Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
The Temple in the Grasses
Thunderstorms were rolling in from the Mountain, great roiling clouds heavy with summer rains. The air sang with sparks above the Unicorn plains, causing every living thing with any sense to seek shelter from the unforgivingly open skies. A blinding flash, a growling roll of thunder, heralded the steady rainfall that soaked the plains, first as warm, lazy droplets, and then steady and cold as the heights they were born from. The grasses shuddered fitfully under the onslaught of wind and rain, and the plains were hushed at the spectacle of the storm, all save for one swiftly-moving form.
Shinjo O-Shite goaded her horse onward, eyes narrowed against the sheets of rain, hair soaked and whipping out behind her. It would not matter if Shinjo herself appeared amongst the clouds and commanded O-Shite to seek shelter, so a bit of wind and rain were no deterrent to her now. Huddled amongst the grasses laid flat by the elements, she saw her destination: a meager hut, built of sun-hardened clay and grasses, rose alone in the midst of these vast and empty plains.
“She IS here,” O-Shite growled to herself, spitting rainwater with every word. “Let’s hope the other rumours about her are as true as her location.”
Drawing up next to the hut, O-Shite leapt from her horse, which stopped dead under the makeshift eaves of the dwelling, immovable as stone. She knew the horse would not move without her if the very earth rose under its feet, so O-Shite wasted no time with tethering him and strode into the house without announcing herself.
Inside, the hut was silent except for the steady dripping of a small leak somewhere. It was a dark room, lit only by one window on the opposite side of the blankets that served as a door, the light yellow and strange from the oiled paper covering its opening. As her eyes adjusted to the dimness, O-Shite noticed that the whole place was just one room with meager furnishings: a thin pallet for sleeping in one corner; a small cookfire in the center with a kettle hanging over it; scattered scrolls, boxes, candles, and furs. She was drawing breath to announce herself when she felt a small hand touch her right arm.
“By Shinjo’s teats!”, she swore, freeing her arm and half-drawing her blade as she turned. “Are you Moto Azaware?”
“Am I?” replied a high, girlish voice. “Hai, I suppose I am that. Who comes barging into my home, asking after me? I mean no harm, and I live on Moto lands. What issue could a Shinjo have with me?”
O-Shite narrowed her eyes and resheathed her blade. The girl seemed to blend into her surroundings unusually well; all O-Shite could make out was half of a pale face wreathed in seemingly endless lank black hair, and a faded purple kimono that covered the oddly slumped form of Azaware. “No issue; I do not come seeking to punish you. I have heard that you were exiled from the Moto family because you cannot ride a horse. I have also heard…other things.”
Azaware turned and moved toward the window. O-Shite had the strangest impression that the girl did not walk, but slid along the ground; in this light, she seemed to just be a cloud of hair and that faded old kimono. “There are many other things you could have heard about me, Shinjo O-Shite. If it helps, yes, I was exiled as a young girl because my back is shaped such that I cannot sit a horse, much less ride as Moto must do. I have also heard…things…about you, so please, we come together as those who hear whispers of the other. Let us share those whispers, shall we?”
O-Shite stepped further into the room, leaving a puddle of rainwater behind as she went. “I…have heard you keep the faith of the Old Gods. Those anathema to the Unicorn Clan. Is this true?”
Azaware laughed, a bell-like sound of pure delight. “Ah, well, it seems that the whispers all come from the same source, yes? Yes. Well, I do, yes. And they are the ones who whispered your name to me, O-Shite. Not many find their way to my, ah, Shinden, here, and fewer still who seek the council of the Lords of Death. Even the few that do, like yourself, wear the same exact expression…that pale face, that vague discomfort even mentioning the Old Ones, those fidgeting feet. Ah, but how Shinjo herself must have felt when first encountering their might, hmm?” She giggled again, turning so her back was to the window, her form shadowed by the grey light outside.
O-Shite growled low in her throat. “It is a healthy fear, girl. One does not make pacts with gods who delight in nothing better than betrayal.”
Azaware clicked her tongue. “Ah, there there, have you come as a priest, to teach me the True Way of the Kami? I doubt it, I doubt it highly, daughter of Shinjo. I believe, yes I believe that you feel betrayed by your decadent gods and have come here to make this pact you so disdain, hmm? Perhaps you have lived your life in dutiful service to your gods, and now you have been rewarded with nothing? Perhaps even less than nothing, hmm, hmm? Your story is not a new one, O-Shite,” Azaware said, noticing O-Shite hanging her head. “If Death seeks you, then you must only heed its call, and pay your dues so that Death looks elsewhere.” She began drawing a long, black leather cord from the sleeve of her kimono. “Is that it? Have you come to bargain with me, a merchant of Death? There is a price, after all. Shall we negotiate it?”
O-Shite raised her eyes again, allowing the tears brimming in them to mingle with the rainwater on her cheeks. “My children,” she said, her voice thick but steady, “my children have all been slaughtered, all in service to protect the lands of some Kami, and for what? My husband, too, he…I…there is nothing for me anymore. The Kami of this land have demanded much from me in my long years, and I have always given it, but this…there is nothing else, I…I…” she dropped her head again, digging her nails into her palms.
“There, there,” crooned Azaware, moving to a lacquered wooden chest near her sleeping pallet and digging through it carefully, picking out items with supreme delicacy. “Do not fear. None that have ever crossed my threshold have found themselves too destitute to offer me a suitable price. After all,” she said, standing as she began weaving leathers, herbs, and furs into a careful rectangle with the black cord, “Death truly only demands one price, does it not?”
O-Shite met the woman’s gaze as best as she could in the dark room, startled. “If death requires death, I have paid that price hundreds of times, with those I have killed in the line of duty, and with my own family. I cannot imagine —”
“Don’t imagine, O-Shite,” Azaware cut in with a laugh, “it is nothing so far away as to require feats of imagination. Your horse, perhaps? That of a dear friend? It is a price, you see, not an offering given freely. Perhaps, even, hm, hmmmm…yourself, if I may be so bold?” She lit a single deep red candle, and began swinging the packet she had made through the flame, mouthing silent words as she watched O-Shite for an answer.
O-Shite looked puzzled. “Myself? My horse, or that of another, no, I cannot offer that, but…myself? I am already as the dead, Azaware. That seems too low a price to pay.”
“Ahhhh, that is where you are wrong, dear O-Shite,” Azaware moaned, near to throes of ecstasy. She cupped her hand over the flame and extinguished it, taking a small bit of melted wax as she did so and applying it to the amulet she made. “You see, I do not start preparing things such as this until I know that whatever the price my visitor pays will be worth it. The Lords of Death have been whispering to me for some time of your desire to pay their price; who am I to argue what they value? I simply make sure you receive your share of the bargain as well.” She moved with that odd, gliding gait of hers until she stood directly in front of O-Shite. “Hold out your hand. It does not matter which, whichever you prefer.”
O-Shite breathed deeply, and extended her right hand. The odd charm of sorts that Azaware had been making was pressed into her palm by the woman’s long, slender fingers, and then O-Shite became aware of pain as the priestess dragged the charm along her palm. “What—” she exclaimed in startlement.
“There, there,” Azaware whispered. “The needles within take the blood. The blood holds promise. The Lords hear your promise, and now your deal is done.” Slowly, reverently, Azaware lifted the amulet and placed it around O-Shite’s neck. She then inspected O-Shite’s palm, which was streaked with many small cuts all welling with blood, and touched the blood delicately with a fingertip. Putting the fingertip to her mouth, her lips curved in a smile as she tasted the blood, and she exhaled in bliss. “Ahhhh, yes. A good bargain for those who make it.”
O-Shite felt the first inklings of fear, of having made a great mistake, when suddenly she was wracked with immeasurable pain and fell to her knees, crying out feebly. She looked up at Moto Azaware, who now was surrounded in a strange white light, every detail about her in perfect focus. The lightning flashing in the window behind her paled in comparison. Azaware opened her eyes, and fixed the one that wasn’t screened by her hair on O-Shite’s face. “O-Shite. Know that although you feel this pain on top of all else you’ve suffered, you will cause this pain a thousandfold to your enemies. Such foolish, selfish gods as these kami cannot have a chance against the might of gods who love their followers. When you awaken, it will be as to a new life with a new purpose; you will shed the weakness of your old devotions, and find true purpose. Sleep, child, and dream ever of Death.”
O-Shite opened her lips, parched and trembling to say something, anything, but it seemed even they were already in service to a new master. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she collapsed to the floor, dreaming of her children turning their backs on her, one by one.
Note: Moto Azaware is now no longer a GM-only NPC! Check her creepy ass out here: Moto Azaware
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