Wow, I am so happy to finally have something to post here. orz Anyway, since Itsuki and Kureha were originally supposed to fill the same role, but turned out to be very different characters, I thought it might be interesting to have them meet. So... this is that. Title is pinched from this song, which I like.
There are Shapes in the Dark
Minakami Village was full of ghost stories. Itsuki hadn’t been looking for them; at first, he had been looking for information about the escape route, and the harvest records, diary entries and meandering accounts of repair work had been nothing but a distraction.
Then he’d killed Mutsuki, and Yae and Sae’s ritual had been delayed for a year. The sense of urgency had diminished, and he’d wanted a way to lose himself. The books had offered one. If he could spend an afternoon reading about the concerns of an anonymous priest who’d lived two hundred years ago, that was an afternoon he didn’t have to spend remembering the way Mutsuki’s heartbeat had weakened and ceased beneath his hands.
The tales of ghosts were scattered amongst the rest, often in a strangely offhand tone. A young woman of the Osaka House had looked across to the storehouse and seen someone looking out, though she knew it was empty; this she mentioned in a sentence between two clumsy poems about the moon shining through the fog. A man working on the roof of Kiryu House thought he had heard two girls whispering behind the locked front doors, and had made note of it in his account to the ceremony master, along with the measure of wood and tile he had used, and when he recommended the work should next be checked. People took the ghosts for granted here, so close to death.
It had been nearly a year since Itsuki had murdered his brother. The sacred texts talked about twins becoming one, joining hands across an abyss, the butterfly like a crimson thread stretching between one world and the next. They didn’t say anything about the twins who failed to become butterflies – who were simply crushed, smothered out of existence by the hands of one who loved them – or what the Remaining they left behind were supposed to live for afterwards.
In fact, he’d noticed that the texts rarely went into detail about unsuccessful rituals. Even when they did, they concentrated on the search for a Kusabi or the accelerated purification rites for two younger shrine maidens. The Remaining, for all the priests cared, might as well have been dead.
There was one notable exception. She was the only shrine maiden in the village’s recorded history to have been born a Remaining, her twin having been stillborn. As if to compensate, she had become something of a scholar, studying the Crimson Festival in great depth, and even travelling to other villages to spread the practice of twin deification, instigating a lesser ceremony known as the Shadow Festival in the chain of hamlets and villages strung down the valley. She had died young, but her efforts had been so remarkable that the Minakami Village shrine bore her name: Kureha.
He had learned that early. Everyone knew the path leading out of the village started in the Kureha Shrine, so that had been the very first subject of his research. What he only discovered later, dropped into diary entries about other things, was the rumour that she still lingered in the shrine. When the festival grew near, she was said to appear, and then the sealed door opened. The accounts varied, but on that one fact they were all in agreement: when Kureha appeared, the door opened.
The summer air was fragrant as he walked through the village. Nobody questioned him. That was partly because he’d been visiting the Kureha Shrine every night, and was getting a reputation for piety, but mostly it was because even a Remaining who’d failed was worthy of some respect.
That would change if Ryozo and his teacher did come to visit; then Itsuki would be bundled into the storehouse, and respect would be in short supply. So much depended on circumstance. But for now he was safe from their scrutiny, and that was all he needed.
The butterflies glowed in the darkness between the trees. They didn’t sleep at night like other creatures. Not for the first time, he thought what a sorrowful existence it must be for them, caught between worlds. The priests said twins became one during the ceremony, but the visible truth was that afterwards the sacrifice became a butterfly and lived forever, and the Remaining stayed a human and died, and no one could say whether they were ever reunited. Perhaps once the twin who’d killed them was gone, the butterflies were doomed to fly alone. Perhaps, after enough time had passed, they forgot that they had ever had names. Perhaps, if so, it would be better not to exist at all.
That was one of the questions he meant to ask her.
None of the books he had read explained why the front door of the Kureha Shrine had been put in at an angle, so you always had to enter askew. Itsuki’s private theory was that Lady Kureha had arranged it that way, so that even if two people entered together, one would have to be a little way behind the other, even just a step, so that really everybody entered alone. He was past the stage of his life when that made any difference to him. He would always be alone.
He entered the shrine expecting nothing. He would go to the altar and pray in silence for a while, think about leaving, then circle around to the sealed door and rest his cheek against it. That was what he had done every night for the past two months. He was always by himself in the shrine, and undisturbed. The most mysterious thing that had happened had been two lanterns burning out just as he entered, and that had probably had more to do with the gale outside than any restless spirits.
But tonight his routine was interrupted before it could begin. Somebody else was there, sitting before the altar. He had time to perceive that the interloper was a woman, and a stranger, before he dropped his eyes.
“Sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to interrupt, if you were praying. I’ll come back another time.”
The woman looked languidly over her shoulder, and got to her feet, adjusting her robe, which had slipped from one shoulder. “You interrupted nothing,” she said, in a deep and measured voice that echoed strangely. “I was waiting for you.”
He stopped, the skin on his wrists prickling. This time he looked at her properly.
She didn’t look like the traditional idea of a ghost, but no one could have mistaken her for a living person. She wore a gorgeous embroidered overrobe, but otherwise she was as pale and colourless as a long-dead tree. Her hair was white, like his. Her eyes were like pale amber. The reddish glow of the lanterns lent a sickly, wavering bloom to her skin, but that only formed an uneasy contrast with the blue-grey tinge it took on in shadow.
“Nobody has sought me so diligently in a hundred years,” she said. “Nothing pleases me more. How may I be of service?”
“The door that leads out of the village,” he heard himself say. “It’s been sealed for years and years, but you can open it whenever you want, can’t you? If you could open it – if you’d be so kind – Yae and Sae, my friends, they could get out.”
“You think you’re the first to ask,” she said, and her voice rose with delight. “But you need not lie to me. That isn’t what you really want.”
He looked at her in bewilderment.
“Oh, how sorrowful,” she said, smiling even more widely, so that her white teeth gleamed from beneath her pale lips. “You don’t even know the workings of your own heart. It’s no wonder you couldn’t become one with him.”
“How did you know – ?” He caught himself. “This isn’t about Mutsuki. I just want to know how I can help Yae and Sae.”
“Did you know, not all butterflies are meant to be born? Some rot before they can take shape within the cocoon. Some don’t have the strength to break free, and others fall to the ground before their wings can open. But when they die, they die. And we go on and on.”
He stood transfixed.
“I had a collection,” she said dreamily. “I think she would have liked it. I kept the most beautiful ones, pinned onto sheets of paper.”
Itsuki shook his head. “Wait. What you said before... did you mean Mutsuki? And... and your sister?” It felt presumptuous to say it, but after all, she was the one who had brought it up.
“So many words written in praise of the ceremony,” she said. “So many words of consolation for the Remaining twin of an ascended sacrifice. But not for you. And not for me. Isn’t that why you came?”
Itsuki said nothing, but it seemed he didn’t have to.
“Let me read your heart. I can’t tell you why you were born for such a fate, but perhaps I can tell you why you live.”
She held out her hand to him. An instant before he made contact he knew he didn’t want to touch her, and would have pulled back, but she seized him with a motion that only her carelessness made appear slow. She enfolded his hand in both of hers, and it reminded him of retrieving Ryozo’s letters from their hiding place, sliding his hand into the darkness beneath the floorboards: it was not the dry, cool touch of the earth that was frightening, but the thought of what might reach out of that emptiness and seize him. Kureha was the same – a dead space, through which horrors reached.
“In return for my services,” she said, “will you tell me what it was like, to crush his living breath out with your hands?” She flexed her fingers around his, a little involuntary curling. “I never had the chance, you see.”
To Itsuki the memory was all too near, and as it flowed before his eyes again he knew she was watching, feeling, sensing – whatever it was she did. His worst memory was passing to her, and now it would be shared between them, living an immortal lifelessness in her long after he was dead and forgotten. As abhorrent as the idea was, he couldn’t pull away from her cold hand. Her grip was limp, but some force that was more than physical held him in place. When the memory ended and she did not immediately release him, he noticed an awful thing: the palms of her hands had grown warm, and his were cold as ash.
As if nothing had happened, she gestured towards the back of the building. He heard the creak of a door, smelled stale air and damp stone. “Beyond that door lies darkness. Not everyone can find their way out again. But you’ll go anyway, won’t you? You’ve come this far.”
“I’ll go,” he said.
As he walked past her, deeper into the shrine, he heard her murmur, as if to herself, “Don’t look back...”
Beyond the door, a steep staircase led down into darkness that smelled of moss, the kind that never saw daylight, and drank only the water that seeped down through cracks in the stones. Again he thought of the space under the floorboards where he’d hidden Ryozo’s letters. He had never liked putting his hand in there; now he had to walk all the way in, and probably hear the door creak shut behind him.
For a second his courage failed. He was about to turn back – he thought he still could – but then something lit up the darkness before him. It seemed to be at a very great distance, but even so, he knew that ruddy glow was not a lantern or a candle. He had spent his life watching lights like that, wondering about them. It was a butterfly, of course.
Mutsuki, he thought, and it made no sense, but it was all the incentive he needed to set his foot on the first step, and from there the going was easier. The darkness did close about him, and the door did creak shut behind, but there was that light in the distance, making him think so vividly of his dead brother. All he had to do was follow.
Sometimes the darkness pressed in on either side, and sometimes it opened out, so that he seemed to be walking through a huge cavern, a hall under the earth like the one in which the priests had made him kill Mutsuki. He kept his eyes resolutely on the dancing light ahead, which never seemed to get any closer. Don’t think about anything else, he told himself. Don’t look back.
As if in response, almost as soon as he’d thought it, someone spoke immediately behind him, sending a thrill of terror across his shoulders even as he recognised the familiar voice.
“Itsuki,” Sae said. “Before the festival, I’ve got to see you again.”
“I wanted to tell you it’s all right. This is how it was meant to be.”
He hesitated; the light ahead dwindled moment by moment, but he could hear Sae breathing. He had promised to look after her. Mutsuki had said nothing else mattered.
Don’t look back, he thought, and then turned anyway.
His first thought was that the girl in the shadows was not Sae after all. She couldn’t be. Sae didn’t have that way of standing, with her head lowered and her hair in her eyes, and that cunning, mirthless little smile was nothing like the Sae he knew. The white kimono had something dark splattered down the front, but the shadows were too deep to make out any detail.
“Yae?” he said, uncertainly, though he had never had trouble telling the difference between Yae and Sae before. Whoever this was, she didn’t look like either of them.
She took a step towards him, and another, and he knew with sudden, perfect clarity that if she caught him, she would kill him. She was the embodiment of the memory he had given to Kureha – the cruelty of the ritual, the feeling of death – and if he didn’t save Yae, this was what she’d become.
But it was Sae’s voice, he thought as he backed away and then turned to run. It was... But he didn’t let the thought voice itself fully.
I thought you wanted answers, said a voice in the back of his mind. It was barely a whisper, toneless and featureless, but he knew it was Lady Kureha. Her voice, lodged inside him; her dead fingers exploring.
“Not if that’s the answer,” he said, panting, “not that.”
You’re resisting, she said. Open your heart.
He tried to shut her out, but she would not be expelled. From behind, he heard the soft chiming of a pair of tiny bells, and even though the Sae-who-was-death was right on his heels, Chitose was there too. When he stopped, just for a second, he felt Sae’s hands brush his neck, and nearly stumbled in his haste to get away. He hadn’t known she was so close.
Chitose would be all right, he told himself. When she was hiding, she didn’t come out for anybody but him and Mutsuki. If she stayed in the closet, she might be scared for a while, but she’d be all right.
Far back and receding, he heard a door sliding open. It didn’t sound like a full-sized door; it sounded like the one in the downstairs tatami room, which always got stuck in its warped frame. Did Chitose know that? He couldn’t remember.
He thought he heard her calling out for him, just once, but the sound was lost.
His outstretched hands came into abrupt, painful contact with a wall. He felt wood, smooth wood, a door, and a groove to slide it open. Sae – not Sae – the girl behind him started to say something in her new low, blurring voice, but he didn’t wait to hear it. He hauled the door open and tumbled through it.
Kureha stood over him. “Was the haunted house to your satisfaction?” She laughed. “Did you find your answers?”
Itsuki wanted nothing more than to sit on the floor and close his eyes until the shaking left him, but he couldn’t with her standing over him, smiling like that. He clambered to his feet, hissing at the pain in his jarred wrists, and looked at her, saying nothing. She didn’t deserve a reply to such a stupid question.
“Come,” she said. “Let me read your heart.”
The slim, pale hand she held out was a thing of such disgust and horror that he couldn’t imagine touching it. “If I do, will you show me the way out of the village?”
“You don't need me to show you that.”
Her hand floated before him in the wavering shadows. He couldn’t, he couldn’t touch her again. “What did it mean, what I saw?”
She waited. He extended his hand. She latched onto it with horrible quickness; he thought of putting his hand inside a dead thing’s mouth, and the mouth sinking closed.
“It means your heart is resolute,” she said. “No matter the emotions that swayed it, you only turned aside once. You ran headlong into darkness, and only Darkness lies ahead. Darkness, and suffering, and regret.” She hummed, and he felt a touch on his neck, brushing against the place where the bruise should have been. He tried to get away from her, her smell, her touch, her voice, her prying, inquisitive mind. She held him still. She brought the palm of her free hand up against his throat, and said,
“I envied you at first, even you. But after all, you never became one with him, did you? It is just as much a mystery to you as it is to me. We both long to know what it was they felt at the moment of their death – the pain, the sadness, the exquisite fear. I will never experience that.” For an instant, her fingers tightened, her thumb and forefinger pushing his jaw uncompromisingly upwards, the tight line they made squeezing into his throat with a strangling pressure. “But you will.”
And then she had released him and was turning away idly, as if they had exchanged a little trivial conversation in the street and now she was passing by to continue on her way. He could still feel the line her fingers had made around his neck, but her voice was the worst, because that was on the inside, a little splinter of cold bone so deep beneath the skin he wouldn’t ever be able to dig it out.
There, it said. There’s your answer.
For a wonder, he didn’t fall and break his neck as he made his dazed way down the shrine steps, but maybe it wasn’t such a wonder after all. He still lived, because when the time was right, he could die. He could know the pain Mutsuki had felt, even if he couldn’t share it, and he could escape this liminal existence.
The villagers had been wrong. They said the butterflies were the representatives of the other world, while the Remaining watched over this one, but wasn’t it the other way around? The Remaining lived on cut in half, dead inside, incomplete, looking towards death, while the sacrifice – the successful sacrifice, at least – was fulfilled and immortal.
The answer was that he didn’t have to be like Kureha, waiting eternally for his bones to rot away. He could take himself out of the world, and the better for everyone, but before he did he could save Yae from becoming like him, and like Kureha. He could save her from becoming the demon Death he’d seen inside the lost house.
But it was Sae’s voice, something sighed deep down. You know it was.
That didn’t make any sense, so he tried to dismiss it, though the unease remained. He had to help Yae and Sae, and keep his promise to Mutsuki, and when that was over he could join him in the pain of death.
Darkness was all that was waiting for him, Kureha had said, but if Mutsuki was there too, he didn’t think he’d mind. And if they couldn’t be reunited, the drawn-out years of his life wouldn’t change that.
It didn’t occur to him – not until much, much later, when his mind was already dissolving into wild circles – that she might have tricked him: that Darkness had another meaning, and that someone who could only feel pleasure at the fear of others would hardly have any wish to stop the Repentance. She hadn’t even mentioned the word, and he certainly didn’t think of it, not that night as he made his way back through the village.
He must have been at the shrine much longer than usual, because the streets were deserted, and that was good. He didn’t know what he looked like just now, but he had an idea it would have made anyone look at him twice, even the villagers who piously averted their eyes.
Unseen, he crept into his house like a thief, and there he lay awake. There were cold spots where she’d touched him that didn’t begin to grow warm until dawn; by then he’d scratched mindless furrows across his hands and down his throat, and the skin was almost raw enough to bleed. He could still hear her laughing, and that much he couldn’t scratch out.
The books stopped distracting him after that. All he could think as he read them was that all this time, all these years, she had been in the shrine, even if only a few had ever seen her. Even then, she might have been waiting for him. The only thing worse than the texts that didn’t mention her was the idea that some of them might, and he would come across them unexpectedly, and the page he turned would feel like her hand, cool and dry.
The only distraction that worked, both then and when he lay in the storehouse waiting for some news of what was happening outside, was to think of getting Yae and Sae out. At least then Yae wouldn’t ever have to look at her hands as he did, feeling death on them. The plan became a burning in his mind, and he was glad to let it consume the rest of his thoughts. The plan was all his own, but for the rest, he didn’t know who’d put them there.