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Messages - OhGodHelpMe

Pages: 1 2 [3] 4 5 ... 61
By Saint Vitus, I need help.

Okay, so Aika Crisis is almost complete. I think there's only two or three chapters for me to edit, so the release is inevitable. Funny it's taken me this long since, you know, DbEG was the story everyone actually wanted first but I decided I would juggle it with the SWS prequel series and release two full parts of that before finishing Aika Crisis. Because that's how you keep the momentum going for a book, right? That's how you please the customer, by giving them a banana split when they asked for a hot chocolate.

Let this thread be an example of how NOT to go about handling two huge stories at the same time.

With all that said, Aika Crisis will be here soon. Not sure if I'll just use the art some of you beautiful lads have gifted me or commission more. Hmm. We'll see. After this, I promise War Cloud and Dawn and Dusk (one of my favorites right there) will be worked on next for release.

Some day, when I finish all of DbEG and SWS, I'll do Anzu: A Friend From the Grave as well. Don't you think I've forgotten about that story. I had so much fun writing it and it legitimately left me with a slight feeling of emptiness after I finished it.

break Room / Re: Anime community is acting weird on YouTube
« on: April 14, 2019, 03:33:43 PM »
SJW is a pretty popular term now. Damn near everyone uses it. Not as many people us anti-SJW and I couldn't tell you which group, if any, use it.

I don't find it alarmist when it's demonstrably true. We had a literal meme president win an election over the most PC mainstream politician of the century in a completely unexpected victory (well I expected it, but it came as a shock for almost everyone else). The cultural tension that existed before that only intensified afterwards.

I'm not alarmed about any of this, I just know that some kind of societal change happens at the end of a culture war, and it all depends on which side wins. In previous eras, this was settled quickly by just killing your opponent, but I don't think anyone knows how this will play out during the safest era of mankind's history, where solving your problems isn't as easy as shooting your neighbor.

All I want is for my anime and video games to stay lewd and strange.

break Room / Re: Anime community is acting weird on YouTube
« on: April 14, 2019, 03:01:51 PM »
That's literally what a culture war is. This one isn't the first, nor the last.

I don't believe it only boils down to SJW's and anti-SJW's. There's a wider range of conflicting ideals fighting against each other right now. Whether it be nationalists vs globalists, capitalists vs socialists, conservatives vs liberals, right vs left, racial identitarians vs civic nationalists, middle class vs working class, gun owners vs gun law reformists, whatever. I didn't name two groups because there are a plethora of factions fighting against each other in different levels of society.

break Room / Re: Anime community is acting weird on YouTube
« on: April 14, 2019, 02:37:00 PM »
At it's core, I find it to be a battle between conflicting ideals and modes of thought. Each side wants their set of ideals to be the norm and they both have different ideas of how to achieve that. In this case, co-opting subcultures and the media they like is the method. It stretches to comics, video games, film, journalism, and social media too.

break Room / Re: Anime community is acting weird on YouTube
« on: April 14, 2019, 11:27:52 AM »

I want to see if i understand your points. So your arguement is that.

1) Referencing a fact in our world within a story (fake world) is wrong.

2) Prison School is an alternate world unless otherwise mentioned by the creator.

3) The original character's country has to be taken into account when dubbing.

4) Gamer-gate was nothing but an ethics argument and should probably not be talked about again.

5) SJWs will forever change Japanese media because Japanese see [not real] change and their process will change in order to meet the [fake] demand.

6) Changes in Game mechanics and changes in dub are linked and have no outside forces besides PC culture destroying media.

7) I want to experience media like it's suppose to be, everything westernized (language), but still retain the original media intent. 

1. Not a general fact, but a specific cultural reference that has nothing to do with its setting.

2. No, Prison School is a sex comedy with a ridiculous setting, but still seems to take place in modern day Japan. That's the thing though. Japan. Believe me, no one is going to call you a GamerGate Creepshow in Japan. The issue is that it's a cultural reference that conflicts with its own setting. Cultural references aren't inherently wrong to include.

3. The setting is what has to be taken into account, so you don't slip in lines that break the viewer's immersion. The translators ignored that entirely in this instance.

4. If you disagree with my summarization of events, that's just another point to make. This instance was divisive for no other reason than to score a point over the opposing side. We can have a discussion on what GamerGate actually was in another thread. I have a boatload of archives of GamerGate threads from 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit, two of these supposedly some of the most awful places on the internet, where none of what was reported actually happened. What gaming journalists did back then isn't very different from what news corporations do today.

5. Yes and there are a slew of examples of this happening. It's always either journalistic backlash or public backlash. Goblin Slayer opened up with a rape scene in the first episode, but there was only ever a stink about it here, not in Japana. SAO has done multiple rape scenes, but Alicization in particular kicked up a major controversy here, and that's in spite of the scene being heavily censored to avoid this. Kenichiro Takaki said this when he was asked if he considered toning down Senran Kagura's lewdness:

A little bit. The game started out very small and that was the big selling point in order to move units. Now that the franchise has grown, and is getting more popular, it might be worth considering having features that differ depending on where it’s being sold. That way it might be able to sell better in certain regions where it would be problematic to have that kind of content...However, there are also reviews that ignore the games due to the sexual content, and write it off from the start, so those aren’t very helpful. If you’re going to write it off due to a main component then that game just isn’t for you, and that review isn’t really useful as feedback.

6. This is the actual case. Nintendo admitted they did this to Fire Emblem Fates because they thought they removed content that was inappropriate for the West, despite previous games having that mechanic. Sony said they started censoring games to fit a "global standard" that doesn't exist. One can surmise they did it for a similar reason to Nintendo, given that they're now headquartered in the U.S. and no longer communicate with Japanese devs in the Japanese language.

7. Yes please. Just translate it so that it can be experienced in English. Erasing the intent and writing in something of your own is awful.

break Room / Re: Anime community is acting weird on YouTube
« on: April 13, 2019, 11:49:42 PM »
The scope of the line's impact is an irrelevant factor here. The translators essentially co-opted a line of dialogue from a Japanese show and altered it to include a dated, inflammatory reference to a highly divisive, Western internet controversy. They acted above their station and deliberately did that to insult people years after the controversy had simmered down. It was an overreach that went above translating or mistranslating. It was straight up re-writing a work that didn't belong to them, to include a reference that was never there, nor had any business being there.

Thanks to them, GamerGate is now canon in the world of Prison School.

Would a chick who plays games mention gamer gate?
I highly doubt it, especially if she's a Japanese chick in an arcade. Something tells me they don't make quips about GamerGate over there.

Would a girl use it to ask if the guy was hostile towards women?
She'd have to literally believe that GamerGate was caused by a ring of women-hating gamer losers that were just mad at women for being women in their subculture and not because the gaming journalists were blatantly ignoring proven ethical missteps over at Kotaku up until they put out the Gamers Are Dead articles, thus picking a pointless fight with already pissed off people and forever damaging the relationship between gaming journalists and consumers.

Which I doubt she even would because she's supposed to be a Japanese girl confronting some dude in an arcade.

But again, none of this is what matters. Co-opting material that doesn't belong to you is vile and it's happening everywhere you turn. Every tiny little instance like in Prison School, Dragon Maid, or Galko-chan all builds up and gives Japanese creators this false cultural reflection of the West, a reflection propagated entirely by snooty translators and political hacks. Once Japanese creators get the wrong idea of our cultural values and sensitivities, you're going to see a lot of the things you like in your anime and Japanese games disappear.

Or, you know, they'll just disappear entirely, as is currently the case for Japanese games. Fire Emblem Fates had its entire skinship mechanic removed because a minority of people thought that showing affection for someone by patting their heads and caressing their faces is gross, so Nintendo tried to appease them. Steam has gone on a ridiculously impossible mission to enforce un-enforcable rules pertaining to loli. Reddit introduced similar rules and banned a user for posting a picture of Kaguya-sama in a swimsuit. Sony butchered Nekopara so badly that it ended up being a rated E release on PS4. How does an erotic visual novel featuring steamy cat girl lewdness get the same rating as Barbie & Her Sisters: Puppy Rescue?

That's not even mentioning all of the other times they've bent over backwards to further censor games that already met ESRB standards, purely because a minority of shriekers and criers over here have managed to convince them that no one likes anime tiddies, headpats are gross, girls playing volleyball on the beach need to cover up, and we can't enjoy foreign culture without infecting it with our own, thus ruining the entire point of engaging with foreign media.

The Oath of Azaleas;The Honeymoon of Tragedy
Hours passed since Yachi's torture. The two girls sat in their cell in the late hours of the night, neither of them able to sleep a wink. They sat with their backs facing each other, on opposite sides of the cell. Yachi lied down while Tsukiakari rocked back and forth on her bottom, their room alight with dozens of candles. After all of that pain, torment, and humiliation, Yachi whispered a prayer beneath her breath. A prayer addressed to Tsukiakari herself.

"Oh beloved child of the summer moon, give me the strength to persevere. Give me the strength to endure. Give me the strength to forgive. Winter will be over, and the cherry buds will blossom soon. Command me to blossom too beneath your hallowed moonlight. Give me the power to love, the power to protect. Guide me through the war on this earth and the war in my heart."

"Yachi." Tsukiakari said. Silence hung in the air for what felt like an eternity.

"I'm okay, Gekko. They can break my bones and even my mind. They cannot break my spirit. And they can't break my faith in you either. You're still my goddess. You did the right thing. Please don't blame yourself."

Tsukiakari turned herself around and crawled closer to Yachi. "I just sat there and watched them...those monsters, they..."

Yachi opened her arms and brought Tsukiakari in for a warm embrace, smiling for the first time since she was captured. "Like I said, you did the right thing. We both have to be strong now. We can't tell them anything."

"Yachi. I don't know if anyone knows where we are. I don't know if we'll be saved."

"That's okay." Yachi nodded.

"Have they always been doing that to you? Violating you like that?"

"It's already happened several times. It'll happen again, I'm sure. If it'll protect everyone back home, I'm alright with that. No matter what, I won't surrender my silence."

Tsukiakari caressed Yachi's cheek, planting a gentle kiss upon her lips. It was a world away from the violence she had been subjected to up until then. Such gentle, innocent gestures of affection were sorely missed, as evidenced by Yachi's tears of joy dropping down to the cell ground.

"I missed you, Gekko. I missed everyone at home."

"They miss you too, Yachi. I've missed you, terribly so. You have no idea how worried I was."

"Probably not how you imagined you'd find me, huh?" Yachi laughed.

"Come here, silly. You should feed some more. We have to make sure don't starve to death."

"Will you hold me? Until I go to sleep?" Yachi asked.

"Of course I will. Anything for you."

Eventually, the two managed to drift off into a brief sleep using each other for warmth. What little sleep they got was cut short by the Man in Black banging in the cell bars with a small, ceramic bowl. Neither Tsukiakari nor Yachi had any idea what time of day it was. There was no windows in the room, and only the interior light was visible whenever the door was opened. From that, Tsukiakari gathered that the room was situated inside of a larger building not immediately close to a outside door or window. The odds of escaping seemed to drop even lower.

"Here. Something to eat." said the Man in Black, dropping a bowl full of dead cockroaches and writhing maggots onto the cell floor.

The famished Yachi rushed to the bowl, her body desperate for something, anything to eat, even if it was as vile as roaches and maggots. Tsukiakari restrained her, keeping her away from the grotesque offering.

"Yachi, no! You can't eat that!"

"Perhaps if you'd give up the Senkumo base, she'd get something nicer to eat. Maybe something that will prevent her from dying."

"I've already told you, you're not getting a damn thing out of me! I don't betray my comrades!" Tsukiakari rebuked.

"And here I thought you were a sensible woman. The events of yesterday will keep repeating themselves over and over again until you give me what I want. You've only endured a single day of it, Tsukiakari. Yachi has been here for much longer."

Tsukiakari slammed her arm against the bars, staring daggers into his eyes. "We won't break."

"No." said the Man in Black. "You'll shatter."

The door flung open, and in came two guards dragging a third prisoner in by the arms. Once they stepped into the candle light, Tsukiakari saw and smelled that the prisoner was already long dead. The guards held wash cloths to their faces, covering their mouths and noses from the fetid stench let off by the bloated, blackened corpse. The Man in Black opened the cell for them. The guards quickly plopped the corpse onto the cell floor and shut the gate, rushing off to go catch some fresh air. So bloated was the body that the eyes had turned a murky yellow, and were practically popped out of their sockets. The tongue was severely swollen, blocking off the mouth like a gag. The blackened skin was blistered around the thighs and gut areas while all the limbs were frozen in place by rigor mortis. Blackish-yellow fluid leaked from the ears and mouth of the body, staining the floor.

Yachi huddled herself in the far corner of the cell, embraced by Tsukiakari.

"Welcome your new cellmate. Jinbei. We'll see how long you last with him." The Man in Black chuckled, making his exit

"Wait! Wait!" Tsukiakari pleaded to deaf ears. The door was shut, and the two girls were firmly trapped with the rotting cadaver of Jinbei.

Tsukiakari pressed her hands together and channeled the power of frost out of her right palm. She blasted jinbei's corpse with a shower of frost, trapping it in a frigid sarcophagus of ice.

"Don't worry. That should halt the decomposition. It'll protect us from the stench too." Tsukiakari sighed.

"Jinbei was the farm head I met in Kameyama." Yachi said. "Sis sent me there to work out a deal with him. For food. He didn't know anything about our clan and couldn't give them any information. So they killed him. Soon, they won't be able to keep either of us alive. They'll kill us too."

"Don't say that, Yachi."

"It's true. That man...he's ill. He's been coughing blood ever since he captured me. He'll be dead soon too. He'll most likely kill us before he clocks out. If that happens, and it will, only one of us will be coming back from our graves, Gekko."

"You want me to kill him when I come back?"

"No. That's not what I want." Yachi said. "I wasn't able to get the actual shrub, but I got some Azalea seeds before I left Kameyama."

"Azalea seeds?"

"Remember? I originally wanted them as a gift for Chiya. I was so excited to see the look on her face when I brought home her favorite shrub. A beautiful gift of gratitude and sisterly love, for everything we've been through together since we left Kyoto. But now...I'm afraid they'll have to become a gift of parting."


"Listen to me, Gekko." Yachi commanded. "We're wasting valuable time. It can take you anywhere between a day and three weeks to wake up from your slumber whenever you reincarnate. We won't wait for them to kill you. We'll take that matter into our own hands. When you wake up, all I ask is that you retrieve those seeds and bring them back home. Plant them at the Senkumo memorial. For just one day, let the clan celebrate peace. That's my final wish."

Tsukiakari could barely look Yachi in her eyes. Her gaze was too piercing and tranquil, as if she had already made her peace. She had already accepted that this was the end of her.

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

Tsukiakari hesitated, desperately trying to draw together an alternative plan in her head. She couldn't come up with anything. Not a single thing. Yachi's plan was the best course of action. It made strategic use of Tsukiakari's reincarnation abilities, ensuring that neither Yachi herself nor Tsukiakari would have to suffer any longer than they needed to. Even after the Man in Black was dead, Tsukiakari would still have to worry about the two phantoms bringing some other old victim of the war from their graves. It was time to put the ghosts of the past to rest.

"I promise..." Tsukiakari cried, bowing her head.

A few more hours, or at least, what felt like it, passed them by. The Man in Black returned in the room with two guards, silently ordering them to take away Jinbei's frozen corpse. The Man in Black smiled as the guards hauled the hunk of death and ice up the stairs, impressed by Tsukiakari's obstinance.

"You froze the body? Not bad, war goddess."

"Whatever you're about to do to Yachi, do it to me instead. She can't take much more of this."

"No, Gekko." Yachi intervened. "I'll do it."

"I won't just sit by and watch them torture you anymore!" Tsukiakari protested.

"Since you care so much for Yachi's well-being, we'll start with her." laughed the Man in Black.

"No! You bastard!" Tsukiakari cursed.

Once again, the Man in Black dragged Yachi out of her cell to inflict more suffering upon her. He bound her to the reclining chair, then adjusted it to set her upside down. Taking hold of his hammer, he struck Yachi's stomach three times, each hit filling the room with her cries of pain.

"Last chance, you two. Where is your base?"

The girls gave him silence and nothing more. The Man in Black nodded, putting much more power than usual into the fourth strike on Yachi's stomach. It was then that Tsukiakari understood why he had hung her upside down. That fourth hit did irreparable damage to Yachi's stomach, forcing her to vomit what little she had that was sustaining her.

"Yachi!" Tsukiakari screamed, as if she felt the hit herself.

"It's...okay...Gekko..." Yachi murmured. "He can't hurt me."

She immediately received another blow of the hammer to her knee, turning her gentle words into screams of agony. Tsukiakari watched with tears blurring her vision. Each hit Yachi took felt like a direct kick to her heart. No matter how much pain Yachi endured, she refused to give up the lives of her comrades. After a while, the Man in Black changed course. He brought two guards into the room and set up the table in front of the cell again. Tsukiakari thought she knew what was coming next, but the guards opened up the cell and brought her out as well. They laid the crying Yachi down and held her writhing arms down to the table while Tsukiakari stood before her opened legs.

"Take her." the Man in Black said.

"...What?" Tsukiakari recoiled.

"I said take her. We've all had her already, but you're our guest of honor. You should be able to have some yourself."

"You...you god damned monster! I'm not doing that to her!" Tsukiakari roared, falling to her knees as she tried to charge at him. The guards stood her back up and forced her head close to Yachi's genitals.

"It's...it's okay, Gekko." Yachi whimpered.

"No, I'm not doing this!"

"Take her now or we'll kill her in front of you!" shouted one of the guards.

The Man in Black traced his finger along Yachi's lips, then dragged it down her chin, neck, and breasts before pressing his nail into her wounded stomach, drawing a pained groan from her.

"Perhaps you'd prefer it if I took her instead?" he laughed. "You'd best do as I say. If poor Yachi takes another hit to her stomach, I don't think she'll be able to accept any food we give her."

"Gekko...I love you...so it's okay..." Yachi sighed. "I love you."

Tsukiakari had her face shoved into Yachi's genitals, much to the amusement of the guards. Crying as she did it, the goddess was forced to perform cunnilingus on her suffering friend. It was beyond humiliating, worse than degrading. And that's exactly why they did it, to break their spirits so they'd be more likely to talk the next day. At the end of their torture, Tsukiakari and Yachi were left alone once again, with nothing but a bowl of cold, stale rice to share between them. The one day they were given something better than roaches and maggots to eat was the day neither of them had an appetite.

Tsukiakari sat in the corner of the cell, staring at the flickering light of the candles surrounding them. Yachi gazed at her silenced goddess the whole time, unable to find the words to sooth her after what happened. She inched herself a little closer to Tsukiakari, patting the floor next to her with her hand.

"Gekko. Come here." Yachi said.

"I can't." Tsukiakari shivered.


Unable to deny the sweet sound of her voice, Tsukiakari crawled over to Yachi, both of them sitting themselves up against the wall of the cell.

"Thank you." Yachi muttered.

"Thank you? For what?"

"For being here with me. I was about to lose heart before you showed up."

Tsukiakari scoffed. "But I couldn't get you out like I said I would."

"You will get me out of here." Yachi smiled. Tsukiakari immediately realized what she meant.


"At the foot of the memorial. I want to help the Azaleas grow." Yachi said.

The two sat in silence for a while, both of them thinking of everything that was going to happen next.

"Look at me, Gekko."

Tsukiakari held her head up and was taken aback by Yachi planting a kiss on her lips. "Yachi?"

"I meant what I said earlier, that it was okay. So don't feel bad, alright? You could never hurt me."

Yachi kissed Tsukiakari again, then pulled back. When she went in for a third kiss, Tsukiakari made sure to kiss back. Their lips met and parted as their tongues brushed up against each other. Yachi placed her hand around Tsukiakari's neck as she lied down, bringing the goddess down with her.

"I want to do it here." Yachi said. "Is that okay?"

Tsukiakari simply nodded before kissing her again, lightly squeezing her small breasts. She was careful to be gentle to Yachi, whose body was riddled with bruises and cuts, especially in her stomach area. Yachi's hand slithered past Tsukiakari's breasts and down to her genitals, which were already thoroughly wet. Yachi brought her fingers back and held them up to Tsukiakari, who gently sucked them clean before kissing Yachi again. Tsukiakari planted gentle kisses on Yachi's neck, moving down to her breasts. Though they were smaller than her own, Tsukiakari gave each breast a barrage of kisses, and each nipple a gentle sucking and slight pulling. Clearly sensitive in the area, Yachi let out a few suspirations of pleasure before trying to stifle her louder moans.

Tsukiakari dangled her breasts over Yachi's face for her to suck on as she pleased. It felt entirely differently than it did when Yachi fed from her breasts just to stay alive. The goddess's toes curled in pleasure. Fireworks went off in her chest as she sighed and moaned in response to Yachi's dutiful treatment of her nipples. Tsukiakari then crossed her right leg with Yachi's left, and her left with Yachi's right. The two interlocked their fingers together and tightly held hands as Tsukiakari gyrated her hips back and forth, rubbing her soaked genitals with Yachi's.

"Harder!" Yachi whispered into Tsukiakari ear.

Tsukiakari increased her force and speed, rendering the both of them too entranced to speak. Yachi soon joined Tsukiakari's rhythm and swayed her hips around, only making the act feel better for them both. Their moans filled the cage as their genitals soaked the other's inner thighs. Tsukiakari licked Yachi's cheek as she increased her speed further, losing herself in pleasure. Yachi threw her arms around Tsukiakari and held her closer, their moans getting sharper. Their breathy moans turned into animalistic grunts as they briefly increased their speed even further before jolting and jerking in each other's arms, climaxing together.

Tsukiakari kissed Yachi again before tightening her lips together, drenching her own fingers in a thick pool of saliva and inserting them into her own vagina. As wet as she was, she wanted it to be even wetter. Aiming for a second orgasm, Tsukiakari began chaotically thrusting her fingers in and out of her vagina. Yachi followed suit, borrowing the fluids stuck on Tsukiakari's thigh for extra moisture. The two girls lied beside each other, still holding hands as they masturbated together, Tsukiakari much more aggressively than Yachi. The goddess spit on her fingers once more, her genitals producing a loud, wet schlick as she violently rubbed her clitoris and labia. On the contrary, Yachi was a gentle masturbator that took more pleasure in watching Tsukiakari than she did anything else. She had never seen that side of her lord, the side that craved physical pleasure with such self-loving aggression and perversion.

Tsukiakari's moans grew louder as she scored her second orgasm first, quickly followed by Yachi. Yachi lied there shivering as Tsukiakari licked her own hand clean, then took Yachi's fingers and dutifully sucked them clean.

"Gekko...I love you."

Tsukiakari caressed Yachi's cheek, gazing into her glossy eyes before plating a gentle kiss on her lips.

"I love you too, Yachi."

Locked in each others embrace with their legs intertwined, the girls used each other for warmth that night, falling asleep remarkably soundly for two injured captives. After their consensual act of love, Tsukiakari felt absolved of her earlier violation of Yachi's body. Whether or not that was Yachi's intent by choosing to have sex then and there of their own volition, the war goddess did not know.

break Room / Re: Anime community is acting weird on YouTube
« on: April 12, 2019, 12:32:24 AM »
I'm not really following the whole Vic thing (though I find the battle between the two sides hilarious).

Localizers here are garbage. Not every line of dialogue has to be a direct translation from the original (not that that's even possible if we're translating from Japanese), but there are some really stupid examples of otherwise normal lines being swapped with out of place pop culture references and politically charged language. This is particularly upsetting because the work they're translating isn't theirs to change like that. I get that part of the localization process is to make foreign material more culturally digestible for international audiences, but I don't really feel this way about anime. I like having my kanji jokes and my references to old NHK shows, and other distinctly Japanese things that make me scratch my head. Taking that away makes people feel like you've robbed them of a chance to experience and participate in a different culture.

There are far worse examples in gaming though. Certain Japanese titles have had entire mechanics removed in the U.S. versions based on the strangely puritan whims of the localizer. That's on top of strange dialogue swapping, outfits being changed, names being changed for no reason, already censored scenes being censored even further despite aligning with ESRB standards regardless, etc. That one Fire Emblem game was royally botched by incompetent localization and unnecessary changes.

Well, we are in the midst of a culture war, whether you want to accept that fact or not. Different factions want control of different mediums and expressions of culture. Things like video games and anime get caught in the crossfire everyday.

I just want my anime tiddies and for my dialogue to not get the Ghost Stories treatment for no reason.

PS: The anime community is trash and the anime YT critics like Digibro are cancer incarnate. There, I said it.

And Then Came The Darkness
The purl of the Katsura River's tainted, fetid waters were stifled by the dozens of bodies washed along the riverbank. The colossal blood moon watched over the corpses like a heavenly eye, haunting the night sky with its eldritch light. The cadavers were colored anywhere between a pallid gray and a putrid, greenish-black, their decomposition hastened from being submerged for so long. Crows hung their cacophonous caws in the air, gathering like worshipers at mass to feast upon the bloated bellies and pungent rot offered to them by the corpses of the villagers. Flies and maggots attended as well, accepting their place as bottom feeders to the crows. Men, women, and children lied together in a repulsive display of death and decay, the night breeze lifting their stench up towards the hills. The hills that should've been ice capped in that season had their ice melted, the runoff causing the river to overflow and reject the bodies upon its banks. A flickering orange light sat atop the hill, centering itself in front of the blood moon. The light vanished, reappearing upon the riverbank in an instant as the Phantom Maiden.

Her fiery entrance scared away the flock of crows and flies, scattering them into the night. She levitated over the bodies, her ashen hair slowly igniting into gentle flames. After a few minutes, the phantom closed in on one particular corpse. The corpse of a man marred by burn scars and deathly pallor, his soul yet to depart from the earth. Flames enwreathed the body, but they did not eat away at his rotten flesh. His dead fingers twitched and his motionless heart began to beat once more. His eyes opened as he drew breath into his mouth. Slowly, he arose from his watery, mass grave as a man brought back from death's clutches. His first sight of the world since his death was that accursed blood moon in the sky. He stared into its scarlet light and it stared right back at him. Remembering all that had happened, he wept amidst the corpses, falling to his knees in wordless agony.

Tsukiakari saw all of this in her slumber as if she was living the moment herself. The vision was quickly shattered as she suddenly awoke, her vision a blur. Her naked body was riddled in goosebumps from the cold, stone ground she lied upon. The odor of dried blood invaded her nostrils as her vision slowly clarified. She realized she was trapped in a cell, much like the ones she found at Inari's shrine. Her fiery horn was drawn from her head, alerting her to the Phantom Maiden, who stood at the cell door watching her. Just as quickly as Tsukiakari laid eyes on her, the phantom vanished into smoke, making way for the Man in Black.

The room had a similar set up to the one found at Inari's shrine, complete with a reclining chair stained with blood.

"Welcome back to the waking world, war goddess."

Tsukiakari suddenly felt a dull pain in her ankles and was unable to move her feet. She took a gander, seeing the flat ends of large nails sticking out from her ankles. Nails had been driven into them while she was unconscious, making the mere act of standing up impossible. The Man in Black walked away, leaving Tsukiakari alone. Or at least, that's what she thought before turned her body around as if she were tossing in bed. Sitting against the wall with widened eyes was Yachi Otonougi, naked, bloodied, and riddled with countless scars. Her body was almost entirely black, blue, and dark red. Seeing her again, Tsukiakari crawled over to her, throwing her arms around the frightened, but relieved Yachi.

"Yachi! I found you! I finally found you!" Tsukiakari cried, clutching Yachi tightly to her breasts.

Yachi could barely do much else than sob Tsukiakari's nickname. "Gekko! Gekko!"

"It's okay now, Yachi." Tsukiakari said, stroking Yachi's hair. "I'll get you out of here, okay? I'll bring you home to your sister."

Yachi simply shook her head, still unable to speak. Tsukiakari laid her hands upon Yachi's cheeks, looking into her eyes. Yachi's face was stained with tears of relief and sorrow, tears that Tsukiakari could do nothing to stop.

"It's okay, Yachi." Tsukiakari said, kissing her forehead. "We'll get out of here somehow."

Tsukiakari noticed that none of Yachi's fingers had any fingernails on them, only the exposed nail beds underneath. Though Yachi kept her head bowed, she also noticed that some of her teeth were missing, the swelling around her cheeks indicating they were pulled forcefully. Overall, Yachi appeared to have a significant amount of weight. Her arms and thighs had gotten thinner, and her cheekbones were more pronounced than usual.

"They're not feeding you?" Tsukiakari asked, getting a simple shake of the head from Yachi.

There was nothing Yachi could possibly eat in that bloodied mess of a cell. Yachi held her hand over her grumbling, aching stomach, in desperate need of nutrition. If she didn't have something, she'd be dead in a few days if her luck was good. Tsukiakari sighed to clear her mind, looking down at her own breasts.

"Yachi. My breasts. I'll feed you."

Yachi recoiled, uttering her first real words since Tsukiakari joined her in captivity. "I can't..."

"You're malnourished. If you don't have something, you're going to die." Tsukiakari said bluntly.

Left with no other option, Tsukiakari leaned back against the cell bars, massaging her breasts until she drew milk from her left nipple.

"Forgive me." Yachi whispered.

"It's alright. Anything to keep you alive." Tsukiakari nodded.

While Yachi fed from her left breast, Tsukiakari hopelessly tried to plan an escape. The thing is, with her feet rendered immobile and Yachi nearly starved to death, escape was a profound impossibility. At most, Tsukiakari knew she'd have a chance at using her elemental powers to free themselves from their cell. But after that, they were as good as buried. Either the Man in Black or his phantoms would catch up with them easily. Without a blade, neither Tsukiakari nor Yachi could properly defend themselves. After a few hours alone in their damp, quiet cell, the two girls drifted off to sleep, their bodies trying to preserve as much energy as possible.

Their brief respite was quickly disturbed by loud banging against the cell bars. The Man in Black had returned. He knelt down as the two girls scurried to the opposite end of the cell, trying to keep as much distance as possible away from him. Before he could speak, he was ravaged by a fit of wet coughs. He spit out blood into the cell, taking a moment to recover his breath before speaking.

"Enjoying your stay?" he asked.

"Piss off." Tsukiakari hissed.

"Thinking about escaping, war goddess? We're situated on a steep hill. The air is thin, and this winter is especially cold. Even if you did manage to get out of here in your incapacitated state, you'd be unable to descend the hill without killing yourselves. Let's say you do somehow manage to descend safely. You still have a retinue of Ashikaga troops to get through. Think you'd make it through them with Yachi in tow? But maybe...you'll get lucky. Really lucky. Not that either of you look all that lucky. But if you were, maybe you'd be able to bypass the guards and make your escape. I can see you living through this, Tsukiakari, but Yachi? With her injuries and lack of nutrition, she'd be fortunate if she lasted a day outside. No one would be willing to treat her, considering she belongs to the Senkumo clan. And as far as I know, you're a long way from home. She has no hope of surviving this. Not without my help."

"What do you want?" Tsukiakari asked, holding the shivering Yachi to her breasts.

"It's simple. Give me the location of the Senkumo base. Do that, and I'll arrange for you both to receive treatment."

"You want me to sell out my clan? My worshipers?"

"Don't tell him anything, Gekko." Yachi whispered with her dry throat. "Not a word."

"I see you're still persistent, Yachi." the Man in Black chuckled. "But what about you, Tsukiakari? Aren't you willing to do anything for your comrades?"

"If I give you the base, I would've betrayed Yachi just as much as I would've betrayed the rest of my clan. I'm not telling you anything."

"I had a feeling you'd both refuse my offer. That's fine." said the Man in Black, standing up. "As you wish, we'll do this the hard way. Prepare yourselves."

He flung open the cell gate and tore the screaming Yachi out of Tsukiakari's embrace. Tsukiakari caught hold of her hand, but Yachi was far too weak to grip it. The Man in Black delivered a swift kick into Tsukiakari's eye, knocking her away. He shut the cell gate and continued dragging Yachi by her hair as she reached out for Tsukiakari.

"Please! No more! No more! No!" Yachi sobbed.

"Don't you touch a hair on her *censored*ing head!" Tsukiakari roared.

"Or what?" challenged the Man in Black.

He stood Yachi up and locked her wrists in a pair of dangling handcuffs hanging from the ceiling, just beyond the reclining seat.

"Gekko..." Yachi helplessly cried.

"Stop! Please, she has nothing to do with this! I'm the one you hate, aren't I?" Tsukiakari begged.

"Give me the location of your base, Tsukiakari!"

"I can't do that!"

Just as quickly as he received his answer, the Man in Black took a metal hammer from the reclining seat, slamming it into Yachi's stomach. Then came another blow, forcing a cry of agony out of Yachi. He kept hitting her in her stomach over and over again, each blow making Tsukiakari cringe more than the last. Her hands wrapped around the cell bars so tightly she thought she would snap them in half.

"Talk! I want a location!"

"Don't...say anything, Gekko! Don't talk!" Yachi pleaded.

"Why do you want a location when you have me? Just let Yachi go and torture me instead!" insisted Tsukiakari.

"It's not enough if it's just you, war goddess. You and the rest of your clan should all perish. But as I said, I'm more interested in wiping out your base than anything else. Cutting off the head of the snake is the most efficient thing to do."

He then struck Yachi's ribs with the hammer four times on her right side, then four times on her left side. Yachi's feet dangled above the ground as she flailed her unbound limbs in agony. Being suspended by her arms, it felt as though they were slowly being pulled out of their sockets the longer she hung there.

"Let's try something else. Neither of you seem willing to talk."

He stuck in index finger and thumb into his mouth, summoning two Ashikaga guards with a sharp whistle. They flung open the door to the room and closed it behind them, putting their spears off to the side. Their red cloaks were covered in white chunks of unmelted snow and their boots left watery imprints on the squeaky, wooden floors. The Man in Black set up a table right in front of Tsukiakari's cell as the guards unchained Yachi from the ceiling. The war goddess's eyes rapidly darted between the guards and the Man in Black, sensing things were only going to get worse.

"What are you doing? What the hell are you going to do to her?!" Tsukiakari shouted.

"You can still stop this, war goddess. Give me a location, and you both walk."

The guards dragged Yachi over to the table by her sore arms, her knees dragging across the floor. They plopped her on the table on her backside, the wooden legs creaking under the force of her landing. One of the guards held down her frail arms while the other undid the crotch of his pants and forced her legs open.

"No...no! Don't do this! I'm begging you, just leave her alone!" Tsukiakari wept, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Yachi!"

"Gekko! Don't tell them anything!" Yachi screamed.

"Give me a god damned location!" demanded the Man in Black.

Yachi fought back with all her might, but the men kept her pinned on the table with no hope of escape. Her defiant screams turned into horrified wails as the guard proceeded to pry her legs open and rape her, all for the obstinate war goddess to watch. Tsukiakari fell to her knees, sobbing so hard that hardly any of her cries escaped from her burning throat. The Man in Black had rendered her completely and utterly powerless.

The girls raced down the steps of the mountain with all haste, noticing a disturbing lack of people in the shrine along the way. It was as if everyone just disappeared. Taeko noticed belongings were dropped on the ground, such as talismans, personal bags, and ema plaques. The dying ring of the echo led the girls towards the shrine's honden, a sacred building that the general public is never allowed to access. Knowing this, Taeko and Tsukiakari stopped dead in their tracks as they approached the honden, knowing that it was the building in which deities were enshrined.

"Oh now's not the time, guys! Just come in!" Inari urged.

Inari flung open the doors to the dark building, closing the door behind Taeko, who was the last to enter.

"Gods, please forgive our trespassing." Taeko prayed.

The inside of the honden was alight with dozens upon dozens of candles lined around five statues in the center of the main room. The statues depicted five ancient deities, long forgotten by their people, lying on flat beds. Their eyes were closed and their hands sat on top of their stomachs, their fingers intertwined. Figuring they must've faded into nothing from lack of prayer, Tsukiakari knew the statues served as the resting places for their spirits. Such was the fate of forgotten gods. It was no wonder that the gods alive now would do anything to maintain their base of worship.

The three looked around, but saw no trace of Yachi anywhere. Taeko noticed a section of the floor sinking a bit under the pressure of her right foot, her heart racing with anticipation.

"Gekko! There's something under the floor here!"

Tsukiakari and Inari rushed to Taeko's position, moving some of the lit candles out of the way.

"A basement? In the honden?" Inari questioned.

Taeko flung the trapdoor open, immediately filling the honden with the fetid stench of blood and excrement. If Yachi was down there, the smell alone was already a bad sign. The girls were forced to cover their noses just to stop themselves from vomiting. Tsukiakari descended the ladder, her sandals splashing in a small puddle of blood. The basement amounted to a short hallway of sorts, appropriated into a dungeon. The hall connected to an antechamber that led nowhere. The wall to the right was lined by three jail cells, each one partitioned by rows of steel bars. In the center of the antechamber, there was a single, reclining chair stained with copious amounts of blood. Two hand cuffs swung side to side right above the seat, dangling from the ceiling. The entire antechamber floor was covered in lit candles that did nothing to combat the rotten smell trapped inside the basement.

Taeko descended the ladder as well, investigating the antechamber while Tsukiakari checked the cells. There was no sign of Yachi anywhere. Taeko spotted a small, blood-filled bowl by the reclining chair, picking out a disgusting, yet peculiar item.

"Human teeth and nails..." Taeko observed aloud, holding up a tooth. "It was ripped from someone's mouth. Is it Yachi's?"

One cell in particular had the most blood settled in it. There was fresher blood layered on top of darker, stickier, congealed blood. Whoever was held there was routinely taken out and put back in, probably to be tortured at the reclining seat. Sitting on the bloodied, wooden floor was Yachi's black choker.

Tsukiakari knelt down, picking up the choker. "This is Yachi's. She was here, and recently."

Inari called down from above. "Taeko, your men came back!"

Tsukiakari hurriedly stuffed Yachi's choker in her pocket, rushing up the ladder ahead of Taeko. The men returned alright, bent over and trying to catch their breath. They rushed over in a hurry just like the girls did.

"Ma'am, we've got company! The Ashikaga know we're here!" one of the men exclaimed.

Suddenly, a thunderous voice roared from outside the honden. "Tsukiakari Senkumo! Come out, coward!"

Taeko and Tsukiakari cautiously tiptoed towards the two small windows at the side of the building, peering out from the white, cloth curtains as their men drew their weapons in preparation for a fight. Dozens of Ashikaga troops stood surrounding the side of the honden, their spears lowered. Pushing through the center of the semi-circle of soldiers was a man donned in bright, gaudy armor of red and gold, distinguishing him from the black-clad foot soldiers surrounding him. Eight tall soldiers wearing similar armor without the gold trim accompanied him. Four stood off to his left, the other four to his right. The man, obviously charged with confidence, removed his helmet and tossed it back to one of his guards to catch.

The rain began as a drizzle, then quickly grew heavier as the fancily armored warrior stepped forward. He bore a head of short, black hair and a cleanly shaven face. Even beneath his armor, Tsukiakari could tell he had the physical build of a grizzly bear, massive in his stature and just a bit fat. His very steps almost seemed to shake and rattle the shrine grounds.

"I know you're in there, Tsukiakari! Why don't you come out! Face me, you coward!" he shouted, as thunder boomed in the sky.

Tsukiakari paid close attention to the family crest painted on his breastplate, recognizing the diamond and cross symbol very well.

"He's from the Ouchi clan." Tsukiakari groaned.

"Same bastards that killed Mayumi?" Taeko growled, receiving a nod from Tsukiakari.

"I am Ouchi Yoshioki, Kyoto-born Lord of Suo and head of the Ouchi clan! You will face me here and now, you wretch! Come out!"

"What's the plan, Gekko?" Taeko asked. "We can't let this guy waste our time. Yachi's life depends on it."

Tsukiakari squeezed the curtains in her right hand as she took a moment to think. She peered out of the window again, focusing on Yoshioki. "Stop your barking! I'm here, you dog!"

The Ashikaga troops gasped in surprise as Yoshioki chuckled to himself, pacing back and forth.

"You really are back from the grave!" Yoshioki sang. "You have a lot of Ouchi corpses to answer for, war goddess! Come and face your execution!"

"Only a fool gambles his soul on revenge, Yoshioki! If you were a wise man, you'd march your men off of sacred ground, live to fight another day!" Tsukiakari shouted.

"And if you were a wise woman, you'd come out right now!"

Yoshioki raised his left hand, signaling his bodyguards to draw their blades from their sheaths. In response, Taeko and Tsukiakari pushed the handles of their swords with their thumbs, popping the blades into the reach of their right hands. Taeko's men braced themselves, wiping the glistening sweat off of their foreheads. The Ashikaga foot soldiers began to shake in their boots, their teeth chattering in the rain as their wobbling hands struggled to keep tight grips on their spears.

"You're making a mistake, Yoshioki! You've heard the stories! You know what I can do!" Tsukiakari screamed.

"Indeed I do! And I know what you can't do! If little Yoshihisa was able to kill you, I can do it too!"

Taeko's grip around the hilt of her blade tightened in rage. "Gekko, you have to let me face this guy."

Yoshioki paced back and forth, visibly growing more and more anxious. "If me and my men need to storm the honden and pull you out of there ourselves, then so be it!"

"Gekko!" Taeko growled, her anger boiling over.

Tsukiakari nodded. "Go."

To the Ashikaga's surprise, the honden doors bursted open, making way for the seething, impetuous Taeko. Her long, raven hair was wetted by the pelting rain as she stood like a statue before dozens of enemy soldiers. Initially stunned by her brazenness, the silent Ashikaga troops filled the air with a barrage of laughter. The right hand of Tsukiakari Senkumo, said to be just as fierce as the war goddess herself, stood before them bearing the scars of war, deprived of her beloved clan and left with only one eye.

Yoshioki eye's dashed first towards his troops, then at Taeko. "I asked for a war goddess. I don't recall asking for the Senkumo clan's used goods."

Taeko pulled her sword from its sheathe. "Your clan killed someone very dear to my heart. I won't stomach any more of your insults."

"You're challenging me?" Yoshioki asked.

"Yes. Not as a Senkumo, but as Taeko Akiyama, daughter of a proud and righteous warrior, sister to a kindhearted orphan, and friend to a fierce and loving goddess. I challenge you as a woman who has known nothing but war and misery her entire life, who has buried more friends than she can even count. I challenge you as a former commander that loved her soldiers more than she ever loved herself. I, Taeko Akiyama, challenge you to lay down both your sword and your hatred."

Taeko threw her blade to the rain-soaked ground, wiping the entertained smiles off the faces of Yoshioki and his troops. Tsukiakari, Inari, and Taeko's men watched with their eyes widened with shock.

"This city has seen enough suffering." Taeko began. "It's seen enough widowed wives and childless mothers. It's seen enough good men die for nothing. Maybe my younger self would've fought you here and now, but after seeing all I've seen, I just don't have it in me anymore. This is where my mother gave me my name, and where my father met his end like a true warrior. I will not contribute to the bloodshed plaguing my home. Our home. You were born here too. I reckon all of you were. Hell, most of you picked up the sword for the same reason I did. You all lost something, and you told yourselves you would never lose anything again. You all had lovers and friends that lost their lives here. Even as your enemy, I recognize that. Even as someone who lost friends to your clans, I respect that. So, in honor of all of those people we both had to bury, at least for this one day, I'm putting down my sword. I'm looking sweet revenge in the eye and telling it to find another fool."

Taeko didn't move a muscle, and neither did Yoshioki. The two of them stood like unwavering walls in the rain, their eyes dead set on each other.

"Gekko and I are only here to save a friend's life, a friend that was kidnapped and tortured on these shrine grounds. Our enemy is the man who took her, knowing full-well that she had nothing to do with his grudge with Gekko and I. Her sister is sitting at home, deathly scared that she's going to lose the only family she has left. As a former comrade, and as someone who knows the pain of losing a sister, I can't let that happen."

Yoshioki's chest bounced back and forth as he erupted in boisterous laughter, applauding Taeko for the entertainment. "Sounds to me like you're all getting what's coming to you, at long last."

"Did you hear a word I said?" Taeko shouted. "Our friend has gone missing!"

"And I hope that she dies slowly and painfully, Taeko, otherwise I'd feel as if I sat through that sob story for nothing." Yoshioki groaned. "You're right. We've both lost that which was precious to us. We've both found solace in our swords and courage in our armor. I too respect your suffering. However, you cannot expect to find mercy in those you were merciless to. The world just doesn't work like that. Now, pick your sword."

Taeko's fists clenched until her nails drew blood from her palm. "No."

"Pick it up, I said! Now!" Yoshioki roared, pointing his blade at Taeko.

Suddenly, the voice of an intruder interrupted their argument. "My oh my, Yoshioki. I don't think I've ever quite seen you so angry before. You're practically burning up."

The intruder was the Man in Black, who materialized out from under the honden's shadow like a dark specter, appearing behind Taeko. He held onto his black hat with one hand, preventing the wind and rain from blowing it off of his head. Taeko slowly backed away as if she were retreating from a bloodthirsty, flesh-eating beast.

"You." Yoshioki growled. "Orphan of the Katsura River."

"What's the matter, Yoshioki? You look like you've seen a ghost? Are you that surprised to see me again?" teased the Man in Black.

"What the hell is going on, Yoshioki?" Taeko asked. "How do you know this prick?"

The Man in Black slowly stepped forward, driving everyone backwards. "I've come to take back what's mine, Yoshioki. You took a family heirloom that was passed down to my sister. Give it back."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." Yoshioki scoffed.

"Noriko's ring. I know you have it."

"Noriko was a traitor to the shogun, as was your entire village!" Yoshioki howled. "An onyx ring was all I asked for in recompense."

The Man in Black turned his head towards Taeko, chuckling softly. "So you're Taeko Senkumo. Perhaps you recall your men being ambushed on a road close to the village you destroyed. I'm sure you looked at the damage inflicted upon your troops and ascertained that whoever attacked you couldn't have been from our village. The attackers weren't a ragtag militia, but a well-trained force using effective weaponry. It was this man that suspected my village of aiding Ashikaga operations. He reported as much to his Ashikaga owners, and Yoshihisa responded by orchestrating a false-flag attack. It was revenge for Masachika Togashi, and the perfect excuse to attempt to crush the Senkumo clan. But he didn't expect Tsukiakari to sally out right away, nor did Tsukiakari expect to actually die to his men."

Tsukiakari and the other remained hidden inside, unsure of whether she could even trust that his revelation was the truth. But one name he mentioned did chill her down to her bones. Noriko. This mysterious, phantom of a man was Noriko's brother.

"And how would you know the thoughts and motivations of a dead man?" Taeko asked.

"He told me himself, of course." replied the Man in Black.

"Corpses can't speak, you grave-robbing bastard." Yoshioki rebuked.

A devious smirk carved itself onto the mysterious man's face. "Yoshioki, please. Be civilized about this."

"I don't have the ring. The damned thing was haunted after your village was destroyed. I went back to the ruins and threw it down the well." Yoshioki explained.

"As I thought. You were too weak to bear its burden. Serves you right for stealing from us. " the Man in Black said , returning his gaze towards Taeko. "As for you, you can burn along with them."

A swathe of flames suddenly enveloped one of the Ashikaga troops. The surrounding guards scuttled back in fear as the Phantom Soldier materialized from the flames, impaling the spearman with a flame-wrapped nodachi. He swung his fiery blade, flinging the spearman's burning corpse at Taeko's feet. He continued on a rampage of the surrounding Ashikaga guards, slashing them with his hellish nodachi, each cut reducing their flesh and armor to cinders and ash. Yoshioki's bodyguards escorted their lord away from the ensuing chaos, disappearing down the hill as Tsukiakari, Inari, and Taeko's men emerged from the honden.

Spotting them, the Man in Black raised his arms as if he were welcoming some honored guests. "We meet again, Tsukiakari."

"Where did you take her? Where's Yachi?" Tsukiakari interrogated.

"It's as I told you before. I won't let you find her before you earn another one of these." said the Man in Black, knocking his index finger against his forehead. "You were smart to use the pond. I didn't expect you to figure out the connection to this shrine so quickly."

Blood leaked out of the ever-increasing corpses strewn around the Phantom Soldier, the fire dancing around his body reflecting off of the surfaces of the scarlet puddles. The puddles rippled as the Phantom Maiden's head of ashen hair arose from the blood, followed by her shadowy face and tattered kimono. She levitated out of the blood without it staining a single part of her, floating towards the Man in Black. Seizing the moment, Taeko and Tsukiakari rushed towards him with their blades drawn, aiming to incapacitate and capture him. In an instant, the Phantom Soldier vanished behind a veil of flames, reappearing in front of the Man in Black just before the two girls could lay a finger on him. The fiery hulk of flaming flesh and armor kicked Taeko away with his right foot while seizing Tsukiakari by her throat, slowly choking the strength out of her body.

Taeko's men wasted no time drawing their bows and firing off a volley of arrows at the Phantom Soldier, but the arrows dissolved into specs of ash before they hit their target. The Phantom Maiden levitated forward, presenting herself as the culprit of the negated attacks. Her ashen hair was set alight by flame, becoming a wicked conflagration twisting and dancing upon her head. A ring of raging fire surrounded her, the soldier, and the Man in Black, protecting them from any further attacks.

Taeko slowly stood herself up, hardly able to draw breath into her lungs after receiving the kick that propelled her back towards the honden. Helpless in combat, Inari could do nothing to save Tsukiakari. His horn drawn from his forehead, the Man in Black sauntered towards the choking Tsukiakari, laughing as he removed his black hat.

His gaze crawled over the war goddess, then the Phantom Soldier. "Nostalgic, isn't it? I must ask that you don't kill her, however. We're taking her. We'll see if she doesn't give in by then."

The Phantom Soldier reluctantly loosened his grip around Tsukiakari's neck as she passed out. He released her body, allowing the Phantom Maiden to levitate it off the ground. The ring of fire extinguished itself, shrouding the four of them in white smoke. Taeko ran through the smoke with her blade in hand, her other hand cradling her throbbing stomach. As the smoke parted and lifted into the wind, Taeko found that all four of them were already gone.

Realizing Tsukiakari had been captured, Taeko fell to her knees with her hand slapped across her mouth. The very realization alone nearly made her sick enough to vomit.

Inari's hands shivered beneath her robes. "She's...she's gone..."

Within an hour, Tsukiakari and the others had the city of Kyoto in their sights. They stopped for a brief rest in the grove overlooking the city, having avoided being seen on the main roads. Thick, dark clouds began to roll their way through the sky, slowly obscuring the sun's radiant light. The city seemed to be in a restored state, a far cry from its decimation during the Onin War where so many warriors got their start. The sight of the place alone held both pleasant and troubling memories for Tsukiakari and the rest of them. That accursed city was the birthplace of the war consuming the country. It was a playground of avaricious lords and a graveyard of nameless innocents. See the city again was like looking into the eyes of an ex-lover.

"Smell that?" Taeko asked. "Petrichor."

"Our rain-scented city of phantoms." Tsukiakari sneered. "It was raining when we first set foot in the city as Senkumo, too. They really cleaned up the place."

"My shrine isn't far from here. I can get us there without being seen." Inari said.

"Please lead the way, Inari." Tsukiakari said.

Hitching their horses just outside the city, Inari led the group through the ragged, impoverished outskirts of Kyoto, then through the twisting, turning alleyways of the heart of the city. Wagons and carriages cluttered the main streets, filling the air with the creak of worn out, wooden wheels mixed with the deafening prattle of pedestrians. Homeless men slept on dirty curbs like emaciated corpses, while impoverished women tucked themselves out of the public eye, curling up in the same alleyways the girls traversed through. The earthy perfume of petrichor intertwined with the aroma of cooked rice, fish, and vegetables as the girls cut through the alleyways, slinking and slithering their way towards Fushimi Inari Taisha, Inari's grand shrine.

"We're not far now." Inari said.

"Listen, it's best we split up." Taeko recommended, halting everyone's march. "Boys, be on your best behavior. Keep your blades hidden and don't draw any attention. Just pretend you're taking a casual walk around Mount Inari. Search the shrine at the base of the mountain. Gekko, Inari, and I will ascend and search the top. Once we can confirm the shrine grounds aren't being used to hold Yachi, we can search around the shrine itself."

The men gave affirmative bows and went on ahead of the girls.

"Tsukiakari, I'm sorry." Inari suddenly apologized. "You were right about what you said back in Kameyama. I treasured my shrine's reputation above the safety of your comrade. I feel sickened by that."

Tsukiakari's eyebrows shot upwards in surprise, but she then smiled and patted Inari's head and scratched between her hidden, fox ears.

"It's water under the bridge, alright? Don't worry about it. Let's just find Yachi and bring her home." Tsukiakari said, her head-patting earning stifled squeals of pleasure from Inari.

As Taeko was about to press forward, she was suddenly grabbed by her wrist. One of the women sitting alone in the alleyway had taken hold of her. She stood from her curled position, the blanket around her shoulders falling to the ground. She couldn't have been out of her twenties yet, she looked so young. Her dirty skin was smooth and radiant, while her hair was voluminous and dark brown.

"Please...can you spare any money?" the woman asked.

"Sorry. I don't have any on me." Taeko bluntly responded.

"I'll do anything, miss. Please..."

Taeko stole a glance at Tsukiakari and Inari before returning her gaze to the young beggar before her.

"So you're the kind of woman who will do anything? Let's put that to the test." Taeko sneered.

Inari's jaw nearly dropped to the floor as Taeko loosened the white obi around her kimono and parted the cloth wrapped around her crotch, exposing her vagina to the young woman.

"Pleasure me. Right here. I'll give you money if you do it." Taeko said, a fierce look in her eyes.

"Taeko!" Tsukiakari whispered.

The young woman was petrified. She looked like she had barely spent a night with the opposite sex, let alone another woman.

"Go on." Taeko encouraged. "You've got a cute face, pretty lips, and a nice tongue in your mouth. Use them and earn your keep, since you'll do anything. I'll double your pay if you make me orgasm."

The woman backed away, unsure if Taeko was being serious or just playing her for kicks. The answer, at least to Tsukiakari, was obvious. Taeko covered herself up after making her point.

"Don't say you'll do anything if you don't have it in you." Taeko chided, taking the woman's hand and helping her stand up straight. "Get yourself out of the dirt and go out on the main street. I saw several people out there in charge of wagons and stalls that can use some helping hands. Ask if they'll hire you. If that doesn't work, go to Fushimi Inari shrine. You can help maintain the grounds there."

Nearly speechless, the young woman mustered up words of gratitude as Taeko walked away. "T-thank you! I mean it! Thank you!"

Taeko simply held her hand in the air and gave the woman a thumbs-up, continuing on her way with Tsukiakari and Inari.

"You have strange methods, but you really are kindhearted, Taeko." Inari praised.

"What were you going to do if she actually agreed to...you know...pleasure you?" Tsukiakari asked, terrified of the answer.

"Huh? Nothing, really. I would've let her do it and paid her as I promised. But I knew she wouldn't. She's not like us, Gekko. She lacks that darkness in her eyes. I wanted to show her that. Besides, people who lack the resolve to actually do anything make me sick."

After a short while, the three stood before the massive, red torii gate entrance of Fushimi Inari shrine. An impossibly thick shimenawa rope hung from the torii gate, wrapped around the upper ends of the gate's pillar and festooned with shide, zig-zag paper streamers. A white romon gate, outlined with bright red support beams running through the second story, and pillars of a faded crimson color at the base of the gate, stood ahead. Furhter along, visible through the arch of the romon gate were the worship hall and main shrine, both retaining the red and white aesthetic of the entrance and similarly marked with shimenawa and shide paper. Many different people from all walks of life, rich and poor, enjoyed themselves as they sauntered through the shrine grounds, stopped at the office to purchase talismans bearing Inari's name written in kanji. Smiles adorned the bright faces of the shrine maidens, all of them dressed in their traditional white robes and bright red skirts.

Calm and serenity overcame Tsukiakari and Taeko almost instantly. Fushimi Inari seemed like a perfectly preserved slice of the country's former peace and stability. One could get lost in the aesthetic of the petrichor-scented shrine grounds, the fleeting snow melting off of the hip-and-gable roofs of each building, or the uphill path of thousands of red torii gates behind the main shrine. Inari's shrine was nothing short of magnificent, eclipsing the shrines of other major gods that were much older than her. It was all a testament to how much the people loved her.

"Inari, you know the way around this place better than us. Where should we start?" Tsukiakari asked, shaking off her initial astonishment.

"Let's ascend through the worship area and go through the path of a thousand gates." Inari instructed, pointing in the direction of the path. "We'll go up to Shin-ike Pond. The pond might actually help us locate Yachi."

Taeko snapped her fingers in remembrance. "That's right! I remember being told about this legend when I was a kid."

"Legend?" Tsukiakari asked, completely out of the loop.

"It's said that if you're searching for someone who is lost, you can go to Shin-ike Pond and clap. The clap will echo from the direction where you can find that person." Taeko explained.

"Huh? Inari, is that true?" Tsukiakari excitedly asked.

"Well, like I said back in Kameyama, people have gone missing around this shrine before. I used this pond to try and locate them, and my foxes would go and guide them back onto the path. Not all of them were ever found, however. I can't promise you that the pond will definitely help us locate Yachi."

Tsukiakari sighed. "Well, a coin toss is still better than being completely clueless. Looking at this place now, I don't think they'd keep Yachi directly on the shrine grounds. The Man in Black had those two phantoms helping him. All of these torii gates and shimenawa would act as repellants to evil spirits, though. They wouldn't be able to follow him here."

"There's a lot of things those three shouldn't be able to do, like not being dead." Taeko chided. "Let's not underestimate this guy. Inari, lead us."

"Got it." Inari nodded.

Inari lead the way through the romon gate and around the worship hall, noticing that Taeko had suddenly come to a stop as they passed by the office selling talismans. Once Inari stopped, Tsukiakari came to a halt as well, looking back at the tranced Taeko. Taeko's eyes froze upon the talismans bearing Inari's name, her hair fluttering about in the winter breeze.

"Taeko?" Tsukiakari called out.

"Oh, sorry. Just taking a look."

The three continued on their way, marching past the crowd of Kyoto citizens offering their prayers in the main hall. The wind coiled around the base of the mountain, pulling their hair past their left shoulders. Tsukiakari brushed her fluttering, raven hair aside as she surveyed the many worshipers present. Some wore fine, pristine robes as symbols of their great wealth, while others sauntered around in their dirty, worn out clothes that they probably wore everyday. Children walked along with their mothers and fathers, but some only had one parent with them. Many of them were young, but others had been grayed and wrinkled by time. It seemed that no matter where someone came from, no matter what their circumstances were, they all sought Inari's protection and blessings.

This time, Tsukiakari was the one who stopped, halting their mach.

"See something you like, Gekko?" Taeko asked.

Tsukiakari smiled. "No, no. Just...kind of got reminded of home, I guess. Sorry for holding you up."

"We're coming up on the thousand torii gates right now. I hope your legs are up for the challenge. It's a half-hour walk up to the top." Inari warned.

"Uphill?" Taeko asked, clearly looking a little terrified.

"Yeah. Why?" Inari questioned.

"No reason. It's just...heights make me a little nervous."

Tsukiakari could hardly hold her jaw in place. "What? Taeko, are you scared of heights?"

"No, I said they made me a little nervous! Don't twist my words."

Inari hid her giggle behind the sleeve of her robe. "We can hold hands if you'd like, Taeko."

"I'm not a child. Let's just get going, already." Taeko pouted, much to the amusement of the two goddesses.

The path of a thousand torii gates was quite literally that. Torii gates almost completely covered the path of steps leading up to the top of Mount Inari. If one torii gate was supposed to be able to ward off evil spirits, Taeko and Tsukiakari could only imagine what thousands of them could do. As they walked, the seemingly excessive amounts of torii gates gave them a further sense of calm and security, especially since they were walking right by Inari's side.

"I have to ask, Inari. Why so many gates?" Tsukiakari questioned.

"Well, these gates were actually donated by various worshipers. It's so they can receive blessings and good luck in their endeavors. Most of them are from small business owners that just want to be able to provide for their families." Inari explained. "Since there were so many disappearances around this mountain, I decided we should make a path of all of these torii gates, in the hopes of reducing the amount of people that go missing."

"I'm just wondering how the Man in Black managed to get one of his own. If that gate we saw really did link back here, then it must've been from here, right?" Tsukiakari asked.

"It's not an impossible feat." Inari said. "This shrine was actually burned to the ground during the Onin War."

"Burned? The whole thing?" Taeko asked.

"The whole thing. Many of the old torii gates we had didn't survive the fire. A few of them did, though. If this Man in Black was any one of the donors, or even if he just took one of the gates that survived, he'd probably be able to use it to link himself back to this area."

"I wonder if our fiery friends had anything to do with that." Tsukiakari sneered. "Then again, the mortals managed to raze most of Kyoto all by themselves during the war."

"If I were a phantom as smart as either of them, I'd take the opportunity to burn down the biggest repellant to me in the city." Taeko assumed. "A war like that would be just that opportunity. Like I said, let's not underestimate them."

"That's a scary thought..." Inari shivered. "Tsukiakari, you saw them in Sakura's shop, right? What were they doing with Sakura?"

Tsukiakari thought back to the pitiful, barely-human state Sakura was in. "They were inside of her. It's like they were trying to take her over. Ghosts seeking a body to take and possess for their own."

"Think they're people we knew?" Taeko asked. "I remember the Phantom of the Flies ended up being Masachika Togashi."

"Yeah, I do think we knew them. We just need to know who they are."

Inari sighed, as if clearing the heaviness of the conversation from her chest. "Hey, let's just enjoy the walk, alright? We'll worry about everything once we get to the pond. May as well use what precious time we have to clear our minds."

True to Inari's warning, the legs stung with lactic acid buildup as they continued up the path, climbing higher and higher on the mountain. As the air got a bit thinner and the city of Kyoto got smaller, Taeko sincerely considered taking up Inari's offer and holding hands. A few kimono-clad passerby's walked descended the steps past them with no trouble, but Taeko seemed to really become unnerved by the increasing height. Seeing she was shivering and frowning with anxiety, Inari stopped at a resting point marked by statues of her servile foxes, adorned with red bibs around their necks. Inari sat down on the bench, giving her legs some time to recover. Taeko's gazed remained fixed on the pillar of one of the torii gates. The fox goddess assumed she was most likely examining the kanji, as every gate bore the name of the donor on the pillars.

"Whew, told you guys it was quite the walk." Inari yawned.

"I actually feel pretty good." Tsukiakari sang. "If we weren't at war, I'd come here for a walk everyday, if I could. It's amazing you have such a large shrine, Inari. I wish someone built one for me."

Inari snickered. "In due time, I'm sure you'll have your own shrine too."

"What do you think, Taeko? Will I ever get a shrine as nice as this?" Tsukiakari asked, smiling.

Taeko hadn't budged an inch and paid no attention to their conversation. Tsukiakari walked up to her and followed the direction of her gaze, reading the name 'Yoshinori Akiyama'. Taeko's eye glistened like a precious, dewy jewel, her eyebrows sunken in melancholy. Tsukiakari remembered Taeko's earlier comment, that she had been told about the Shin-ike Pond's legend when she was a kid. It shocked her that she had never truly thought much about it before, but like most of the Senkumo's recruits, Taeko could've very well have been raised in or near Kyoto. She rubbed her hand around Taeko's back, consoling her as they both stared down the torii pillar.

"Someone you knew?" Tsukiakari whispered.

Taeko hung her head, on the verge of tears. "My dad. He's not here anymore, obviously."

"I'm sorry. You two were close?"

"Very. I was always a daddy's girl." Taeko smiled. "He taught me how to use swords, and his job assisting shogunal deputies allowed him to teach me about administrative tasks as well. He was a spiritual man, so it's no surprise he donated a gate here."

"No wonder you were so good at your job." Taeko chuckled.

Taeko nodded. "Yeah. He got caught up in some trouble, a conspiracy among the deputies to depose Yoshimasa. The bastards wanted to protect the integrity of a shogunate that was clearly already falling apart. My dad, being the honorable man he was, agreed to take the fall for their treachery. He died like any other disgraced warrior does."

Taeko wiped the tears from her eyes, her mind swirling with memories of her childhood. "Mom practically died of grief a few days after that and I took Ebina with me when we ran away. Bishamon found us and...well, you know the rest. It's an awful feeling, Gekko. Feeling homesick for a place and a time that you can never get back."

"I know the feeling. Believe me, I do."

Inari stood, approaching the mourning Taeko. "That torii gate was one of the few that survived the fires of the Onin War. Your dad endured through it all, Taeko. I remain ever grateful that he donated to this shrine."

"Thank you, Inari." Taeko nodded. "Seeing his name here isn't what makes me so sad. It's just...I imagine what he would think of me if he were here, watching me all this time...and it makes me glad he's dead."

Taeko caressed the kanji of her father's name with her fingers, bowing her head in apology. "...Because he'd never be able to recognize his little girl inside of this rotten woman..."

Tsukiakari had always repressed her thoughts of home, her memories of Amaterasu. None of it ever mattered as much as the life she had made for herself on Earth, surrounded by her fellow Senkumo. But now that she was older and knew what pain was, she wondered what kind of pain her mother had experienced in her life. What made her into the heartless and cold woman that she was? It seemed so simple to figure out if she truly wanted to. What if she just went back to Heaven and asked Amaterasu herself? Asking, talking, exchanging dialogue. All of that was lost. Human and divine obsession and yearning for power led only to dead loved ones and ruined homes. Everyone tried to replace that pain with hatred, but no matter how much one drank from the cup of vengeance, the pain lingered. Pain and anger drove the times, both on Earth and in Heaven.

Taeko soon collected herself, and the three continued up the path, all of them holding hands. After another fifteen minutes of walking, they finally arrived at Shin-ike Pond, situated below a stone prayer area dedicated to Kumataka, the ancient hawk-eagle of the mountain. The pond reflected the snow-covered hill and trees that surrounded it in a bowl-like fashion.

"Here we are." Inari waved. "Tsukiakari, just think hard about the person you want to find and clap facing the lake. You'll hear an echo from the direction they can be found."

"Simple as that?" Tsukiakari asked.

Inari nodded. "Simple as that."

Inari and Taeko stood aside, giving Tsukiakari room to think. She focused her mind on Yachi Otonougi, the girl that was always paired with her twin sister, always ready to follow any order no matter how bad the situation was. Yachi, whose quirks complimented those of her sister's, whose careful hands and deep knowledge allowed the clan to raise its own horses, giving them an edge on the battlefield. Yachi, who so willingly took on the burden of being a commanding lord when Tsukiakari lost heart.

"You've always fought beside me." Tsukiakari muttered. "And when we lost Mayumi, you fought for me while I gave up. You're a true friend. A true comrade. It's time to come home. Come home to those that love you."

Tsukiakari clapped twice, waiting patiently as the sound of her hands reverberated off the water and through the sky. First came the silence, disrupted only by the whisper of the breeze. Then came the promised echo, pointing Tsukiakari's ears back towards the base of the mountain, near the main shrine. No one expected to receive an echo that sounded so close. Yachi was being held on shrine grounds.

"Dear god..." Taeko uttered.

"The main shrine!" Inari urged. "Let's go!"

Oh nice! The flower eyepatch reminds me of Zero from Drakengard  :clapping: That actually matches her later personality too. Thanks for this, Fap  :thumbsup:
Taeko's grandmother is actually from Russia, hence why she ended up with green eyes.

Howdy all.

I kind of hate asking, especially as I have nothing to offer in return, but I was wondering if there were any artist here that wanted to draw up some concept art for some of my characters from Death by Ex-Girlfriend and Senkumo War Stories. I'm especially lacking in the SWS department. Most of these characters are female and some have supernatural characteristics.

You can just pick any character that interests you and go to town with it! This went really well when people were doing art for the DbEG cast  :clapping:

Characters With No Concept Art

Taeko Senkumo
Hair: Long and black, typically wears it down

Eyes: Green. There's also a point in the story where she loses an eye in the battle against Shogun Yoshihisa. After that, she wore a white bandage around her head and covered her missing left eye.

Skin: It's Japan we're talking about here. All the characters have light skin and I don't care too much about specific tones.

Clothes: Usually wore the traditional black kimono of the Senkumo clan. It was tied with a white obi and bore the Senkumo crest on the back. The crest is three red clouds assembled in a triangular fashion. Interpret that how you will.

Other physical features: Laceration scars on her back, received from Bishamon as punishment for disobeying her lord's orders.

Personality: Before she lost her friend Ebina, she was a playful, flirtatious girl. She was always light hearted but very smart and able to analyze situations with a clear head. After Ebina dies, Taeko takes over Ebina's duties as she continues managing her own. She becomes bitter and much more cruel in her methods. She's generally an angrier, vengeful, 'the ends justify the means' kind of person. Do whichever you want.

The Man in Black/Orphan of the Katsura River

Hair: Shoulder length, unevenly cut black hair, but this is usually hidden beneath a tattered, wide-rimmed, black hat

Eyes: Red

Skin: White and pallid, like that of a corpse. He was brought back to life by Kagutsuchi (The Phantom Maiden) and Shogun Yoshihisa (The Phantom Soldier), two fiery ghosts that had been stalking Tsukiakari. His body had been dumped in the Katsura river after Tsukiakari's clan massacred his village, so he was quite literally a corpse.

Clothes: Tattered, black robes, the sleeves rolled back a bit to reveal his arms. Sandals.

Other physical features: Besides the pallor of his skin, his body is also riddled with slight deformities from the wounds and decomposition. Not sure if this is something you can really capture, but one of his arms is bloated, while the hand on the other is nearly skeletal. Face is malformed by burn scars.

Personality: Vengeful, but calm and calculating. Phantoms of the past are a big theme in Senkumo War Stories, and he represents a piece of that theme. He obscures his face with his hat and most of his body with his robes. He remains hidden, appearing and disappearing from shadows, the two fiery phantoms always at his side.

Noriko/Phantom of the Well
Warning because this one is gross and I doubt anyone could draw all of this anyway.

Noriko was one of the people killed in the village massacre that resulted in the Man in Black's death and revival. When Tsukiakari's men stormed the village, they beat her with a hammer, raped her, and threw her down a well to die. She was about 7 months pregnant as this happened. She's rescued by Tsukiakari, but she dies in premature childbirth caused by her wounds. Tsukiakari later finds that her spirit settled in the well, where she experienced true, child-like fear of death and the dark.

Hair: Long and black, flowing down to her breasts

Eyes: Completely black.

Skin: White, just like the Man in Black's. Her phantom form is akin to a giantess, so she's really big.

Clothes: None, other than her bruises

Other physical features: Like I said, giantess. She has long, talon-like nails in her phantom form. Also, and this is the gross bit, an umbilical cord and deceased, giant baby are hanging out from her vaginal opening. The baby is also pale and has no eyes in its sockets. In the story, Phantom Noriko is desperately trying to climb her way out of the cavernous, dark depths of the well, out of her fear of the dark.  As she climbs, her deceased baby hangs from its umbilical cord, motionless.

Personality: Severe Nyctophobia.

The Phantom Maiden
The Phantom Maiden is the corpse of Taeko's friend, Ebina, possessed by the fire goddess Kagutsuchi. Kagutsuchi had her body destroyed and became an Onibi, a spiritual essence of fire. Seeking form and flesh, Kagutsuchi returns to war-stricken Japan and feeds off of the emotions of people around her, possessing the bodies (or attempting to) of those that died with hatred in their hearts.

Hair: Gray, ashen color.

Eyes: Luminescent red. Her face is completely masked by darkness

Skin: Pale, as she is a corpse revived by Kagu.

Clothes: White or floral yukata, torn and dirtied. The sleeves are too long for her and obscure her hands

Other physical characteristics: She levitates most of the time, and often appears and disappears without being seen. Her feet are black with soot.

Personality: Doesn't really express once since she's a phantom. She finds herself beckoned by the hatred of several characters, including Tsukiakari, Taeko, The Man in Black, and others. She's constantly, silently seeking stronger hatred in order to try and possess the host and gain the body she lost.

Characters that do have art, but their appearances change and require new art
Osamu Ashikaga

Here's the big one. Osamu Ashikaga is the main character of Death by Ex-Girlfriend. Senkumo War Stories is a separate series, in a sense, but the two are connected. They share worlds and a lot of characters. SWS is really more like a prequel to DbEG. Just in case you're wondering he we can go from nyctophobic phantoms with dead children to this.

Hair: He had long black hair that went pretty far down early on, but his appearance changes in the War Cloud arc. His hair is like a black version of Robert Plant's hair here

Eyes: Brown

Skin: White, in a normal, living human being kind of way lol

Clothes: He has no defined outfit. He changes clothes everyday. He does wear a blue button up, white jeans, and bullet belt in Inari Standoff though. He also typically wears a silver peace sign necklace, or sometimes a Male symbol necklace.

Other physical features: He's pretty average build, but a little muscular too

Personality: Can't stop helping people to save his life. He's a pretty upbeat guy, always smiling and trying to help out however he can. He's a good natured man with a badly wounded heart.

Speaking of Inari Standoff, there's no art of him with Inari! If you want to take a crack at that, here's a pic of Inari for ya. The two had a fateful encounter in an empty airport, where Osamu agreed to help her fight off her hunters. They have a deep bond. Initially distrusting of Osamu, Inari eventually opened up to him. Since the both of them were brokenhearted at the time, the two made a promise. "We either win together, or we die together." They found solace in knowing that they would very likely die together trying to fight off the exorcists.

Inari is eating a heart here because devouring blood and flesh heals her and makes her more powerful. She has fallen very low since her appearance in SWS, where she was a gentle goddess of foxes, beloved by her peers and people. She's now a flesh-eating fox "demon", loved only by Osamu.

It's a very melancholic bond and the story is filled with tears and blood, as you can imagine.

I have to go, but I'll add more characters later. Do let me know if you're interested in any of these!  :thumbsup: Thanks in advance.

Only Fools Court Vengeance
Tsukiakari stood from the bench, anxiously pacing away from Inari with her hand practically glued to her chin. Shocked silence was the reaction to Inari's sudden hypothesis, as well as her silence on the matter up until that very moment.

"Fushimi-Inari Shrine. That's in the city. We're dead if we go back there." Taeko bemoaned. "We can walk around in Kameyama without much hassle, but Kyoto? The whole city knows who Gekko and I are."

"But why Fushimi-Inari Shrine?" asked one of Taeko's men. "Why abduct a girl and bring here to one of the most important places of worship in the capital?"

"I doubt they would hold her captive in the shrine itself." Inari stated. "But they most likely used the gate to bring Yachi far away from where she was abducted and continued on from there. The shrine is situated on a mountain the people named after me. People disappear all over that mountain. It would be a fine place to hold a captive."

"Why didn't you say something earlier?" Tsukiakari asked, staring daggers at the fox goddess.

Inari's tongue tied itself into a knot. "I...I just..."

"Yachi's life hangs in the balance, Inari. I brought you along on this search because I know you're good at info-gathering. I also brought you here because I trust you." Tsukiakari admitted.

Inari bowed her head, her hair obscuring her dewy, red eyes. "Please forgive me, Tsukiakari. I didn't want to think that something so horrible could happen in my own home. The thought terrified me."

Tsukiakari sighed, scratching the back of her head of raven hair. "Are all of my fellow gods so vain? I get it. You're a new goddess and you've skyrocketed into a high seat of power. You've got a good reputation you need to protect and you don't want to lose that. But even I've learned to never put my own vanity, my own reputation and glory, before the life of a single friend. Even if that friend is a mortal."

Tsukiakari flinched, slapping her hands on top of her burnt arms. Taeko rushed to her side, helping her stand upright as the cold bite of the winter air gnawed on her tender burn scars.

Despite the pain, Tsukiakari continued speaking. "I would risk life and limb just to bring Yachi home. I would die for her over and over again, if I needed to. I would do the same for every single mortal in my clan. Even if my sworn enemies were to lay down their swords and join me, I would love them just as fiercely as I do my closest allies. That's just the kind of goddess I've become. To hell with glory. To hell with my reputation. I will stop at nothing to bring that sweet girl home to her sister, where she belongs. None of the other gods seem to have that same respect for mortals."

Tsukiakari stepped forth on her own, laying a gentle hand on Inari's shoulder. "Don't be like them, Inari. Don't be twisted by vanity. Even if you have to sacrifice your reputation to protect something, that's a small price to pay. Taeko and I have endless blood on our hands for that very reason."

Inari stood in breathless awe as she realized the dangerous mistake she had made and continued to make throughout her entire time in Kameyama. She had so readily used Jinbei as a pawn to help her get closer to finding Yachi. She couldn't do the same when the torii gate implicated her own shrine as being involved in Yachi's abduction. Gods are creatures of vanity, each one obsessed with being worshiped, being remembered in some way. It was an innate desire. Like how humans long for companionship and intimacy, gods pine for veneration. Desire, no matter if it comes from a god or a human, always ends in misery. It always brings suffering.

Tsukiakari stood tall before her allies. "Taeko, Inari, everyone. Get your things together and gather the horses. We're going to Kyoto."

Back home, the Senkumo base remained under lockdown. After gathering physical evidence of the clan's various campaigns and activities, Izanami began a relentless series of interviews for nearly every member of the clan. Day by day, Izanami's investigation grew more and more invasive. The atmosphere inside of the base's walls was so serrated and uneven that one could cut themselves with it. The Senkumo's tolerance of Izanami and her shinigami slowly rotted and morphed into a festering resentment. On that day, Izanami concluded a brief interview with Chiya in the storage building of the base. Dull, gray light faintly beamed through the clerestory, shining its ghostly pallor onto both of them.

"When will all of this be over?" Chiya asked.

"A few more days, at the very least. I want to interview some of your younger troops as well." Izanami stated.

Chiya recoiled. "The children?"

"Will that be a problem?"

"I will not allow you to involve them in this. They're scared as it is with their lord gone."

"Chiya, I have to do my job."

"And I have to do mine as their commanding lord and as their guardian." Chiya sternly replied. "Izanami, you may be a goddess, but we're both women, right? We can be honest with each other if we so choose."

Izanami sighed, annoyed before Chiya had even made her point. "So we can."

"This isn't about justice, is it? You don't care about putting Bishamon or any of us behind bars."

"You're right. It isn't about justice. It's about love."

"Love?" Chiya asked, confused.

"Since we are both women, permit me to a be a little bit more than just honest, Chiya." Izanami said, smiling. "There is nothing I wouldn't do for Tsukiakari. She's my granddaughter, the only fragment of family I have left in this world."

"The legends say you birthed a great abundance of children."

"I did. Most of them are dead." Izanami stated, still smiling. "The ones that remain have forgotten what it means to even be a family."

Izanami clasped her hands, her eyes bearing a look of yearning and reminiscence. "The War of Kin. It was the civil war that erupted after Izanagi's failed attempt to rescue me from the Underworld. When he returned from that awful place, he was so traumatized by the ordeal that he never again spoke a single word. He fell into a languid torpor, as if he had fallen asleep with his eyes open. With his mind shattered, our children knew he could no longer lead our family. Amaterasu, my brightest daughter, hatched an idea in her mind. She wanted to unite our family and form a pantheon, a sovereign nation of gods. A nation of which she and her brother, Tsukuyomi, would be the rulers of. Many of my children supported this idea. Many did not. The ones that didn't still sought to rescue me, their beloved mother, from the deep, dark clutches of Yomi. They still had faith that I could serve as their leader. Amaterasu wasn't very accepting of their dissent."

Though she wasn't there to witness it, Izanami envisioned her children fighting amongst themselves, their arguments exploding into a needless, heartbreaking bloodshed. Her gently clasped hands tightened, as if she were choking the life out of something that wasn't there.

"In the end, it was those that sided with Amaterasu that won the war, leading to the creation of the pantheon. And then, get this. Right after the war, Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi freed me anyway. They could've rescued me earlier and prevented the entire thing, but Amaterasu decided to wait. She decided to let her own siblings bring blades to each other's throats. She decided to let our family tear itself apart for no reason. She did it all for power, to elevate herself as a leader figure. It's amazing just how devilish silence and inaction can truly be sometimes. When I set foot on the earth again, I found many of my children dead, and a disgusting pantheon of murderous traitors built upon their bones. My few remaining children are all but strangers to me. But not my granddaughter. She wasn't alive to be part of any of that. Her heart was pure and innocent, and I swore to protect that. That's the kind of love that drives me to do this, Chiya. Please, tell me this. Which one of us do you think has the better chance of protecting Tsukiakari from what's about to come?"

Chiya lacked an answer after hearing that tale. Her lips were as unbending as the steel of her sword.

"Bishamon is using you. You're too smart not to know that." Izanami said. "The time will come when this era of war will reach its final stages. A clear end to all of this chaos will be just in sight. When that time comes, Bishamon will get rid of you. Because as it has always been and always will be, gods do not respect the sanctity of life, mortal or divine. Being worshiped by humans was supposed to teach us humility, but it brought only destructive yearning and appetite. I should know. When that time comes, how much do you really think you'll be able to do?"

"We don't have your kind of power, Izanami, but we will do everything we can for her."

"That's not an answer. What can you actually do for her? You're mortals. As much as you love her, none of you are long for this world. Should Bishamon set his sights on her, you won't have the power to do anything against him. The only way to prepare for that possibility is if we work together. Cooperate. I need to interview those children, Chiya."

"Out of love?" Chiya remarked.

"Out of love." confirmed Izanami.

Chiya meditated upon her answer for a moment. "None younger than twelve years of age."

Izanami gave a satisfied nod. "Agreed. Thank you, Chiya."

"I'm surprised you haven't just taken Bishamon into custody yet, with everything you've collected from us." Chiya said.

"I can't. Rather, I can, but it would hurt me more than it would him. Your master is a cunning man. He took every precaution to avoid being arrested. It's not a coincidence Tsukiakari isn't here, or that Bishamon just happens to be marrying a famed, Buddhist goddess."

"He's getting married?" Chiya recoiled.

Izanami nodded. "The way things are in Heaven, arresting him now would alienate the Shinto deities from the Buddhist ones, putting our alliance in jeopardy. As much as I despise my fellow gods, as much as I hold a grudge against Amaterasu for what she did, I can't let anyone suffer in the crossfire of this investigation. I'm just...not that kind of goddess anymore. Only fools court vengeance."

Everyone's trust in Bishamon had already taken a hit after Mayumi's untimely death, but to hear that he was getting married only further eroded Chiya's faith in him. His long absence, sending orders from afar, his sham marriage, it all screamed something foul. None of them knew what kind of moves he was making, nor what he was plotting. Indeed, Chiya was to smart to not see what was happening. Bishamon was making outside arrangements, as if he was preparing for something, as if he needed some kind of insurance.

"I hope you're genuine in your words about your love for Tsukiakari." Chiya said. "I think you're right, Izanami. One by one, the leaders will die off, including myself. I know that. Sometimes I worry where Tsukiakari will find herself once we're all gone. The magic about this base was that its ring of leadership, Ebina, Mayumi, Taeko, my sister and I, and Tsukiakari, we were all friends. No matter what happened, that never changed. Tsukiakari had our backs, and we always had hers. But when we're all gone, she may find herself surrounded by vultures, at worst. We'll need outside allies like you. Izanami, can you promise me something?"

"What is it?" Izanami asked, intrigued.

"Say you're right. Say that, if we do ever reach a visible end to this era of war, and Bishamon does try to dispose of us. Just promise me that, if you can't save anyone else, save Tsukiakari. Your granddaughter is a dear comrade and friend of mine. I lack your power, and perhaps I lack your intensity in your love for her, but I cherish her as much as I humanly can. We Senkumo, even the children, are prepared to die eventually. But none of us would want Tsukiakari to share that fate with us. She can live on forever and tell our tale to the world. She can record our precious little war story, our small imprint on history. If she does that after this war ends, then this clan will never go floating down the river of time. All of the suffering we endured, the dreams we had, our love for each other...none of that will die. Not even after we do."

Izanami extended her pale hand, prompting a handshake from Chiya. On at least that one issue, the mortal and the goddess saw perfectly eye to eye. Both of them, so terribly familiar with the pain of war, stood firm in their love of one goddess and the great things she was capable of.

"Chiya Otonougi, you have my word. I will protect Tsukiakari with all I have."

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The Light Will Shine On You

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