always the same thing

Waka awakens to the sounds of their screams.

The shock propels him out of his restless doze and the uncomfortable pilot’s seat; he lurches and catches himself on the Ark’s dashboard with both hands, panting hard alongside the sound of his heartbeat. It takes him a moment to realize that the ship is still silent, and a horrible twisting feeling clenches in the pit of his stomach: they haven’t started screaming yet.

He draws Pillowtalk with shaking hands, careless of his form, and pushes his way out of the cockpit and into the Ark proper. The great ship is uncomfortably quiet, and the sounds of his footsteps echo loudly enough to make him flinch. The details of his dream are already starting to fade, and he starts to run, terrified he’ll forget before he can do anything–

“Ushiwaka?” a voice trills, and it’s one of the gods–he doesn’t even remember her name; they’re all practically children to him, terrified and shocked over their recent losses–approaching, with two of her companions drifting behind her. He wonders if he should know their names by now, when it’s been weeks of them traveling together, towards what little refuge the moon can offer. “There are strange noises coming from the engine. They woke me, and I thought you should know.”

“Strange noises?” he asks, and his voice is sharper than he intends. The celestial and her companions draw back at his tone, their wings fluttering nervously. “What sort? Tell me at once.”

She licks her lips. Her name is–Asami, Asari, something short–and she wrings her hands. “Grinding noises,” she said. “Like the engine was in pain. Or crying out.”

Bitterness swells on his tongue. You don’t know anything true about pain, he wants to say, because she protected you and the lot of you were so dependent on her that none of you could lift a finger to help her when the time for battle came. He swallows it back instead, and says, “I’ll take a look. Go back to your beds.” That’s where you’ll be most helpful, he doesn’t add, and he starts to walk forward when something in the shadows move. His eyes take a moment too long to adjust, and then there’s a bandit-spider, its jaws gaping impossibly wide and hungry, heaving itself up over the railings. It snatches the first celestial in one hand and crunches off her head before she has time to scream. Her companions are two quivering statues of fear, and Waka is struck still for a long horrible moment, and he can hear her voice, so dreadfully sad, weeping over the loss of her children.

He bellows before he can stop himself and launches himself forward. Under his own cry, the two living celestials begin to scream, and this is it, this is what woke him in the first place, their shrill frightened voices the bait that calls their companions out to the slaughter. He slices through the hands that keep the bandit-spider balanced on the rail, but even as it falls, adding its own shrieking voice to the cacophony, he can see other demons and worse boiling up from the depths of the ship. Imps of all classes, namahage and other spiders, and he is amazed that there could be so many of them hiding for so long.

Waka launches himself up to balance on the damaged railing himself. He brandishes Pillowtalk over his head and yells–he’s not sure what, really, but it’s angry and it’s a challenge, and some of the tide surges to meet him, spears and claws and teeth ready. Some of them rise to meet him, but too many are diverted, swarming to batter open doors and tear through thin walls, or to hunt down the gods that run shrieking from their approach. For every one creature he cuts down, he can see two golden winged heads go flying. The celestials are still screaming, but it’s now more echoes than fresh voices. Every single one runs rather than fights, and Ushiwaka has trained under Tachigami himself, but he is only one man, and there are yet more creatures clawing their way out of the dark.

Finally, when the last thing rises from the abyss, Waka is too tired to even be surprised.

In the Great Temple, there is a statue of the Emperor of Darkness in its true inorganic form: the great sphere, carved with the strange blocky symbols that became the basis of the written language of the moon tribes. Waka knows over a dozen legends that detail how the people of the moon were saved by Yami’s guidance–how the Emperor shielded the tribal ancestors from the dark and the cold with its teachings and its technology, how it allowed them to live, separated as they were from the warmth and bounty of the sun. Waka grew up with these stories and he knows them very well. The people of the moon are proud of their ability to thrive, and they disdain the fluttering creatures of Takamagahara. Living there makes you soft, they say; it makes you as weak as the gods.

He knew that–he knows that–but he does not regret turning his back on that cold dead place. He has seen the sun rise on rich green plains and has sunk his fingers knuckle-deep into Amaterasu-okami’s thick fur. He does not regret any of it.

In human form, the Yami no Sumeragi is a tall thin man whose white skin is covered in the same marks that cover its true form. Its hair is lank and black and fades into the heavy folds of its black robes. Its face is barely more than skin stretched over bone, and its eyes are giant hollow sockets, each set with a pinpoints of cold blue light. It hovers in midair, staring down at Waka.

You are far from home, Prophet,” it says. The mouth doesn’t move: the human shape is just a construct, after all. “Here, in the nest of Our enemies.

“Funny,” says Waka. His entire body aches; blood drips into his eyes from a forehead gash. “That you would talk about nests, after an attack like that.”

We hungered,” says Yami. “It has been so long, and they were so weak. Why are you here, Prophet?

Waka says nothing. He shifts his weight, though, gripping his sword more firmly.

We had thought you to be with the Princess.

“And I thought you were banished to the darkest parts of the universe,” Waka says, the words spilling out before he can quite help himself. “The Queen of Takamagahara found you wanting, didn’t she?”

He has a moment to think that it was a mistake, to mention her aloud–Yami’s face changes finally, twisting into an inhuman moue of anger. The skin across its narrow face blackens and flakes away, revealing the metal framework underneath. Its mouth creaks open finally, and the air echoes with the echoes of its terrible shriek; the very air flinches away from it. Waka staggers and nearly drops Pillowtalk in that shock. Before he can regain his balance, Yami is upon him, metal claws grasping and shoving. He is pinned in five different places, limbs and throat, and the Yami no Sumeragi looms over him, stinking of darkness and corruption, of a thousand coiled demons waiting to be vomitted free.

Where is she,” it snarls at him. “Tell Us where the sun-wolf hides.

Waka almost laughs. He would laugh, if he had the breath for it, but instead it comes out as hiccuping breathes. “I don’t know,” he says. “Ma petite has taken off for parts unknown. Didn’t you know? She followed Orochi to the mortal plane.”

It is not a mistake to say or a confession to make, he thinks: Yami is hardly foolish, and the Ark is full (was full) of golden-haired bright-winged celestial gods, none of whom would have left Takamagahara if their mother-protector still roamed that place. Still, a frisson of worry goes through him at how Yami’s eyes flicker. The pressure at his throat intensifies until he can hardly breathe from it. Yami leans in close, so close that Waka can hear wires snapping and gears turning just beyond the human facade.

She cannot hide forever,” it says, and there is something outright satisfied in its voice, and it makes Waka’s skin crawl. “Orochi will draw her out. You will take us to meet her.

He wants to say, I would much rather die, thank you, but the words strangle in his throat. For all that he has spent years living in Takamagahara, softening under the light of the sun, he is unable to form the denial–he is still a child of the moon-tribes. He still bows under the weight of his god’s hand. Waka closes his eyes and says nothing, and when he is released, all he can do is rub his throat and cough. The sound of his voice echoes and echoes and is answered by the sounds of feasting.

Waka goes back to the cockpit and walks slowly, skirting fallen bodies where he can, but his geta are still stained with blood and worse by the time he sits again. He knows that the Yami no Sumeragi has followed him, and the entity’s sheer suffocating presence turns the already-small area outright claustrophobic. It says nothing with its proper voice, but the shadows hiss and gloat amongst themselves. They anticipate the taste of the sun’s blood and the way her flesh will smell, roasted upon her flames. One whispers for a desire to see her belt wrapped around the waist of the Emperor, as punishment for her rejection eons ago.

Ushiwakamaru of the Full-Moon Tribe hears every single word that isn’t spoken. He closes his eyes and sees the Great City burning, the Temple razed to the ground and the princess being dragged, screaming, into a ship that will take her to safety. He knows this will be true, just as the screams that woke him in the first place: Yami will turn his fury upon his own people as punishment for a single man’s betrayal. And it would be certain that each and every single person knew, as it cut them down, the name of the traitor.

He makes his choice.

When Yami’s back is turned–perhaps glorying in the carnage that its army of imps and worse have wrought–Waka grips the controls for the Ark and slams the controls forward, and sends them plummeting down, down, down.

+++

Waka awakens to snow and bitter cold on his face.

He opens his eyes and sees a steel-gray sky, sliced through by white flurries of snow. It takes some effort, but he manages to push himself up to his hands and knees finally and look around.

Though he is in a snowbank, which cushioned his fall–how he was thrown free from the Ark, he doesn’t care to speculate–and he can see that the ship has been split in half. Imps and other monsters are trickling out of the cracked hull like blood from a wound, winding in a terrible line out into the snowy wastelands. The wind shrieks in his ears, but it carries softer notes–a human settlement, not too far from here. Waka gets to his feet and dusts himself off; his entire body aches terribly, and the cut on his forehead burns worse than fire. He closes his eyes and listens harder.

And there–there, he hears it: a single glorious crystalline note, the entire world singing for joy under each soft footstep of an exploring wolf. Waka sags with a relief he didn’t expect, covering his face with one hand. He almost laughs, but he feels scraped too raw and thin to muster up the energy.

“Ah, my dearest,” he says softly. “Will you be very angry with me? I only did what I thought was best.”

She does not answer. Waka makes a rattling noise in his chest that would have been a laugh at any other time, then makes his way to the ledge. The downward descent, to the frozen-over surface of the lake where the Ark crashed, is a careful and painful process. It will be some time before he can move freely again, with anything approaching the grace he’d shown off so carelessly in Takamagahara. He turns his face to the wind, which puts the sliver of the moon that is visible in the dark sky behind him.

He walks without ever looking back.

First to civilization, he thinks, or the closest equivalent thereof, and from there to warmer climes, to the village where Amaterasu waits for the Chosen One’s birth. It might be a long time yet, he knows–his dreams are never specific–but he does not think she would mind his company. He will confess to her, hands and knees in the dirt, and knows she will forgive him, though she will weep for the lives lost–both of her people, and of his. The other brush-gods will be at her side, and he knows she could rebuild a far greater empire with less material than she will have, returning to her home. And perhaps she will read his good intentions and allow him more than forgiveness–perhaps she will give him a home in her court, and he could sing songs for her to make her smile.

Buoyed by hope, he picks up the pace. He can imagine it so clearly that he could mistake it for a dream–the celestial plane reborn, scoured clean of the corruption and blight left in the wake of Orochi’s attack, and the shining spires of the Sun-Temple built tall and sleekly white as the fur of the wolf who patrols its floors. He can smell the ethereal perfume of cherry blossoms, whirling in a blizzard of petals that never rot, just simply fade into the grass. There’s even a few celestials in this vision, their wings stretched wide under the heat of the sun, smiling widely, and they do not resent, they do not hate, they do not fear–Waka is welcomed back among them with open arms, and that hope is so beautiful his chest aches with it.

“Wait for me, ma cherie,” he whispers. “I am coming to you now.”

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