The Long Road

There are no oceans in Takamagahara.

There are rivers that feed into deep still lakes, there are babbling brooks and dainty ponds, so clear that someone looking down could see straight to the bottom. Some have fishes, some have dragons, and some have nothing but strange flowing plants growing along the bottom — but all of it is clean and sweet, purified by Nuregami’s steady brush.

Conversely: there is nothing but oceans on the moon when there is water to be found; people are forever dreaming up new techniques for water purification, both arcane and scientific. The cold air always stinks of salt. (And he can remember the awe on the princess’ face, when she first set foot on the heavenly plain and drew in a breath scented only of flowers.)

Strangely, he finds this is something he misses: the salty and the bitter, the life that was unendingly harsh, but with depth. There’d been meaning there, rather than endless idyllic days without hurt or want or darkness.

He resents his exile in a land of plenty. He wants to go home.

He did not understand.

+++

“I believe,” she’d said, standing unbowed before her council, her children, her voice clear and loud over their protests. She’d been dressed for war, all scarlet and gold brilliance against the white of her hair and her skin. There’d been a sword in one hand and a mirror in the other and beads of ice round her neck, and she’d stood there, magnificent and unbending, and she’d said again: “I believe.”

+++

He watched her fall.

(“Only the Chosen One can destroy Orochi. It’s not yet time.”)

He watched her die.

(“Then we will buy what time we need until he comes.”)

+++

It’s said that after the noble white wolf Shiranui died, a sea of flowers sprang up where her blood had been spilled, only to wilt away immediately after. As the villagers debated on what to do, the ground itself opened — not as a yawning fierce chasm, but in a gentle roll, the earth folding around her body like an embrace, drawing it away and leaving only a gentle mound to indicate where she had lain. Over this, eventually, a statue is erected.

It’s said that for weeks after, you could hear a single lonely flute playing in the woods, and in that song was the story of the famous battle that destroyed monstrous Orochi. In the long careful weeks of rebuilding that followed, Kamiki’s lullabies were those of death and sacrifice, and a life too vivid to be contained by the mortal world.

It’s said the sun itself dimmed on that great and terrible day, and has never been as bright since.

+++

And then there comes the morning where the sun dawns brighter and fiercer and more brilliant than has been seen in a hundred years. High above Sei-An City, he watches as the skies catch fire and the flush of color that spreads across the land. In one hand he holds his flute; in the other he holds his sword. Darkness is still coming; he can see the pestilence that lurks at the horizon, waiting to descend.

But even so, there is still hope.

With his breath held in his lungs, he watches the sun rise.

+++

He meets her: in the forest, by the ocean, in the icy lands of the far north, and finally within the bowels of the Ark. She still doesn’t remember him, but she still moves when he calls to her. She doesn’t remember, but she knows, and that is just as good.

It’s enough to gamble on, when the darkness would strike her down. It suddenly doesn’t seem so long ago when their positions were reversed, on the edge of Takamagahara with the wide unknown of the mortal world stretching below them. The last time, the blow had come for him while she guarded; she’d fallen to earth and taken the sun with her.

Ushiwaka smiles as the blow connects, smiles as his body hits the ground and bounces once, smiles as he falls and falls and falls.

It is, he thinks, a worthy way to die.

+++

And yet he’s not dead.

They rise to Takamagahara, his small ship and the Ark chuffing along after, like some huge docile herd beast being shephered back at last. Below them, the mortal plane drops away, first to miniature detail, and then to nothing but large patches of color. He finds himself watching the ocean when he can no longer see the spires and roofs of Sei-An City. It surprises him to feel regret about leaving the world behind — they will find no priestess sufficiently powerful enough to succeed Himiko, and so the Emperor will come to power.

Ushiwaka walks the corridors of the Ark and wonders at the quality of darkness. It no longer lives and breathes, and the only noise comes from the echo of his feet. He traces his own path from years ago, the mad dash to urge his passengers to the center of the ship, because if they could only mobilize and unite, they could surely win–

Instead they’d clung and cowered, a hundred tiny trembling gods devoured in an instant.

He doesn’t weep: he hasn’t wept in all those years, not even for …

Her footsteps make no sound, but he knows she stands behind him. They closer they draw to Takamagahara, the more she changes. Like a snake’s skin, the trappings of her mortal self are being shed — or perhaps they are simply mending, all those broken loose parts drawing in and reknitting. He cannot turn to look.

And she says: “It’s all right.”

Within the Ark’s great hall her voice echoes. If you knew how to listen, you might be able to pick out thirteen distinct notes. Ushiwaka draws in a breath and holds it.

“It’s all right, Ushiwaka.” He knows she’s walking towards him and holds himself still. The hand on his shoulder is slim and elegant in shape, and yet heavy with calluses across the fingers and the palm. He can feel them even through layers of cloth.

He turns and looks upon Amaterasu-oomikami’s face. Today she is a wanderer, not a warrior, but her face is exactly the same as it was before, when she stood and said I believe. The thought crosses his mind that, if he touched her, what he would feel would not be flesh, but a steel that is harder and sharper than the blade she used to cut down the Emperor of Darkness.

So he reaches out to test; the skin of her arm is resilient and soft and is strong enough to carry the world. He looks up at her face again and sees her smiling now, and it feels like she’s reached out and put her arms around him in an embrace.

“You’re no fool,” she tells him. “You just needed the distance to see.”

He kneels and closes his eyes; she touches his head with her fingers sliding through his hair.

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