At Dusk, We Parade Amid our Darkest Demons
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As I walked along a trickling river, hints of the sea danced on the wind, beckoning me closer as my travel towards the coastal city of Hagi and the towns surrounding it continued. Traveling through this stroke of the ink that makes up the collection of dashes and dots resting off the coast of the mainland this time made my heart flutter. So much had changed as of late, and I was looking forward to scribing all that obstreperous creation had to offer.

I crested the rolling hills of the countryside, and the light tones of the waniguchi met me as the shinshoku spotted my expected arrival and rang the gongs to announce my approach. The small town of Mutsumi was quiet, but it, like the other towns in the Chōshū Domain, fought hard for its beliefs and managed to alter an entire country. From the outside though, the sprawl of residential housing and businesses looked the same; leave it to humans to hide drastic change under a veneer of consistency.

The serenity of my journey would have to wait until the next day, traded with the serenity of meeting old friends. At least, in theory it's supposed to be serene, but the steadily growing crowd of people that began happily running my way likely had a different perspective on serenity.

Soon enough I was surrounded by joyful faces, some I recognized, but many new faces as well. The light touches to my hands and clothes were something I had grown used to after all this time, but I did find it funny they thought I had anything to do with their own betterment, I only scribe after all.

First I saw Chikaoto, and to him, I said, "Aguri! I hope you took my advice to heart from last time."

He smiled warmly, "I did, my Lady, it's Chikaoto now."

"My apologies, your true self is almost as bright as divine light, Chikaoto. Thank you for sharing your joy with me."

Next, I saw an old and grizzled Toki Ujiteru in the crowd surrounding me. I leaned in towards him, whispering, "I remember you being nervous about your upcoming marriage, I hope that went well?"

Ujiteru took on a wistful look before responding, "I'll admit, I resisted it for a lot longer than I should've," at that he then patted his empty scabbard, "And the defense of the domain took some more time, but we've been together for five years now and I couldn't be happier."

There were many more faces, all with stories to tell (I thought about asking Takatsuji Kaya about her conflict with her sister, but figured she wouldn't remember that since she was two years of age at the time), but eventually, the crowd parted for someone I had not had the pleasure of meeting yet.

"Welcome back to Mutsumi, emissary. My name is Gou Tsuji, it's an honor."

"I am Tianhong, who scribes." We bow. "It is a pleasure to be making your acquaintance."

She slid her hands across her kimono multiple times, but I was impressed by her otherwise gallant composure. Most mortals get somewhat shakier in divine presence. With a quick chuckle at the start, she said, "I'm in charge of directing a feast for tonight, everyone plans to be there. Well, everyone except for…" she trailed off, looking over towards the shrine that I passed by when arriving while picking her lip.

I cocked my head to the side. "Does someone live in the shrine?"

She snapped out of the stare, blinking a few times before saying, "Oh no, nothing like that. There's a household on the other side of it. Did you not know about it? Have you ever met Nariie? Yuki Nariie?"

"In all my visits I've never been aware of a household behind the shrine, much less anyone living there."

Tsuji looked somewhat taken aback, mirroring my internal surprise at the blank space in my scribing. She grimaced, then said, "We always joke that the only thing that could get Nariie out of bed is divine intervention, but… I suppose even that's not true."

I thought for a brief spell, then decided, "Jokes often are based on a kernel of truth. I will attempt to fetch Nariie."

The tall wooden fencing, almost three and a half meters in height, almost hid the entire home that lie within its walls. No one could be blamed for missing it, or assuming it was simply part of the shrine since the walls ran right up against the back of it. For such a quiet town, the quiet here felt different, colder. The knots in the wood felt like they were watching me as if the walls knew I had never stepped through them. The gate was unlocked, so I entered with a cautious reverence.

The courtyard within likely had been beautiful at some point, but I was welcomed by overgrown gardens and pathways instead. Flora left to grow uninhibited is not always a bad thing, but these plants crooked and crawled about the stones, full of resentment.

The grasses brushed against my robes, their reaching out to Heaven briefly interrupted by my cloak, but otherwise, there was no issue crossing the courtyard to the entrance. I still couldn't shake the feeling of being watched, but it was clear no one had been here in quite some time, so I brushed off the feeling and entered the main household.

"Hello? Mr. Yuki?"

… No response.

I closed the door behind myself. It seemed like the only light left in the household was the soft glow emanating from my own form. The dwelling was fairly simple: a collection of zabutons rested about a chabudai closer to the entrance, and at the back right of the room was a small kitchen space, with a sparse selection of rusted pots and utensils hanging on hooks descending from the rafters above the kamado stove. To the left there was a hallway with an open doorway at the end, the rest lined by paper-covered sliding doors. Two string instruments, a biwa and a shamisen, sat piled atop each other haphazardly in one corner and in another was a pile of dirty clothes. In fact, there were cloaks and other items strewn throughout the room.

That's when I noticed the quiet hissing of a tea kettle sitting on the kamado. As I moved to stand in front of it, I thought, This couldn't have been placed here more than a few moments ago. So where was Nariie?

A quiet thunk caused me to look back towards the entrance of the house, where I was met with the peculiar sight of an umbrella leaning up against the door. It shouldn't have been possible, and yet there it was, right where I had just opened the door moments ago.

Those thoughts were interrupted by the sudden absence of sound behind me. I whipped around, and the kettle was gone.

I narrowed my eyes, watching the room very closely. There was not a hint of movement or an outcry of sound, but I sensed eyes on me again. Quickly, I moved towards and down the hallway. Now noticing the many moth-eaten holes through the paper screens, I reached the doorway I spotted earlier and peeked inside.

Lying upon the least-taken-care-of futon Creation has ever presented to me insofar, was Yuki Nariie. Wearing stained clothes and a face plagued by heavy wrinkles and spots kissed by the sun, I could see in his eyes as he sat up to look at me that he had seen so much life.

He cleared his throat, voice full of tumbling gravel, "I see the Heavens have finally come to take me away. Took them long enough."

"I'm sorry, I don't think I'm who you're waiting for. I am Lady Tianhong, who scribes."

Nariie let out a heavy sigh and fell back onto his bedding. "Twenty-one years already? With all due respect, you'll find much better stories than with this old man. Return to the rest of town to fill your scrolls and leave me here to return to the cycle of Samsara."

I took a step towards him, sliding the door back into place. "I see you've decided that you're done with life, but have you thought to ask life if it is done with you?" He looked back up towards me, a quizzical expression dancing across his face. I continued, "You are alone here, and yet you remain. You have much left to give."

"For all my life, I have fought against myself, to take care of myself. To do the things I love, my music, I have always had to struggle with the weight of what feels like all of Heaven preventing me from achievement." He shook. "Even leaving the comforts of my bed can't be surmounted for many days in a row. Life has made its stance on me very clear, and I finally made the decision to stop fighting against that."

I've seen many stories like this, many people who think they've finally figured out what life has to offer, but drastically misunderstand the meaning of Samsara. Nariie's story could end here, as a warning to the next generations, but it didn't.

"Yes, your struggles are unique to you and you alone, but the fact you struggle is not." I moved over to stand directly above him, an old man who now looked somewhat taken aback. "You say that life has decided your life is worthless, then I ask again, why are you still here? Life is a fight as much as it is a joy. The cycle will always be there, and you'll know when your time has come. Only then is acceptance acceptable."

His lip quivered, but I also saw the life in his eyes gain in power. "What do I do?"

I held my hand out to him. "Today, you are going to lead me out of this house, and we will dine with the rest of Mutsumi." He took my hand. "Tomorrow is up to you." I pulled him out of the ratty cotton. He stumbled but stayed on his feet.

Suddenly, we both startled back as bangs, crashes, chitters, and strums emanated from the front room. Nariie nervously chuckled, then said, "I should've mentioned — those struggles have become a little more real in the past years."

I pressed my ear against the door and heard indecipherable whispers, covered up by shuffling and the tuning of instruments. "The tsukumogami?" He nodded in affirmation. "I had a feeling that's what I encountered earlier, but I couldn't be sure. You neglected yourself, and as such your belongings were neglected too. Now they wish to speak their mind. Are you ready?"

Nariie looked at me, steel in his eyes, and nodded again.

I flung open the door, and we were immediately met with the paper doors on the other side of the hall. However, now the holes were replaced with bulging eyes, and every pupil was trained directly on Nariie. He faltered but quickly moved out into the hallway and I followed closely behind. From the shadows above dropped a mirror, suspended on a bed of smoke - an ungaikyō. In my reflection, I saw something awful, but pushed it aside in order to focus on Nariie. His reflection was different too, depicting himself with paper-thin limbs, atrophied beyond recognition.

He sucked in breaths frantically, staring at his reflection as the mirror slowly began pushing us back toward Nariie's room. I placed my hand on his shoulder, and said, "Remember what comes with struggle."

He patted my hand, shooting me a grateful look, then turned back to the ungaikyō. "You show me a life full of hardship, but I know as long as I have to fight I will find happiness along the way. Your threats are empty." At that, the smoke dissipated and the mirror fell to the ground, surprisingly refusing to break. We jumped over it and quickly moved into the main room, eyes still following us.

Our eyes were first drawn to the kettle and the umbrella guarding the door, one which has grown the head, tail, and legs of a tanuki and the other an eye and large mouth, respectively. However, we were quickly onset from the side by the biwa and shamisen, who had both gathered the abandoned clothes and used them to mimic humanoid forms, with the instruments acting as heads of sorts. The biwa-bokuboku attempted to harass me, swinging its neck towards me like a weapon, while the shamichoro swung its bachi around wildly towards Nariie.

Nariie dodged once, twice, then lunged towards the shamisen yokai, quickly plucking a tune on the strings. The struggling clothes fell limp, then fell away. I swiftly followed suit with my own attacker and was able to disarm it as well.

We turned towards the morinji-no-okama and kasa-obake, confident in our ability to get past these final obstacles, but suddenly I was thrown aside by a large force rushing from behind us. Stepping in front of the door, also tossing the kettle and umbrella yokai aside, was the slithering stomping form of Nariie's futon, which had also grown one angry, red eye — a boroboroton, the most violent tsukumogami there is. I stretched my hand out towards Nariie, fearing the worst, but to my amazement, he appeared unfazed.

"Thank you," I remember him whispering. "You have been my constant thankless companion all these years, but it's time for me to move on." He placed his hand on the slowly shifting tufts of cotton, continuing, "It's time for a well-earned rest now, don't you think?"

At that point, I had already rushed back to his side, but the boroboroton slowly closed its eye and let gravity pull the rest of itself aground. Nariie turned to me and smiled, before stepping over the futon to stand in front of the exit. I joined him, and he took my hand. A deep breath in, a shaky breath out.

It was a beautiful day.

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