There was a war breaking out. The wind demon Nobuya was forging a realm of darkness for himself, slaughtering any yokai that got in his way. Katsuya had undermined Nobuya as a powerful demon, but he knew in reality the yokai was approaching the power he contained. Some powerful yokai warlords had joined forces and were planning to convene on one of the forbidden mountains to see what they could do about this threat. and Katsuya was headed here. However, he couldn't take Momoko because of the miasma there that killed all human beings that attempted access. The last time he'd attended any sort of function he'd hidden Momoko under his cloak and taken her with him, making her appear to everyone else to be a demon cohort. That wouldn't work this time. 'Where was it that girl Isano said the old woman lived?'
Ume, the old woman in her later sixties was brewing herbs in her village. She was the priestess and wise woman of the village, and was in control of things. Ume was used to strange visitors, so she was not at all surprised when the half-grown girl suddenly appeared on her doorstep late one night.
"So you are Kouhei's older brother's young follower are you? What an interesting life you must have led. And hazardous. Come in, young one." Ume had been in a fire once and the scars on her face sometimes frightened young children from other villages, but the ones from her own loved her and this one did not seemed to be fazed. She did not seem to be anything, she did not laugh or smile or frown. She merely bowed politely and entered the old woman's home.
Momoko looked around. It was a small house, smaller than her aunt's had been. It was warm from the fire in the middle and slightly smoky. The wood floor underneath was rough when she sat on it, and her kimono caught on the splinters. She got none in her feet however, because she wore embroidered slippers. The old lady had normal wooden sandals.
"What pretty clothes you have." The old woman observed and Momoko smiled at her. "Are you hungry?" Momoko accepted the bowl of rice and fish and told the old woman her name. "We've been living in a big city for a while now. But Katsuya-sama thought I would be better off here, with you."
"I'm honored." The old woman said. "But I've heard rumors that you've been living almost like a princess. Are you sure you will be able to live with me? I will expect you to work."
"I can work." The girl assured her and showed her callused hands. "My uncle made me work all the time."
"Well then, you should fit into this village just fine. The people are friendly enough to strangers and you will be a great help to me when we weed the garden."
To her surprise Momoko found she liked the village a lot. She received her own mat and slept beside the woman, who snored. Katsuya-sama never snored, but then she'd never seen him sleeping either. It was strange not having him to watch over her and at the same time it was comforting to be sleeping next to a warm body again. The next morning they set to work, after a breakfast of rice. First they bought tea leaves from a peddler who came through, then they worked in the garden. From time to time some villager would come and ask for medicine or some woman to ask advice on a baby.
"Is this very different from what you are used to?" Ume asked.
"Yes." In the past several months if ever they needed anything, Katsuya-sama had gotten it. Though she found she liked spending time with Ume, she missed Katsuya and hoped he came to get her soon.
"It is midday, why don't you go play with the other children?" Ume asked.
"They won't want to play with me."
"How can you say that? Here, let's do something about your dress." Ume went into her house and got a plain village kimono. "This belonged to a girl who passed into the afterlife last year. Why don't you wear it and save that pretty kimono for special days?" Momoko did as she asked. "Now run along and play. Just be friendly and the little boys and the girls will accept you." Momoko did so, and to her surprise, found Ume was right. She spent a happy afternoon talking with children her own age. The other girls shared their dolls with her and accepted her willingly into their circle. She didn't appear to them to be any different, with her skin brown from sun exposure and wearing the same clothes as they. She didn't talk about her demon lord around them and didn't show off how fast she could run around the boys, and they accepted her too.
"I like it here." She told Ume that night, happily. "They all call me little sister, now I have a lot of brothers and sisters."
"Good." Ume said. "I hope Katsuya lets you stay for a long time."
"Oh," Momoko said worriedly, "I don't want him to be gone forever."
"I don't think he will be." Ume said, "From all the rumors I've heard, he's very protective of you."
Ume was unlike anyone else she had ever known. She never complained or seemed bitter. She reminded Momoko of her aunt somewhat, but though she was priestess she never worshipped at a shrine or kept spells for demons. She willingly helped anyone who came to her and spoke kindly all the time. Everyone loved her and regularly gave her offerings of food, but she was not proud, she was humble and capable. Nothing seemed to bother her.
"If anyone is getting into heaven, it is you." Momoko said. "You are so good."
"Actually, there is no one good enough to get into heaven."
Momoko sighed and looked away, she didn't like hearing Bankotsu's words coming from her friend. There were things that even Katsuya sama could not defeat, she knew that. However strong or powerful something maybe, there was always something even more powerful out there. So surely, there had to be something that was the most powerful... Something more powerful than all the kami, all the forces of nature, and the forces of bad will and evil intent.
She remembered the first time she had met Katsuya. He was unlike anything else she'd ever seen. Like a bird of paradise lying on the forest floor, in his beautiful clothes and hair. Then he had snarled at her, but she had not been afraid. She could tell he couldn't get up, and he needed her help. She remembered her mother pouring water on her face when she had been sick, and ran to get some, as well as food. Nothing had ever depended on her before. It made her feel useful for once in her life, to bring him things. He never showed appreciation, but the small kindness he'd showed when he'd asked her about her face was enough to make her think it was worth it.
Even though her ministrations didn't help him much, he had risen with his incredible power and saved her when she lay dying, after being attacked by bandits. No one had ever cared enough to lift a finger for her before, not after her family died. Then she'd seen him do many incredible feats and exhort great power without any sign of fatigue. Things that took many men from her village he did in an instant. He had never been mean to her, or spoken harshly, he seemed above that and she'd loved him. She believed with all her heart that he could take her away from the daily hurt and pain she'd been dealing with. And he had, for a while. She was always happy when she was with him, knowing that there was at least one person who cared for her. She didn't care that he was a true yokai.
"Why did you leave me Katsuya-sama?" She wondered, and fought a tear that slid down her cheek.
Ume was slicing herbs. "No one is good enough for heaven. The only way to get there is for humans to accept that fact, and their weakness. Then they must rely on God to get them there."
"We were all born into this pitiful condition of human weakness you know. The only thing that can save us from it is God himself. He sent his son down here to die for us, and His blood is what makes us pure in His sight. Otherwise, we are steeped with evil. We have tainted this world with it and so many horrible things have been done, as you know."
"How is it that blood gets me anywhere?"
"Only blood can pay for all the evil that has been done. And only God's blood is powerful enough to wash it all away. All we must do as humans is accept that we in of ourselves are not good strong enough and also accept His blood. Most people do not truly believe they are evil, or that their evil desires are bad enough to keep them out of heaven. Even though heaven is a place so holy not even an evil thought can enter there. Anyway, to truly believe one is evil, and then to accept God as Savior is to change your life around. It means to become His child, and He becomes your Father."
"Father." Momoko said. "What do fathers do?"
"They take care of you, they keep you safe. With God as your Father, nothing can harm you that He doesn't allow. He will shape you into a woman, beautiful on the inside, and your life will be without regrets."
"I'll never be hurt?"
"Things may happen to hurt you," Ume said, "But it is all in God's hands. And nothing can hurt you if He doesn't allow it."
"I don't know if I want to follow such a God." Momoko said.
"It will always be up to you." Ume said. "That is a decision every man must make, and you are no exception. Also," she winked. "There are no Jinushigami here. The God we believe in is so powerful we don't believe in them, and so far no yokai have come to stay."
Momoko found the group that had been by the fire came to this house often, they visited at least several times a week. Isano accepted her at once and was as warm as usual, but the others seemed to act a little strange around her at first. After a while they seemed to get over it though, and Shouta especially was nice to her.
"How long are you going to stay, Momoko?" He asked, her fifth week in.
"I don't know." She sighed. "I hope Katsuya-sama comes to get me soon. I think traveling takes him a little longer without his dragon."
"IS he coming here?" He asked in alarm. She nodded.
"Are you guys leaving again soon?"
"Of course, we have more important things to do then hang around this village all the time." The kitsune said snootily. "But just in case you're gone when I get back, here." He gave her an ivory tooth. "I shed this the other day, keep it to remind you of me."
Momoko went to sleep smiling. Before she had not had any friends, besides her aunt, Katsuya-sama and the children she was constantly leaving behind in the cities they visited. Now she had a village full.
She woke up with a start. There were sounds of alarm and chaos from outside. Ume hadn't heard them because she was sleeping soundly. Momoko pushed the blanket off and ran to the old lady's mat, shaking her. "Wake up, priestess Ume, wake up!"
"What is going on?"
"I don't know, something is happening outside in the village." The old woman got her bow and arrows and went outside, Momoko close behind. The huts were on fire, the glow from the fires reached the heavens. People were running around screaming, and there were men on horses. Suddenly the hut they'd just come from lit on fire, someone had thrown a torch up into its roof. A man came from around the house, a man wearing armor not from the village. Ume shot him through the eye. Momoko suddenly remembered the ivory tooth and ran back into the house, she grabbed it and ran back outside just as the hut filled with smoke and the grass roof crashed down.
"Into the woods!" Ume yelled, brandishing another arrow. She was walking towards the village's center, seemingly unafraid. A boy Momoko knew ran past. He grabbed her hand and she ran with his family into the woods, the ivory tooth clutched tightly in one hand. Oh Katsuya-sama, if you were only here all this would stop. Behind her were the sounds of screams and the crackling of raging fire.
"Why are they attacking us?" The mother cried, "We have nothing worth having."
"They have no reason." One of the boys said. "They are crazed men who kill for killing's sake." Momoko thought of all the slaughters she had seen Katsuya do. This was nothing new to her. Someone was coming from behind them; men on horses were running them down. The refugees split apart and ran in different directions. Momoko's fast legs carried her far into the jungle and she climbed high up into a tree. She stayed there for hours before deciding to come down, crouched up in its branches, unable to see the village. All she could see was the smoke. Finally Momoko got down and went back to the village. She had to see what had happened, she had to find Ume. She found her lying in a pool of her own blood. Over her, shouldering his massive sword, stood Bankotsu.
Everyone had fled the village or been killed. Bankotsu had Ume's arrows in his hand. This old woman had killed two of the men, two robbers who'd joined them a while back. At the heart of the band the group of five brothers had gained a lot of renown as brigands for hire. As their popularity grew other forms of human trash joined them, burglars, murderers, criminals who'd escaped prison. Few of them had any talent for fighting, just a taste for human blood. Feh. This was getting them down, they'd have to split off from them eventually. One of his brothers emerged from a hut, eating something.
"I think our work is done here." Bankotsu said, shouldering his huge, blood stained sword. "Let's get back."
"Look at what I found." Genji said, coming around the bend. "A woman Touya didn't kill." He had with him a girl of about fifteen. She stood seemingly unafraid, and glared at them with stony faced.
"She looks like a hardened criminal that one." Bankotsu stopped, looked a little harder, and then laughed out loud. "Momoko?"
Momoko gripped the horse's coarse mane and stared into the night with unblinking eyes. She had seen the corpses of some of the men and women of the village, even her playmates. These men had burst on them for no reason, with no warning. She'd been walking through the village looking for Ume when one of them found her. And she'd just stood let him take her away. She was not afraid anymore, she was just sick. Especially when she saw the kind old woman who'd taken care of her and the entire village slaughtered. She remembered Bankotsu didn't attack villages with Jinushigami. After all of Ume's confident words, this is what they got for not having a village guardian, Momoko thought bitterly. God allows all things to work out for good? Or did He really care. But if there was no God, than there was really nothing else. Kouhei had defeated Katsuya, amatsu-gami would someday conquer them both...was there something stronger than all of that? An ultimate?
"God if you are there." She whispered through gritted teeth. "I am sick. I am sick of losing. If you are the one thing that cannot be lost, I want you. I believe what Ume said and I believe you, even though she died." A tiny sense of peace slipped into her soul.
They'd found another house to stay in. She saw the graves of the former inhabitants as they rode up and tied the horses in front. Shinji and Ryouji unsaddled the horses while Bankotsu and Genji took the spoils and Momoko inside the house. A familiar figure was standing in front of a fireplace, poking at the fire. Touya looked over his shoulder at them and his face lit up. "Imouto? I was wondering if you would ever turn up again." He said. He was as effeminate as ever, with a small mouth, heart shaped face and thin eyebrows curving over a white forehead. He had round eyes, unlike Bankotsu's long ones. They lacked Bankotsu's arrogance, Ryouji's calculating intelligence, and Shinji's insanity, but they had something else. He looked like he knew what he wanted and how to get it.
"Still not speaking, eh?" He turned to Bankotsu. "How did it go?"
"It was fun. But I think we're all tired of fooling around with peasant farmers. I think it's time to scrape off this two bit trash following us and go back to the City of Lords, for a new assignment. We're moving out tomorrow." The others had entered behind them and Momoko looked around, seeing everything from older eyes. They had grown older too and evidently time had not settled them down at all. They hadn't changed much. She was now able to see that Touya was only a few years older than she was. He must have been just fifteen when they first found her. Bankotsu didn't look like he was thirty yet. He still wore his hair in a long black braid and looked like he could take on the world, Touya still wore loose clothes with tight leather armor underneath, and his hair was up in a messy bun with chopsticks through it. Shinji had not grown his hair out, and he still reminded her of a snake. Ryouji had a scar across his face now and was missing two fingers.
They were looking at her expectantly. She walked over to the pot, took the ladle from Touya and dished out food for them all. Then she went and sat in a corner, and stared down at her hands. "Not eating?" Genji asked.
She shook her head.
"Ever the silent one, just like old times." Ryouji said. They didn't seem to care at all that they had just torn apart her village and taken her out of its smoking debri. They couldn't possibly know her feelings. Or maybe they did know.
"I'm insulted that you're not overjoyed to be with us." Shinji said, slurping his food down.
"She'll get over it." Touya said, and laughed.