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Messages - OhGodHelpMe

Pages: [1] 2 3 ... 62
1
It's up on Amazon

Book of Betrayal Part 2 will come out on September 28th!

678 pages, 144,489 words.


2
General Manga writer discussions / Hurting the Reader! Yay!
« on: September 09, 2019, 03:53:43 PM »
This is another topic I'd like to talk about! Inflicting pain upon the reader!  :clapping: Some of you know I love doing this.

In almost every story, the central conflict has a resolution of some sort. The evil king is defeated, peace is restored to the realm, everyone lives their lives in freedom in harmony. The ancient evil is banished, the world returns to normal, the protagonist becomes a hero. Part of resolving a conflict is the emotional resolution. The low points are countered with high points or moments of reflection and understanding. The story hurts the reader, but most authors are kind enough to put a band-aid over that wound by the end.

What if you didn't do that and just stabbed the reader's heart even more?  :clapping:

I'll use the Letting Go arc of DbEG as an example. This originally only had the ending that it did because I rushed it, and I rushed it because I suddenly came up with the idea for Inari Standoff as I was finishing it. Letting Go was originally supposed to go like this.

Osamu reunites with Rousoku Himawari>Finds out she's a ghost that committed suicide years ago>Antagonize each other as they both tear up their old wounds>Find a place of understanding before vanquishing Rousoku>Bittersweet end, but is ultimately a happy ending

Instead, it went like this.

>Osamu reunites with Rousoku Himawari>Finds out she's a ghost>Antagonize each other>The time comes to vanquish her, but the two still haven't reconciled>She turns into a Jikininki>Osamu and Shinju are forced to kill her>Her body is cremated, ashes given to Osamu>Osamu punishes himself for killing his lover of yore a second time by eating her ashes

So, there's this little emotional wound that is left to bleed at the very end of the story. It ends with Osamu drowning in guilt and anguish rather than finding any emotional closure to the whole situation. Technically, Inari Standoff is the emotional closure for everything that happens between Dawn and Dusk and Letting Go, but I think you get the point.

Would you like to see more stories end without any emotional closure for the characters? Though, one could look at it and say that punishing oneself is a type of closure.  :hmm: I guess you can also take 5 Centimeters Per Second as an example. That one just breaks your heart and says "Lol alright, movie's over. Enjoy the sadness."

I think it's something more people should explore, because sometimes, there really isn't any closure in life.

3
Yeah that's what happens when you depose a dictator but fail to plug the power vacuum. It does upset me that powerful villains don't always have followers willing to continue their work. That would be a lot more interesting to see.

Coryn, I'm thinking that since the phantom is a psychological impression, he would manifest in the minds of the characters directly affected by his actions. It might actually be more interesting than only having the main protag see him. Tsukiakari, Taeko, Goro, and Chiya would all see him in their minds, in that case, since they either confronted him in person or saw the end result of his actions with their own eyes. Since the clan has dealt with actual phantoms before, it sure would be weird when they find out they're all seeing the same guy, but there's nothing they can do about it since he's not an actual ghost. I'm not too sure.

It's an idea I'm definitely still trying to grasp. I wanted to make a villain that factored dying into their plan to get revenge. As Op pointed out, killing someone may only make matters worse, and their specter may just hang over everyone's heads in the end.

4
Oh, here's the last chapter of Book of Betrayal Part 2

Vow of Revenge
Spoiler
Far away from the ruins of the Senkumo base, Izanami brought everyone back to Inari's shrine. She laid out a futon for the unconscious Tsukiakari, helping Chiharu gently lay her down in the living room.

"Thanks, I'll take care of it from here." Inari said. "You should rest too."

Chiharu took her advice and stumbled over to the porch, weary from the long, violent night. She sat down and finally took a moment to rest after everything that happened. She wiped the dirt from her face and took deep breaths to calm her racing her. Her hands hadn't stopped shaking since Goro, Inori, and Chiya were killed just minutes ago. While Inari tended to Tsukiakari's facial burn, Izanami sat on the porch next to the shivering Chiharu. The moonlight shimmered on top of the flowers and shrubs of Inari's garden, filling them both with a sense of calm after the chaos.

"What's your name?" Izanami asked.

"Chiharu." she gulped. "I used to be in the Senkumo clan when I was a little girl, but I was exiled. I came back to the clan just a few days ago."

"Where's Chiya and the others? What exactly happened back there? Can you tell me?"

Just hearing Chiya's name caused tears to swell in Chiharu's eyes. "Chiya is dead. They're all dead. Bishamon started destroying the Senkumo bases and killing off his men. He came for Gekko too, but Chiya put together a plan to get her to safety before he could kill her. All of them...every single one of them..."

Izanami recoiled upon hearing Chiya had died. "Chiya's gone? And Tsukiakari's base is gone too?"

Chiharu shook her head. "There is no base anymore. There's no Senkumo anymore. It's all over. Me and her are all that's left. Bishamon had Senkumo troops with him, but he'll probably kill them too."

"Don't you worry, Chiharu. Gekko is safe here. You did a good job getting her through all of that." Izanami said, rubbing Chiharu's shoulder. "You can stay here too, okay?"

"No, I need to leave." Chiharu protested. "If Bishamon's still searching for us, Gekko will be in much more danger if I stay with her."

"Just for a few days, then." Izanami said. "I can't let you go out there by yourself so soon after all of this has happened. You need to rest and think about what you're going to do next."

Chiharu nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes with her sleeve.

After a few hours to process the events of the night, everyone just wanted to get some rest. Though she knew she wouldn't be able to sleep, Chiharu laid down next to Tsukiakari after all the candles and lanterns were extinguished for the night. Chiharu looked to Tsukiakari with her eyes widened in awe and sheer astonishment.

"It costed us everything, but it was worth it just to protect your life, Gekko." Chiharu whispered. "When you wake up, you'll be all on your own. It'll be painful when you find out what happened, but don't lose heart. The country is heading towards peace. Live to see it. Live through it. Just live. Just live, Gekko, so that we can honor those that died to make this happen."

Chiharu interlocked her fingers with Tsukiakari's. Feeling the warmth of the goddess's soft breaths brush against her nose and cheeks helped her feel a little more relaxed, enough to be able to sleep. Izanami and Inari conversed in the garden as Chiharu fell asleep.

"To think that monster came this close to murdering my granddaughter..." Izanami muttered, biting the nail of her thumb.

"She's lucky to have made it out alive, especially Chiharu." Inari said. "I guess Chiya made that possible for them."

"Inari, I'm sorry to ask..." Izanami began.

Inari shook her head with a smile. "Gekko can stay here for as long as she likes. You don't even have to ask."

Izanami sighed, the burden of the question lifted off her shoulders. "I don't know what I'd do without you, Inari."

"What happens now, Izanami? The Senkumo clan is gone and Bishamon is still out there. If this is all part of some plan he has, I'm not looking forward to seeing what comes next."

"I don't know. I really don't. This has all been such a mess."

"You got that right." Inari said. "I guess we'll take things a step at a time. First, we have to nurse Gekko until she wakes up. That's the most important thing right now. We can't do anything rash in the meantime."

"Gekko's going to be so heartbroken..."

The wind lapped up Izanami's hair, blowing in the direction of the Senkumo base back in Yamashiro, or what remained of it. While Bishamon's men celebrated their victory of the corpses of their fellow Senkumo, Bishamon remained on the steps of Inari's shrine, standing over Chiya's dead body. He sat down on one of the steps, staring off into the void as he released a deep sigh.

"Don't sulk, Bishamon."

The war god leaped off of the step and onto his feet like a startled animal, snapping his body around towards the visitor. It was Uzume, appearing without warning.

"I think that's the first time I've ever seen you cower. My apologies, Bishamon." Uzume said.

"Are you here to mock me or did you come to actually say something?" Bishamon growled.

"Ah, of course." Uzume snapped, feigning remembrance. "First, allow me to give you a round of applause on a job well done. You actually destroyed the entire clan. Good for you."

Uzume remained stone-faced as she gave Bishamon a patronizing round of applause, much to the war god's anger.

"The Exorcist Program will go into effect once this war dies out. Amaterasu thanks you for speeding your plans for her sake." Uzume said. "However, I do believe you know what will come next."

"Amaterasu's wager." Bishamon hissed. "I've noticed Amaterasu loves to rely on hypotheticals and what-ifs. If either of you think Gekko will be the death of me, you're terribly mistaken. How do you even know she'll have the guts to seek revenge?"

"Because her entire family is cursed by their desire for revenge. Izanagi slew his own daughter to avenge his wife. Izanami chased out her husband for disobeying her in the Underworld. Amaterasu let her own kin kill each other off, and even Tsukuyomi murdered a fellow god out of pure hatred. Her family's history, from the dawn of the pantheon up to this very moment, has been one long tale of hatred and retribution. Revenge is in her blood. Children are often doomed to repeat the sins of their mothers and fathers."

"There's nothing she has that I don't." Bishamon said.

"Now, you know that's not true, Bishamon. She has the one thing you tried to suppress in her since the very beginning." Uzume replied. "Regardless, you know what you must do next. Whether Tsukiakari chooses to fight or not, there are gods that need exterminating."

"I know." Bishamon grumbled.

Uzume bowed her head. "Amaterasu and I look forward to seeing how this all concludes, Bishamon."

Uzume disappeared just as quickly as she came, leaving Bishamon with Chiya's corpse. He turned his eyes downhill, towards the Senkumo base his men now occupied. He closed his eyes as he drew his golden blade, resolving to complete Amaterasu's will.

"Now for the rest of them…"

 

 

The very next morning, Chiharu was the first to wake up at Inari's shrine. The sun wasn't even up yet as she rolled up her futon and put her robes back on. She took a final glance at Tsukiakari, savoring the sight of her bandaged, sleeping face before quietly stepping out of the front door. Turning around, Chiharu came face-to-face with Inari on the porch, startling herself and the fox goddess.

"Chiharu? Are you leaving?"

“Yeah. First, I have to go pick something up for Gekko. I’ll be gone a few days. I’ll come back to drop it off for her, but then I’ll have to get going for good. I can't stay here much longer."

"Where will you go?"

"I'll make my way back home in the Yamato province. Though, I might have to move somewhere else just to make sure I don't run into Bishamon. Might be living rough for a while, but I'll manage."

"You're welcome to stay a few more days after you return. Don't you want to be here when Gekko wakes up again?" Inari asked.

Chiharu's put up a melancholic smile. "No. Seeing her so peaceful and knowing she'll be in your care...that's enough for me."

"I'm so sorry about everything. I can't do anything to help you on your journey either." Inari said.

"Taking care of Gekko is already doing plenty. When she wakes up, be sure you tell her everything that happened. It's going to be a very difficult thing for her to hear, but she can't go back to Yamashiro under any circumstances. The Senkumo clan is gone. You're the only ones that'll have her back now. On my own behalf, and on the behalf of everyone that laid down their lives for their Commanding Lord, I fully entrust Gekko to you and Izanami."

Chiharu bowed, leaving Inari speechless and overwhelmed. "Please, raise your head! Of course I'll take care of her! Izanami, too!"

"Good. I really needed to hear that." Chiharu sighed. "Well then, this is goodbye, if I don’t see you when I return. Good luck, Inari. Thank you for everything."

Inari's brows arched downwards in sadness as she bowed her head. "Goodbye, Chiharu."

Chiharu threw her hood over her head and walked through the grove on her own, carrying nothing more than a few days worth of rice and her tanto. Inari watched her until she couldn't be seen anymore, sitting herself down on her porch with a mournful sigh. Sooner or later, Tsukiakari would wake up, and there would be no way to break the news to her gently. But like a few others, Inari's worries didn't lie in how she would react immediately after hearing about the fate of the Senkumo clan. It lied in how she would react after the pain turned into anger.

A week passed by as slowly as sap is drawn from a tree. The sunshine scattered beneath the birdsong anointed sky, a beautiful day after the tragedy that had occurred. It was on that day that Tsukiakari's eyes opened for the first time since her death. It took her a moment to recognize the wooden ceiling above her as Inari's. She slowly sat up in her futon, looking around at her to find no one nearby. The left side of her face stung as she yawned, making her notice the bandages wrapped around her face. She undid the bloodied bandages and let them fall at her bedside, surprised to feel the air sting her skin. She reactively held up her hand to cover her face and noticed Yachi's old bracelet hanging around her wrist.

She spotted the divine sword Kumogiri at her side and unsheathed the base of the blade, using it as a mirror. She finally saw the scalded skin on the left side of her face, having no clue as to how she got such a terrifying wound. She found the strength to stand up, wobbling at first. Her feet slapped against Inari's cold, wooden floors as she stumbled over towards the patio.

 

As Tsukiakari opened the front door, she was greeted by the surprised, yet relieved smile of Inari.

"Gekko! Gekko, you're awake!" Inari cried.

Tsukiakari shamefully held her hand over the scarred half of her face. "Inari? What happened? Why am I at your place? I should've woken up back at base."

Inari ran over to Tsukiakari, helping her sit down on the porch. "Sit down, Gekko. We can't have you moving around too much just yet. A lot happened while you were out."

"Did Chiya drop me off here or something?"

Inari nervously tented her fingers. "Not exactly. It was Chiharu."

"What? Chiharu?" Tsukiakari recoiled, in utter disbelief.

"As I said, a lot happened while you were out."

"I don't understand. Chiharu was banished from the clan decades ago."

"Gekko...I'm going to tell you what happened. I need you to remain as calm as possible, okay?" Inari said.

"What happened, Inari? Tell me."

Inari took a breath and relayed everything she knew about what transpired, from Bishamon's sudden eradication of the clan to the night of the desperate escape. The result was initial disbelief from Tsukiakari, but she soon came to realize that Inari was telling the truth. The fact that she had Kumogiri with her indicated that Chiya helped her get away, and probably instructed the men to bring the divine sword along with her. Yachi's bracelet was Chiya's most sentimental possession, one of the only remnants she still had of her beloved twin sister. Only Chiya could've given it to her. For her to give it to anyone at all, it would've had to have been a farewell gift. The scar on her face matched up with the story of Bishamon's fiery horse attacking her during the escape. Even Izanami was able to confirm the names of all of the dead, names that Tsukiakari recognized very well. Just from the names listed, she was able to determine that Chiya evacuated all of the younger recruits before the battle took place.

It was true. Every word of it. Tsukiakari was forced to accept that.

“I’m so sorry, Gekko.” Inari lamented. “I can’t even begin to imagine…”

Tsukiakari’s hands balled up into a fist, lowing her head as she cried. “My men did all of that for me?”

“They loved you more than anything else in this world.” Izanami said. “That much is obvious.”

“Those damned bastards!” Tsukiakari screamed. “Why?! I would’ve laid down my life for them, over and over again!”

“Chiharu spotted Bishamon’s base before arriving at yours. She said the whole place was abandoned, as if it had been emptied out.” Inari explained. “If Bishamon was planning to kill you for real, then he would’ve destroyed your altar before abandoning the place. If you had died back there, you would’ve never returned. This is what they all wanted, for you to live.”

Tsukiakari could hardly speak through her downpour of tears. Inari and Izanami felt Tsukiakari’s loss and heartbreak as if it was their own. They were reduced to tears just like her. Inari wrapped her arms around Tsukiakari, and Izanami embraced both of them in a wide hug.

All any of them could do was sit there and weep, powerless to reverse the terrible events that had transpired. Tsukiakari couldn’t believe the greed and cruelty Bishamon had to possess to destroy his own kin and betray his most trusted pupil. The weight of her clan’s sacrifice weighed down upon Tsukiakari’s shoulders, like all of the gravity in the world was concentrated on her. In the face of Bishamon’s evil, her clan remained selfless to the end.

 

Once, she calmed down, Tsukiakari returned to her futon and lied there, paralyzed by sorrow. She blankly stared up into the ceiling, her eyes reddened and swollen from crying. Hours after being told what happened, the tears still wouldn't stop. Inari and Izanami resolved to give her some space in her time of mourning. Tsukiakari was so floored by the news that she didn't know what to think or do next. All she could do was sob until her chest ached and her throat ran dry.

Tsukiakari went the next two nights without a wink of sleep. Her mind had been filled with the memories of her comrades. On this morning, her mind took her back to her memories of the Man in Black, of all places. Long free of his physical presence and the illusions of his visage, the memory of him lingered longer than any phantom, just as he said it would.

His voice echoed in her head, unheard to either Inari or Izanami.

"Like I told you, we're all phantoms here. Just as you arose from your grave, so too did I arise from mine. And ever since that day, you and I have been two halves of a whole. We're both more demons than people."

"What will you do after there's no war to profit from? What will you do after clans like yours are no longer allowed to exist as they are? What place will a war goddess have in a land of peace and order, a land where daimyo and warriors are outlawed? When that time comes, you and I won't look so different, will we? We'll both be phantoms of a dead era, with nothing left to lose but our lives. Revenge will become your only reason to carry on. I promise you that."

"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."

"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."

"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. That's why you should fear a good enemy as much as you love a good friend."

“You think you’ve righted this wrong? You think you’ve washed the blood off of your hands and redeemed yourself? You’ve merely made peace with your vile sins. You, your men, even your master. You'll all remember me when the time comes to take your revenge. When this fragile, inner peace of yours crumbles again, you will remember what I took from you, and what you took from me. My phantom will never truly die."

"Shut up!" Tsukiakari screamed, nearly tearing her own throat apart.

Izanami rushed through the door, alarmed by the commotion. "Gekko! What's wrong?"

Tsukiakari sat up in her futon, chilled to the bone by the cold sweat drenching her skin. A sickly pallor spread through her face, making her appear half-dead. Izanami rushed to Tsukiakari's side, throwing her arms around her in a tight embrace.

"It's okay, Gekko. Calm down." Izanami whispered.

Tsukiakari's tears fell burned and swelled in her eyes. “Izanami..."

 

The next day proved no easier for Tsukiakari. Inari cautiously walked up to Tsukiakari as she lied in her futon, twiddling her fingers nervously.

"Gekko, Izanami and I made some lunch." Inari said softly. "Do you think you can manage to have a bite?"

"I'm sorry, Inari." Tsukiakari muttered with a sniffle.

"You haven't eaten in days, Gekko. Goddesses have to eat too. You won't even have just a little bit of rice?"

Feeling awfully guilty, Tsukiakari sat herself up, but couldn't bring herself to look Inari in the eyes. "Maybe just a small bowl of rice?"

Inari gave a small, but relieved smile. "Coming right up!"

Inari quickly returned with a very small bowl of steaming rice, sitting down with Tsukiakari to make sure she would eat it. She handed the war goddess her chopsticks and mimed the act of eating the rice upon seeing the hesitation in her eyes. For the first time in days, Tsukiakari managed to take a few bites of food.

"I know there's nothing either of us could say that'll make the pain go away, Gekko. In fact, I'm sure this pain will last forever." Inari said. "But Izanami and I, we both love you. I just want you to know that you won't be going through this alone. If you ever want to talk about something, anything at all, I'm here for you."

Tsukiakari's eyes glistened with fresh tears as Inari smiled at her. "Thank you, Inari."

"I buried Taeko, just as you asked. She's resting next to Ebina and Mayumi."

"That's a relief." Tsukiakari replied after swallowing her food. "I wanted them to be together again, just like the old days. Thank you for doing that."

"It was no big deal." Inari said. "Think you can eat a bit of grilled sea bream, too? I'll only give you a little bit. I promise."

"I'll try." Tsukiakari grinned. "Thank you for taking care of me."

"No problem!" Inari cheered. "I'll be right back with some fish!"

As Inari went to fetch more food, Tsukiakari found her gaze attracted to Kumogiri, resting at her side. Faint echoes of the Man in Black's voice returned to her, but his words were unclear. She threw one of her blankets over the blade, obscuring it from her view. She couldn't stomach the sight of it, nor the feelings it inspired within her.

From that day onward, Tsukiakari was able to regain her appetite more and more, even as she continued to grieve for her fallen friends and comrades. She still couldn't eat full meals, but what little nutrition she did get helped her recover from her reincarnation more and more. In a week's time, she felt most of her strength had come back. Though, every time she looked towards Kumogiri, feelings of rage brewed inside of her. She hadn't forgotten how powerful that blade was, which only made her imagination run wild with how much damage she could cause if she used it against Bishamon.

Her brief, vengeful fantasies slowly drifted into the realm of reality as she overheard Inari and Izanami talking one, late night in the garden. She had no intention of eavesdropping on them until she heard the name 'Ichiki'.

"They moved back in that weird temple?" Inari asked.

"Looks like it. I've half a mind to pay Ichiki a visit after what Bishamon did to Gekko. There's no way she didn't know about all of this. I have a feeling she knew about Taeko, too." Izanami surmised.

"Well, we don't know for sure. Like I said, we can't do anything rash." Inari cautioned. "We can't go tearing apart the pantheon for revenge."

Tsukiakari returned to her futon. Without even realizing it, she clung onto Kumogiri as her thoughts focused on Ichiki. Her mind painted vivid thoughts of revenge onto the ceiling, as if it was her very own canvas.

"Ichiki's in that temple..." Tsukiakari muttered. "I remember where that is."

Once again, the Man in Black's disembodied voice returned to her, with more clarity than ever before. "Beware of Bishamon. Whatever he's planning, his dreams of the future do not include you or the rest of this clan. You are following a madman."

Tsukiakari closed her eyes with that rage festering in her heart, and drifted off to sleep. When she awoke the next morning, the house was eerily quiet. Izanami had already gone off somewhere, and Inari seemed to be outside. It was a cloudy day, devoid of the vibrant sunshine of summer. Kumogiri remained at her bedside, still covered with her blanket. Her ears rang until she couldn’t hear the birdsong outside. Her head felt as though her skull was shrinking and crushing her brain. She stood up, stumbling towards the kitchen door. She thought to splash some cold water on her face to help her come back to her senses.

She flung open the sliding door, walking not into Inari’s kitchen, but into Yachi Otonougi’s bloodied cell. She was back in that accursed place, the abandoned temple basement where Yachi was tortured and killed. Tsukiakari screamed and fell onto her bottom, her eyes darting across the very familiar room. She looked to her left, spotting Yachi’s naked corpse lying face-down in the middle of the cell, her pallid body covered in a plethora of scars, bruises, and cuts.

“Why?! Why am I here?!” Mocked the Man in Black, who suddenly appeared in front of the cell. “Is that what you’re thinking, Tsukiakari?”

Startled, Tsukiakari scurried back towards the wall, her teeth chattering and her heart racing out of control.

The Man in Black knelt on one knee, removing his tattered, wide-brimmed hat. He stuck his hand through the bars, grabbing hold of Tsukiakari’s face.

He forced her to maintain eye contact, her tears rolling onto his fingers. “Look at yourself. Take a long, hard gander.”

Tsukiakari pushed his hand away and crawled backwards towards the center of the cell, where he wouldn’t be able to reach her. She could feel fresh blood seep into her hands as she kept crawling. She looked back to make sure she wouldn’t bump into Yachi’s corpse, only to find the Man in Black kneeling besides her body. The Man in Black whispered something into her ear, words that were inaudible to Tsukiakari. Her eyes widened in horror as Yachi’s corpse began to twitch her fingers and toes. Her corpse got onto its knees and stood up onto its feet, alongside the Man in Black.

Tsukiakari scurried back towards the left side of the cell, burning her back as she slammed against the bars. She fell onto her knees again, smoke rising from the back of her robes. The amber light of flame shone down upon her as the Phantom Soldier stood on the other side of the bars, hungry for revenge.

“My my, we’ve an audience tonight.” The Man in Black chuckled.

Tsukiakari turned around, realizing her cell was completely surrounded by a swarm of undead. The Phantom Maiden and Masachika Togashi stood among the swarm of Senkumo soldiers that died at the hands of Bishamon, all of them rattling her cage from the outside. Tsukiakari’s men were all bloodied and burned, as if they were pulled straight from their graves. They yelled and screamed at the goddess, commanding her to take revenge.

“Kill that son of a bitch!”

“He betrayed us, Gekko! You can’t let us die in vain!”

“He murdered us! His own kin!”

“Kill that *censored*ing snake!”

“An eye for an eye!”

“You owe us this much! Avenge us!”

The laughter of the Man in Black echoed throughout the room, vanishing from the inside of the cell. Tsukiakari suddenly felt the weight of a blade in her right hand, the weight of Kumogiri. As she gazed into the sword’s reflection, the powerful, pearlescent blade stared right back at her.

“Enough!” Tsukiakari screamed, blasting the cell door away with a swing of the sword. The ghosts of her comrades vanished in an instant, leaving the Man in Black standing alone. Tsukiakari gave pursuit as he fled up the stairs and turned the corner in the hall. Tsukiakari heard the slam of a sliding door as soon as he turned that corner. She rushed up the steps and followed his footsteps, stopping at the nearest door to her right.

“Stop this, Gekko!” The Man in Black laughed. “You’ve lost your mind!”

“Shut up!” Tsukiakari roared, blasting through the door with a bolt of lightning from her blade’s tip. The hall was clouded with odorous smoke and dust from the blast. Tsukiakari covered her nose and mouth with her sleeve as she slowly stepped through the door’s threshold. She found herself back in Inari’s living room, the sun shining through the opened, front door.

Inari came running  in through the garden with a frightful scream. “Oh my god! Chiharu!”

As the smoke cleared, Tsukiakari realized what she had done. Chiharu’s burnt corpse lied before her, smashed through Inari’s tea table. Inari rushed to Chiharu’s side, but she was already dead, murdered by the very goddess she risked everything to save.

“I…I didn’t…” Tsukiakari stammered, dropping Kumogiri onto the floor.

The Man in Black emerged from the darkened kitchen, circling around Tsukiakari. “How poetic. Taeko, a woman consumed by her hatred and obsession, died a husk of her former self, and the girl you had once saved from her wrath dies by your hand.”

“Gekko, why?!” Inari wept. “What happened?!”

Tsukiakari fell to her knees, the Man in Black disappearing from her sight. “I…I don’t know. I thought she was…”

“She was the only one that survived, Gekko!” Inari cried. “You’ve killed the last one!”

Destroyed along with the table was a handmade, miniature shrine with Tsukiakari’s name on it. Chiharu had made it herself. It was to be a symbol that Tsukiakari was still loved, even in the midst of losing everything. It was smashed to pieces, broken beyond repair. Tsukiakari had been waiting to see how much Chiharu had grown since they last met, but that was impossible now. Tsukiakari had rendered her body charred and unrecognizable.

 

 

Inari demanded that Tsukiakari sit outside in the garden while she cleaned up the mess. Tsukiakari sat among the azaleas, staring at her dirtied, trembling hands. She still couldn’t get herself to calm down after what she had done. Everything she saw leading up to the moment she killed Chiharu seemed so real. When she had the chance to kill the Man in Black, she leaped at it without a second thought. The adversary she saw in her wild vision was Chiharu in reality.

Inari slowly opened up the sliding door, carrying Chiharu’s body with her. The corpse was wrapped tightly in layers of white sheets.

Tsukiakari shot onto her feet, bowing to Inari as she wept. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“…I’m going to go bury her. Just rest here, okay? I’ll be back in a few hours.”

“Inari…” Tsukiakari cried. “Please believe me. I loved her. I would never hurt her. Never!”

“But you did, Gekko. You did.” Inari lamented. “I’ll be back soon.”

Tsukiakari yelled out as Inari marched into the grove. “I didn’t mean to! Chiharu! I didn’t mean to hurt you!”

Tsukiakari fell to her knees, crying into her hands as Inari continued down the grove. “I didn’t mean to…”

“Did you think you’d escape me, just because I’m dead?” Asked the Man in Black, kneeling besides Tsukiakari. “The time has come. You know where Ichiki is, don’t you? Then you know what it is you need to do. My work remains undone while Bishamon still breathes. You will finish this fight, for the both of us. When you’ve lost everything you loved, you only have hatred to replace the pain. So use it. Use it! Become their demon! Become their phantom!”

Tsukiakari’s pain turned into a fiery rage. She marched back inside and grabbed Kumogiri. She put her sandals on, and wore Kumogiri around her shoulder. The blade didn’t feel anywhere near as heavy as it once did. It was lighter than air now. She borrowed a black, hooded cloak from Inari's closet, perfect for staying hidden. When she was all set to go, Tsukiakari stopped in the exact spot she killed Chiharu. She offered her a silent prayer and plea for forgiveness. She then stormed outside, disappearing into the grove.

Tsukiakari journeyed through the forest of dead trees, making a steady march towards Ichiki's temple. Just as Ichiki always wanted, Tsukiakari intended to pay her a visit. It wasn't just Bishamon who was guilty to Tsukiakari. His co-conspirators, the divine courts that let him get away with his crimes, all of the gods that benefited from his manipulation of the Senkumo clan, they were all guilty. They were all living and thriving off of the blood of her comrades, her dearest friends. All of Heaven was guilty. Every man, woman, and child there was thus subject to her wrath.

Upon hearing a knock on her tower door, Ichiki skipped away from her children to go and greet her sudden guest. After seeing Tsukiakari through the looking glass, a wave of bewilderment and worry ran through her. Still, she put on her best face and eagerly answered the door. Ichiki was in her usual gown she wore at home, almost entirely transparent.

"Tsukiakari! You came! About time!"

Tsukiakari smiled as she removed her hood, revealing the brutal scar on her face to Ichiki's shock and horror. She didn't seem to know anything about what Bishamon did just a few nights ago.

"Hey, Ichiki. It's been a while." Tsukiakari said.

"What...what happened to you?! Here, come inside."

What a pleasure it was to be back inside Ichiki's tower, which remained so reminiscent of a cathedral's sanctuary. Ichiki sat Tsukiakari down at one of the pews, caressing her facial scar.

"Does it hurt, dear?" Ichiki asked.

Tsukiakari shook her head. "I've had worse, don't worry about it."

"Don't worry about it?! Nonsense! Your skin is so cold, too. Wait here, love, I'll get you something warm to drink."

Ichiki hurriedly scuttled into the kitchen, quickly whipping up some tea for the both of them. Out of concern for her wounds, she also flipped open all the cabinets in search of some gauze and disinfectant.

"Gauze...where did we keep the gauze again? Damn..." Ichiki mumbled.

Tsukiakari stood up and walked herself into the kitchen with silent footsteps, spooking Ichiki as she stepped through the doorway.

"Oh! Gekko! You're so light on your feet! I was just preparing the tea, but I can't seem to find the gauze anywhere. Maybe it's in my bedroom somewhere, but I'll definitely—"

The sound of Tsukiakri's sword sliding out of its sheath hushed Ichiki. Before she could even ask what Tsukiakari was doing, the war goddess had already sliced open her belly, spraying her blood all over the floor, cabinets, and teacups resting on the granite counters. Trying to grab hold of something as she lost her poise, Ichiki reached her hand out towards the counter tops as she exsanguinated from her wide open stomach, only managing to knock over several glasses and tea cups.

Ichiki's trembling eyes drifted down to her stomach, where she could see in all of their slimy, blood-soaked detail, her intestines hanging from her open gash. Dark circles quickly formed around her eyes as she desperately tried to crawl away from Tsukiakari.

"Ge...Gekko...w-what are y-you..."

As Ichiki tried harder and harder to crawl away, Tsukiakari's blade came down upon her, piercing right through her left hand, effectively pinning her to the floor. Tsukiakari paid no worry to Ichiki's explosive scream of agony. The only other people in the temple were her infant children, after all.

"Gekko! S-stop this!"

"Did you know?" Tsukiakari growled.

"What are you talking about?!" Ichiki cried.

"Did you know what Bishamon was going to do to my clan?!"

"...Yes..."

Ichiki's children erupted into cries and yells that were vastly overpowered by their mother's After a few, terrifying minutes, Ichiki's screaming died down into cries, and those cries died down into complete silence. Izanami, who sat next to Amaterasu in the divine court of Heaven, could suddenly feel a great sting in her neck, the sting of Ichiki dying. Shivers conquered her arms as she saw the horrifying last memories of Ichiki flash before her. She said nothing as Amaterasu continued to brief the other attending gods about the Vampires.

Leaving the blood-soaked and mangled remains of Ichiki in the kitchen, Tsukiakari sheathed her Kumogiri. Parched after the murder, she took a sip of the hot tea Ichiki was unable to serve. It warmed Tsukiakari's stomach right up with its honey-sweetened flavor of cinnamon spice.

"Thanks for the tea, Ichiki."

Tsukiakari's blood finger prints were left behind on the tea cup's handle as she continued upstairs, down the hall, and into the kids' room. The infant boy and girl lied in their cradle, crying as the outdoors light shined through the rose window and onto Tsukiakari's face

"Shhh, shhh. It's okay."

She took the baby girl out of the cradle, rocking it back and forth as she returned to the kitchen with the infant.

Tsukiakari enwreathed Kumogiri's blade with flames and lit a large fire inside of the oven, filling the kitchen with the aroma of burning charcoal. The infant girl cried harder as Tsukiakari brought her closer to the flames. The baby flailed and screamed reaching her arms out in the opposite direction, but ultimately powerless to decide her own fate, as all children are.

"Go and join your mother, wretched spawn of Bishamon."

Without an ounce of remorse in her icy heart, Tsukiakari threw the infant inside of the oven and locked it shut, ignoring her blood-curdling screams as the flames burned through her delicate flesh and melted her baby fat right off of her brittle bones. In a few minutes, her screams would go silent as well. All that was left was the boy.

It wasn't long before the meeting of the gods was over. Bishamon was returning the to the temple with a few honored guests. Oyamatsumi, Raijin, Hachiman, and Uzume, joined him on the walk home.

"Carmilla the Baneful." Bishamon groaned. "We only know of one of the three vampires that supposedly snuck into the country, but it's not looking good if she was among them. It's very likely Dracula will be one of the other two vampires.

"I hear their leader, Count Dracula, is a particularly mighty foe with various abilities." Uzume said. "Many of the vampires don't even burn under the sun anymore like they did in the olden days."

"As powerful as this Count Dracula may be, I doubt he can fight against a fully armed and powerful Shinto pantheon." Oyamatsumi scoffed.

"It would be best if we fought them in China instead of Japan, wouldn't it?" Hachiman asked. "I'd imagine that if the vampires even manage to get a decent foothold in any province in the country, they'd be able to use the local population as food, while also converting them into lower-tier vampires."

"Indeed, that would be a problem." Raijin agreed. "Well, Amaterasu did say she would consult with the Catholics about ways of fighting off the vampires."

"Funny, I thought the Catholics were working with the vampires. Now they're fighting them?" Bishamon said.

"Man...this is gonna suck." Oyamatsumi sighed.

The group returned to the temple, happily taking off their sandals and relaxing in Ichiki's luxurious home. However, a certain, putrescent smell captured their noses.

"Hmm? What is that?" Bishamon asked, sniffing the air.

"Don't tell me she's burning something...honestly..." Oyamatsumi groaned.

Everyone stepped into the messy, blood-soaked kitchen, realizing immediately that something was horribly wrong.

"What the hell?!" Hachiman recoiled.

"Turn off the oven! Whatever's in there, it isn't food!" Uzume urged.

Bishamon, confused and genuinely scared to see what was causing that awful smell, wrapped a towel around his hand and opened the oven's vault, as not to burn himself. Uzume extinguished the flames with the gusty swipe of her folding fan as everyone covered their noses and mouths. Once the flames were clear, the gods gathered around the oven. Though the inside of the oven was a black, charred mess, what they could clearly see were the split ribs and tiny, fragile skull of an infant.

"Bishamon, is that one of your children?!" Raijin asked.

"Oyamatsumi, go check on the kids!" Bishamon commanded.

Oyamatsumi ran off as Bishamon fell to his knees, his hands shivering with unbearable grief as he pulled out the skeletal remains of the child. While the other gods scrambled in confusion and mayhem, Uzume remained still, calm, and content. It took everything she had to hide her smile from the grieving Bishamon. Amaterasu's wager was playing out exactly as planned. Tsukiakari inherited the curse of vengeance that plagued her family for generations, producing gruesome results.

"Where's Ichiki?" Hachiman asked.

That was honestly a question Bishamon didn't want to have the answer to. Still, his shock compelled him to step into the darkened dining room, following the pool of blood as his heart ran circles in his chest. Uzume flipped open all of the blinds, shining light on the most abhorrent scene any of them had ever witnessed in their lives. Most of them, including Uzume, had to look away to stop themselves from vomiting.

Ichiki's corpse was left naked, propped on one a chair with her intestines running from her stomach and shoved deep down her throat. Her eyes were gouged out and placed in the palm of her left hand. A rolling pin was stuck inside of her genitals in what clearly looked like a violent, sexual assault on her.

Bishamon surveyed the room, finding Ichiki's severed hands, feet, and breasts thrown across the room without a care in the world. The smell of blood, intestines, and carnage made everyone sick to their stomachs. And yet, that wasn't the worst of it.

There was a message on the wall, written in Ichiki's blood. It simply read, "I shall have my revenge."

Tears streaming down his cheeks, Bishamon was brought to his knees. He knew exactly who was responsible for this. There was only one person who could produce such grotesque results, and he was the one who trained her in the basics.

"Tsukiakari...damn you!" Bishamon screamed, slamming his fist into the floor.

"Bishamon, the other kid is missing!" Oyamatsumi cried.

Volcanic fury welled inside of Bishamon as he stood up again, yelling at Oyamatsumi. "Go! She can't have gotten far! Find her!"

"I'll go with you, Oyamatsumi!" Hachiman asserted.

The two ran outside, beginning their hunt for Tsukiakari.

"...Heaven won't let this go unanswered." Raijin stammered. "They'll most likely declare Tsukiakari a divine criminal and hunt her down with impunity. Murdering a god and a divine child in such an atrocious manner will score her the death penalty."

Bishamon kicked over the nightstand in anger, shattering the glass vase and flowers resting on top of it. His explosive rage scared even the other gods, who could not dare say anything to calm him down as he continued to pace around his blood-soaked home, sobbing at the loss of his daughter and wife.

Tsukiakari had already gotten quite a distance away from the temple, holding the infant boy in her arms as she marched through the fog-veiled forest.

Tsukiakari followed the sound of rushing water, ignoring the fearful cries of the baby boy. The sound led her to a flowing brook sandwiched by wilted cherry blossoms. The water was beautifully crisp and cold, perfect for drinking.

"Here we are little one, the end of the line for you." Tsukiakari said.

She dangled the baby by its feet, taking off his little blanket and exposing his small, naked body to the elements. The baby aimlessly flailed his arms, obviously wanting to be held right side up again. Tsukiakari fell to her knees and slammed the boy's head in the brook with her hand wrapped around his small neck. She kept holding his head beneath the water, cruelly drowning the infant. She didn't even blink, nor did she look away as the child swallowed more and more water into his lungs.

It wasn't enough for the child to stop moving and lose consciousness. To satisfy her bloodlust, the baby boy had to die. She continued to hold its head under water for several minutes, until she could be sure there was absolutely no hope of reviving it. When the child's life was lost, she let go of its head, letting its corpse float downstream, far down into the depths of the forest of dead trees. His lifeless body bumped into small rocks and mounds of dirt on the way, before disappearing down the brook completely.

The murder of Ichiki and her children was but the first step in her plan towards revenge. Tsukiakari had several more targets in mind, and she wouldn't stop until she slew them all. With rage in her heart and the cloud-cutting sword, Kumogiri, in her possession, Tsukiakari clasped her hands and spoke a prayer of revenge.

"I, Tsukiakari Senkumo, declare war, not just on Bishamon, but every last man, woman, and child in Heaven. You can call my slaughter wrong. You can call it evil, sick, and disgusting. I call it justice. You all allowed my friends to be killed. You allowed for hundreds of thousands of young, Senkumo souls to perish. You let my murderous uncle walk free when he should've been locked up and put to death. And so, I send this prayer to all of you up there who will surely be confused by my awful actions. I want to make myself perfectly clear. Every single one of you are my targets. Even your children. I will kill as many of you as I possibly can, as harshly as I possibly can, for all of the atrocities you allowed to occur under your watch. I will stomach the greed and treachery of the gods no longer! Prepare yourselves, for I shall tear both Heaven and Earth asunder! I shall have my revenge!"

And so, her vow of vengeance was made. Nothing would stop her now. Bishamon, Oyamatsumi, Hachiman, Raijin, and Uzume received her prayer as a disembodied voice echoing within their heads. Bishamon rose from his knees, clenching his fist so tightly that his nails drew blood from his palms.

"What now, Bisha? What are we going to do?" Raijin asked.

Bishamon blew gusts of air through his nostrils like an enraged bull. "If it's war she wants, we'll accept her challenge."

Uzume's raven hair hid her smile from Raijin standing at her side. Having been denied her blossoming and betrayed by her master, Tsukiakari Senkumo's final act would be a quest of revenge, to commit the mother of all bloodbaths. Ichiki and her children were already gone.

 

Bishamon and his co-conspirators were next.


5
So, this is a concept I've been ironing out as I wrap up the Senkumo War Stories series I've been working on.

One of the biggest themes in both parts of Book of Betrayal can be summed up in one word. Phantoms. Literal phantoms of past enemies rising from their graves. The feeling of fighting an unseen enemy that's controlling things behind the scenes. The phantom sensation of losing a limb, or a metaphorical pain of losing a loved one. These are the kind of themes I wanted to use based off of that one word.

The events of Book of Betrayal 1 give rise to a villain that appears in Book of Betrayal 2 called the Man in Black. I was just going to go through the usual cycle of Villain Rises>Confronts Protag>Protag goes on journey to stop Villain>Protag loses and low point>Protag returns with renewed spirit and defeats Villain, but then I had a wild thought. What if this villain actually became more of a threat after their defeat?

Many stories end with the hero defeating the villain, but what about the influence of the villain? That doesn't go away after they die. In my case, I wanted the Man in Black to have a lasting, psychological influence on Tsukiakari and the Senkumo clan as a whole, keeping in mind the theme of phantoms.

The Man in Black is undead to begin with, having risen out of his grave in the Katsura river. He's aided by three literal phantoms in his quest to take revenge on Tsukiakari and the Senkumo clan for their massacre of his village and the rape and murder of his sister. He inflicts a terrible loss on Tsukiakari for the sole purpose of ingraining himself and the trauma he caused in her mind forever. So, even after the Man in Black is captured, tried, and executed for all he's done, Tsukiakari feels as though he's still there. She sees his visage and hallucinates his presence, but she manages to vanquish him from his thoughts when she deals with the phantoms that aided him. He disappears, but vows that his phantom will return when her inner peace is shattered once more.

Well, towards the end of Book of Betrayal 2, he keeps his promise. Tsukiakari finds out that her clan was destroyed while she was unconscious, waiting to reawaken after reincarnating. The resulting grief serves as the perfect vector for the return of the Man in Black's psychological ghost. He traps Tsukiakari in a recreation of the trauma he inflicted upon her. She breaks free and pursues him during this hallucination, and finds an opportunity to strike him down.

When she comes to her senses, she realizes she's just murdered Chiharu, the only surviving Senkumo. The Man in Black then uses Tsukiakari's grief and urges her to turn it into rage. Acting through her, the Man in Black sparks the events of Book of Revenge, where Tsukiakari sets out on a mission to kill Bishamon and all of his co-conspirators.

All of this while the man is dead, and his phantom isn't a literal out-of-the-grave phantom, but a psychological impression. In death, he manages to inflict even more pain upon Tsukiakari, and then uses her to kill the leaders of the clan that destroyed his life.

Protagonists will usually carry the memory of a good friend after their deaths, so why not their enemies as well? If an enemy could shatter the protag's heart or beliefs and inflict a terrible trauma upon them, then their deaths wouldn't matter all that much, in the grand scheme of things.

It's like when someone's attacker, rapist, or the murderer of their loved ones faces the death penalty, or gets locked up for life. If the trauma is strong enough, you'll still feel as though they're creeping into your bedroom, or watching you from across the street. You'll still have nightmares and relive what they put you through, long after they're gone. That's the kind of phantom enemy I wanted to make, I guess.

I feel that, in this way, the villain stops being a separate, adversarial entity, and starts becoming part of the protag herself. How hard the fight must be to maintain one's sense of self, while dealing with the lingering nightmare of an old enemy. The battle between them becomes a battle within, a showdown of morality, values, and sanity.

What are your thoughts on this? Any ideas or criticisms? Any good examples of something like this in another piece of work?

6

Woo hoo! Thanks for taking the time, Coryn. But boy, you've got a long way to go  :sure:

About your last point, I must reply with a quote from a very wise man

"Permission is old fashion. Molestation is the way of the future, baby!"
 - Osamu Ashikaga, 2016

7
Music / Re: OGHM's Wacky Slappy Guitar Riffs
« on: August 30, 2019, 10:27:57 PM »

8
Glad to help, then!

The first arc, Aika Crisis, has changed quite a bit from its MR version to the published version.

You can read the published version here, if you want



9
No, I don't.

Well, hang on, that's not entirely true. There's an index on the very first page of this thread, actually. It lists the DbEG arcs in order, gives synopses for each, and each of them are linked to the arc's respective first post in this massive thread. If navigating this 33 page hellscape is a nightmare for you, that should help quite a bit. Oh, but the MediBang links are no longer relevant, as MB has shut down its novel section in an attempt to become the poor man's pixiv. There's info on Senkumo War Stories there as well.

As for recommended reading order, I've yet to put together an official list, but I suppose now the time.

Death by Ex-Girlfriend Reading Order
You can really just follow the list on the first page. It's best to read the story that way, in chronological order.

1. Aika Crisis

2. War Cloud

3. Dawn and Dusk

4. Satori no Akuma

5. Himushi Redemption

6. Letting Go

7. Inari Standoff (personal favorite right here)

8. The Corpse's Romance

9. The End of Osamu Ashikaga

Senkumo War Stories can be thought of as a prequel to the DbEG series and requires no DbEG knowledge to jump into. You can really pick up that series whenever you wish, but I would recommend you start reading it after reading the War Cloud arc, as all of the major characters in War Cloud are in Senkumo War Stories.

Does that help?  :noidea:

10
Book of Betrayal Part 2 came out at 142,190 words  :clapping: After this comes the final book in the SWS series, Book of Revenge, the hyper-violent climax of Tsukiakari's time during the Warring States era. I may have to change the last few chapters, as not to spoil the ending to Death by Ex-Girlfriend, but it will still tie right into DbEG.

Book of Betrayal Part 2 will come out in September! Make sure you don't miss out on it, since we're close to the end now.

Now I can go back to finishing Death by Ex-Girlfriend: War Cloud

11
I just wanted to write lewd, funny, and heartfelt stories about ex-girlfriend and their lover living together

Lol thanks Op

12
Book of Betrayal Part 2 is finished  :clapping:

13
The Night The Bell Tolled
Spoiler
Another day, another shovel of dirt. The tireless men of the Senkumo clan continued working on the escape tunnel up until the crack of dawn. They had dug so deep in such little amount of time that the walk back to base often took them an hour to complete. Despite the herculean effort it took to construct the tunnel, there was cause to celebrate today. They had finally reached deep enough into the forest for Tsukiakari to escape unseen. Goro and his men popped out of the other end of the tunnel, using a make-shift ladder constructed of wooden planks and rope to get out. The shirtless, dirt-coated men looked around them, laughing to themselves as they realized they had completed their arduous task.

"By god, we did it boys! We did it!" Goro cheered.

The men hugged each other in joy, while others sat under the cool, green shade of the forest after days of hard work.

"That was more exhausting than any of our survivor's training!" wheezed a young, scrawny soldier.

One of the older, more muscular men gave a playful slap to the young man's head before passing him a cup of cold sake. "You've gotten some muscle on you these past few days, so don't complain! Maybe you'll be able to win Mari's heart after all, huh?"

Another one of the older guys chimed in, his face and voluminous bear caked in dirt as he smoked a Portuguese cigar. "Mari? You've got some good taste, my man! She's got brains and enough ass to last you through the winter!"

After taking some time to rest, Goro and his men returned to base through the tunnel. Chiya stood just outside the entrance, awaiting news of his progress.

"Well?" Chiya asked.

Goro smiled. "It's done. We got pretty deep into the forest. It's still a bit of an upward climb to Inari's old shrine, but it should do."

"Goro, I could hug you if you weren't dirtier than a sack of potatoes!" Chiya sang.

"Yeah, I know." Goro sighed. "I'm gonna go wash up and get something to eat."

Chiya patted Goro's chest, looking up at him with gratitude in her eyes. "Rest. You deserve it. Thank you for everything, Goro."

Goro walked off and joined his men as they all marched towards the baths, equally exhausted as they were proud of themselves. Chiya turned around and took several long glances across the base. Expecting Bishamon's forces to come soon, the troops that weren't involved with the tunnel's expansion were already armored, armed, and posted at their positions. Everything was ready. All that was left was the battle to come.

While Chiya continued to survey the base, Inori and Chiharu sat besides Tsukiakari in the sanctuary's third floor. They had just finished lighting new candles and incense for her.

"She's still not well enough to move, but we won't have a choice." Inori said. "One of us is going to have to carry her on her backs. Goro is probably the best man for the job."

"My hands feel all...tingly..." Chiya muttered, clenching and unclenching her fists repeatedly.

"It's probably just nerves. I used to get those when I was younger. It felt like fireworks were going off inside my hands. Not an assuring sensation when you're a field medic." Inori giggled.

"You don't get them anymore?"

"Well, I felt them today. Frankly, I'm surprised we're not all dead yet. It's the waiting that's making me a little nervous."

Inori laid her eyes upon Tsukiakari's sleeping face like it was the most precious thing in the world. The same fireworks she felt in her hands slowly moved to her chest. As if to relieve the pressure building beneath her ribs, Inori took a long, meditative sigh.

"Something wrong?" Chiya asked.

"I just keep thinking about something someone said many years back." Inori said.

"Who?"

"The Man in Black. Yachi's murderer. He made sure we all knew that he wasn't that different from any of us. No, it's the other way around. We're the ones that aren't that different from him. He said that if we would lost everything just as he did, we would become the very monster we were seeking justice against."

"Those are just a madman's parting words." Chiharu scoffed.

"That's what I thought, too. But now...I'm getting really scared. When Gekko wakes up and finds out what happened to the Senkumo clan, I wonder what she'll do. Just thinking about it makes me even more nervous than I already am. I guess that's because, over the years, I've come to understand why The Man in Black said what he did."

"Why?"

"Hatred is never born alone, Chiharu. Love often precedes it. People who are robbed of their love can change drastically, and often for the worse." Inori explained.

"I guess you're right. That's basically what happened to Taeko." Chiharu said.

"I desperately want to believe The Man in Black was wrong, but if he was right, maybe Gekko will turn into something far worse than he ever was. This clan is all she has."

"Well, we'll be there for her, right? If everything goes according to plan, we'll be the only ones getting out of here alive."

"Even if we all die, she'll at least have Inari and Izanami watching over her. Maybe I'm thinking about everything too much, huh?"

Chiharu patted Inori's shoulder to reassure her. "The only thing we have to think about right now is Gekko's safety."

Inori extended her arm, bringing Chiharu in for a hug. "I'm so happy you came back, Chiharu."

"I'm happy to be back."

The day went on. The sun continued to loom over the base until it slowly began to sink behind the hills, splitting the sky into orange and purple halves. The ghostly, amber light of dusk elongated the shadows of three gravestones erected together in the middle of the forest. Inari stood before them, having finished praying for all three of the women buried beneath her feet. Two of the gravestones had aged over the years, while one was only recently put up. The newest grave belonged to Taeko Akiyama. To the right of her grave was Ebina Sentani, and to her right, Katsumi Mihara, remembered as Mayumi Senkumo. Just as Taeko would've wanted, Inari buried her alongside two of her best friends.

"What a mess all of this was..." Inari muttered.

Inari suddenly heard the crunch of dead leaves behind her, followed by Izanami's voice. "Inari! We've got a problem!"

"Izanami? What is it?"

Izanami was covered in sweat, her eyes widened in fright and horror. "We need to get to your old shrine! Bishamon is going to kill Gekko!"

"What?!" Inari recoiled.

"I got a prayer from Chiya! I'll explain everything on the way, but we have to move now! I saw Bishamon's army on the way here!"

"Okay! Let's go! I'll lead the way!"

Back at the Senkumo base, the men stationed atop the front wall kept their eyes peeled for enemy forces. They had waited so long that they wondered if Bishamon was really going to attack them after all. One of the men noticed two Senkumo scouts racing back to base, an usual sight unless something was seriously wrong.

"The enemy is here!" one of the scouts shouted from his horse. "Bishamon is here!"

The men on the walls heard them loud and clear, opening the wooden gates slightly so they could slip back inside.

"Boys, it's time! Ring those bells!" yelled the captain of the wall guard.

Two men ran to the opposite ends of the front wall and rang the alarm bells as hard as they could. Every single person inside those walls immediately dropped what they were doing. All conversations and activities came to an abrupt stop as everyone turned their heads towards the entrance.

Inori and Chiya peeked out of the third story window of the sanctuary, watching as every single person on base scrambled to their defensive positions.

"Looks like Bishamon is finally here." Inori said. "Chiharu, it's time! We need to grab Gekko and get out of here!"

"She's still not well enough to move, though!" Chiharu cautioned.

"Like I said before, we don't have a choice right now! Carry her on your back and let's go!"

The guards escorted Chiya atop the front wall, where she could see the whole countryside ahead. Bishamon sat on his flaming horse, just within shouting distance of Chiya. Not far behind him stood a sea of Senkumo soldiers, and they weren't on Tsukiakari's side. There were at least ten squares of troops in formation across the land, with each square looking like it contained over a thousand soldiers. Each square flew two Senkumo banners in the air, fluttering in front of the setting sun.

Chiya looked down upon Bishamon with utter disgust. "How far you've fallen, turning the Senkumo clan against itself. To think we all trusted you!"

"Chiya, I'm giving you one more chance! If you're wise, you'll take it!" Bishamon roared. "Surrender Tsukiakari to me and the rest of you will be spared! If you resist, you'll all perish alongside her!"

"And this is the last time we're going to tell you!" Chiya yelled. "*censored* off!"

Bishamon laughed, impressed by Chiya's obstinacy. "Oh Chiya, you sad, deluded fool. Very well, then. To battle!"

The battle commenced with the boom of artillery stationed in the distance behind the hillocks. Puffs of white smoke rose from behind the hillocks as the whistle of incoming cannonballs sent the guards at the wall scrambling.

"Everyone, spread out and get down!" Chiya screamed, facing her men.

Hoping to reduce casualties, the men did as Chiya advised and spread out, knowing they'd have a better chance of dying if they clumped together. A volley of lead rained down upon the Senkumo base, ripping chunks out of buildings and cratering the courtyard. Several shots landed just outside of the sanctuary, rocking the third floor while Inori and Chiharu were still inside. Inori used her body to shield Tsukiakari as pieces of the ceiling crashed around them.

"God damn, how badly does he want to kill her?!" Chiharu screamed.

Back on the walls, tone of the guards escorted Chiya back to the ground level, even as the volley went on. "Lord Chiya, you have to go and get Gekko out of here! We'll hold them off as best as we can! Just get Gekko through the tunnel!"

Chiya held back tears as she realized the guard was smiling and shivering in his armor all at the same time. Everyone around her was both thrilled and scared out of their wits, but they all wanted to lay down their lives if it meant Tsukiakari could live.

"Goodbye, Lord Chiya. Let us handle these bastards!" the guard cheered.

"Alright!" Chiya said. "See you on the other side!"

The volley of artillery stopped, giving Chiya a chance to run towards the sanctuary. She stopped for a moment in the courtyard as she noticed that Yachi's azaleas had all been ruined, and her gravestone was blown apart. The sight of her sister's tarnished grave hammered home the feeling this was truly the end of the Senkumo clan. They had worked so hard to best all of their enemies, both human and supernatural, only to be cut down by their own master. Swallowing her sadness, Chiya continued towards the entrance of the sanctuary, where Chiya and Inori were already waiting. Chiharu carried the unconscious Tsukiakari on her back.

"Thank goodness, you guys got here out of there!" Chiya said. "Quickly, we have to get her through the tunnel!"

"Wait, where's Goro?" Inori asked.

"He should already be making his way towards the tunnel now!" Chiya replied.

Suddenly, the entire front wall was obliterated in a single, powerful blast that rocked the whole base. Huge chunks of rubble were ejected into the sky and came crashing down upon Chiya's men. The light of Bishamon's fiery horse could be seen through the thick smoke bellowing in place of the wall. The deafening battle cries of Bishamon's men rang out before they came sprinting through the veil of smoke, taking the bombarded soldiers by storm.

Chiya, Inori, and Chiharu quickly got back on their feet, still dazed by the explosion, and continued to stagger their way towards the tunnel. Goro spotted them running from across the base, but he quickly turned his gaze over to the first line of Chiya's men as they engaged with Bishamon's force. His own men, the same boys he dug the tunnel with, stood beside him and awaited his order. Goro put himself in Bishamon's head and thought that the first place he would try to find Tsukiakari in would be the sanctuary.

"This is it, boys! Take position in the sanctuary and start raining some arrows down on 'em!" Goro ordered.

They immediately moved across the base, setting up a defensive perimeter just outside of the sanctuary mansion. The men formed a line and began shooting arrows at the invading troops as they continued to push through the decimated entrance defense. Inside of the sanctuary itself, Goro and a few other men doused the walls and floors with oil, then continued pouring oil directly onto a pile crates of matchlock ammunition on the second floor.

"Goro, sir, you should get going! Lord Chiya and the others are probably waiting for you!" one of the men suggested.

"Not yet!" Goro replied. "We need to keep Bishamon busy in here! If he's looking for Gekko, this building will be his target! If we lose this line of defense too soon, Chiya and the others are as good as buried!"

Bishamon himself emerged out of the smoke with his golden odachi in hand, fearlessly sauntering through the ongoing battle. Very few of Chiya's men dared to raise their swords against him, as those who did were cut down before they could complete their swings. Bishamon's odachi severed limbs as easily as the autumn wind tore off the petals of flower. Having been the one that designed the Senkumo's combat training routine, he knew the counter to all of their swings, and the weaknesses in every single one of their movements.

Three spearmen lunged at him all at once, thrusting their spearheads at his abdomen. His fiery horse immediately swooped in and trampled them before their blades could piece his skin. Shinobi stationed on the roof of the war room tossed smoke bombs at Bishamon, clouding him and his horse in a puff of white gas. The bombs were filled with flour and starch, resulting in a fiery explosion as the powder met with the spark of Bishamon's horse. The resulting plume of black, odorous smoke was immediately sucked into Bishamon's palm, revealing his scorched arm and tattered sleeve. He had absorbed most of the explosion before it could do any serious damage.

Suddenly, three arrows came racing down upon that rooftop, exploding like bombs and killing the shinobi on top. Hachiman landed next to Bishamon, his golden bow in hand.

"Tsukiakari's men are tougher than I thought they would be!" Hachiman said.

"She must be resting in the sanctuary. Looks like those fools intend to guard it with their lives." Bishamon said.

Stepping outside, Goro caught sight of Bishamon as he made his march towards the sanctuary. Still, he stood his ground in the face of the tempestuous war god.

"Fire everything you've got, men!" Goro ordered.

Bishamon and Hachiman ran so fast it looked as though they teleported right in front of the line of archers, trapping the ranged troops in melee combat. Surrounded by the archers, Bishamon beheaded three of them with a clean swipe of his blade, then continued cutting everyone down around him as they drew their swords. Meanwhile, Hachiman kicked open the barricaded, front door of the sanctuary, blowing away the four men holding it shut. Bishamon struck his odachi into the ground to free his hands. He grabbed one of the Senkumo troops by their throats and swung them around, knocking away the surrounding archers before throwing the man he held into the wall of the mansion, killing him instantly. A matchlock ashigaru came barreling tumbling out of the busted open mansion door, killed by Hachiman. Bishamon grabbed his loaded matchlock as a swordsman stormed at him from behind, turning around and shooting him dead between the eyes.

As the fight raged on, Chiya, Inori, and Chiharu approached the mouth of the escape tunnel, looking back at the embattled base in sorrow and horror.

"Where's Goro? He's not here!" Chiharu cried.

"Don't tell me he's still back there!" Inori said, covering her mouth in shock.

"I'll go get him! Wait here!" Chiya ordered.

Goro made his escape through the back door of the first floor, just barely missing an engagement with Hachiman. Though every bone in his body told him to stay with his troops, he remembered what it was they chose to die for. Fighting alongside them would only make their sacrifices meaningless. He kept looking back as he sprinted towards the tunnel, spotting black smoke flowing from all of the sanctuary windows. The men intended to take Bishamon and Hachiman down with them in a raging blaze fueled by oil and ammunition. An explosion followed the fire, engulfing the entire mansion in bright flames.

Soon after the mansion went up, Bishamon and Hachiman came crashing through the roof, both of them riding on the flaming horse. The horse landed just in front of Yachi's shattered tombstone, allowing the two gods to dismount. With the first and second lines of defense destroyed, Bishamon's men continued to storm through the base, quickly overtaking those holed up inside of their quarters. The defense was quickly falling apart. The final line stood their ground along the perimeter of the medical wards and storage buildings. They sealed the gates, barricaded the doors, and placed archers at every window and vantage point they possibly could.

The troops made room for Goro as he came running through, all of them glad to see he was still alive.

"Goro, sir! Lord Chiya and the others are at the tunnel! Hurry!" one of the men urged, standing his ground behind a pavise with a matchlock in hand.

"Thanks! See you boys on the other side! It was a damned honor!" Goro said.

Chiya met up with him just as he crossed beyond the defensive line. "Goro! Where the hell were you?!"

"Sorry! Had to make sure they didn't catch up with us! Is Gekko safe?"

"Yeah, we have her! She's okay!" Chiya replied.

"Good! I knew you could do it!" Goro said with a relieved smile.

Suddenly, one of the troops hollered for everyone to hear. "Incoming! Arrow volley!"

Goro immediately wrapped his arms around Chiya, hugging her to protect her from the incoming projectiles. They both fell to the ground as Chiya's men returned fire with their matchlocks. Goro's blood bled through Chiya's robes, indicated he had been struck. Chiya gently laid him on his side, on the verge of tears as she saw five arrow feathers stick out from his back. He couldn't move an inch, let alone stand up again.

"Goro! Goro!" Chiya wept.

"Chiya...go! You have to go, now!" Goro wheezed. "Hurry!"

"You were supposed to come with us! I can't just leave you here!" Chiya cried.

"Don't die...Chiya..." Goro mumbled, taking his last breath.

Goro's eyes lost their light as his blood pooled around him. There was nothing anyone could do for him now. Chiya planted a kiss on his forehead and closed his eyes so he could rest with dignity, even in the middle of a battle. Chiya fought off her urge to stay by Goro's side and bolted back towards the tunnel as Bishamon's forces clashed head on with the last line of defense.

Inori and Chiharu saw her coming back without Goro, her robes stained with fresh blood.

"We have to go! Goro didn't make it!" Chiya cried.

"Goro...you big bastard..." Inori wept, wiping her eyes of their tears. "Chiharu, Chiya, you go first! I'll blow the entrance!"

Chiya and Chiharu ran down the tunnel as Inori opened up a small crate of cannon ammunition. She took one last look at the embattled Senkumo base, and all of the men and women left fighting there. She knew all too well that it would be the last time she would ever see that base, her home for decades, standing.

"Goodbye, everyone. Thank you." Inori prayed.

She took one of the hanging lanterns off of the cavern walls and threw it at the crate of ammunition, sprinting for dear life. The lantern caused the ammunition to explode, collapsing the tunnel entrance behind her. By the time the sun fell beyond the hills, and the last shade of orange in the sky faded into a dark purple, Tsukiakari's base had fallen to Bishamon.


Eternal Goodbye
Spoiler
The girls ran for what felt like an eternity before stopping at the other end of the tunnel. The ladder Goro had set up was still there for them. Chiya and Inori helped Chiharu climb up the ladder first and they kept their eyes peeled, in case anyone managed to follow them. After Chiharu and Tsukiakari made it up, Chiya soon followed, and last was Inori. The girls emerged into the fresh air of the forest, taking a moment to rest of the ground. The moonlight was bright that night, allowing them to see well enough without torches.

"What...what now?" Inori wheezed.

"I told Inari and Izanami to meet us at Inari's old shrine, the one Tsukiakari first met her at." Chiya explained. "It's just a little further west, on top of that hill over there. We have to hurry. It won't take them long to realize Gekko isn't at the base."

"You okay, Chiharu? You're quiet over there." Inori said.

"I just can't believe Goro didn't make it..." Chiya cried, wiping her tears away with her wrist.

Chiya nodded. "Goro was one of the bravest men I'd ever known. All of them were. We have to keep going, Chiharu. I'll carry Gekko."

"Alright." Chiharu replied.

And so, the three of them began the march west towards Inari's former shrine. The further west they went, the more of the base they were able to see from the hills. They stopped and looked back at the black plumes of smoke rising from the base, now occupied by thousands of Bishamon's troops.

"Damn it..." Inori cried as she bit her lip. "That was our home."

"I can't believe this is how it ends for the clan." Chiharu said.

"There will be time for sorrow later." Chiya reasoned.

Chiya took a close look at the light of the torches below, noticing that some of them were diverging off into the same forest they were fleeing through.

"Looks like they caught on, huh?" Chiharu asked.

"Keep moving! Now!" Chiya ordered.

Indeed, Bishamon caught on. He stood before the collapsed entrance of the storage tunnel, clenching his fist in anger. His men turned the base upside down, but found no trace of Tsukiakari or Chiya. He realized he had been tricked by mere mortals.

"Damn you, Chiya..." Bishamon muttered.

The girls continued up the hill posthaste. Inori stopped for a moment, looking behind her as she caught the sound of distant shouts and hollers.

"They're searching for us!" Inori warned.

"Just keep moving!" Chiya urged.

The girls kept up the pace in their desperate attempt to escape. They suddenly heard an agitated neigh of a horse reverberate from the night sky. They turned their eyes towards the moon, where they saw Bishamon's flaming horse flying above the forest with wings of fire sprouting from its back. The horse fired off orange flares from its mouth, lighting up the whole forest to help with Bishamon's search effort.

"Over there!" shouted a distant soldier.

Arrows started flying in from afar as the girls continued their race up the hill. As the flare fell lower and lower towards the ground, Bishamon's men were able to fire more accurate shots.

"Don't look back, just keep going! We're almost there!" Chiya urged.

A sudden scream from Inori brought Chiya and Chiharu to a grinding halt. They looked back and saw Inori on the ground, her leg struck by arrows. Chiharu ran downhill in the direction of the fire and risked her own life to help Inori up. She carried Inori on her back just as she did for Tsukiakari.

"You're not dying here, Inori! I won't let you!" Chiharu said, running back up the hill.

"You idiot! I'm just going to slow you down!" Inori said.

"Shut up and let me do this!" Chiharu retaliated.

Chiharu gave it all she could, but after a few more minutes of running, her strength quickly depleted, and she began to drag behind Chiya.

"Set me down, Chiharu!"

Chiharu stopped and put her down, leaning her against a tall tree.

"Keep pushing, Inori! They're on our tail!" Chiharu urged.

"I can't, Chiharu. I can't." Inori said. "Go, catch up with Chiharu before they kill you too! Go!"

"Inori!" Chiya called out, looking back in horror.

"Don't you two stop, not now!" Inori yelled. "If Gekko dies tonight, I'll never forgive you! Now go!"

"Damn it!" Chiharu cursed. "We love you, Inori!"

Inori laughed, delighted to hear those words. "I know, sweetheart. I know. Hurry!"

Left with no choice, Chiya and Chiharu sped up the hill, leaving their beloved Inori behind. Inori leaned her head against the tree, trying her best to relax before what she knew would be her death. She looked up at the night sky, twinkling with its stars and radiant, full moon.

"We had a good run, didn't we?" Inori mumbled.

Chiya and Chiharu didn't dare to look back as they continued uphill, Inari's shrine finally in sight. The shouts of Bishamon's bloodthirsty men quieted down as the girls put some distance between them. Chiya struggled to take another step, falling onto one knee as she tried to continue. Chiharu ran to her side to help her.

"Come on, we're almost there!" Chiharu said.

"Chiharu...take Gekko. I can't carry her anymore." Chiya panted.

"Got it!"

Chiharu carefully took Tsukiakari onto her own back, relieving Chiya of the exhausting burden of carrying her.

"Just a little further now. Inari and Izanami should be waiting there." Chiya said.

The neigh of Bishamon's horse returned. The girls turned their eyes to the sky as the horse seemed to be flying directly towards them, his flaming wings growing into dual conflagrations. It sped at them like a speeding bullet of divine fire.

"Get down!" Chiya screamed, throwing herself over Chiharu and Tsukiakari.

The horse's wings washed the forest in fire, burning the trees surrounding Chiya and Chiharu to the ground. The force of its overhead pass sent Chiya and Chiharu flying into a tree, with Chiharu taking the brunt of the damage. The horse flew away, its wings calming their flames back down to normal size. Chiharu was the first to get up from the attack, coughing as she regained her composure. Her first instinct was to check on Tsukiakari, who was knocked onto the ground during the attack. It seemed the flames had managed to scald the upper left side of her face, mostly around her eye. She checked for any further injuries, relieved to find nothing else, at least nothing externally present. She slunk Tsukiakari onto her back and proceeded to check on Chiya, who was lied against the steps leading up to the shrine.

"Chiya!" Chiharu cried, running to her side. "Are you hurt?"

"I can't move, Chiharu." Chiya groaned.

Chiharu's eyes dotted across Chiya's robes, spotting the branch that pierced through her right side.

"Listen to me, Chiharu." Chiya urged. "The shrine is just up those steps. You have to get Gekko up there. Izanami and Inari will take care of you both. You're all Gekko has right now. You're her only shot at surviving this mess."

Chiharu's tears raced down her cheeks, making it difficult for her to speak. "You were all...supposed to live..."

"That was the ideal plan." Chiya said. "But we were all prepared for this. Goro, Inori, even myself. We were all prepared to die for Gekko. Once you two get out of here, don't come back. They'll be searching for you."

Chiharu stood up, remembering that Tsukiakari's life was in her hands. She couldn't let it go to waste, not when everyone sacrificed themselves for her.

"Gekko is going to live! I'll make sure of it!" Chiharu assured. "She's gonna live to see a peaceful country!"

"Thank you, Chiharu. Go! It's just up the hill! Go!"

Chiharu ran up the steps with every last ounce of strength she had. At long last, she had finally reached Inari's old shrine with Tsukiakari. Inari and Izanami were there, just as planned, waiting for her arrival.

"Izanami! Inari!" Chiharu shouted, getting their attention.

"Izanami, look!" Inari urged, racing towards Chiharu.

"Oh my god! Gekko!" Izanami cried.

Chiharu gently let Tsukiakari off of her back, checking her for injuries once more, but again finding nothing. She had actually managed to get Tsukiakari up the hill without any fatal injuries. She couldn't believe it herself.

"We're being chased! We have to get out of here, now!" Chiharu cried.

Izanami summoned her scythe, slamming the handle into the ground. "We'll head back to Inari's place! We'll be safe there! Just let me handle one thing, first!"

"What are you going to do?!" Inari asked as Izanami stepped forth.

Izanami kept her eyes trained on Bishamon's flaming horse, sticking her thumb and index finger in her mouth to whistle. Her whistle attracted the horse, prompting it to speed towards the goddess of death for another flaming, sweep attack.

"Are you crazy?!" Chiharu cried, throwing herself over Tsukiakari.

"If we don't do this now, it'll just find us later!" Izanami said.

As the horse got closer, Izanami swung her scythe in thin air, releasing a highly pressurized burst of air from its blade. The air cut like an invisible sword, chopping the horse into two clean halves. Blood rained down from the night sky as its belly and hind legs landed in the shrine's pond, while the front of its body plopped down on the ground in front of Inari. Its flames went cold, never to be ignited again.

"Alright, let's go!" Izanami said.

With a few hand signs, Izanami was able to teleport everyone back to her house, far away from the chaos that had unfolded in Yamashiro. Having seen the gruesome death of Bishamon's horse from the steps, Chiya was able to surmise that Chiharu successfully reached Inari and Izanami. Tsukiakari's escape was a success. She lied there on the ground, the moon shining down upon her, staring up at the night sky.

"Thank you, Chiharu." Chiya muttered.

The flames burning away at the trees died away, leaving her under the cool canopy of leaves and quietude of the night. The moonlight dazzled off of the leaves, reflecting its light like fragments of a mirror. All Chiya had to do now was wait to die. After all of the chaos that unfolded that evening, Chiya thought it was almost unfair that she got to die to such a pleasant, peaceful sight. Mayumi, Yachi, Taeko, Goro, Inori, Ayadachi, Sayu, and so many others had all died so violently and horrifically. Chiya lied there, thinking about how she had survived everything up until tonight, and what a journey it had all been.

Bishamon sauntered up the steps, his presence drawing Chiya's gaze.

"Where is she?" Bishamon asked.

"Long gone." Chiya replied. "You're already too late. Gekko made it. She's going to live."

"Even if she wakes up again, things will never be the same for her." Bishamon said. "Her altar is gone, along with the Senkumo clan. Even the men fighting under my command tonight will be gone before morning. If Tsukiakari dies again, she won't come back."

"She only needs one life." Chiya replied. "Just one is enough. What you gave her, the gift of reincarnation, was no gift at all. It was the mechanism through which you tortured that poor girl."

"And what if she wastes that life and seeks revenge? What if the Man in Black was right about us, about her? Do you really believe she'll wake up and take all of this sitting down?" Bishamon teased. "When she comes for me, I'll make sure to extinguish her last life."

"Even if it comes to that, heaven forbid...Gekko will defeat you."

"How can you be so sure?"

"You have a reason to live. She has a reason to die."

Bishamon felt pity for the dying Chiya. He had planned on finishing her, but ultimately decided to leave her be. He descended down the hill, leaving her to spend her last moments in peace beneath the moonlight.

"Oh, it's beautiful. Battered, but still so radiant..." Chiya mumbled, her life slipping away. "Still...so..."

And with her final breath, Chiya was gone. Everyone but Chiharu and Tsukiakari were all gone. The base they had spent all of those years living in was ruined, occupied by an army of traitors. In this battle, there were no winners. Only survivors. Bishamon descended the hill, where Hachiman waited for him at the bottom of the steps.

"She's gone. Gekko managed to slip away." Bishamon said.

"Seriously? After all of that?" Hachiman groaned.

"She can't reincarnate. Either she'll live in the shadows from now on, or she'll waste her last life seeking revenge. Either way, the girl is doomed. If I see her again, I'll be sure to kill her." Bishamon explained.

"What are you scared of that you want her dead so badly? Isn't it enough that she's out of your hair now?" Hachiman asked. "I know you're hiding something, kid. Can't you tell your old master about it?"

Bishamon clenched his fist as he walked away. "Let the men drink themselves to sleep tonight. We'll kill all of them by morning."


The final chapter is next, the one where Tsukiakari finds out what happened and butchers Bishamon's children  :ninja:

14
Accepting the End
Spoiler
The group broke off from their talk in the war room. Chiya, Goro, and Inori rounded up all of their men in the third floor of the sanctuary, having them sit in rows before the unconscious Tsukiakari. As Chiya prepared to get the rest of her men up to speed with what was happening, Chiharu took the opportunity to see the flowerbeds of azaleas. She found Yachi's tombstone among one of the flowerbeds, kneeling before it as she prayed for her old comrade.

Chiya surveyed the tired faces of her troops with a terrible pain in her heart. There were so many good men, good women, and innocent children sitting in front of her, all of them looking upon her with anxious glints in their eyes. Chiya didn't speak a word until all of her fellow Senkumo had finished filing into the room and taken their seats on the tatami floor. Once everyone was in, the room went silent as all attention was turned to Chiya.

"I'm sure you're all wondering why I summoned you here, and why Tsukiakari has reincarnated yet again." Chiya began. "Today, I sent Goro and Inori on a mission to contact Izanami-no-Mikoto, Gekko's grandmother. They were to talk with her and see if she knew why Gekko had died during our peacetime. On the way there, however, they discovered the smoldering ruins of our base in the mountains south of here. Every single man stationed there lied dead on the ground, killed before they could even arm themselves to fight back."

Chiya's revelation elicited frightened gasps from hundreds of the Senkumo. They all knew how close that base was to their own.

"Goro and Inori then turned back so they could report the base's destruction to me. On the way there, they approached a Senkumo blockade on the roads to the east. They identified themselves using their calling horn, but the Senkumo shot at them in response." Chiya explained. "Soon after their return, an old member of ours, Chiharu, came back to warn us that we were in danger. She said the base in Isa province had been destroyed in the exact same manner in the exact same timeframe. Figuring that Gekko's life might've been in danger, she made the return to Yamashiro. She happened to come across Bishamon's base on the way here. Unlike our mountain base or the one in Isa, Bishamon's base was completely deserted and untouched. No signs of fighting whatsoever. In fact, with all of the base's supplies and weaponry gone, it looked as though the army there had deployed. Now, Bishamon has the largest standing army of any Senkumo base in the country. It would take weeks of preparation to move an army that large. A base that size doesn't end up empty in just a few days."

Chiya sensed that her men knew exactly where she was going. She continued, nonetheless. "Given that, and the fact that Goro and Inori were attacked by their fellow Senkumo, we have more than enough reason to believe that it is in fact Bishamon carrying out these attacks against his own clan. No one else knows the location of those bases. No one else knows when they're the most vulnerable. No one else knows which roads to blockade in order to trap the forces of other bases. Whoever carried these attacks out did so with all of our logistics and security in mind. He's the only one that could've done it like this. Bishamon intends to wipe out the clan he created, probably because we have already fulfilled our purpose for him. As I said, Senkumo troops cut off our access to the eastern roads. They'll probably cut off our other routes of escape very soon, leaving this base with its back to the forest."

A teenaged woman raised her hand and was permitted to ask a question, her teeth chattering as she spoke. "So...Bishamon is trying to kill us? Will he kill Gekko too?"

Chiya nodded. "Yes. That's most likely why he's taking out the surrounding bases first. He must not know Gekko isn't awake right now. He probably wanted to play it safe and cut off our reinforcements. A defensive battle at this very base is inevitable."

The woman lowered her hand, asking another question. "What'll we do when he shows up here? Can we actually hold him off?"

"I'll be perfectly honest with all of you. The odds are overwhelmingly against us." Chiya stated. "It's inevitable that we will all be killed if Bishamon assaults this base."

Chiya wished she didn't have to say those words aloud, but they had to be said. She needed everyone to understand the gravity of the situation they were in. Their own master, their own beloved god, had turned against them. They had to accept that fact. The reactions among the troops were mixed. The younger boys and girls began to cry, for the thought of dying terrified them. The teens all whispered among themselves, each of them looking as if they had seen ghosts. The older members and battle-hardened veterans either closed their eyes or stared into the void as they contemplated what was going to happen to them.

One such veteran raised his hand as he scratched his grey beard. "How long will it be until Gekko wakes up?"

"Too long." Chiya replied. "It usually takes her two to three weeks to wake up from reincarnating. We'll definitely be facing Bishamon before then. Once he realized Gekko has reincarnated, he'll take advantage of the opportunity to wipe us out and kill her."

"That son of a bitch." the veteran growled. "My buddies died to keep this clan going, and this is how he remembers them? He even wants to kill Gekko? Unbelievable!"

"Listen to me." Chiya commanded. "We don't have a lot of time to prepare. We have to make every second count. First, I must reiterate this. We have no hope of winning. This base, this clan...it's all pretty much over now. Let that sink in. I'm not telling you this to deflate your spirits or to sadden you. Quite the opposite, actually. If we're all going to die anyway, we should make our last days on earth count, shouldn't we?"

The men all collectively roared in response. "Yes!"

Chiya smiled as tears welled in her eyes. Even in the face of impending doom, her men still possessed their fighting spirit. "Exactly. I have a plan to make sure that Bishamon doesn't get what he wants. First, I'm issuing an order, effective immediately, to evacuate every recruit younger than the age of twelve out of Yamashiro. There are still escape routes open to us, but they won't be open for long. I ask that the older recruits help the kids pack their essentials and prepare wagons to get them out of here."

After laying out her first plan of action, Chiya saw some of the kids hug their older comrades and friends, clearly not wanting to leave their side. Though it broke her heart to separate friends and comrades, Chiya couldn't die peacefully knowing that she had sent such young children to their deaths.

"I'm so sorry if this means you'll have to say goodbye to someone you love." Chiya lamented. "It's important we get the kids out first and bring them somewhere safe. I want them to live long enough to see this country return to a state of peace. I love you all too much to let you die here when you have such bright futures ahead of you. Please, accept my decision. Anyone who ends up driving the wagons will have to flee after they drop off the children. There won't be time for you to return. For everyone over the age of twelve, I'm giving you the choice. You can either leave while you still can, or you can stay here . However, please note that I also have a plan to save Gekko. That plan will require as many hands as possible. If you leave, her chances of surviving this leave with you."

"No *censored*ing way I'm leaving her behind!" someone yelled from the crowd.

The room erupted into defiant cheers of men and women, all professing their will to stay if it meant protecting their beloved lord and friend, Tsukiakari Senkumo. Chiya raised her hand with a smile, silencing them.

"Gekko is truly blessed to have such loyal comrades." Chiya said, bowing to her men. "On her behalf, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you so much. Thank you."

Chiya collected herself enough to stop from crying, taking a deep breath before continuing. "As I said, Gekko will not awaken before we're attacked. Even though the battle will result in all of our deaths, we still have enough time and men to make an escape route for Gekko. Goro has suggested that we expand the storage tunnels at the rear of the base and carve ourselves a path right into the middle of the forest. The bulk of our forces will have to hold off Bishamon's army for as long as possible as a small team moves Gekko through the tunnel. By the time the battle ends, we'll already be halfway into the forest. By the time they discover the tunnel, we'll already be out on the ground. From there, we'll hand Gekko off to Inari or Izanami. No matter what happens to the rest of us, they'll be able to keep Gekko safe until she regains consciousness."

"You'll need a lot of hands to expand that tunnel. When do we get to work on it?" Asked the veteran.

"Immediately." Chiya said. "We'll have to forego sleep and work through the night to get it done, but it can be done. Bishamon may able to kill the rest of us, but he won't lay a finger on Gekko. We won't let him. As long as she continues to live, our clan will never go floating down the river of time. Our stories, our history, will all live on with her. It'll be our last laugh from the grave. We all have a lot of work to do. Let's get started right now."

Amazingly, the men began to work out among themselves who would drive the wagons and the safest places to deliver the children. Anyone not involved in the evacuation process immediately referred to Goro and volunteered to help expand the storage tunnel. Very few of them resigned themselves to just mope around, reeling at their impending doom. That's what Chiya and Tsukiakari both loved about the Senkumo's soldiers.

They refused to surrender without giving it their all. If they were going to die anyway, they were determined to spend their final days ensuring that at least some of their comrades could survive.


The Great Divide
Spoiler
Everyone worked late into the night to put Chiya's plan into action, tirelessly digging through earth and soil to expand the tunnel, or helping load up the kids in their wagons. Chiya watched as the last batch of children boarded their wagons, many of them being lifted up by the adults. She sauntered over towards the base's entrance to speak with the lead driver as he mounted his seat.

"Lord Chiya, this is going to be the last shipment of kids." said the driver.

"Excellent." Chiya said. "Head west and keep going until you've gotten somewhere safe. Setsu or Izumi are good provinces right now. We've got contacts there that'll help take care of them. You'll be safe there too, I reckon."

The driver tipped his hat and grabbed the reigns. "Thank you for everything. It was an honor and damn good time, ma'am."

Chiya nodded with a melancholic smile. "Indeed it was, soldier. Indeed it was."

The wooden gates parted open, and Chiya watched as the last few wagons of children left the base and headed west, guided through the darkness by the lanterns hanging above the driver seats. Chiharu stood alongside Chiya as the final wagon left and the gates were closed once more. Feeling as though a part of her was missing after seeing those children go, Chiya released an exhausted sigh.

"You think the adults will come back?" Chiharu asked.

"No. They know by the time they get those kids to safety, there won't be a home to come back to." Chiya replied. "This whole thing is pretty much over."

"I'm still trying to process it, you know? Bishamon, I mean." Chiharu said.

"I know. I guess we humans had our plans and the gods had theirs." Chiharu groaned.

Goro's voice suddenly rang out from behind them. "Chiya!"

He stumbled over to them, shirtless and drenched in sweat. His chest and arms were caked with dirt and soot.

"Goro, how's work on the tunnel going?" Chiya questioned.

"We've already made a lot of progress, but I don't know how far into the forest we'll be able to extend it." Goro answered. "Even with all the manpower we have, we just don't have the time to construct a tunnel that long."

"It doesn't have to be too long. Just make sure that the tunnel puts us at a good distance away from the base." Chiya ordered.

"Understood." Goro saluted, marching back to his duties.

Chiharu kept her gaze fixed on Goro's back as he walked away. "Those men are really working hard, aren't they?"

"Damn right they are." Chiya said, a half smirk on her face. "It's been my pleasure to live with these men and women. It'll be an even greater pleasure to die alongside them."

"So, what now?" Chiharu asked. "The kids are out and the tunnel is underway."

"I'll show you. Come with me." Chiya instructed.

Chiya strolled through the courtyard with Chiharu, leading her back to the war room and shutting the sliding door behind them. Chiharu immediately noticed the rolled out scroll sitting on the table centered in the room. It seemed to depict a rough, top-down diagram of the base, it's buildings, and its staff count following the evacuation of the children. Several tall candles and oil lanterns painted the room in a deep, orange glow reminiscent of the light of the rising sun.

"I assume Bishamon will come with an army of at least ten to fifteen-thousand troops." Chiya said. "Based on numbers alone, it's guaranteed we will not survive the fight, but our chances are even more dire for one more reason. We're on flat land. That's what allowed our bases to maintain large, standing armies over the years, but now that Bishamon has turned against us, it only serves to ensure our doom. It's easy to surround a square structure like this on flat land. You don't start seeing hills or any kind of elevation until you hit the area behind the base, where the forest is."

"That's where you plan to take Gekko, right?" Chiharu.

"Yeah." Chiya nodded. "Inori, Goro, you, and myself will get Gekko out of the base through the tunnel the men are working on right now. That tunnel will spit us out in the middle of the forest. We'll have to carry Gekko with us as we hurry through the forest and head for Inari's old shrine. In order for any of this to work, we first have to contact Izanami and Inari. With the Senkumo troops cutting off our path to Inari's shrine, the best way to contact them is through prayer."

"Prayer?" Chiharu repeated with snarky intonation. "It's that simple?"

"They are gods, after all. I'll relay our situation to them tonight and let them know where to meet us." Chiya replied. "After that, I'll assign our men to their defensive positions. The goal here is to delay the enemy for as long as possible. Bishamon doesn't care about us nearly as much as he cares about killing Gekko. He'll be coming here for her."

"Don't you feel bad, Chiya?"

"Feel bad? Why?"

"I mean...your men will be laying down their lives while we escape with Gekko."

Chiya hid her hands in her sleeves as she closed her eyes. "Bishamon forced a painful situation upon us all. It will take all of our men to hold him off so that she can escape. Otherwise, everyone, including Gekko, will just die here. Bishamon would have gotten his way and wiped out the Senkumo clan in its entirety. The men are very well aware of that, Chiharu. That's why Goro and all the others are breaking their backs to build Gekko an escape route with their bare hands. They're not sleeping, they're not eating, and they're not bathing. They know that every second that spend now counts if they want to protect her. That's how deep their love for her goes. It's a sacred love that we all share. Even you share it, don't you? Isn't she why you came back?"

Chiharu smiled. "After my exile, I spent most of my years in the Yamato province working as a hunter and a farmhand. All the while, I kept hearing whispers of your exploits in the war. I never forgot any of you, not the people who wanted me executed, not Taeko or Mayumi, and certainly not Gekko. Even if I'm not a Senkumo anymore, I always knew that I owed her my life. That's why I came back."

"I really hope she wakes up soon. She wouldn't believe how much you've grown." Chiya complimented.

"Hey, speaking of which, what ever happened to Taeko?" Chiharu asked.

"Well...we don't know. Taeko helped Gekko during the search for Yachi. It was because of her that we captured Yachi's murderer, too. But soon after that whole ordeal, Taeko vanished. That was decades ago. Izanami and Inari searched all over for her, but they never found her. They said her house was destroyed, and much of the surrounding area had been damaged. It looked like a damn war zone. After so many years, I can only guess that she died long ago."

"Oh..." Chiharu sighed. "That's a real shame. Ebina's death really sent her off the deep end. Looking back, though, I know she was just trying to keep this whole thing together as best as she could. She was willing to sacrifice anyone for that, whether it be me or herself."

"You don't hate her?" Chiya questioned.

"It's hard to say that I don't. She scarred me when I was just a child. She blamed me for the plague outbreak and tried to hang me for it. And yet...I feel like I understand her, now that I'm older. I'm sure that if I were in her position, I would've lost my mind too."

"Well, this clan has had its soaring highs and its crushing lows." Chiya snickered. "But we're still here. Well, at least for the next few days. You should get some rest, Chiharu. I'm going to send my prayer and wrap up my plans for the battle. I'll stay up and watch over Goro and the others. You can sleep in my room. It's the same room as when you were here."

Chiharu bowed in gratitude. "Thanks, Chiya. Don't work yourself too hard. If I can help in any way, please tell me."

"I'll be fine, dear. Thank you for coming back to us. We don't deserve your help, but we sure need it." Chiya said.

With that, Chiharu went off to bed, leaving Chiya to her duties for the night. All through the night, she could faintly hear the shouts and hollers of the men working on the tunnel through the walls. It wasn't an ideal environment to try to sleep in, but then again, hardly any of the remaining troops on base were getting sleep at all. Even for those that weren't working on the tunnel, rest averted them. Each man and woman had to make peace with the fact that they were most probably going to die soon. The clock was ticking until the fated battle between them and Bishamon, and Tsukiakari had yet to awaken.

Just at the crack of dawn, Chiya received a rude bash upon the war room door, waking her out of her slumber at the table. She quickly rubbed her eyes and wobbled onto her feet.

"What is it?"

The sliding door opened. A guard knelt on one knee and presented a sealed letter to his lord. "Lord Chiya, it's urgent! Bishamon's hawk delivered this letter to us just now! It's addressed to Gekko!"

"Bishamon?" Chiya recoiled.

She immediately swiped the letter from the guard's hand, reading it to herself in silence. Her brows arched downwards in anger and disgust as she finished the letter and handed it back to the guard.

"Do me a favor and burn that." Chiya ordered. "And fetch Goro and Inori for me. Bishamon wants to meet with us at the ruined village.

"What if it's a trap, my lord?"

"He has no reason to lay a trap when the odds are already in his favor. He just wants to be able to choose what kind of victory he'll attain here." Chiya explained. "Now go! Tell Goro and Inori to prepare to head out and burn that god-forsaken letter already!"

"Yes, my lord!" the guard saluted.

Without delay, Goro and Inori ran out from the tunnel, wiping the dirt off of their faces with clean, white towels. They met up with Chiya at the base's entrance, leading their horses along with them.

"So, he wants to meet?" Goro asked.

"Yeah." Chiya replied. "But his letter was addressed to Gekko, not me."

"As we thought, he probably doesn't know that Gekko reincarnated." Inori surmised. "Once he sees us instead of her, don't you think he'll know something's up?"

"He will." Chiya nodded. "That's when the timer will really start ticking down. How's the tunnel coming along, Goro?"

"It's as I feared. It's not possible to construct a tunnel that runs that deep into the forest in such a short amount of time." Goro said. "We can get it to spit us out in the forest, but now as deep as we would've liked."

"We'll just have to make it work." Chiya groaned.

"Any word from Inari or Izanami?" Inori asked.

"I delivered my prayer to them last night and told them everything. We can only hope for the best now." Chiya replied. "For now, let's go see what this traitorous bastard wants. Goro, Inori, ride with me!"

Chiya whipped her horse into a gallop, followed by the other two. They raced down the road and headed towards one of the few places on earth they never wanted to return to. The ruins of the village was like a phantom in of itself. Even after all those years, the place still carried a dreadful aura around it. Charred skeletons of what used to be homes and shops littered the place from left to right. The grass had grown tall without any humans to cut it, and so it coiled around the blackened pillars of homes like snakes.

The sun had risen over the hills, angling its light down upon the village ruins as Chiya and the others arrived. Without a doubt, Bishamon stood there alongside Hachiman, waiting for them. Chiya, Goro, and Inori dismounted their horses and hitched them against some of the charred poles and pillars. Bishamon crossed his arms as he walked towards them, closing the distance between the two parties a little bit. Chiya did the same, but both sides maintained minimum talking distance between each other. It Goro and Inori stayed back a few a paces from Chiya, as did Oyamatsumi with Bishamon.

Chiya and Bishamon stared at each other as if their meeting was a showdown, rather than a parley.

"I do believe I asked Tsukiakari to come here, and yet you show up in her stead?" Bishamon said.

"Sorry, but this is the best your getting. Say your piece." Chiya demanded.

"I'm sure you've noticed what's happening, haven't you?" Bishamon said. "You always were a keen woman, just like Gekko and your late sister."

"So, it was you. I thought as much." Chiya growled. "After everything we all did for you, it's come to this, huh?"

"I have a proposition for you, Chiya." Bishamon stated.

"Oh?" Chiya laughed. "What's the proposition of yours? Do your pinky-promise to behead us rather than burn us alive?"

"Tsukiakari is to surrender to me. If she does that, I will spare the rest of you. You'll all be allowed to live and see this war come to an end at long last. The Senkumo clan, or what's left of it, will be disbanded, but you'll all still be alive." Bishamon explained.

Chiya looked back to Goro and Inori, the latter shaking her head while the former shrugged in disapproval.

"You want us to surrender Gekko to you? Just like that?" Chiya laughed.

"Despite what's happening now, we were comrades once. I'm giving you a chance to settle this without bloodshed." Bishamon said.

"But you still intend to kill Gekko, don't you?" Chiya hissed.

"I'm afraid so." Bishamon said.

"Then the answer is no. We won't surrender her to you." Chiya asserted. "You'll have to kill us all to get to her. That's the only way any of this is going to end."

Bishamon sighed, folding his long, black hair behind his ear. "So be it. I had hoped that we could settle this peacefully. If blood is what you want, then blood is what you shall have. Because of your labors, I've become more powerful than I have ever been in my lifetime. I have the gods on my side, and an army of your fellow Senkumo that chose me over Tsukiakari. You have no hope of winning."

"Whether we win or not, our clan will live on. We won't let you bury us between the pages of history." Chiya said. "For Gekko, for my dear Yachi, for Ebina, Ayadachi, Sayu, Mayumi, Taeko, and everyone else that sacrificed themselves to protect this clan, we'll fight before we go floating down the river of time."

Quietude settled between them as they stared daggers into each other's eyes. The silence seemed to hang forever until it was finally broken by the whistle of the morning wind, and a soft chuckle from Bishamon.

"Good luck."

Bishamon and Oyamatsumi mounted their horses and rode away, leaving Chiya, Goro, and Inori alone in the village. Now that the two gods were gone, Goro and Inori could stand close to Chiya.

"They're heading east." Goro observed. "My god, he really did kill his own men."

"Bishamon never cared about us." Chiya growled. "Right now, we need to get back to base and hurry up with the tunnel. Goro, Inori, prepare yourselves. We need to be stronger than we've ever been in our entire lives."

Goro nudged Chiya's shoulder with a grin on his face. "We're with you, right until the very end."

Inori took hold of Chiya's right hand, giving her a loving gaze as she spoke. "We won't let him lay a finger on Gekko."

Knowing she wasn't alone, Chiya released a relieved sigh and recollected her spirits. "Thank you both. Now let's go. Gekko needs us."


Last Night Alive
Spoiler
Goro, Chiya, and Inari quickly returned to base, dismounting their horses as the massive, wooden gates were shut behind them. Chiya knew that their time was short. Bishamon would certainly be moving in on the base now that negotiating was off the table.

"Goro, I'm sorry for working you to death, but we need to keep working on that tunnel." Chiya said.

"I know. I'll go see how the boys are doing." Goro replied.

"Thank you. Inori, tell everyone that the battle is drawing near. Have them take their positions." Chiya ordered.

Inori nodded. "Got it."

"Mind if I take a look at the tunnel with Goro?" Chiharu asked.

"That's a good idea. Tell me how far they've gotten along. I'll be with Gekko. She hasn't waken up yet, but we've got to get her ready to move."

As Chiharu ran over to the storage tunnel towards the rear of the base, Chiya marched over to the sanctuary. She opened the sliding door and shut it behind her, releasing an exhausted sigh. She slipped her sandals off and carefully climbed up the staircase to the third floor, hanging onto the guard rail for support. Streams of sunlight shined on her black robes as she opened the door to Tsukiakari's room. The war goddess lied in her futon in the center of the room, still unconscious. Chiya slowly sauntered over to her, as if the slightest creak of the wooden floors would wake the slumbering goddess. She looked down upon Tsukiakari's face and was immediately overcome with a terrible sense of agony.

As Chiya sat cross-legged at Tsukiakari's side, she thought back to the day she and Yachi first came to the Senkumo clan. It all seemed like a distant dream now. The world still seemed like a large place just waiting to be conquered by the fledgling clan of disillusioned soldiers and peasants. Then, reality shattered their rose-tinted dreams of glory of sovereignty. Every member of the clan suffered in some way. Everyone lost something or someone dear to them. And yet, through it all, Tsukiakari loved her soldiers.

"Gekko..." Chiya sighed, stroking Tsukiakari's cheek. "When you wake up, most of us will be gone, along with this home of ours. Even if some of us survive, we probably won't be able to see each other again. But you won't be alone. Izanami and Inari will take good care of you. I apologize in advance. I know you would've wanted to die alongside us, but we just couldn't allow that to happen. Thank you for everything, Gekko. Having you as my lord and friend was the second best blessing of my life. The first, of course, was having Yachi as a sister. Wherever she is right now, I know she wants you to live as well."

Chiya reached into her pocket, taking out Yachi's old prayer bead bracelet. She slid the bracelet onto Tsukiakari's wrist and took hold of her hand. She folded her gray hair behind her ear as she planted one gentle kiss on Tsukiakari's forehead, and then two more on her slightly parted lips.

"Here it comes, Gekko. This is the end of the line."

As the day turned into night, Bishamon and Hachiman began preparations for their assault. The two sat on horseback, overlooking Tsukiakari's base from one of the far off hills. A full, golden moon hung above their heads, watching them like a heavenly eye.

"Raijin informed me that he recently killed Gekko outside of Oyamatsumi's shrine." Bishamon said.

"Seriously? So then, she isn't awake right now. That explains why those three brats showed up instead of her." Hachiman laughed.

"I was initially going to bide my time a little more before I attacked, but now I know they're vulnerable." Bishamon said. "If we kill Tsukiakari, she won't be coming back. I destroyed her altar at my base before we deployed. She won't be receiving any prayers, and that means she won't be able to reincarnate."

"That's a shame. I kind liked the poor girl." Hachiman fretted. "I don't get it, Bisha. Couldn't you have kept the Senkumo clan around? Why exactly are you in such a hurry to destroy something that took you so long set up in the first place?"

Bishamon's grip around his horse's reigns tightened as his thoughts turned to the manipulative Amaterasu. All of this time, he had worked so hard to climb to the top of Heaven's ranks, never realizing that that's exactly where Amaterasu wanted him. Now that he had acquired the power he wanted, he was nothing more than Amaterasu's lapdog, but he couldn't say a word of it to his old master.

"Better things await us, Hachiman. Everything is going according to plan." Bishamon said. "Let's get some rest. We attack tomorrow evening."

"As you wish, kid." Hachiman said.

That night, the Senkumo clan congregated in the courtyard for a rather melancholic celebration. Everyone knew they would die in the upcoming battle, but instead of sitting in their rooms and dreading the fated fight, the Senkumo turned their despair into a reason to eat, drink, laugh, and live to the fullest. It was a farewell party, the last hurrah before everything came to an end. The night was filled with beef skewers and cold sake aplenty as everyone ate and drank their fill. Chiya looked around as she sat around a bonfire with Goro, Inori, and Chiharu, amazed by how differently everyone was handling their impending doom. Most of the men and women, with the aid of alcohol, of course, found it easy to laugh the night away telling funny stories and singing with their friends. It was mostly the younger boys who couldn't hold that kind of alcohol that hung their heads in their hands, contemplating the fact they were going to die.

Since many of them knew it was the last night of their lives, some of the men and women snuck off back to their rooms together after having a decent amount of sake. Sometimes, girls snuck away with girls rather than with men. There were certainly no limits on their last night alive.

"Everyone sure is letting loose tonight." Chiharu said, looking around at the other groups and bonfires.

"Let them have their fun. It's their last chance." Chiya said.

All of a sudden, a young man and woman stood up at their fire, shouting to get everyone's attention. The woman covered her blushing face with her hands as her partner gleefully screamed for everyone to hear.

"Hey! I just asked Uchi to marry me and she said yes!" the man roared. "I'm not gonna die a virgin!"

"Hell yeah! I'll toast to that!" Goro laughed.

The surrounding groups stood and cheered for the newlyweds as they shared their first kiss. The men in particular responded with teasing whistles and hollers, bringing an amused smile to Chiya's face.

"These kids are so green, it's unbelievable." Inori chuckled.

"I'm gonna miss them. All of them." Chiya said, taking a shot of sake.

"Well, we had a damn good run. We started off with one base and ended with over eighty spread across the country." Inori said. "Whether we were recognized as a legitimate state or not, we became a sovereign power all on our own. We said 'to hell with feudalism' and made our own path! That's something to be proud of. I don't think anyone else will ever come close to achieving what we achieved."

"And it was all thanks to people like Taeko, Mayumi, and Yachi." Goro said.

"Honor the dead, but give the living some credit, too." Inori maundered. "You turned a storage tunnel into a huge escape path in just a few days, Goro! And because Chiya's so smart, she was able to determine that Bishamon was targeting us and quickly create a plan of action! Chiharu was exiled decades ago, but she came back just for Gekko! If even a single person was missing, none of this would've worked for as long as it did."

"And that's not even mentioning Gekko's part in all of this." Goro said.

Chiya snickered as she took a bite of her beef skewer. "Taeko once told me that she was visibly scared *censored*less during the Battle of Kyoto. That was her first time taking command of an army and the men didn't respect her all that much yet."

"Really? She leads so confidently now. You'd never even imagine her being nervous." Chiharu said.

"Everyone was a newbie at some point. Even Gekko." Inori said.

"I really wish she was awake right now. I want to ask her how much dying hurts." Goro groaned.

"Why the hell would you want to know that before you die?" Chiharu recoiled.

"Why not?" Goro shrugged. "I'm curious, damn it! I guess I think I'll be more prepared for it if someone tells me beforehand."

"I don't know, I feel like I'd feel better if I wasn't told." Chiya said. "Not knowing is a kind of freedom."

"Yeah, I guess so." Goro conceded. "Man, what a ride it's been. For the record, it was an honor serving alongside all of you. You guys are amazing."

Inori, Chiharu, and Chiya raised their cups and inhaled their remaining sake in honor of all the years they spent together.

"You guys are the best damn family I've ever had! Here's to living and dying!" Chiya cheered.

The others repeated after her, raising their cups towards the flame of the bonfire. "Here's to living and dying!"

Meanwhile, far away in the realm of Heaven, Uzume joined Amaterasu in her bedroom during one of Heaven's rare nights. On most days, the land was blessed with Amaterasu's sunlight, but even gods need to rest every once in a while. At times like these, Heaven went dark, just as the earth did. Uzume brushed through Amaterasu's head of raven hair for her. She was the only god permitted to see Amaterasu in her see white, see-through robes during these rare nights. It was Amaterasu's most comfortable choice of clothing for sleep.

"The Exorcist Program?" Uzume asked.

"It's the culmination of all of this, Uzume." Amaterasu said. "With the Senkumo clan gone, Bishamon won't have any power of his own. Any power he holds from here on out will be afforded to him by Heaven. The war is reaching its end. After long conflicts like this, it's typical for the general populace to be wary of further war. When the country sees the Senkumo's stratocratic system fail and the other major clans kill each other off, the people will want naught to do with war. The warrior class of society will have their power taken from them, just as the warrior class took the power away from the daimyo. The plan is for the power of the state to be successfully centralized, and for the responsibility of policing a post-war society to fall into their hands."

"So, no more samurai? No more daimyo?" Uzume asked.

"None at all." Amaterasu replied. "At least, they won't hold nearly as much influence in this new society. The shogunate will still exist, but only for a little while. What we're forming out of Japan, Uzume, is an empire. But, of course, we'll also be at war with the vampires and whatever supernatural creatures find their way to our lands. So, we need something similar to the Senkumo clan in order to combat them. That is the Exorcist Program. Ordinary humans and mortal descendants of gods who all swear an oath to Heaven and receive missions directly from us. They'll combat our supernatural enemies during this time of peace."

Uzume was left breathless. "I can't believe you thought all of this through. Even for you, this is kind of..."

"Devious? Cunning?" Amaterasu snickered. "I know. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but this project will completely change the country, the pantheon, and our dynamics with the other gods, especially Bishamon. This is how we'll forge our own path in both the supernatural and mortal world. We'll also be getting our house in order, just a bit."

Uzume put down the brush, planting both of her hands on Amaterasu's shoulders. "Well, for now, just get some rest, okay? You spend so much time working and planning. Take advantage of the night."

Amaterasu tapped Uzume's hand with her fingers. "You're right. I could use the rest."


15
We Were the Weeds
Spoiler
"Hey, Amaterasu. Got a moment?"

His voice rang out from behind Amaterasu's shut door while she sat beneath her window, brushing her long, silky head of hair. Those amber eyes of her observed all of Heaven's subjects and architectural splendor with caution and disdain. She felt she could decipher what was going on in the heads of the servants and gods below by watching them from her palace. She felt she could hear and feel their fleeting thoughts of treason, their futile plans to extend their lives. Each and every one of those thoughts slithered around her like snakes, hissing in her ears. Oyamatsumi's knock upon her door almost felt like a small instance of karma. Almost, had it not been cunningly planned by Amaterasu herself. By focusing on the tainted atmosphere of Heaven, she had brought one of its most prominent victims to her bedroom door. Her own brother.

"Come in, Oyamatsumi."

He gently opened the door, out of breath and clearly excited by something. Amaterasu kept her eyes on him through his reflection in her vanity mirror.

"Why did you boot us from the War Council? Hachiman, Raijin, Fujin, everyone. The decision was so sudden."

"The War Council is going to be reformed into a different team of people." Amaterasu said. "Until then, every existing member, save for our Divine General, will be booted."

Oyamatsumi smiled, brushing aside his blonde hair from his eyes. "You've been busy changing things up. I'm hearing whispers that you have some sort of huge plan for both Heaven and Earth. What's that about?"

"I'm afraid that's still a secret. The plan is confidential." Amaterasu said.

Oyamatsumi sighed and shook his head, deciding to let go of the matter. "Alright, sis. I'll trust you on this one. It's a shame about the war on earth though, isn't it? Right when everyone was getting comfortable, those foreigners brought a new religion with them. They've been going on and on about how there's only one god. Prayers might be a little tight for some of smaller gods. Even Tsukuyomi still gets enough prayers to stay alive."

If Amaterasu's hand gripped any tighter around her brush, it would've snapped right in half. "My husband was not the only demon walking in plain sight. There are no angels in this Heaven of mine, but I shudder to think that the men of action that once roamed these halls have now withered and waned into their pathetic state."

Oyamatsumi stood breathless. He could feel the coils of rage around his sister, festering and boiling beneath her porcelain skin.

"How sad it is, Brother, to see the gods whipped into submission by the same primal instincts instilled in humans. Mortal fear." Amaterasu said. "Is this what the Buddha meant when he said the root of suffering was attachment? That we only lose the things we cling to?"

"I'm afraid too, you know. A lot of people really wish this merge didn't happen." Oyamatsumi protested. "None of us were prepared to pay the cost of this new power. The day you agreed to merge our pantheons was the first day anyone ever found it necessary to make graves in Heaven. This was supposed to be a deathless place."

"So you scorn me as well." Amaterasu hissed.

"I just hope you haven't been doing what it looks like you're doing. I don't believe my sister would ever engineer the deaths of her subjects. Not on purpose."

Amaterasu put aside her brush. "Go. Handle your duties, Oyamatsumi."

The further he walked away from her room, the more her boiling blood finally came to a rest. She didn't realize until he left that his presence made her feel physically hot with vexation and anger. Little did Oyamatsumi know that Amaterasu's vision of Heaven's future did not include him anywhere in it.

Back on Earth, Inari, Izanami, and Tsukiakari found the mining cave Nobunaga spoke of, following it until it lead them down to the heavy, double door entrance. Both doors stood nearly 15 feet tall, engraved with low-relief swirls that made the doors rough to the touch. Tsukiakari held her flame-covered blade up as a torch, lighting up the cave.

Inari winced and pinched her nose. "The air is so musty and damp here. This really is right below the lake, isn't it?"

"Oyamatsumi isn't here?" Tsukiakari asked.

"No, we're lucky. He seems to be away right now." Izanami said. "Shall we go in?"

Tsukiakari nodded. "Do it."

And so, the doors creaked open, leading them down the long, straight path into the heart of the catacombs. The various skulls and femurs lining the walls almost sickened Inari. As they reached the heart of that putrid place, Tsukiakari rubbed her fingers on the unlit torches in one of the halls, observing the residue left on them.

"There's still traces of oil on these. They lit recently." Tsukiakari said.

"There's multiple ways we can take, too. We should all be on guard." Izanami cautioned.

"Is it wise to split up?" Inari asked.

"Normally, I'd say no, but we only have about two hours of darkness left. The sun will rise shortly after." said Izanami.

"Right. We need to find her as soon as possible." Tsukiakari interjected. "We can still talk to each other through prayer if anything happens. Perhaps we should split up. I'll go down the center route."

"I'll take the left." Inari said, raising her hand.

"Looks like I'm on the right." Izanami sighed. "If you find something, let the rest of us know immediately."

And so, the girls split up.

The slight odor of old bones and decomposition danced around Tsukiakari's nose as she proceeded down her selected path, opening the occasional, cobweb-covered door to check for any sign of Taeko. All she found were more skeletons, most of which clearly belonged to male adults, probably in their 30's.

"Hey, Izanami...do you know if Taeko had any items with her?" Tsukiakari asked, her eyes closed in prayer.

"Items? Well...the day she disappeared, I lent her a red umbrella for the heat. I don't know if she still had it by the time she came here."

"Alright, I'll keep searching."

Thankfully, Tsukiakari knew what decomposition smelled like when the flesh was still on the bone. Being exposed to the worst and most grotesque stages of human decomposition meant that sifting through the old skeletal remains in the catacombs was nothing for her. Door after door only yielded more bones of long dead souls until she came across one particular double door.

Tsukiakari finally stood before the wooden door leading to the abandoned worship area. Rats scuttled by her feet, running in the opposite direction of whatever was beyond the entrance.

"This looks like it leads to a wider area...maybe she's..." Tsukiakari trailed off.

All too curious to find out, Tsukiakari lifted off the door's brace with one arm, letting it plop down onto the rocky floor with a mighty thud that echoed through the halls.

"A steel brace on a wooden door? They were trying to keep something inside of here from getting out..."

Pushing open the door with her fingers felt like stepping off the edge of the universe. Everything beyond that door was unknown, and she had no idea what to expect. The sanctuary was incredibly dark. Even with her light, Tsukiakari could barely see anything in front of her. She took only two steps forward before she heard another set of footsteps ahead of her. She stopped, listening attentively to figure out who or what was there.

"Who's there?!"

No response.

The only vocal cue she received was the slight sound of incoherent moaning and groaning, along with the thud of the stranger's bare feet slapping against the stone floors.

Stepping deeper into the sanctuary, Tsukiakari's blade now lit most of the room, allowing her to finally see who was there. A strange mix of disgust and fascination widened her eyes as she saw what appeared to be a woman pace around the room in circles. Her kimono was tattered and ripped all around, as if the very fabric of her clothes had gone rotten. This 'person', if anyone could call it that, didn't even have any eyes, a nose, or even a mouth.

Much like Izanami, she resembled a walking corpse, only this one was missing anything that could give its body beauty, or anything resembling individuality. It was just a fleshy husk, a walking shell, a featureless zombie. Only her long hair, grown all the way down to her feet, gave that featureless husk a sense of self. Tsukiakari continued walking ever so slowly as she kept her eyes on the monster before her very eyes.

"Hey...guys...I found something." Tsukiakari whispered.

"Did you find Taeko?!" Inari asked in response.

"No, but I found something else. I think it's a Mu-Onna."

"What?! Gekko, are you sure? It doesn't have a face or anything?!" Izanami asked.

"No, nothing. It's just walking around the room. It doesn't seem to be interested in me at all. It's probably been here for a long time."

"Did they steal a Mu-Onna or something? Why would they do that?" Inari said, perplexed.

"I'm not sure, but I'm going to keep searching for Taeko. I hope she wasn't harmed by that...thing." Tsukiakari shuddered.

"Alright. Before we leave, we have to make sure the Mu-Onna is vanquished. We can't just let it roam the earth." Izanami urged. "That's so odd though. How did they manage to get their hands on one?"

Tsukiakari's next step did not bring the sole of her sandals down upon more of the stone floor. Instead, there was distinct crunch, as if she had broken something. Turning her eyes away from the Mu-Onna, she picked up the object she had stepped on, a tattered, red umbrella.

A chill shot down Tsukiakari's spine. It felt as if something lodged itself in her throat before she gulped and contacted Izanami again.

"Izanami...what did you say you lent Taeko again on the day she disappeared?"

"A red umbrella! Why? Did you find it?"

Multiple beads of sweat ran down her face as she turned her head back towards the Mu-Onna, who continued to aimlessly pace around the room. Tsukiakari's eyes peeled wide open among the daunting realization that the featureless monster before her was Taeko.

"Gekko? Gekko?! What's going on?" Inari panicked.

"Oh my god. Ta...Taeko?" Tsukiakari stammered.

Out of all the things she had seen on the battlefield, out of all of the horrors she had witnessed in her life, none stood up to that moment, the moment Tsukiakari realized what had happened to Taeko. Her beautiful eyes, her gracious smile, and petite little nose and intricate dimples...all of them were gone. She was no more than a walking mannequin now.

No matter how hard she looked, Tsukiakari still couldn't believe it. "No....it can't be...how did this..."

The Mu-Onna tripped over its own ankle, falling over on the floor with a loud slam against the ground. It was so incredibly clumsy as it tried to get itself back up, falling over several more times before it corrected its posture and continued its aimless march.

"Gekko?! Inari, head back to the forked path!" Izanami urged. "We need to meet with Gekko!"

"You got it!" Inari replied.

"That kimono....it's the same one she wore that day..." Tsukiakari recalled aloud.

Tears of unspeakable anguish forced themselves in a continuous, stinging stream out of Tsukiakari's horrified eyes. She could feel her very soul shatter into pieces as her breathing grew labored.

"Taeko! Taeko, please say something!" Tsukiakari cried.

The Mu-Onna said nothing. It seemed to be eternally locked in its aimless trance.

While the girls discovered what had happened to Taeko after all those years, Bishamon sat alone in his sanctuary night, his eyes closed in meditation. Dozens of candles burned around him in a circle, filling the room with the therapeutic scent of honey and mint. Someone knocked upon his door, pulling him out of his meditation.

"Come in."

Hachiman and Fujin entered the room, shutting the door behind them.

"We got your prayer." Hachiman said. "Are you really doing this? I thought you were going to ride this war out a little longer."

"Plans have changed. I'm going through with this. Are you two with me?" Bishamon asked.

Fujin bowed his head. "We're with you."

Bishamon stood up and opened the sliding door to his balcony. Fujin and Hachiman joined him as they looked out towards the army of thousands of Senkumo troops standing before him in the courtyard, awaiting their lord's order. A golden moon hung above their heads in the night sky.

"The operation will commence immediately!" Bishamon shouted. "Ride out!"

The men cheered in response and flooded out of the base's gates. Many of them were armed with rifles and lightweight, leather armor. Most of the traditional sword and spear units rode on mounts, making their forces fast and much more mobile. It was clear just from looking at the composition of the army that Bishamon was in a rush to move quickly over a great distance.

"We have more forces to link up with during our journey." Bishamon said. "We'll be forty-thousand strong by the time we reach our targets. It's best we take out all of the bases in the surrounding area first so we don't get boxed in by reinforcements."

"Good thinking, kid." Hachiman praised. "Let's get going."

And in Heaven, Uzume met up with Amaterasu once more in the emptied War Council meeting room. She shut the door behind her and bowed before her queen before speaking.

"I conveyed everything to Bishamon, just as you asked. He's taking action immediately." Uzume said. "Though, I must say, this is all very extreme. Is this really how you want to resolve things, Amaterasu?"

Amaterasu stood at one of the windows, the sunlight reflecting off of her skin. "I spent all of these years drawing up this project. It will work, Uzume. In order for him to be controlled, Bishamon must first have his power tethered to Heaven and Heaven alone. That's why the first step in the project is so extreme. If the Senkumo clan is his force of power on Earth, then it must be removed."

"I just think it's unprecedented, ordering a god to directly commit mass killings of humans." Uzume said. "Won't this put Tsukiakari in danger?"

Amaterasu smiled. "Bishamon was already plotting to end it this way. I simply told him to speed up his plans. Indeed, Tsukiakari will be put in danger. Bishamon will undoubtedly try to kill her along with the rest of the clan."

Uzume covered her mouth in horror. "Why wager your daughter's life?"

"No one from this pantheon can lay a finger on Bishamon or his group. We'll spark another civil war, and this really isn't the time for that. So, the solution was to get someone powerful, someone outside of this pantheon, to do the deed for us. Tsukiakari was the perfect person. I firmly believe in my daughter's strength. When she finds out of this grand betrayal, she will seek vengeance. She'll kill everyone she can get her hands on."

"Do you expect her to be able to kill Bishamon, too?" Uzume asked.

Amaterasu snickered. "Well, that's entirely up to the both of them, isn't it?"


The Truth, At Long Last
Spoiler
It all began to make sense. When Taeko's baby died, it must've triggered the grief necessary to turn her into a Mu-Onna. A human being turning into one while they were still alive was unheard of, but not impossible. How many decades did she spend locked in that room, circling around its four corners endlessly? The longer Tsukiakari stared at her, still shivering from the realization, the more it hurt. Taeko was already practically dead. However...the red umbrella wasn't all that she left behind.

Another surprise caught Tsukiakari by the corner of her eye. She held her flaming sword closer to the rear wall of the room to examine what seemed to be a message, written with the black blood and tears that Taeko spilled in her last moments. After all of those decades, the message was still clearly visible, forever stained onto the walls.

"Taeko...did you write this?!"

Taeko's message was written vertically, requiring it to be read downwards, from right to left. She left behind a simple message, with as much grammar and extra words left out. Judging from that, Tsukiakari knew she must've decided to write it when she felt like she didn't have much time left. Taeko must've known that by the time she was found, she'd already be gone. She decided she wouldn't go without exposing the truth.

"Bishamon, four co-conspirators. All gods. Hachiman. Raijin. Fujin....and Oyamatsumi..." Tsukiakari read aloud.

Oyamatsumi's involvement was absolutely undeniable. All of the evidence pointed to him having attacked Taeko, most likely upon her discovery of the identities of Bishamon's accomplices. Tsukiakari realized right then and there that she had been betrayed. They had all been betrayed.

"Hachiman...the former god of war...did he fire the arrow that paralyzed Ebina? For Mayumi and I...did one of them tip off the Mori clan ahead of time? And for Taeko...they all had some involvement, but it looks like Oyamatsumi was the one who did the deed...my own uncle. Uncle...why did you lie? You said you weren't involved! You promised me you weren't involved in this!"

So much was hitting Tsukiakari all at once that she recoiled away from the written message, holding her hand to her heart as she caught her breath. Though her head was still aching just from the sheer weight of everything, she already knew one thing that had to be done. Taeko, or what was left her, needed to be put to rest.

"Taeko...you must've been in so much pain. And yet, still, in your last moments, you kept fighting. You always blamed yourself for being unable to protect us, but you were the strongest of us all. You're an even better warrior than I could ever be."

With tears streaming down her cheeks, Tsukiakari raised her blade as the Mu-Onna walked towards her, still uninterested in her guest.

"I love you so much, Taeko." Tsukiakari cried.

Inari and Izanami both ran through the sanctuary doors at the same time, stopping dead in their tracks with as they saw Tsukiakari hug the Mu-Onna, her flaming sword protruding out of her back.

"Gekko..." Inari muttered grimly.

Tsukiakari gently retracted her sword from Taeko's body, catching her with one arm as she fell to the side. She laid her down on the floor gently, grabbing her cold, dead hands and clasping them together. The vile, black blood of the Mu-Onna pooled around her, reeking of rotten flesh.

"I felt her just now. Taeko is gone. She's at peace now, Gekko." Izanami assured.

Tsukiakari's trembled in a tidal wave of woe and dejection."Good. She deserves her rest. She fought so hard for all of us."

The girls took a moment of somber quietude, as if to honor Taeko's passing soul. Tsukiakari sighed as she slid her arms underneath Taeko's back and head, picking her up off of the floor.

"Inari, I need to ask you a favor." Tsukiakari said.

Inari nodded. "Anything."

Tsukiakari's eyes were like wilted flowers as she handed the corpse over to Inari. "Please bury her with Ebina and Mayumi. She deserves to rest alongside her sisters."

Izanami shut her eyes, as if to seal away any more tears that may escape down her cheek. "She was such a fierce woman. I can't believe this happened to her."

With a heavy, yet determined heart, Inari accepted the burden of burying Taeko. "Alright. I'll bury her. What will you do, Gekko?"

"I'm not sure. I really just don't know any—"

The catacombs were suddenly rocked by what felt like a powerful earthquake, crumbling the walls and very bones supporting them. The constant, bombastic crunch of breaking stone and a weakening ceiling served as the perfect cue to leave immediately.

"What's happening?! An earthquake?!" Inari shouted.

"I don't know, but we need to leave! This place is going to come down any instant!" Inari urged.

"Inari, take Taeko's corpse and get out of here! Be sure you keep your promise!" Tsukiakari commanded.

"Wait, what about you!?" Inari asked.

"This isn't an earthquake, we were discovered! Leave now!" Tsukiakari replied.

"Let's just go, Inari! Gekko, you better stay safe!" Izanami demanded.

Tsukiakari simply nodded as Inari and Izanami teleported out of the catacombs, taking Taeko's body with them. A great wave of relief washed over Tsukiakari, knowing Taeko would be free of that odorous abode beneath Oyamatsumi's shrine. But now, she had to worry about who discovered them.

Her sadness turning into rage, Tsukiakari let out a furious scream. In what seemed like a mad, suicidal fit of anger, Tsukiakari pointed her blade towards the ceiling, focusing a massive amount of fiery energy into the very tip of her polished sword. The high-powered explosion blew open the catacombs thunderous blast that ejected tons of the lake's water high into air until it fell down upon the earth like boiling rain.

Jumping straight out of the mess of fire, black smoke, and displaced water, Tsukiakari landed on the lake's shore, her wet hair covering one of her eyes. Now that she was outside again, she could see the rising sun brightening the sky, its light peeking over the hills in the distance and glimmering on the lake's falling water.

As her ears were preoccupied with the sound of the massive explosion and splash of falling water, Tsukiakari looked all around for the culprit.

"Where are you, you bastard?!"

The silence after the explosion was the most stressful thing about the situation for Tsukiakari. She waited and watched for any signs of the attacker, but saw nothing. Then, in just a split second, something had broken through the thick cloud of black smoke ahead, leaving a swirled hole right in the middle of the bellowing plume.

Before she could say anything, before she even knew what had happened, a lightning bolt pierced through her chest like a javelin. She fell to one knee, holding her hand to the gaping hole below her heart where blood poured out of like a small fountain.

"W-what...what's happening?!"

Her body went through a painful cycle of going numb and suddenly pulsating with unholy agony until she fell face-first on the ground. Her blood trickled into the lake, dyeing it red. Tsukiakari's senses dulled and weakened. Her sight became fuzzy, dark, and distorted, and she could barely even hear the water rushing into her ear. Everything felt numb and unresponsive. This feeling was familiar to her, for it was the feeling of death.

"This...confirms it..." Tsukiakari wheezed.

The culprit stepped forward from beyond the plume of smoke rising high into the morning sky. Though Tsukiakari could not raise her head to see him, she already knew exactly who it was. He walked on the lake's water itself as if it were solid ground, stepping ever closer to confirm his kill.

"Raijin. So...it's true..." Tsukiakari sighed.

"Sorry to have to do this after your years of wonderful service to the cause." Raijin laughed. "But it's over now. Enjoy your slumber, princess. I wonder if you'll even be able to wake up this time"

Tsukiakari's vision faded into a haze of darkness. The sounds around her grew muffled until they could be heard no more. She felt the blood in her veins go cold and her eyelids close shut.

Death was silence.

Death was darkness.

Death was vengeance.

Death was bitter.

Death was woeful.

Death was hateful.

The festivities were still going on through the night at Tsukiakari's base. Men extended their hands to the nearest, cutest girls they could find and twirled them around the bonfires lit throughout the courtyard. With enough alcohol in their system, even the most introverted of Senkumo troops found their singing voice or their dancing skills and joined in with the rest of the troops. The younger men linked their arms across each other's shoulders and drunkenly stumbled their way down the courtyard. It was absolute pandemonium like they had never seen before. All of their years of suffering and fighting were finally over, and that was sure as hell something to get plastered about.

Chiya, being much older, showed far more restraint that the rest of her troops. She sat on her knees before one of the flowerbeds of azaleas, quite a distance away from all of the loud partying and celebration. Yachi's tombstone stood among the azaleas, her remains resting below the soil. Her hands pressed together in prayer, Chiya opened her eyes and stood up with a smile on her aged, wrinkled face. After so many years, her long, unbound hair remained black with pronounced streaks of grey.

"Your dream finally came true, Yachi. I lived to watch it all happen."

Inori suddenly came running out of the base's sanctuary, wearing an azalea in her head of silver hair. "Chiya!"

"Is something wrong?" Chiya asked.

Inori took a moment to catch her breath. "It's Gekko! She reincarnated!"

Stunned silent, Chiya retreated into the sanctuary with Inori to go and see for herself. They raced up the steps to the third floor, slamming open the sliding door to Tsukiakari's worship area. Sure enough, there she was, lying unconscious in her futon.

"Why would she die in the middle of peacetime?" Chiya asked.

"I don't know. I'm not sure what happened. The guards mentioned that they saw her return from Kyoto, but she turned around and went somewhere else." Inori explained.

Chiya had no idea what to think. It didn't make sense to suffer a casualty during peacetime. She snapped her fingers and looked Inori in the eye. Even if she didn't say it, they both knew who they had to go to for answers.

"Let's send two men. We'll have them go and visit Inari and Izanami."


Our Final Enemy
Spoiler
By the time the morning sun began to crest over the hills, many of the Senkumo troops in Tsukiakari's base had retired to their beds. With all of the alcohol consumed throughout the night, the men were practically hibernating. For the first time in the clan's history, Tsukiakari's base was quiet, peaceful, and much to Chiya's anxiety, unguarded. With most of the men incapacitated, Inori and Goro decided to mount their horses and ride out to meet Izanami by themselves. They trotted down the dirt road together, unnerved by the unusually peaceful atmosphere of the region. The roads were completely devoid of travelers as the morning winds swayed the trees and tall grass coating the hillocks in the distance.

"We haven't heard from Bishamon yet, have we?" Inori asked.

"About Gekko's death? No, but it just happened, didn't it?" Goro responded.

"You're right. That was a stupid question." Inori sighed.

Goro took note of Inori's dejected and anxious expression. "You okay?"

"It's just not like her to die like this. We're not in any major wars and our provinces our secure. I can't see her getting into any dangerous accidents either." Inori chattered.

"We won't know a thing until we contact Izanami. Try to keep your chin up until then, alright?" Goro sang, hoping to preserve her optimism.

Inori smiled. "Sorry. It's part of being in the field of nursery. I'm a natural-born worry wort."

Goro suddenly yanked on his reigns, drawing an agitated neigh from his horse. Inori stopped as well, alarmed by Goro's abrupt halt.

"Goro, what's wrong?"

Goro didn't answer. His eyes were drawn towards the sun-kissed mountains ahead. Inori followed his gaze and gasped at the sight of the thick plume of black smoke bellowing out from the mountains.

"Don't we have a base up there?" Inori asked. "What happened?"

"Let's go!" Goro shouted, kicking his horse into a wild gallop.

Inori tailed behind him as they raced up the face of the mountain. They stopped in front of the massive, wooden entrance of the base, its doors blasted open. Goro and Inori lifted the necks of their robes to cover their noses as they dismounted their horses and slowly proceeded through the gate. This base was smaller than Tsukiakari's. It had been built thirty years prior to Bishamon's order to halt all offensive military operations. In the early days of the clan, Bishamon prioritized having bases that could hold large, standing armies, hence his preference to build them on relatively flat land in the countryside. As the Senkumo grew, the clan was able to hold more strategic positions, and started building bases along mountains and coastlines.

This base in particular housed a smaller force of roughly two hundred men, meant to act as a quick relief force in the case of emergencies and natural disasters. Though an opposing army may have found it to be a great position to capture, Goro found the chances of an enemy attack to be slim. Almost all of the Senkumo's enemies had either been destroyed or surrendered in order to become part of a clan neutral or allied to the Senkumo. Even if it was an enemy force, it made no sense to Goro or Inori that they would then raze such a valuable, well-stocked location.

As they walked in, however, all they saw were scattered corpses of Senkumo troops and charred buildings all around. Whoever had invaded the place did it only to kill the troops stationed there and destroy the facility. Goro turned over one of the corpses onto its back, revealing the mangled, blood-covered face of a young woman. Flies gathered to feast on the harvest of corpses, much to the disgust of Inori.

"Look." Inori said as she pointed at the woman's corpse. "Slash wounds on her stomach. She was killed with a blade."

"None of them are armed, either. They were completely taken by surprise." Goro observed.

"They must've been celebrating, just like the rest us." Inori lamented. "We should get out of here, Goro. We have to report this to Chiya. Izanami can wait."

Goro looked around as he slowly reversed towards the gate. "I've got a really bad feeling about this."

Goro and Inori quickly mounted their horses and began the race back to base. They descended the mountain and were about to head east down the dirt road, but they both came to an abrupt stop once again. Far in the distance, they spotted what looked like a hundred, fully-armored men flying the Senkumo banner. They set up pavises and guard towers along the road, forming a blockade.

"Those are our guys too?" Inori asked. "Maybe they know what's going on."

Goro and Inori slowly trotted along down the road, holding their hands above their faces to block the light of the rising sun. Once they were in sight to the small force below, however, the men quickly tightened their formation as if preparing to attack. Goro and Inori yanked the reigns of their horses, coming to a complete stop.

"They don't know who we are." Goro said, reaching in his robes for his ivory horn.

He blew through the mouthpiece of the horn, playing a small jingle that would've normally been enough to identify one Senkumo to another from a distance, but instead, the blockading force opened fire on Goro and Inori with their matchlock rifles, narrowly missing the both of them.

"Turn back! Turn back!" Goro shouted.

Goro and Inori did a complete one-eighty, galloping down the road to the west, away from the blockading force.

"Why the hell would they shoot at us?!" Goro yelled, sweat dripping down his neck.

"We have to get back to base!" Inori urged. "Avoid the eastern route! We'll go the long way instead!"

At noon, the two of them returned to base, urging the guards to open the gates for them. They hopped off of their horses and sprinted back over to the sanctuary's third floor like their lives depended on it. Goro slammed open the sliding door, spooking the worried Chiya as she looked over the unconscious Tsukiakari.

"What happened? Are you two okay?" Chiya asked.

"Chiya our base in the mountains south of here is gone!" Inori exclaimed. "The men were all killed and the whole place is up in smoke!"

"We raced back to tell you, but the roads to the east were blocked off by other Senkumo troops. They shot at us as soon as we identified ourselves!" Goro explained.

"What?!" Chiya recoiled. "The base is gone?! Are you sure the men who shot at you were Senkumo?"

"I'm positive." Goro said. "They had our banner, our armor, and our guns. I'd never mistake it for anything else."

Chiya stood up with her hands slapped over her mouth. Her gasps of horror were muffled. "Oh my god..."

Chiya took a moment to collect herself. "You said the base was up in smoke? So the fires were recent, then. They must've been killed while they were celebrating. And you said the roads to the east were blockaded?"

Inori nodded. "We're positive, it was east. It's our quickest way in and out of the region."

"That means whoever is doing this knows where our bases are, when they're most vulnerable, and our best routes out of here." Chiya analyzed.

One of the men suddenly presented themselves at the sliding door, bowing before Chiya. "Lord Chiya, there's a stranger at the gate requesting immediate entry. She said she needs to speak to you. She mentioned you by name."

"One thing after another..." Chiya groaned.

Chiya, Goro and Inori made their way to the gate, meeting the stranger right outside the base. The woman requesting entry dismounted her white horse and stood before the three Senkumo, face to face. She looked to be in her late forties and donned long, unbound black hair. For a woman, she dressed more like a man, wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her shoulders, and a dirt pair of tan, cotton pants.

"State your business." Chiya said.

"Is that...is that you, Chiya?" the woman asked.

Chiya stepped closer, shocked that the woman recognized her by sight and by name. The more she looked upon the woman's face, the more she came to recognize her. She almost couldn't believe her own eyes.

"No way..." Chiya gasped. "Is that you, Chiharu?"

"Chiharu?!" Inori recoiled

Sure enough, Chiharu nodded in response, tears welling in her eyes. "So you still remember me after all of these years? I couldn't be happier."

"I can't believe it." Goro said, his mouth agape. "You're still alive after all this time?"

Chiya laughed to herself as she brought Chiharu in for a long, tight hug. It took everything she had to keep herself from crying, both out of happiness and regret for what happened to Chiharu many years ago. Chiharu soon pulled herself away from the hug, resting her hands on Chiya's shoulders.

"As heartwarming as this reunion is, I'm afraid I'm not here with good news. Is Gekko still here? What about Mayumi?" Chiharu asked.

"Gekko is here, but things are complicated right now." Goro responded. "As for Mayumi...she was killed in battle a long time ago, just a few years after you were exiled."

"Mayumi died? That's terrible. She was such a kind person." Chiharu lamented. "Listen, we can catch up some more later. I think you guys are in some serious danger."

"Why do you say that?" Chiya asked.

"Because the Senkumo base in Isa province was destroyed." Chiharu replied. "It happened so suddenly, you could see the smoke from where I live. The locals were saying they all died before they even had a chance to fight back. I came back to Yamashiro to check to see if Gekko was still in this region, and that's when I passed by Bishamon's base this morning. It was completely deserted."

"The base in Isa was destroyed? We just discovered another base close by was destroyed as well!" Inori said.

"Bishamon's base is empty? No corpses? No sign of fighting?" Chiya questioned.

Chiharu shook her head. "Nothing that I could see. The gates were open but the base looked untouched. It's just that no one was in it. Not a single soul. All of the supplies were gone too. It looked like the army there deployed and took their supplies with them."

"They deployed?" Inori gasped.

Chiya remained eerily silent as her eyes widened in horror. It seemed she had figured out what was happening, and it wasn't good.

"Everyone, get inside." Chiya ordered.

The gate was shut and the guards were told to remain on high alert. A few men remained stationed at the walls while the men on the ground stormed into everyone's bedrooms, waking them from their alcohol-induced slumber. As everyone on base began to wake up, Chiya sealed herself, Inori, Goro, and Chiharu in the war room. For what she was about to say, Chiya required the utmost privacy, as not to spread panic throughout the ranks.

"I wasn't completely sure at first, but now I know for a fact what's happening." Chiya said. "I want you all to listen very carefully, and to remain calm."

Chiya let the silence settle for a moment, ensuring she had their unyielding attention. "The ones that destroyed our bases had to know where they were located, when they were vulnerable to attack, and which routes to cut off. If the base close by and the one in Isa went up at about the same time, it means the attacks were coordinated throughout multiple provinces. The only force capable of inflicting that much damage to us right now...is us."

"The Senkumo is attacking itself?" Chiharu questioned.

"It seems to me that Bishamon's force is responsible for this. If Bishamon himself is also missing, then I can only assume he's personally leading them." Chiya explained. "For whatever reason, Bishamon intends to destroy the Senkumo clan."

"But...he's our master! How could he do such a thing?" Inori cried.

"Izanami warned me that he might try something like this, long ago." Chiya recalled. "She predicted that once the Senkumo clan was no longer of any use to him, Bishamon would discard us. That was a dark period for our clan, and for this base specifically. We had suffered so many losses, and Yachi had gone missing around that time. Our faith in Bishamon took a serious hit."

"What happened to Yachi? I thought she was here too." Chiharu said.

Chiya closed her eyes in lamentation. "You missed a lot in your exile, Chiharu. My dear Yachi passed away years ago."

Chiharu's brows arched as she frowned. "Yachi too? I'm so sorry, Chiya."

"Thank you." Chiya said with a bow of her head. "Bishamon's forces are sealing off the roads to the east right now. They'll probably seal all of other routes of escape as well. From the look of things, it seems they want to box this base in. They're being much more cautious about attacking us because they know Gekko is here. Again, it points to this all being the work of Bishamon. Only he would know to do all of this, and how to do it so quickly and effectively."

Goro scoffed. "So, in the end, our last enemy is our fellow Senkumo."

"So then...he intends to kill Gekko?" Inori asked.

"If he's trying to wipe his own clan off the map after everything we did for him, it would make the most sense to kill her too." Goro said. "I just can't believe it. All those god damned years we gave him..."

"Where is Gekko, by the way?" Chiharu questioned.

"She died and reincarnated this morning." Chiya said. "Goro and Inori initially went out to learn why this happened during peacetime, but that's when they discovered the base and the blocked roads. Our own men tried to kill them."

"She reincarnated? So, I assume she hasn't woken up yet." Chiharu deducted.

"That's the problem. Gekko probably won't wake up by the time this base is attacked." Chiya sighed.

"Chiya..." Inori began, terrified to continue. "If this base is attacked..."

Chiya shook her head, confirming Inori's fear before she had even finished her question. "Yes. Bishamon most likely has a large force with him if he can attack multiple targets at once and block off roads. With Gekko out of commission, we have no hope of winning in the event of an attack. All of us will die."

The others were stunned silent. They each had to make their peace with that horrifying fact, that they were going to die at the hands of their own master and comrades.

"I should've heeded Izanami's warning." Chiya said remorsefully. "She was right. He really does intend to get rid of us and Gekko."

"Maybe there's no hope for us, but do you think it's still possible to save Gekko?" Chiharu asked, wiping her tears away.

"Save her?" Chiya repeated. "Well..."

"This base is probably his last target. He took out every other location with haste, but he's stalling on this one." Chiharu examined. "He must now know that Gekko is in a coma yet. In the end, Bishamon doesn't care about little old us. He's going to want to kill Gekko. We probably don't have a lot of time, but if we make use of the time we do have, can we prepare a way for Gekko to escape?"

"She's in no condition to be put on the road, Chiharu." Inori said.

"What if we made use of the ammo tunnel?" Goro proposed. "We've been keeping ammunition for the matchlock rifles in storage tunnels. If we expand those tunnels, we can make an underground backdoor out from the base and into the forest.

"We'd need a lot of manpower to make that possible." Inori groaned.

"We have the manpower." Chiya said. "It's actually possible, but it will require that we lay down the situation for the troops. After everything we worked for, that's going to be a tough talk to have."

"We have no choice." Goro growled.

"Goro, can I ask that you lead the effort to expand the tunnels? I'll give you as many men as you need to get it done." Chiya said.

Goro bowed. "For Gekko, it would be my life's greatest honor."

Chiya turned to Inori next. "Inori, we have a lot of kids here. If we don't move quickly to get them out of here, Bishamon will cut off any hope of escape they have. I need you to organize a way to get them out safely. Anyone younger than the age of twelve should be made to leave. Anyone above that age should have the choice if they want to stay or not."

Inori clasped her hands and bowed, her forehead touching the floor. "I'll do it gladly."

"Chiharu, help them out however you can. I'm sorry that you got dragged into this." Chiya lamented.

"That's okay." Chiharu said. "Gekko saved my life when I was a young girl. I'll gladly put mine on the life for hers."

Chiya sighed as she stood up, as if a great pressure had been lifted from her shoulders. "No matter what happens to us, we cannot let Gekko die here. She gave up her life for us time and time again. Let's do the same for her."


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