Passing the Torch

{Been writing, just been too lazy to post.  This more or less makes up for it.}

The gentle hum of steel slipping across cloth vibrated in her ears as she pulled the knife away from the blanket and in front of her body, palms clammy and eyes unfocused.  Her breath choked in her throat as she coughed up some spittle from half a night of sleep, her usually razor-sharp senses blurred and meaningless as the twilight faded from her consciousness.  She breathed in the familiar scent of her bed, her ancient house, her sweat and hair as both trickled across her brow.  The edge of the blue-bladed knife glinted dully in the barely-existent rays that streamed through the shuttered window, while the point flicked to and fro in front of her, searching out its prey.

Her eyes blinked away a meaningless dream; no one there.  Her ears twitched above her head; no one nearby.  Her nose took in the dozens of distinct odors she’d become familiar with; no one hiding.  Only the chirping of crickets and the smell of ancient wood was about that night.  Her nerves momentarily placated, she lowered the knife back down onto the soft covers and sighed, pushing herself into a seated position.  [i]Something[/i] had been there, something that’d woken her, that’d scared her.  A ghost, perhaps, or any other number of ephemeral forces that so often wandered in and out of this region, on the border of sleeping and waking, fantasy and reality.  Whatever it was, it no longer was.

 

Rubbing the bridge of her nose, she shook her head and ran her jasper claws through her dark brown hair like a comb.  She’d been meaning to cut it shorter as of late; it got in the way too much if it went past her shoulders, hanging in her face at the worst of times and picking up bits of grass and leaves at better times.  Now was not the time to be thinking of that, though.  Wishing to ease her heart as well as her senses, she slipped her lithe form out of bed and padded over to a small clothes rack, her many cream-tipped tails curled down below her, telegraphing the unease in her chest.  The pale moon bathed her bare body in a phantasmal blue light:  short, and scrappy, skin rough from years of harsh country living, hiding a tightly-wound network of muscles ever-ready to spring.  She slipped on a short nightgown adorned with lace and returned to her bedside to retrieve her azure knife, as well as its brother from the nightstand, steel a cherry red marred by the lunar lumination.  Thus armed, she swept the house.

 

The night air pricked her skin as she slid the front door open, her search having predictably yielded nothing.  Above the moon battled the clouds for control of the sky, a battle which the young lady neither paid attention to nor cared about; as long as the faintest shadow of a light was near her, she could see as clearly as any man, and when light failed her she was perhaps even deadlier.  Her house was one of many in a village outside of time, herself and two others the only permanent residents of any note.  Lost travelers would come and go, sometimes without even seeing one of the three, or perhaps not [i]choosing[/i] to see them.  The distinction between one and the other was a topic far above her head, though two other two discussed it constantly amidst riddles and sarcasm; she preferred to focus on the now, the here, the [i]is[/i], not the “might be” or the “may come to pass”.

 

She traversed the three steps from the porch to the street, the cool dirt feeling good on her skin.  There was a scent on the wind, familiar and dear to her; fresh or stale she couldn’t tell, but she followed it anyways.  The empty houses stared at her as she walked down the street, their histories and secrets far older than she was, if they even had any to begin with, or were just fabricated from the dream of some god into existence.  She looked into her spirit for a thread she often chased and batted around to give her comfort, but the thread was make of smoke tonight; the one who held it was far away.

 

However hard the breeze tried to blow the smell into the trees, she trailed it from one street to the next, leading her to a place she would have needed no nose, eyes, or ears to find.  To almost anyone else it was a storage shed next to an old manor, the kind one might keep garden tools or firewood inside.  To her, it was still a storage shed next to an old manor.  What it was did not matter.  The door was short, but she was shorter; she crept inside without so much as brushing her ears against the head.

 

She’d learned not to get used to the interior; every time she did, it would almost inevitably change.  The shed had led to many things in the past:  great palaces, libraries, workshops, torture chambers, exotic beaches, places that had not existed for thousands of years or wouldn’t exist for thousands more.  Sometimes it did not lead anywhere, or it lead into Nowhere.  What it was and where it led was subject to the whims of a being she talked to and worked with daily, a being she was on a first-name basis with and could tell jokes to.  It bothered her only slightly what that particular being was capable of, and it did not bother her at all [i]who[/i] this being was.  The being did many strange things, things she did not understand and knew she would never understand.  But the being did many good things as well, and so she was not afraid.

 

Today the shed led into a small chapel, big enough for only a few dozen to worship their Lord.  The light of a midday sun streamed through the stained glass on either side of the dark wooden pews, and motes of dust swirled in their rays from a draft in the roof above.  The young woman sniffed the new air; this was the right place.  The scent was not new, but it was thick; its maker had spent some time here recently.  She could still hear nothing; her ears picked up no wayward breaths of a hiding assassin, nor did her soul hear any chants or rights of worshippers from another world.

 

She knew already that there was nothing here worth disturbing the rest of her night over, but her curiosity was piqued.  She had been woken by “absolutely nothing”; that much she knew.  Whatever god or spirit might have dwelt in this chapel she gave no recognition to, and so approached the alter with blades still in hand.  It was elegant in its simplicity, made of polished marble slab, but no ornament rested on it.  She circled it like it was prey she had cornered, and was wondering how to strike at it.  Surely the answer would be here, in the most important place of the room?  If anything good were to be planned for, she would expect the planner to make it plain to her.  And if anything bad were to be planned, she would expect it to be waiting in ambush in a place she would inevitably be drawn to.  In either case, the answer would be here, would it not?

 

Which is why as she circled the dais, she learned an important lesson when she saw a roll of parchment sitting in the second pew.  Her eyes were instantly drawn to it, and in one quiet leap she bounded from the alter to the pew, setting one of her knives down so she could pick up the scroll.  The deep indigo ink and distinctive odor left no room for doubt in her mind; it was penned by her mentor.  Placing her other knife on the pew as well, she gripped the edge of the paper and began to read.

 

 

Chen,

 

There is much I feel I must tell you.  And there is so much more I want to tell you that words have not yet been invented for.  Some of it you already know.  Some of it you may have figured out for yourself.  But there is that which I feel only I know, that which I have lived for ages being the only one knowing.  I cannot live being the only one who knows it, and I will not die being the only one who knows it.  Whatever you think of me now, and whatever you may think of me in the future, I ask only that you read this, and remember it.

 

I could not have asked for a greater shikigami, for a greater student, than for what I received when you allowed me to bring you home.  I say this because I [i]did[/i] ask for one greater, every day, when I was still searching, and every day my prayers went unanswered, until that day.  I remember that day, when I first saw you, though you did not see me.  Just a wild cat, a savage hunter of the field, like your many brothers and sisters, and your cousins of the mountains, the forests, and the depths.  In this land there are hundreds like you, thousands, tens of thousands.  The Youkai.  The monsters.  I have seen them all.  But I did not choose them to be my protégé.  I chose you.  Not because you were the weakest, nor because you were the strongest, but because you were the strongest of the weak.  I had never seen another nekomata like you before in my long life.  But I had seen plenty of creatures far stronger, and I could see that you had as well.  You knew pride, but you also knew humility.  You knew courage, but you also knew fear.  And this duality is not something easily-learned.  That is why I chose you.

 

I have seen you grow from a impulsive beast, to a boisterous child, to a fierce girl, into a fine woman, and as much as it pleases me that I was the one who taught you, it pleases me so much more that I was simply able to witness your growth.  If ever I was too harsh, it was because I wanted you to know the importance of what I was scolding you over.  I will not lie to you, not here; I was not the best of teachers, nor the best of masters.  I am a selfish creature; all teachers desire to see their students excel.  Every success of yours I felt was a success of mine, and even now I cannot truthfully tell you whose success fueled my efforts: yours, or my own.  Perhaps I cared too much about the destination, and too little about the journey.  Perhaps I did not see your struggles because I did not wish to believe that they meant anything other than the normal way of things for a pupil.  For my failings as your master, as your teacher, as your caretaker, your sister, your mother, your friend, I am sorry.  It is my hope that after this is all over, you may find it in your heart to forgive me.

 

But I must tell you.  I must tell you why all that is going to happen is going to happen.

 

I must tell you about Her.

 

You know what She is like.  We have lived together with Her for as long as you have lived with me.  And what we know of Her is far beyond that which anyone else in this land knows of Her.  We know that we cannot truly know Her, that Her very existence is one of defying convention, and of breaking boundaries.  And that for all Her oddities She still feels all that we feel; that She is not empty, or incapable of emotion as some are.

 

But you do not know Her.

 

The bond shared between you and I is not the bond shared between I and Her.  We are both shikigamis, but this is but a word, a word representing a contract, and no two contracts are the same, just as no two people are the same.  You serve me, and I give orders unto you, but as a mother orders her child, and as a wise friend orders his foolish companion.  There is compassion in these orders, and respect.  There is love.  And there is no love between me and Her.  Between us, it is business.  There is appreciation, yes, there is tact and there is fairness.  But no love, and no respect.

 

It is said that she cares about Gensokyo in a way no other creature does, or can; that her love for this land knows no equal.  I can tell you that I believe this is true; she has true love for this land.  She weeps in earnest to see it torn, and devotes more effort than you know into keeping its wheels turning behind the curtain.  But she has no true love for the people within it.  They are faces to her, faces and voices and bodies, but not people.  She has risen so high above the clouds that she no longer truly remembers what it was like to live below them, and cannot truly empathize with all of us that still do.  I can see it in her eyes when she looks at me; when she looks at those around her.  Like I am an animal, or an alien, and like others are peasants or slaves; beings to be looked upon quaintly, but rarely acknowledged.

 

But she, is NOT, a god.

 

She is not omnipotent.  She is not all-knowing.  She is not invincible.  She is not infallible.

 

She is not perfect.

 

And yet, we all have believed that she is, all our lives.  Her grasp reaches so far beyond ours that we cannot hope to contemplate the question of whether or not it is infinite.  We have placed her upon the high throne; we have fear and respect of her of a kind reserved only for a god of gods.  We do no large thing in our lives without considering her opinion, as if our lives are only the sum of what she allows them to be.  And she has never bothered to correct us otherwise.  She has smiled, and batted her eyelashes, and let us gone on believing whatever we wish to believe of her.  She had neither confirmed nor denied any speculations of the sort.

 

There is a saying in the Outside world of some renown:  With great power, comes great responsibility.  She has great power.  And she has great responsibility; to say otherwise would be to deny the order she has created in this land, and the leash which she so constantly keeps upon herself.  But her power is so great, so incalculable, that no amount of responsibility will ever be great enough.  The smallest of mistakes from her, the simplest of selfish desires, can affect more than the folly and tyranny of an emperor ever could. Beings born of mortal men and women were not meant to hold what she holds.

 

There was a time, long ago when she was young and I was younger, when she respected this power.  When she knew the consequences of her actions, and when she truly respected the gravity of her abilities.  She knew peers, and she knew superiors.  She knew strength, and weakness, pride, and humility, those qualities which made you so special in my eyes.  But they are all gone from her now.  Now there is neither humility, nor pride; there is only Her.  The older she grows, the younger she seems to act.  She does as she wishes, for reasons none can fathom, with none above her to tell her otherwise, and even if her wishes begat no ill, we all tread lightly in fear of the day when they will.  And those days HAVE come, and gone, and come again, and we remember every one more sharply than the last.

 

I will suffer this no longer.

 

I will suffer HER no longer.

 

You don’t know what it’s like, being at her right hand, at her beck and call every second, every moment of rest she affords me a lie, subject to her ever-changing whims.  To know that she could dictate my every move, my every thought, and control me like a puppet with a snap of her fingers.  To know that the only reason you are reading this letter is because she has allowed me to leave it here for you to find.  To see her do so much, and yet so little.  To see her heart so large, and yet so small.  To know that she is the de-facto ruler of Gensokyo, and to know that she is the worst sort of person for it.

 

I have tried being idealistic.  I have tried very hard, for more than four centuries, to be idealistic, and tell myself that there is a larger purpose in all of this; that she is playing some kind of long game that has yet to come to fruition.  But I have seen nothing, sensed nothing.  She does not gain more responsibility, she LOSES it; she hands that which she no longer cares to take care of onto me.  I do not think anyone would even be comfortable guessing exactly how much of the upkeep of Gensokyo’s border is her doing, and how much is now mine.

 

I will stop her because I am the only one who can.  Because I am the only one who WILL.  Because I am the only one who believes that she CAN be stopped.  And because I am the only one who believes that she SHOULD be stopped.

 

And I know that I will not win.  I know that no matter what kind of a fight I put up, and how good it is, she is my clear superior.  I know she knows my techniques, and even if she many not be able to defend against all of them, I know that she is prepared for them.  And I know that she has techniques of which I know not.  She knows I am coming to fight her; she likely has known for some time, though I hardly think she has known for as long as I have.  I cannot win this fight, and if I do, by all accounts I should have been able to.

 

I will lose.  But never again in Gensokyo will there be a more magnificent loss than the loss I go to.  I will lose, and no one but you will even know I tried to fight.  But she will know.  I will lose letting her know there is still one creature in this world with the soul left to disagree with her, the heart left to act upon it, and the body left to make a decent attempt at doing so.

 

My friend, my dearest and best friend…  I do not ask you to agree with me, just because I have taught you these many years.  My reasons for fighting her this night are my own reasons, birthed from my own emotions.  You have your own emotions, and must birth your own actions from them.  If you agree with me, then may the heavens show you the mercy and grace they did not show me.  If you disagree, then may the heavens forgive me for leaving you this night.  But for me or against me, whether I win tonight or lose tonight, I release you from your service unto me.  You are a free woman, to live a life of your choosing, not mine.  I pray to whatever gods still show me favor that you will choose to look upon me again after this is all over, because once it is, you may very well be all I have left.

 

I love you.

 

-Ran

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