Where All Roads Lead

Chapter 3

May 18th, 2024

In the years since the Days or Revelation, the forests of the world had overgrown. Seeming to rejoice at the recession of humanity, mother nature had been quick to reclaim her old grounds. Towns became overgrown ruins, fields became rich and fertile prairies, and the forests that had been cut through and chopped down were now overgrown and dark, their canopies creating a shield against all but the strongest rays of the sun. This held particularly true in the mountain forests of Romania where the evening sun only came through the trees on steep slopes or in orange sunbeams glaring off the rocky mountaintops. These were not human lands anymore. The sounds of traffic and the hum of power stations was dead and gone, replaced by the gentle note of birdsong and the rustling of leaves in the wind.

Through the quiet and gentle noise of flora and fauna, a single human voice rang clear. It was a high voice, young and feminine, and it sang with a gentle tune that seemed to resonate through the valleys rather than cut through it. It was a lone human voice, the only one for miles around, but it did not always sing alone. Another voice chimed in, lower and more melodic, and it could sing with the purity of spirit only the supernatural could achieve. It was the voice of an animal spirit, even as it sang with human words.

Perhaps the greatest oddity of this traveling duet through the mountains of Romania was not the fact that they were singing, but the fact that they were both singing in Japanese.

“So where are we exactly, Hachi?” The human girl, Megame Kamigawa, asked as they came to rest for a moment at the edge of a river. She looked tired and a bit dirty, but had a smile on her face nonetheless. Physically she was much stronger than she’d been a year ago, able to walk nearly eighteen hours a day at impressive speeds. Though her legs were in a state of constant soreness, they felt like iron now. Of course, that almost limitless stamina was not entirely her own doing.

She was dressed in a heavily modified version of her old shrine maiden clothing. The white kimono had been tied up around her wrists and elbows, and the faded red hakama ended just below her knees with the hem to give her full mobility and keep the almost oversized garment from catching on her myriad obstacles. She wore a heavy backpack over her shoulders, laden with supplies and the odd small souvenir. She’d lost more than a few pounds and her face, while still roundish, had narrowed in the cheeks. Her dark brown hair had been cut to a short bob cut above her shoulders. It wasn’t her favorite look, and she was a mess half the time, having lacked a hearty meal or a proper bath for weeks, but one didn’t walk across a continent without making some sacrifices.

“Romania. If the local animals are to be believed those mountains we crossed were the Carpathians. This river should feed into the Olt, which we’ll need to cross at some point.”

Her companion was, at the moment, even more understated. She was a fox, though she was also much more than that. Hachi, as she preferred to be known, was a fox spirit, a kitsune as well as her friend and travelling companion. They had met a year and a half ago in Kyoto, when Hachi had introduced Megame to the world of Kami, the native spirits of Japan. That time, and in fact her entire life in Japan, seemed like a distant memory now. Her home and the life she had once had now half a world away.

She pushed the melancholy thoughts aside and refilled her water bottle at the river before taking a drink herself, taking another moment to wash the traveling dust from her face.

“Romania is still Europe though, right?” She asked “We’re getting close?”

“We’re getting close” Hachi’s face spread into the vulpine equivalent of a smile. “Less than a month to Rome at our current pace.”

“Rome…” Megame echoed the word to herself as she looked out over the river and into the forest beyond.

She had known of Rome, it was a famous city after all. She knew about Caesar and the Roman Empire and a bunch of mad dictators and the fall of one of Europe’s great civilizations. She knew of modern Rome, home to politics and art and now she was sure it was full of monsters as well. Still, Rome had always been an abstract, a faraway city in a faraway land, one she had never thought she’d visit.

Now here she was in Romania, less than a month away from what they called the “Eternal City”.
“Inari Okami-sama must reeeeeeally want a shrine in Rome to make us walk across half the planet!” She objected, not keeping her voice down.

“What Inari Okami-sama wants and what she asks of people are not always the same thing.” Hachi maintained her usual sly and seductive manner. “Never bet on a spirit to be transparent.”
She barked at her own pun as she stretched her small red-furred body.

Megame frowned but did not object. At this point what was she going to do? Give up and turn around to go home? It was a bit late for that by now. Megame had not come to Europe on her own whim. She had been sent on a mission, an important one, perhaps the most important of her entire life, or at least so the Okami had said.

An Okami was not a regular spirit like Hachi. They were tremendously powerful, orders of magnitude above a small animal spirit, and they derived that power from worship and belief rather than from the natural mystic energy of the world. In the west, she supposed, they might be called gods. Her patron was a particularly famous one, whose shrine Megame had tended as a part-time job before the world had ended. Inari Okami was a potent being with many domains. She (or he as the deity saw fit) was the patron of wealth, commerce, bounty, foxes, and perhaps most prominently luck. It was this goddess of plenty that had singled out Megame and sent her on her task. Inari had more shrines than any other Okami in all of Japan. She was beloved by traders and merchants from ancient times to the modern era, and now she said she wanted a shrine in the last great bastion of Western civilization: Rome.

The only problem with having a shrine built is that she needed boots on the ground, so to speak. She can’t just conjure up faith from nothing, and so she had needed an ambassador, a spokesman, and a miko. Megame had apparently fit the bill. The Okami had called Megame her champion, had blessed her with amazing endurance and a greater capacity for reading terrain. The fox, Hachi, was Inari’s servant (though Megame guessed a slightly begrudging one) and acted as a more formal guide. Together, the pair had set off across the world to find this eternal city, and now they were almost there.

“Let’s keep walking.” Megame smiled “We’re almost there, I can feel it.”

“Heh, right this way.” Hachi sprang to her feet and set off again into the wilds.

They could not keep walking for long. The sun was going down and as it hid behind mountaintops it tended to get dark more quickly, even if the afternoon darkness of winter was long since over. So it was with a sigh of relief that Megame saw the trees ahead of them part, the game trail beneath their feet hardening into a path as they came across a small village hidden in the valley.
“Finally, a place we can stay.” Megame breathed a sigh of relief. “Maybe we can find a good inn with hot meals, and a bath!”

They had camped out nearly their entire trip. Fearful of bandits, raiders, and the monsters that plagued urban areas meant they had lived almost exclusively in the wilderness like animals, a comment that Hachi had not taken too keenly to. Still, Hachi was smarter than the average fox and had come to enjoy some of the creature comforts of humanity. Unlike Megame, however, she did not have a smile on her face as they came into the town.

“Do you hear that?” Hachi asked, and Megame listened carefully for whatever sound Hachi had heard.

“I don’t hear anything.” Megame gave her a shrug.

“That’s just it.” Hachi growled. “Nothing. Where are the people? Where are the birds?”

“Ah…”Megame froze up, reaching into her pockets as she drew out a small paper charm that she held between her fingers.

Soon a sound did come, a scuffling irregularly noise of things being dragged over rough ground. Whatever it was, it was not the noises humans made.

Hachi shifted her form, the image of the fox vanishing, replaced instead with the elegant fox woman Megame had met in the shrine a year and a half ago. Now however, her beautiful red kimono was tied off, and a sword was at her waist.

“Get ready” She said, drawing her sword.

From between the buildings, moving towards them came a small crowd of monstrous figures. Human corpses, stripped of most of their flesh to leave little more than rotting bones, moved towards them. Their bodies seemed to smoke with an evil black mist, their bones burned like soot and their eyes gleaming with unholy light. They let out a slow resonant screech as they caught sight of the pair, moving more quickly towards them as Hachi readied her curved silver blade and Megame looked down at her charm to read.

“Amaterasu-Omikami, your servant calls for aid to strike down the unclean and purge the dark with sunlight.”

She had never requested aid this far from Rome. Even to the most powerful in the pantheon she was still so far from Japan, it might not work…

A harsh beam of sunlight broke though the late evening haze, as if reflecting off a mountaintop it filled the town and came down on the pair of them with particular brightness. Megame felt divine energy course through her blood as her body seemed to drink the divine sunlight. The Okami had heard her call and given a portion of her strength.

The pair of them rushed forward, Hachi’s sword flashing in the sunlight before cleaving through the neck of the closest monster. She whirled around, beautiful as she was ferocious in a fight, and the sword continued tis graceful course through several more of them.

Megame was not so elegant. She charged forward, her body now radiating sunlight as she slammed herself into the closest ones. Her hands took hold of the monster’s moldy smoking skull, and the light began to pour into it, the divine sunlight radiating outward from her hands and reducing the cursed skeleton to ash. The creature screamed only for a moment as bony hands tried to grab her wrists and hair, only for them to disintegrate as well. The skeleton was dust in seconds, and Megame ran again, picking her next target.

Though they had chosen the wilderness path and had the blessing of a luck goddess, their trek had not been without issue. Megame had needed to learn how to fight from day one, and Hachi had passed on all martial arts knowledge she knew. Nothing formal, and Megame was trash with a sword, but enough to fend for herself. Megame’s real power was not in her own strength after all.

She was Inari’s champion, but her greatest strength was the ability to channel the energy of any of Japan’s kami into herself, sometimes more than one. The charms she needed were painstaking to create but the power they brought, particularly those of the Okami, could annihilate most monsters without too much trouble. Still, all the power in the world couldn’t help her if she got distracted.
“Megame!” Hachi’s voice rang out just in time for her to whirl around and see the glowing yes of the fiendish skull bearing down on her, its crooked sharp teeth mere centimeters from her face. She froze, terror coursing through her, but almost as soon as she looked, the cursed monster’s skull exploded into a thousand tiny shards.

A bang echoed through the town less than a moment later. It sounded like a gunshot. It was a gunshot!

Megame blinked in surprise, catching herself just before she was again caught off guard, and slamming her palm against the forehead of another monster, turning its skull to ash. She and hachi had taken most of the skeletons, and the rest seemed to be in retreat. They cut down those close to them, but several more loud cracking bangs rang out as the remainder fell to the ground, their heads reduced to fragments thrown around like shattered pottery.

As the last one fell, Megame could only stare in astonishment. A marksman? A sniper? Out here in the woods? Why? Were they helpful? They certainly seemed to be…

A thousand questions filled her mind, but Hachi was the first to act. The fox woman moved between Megame and the source of the gunshots, sword still drawn.

“Reveal yourself!” She called out into the darkness, growing stronger as the divine light began to fade from Megame.

It took a minute of silence, but soon their ears were greeted by the sound of casual footsteps. Rounding the corner to meet them stepped a woman, looking to be in her mid twenties. She was dressed mostly in leather, with black pants and an open black jacket over a white shirt that showed off her midriff. Her skin was pale, almost freakishly so, giving it a soft blue glow in the growing moonlight. Her hair was jet black and held behind her head in a long ponytail. Over her shoulder was slung a long sniper rifle. She didn’t seem to carry anything else.

“Evening” the woman said casually, and Megame was a bit shocked to realize she understood her. Before she had needed Hachi, a spirit who spoke all languages to translate.

“You speak Japanese?” Megame asked, stepping around from hachi, eyes wide. The fox had, for her part, lowered her sword, but kept it still drawn.

“Nope.” The girl shrugged “But I’m guessing you do, with the weird getup and the fox lady and all. Weird, isn’t it?”

“Er…yes, very weird…” Said Megame, before blushing slightly and falling into a bow.

“Ah, forgive me. I’m Megame Kamigawa, from Kyoto, this is Hachi, a fox kami.”

“Kara” The woman inclined her head a bit in greeting. Hachi grudgingly bowed as well.
“I wanted to thank you for saving me.”

“Just a detour, don’t worry about it.” Kara shrugged. She began to turn away but Megame stopped her. She’d gone weeks without anyone but Hachi for company. She needed someone else to talk to.

“What are you doing out here, if I might ask?” She said, rushing to catch up to her as Hachi reverted to her fox form.

“Working” Kara said “I do a lot of business, and it might be for the best if you stay out of it.”

“You work with a rifle?” Megame asked “Oooh are you a monster killer?” She obviously wasn’t a bandit. If she was, no doubt she would have shot Megame rather than the skeleton.

“Of a sort I guess.” Kara said “Look, it’s dangerous work and I don’t usually take tagalongs.”

“We’re going in the same direction and it’s good to have company.” Megame insisted.

“Where are you headed?” Kara asked.

“Rome” Megame smiled.

“Oh that’s not far off.” Kara said with a polite level of interest though precious little more.

“What is your job anyway? Maybe I can help!”

“Well…you do seem like you two can handle yourselves a bit…” Kara trailed off.

“Come on, let us keep you company at least. I’m just curious.” Megame gave her best infectious smile.

“Well…between us then…” Kara looked away “My newest job is to assassinate a vampire.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=6&sl=942
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One thought on “Where All Roads Lead

  1. Pingback: Where All Roads Lead | The Cities Eternal

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