi, their master, Bishamon was more than a day into his journey. He had traveled back to Oyamatsumi's temple on the lake, hoping to find him there. But alas, he was nowhere to be found. He dismounted his horse, looking around with his hands placed upon his hips.

"Looking for Oyamatsumi, kid?"

Bishamon groaned. He just knew it was Hachiman, making another one of his signature, unwanted appearances. "No, I'm looking for a good set of pots and pans for Ichiki."

Hachiman joined him by the lakeside, running his hands through his messy, white hair. "He's already left for Kaga, or so I heard from Raijin."

"Kaga?" Bishamon repeated.

"Yeah. Raijin mentioned the order to kill Taeko and said that Oyamatsumi tracked her down in Kaga. Don't tell me you called a hit on a girl without knowing where she was, Bisha."

"Taeko isn't in Kaga, she's here. I saw her yesterday with my own eyes."

"Well, either you're going senile or Oyamatsumi just walked himself right into a trap." Hachiman said. "If you saw her yourself, why didn't you just kill her?"

"Kill her?" Bishamon recoiled. "I wanted to kill her the moment I saw her, but I couldn't. She was with Tsukiakari the whole time. Besides, if Izanami's star witness was murdered in a Senkumo base, it would be like asking to get caught. I'd be throwing all of our leverage away."

"So, what do we do now? Want to try and find him before he screws up?" Hachiman asked.

"No. It might actually be better if we don't. I got engaged to Ichiki as a deterrent against Izanami's prosecution, but I have a feeling she might just go ahead with it anyway. In which case, I need to make prosecution a losing game for her on grounds other than her reputation. I'm thinking Oyamatsumi's arrest would actually help us with that. We'll have to give the kid a bit of scare, but it's all for a good cause."

"And what of Taeko?"

Bishamon crossed his arms. "For now, she's gotten herself some more time, but only a little. I underestimated her. I won't let her pull a ruse like this again."

That night, the machinations of men and gods went unheard as the peaceful, winter wind combed through the land. Despite the cold, the Senkumo were able to get their nightly campfires and torches lit. Tsukiakari and Chiya stood before the Plague Memorial outside the gate of the medical ward. The structure was a twelve foot tall, cream-colored obelisk, with an epitaph inscribed down the length of the memorial.

'In honor of those who fell to the plague. Though your souls have left us behind for a better world, your love remains with us, and ours with you. We recall the memories of your lives over drinks and crackling flames, partaking in the joy of reminiscence and it's subtle, yet powerful aftertaste of sorrow. We remember you. We love you. We always will.'

"Yachi wrote the inscription." Chiya said. "She was sure you'd like it."

"I love it." Tsukiakari assured.

"I hope you won't mind, Gekko. I've asked that Yachi be buried in the courtyard, and for the azalea seeds to be planted at her grave. I can't bear the thought of putting her anywhere outside of these walls."

"That's alright with me, Chiya. I think it's a beautiful idea."

"Thank you. I...have another favor to ask."

"What is it?" Tsukiakari questioned.

"I want to speak to her killer. The Man in Black."

Tsukiakari and Chiya locked eyes.

"Chiya...you know that's not a good idea. He's going on trial tomorrow morning."

"I'm afraid I must insist, Gekko. Let me talk to him. It's the only way I'll be able to move on from all of this."

"What do you mean?"

"Yachi has been in my thoughts non-stop since you brought her home. My mind won't stop replaying our lives together. I feel her everywhere I go, as if she's just watching me from a short distance. I feel her in the flowers, in the snow beneath my feet, and the wind beneath my hair. It's like this nagging, phantom pain that won't subside. And yet, as much as I think about her, her killer remains just as present in my thoughts. Every time I think of Yachi, her memory is sullied by his image. My head is all full of ghosts, Gekko. I need to make it stop."

Tsukiakari pinched the bridge of her nose. "I know the feeling."

"I'm going. Alone."

Tsukiakari raised her index finger as if she was about to make a point. She took a breath to speak, but quickly released it with naught a word of protest. "Just be careful, Chiya."

Chiya bowed in gratitude. "I will. Thank you, Gekko."

Chiya descended the steps of the medical ward, wading through the people in the courtyard like a snake through blades of grass. The occasional voice would call out to her for her attention, but she paid them no mind. The cold air stung her swollen eyes as she trailed past the crowds, approaching the two guards stationed in front of the brig. Recognizing their lord, the guards bowed their heads and allowed her through.

She slowly sauntered through the torch-lit halls of the spacious brig, not quite knowing what she was going to do or say once she saw the Man in Black. She could see herself barging into the cell and strangling him, but his terminal illness made murdering him pointless. Thinking a little more, she saw herself put the Man in Black through an interrogation of sorts. Though, if she asked why he did what he did, it would only make his presence in her thoughts that much stronger. She released an exhausted sigh, conceding the simple fact that there are many things in life that cannot be accounted for nor calculated. The most human moments are spontaneous, neither planned nor foretold.

And so, Chiya stopped in front of the Man in Black's cell, catching him sitting against the wall cross-legged. A single, solitary candle just barely illuminated his face in his darkened cell. Chiya spent what felt like an eternity just gazing at him, scanning every detail of his face.

"Come to mock a dying man?" the Man in Black wheezed before coughing.

Chiya struggled to put a string of words together. "No. I'm not here to mock you."

The Man in Black raised his head, but his waning vision prevented him from being able to see his visitor very clearly. "Who are you?"

"My name is Chiya. Chiya Otonougi. My sister was Yachi Otonougi."

"You're her sister?"

Chiya nodded. "Yes. How are you feeling?"

The Man in Black scoffed. "You don't care."

"Do you need any water? Food?"

"...Water." the Man in Black said, expecting to be served a swig of vinegar rather than water.

Chiya smiled. "Okay, I'll be right back."

Just a few minutes later, Chiya returned with a bowl of cold water, along with half a loaf of bread. She gently put the bowl down as she dug into her pockets for the key to the Man in Black's cell. Chiya unlocked the cell and stepped right inside with the man that murdered her sister, closing the cell door behind her.

"Here. I melted some snow for you." Chiya said, offering the bowl to the Man in Black.

He took the bowl and drank from it in silence. He put it to the side as he erupted into a fit of coughs as Chiya patted his back. Next, she offered him a roll of bread.

"When was the last time you ate something?" Chiya asked.

"Being sick doesn't leave much room for appetite."

Chiya dropped the bread roll into his hands. "You have to eat, even if you're dying."

The Man in Black sighed before he finished the bread roll in just three bites, then washed it down with more chilled water. Chiya herself didn't even understand why she was doing what she was doing. She didn't put much thought into her actions. She simply moved and provided help where it was needed.

"Thank you." the Man in Black said.

"No worries." Chiya replied with a smile.

The two of them sat together with the single, lit candle between them.

"Hey, what's your name?" Chiya asked.

"The Man in Black."

"No, your real name. The one your mother gave you."

"What does it matter? I was risen from my grave in the Katsura river. Any semblance of my past is dead along with my friends and family."

"That's not true." Chiya protested.

"What would you know?" The Man in Black dismissed.

"The ones we love live with us forever, exactly the way we remember them. Don't you think the way they remember us also lives on?" Chiya proposed.

"...Satoru."

"Satoru is your name?"

Satoru nodded. "The one my mother gave me."

"That's a great name, Satoru." Chiya giggled. "I knew a kid named Satoru, growing up. He was a real troublemaker. He used to steal radishes, of all things, from one of the produce vendors in my neighborhood. He'd been taking things from her ever since he was a little boy. He wasn't even that good of a thief. He'd always get caught and he'd be forced to apologize to the woman he stole from. The woman gave him so many lectures, I wondered if she would ever run out of lectures to give. When the Onin War erupted, though, Yachi and I escaped from our home and searched our neighborhood for any survivors we could take with us. A lot of our friends and neighbors were already dead in their homes or sprawled out in the streets. We found Satoru and that old woman among the bodies in the street. She died with her body wrapped around Satoru's. She tried to protect him when Yamana soldiers rampaged through the neighborhood. I never understood why she would do such a thing, but I think I finally understand why she made that sacrifice. I think she remembered who Satoru was before he became the neighborhood rascal. In her final moments, I think Satoru was still that sweet little boy she knew, and she gave her life to protect him."

"But now they're both dead. Where does that memory go when the people who shared it are no longer here?" Satoru asked.

"Well, I wouldn't have been able to tell you that story if it didn't live on, right? I witnessed their relationship from a distance, and yet, the memory of Satoru and the old lady lives in me."

"I suppose you have a point, then."

Chiya leaned her head back against the wall, closing her eyes. "You sound like you still don't believe me."

"Even if it's true, I have no intention of letting that version of myself live on in place of the demon I've become now. People have a choice as to what their legacy will be. I've chosen my way in my final days. One day, you'll choose your way in your final days."

Satoru went into another coughing fit. It sounded as though his coughs were powerful enough to tear his throat and lungs into pieces.

"What choice did my sister make?" Chiya asked.

Satoru went silent for a few minutes that dragged on like hours. He bowed his head and turned his thoughts to the weeks he spent torturing Yachi, his questions stonewalled by her obstinance.

"Your sister remained loyal to her comrades until the very end. No matter what I did to her, no matter how I wounded or shamed her, she didn't speak a word of treachery. She expressed no hatred towards me."

Chiya wiped the tears flowing in her eyes as a slight smile formed on her face. "Yeah. That sounds like her. Satoru, my sister was a caring girl. Whenever there was a friend in need, Yachi always stepped up to help. Whenever there was an opportunity to use her skills for a good cause, she took it. Do you know why she specifically wanted to gift azalea seeds to me? It's not just because they're my favorite shrubs. The flowers that grow from the shrub have a meaning. When you gift azaleas to someone, you're asking that they take care of themselves and be well. They're the perfect flowers to give to someone you love deeply. So deep was her love for her friends, comrades, and the world around her, that she couldn't even bring herself to hate you, her murderer. Her tormentor. Perhaps she saw in you what that old lady saw in the Satoru I knew."

"And what would that be?" Satoru questioned.

Chiya locked eyes with him. "Humanity, in all of its ugliness. But humanity, nonetheless. Beneath all of that hatred and drive for revenge, a part of you is still crying in pain. Hatred is never born alone."

Satoru snickered as he hung his head in embarrassment. "She said those exact words to me, once. You really are her sister, aren't you? The same looks, the same mannerism, even the same words. You remind me of someone I once knew."

"You know a good sibling when you see one, right?" Chiya asked, laughing and crying at the same time as she laid a hand on his shoulder.

Satoru turned his head away, hiding his flow of tears from the light of the flickering candle between them. However, he couldn't suppress his mournful sobs, nor his memories of Noriko. Chiya threw her arms around Satoru in a loving embrace as he shed his first true tears since his first death. Forgiving what he did to Yachi was impossible. Forgetting the pain he inflicted upon both her sister and herself was even more difficult for Chiya.But that night, Chiya made the choice to understand Yachi's killer, to break bread and water with him, to sit and know him.

And she knew that, somewhere, Yachi was cheering her on.

2
Music / Re: OGHM's Wacky Slappy Guitar Riffs
« on: June 22, 2019, 11:24:41 PM »
Alright. One of my friends co-wrote some lyrics for Tomb of Saint George and sang the hell out of it.

Enjoy.

The Tomb of Saint George
https://chirb.it/M53d6C

3
MR Pub / Re: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME
« on: June 18, 2019, 01:12:10 AM »
Happy Day of Nativity

4
Music / Re: OGHM's Wacky Slappy Guitar Riffs
« on: June 16, 2019, 10:26:17 PM »
The Rebel
https://soundcloud.com/tonbogiri/the-rebel

Really nice song by Earth (Black Sabbath before they called themselves Black Sabbath). Shame they never performed this song again.

5
Video / PC Games / Re: E3 2019
« on: June 15, 2019, 10:14:52 PM »
It was a snore-fest and that cute Japanese girl everyone is making fan art of seemed to be the only person visibly having any fun whatsoever. Most announcements were for sequels or games we already knew were coming, while new ones got CG trailers that don't tell you anything about the game.

Todd van der Linde came out with his usual "I HAVE A PLAN I JUST NEED MORE MONEY ONE MORE BIG SCAM AND WE'LL BE HARVESTING DRAGON ARMOR IN 16 TIMES THE DETAIL HAVE SOME GOD DAMN FAITH" act and remains gaming's Prince of Lies.

Honestly, I see why Sony pulled out (besides for the fact they'd be chewed out for promises that remain unfulfilled from the last E3 and for their disastrous, censorious policy regarding sexual material in games that seems to only be affecting Japanese developers but not TLOU2 with their zoomed in, realistically rendered makeout session HMMMMMMMM  :hmm: :hmm: :hmm: :hmm: BIG THINK, MY NOGGIN IS A'JOGGIN).

I had an extra $20 lying around last night so I decided I would buy a game. I can't tell you how long I was browsing Steam and PSN, looking through games like Spiderman, God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, etc. In the end, I didn't buy anything that was made recently. I bought Kingdom Hearts 1.5+2.5 because I had never played KH2 Final Mix, and playing KH3 made me want to go back and appreciate the other games. I thought it just came with KH 1&2 final mixes, but it also came with Chain of Memories, 358/2 Days, Re:Coded, and Birth by Sleep. I'm going to be busy for a while.

I mention this to emphasize how uncertain I've become when buying new games. So much so that I'd rather buy a bundle of older games I know I love and haven't played in years. I almost thought to buy Madden 19 a while ago until I saw everyone making a huge stink about the game. The last Madden game I got was Madden 05. I guess you can't just buy a football game and just play football anymore. It's no longer that simple.

Looking forward to a darker Zelda game, though. Really scratches my Majora's Mask itch.

6
Melting Snow
Spoiler
It was a long night.

News of Yachi's death spread like a cancer and robbed nearly everyone of their desire to sleep. Friends and comrades alike congregated in the courtyard to mourn and pray together. Others preferred to lock themselves in their rooms and fight their sadness alone. For some people, quietude and a cup of sake in Yachi's honor was their preferred method of grieving. The night sky was dyed a dark blue, a sign of the morning sun's imminent arrival. Inori exited the medical room where she examined Yachi's corpse, her eyes still red and swollen from crying. She approached Tsukiakari in the hallway while Taeko, Chiya, and Goro stood out of hearing distance.

"I've never seen anything like it in all of my years in this clan, Gekko." Inori said. "The list of injuries and wounds plaguing her body is beyond extensive. It would be easier to write down what didn't happen to her than what did."

"Do you think there was a killing blow?" Tsukiakari asked.

"Not from what I saw. I think all of her injuries, combined with her severe malnutrition and dehydration led to her death. She just couldn't take it anymore."

Tsukiakari nodded. "I can't believe that monster put her through such unimaginable pain."

"What should we do? With the body, I mean."

"I don't know." Tsukiakari sighed. "I won't decide anything until I get Chiya's consent. For now, keep the body cool and preserved."

"As you wish. I'll be waiting on Chiya's decision, then."

Inori bowed to Tsukiakari and returned to the medical room. Left alone, Tsukiakari plopped herself down on a nearby bench, rubbing her tingly hands together as she hung her head. The first rays of the morning sun crept over the horizon and slipped through the gaps in the wooden shutters, painting her face in stripes of orange light and dark shadows.

"Oh, Tsukiakari!"

Tsukiakari raised her head and shot back onto her feet as she met eyes with Inari.

"Are you leaving?" Tsukiakari asked.

Inari nodded. "I'm sorry. I want to stay with you through this difficult time, but I've received summons from Izanami to help her in Kaga."

"Ah, to help with her investigation, I assume." Tsukiakari groaned, plopping back down on the bench.

"I'm...very sorry. This was not how any of us wanted this to end."

"It's alright. I'm really thankful to you for all of your help, Inari. We couldn't have found her without you." Tsukiakari said.

"I suppose...we're enemies now?" Inari said.

"You mean the investigation? I could never consider you an enemy because of that."

"You may feel that way, but I'm sure Bishamon doesn't. As I recall, Tsukiakari, you decided you would remain with the Senkumo clan rather than leave and come with me."

"Of course I'm going to side with my clan! They're my family."

"But even you can surely see that in this situation, siding with the clan is the same as siding with Bishamon. They're not mutually exclusive in a legal battle. Nothing changes the fact that he is your master."

Tsukiakari's silence was all but an admission that Inari was right. That silence was soon interrupted by a frenzy of cheers booming from the courtyard. Tsukiakari could faintly hear the massive, wooden gates  of the base creak on their hinges as they parted open.

"What's going on?" Inari asked.

"No idea." Tsukiakari replied.

Everyone around the base dropped whatever they were doing and swarmed upon the courtyard as if it were a holy site of pilgrimage. A massive crowd formed around one man, or rather, one god. Bishamon had come to visit. It was the first time anyone in Tsukiakari's base had seen him in years. He dismounted his fiery horse and embraced his fellow Senkumo with open arms, accepting their tearful hugs and praises. His mere presence brought the smiles back upon the Senkumo's faces, even if only for a moment. It was a morale boost like no other.

"My brothers, my sisters...my comrades..." Bishamon began, the crowd of hundreds splitting apart to make a path for him. "It's so good to see you all. I'm sorry it has taken me so long to come and see you. I've been very busy, as you can guess."

Tsukiakari, Taeko, Chiya, Goro, and Inari descended from the medical ward. They could tell just from the behavior of the troops that their surprise visitor was Bishamon. The body language of even the hardest soldiers became obedient and submissive, their hands clasped together in prayer and their heads bowed as Bishamon slowly sauntered past them.

"All of those battles, the plague outbreak, and now this investigation, this petty attack from Izanami herself. You've all been through so much, and yet you still stand strong, firmly planted in your cut of the earth." Bishamon praised. "I have never been more proud of all of you than I am right now."

Bishamon felt a tug at his robes. Looking to his left, he saw a young girl, no older than ten, crying at his feet. He knelt down on one knee as he stroked her shoulder, meeting the mournful girl eye to eye.

"What's wrong? Why the tears?" Bishamon asked.

The girl kept her head of brown hair bowed, hiding her tear-stained face. "Yachi...Yachi's dead..."

Bishamon stood up, stroking his beard. "Dead? What happened to her."

"My sister was kidnapped." Chiya interjected, all eyes turning to her. "She went to Kameyama to run an errand, but she never came back. Someone abducted her before she could make the journey home. Who abducts a damned girl? Who tortures her endlessly like that? Who beats her, pulls her teeth, and rapes her?!"

"Chiya..." Tsukiakari mumbled, unable to bring herself to stop her.

Bishamon's eyes scanned over Chiya, but they were quickly drawn towards Inari and Taeko. Even though Chiya was the one talking, his gaze was entirely focused on them. Taeko especially stared daggers right back at him, balling up her fist so tightly that her dirty nails drew blood from her palm.

"To do all of that to her...to give her such an undiginified grave...who would do that? Why? Why her?" Chiya cried, clutching a lock of Yachi's hair to her chest.

Bishamon refocused his gaze upon Chiya. "I am...so terribly sorry to hear that. I truly mean that."

Chiya shook her head. "Where were you?"

Chiya stormed off, retreating back inside of the medical ward.

Bishamon turned around to face his crowd of worshipers and comrades. "Return to what you were doing. I'm going to have a talk with Tsukiakari and our guests."

The crowd dispersed and return to their rooms. With Bishamon's abrupt return, the Senkumo at least had enough morale to actually go to sleep.

"My apologies, but I really must be going now." Inari said.

"That's too bad. I was hoping to reminisce about the good old days with you, Inari. You were an invaluable part of this clan's rise to power. We wouldn't be here without you." Bishamon said.

Inari forced a smile upon her face, taking Bishamon's praise as an underhanded insult, an insinuation that she was merely trying to kill a beast that she helped create.

"Duty calls, Bishamonten." Inari bowed.

"Let's go, Inari." Taeko urged.

"Leaving so soon, Taeko?" Bishamon questioned. "You're more than welcome to stay, at least for just a little while. This was your old home, after all."

"No thank you. I only came back to help Tsukiakari find Yachi." Taeko growled.

"I insist. You're staying for just a little longer." Bishamon commanded.

Taeko had no choice. She calmed herself down, sticking close to Tsukiakari.  The three of them bade farewell to Inari as they entered the base's brig. They followed the reverberating coughs down the halls, stopping at the Man in Black's cell. He lied on the ground, completely naked and exposed, just as he did to Yachi.

"That's quite the cough, young man." Bishamon teased.

The Man in Black snickered. "A progressive lung infection. It's a slow and painful death."

"Oh, I'm sure. I'm the clan leader, you see. I've seen my fair share of illnesses and infections, though most of it was fever, gangrene, bone infractions, just a slew of nasty afflictions." Bishamon said. "Still, I find that there is no rot in this world quite as pervasive as revenge. I've even seen it raise the dead right out of their graves, turning men into phantoms of their former selves. Kind of like you. You seem to be much more of a ghost than a man."

"We're all ghosts. Every single one of us." The Man in Black sighed. "And here I thought I had to destroy the entire Senkumo clan in order to get my revenge. I was wrong. Who knew that Bishamon himself would be foolish enough to play right into my hands?"

Bishamon chuckled. "Was all of this part of your plan? Did your grand strategy include dying of illness in a Senkumo jail cell? How the sick delude themselves."

"Death is a kind of clarity you gods will never understand." The Man in Black retorted.

"So then, what do you intend to do with him, Tsukiakari?" Bishamon asked.

"Every bone in my body is screaming for me to kill him, but that would be far too easy. I intend to put him on trial here at base, so that everyone can know what kind of monster he is. As for his sentence, that's up to Chiya to decide."

"The woman just lost the only family she had left and you want her to deal with this bastard's punishment too?" Taeko hissed.

"No one has more of a right to make that call than she does, Taeko." Tsukiakari replied.

"You do, you *censored*ing idiot! You're the Commanding Lord!" Taeko retaliated.

"That's enough, Taeko." Bishamon said. "As you're no longer part of this clan, I won't accept any hostility towards Tsukiakari. Besides, our enemy is right here. Once he's dealt with, this terrible chapter will come to a close."

"He fails to understand the depth of the human heart."

That voice belonged to the Man in Black, but it did not come from his cell. Tsukiakari shivered as she slowly turned her head to the left, her heart trying to rip itself in half inside her chest. She saw him. She swore she saw the Man in Black standing right next to her, dressed in his black, tattered roads and wide-brim hat. He looked at her and she at him.

The Man in Black turned her attention to Bishamon. "Fear, hatred, respect, even love—they are all powerful feelings. Power is what gives rise to action, and action to change. No one can kill what they fear, hate, love, or respect. No matter what the object of those feelings are, the emotions remain."

"You played the game and lost, young man." Bishamon said. "Well, I won't bother you any longer. I'm sure you have much to atone for and think about in your final days. You'll die an insignificant speck on the canvas of history. No one will remember you. Your tale will never be told. Consider this my way of making sure that your grave is even more undignified than Yachi's was."

Tsukiakari quickly glanced back to her left, but her vision of the Man in Black was already gone. She wiped the sweat from her brow, realizing her armpits were sweating beneath her robes. It frightened her, just how much his continued presence and memory unsettled her.

"Girls, let's leave him be." Bishamon said, walking away.

They left the Man in Black by himself, returning to the snow-covered courtyard. They walked Taeko over to the base's gate to see her off, the sun's light making the snow dazzle like a sea of diamonds.

"Thank you for your help, Taeko. After all these years, you're still a pillar of strength." Tsukiakari said.

"That's what you need to be, Gekko. You need to be a far stronger pillar than I ever was." Taeko replied. "These men here, especially the women and the children, they need you. You have to take on the world's brutality and cruelty in their place. You have to make tough decisions for them. Otherwise, the Man in Black really will win."

"I'll...I'll try." Tsukiakari bowed.

"It was a pleasure seeing you again, Taeko. Where will you go now?" Bishamon asked.

Taeko scoffed. "You must be joking."

The two locked eyes for a moment until the tension was broken by Bishamon's grin. "Good to know you're still a cautious woman, Taeko. Be careful out there. It's a dangerous world and the Senkumo clan has a lot of enemies. With us or not...people out there might still wish to harm you."

"Sure." Taeko said, cutting the conversation short.

Taeko mounted her horse, leaning forward as if the mere act of mounting made her dizzy. She took a deep breath and composed herself. "Farewell, you two. Be well, and give my love to Chiya."

"I will." Tsukiakari promised.

And so, Taeko departed from the base, the gate shutting behind her. Tsukiakari released a lonesome sigh, already missing the presence of her former friend and her nine-tailed ally.

"Well?" Tsukiakari led on. "I assume this isn't just a social call. What made you show up after all of these years? Where were you the whole time?"

"Defending the clan from afar, of course." Bishamon said. "I've been expanding our bases into different regions, keeping our coffers full, and planning out the clan's future. Of course, I've had to stop all of that to deal with Izanami and this investigation. She's very bothersome. As for why I came, it was indeed to let you all know that I am still here, this clan is still strong, and that I will not bend to Izanami. I wanted to tell you in person that you are allowed to resume normal operations again."

"What? Are you serious?" Tsukiakari asked. "Izanami isn't even done with her investigation yet."

"Don't worry about Izanami. I have friends in high places. They won't let Izanami and her gaggle of traitors have her way. We will survive, Tsukiakari. Remember that."

Bishamon's fiery steed approached, allowing the war god to mount and prepare to leave. "Start thinking about where you want to go next, Tsukiakari. Coming out of winter, most of the clans will have their forces all cooped up in their forts. The land is clear for our troops to march. We're very close to achieving our dream, a sovereign state free of the folly of daimyo and emperors."

"It's hard to think about any of that when we've just lost Yachi, Bishamon." Tsukiakari said.

"I know. I'm very sorry about that. Please tell that to Chiya. I must be on my way. I've got an investigation to break apart."

And so, Bishamon departed from the base as well. With that single visit, he seemed to have restored much of the faith that was lost over the years of suffering Tsukiakari's men endured. With his army re-energized, Tsukiakari was left to wonder just what Bishamon had in store for Izanami the Cruel, his pale adversary.

7
Hearts Betorn
Spoiler
Taeko and Inari gazed upon the lightning-scarred field of burnt, mangled corpses with their mouths agape in awe and disbelief. Nearly all of the Ouchi soldiers died with their eyes stuck open, the crimson glow of the blood moon reflecting off of their melted eyeballs as their flesh cooked and bubbled beneath their armor. Bound by his shackles, the Man in Black led the way back to Taeko and Inari, with Tsukiakari trailing close behind him with watchful eyes. Taeko jumped down from her saddle, stomping down the grass and flowers as she marched towards Tsukiakari.

"Taeko Senkumo. It's good to see you again." the Man in Black said.

"You shut up!" Taeko screamed as she cut Tsukiakari off. "What the hell is going through your god damned head, Gekko?! Do you have any idea what you've just done?!"

"Of course I do. The Ashikaga wouldn't have brought justice down upon this man. They wouldn't have punished him for what he did to Yachi. He was working for Tomiko the whole time. Everything he did was to honor her vendetta against me."

"Gekko, you're playing a fool's game. Release him. Let him die out here, alone. Revenge isn't going to make the pain go away."

"No." Tsukiakari replied. "This bastard is going to answer for what he did to her. He's going to answer to Chiya, who no longer has any living relatives in this world. He's going to answer to all of Yachi's friends and comrades, everyone who loved her! He doesn't get to sit in an Ashikaga jail cell taking it easy until he dies of illness."

"I think it's an honor to be able to meet the poor sow's sister." the Man in Black groaned.

"Shut the hell up!" Taeko screamed. "Gekko, I love you, but if you think I'm going to support this, you're out of your mind. You're coming undone if you really think this is a good solution to anything. I thought we were done with this endless cycle of bull*censored*."

"I'm indebted to you, Taeko, but you don't have a say in this. You're no longer a Senkumo." Tsukiakari said.

Before Tsukiakari could even blink, she received a swift fist to her cheek, knocking her down into the dirt as Inari gasped in surprise. Goro stepped forth with his hand trained around the hilt of his sword.

"Taeko! Do that again and I'll cut you down!" Goro shouted.

"I dare you to, boy!" Taeko challenged.

Tsukiakari coughed the dirt out of her mouth as she slowly got back up from Taeko's punch. "It's fine, Goro! It's alright."

The two women stood faced to face, eye to eye. The blood moon and its army of faded stars hovered above their heads like a cosmic light show.

"Yachi was my friend too." Taeko growled, her hand still balled into a fist. "How dare you speak to me as if I don't know the girl wrapped up in that damned cloth! I loved her! Do you seriously believe she'd support this if she were still here?"

"Get out of my way. I'm taking both her and her killer home." Tsukiakari muttered.

Taeko recoiled in disgust, taking a few steps back away from her former friend. "My god...you've forsaken yourself. You're about to give this madman everything he wants. After everything we went through together, you still don't understand the world you live in, do you? There is no such thing as justice here, Gekko. He knows that. That's why he did all of this."

Tsukiakari scoffed. "It seems you've forsaken yourself as well. You used to shed both blood and sweat to create the justice that wasn't there, the freedom that wasn't ours. That's how this clan has gotten so far, survived all of the tragedies it has. We fight to create the society we wish to see. Don't tell me you've lost your spine."

"You sound just like Bishamon." Taeko hissed.

Tsukiakari pushed the Man in Black towards Taeko, telling her, without words, to carry him on her horse. Taeko bit her lip in vexation as she tugged the Man in Black along. Judging by the veins popping out from Taeko's forehead, Inari could tell that it was taking everything in Taeko's power to leave the argument aside. Refusing to even take another glance at Tsukiakari, Taeko helped the Man in Black onto her horse before mounting up herself. No one said a word. The animosity was too thick in the air for conversation. For Taeko, the silence was preferable. She couldn't bare to think that Yachi might still be watching them from somewhere, listening to Tsukiakari's poisonous intent.

It was terribly late in the night. Most of the Senkumo had already fallen asleep, their day's work completed. As usual, a small team of armed guards patrolled on the graveyard shift, shivering in their boots from the winter cold. Chiya was yanked out of her slumber by a violent knock upon her door. She sat up with a yawn, her vision still blurry and unfocused. She slipped her feet into her sandals and answered the door, worried there was some sort of emergency. Opening the sliding door, she came face to face with Inori.

"What's wrong?" Chiya asked.

Almost immediately after asking, Chiya's ears caught the faint sound of a multitude of whispers down the hall, all of them mentioning 'Tsukiakari'. It seemed everyone had risen out of their beds in excitement, but also confusion.

"Tsukiakari returned just now. It looked like she was headed towards the medical ward with Taeko, Goro, and Inari." Inori said.

"The medical ward?" Chiya repeated, her eyes suddenly widening. "And Yachi? Did Gekko bring Yachi back?!"

"I-I'm not sure. I only saw one other person in tow and I have no idea who that was. They...also carried something wrapped in white cloth to the medical ward. It looked like another person was wrapped up in there."

Horrified, Chiya bolted down the hall and barged out of the living quarters. She ended up in the courtyard and continued sprinting towards the medical ward. Her body was moving on its own, her mind both overwhelmed and blank at the same time. She barged into the ward itself, following the faint sounds of voices and the flickering traces of lantern lights to find Tsukiakari and the others. Turning the corner of the hall, she ran into Goro first.

"Lord Chiya? Why are you awake?" Goro asked.

In tears, Chiya struggled to collect the breath to speak. "My sister, Yachi. Is she here?"

Goro's tongue was made of stone. He couldn't find the right words to break the news to Chiya. Chiya pushed past him, sauntering towards the lantern light pouring out from the opened door ahead. As she approached the door, two Senkumo nurses barged out of the room, one of them embracing the other as they both cried together. Chiya stepped inside, alerting Taeko, Inari, and Tsukiakari to her presence. She saw a mere glimpse of the white cloth Inori described, but it was obscured by Inari's nine tails.

"Chiya." Tsukiakari said, surprised to see her. "I..."

"Let me see her." Chiya demanded.

"That's not a good idea." Taeko warned.

Chiya's voice cracked as she fought back her tears. "I'm begging you. Please let me see her."

Inari patted Tsukiakari's shoulder, then directed a glance at Taeko. Silently, the three of them agreed to vacate the room. Left alone with the body, Chiya could already tell from the smell permeating from the cloth that Yachi was not in a good state. Her hands shivered as her she traced the face of the body through the cloth. Not only was it cold to the touch, but it was riddled with swelling and bruises that could be felt right through the cloth.

Chiya's chest caught fire as her tears blurred her vision and fell upon the enveloped body. She slowly parted the cloth at the face of the body, and came face to face with her own sister. Her face was disfigured by the extreme torture she endured, but Chiya nonetheless recognized Yachi. Tsukiakari, Taeko, Inari, and everyone else could hear Chiya's heartbroken wails from down the darkened hall. Even those standing outside the medical ward, waiting in dreadful suspense for news of Yachi's return, heard those painful cries. It was all the confirmation they needed that Yachi did not return alive.

It was Taeko that cried the most, knowing all too well the pain of losing a sister. Unable to bear it anymore, Taeko marched back into the room. She approached Chiya from behind and took a gentle hold of her right hand. Chiya stood from her kneeling position and threw her arms around Taeko, who hugged her as tightly as she could.

The lantern hanging above Yachi's body flickered and weakened, until the flame was extinguished completely, stolen by the maw of winter's cold.

8
Oh boy I bet that text is easy on the eyes in that size lol
See, the book file is formatted in one size while the standard Amazon cut is another size. They had the size that fits the book file (otherwise words would get cut off) but it’s a weird dimension indeed. Ah well. You get to read fiction is cook book format

9
Music / Re: OGHM's Wacky Slappy Guitar Riffs
« on: June 03, 2019, 04:25:25 AM »

10
Oh yeah, the digital version of Aika Crisis is out now too. Happy reading, everyone.

You can snag yourself a physical copy of Aika Crisis on Amazon now.
Or the digital copy for $2.99 on Amazon here!

11
For those interested, I'm going to be posting the Senkumo War Story novels over at Royal Road. Book of Blossoming will go up first, and then Book of Betrayal Part 1 (gotta go a chapter at a time, so bear with me). Great chance to read it if you haven't gotten into it yet.

I know it's the 'final' arc, release-wise, but it actually takes place centuries before the events of Death by Ex-Girlfriend. You don't need to read DbEG to get into SWS. You'll actually start seeing a lot of connections and cool tie-ins if you read SWS first. The supernatural conflicts laid out in this series are what lead to the conflicts in DbEG, after all.


12
Oh, that was faster than expected.

You can snag yourself a physical copy of Aika Crisis on Amazon now.
You can pre-order for $2.99 on Amazon here!

I want to try something a little different, though. I'm always weary of doing physical copies because they're bound to cost more than their digital counterparts. Manufacturing, printing costs, and all. Books with heavier word counts or bigger cut sizes cost more to print, so they naturally become more expensive.

So, how about this. You can read the book for free here, in it's entirety. If you like the work, go ahead and get yourself a physical copy. If you don't, well, tell me so. Either way, it's a good opportunity for everyone to see just how heavily I'm reworking and refining all of this.  :clapping: It has been no easy task, I assure you.

And since these books are coming out, I guess I'm open to any and all reviews, comments, or criticisms of any part of Death by Ex-Girlfriend or Senkumo War Stories. If you've got any thoughts about the series, a specific arc, general or specific, do share them  :clapping:

Alright, now to work on War Cloud. See you, folks.

13
Man, this feels weird. The final version of Aika Crisis has been submitted in time for release. I couldn't quite get the artwork to fit any of the standard book sizes, so that ticks me off a bit. I mean, it fits, but it doesn't cover all of the space, so there's two bars of non-art space on the top and bottom. Not the biggest issue, sure, but I'm a perfectionist. So, I guess I'll let you all know when you can grab some copies  :clapping:

I'll be working on War Cloud now. Feels great reliving Osamu's crazy life like this.

14
I’m only just seeing this! She looks absolutely stunning and horrifying! Really great job on the kimono and the obi there. And you got the flaming hair right! Love this one!

15
I've impressed myself.

The Adversary's Legacy
Spoiler
The day was just coming to an end at the Senkumo base. With the clan still in a mode of quasi-lockdown, there wasn't much for anyone to really do. The men spent most of the day chopping firewood and cleaning their pelts, while the women tended to the animals and prepared ingredients to be cooked for supper. It seemed the worst of winter had passed by, but the clan still expected another month or two of snow and rain. The sun started to hang low above the horizon as Chiya had a quick word with Inori in the halls of the female quarters.

"I'm very sorry, Inori. We haven't been able to procure any medicinal ingredients ever since this investigation started. Even though Izanami's in Kaga now, we're still not permitted to continue our regular schedule. It was risky enough letting Goro leave with Tsukiakari."

"No, I should apologize." Inori lamented. "I'm making a mountain out of a molehill. It's just that we usually get more sick troops during this season, and we don't have the medicine to treat them. No one is in any serious condition, though. Everyone in the medical ward now should be back on their feet soon."

"That's good to hear. It's kind of nice though, isn't it?" Chiya said.

"What's nice?" Chiya questioned, her head slightly tilted sideways.

"Not...you know. Going to war or anything."

"We're technically still at war, Chiya."

"You know what I mean. No one has died these past few weeks. I think we've all buried enough friends for several lifetimes."

"Yeah...I get you on that one. It is kind of nice to just have some peace. I don't know how long it'll last, but I hope we can at least enjoy one, peaceful winter together."

"Well, I'm gonna get some shut eye. Been a long day." Chiya groaned.

"Same here. Thank you, Lord Chiya." Inori sang with a bow goodbye.

"Rest easy, Inori."

Chiya closed her bedroom door and released a long, warm sigh. She kicked off her sandals and undid her kimono, stripping down to her basic, black robes. She undid her ponytail and let her silky, black hair fall as she peered out of her window. The laughter of children playing with snowballs in the courtyard just faintly bled through her walls, filling her with enough joy for a brief smile. She looked back to her laid out futon, which lied next to Yachi's rolled up futon. It was like this at the end of every day, the constant and crushing reminder that her sister was still out there.

"Gekko will bring you home soon. I know it. Just hang on, sis..."

Chiya, hoping to get some semblance of rest, lied down in her bed and went to sleep. Sometime later, she was woken up by the sound of the futon next to her being unrolled. She could feel someone's presence as the person lied down next to her, letting out a long, exhausted sigh. Chiya's eyes peeled open, but she couldn't believe what she was seeing. It was Yachi, covered in innumerable bruises and bandages. Yachi had to slowly easy herself into bed, lest she set off a landmine of nerves in any one of her injuries.

"...Yachi? You're home?"

Yachi smiled, locking her fingers with Chiya's. "At long last. You wouldn't believe the things I went through."

Chiya's lips quivered as tears ran down her cheeks. The sight of her sister finally home was too much to bear. "I missed you so much, Yachi! No more trips for you!"

"What? Sis, are you grounding me?!" Yachi asked. "But, Gekko said..."

"I don't care what Gekko said, you're grounded! As punishment..."

Chiya's face turned beet red as she threw her arms around her sister, trapping her in a loving hug. "As punishment, you have to stay by my side forever."

Yachi couldn't be happier to be grounded and punished in such a way. She buried her face into Chiya's shoulder, crying all of her fears and sadness away. She was finally home. There wouldn't be any suffering anymore. Tsukiakari, Goro, Taeko, and Inari brought an end to that awful period of constant worry and frustration. As if saying 'no need to thank us', they simply sent Yachi right up to her room to be with her beloved sister again.

"I love you, Chiya. I wanted to tell you that so badly."

"I love you too, Yachi. I love you so much."

But nothing could ever be that easy. Nothing could ever by that uplifting and joyful. When Chiya opened her again, she was all alone, the futon next to her still rolled up and Yachi still nowhere to be found. Chiya was left with tears staining her tired face and a gaping hole in her longing heart. Yachi did not return home. Chiya sat up, leaning against the wall and looking around at her empty, moonlit bedroom. Memories of the day before Yachi's departure for Kameyama played in Chiya's mind over and over again, her heart desperately trying to cling onto something that was no longer there. Chiya saw projections of herself and Yachi from that day, talking in the bedroom as Yachi packed her things.

"All packed up, Yachi?" Chiya asked.
"Yeah, I've got everything prepared." Yachi replied with a small smile.
"Excellent. I'll give you more coin tomorrow. You're to use it to help with the negotiations only. If you have anything left over after the fact, you can use it however you like."
"Thank you, Sis." Yachi said with a bow.
"Anyway, come outside with us. We're grilling chicken and beef skewers."
"Chicken?! Beef skewers?! Say no more! I'll be out in just a second!" Yachi cheered with a fire in her eyes.
"Exactly the kind of reaction I'd expect from you." Chiya laughed, nodding her head side to side.

The sweet taste of memories came with a bitter, heartbreaking aftertaste. Once the projections of her and her sister faded away into the cold, dark, empty space that was her bedroom, Chiya began to cry all over again. For perhaps the first time, Chiya knew the pain of truly missing someone, as well as the agony of being powerless to bring them back.

Just a few hours away from base, Tsukiakari, Taeko, Inari, Goro, and even Yoshioki and the Ouchi troops turned the ruined temple upside down in their search for Yachi. Inari ended up finding the room where Yachi and Tsukiakari were tortured, but she only found the charred, skeletal remains of Tsukiakari's corpse from her previous incarnation. Yachi was nowhere to be seen. The Man in Black remained restrained by the Ouchi, coughing violently as Tsukiakari desperately searched for Yachi with Goro. Just when it seemed like they had searched the entire perimeter, Inari returned from the torture room hidden beneath the sanctuary, her nose picking up a strange scent.

"Tsukiakari! I smell something! I think it's coming from one of these pots!"

"The pots?" Tsukiakari repeated, realizing she hadn't searched the pots. Everyone could see that she became very visibly nervous. Her eyes widened and her hands wouldn't stop shaking.

"Search the pots, all of you! I want every single one of them checked!" Yoshioki commanded, his men following his order.

One by one, the men tiled the pots down and peered inside of them. The pots were each around six feet tall and heavy enough to require two men to safely tilt them. Inari helped Tsukiakari tilt each pot while Taeko paired up with Goro. Old friends and old foes, for just one night, united to find a girl that desperately needed to be rescued. A girl that needed to come home to her sister, to spend one peaceful winter away from war and all of its wicked machinations.

Tsukiakari thought back to something Yachi told her while they were both held captive. Her voice played over in the goddess's head as if she was right there reciting every word from that day.

"I wasn't able to get the actual shrub, but I got some Azalea seeds before I left Kameyama. Remember? I originally wanted them as a gift for Chiya. I was so excited to see the look on her face when I brought home her favorite shrub. A beautiful gift of gratitude and sisterly love, for everything we've been through together since we left Kyoto. But now...I'm afraid they'll have to become a gift of parting. Listen to me, Gekko. We're wasting valuable time. It can take you anywhere between a day and three weeks to wake up from your slumber whenever you reincarnate. We won't wait for them to kill you. We'll take that matter into our own hands. When you wake up, all I ask is that you retrieve those seeds and bring them back home. Plant them at the Senkumo memorial. For just one day, let the clan celebrate peace. That's my final wish."

At long last, Tsukiakari and Inari found something. This one pot was heavier than all the others, requiring the additional help of Goro and Taeko. They gently laid the pot on its side, as it proved too heavy to even hold up in a tilted position. As soon as the pot was on its side, black liquid ran out from its mouth. The liquid carried a horrid stench with it, making Inari leap back in disgust. Along with the liquid, a single, pale arm poked out from the pot's mouth. Though she could just barely see it, Tsukiakari also spotted a familiar head of hair further inside of the pot. Taeko proceeded to pull the body out, the fetid odor making her nauseas.

The whole world stopped. The wind grew quiet. The rain ceased.

Everyone around Tsukiakari and the pot disappeared in a void of darkness. Tsukiakari gazed upon the face of the body now halfway out of the pot's mouth for what felt like hours, but she still could not believe it. She didn't want to believe it. The final and most important part of what Yachi said that day in her cell echoed in Tsukiakari's fragmented mind.

"Promise me you'll plant them? Not just for Chiya, but for the whole clan."

The body was mangled and devoid of warmth, its skin was white and its veins were an icy blue. Parts of her feet, and legs were skeletonized by the rainwater settled in the bottom of the pot she was so haphazardly shoved into. That cute, youthful face was now lifeless and dead. It was her.

It was Yachi. It was undeniably her. Tsukiakari fell to her knees screaming as the Man in Black had himself another long laugh.

Tsukiakari gripped Yachi's lifeless hand as the tears burned her eyes and blurred her vision. "Yachi! Yachi!"

Inari was quick to embrace the weeping Tsukiakari, even though she could barely keep from crying herself. Goro kicked one of the nearby pots over in grief-driven rage, covering his face as tears rolled down his cheeks. Taeko knelt down by Tsukiakari's side, hugging both her and Inari.

"Empty promises, Tsukiakari! Empty promises! You said you'd return her home, and now she's dead!" The Man in Black mocked.

"Shut the hell up!" Yoshioki growled, kicking him in the stomach.

"Tsukiakari, we have to get her out of here." Inari whispered. "You have to bring her home, even like this. She can't rest in peace here. She has to come home."

"Men, go get something to wrap the body in. Take one of the sheets out of the sanctuary or something." Yoshioki said, sending off two of his men.

"Now you know the pain that I felt." The Man in Black muttered.

Within an hour, Yoshioki's men wrapped up Yachi's body as well as the bodies of their fallen soldiers. At Taeko's request, Yoshioki also took custody of Masachika's skeleton. He was instructed to dump the bones in the ocean, somewhere the supernatural flames of the other two phantoms wouldn't be able to revive him. With their search for Yachi at a woeful end, all that was left was to take her body home. Tsukiakari couldn't piece together how she would tell Chiya. In what way could she possibly break that kind of news to her? She sat with Yachi's body in front of the abandoned temple with the emptiest glare in her scarlet eyes. Her eyes were swollen and itchy from all of her weeping. Though she had calmed down a bit, tears still ran down her face and dripped off of her chin.

Inari approached her, clasping her hands nervously as she thought of what to say to the grieving Tsukiakari. She could say nothing. Instead, she knelt down in front of her, handing her Yachi's pouch of Azalea seeds.

"I found these in that room. Are they Yachi's?"

Tsukiakari took a look inside the pouch, nodding as she began to cry again. "She wanted to plant these for us..."

"I'm so sorry, Tsukiakari." Inari lamented.

Taeko joined them as well. "Gekko?"

Tsukiakari was unresponsive, completely lost in a haze of grief. Taeko pulled Inari aside in order to give Tsukiakari some space.

"Yoshioki's loading up the Man in Black. He'll either face prison or execution. Whichever one it is, it's their problem now. It doesn't seem like those phantoms are protecting him anymore, either." Taeko explained. "We should get back to the Senkumo base. This whole thing is pretty much over."

"Alright." Inari agreed. "I'll get Tsukiakari up. I'll take the reins for her."

"Thanks for everything, Inari." Taeko said, patting the goddess's shoulder.

With everything done, Yoshioki loaded up his prized prisoner while Goro tied Yachi's body to his horse. Tsukiakari and Yoshioki met face-to-face one more time as the rain came to a stop. Spears of pale moonlight poked holes through the dark blanket of clouds above.

"You have my condolences, Tsukiakari, as well as my thanks. Though, it pains me to say that if we ever meet again, it may be on a battlefield." Yoshioki said.

"Thank you for your help. We couldn't have found her without you." Tsukiakari bowed.

"Take care, war goddess. And give my thanks to Inari."

With everyone mounted up, Tsukiakari and the others began their journey back to the Senkumo base. And what a quiet journey it was. Inari commanded Tsukiakari's horse, allowing the weary war goddess to rest for a few hours at least. Once they departed Arashiyama and rode through the wavy plains of snow in the countryside, it truly felt as though it was all over, at least where the Man in Black was concerned. As ill as he was, imprisonment was the same as a death sentence. Taeko still had her questions about the infiltration of the temple. Why was Masachika revived for a second time? Why didn't the other two phantoms come to protect the Man in Black? At the very least, her question of why the man had a retinue of Ashikaga troops was answered. Somewhere along the way, he teamed up with troops loyal to Tomiko, getting them to help him exact his revenge on Tsukiakari. In a way, everyone had been fighting Tomiko's phantom as well. Her hatred of the Senkumo clan lived on through the Man in Black.

Taeko's train of thought was interrupted as she grew lightheaded, her stomach twisting and churning. She leaned forward on her horse, groaning in pain.

"You alright, Taeko? Should we stop?" Goro asked.

"No, I'm alright. I get these often. Can I get some water?"

"Sure." Goro said, handing her his gourd.

"Thanks, Goro."

After taking a few sips of water, Taeko let out an exhausted sigh. "If her body wasn't right here with us, I wouldn't be able to believe she was gone. She was such a good girl. Such a capable woman. She didn't deserve this kind of death."

"I'm just scared of how Chiya is going to take this. She's been worried sick ever since Yachi went missing." Goro said. "I was hoping we'd be able to bring her back alive."

"Damn it..." Taeko cursed, fighting back tears.

Their conversation was just ambient noise to Tsukiakari. The war goddess was lost in her memories of Yachi. She was so captivated by her nostalgia that she felt as though she had really gone back in time, reliving the day Yachi and Chiya first sat down in front of her and Taeko back when the Senkumo clan was just starting to gain steam. She was back in the war room during the clan's heyday, interviewing the quirky twins when they were just teenagers. Thinking back, how they managed to keep such a chipper mood between them when they had lost everything in the Onin War was a herculean feat to Tsukiakari.

“State your names, please.” Taeko asked sternly.

“I’m Chiya Otonougi and she’s my sister, Yachi Otonougi.” one of them explained. “You can just call us the Otonougi twins.”

"So then, do you have any skills that would be of use to the Senkumo clan?" Tsukiakari asked.

Yachi recoiled in disgusted shock. "Seriously? Is she seriously asking if we have any valuable skills?"

"Skill is in our very name. It's the nou character in Otonougi." Chiya added in a snobbish tone. "Thought you would've figured that out just by hearing it."

Yachi covered her mouth as she gasped. "Maybe they're both lordless and witless, Sis."

"Oh heavens, what a tragedy,” Chiya said with a sarcastic tear-wipe.

"A tragedy indeed. But, to answer your question, Chiya and I are both quite versed in the art of equestrianism and animal breeding." Yachi said.

"Indeed. Our family owned horses in Kyoto and often sold them to the shogunate. They made an absolute living off of the trade and taught us how to do it as well." Chiya added.

"A Killing, Chiya. We made a killing."

"A living, a killing. Same difference, Yachi."

Tsukiakari saw everything so much more clearly in retrospect. Chiya and Yachi's chemistry must've been a shared coping mechanism for them. They had to rely on each other to get by in a war-stricken country. Two cute, young girls their age could've easily been captured and raped, or made into slaves or unwilling brides. They had that fear hanging over their heads as they wandered out of the ruins of Kyoto and stumbled upon the Senkumo clan. Together, those two had the resolve to walk into that war room with their heads held high, in spite of all they had lost. Not only that, but they lended their strength to Tsukiakari and the rest of the clan in whatever little ways they could. Even during the plague outbreak, the clan's darkest moment, those twins remained level headed and determined in their search for a solution.

Their strength was made even clearer when Tsukiakari suddenly asked them to take the reins of leadership and become commanding lords. Her memories took her back to that cold day just a few months ago.

“Us? Commanding lords? As in, Lord Yachi and Lord Chiya?” Chiya asked.

“Hold on, Gekko, this is all really sudden!” Yachi cried.

“I know that, and I’m sorry. We don’t have a choice. Mayumi and Ebina are both dead, and Taeko has been expelled. You two are all that’s left of the clan’s ring of leadership. You’re the only ones I can entrust the responsibility to.”

Further emphasizing her remorse for putting the twins in such a tight spot, Tsukiakari bowed to them as she pleaded further.

“Forgive me. You’re the only ones I can rely on right now. Please help me.”
   
“Gekko, please raise your head. A goddess shouldn’t bow to humans!” Yachi begged.
   
“We accept the position. We’ll hold down the fort until you get back.” Chiya assured. “Just…make sure you take care of yourself, okay?”

Tsukiakari rubbed the swelling tears out of her eyes with her sleeve, trying with all of her might to stop herself from crying. “I’ll do my best. It’s just really hard without them here.”
   
“Yeah. We know.” Yachi muttered. “You can count on us, though. We’ll follow you through hell and high water! Right, Sis?”
   
“Indeed we will. No doubt about it. If it weren’t for you accepting us into the clan, we’d probably be dead.”
   
“Ugh. Two dead beauties such as us. Thank the heavens we avoided such a tragic end.” Yachi sighed.
   
“Let’s not say things like that too early.” Tsukiakari warned. “We don’t want to jinx ourselves.”

Time within the memory suddenly came to a screeching halt around Tsukiakari. Yachi and Chiya remained frozen like statues. Tsukiakari's fists tightened so much that her nails dug into her palm and drew streams of warm blood from her hands. She fell down to her knees, her tears falling onto the snow-covered ground. She clenched her eyes shut and gritted her teeth as her heartbreak intensified. Trapped in her own memory, no one could hear her sharp whimpers and grieved cries. Except for one.

"Run away all you like. You'll never get her back."

The Man in Black knelt down next to her, gazing into her tear-soaked face. "Like the sensation of a missing limb, you'll keep trying to hold onto something that isn't there. You'll feel that phantom pain forever, just as I did."

The Phantom Soldier emerged from the tree line on his fiery horse, staring daggers at the grieving war goddess. The Phantom Maiden phased out the ground, on the opposite side of the Man in Black. She levitated out of the ground and remained floating over the frozen Yachi and Chiya, her ashen hair alight with flame.

"They say your friends live on in your heart. In your memories. Long after they're dead. That's how we know they're good friends" The Man in Black said. "That's why you should fear a good enemy as much as you love a good friend."

Tsukiakari turned her head, facing the Man in Black's disfigured, pallid face.

"Tsukiakari. I won."

Snapped out of her memory, Tsukiakari remembered where she was. Hanging onto Inari as she and the others rode their horses back to the Senkumo base.

Tsukiakari swallowed the lump in her throat and dried her eyes, issuing abrupt, new orders. "Inari, let me take over."

"Huh? Are you sure you're okay to ride?" Inari asked, everyone coming to a stop.

"I'm positive."

"What are you doing, Gekko?" Taeko asked while Inari switched places with Tsukiakari.

"We're changing direction. Follow me."

Yoshioki and his men continued in the opposite direction of Tsukiakari's party. They kept the coughing Man in Black locked in a caged, horse-drawn wagon. The small force of thirty men made sure to keep the cage in the center of their caravan, just in case their prisoner had any thoughts of escape. Though, in his condition, that was clearly unlikely. Yoshioki rode in the center, keeping a watchful eye over the Man in Black as they made their way back to Kyoto.

"That cough doesn't sound too good." Yoshioki said.

"I'm dying. I was sick before my home was destroyed. Inhaling smoke and bodily fumes didn't help me get any better." The Man in Black explained.

"I thought those ghosts of yours would've given you eternal life or something."

The Man in Black laughed. "No. They weren't mine. I was theirs. I was their tool and I knew it, but they gave me enough life to exact my revenge. Now that they've gotten what they wanted, they've left me to die."

"What they wanted?"

"You'd never believe me if I told you, Yoshioki."

"After what you put me through back there at the temple, I can believe anything."

The Man in Black leaned against the wall of his cage, slinking one arm over his bent knee. "The phantom girl. She's the one in control of it all. The other two were little more than corpses roused from their graves, driven only by their thirst for revenge. They had enough hatred to accept the girl's flame. Even the girl is a soul inside of a corpse. Who that soul belongs to, I don't know. Though I do believe the flames to be a dead giveaway. That girl is bouncing from corpse to corpse so she can interact with the physical world, but she needs a living body."

"For what?"

"To reincarnate."

A ferocious thunderclap boomed through the sky, warning of lightning's return. The men thought nothing of it and continued on their way.

"I won." The Man in Black laughed. "I actually won."

Lightning cut through the sky like a blade, striking down upon the convoy directly. A massive cluster of men and their horses were immediately killed by the strike, their armor and limbs melting off of their bodies. The stench of burnt hair and cooked flesh arose in the form of smoke lifting off of the bodies. The Man in Black's laughter turned into a fit of coughs as the caravan was struck by several more blasts of lightning, killing all but a few of them. Yoshioki himself was caught in the final strike, his horse nearly ripped in two by the lighting. The strike left Yoshioki writhing on the ground, reeling from flash blindness. The dirt road became a mess of burnt bodies and grass enwreathed in small flames.

The clouds were slowly tugged along by the wind, unveiling the dark blood moon sitting high in the night sky. The Man in Black head his cage being unlocked and its door swung open. He was grabbed by his tattered robes and dragged out onto the corpse-riddled ground.

"Get up. You're not getting off that easy."

The Man in Black knew exactly who stood before him. He had been expecting her, Tsukiakari Senkumo, to return. He raised his head, laughing in joy at what he saw. The blood moon illuminated the dirt road as Tsukiakari stood above the Man in Black, two full horns of fire protruding from her head. With the second horn sprouted, Tsukiakari had become the chosen host of the Phantom Maiden, the living body she would need to come back to life.

"I told you this would happen, Tsukiakari. At long last, the second horn sprouts. You've become a demon.

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