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PROLOGUE : Warnings in Frost

Mid Autumn

 

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"This place is changing, and it's not the season."

 

They're the first words out of Yoriie today, and probably within the last cycle of the sun as a whole. He drops the freshly killed deer carcass slung over his shoulder onto the large tree stump in the middle of the clearing, a clean cut that had severed its windpipe the sole indication of its death. From the holder at his waist, he takes out a knife and sets to slitting open the deer's belly from throat all the way down, warm blood flowing and staining into the old wood as he guts the animal with practiced deliberation.

 

It's too early in the year for the forests to have grown this cold. The leaves have not begun to thoroughly brown, but already Yoriie has brought out the thicker pelts, and temperatures have dropped enough that, some mornings, he awakens to find trails of thin, spidery frost lacing the grass outside. It's unnatural, and it's been encroaching deeper into the woods with the passing months until it's finally reached the nested haven where the boy has dwelt for many years.

 

To the ordinary people of the land, the change would be just that: a strange phenomena this year; an unlucky early winter. But the onmyoji and youkai would turn their senses to a different source: there is something heavy about the snow that has already begun to cover the outer edges of the forest, a distinct feeling of oppression that has seeped between the trees and wound its way around branches and boulders, filling the air with an invisible miasma. Nether force is that which chokes out growth and distorts life into a warped image of itself, evil that corrupts the soul, and though this is the first time Yoriie has ever felt it, his instincts and old teachings identify it clearly enough. Unhappy with the disturbance of the outside world on his sanctuary, Yoriie frowns more deeply as he finishes removing the guts and turns the carcass around to begin skinning it.

 

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"..."

 

Something is wrong in this forest.

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Bakudai leaned against a nearby tree, toying with his pipe in his fingers for a moment or two before placing it in his mouth. The baku had no immediate interest in the deer Master Yoriie was gutting, as he only really ate corporeal out of his own dignified taste. Master Yoriie, on the other hand, required sustenance, which was often scarce, so it was no place for Bakudai to ask for a piece.

 

Glancing at Ivoh'to, Bakudai grinned, blowing a puff of sand in the air.

 

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"Perhaps a cat's playful prank?" He jested, knowing full well it wasn't. "Otherwise I'd be pleased. Changes in seasons bring many a bad dream to the commonfolk of this area. It'd be a feast. But now alas." He casually shrugged, an aloof smirk dancing on his lips.

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If there was any sort of change in the forest, Nil did not notice it by its atmosphere... but just looking at what was going on in the physical sense. To them, the atmosphere surrounding them was always bleak, unchanging... they had no sense of what was wrong or right with the atmosphere. They only could see that the forest was changing, and it was alarming... what was all of the white stuff covering the forest? It was soft, yet cold to the touch... something was definitely wrong with the forest. They felt they had to get all of this white stuff off of the trees before...

 

...until they realized what Yoriie said. Season. That word rung a bell in their head... Season. A season would be... something changing. The environment... changing. They vaguely remember what it was like... but they hadn't a clue what really happened within them. But they figured that... the snow had something to do with it. They scooped up a small ball of snow in their gloved hand, examining it. It was a normal part of life... another one they had missed. Another one they had forgotten.

 

Unable to read the atmosphere properly, Nil sulked back over to the group, letting the snow fall to the ground. They hadn't removed their hood ever since the newest one had come to join... they didn't like removing their hood. They knew what they looked like underneath... they didn't want to scare the new person. They didn't want to scare anyone, really. Unless they had to... but Nil hoped that time would never come.

 

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"..."

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The newest of Yoriie’s shikigami, a rather combative figure in black samurai armor, a mixture of leather and metal plates, with short black hair defying the typical topknot in favor of being unkempt unruly and a hole in his face emitting spirit fire, had been idly swinging his large sword around, occasionally clipping some grass or small shrug with it. 

 

Yoriie actually speaking for once drew the attention of the shikigami, Kietasenshi, who rested his odachi on his shoulder, listening — and then when the Baku spoke, Kietasenshi made his reply. “Maybe it’s some sort of youkai causing the season change. That’d be fun - I’d get a chance for a new battle. I mean, I like,” picking fights with, “sparring with you all, but there’s only so many times that I can have the same fights in the middle of this damn forest before it starts to become monotonous.

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The cat with the affinity for all things cold rests on a nearby tree's branch. He was licking his paw before rubbing said paw across his face. His head popped up when he heard reference to him,  "Aaah, ya caught me. It is I who is the cause of all this cold. Truly only one of great power could do this!" Ivoh'to said playfully. He then put his head back down after the armored one spoke,  "Is fighting the only thing you care about? And before you ask, no I still won't spar with you! Ever!" He really wasn't interested in nor liked their new member. Fighting, fighting, always with the fighting.

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"Hopefully not. Big powerful youkai like that are no good for business." Yoriie was concerned, and that made Megumi concerned. "And so are crop failures." She eyed Kietasenshi for a moment. The sword wasn't quite sure how she felt about the ghostly warrior. One would think the two would make a perfect pair, but the other youkai was far too bloodthirsty for her tastes. "Maybe some forest witch messed up a curse. Or got one right, I suppose." 

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Kietasenshi opted to respond to Megumi first, languidly looking over at her. "I hope it's not just a forest witch. Assuming it's not some sort of master witch, fighting the weak does not really appeal to me. It's not a challenge." Plus, living samurai and court officials did that enough already. "A proper youkai would be much more interesting. Hey, it would even mean Yoriie could get another shikigami, right? A win-win for everyone involved, as far as I see it."

 

With another turn of Kietasenshi's head came his response to Ivoh'to. "Well, yeah, of course. I didn't reject the afterlife for the sake of poetry and calligraphy, I'll tell you that. There's... nothing quite like a battlefield, I have always found. ...and I don't suspect I would much enjoy sparring with you anyway, Ivoh'to, unless you improve. I suspect I could just quite literally punt you and then that would be the end of that. It would be very disappointing."

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"..."

 

Yoriie glances sidelong at Kietasenshi posturing off to the side with a dour look, not particularly fond of the implication that he simply sets out and collects shikigami as if it's a pastime. He has no intentions of winning shikigami through conquests of any kind. A quiet, undisturbed life in these forests was all he had sought after... 

 

He makes no other move to address the scene though, even as the swordsman spirit openly taunts Ivoh'to. Methodically cleaning the skinning knife with a skin of water, he tucks it back beneath the pelt around his waist before looking up at Nil's silent approach.

 

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"Do you want something?" His neutral tone doesn't particularly invite company, but it isn't aggressive, either.

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Did Nil need something?... No, nothing they could really think of. At the moment, they just wanted to know what was going on that everyone was in such a fuss about that Nil couldn't feel... maybe they just weren't good at reading the room.

 

To be honest, they wanted to know exactly what the white stuff on the ground was... they knew what it was, but they couldn't put their finger on it. Even just the word of what it was would help... but it clearly wasn't what was on everyone's mind. A simple shake of Nil's head was all they needed to convey to Yoriie as they stepped back a little bit, not wanting to get into Yoriie's space more.

 

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"..."

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"Hmph, you'll have to catch me first and I doubt those stubby legs of yours could keep up." The feline spoke continuing to clean his face. Not wanting to egg that brute on any further, the cat tried to find something else to do. Unfortunately, he's alreadt read all the books he's 'borrowed' already, shame. He then notice the other newbie just kinda... being a downer. He can't let that stay for long! He stood up on the branch stretching out forward bum and two tails going up in the air before he leapt down onto the ground. He casually walked over the the black robed yokai before rubbing his head against his leg and purring as he did so. He looked up at the man and tilted his head as if waiting for something.

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Unfortunately, Ivoh'to picked the only yokai who has absolutely no idea of what to do when confronted with a cat. Though Nil certainly stopped in place to look down at Ivoh'to, even underneath their hood (which was not hard for Ivoh'to to see up as they looked down) and past their grisly, daunting face their expression of confusion was apparent. They stood there awkwardly as he continued to rub against their leg, just... completely unsure of what to do, especially considering Ivoh'to looked as if he wanted something. Nil continued to stand there with complete uncertainty.

 

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"...?"

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Judging by the casual scratch of his cheek, the fighting-obsessed youkai seemed... pretty much undisturbed by the cat's comments. "I mean, I'm pretty tall, so it's not like my legs are stubby. But I wouldn't want to catch you in the first place, I did kinda just explain that." Kietasenshi fell silent for a few moments. "Honestly, of the lot of you Megumi and Lord Yama are the only ones who are consistently entertaining and challenging. The rest of you just don't fight, it's honestly very disappointing, even if I like some of your attitudes. And then there's Yoriie, but he always takes out that damn talisman when I try..."

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As if summoned by the mere mention of the name bestowed to he by the young grasshopper, the familiar chimes of wind rang out with each weighted step as "He Who Lorded Over The Mountain" approached.  The wind chimes attached to his great feathered crest, they were a warning he approached more than anything else. He remembered a time he was too silent... and could kill a man before they ever saw his mighty form despite his size being that of a small mountain. He wore the chimes to prevent his wrath ever allowing that to happen once more... though it probably helped more so he could no longer take flight. The enormous bird had always had a strange air about him, one of hollow sorrow but something that bubbled just under the surface... as if one wrong move would send him into a fury unlike the world had even seen. As a result while he was not the newest arrival he was perhaps the most unknown of all the youkai that Yoriie's Shikigami.

He largely kept to himself, often taking strolls into the surrounding forest and checking the boundaries of the Master's home using the time to reflect on a great many things. He always seemed utterly ancient, as if he was by far the oldest being here as he always seemed to treat each as a child... though respectfully of course. He never used names, only concepts that he seemed to invent himself to refer to each and every soul that found their way here. Despite the palpable aura of malice that flowed from his being... there was one of a wise ruler, perhaps the reason why Yoriie had been the first to refer to him as Lord Yama. He was such a conflicting being... he truly felt like that grandfather of yours that supposedly fought in every war but would never tell you their past.

Further, he towered over every other in size. He had walked in from the wild path that he always left from. He stopped behind the fight crazed newcomer, the one that had just praised him as one of two worthy of his time. He towered over even this one, at least a full head or two above him. "l'm glad you consider them of worth, otherwise l'd be wasting my time Dark Flame." he said the clear title he used to refer to the samurai he was standing behind. His voice was that of the thunder booming off the distant mountain. His inflection was hard to read as always, no clear emotion within his words. He seemed to wait for an acknowledgement of his presence before further speech or action after such.

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The cat sighed in disappointment,  "Look pal, you're not making it easy to put a smile on your face. You're suppose to pet me back got it!" He seemed to be completely unfazed by what he saw underneath Nil's hood. Though those splotches of blood are a weird fashion statement to say the least. But hey, whatever he likes to wear is his choice. Though he could also use a fresh cloak. Maybe the next caravan would have one.

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Nil could see the expression of disappointment on Ivoh'to's face... Nil had a tendency to do that, make people feel disappointed when they expected something out of them. They had forgotten what it was like to do just about... anything related to a human normally, except a few select things that would probably be just about useless at this point. On the other hand, it was nice seeing someone not recoil in fear when looking at their face.

 

They tried to rack their brains at all for how they were supposed to pet them back. Just a faint vision... did they have anything like Ivoh'to when they were still a human?... If they even were at one point? No, they had to have been... but what were they supposed to do?

 

...Petting... Petting...

 

...After about half of a minute of being in deep thought, something briefly came to their mind. They bent their legs, then attempted to stroke Ivoh'to's fur as gently as he did for them. They still looked somewhat confused, as if still wondering if they were doing it right.

 

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"..."

 

In a rare occasion, Nil brandished their free hand, and waved it gently, creating words made of shimmering yellow light in stark contrast to Nil's dark exterior...

 

Like this?

 

They shimmered for a brief moment upon finishing their writing, then solidified in midair in a black encasing, showing the true nature of Nil's magical prowess; darkness that consumes a once powerful light. Almost immediately after Ivoh'to finished reading, the words disappeared into a puff of black smoke.

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Something imperceptible and intangible changes about Yoriie when he looks down to see Ivoh'to rubbing against Nil's leg. Even though the cloaked youkai doesn't respond, and even though nothing about the onmyoji's expression or posture change, there's something softer in his gesture as he slices off a fatty piece of the deer's hindquarter and passes it down to the feline before returning to quartering the meat with broad, firm strokes of his tachi.

 

Lord Yama's approach and Kietasenshi's remark brook no further response either; he seems to be thoroughly accustomed to the former's comings and goings and the later's pervasive exasperation. Instead, he simply moves to set up a fire and arrange the meat to cook. Within moments, the pungent smell of roast begins to waft through the clearing.

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Bakudai approaches Kietasenshi from the side, bonking him slightly on the head with his pipe.

 

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"Silly willy warrior, I bet your dreams would be completely tinged with the pungent iron taste of blood." From his other hand, he'd sprinkle some sand over Kietasenshi, making the other yokai feel a bit tired, but not enough to force them asleep. Yokai were relatively resistant to that and, besides, their dreams usually tasted stale. There was no point. He'd push the slightly dazed Kietasenshi to the side with his hip before turning to Lord Yama and giving him a slight court bow.

 

"Lord Yama, good to see you among us. It has been a while and I was wondering whether you'd be interested in another match of Go anytime soon. I enjoy witnessing your strategic splendor even if only on a game board."

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"I mean, your form could use work but yea that's about it. Also scratching underneath my jaw is good spot too. Oh! As well as head pets!" It wasn't long before a nice chunk of deer meat was tossed to him,  "Oh yea! Thanks Yorrie!" Ivoh'to began to chow down before looking back towards Nil, meat still in his mouth,  "Sow, dew yew juss not like talking or are ya tchrying tew be fansea?"

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Before Nil could try to correct their form, Ivoh'to had begun eating. They looked back and saw Yoriie, who looked... a bit softened. At least, that was what Nil thought. They wondered why that was the case... but before they could try to wonder that, Ivoh'to had asked them a question. A question that... felt pretty awkward to explain, to say the least. One they expected to have to explain, but it was still an awkward one, nonetheless.

 

Preparing their hand, they scribbled out more words that shimmered and darkened in the same way the previous words did, this time taking a little bit longer to appear.

 

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"..."

 

I can't talk. My voice was taken from me. I can try all I want, but no noise will come out.

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The tinny chime of Yama's bells ring yet again as his head cocks to the side as he assesses the one who approaches. While he was much more than just an average bird, he certainly still possessed their mannerisms. It made it ever clear he was never human... he had grown as the spirit he was. He flexed the ruins once called wings on his back, making sure they weren't stiff before proceeding. "Ah, Dream Eater. Seems the last has left an impression on you. l hope you learned something from the match." returning his head to it's usual position he refocused his gaze. It'd seem each of the Shikigami were present. He'd have mentioned the unusual phenomena with the weather of late but by his return it seemed it'd be obvious to the others by now. He'd not waste words on what had to be known already.

"Graciously l accept. However l must rest my body and mind after such long travel. l'm sure one such as you understands." his booming voice devoid of any true emotion. 

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"Huh, zat muss really shuck." He swallowed before continuing,  "But hey, at least you can write with that cool trick of yours! Whenever I try to write stuff with my powers it always melts a couple seconds later. Its sooooo lame." Finished with his meal, Ivoh'to decided to jump onto Nil's shoulder. He had to use his claws to pull himself up at first so that may have pricked a bit. He wraps around behind his neck and lays on both shoulders.  "So what else can you do? Or what do you like to do?"

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As much as Bakudai enjoyed Lord Yama's tactical prowess in Go, he just as much enjoyed observing the bird-like mannerisms of the yokai. There was something awfully pleasing in the absurdity of he who spoke so dignified, yet remained bound by his bestial roots. He wouldn't make any of his thoughts even slightly apparent to the Lord, however. Let's just say Lord Yama could take it the wrong way.

 

BakuUse by ninjacyndaquil

"Yes of course, Lord Yama. I will rush to prepare the tea in the meantime. Its soothing aroma should help ease any aches." He gave a slight bow again and then turned towards Master Yoriie.

 

"Master Yoriie, have we any tea leaves left? This might be one of the last occassions in a while we could go look for some unless this current predicament somehow ends up getting solved soon solved."

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"like dreams of blood," the cantankerous samurai protested, "dreams of the sound of steel reverberating off of steal, the whish and crack of an arrow being split, the jar of my blade striking against armor, traveling up through my sword and my arms to my shoulders, the physicality of battle, watching where the enemy goes, anticipating their plans, sizing up their warriors and approaching them..." Kietasenshi waxed ironically poetic for somebody who had on many occasions expressed his distaste for poetry, before suddenly breaking it: "I bet you only care for... floral dreams, of courts and shit."

 

With that said, he returned his attention to The Bird. "Well of course, Lord Yama, you're the one who seems to most get into it. Half-hearted battles are much less fun, you know." Of course, that also hadn't exactly stopped Kietasenshi from rather continually trying to pick fights with everybody else, anyhow. "Say, on your recent travels, have you found any interesting battles? I miss being out of this damn forest terribly sometimes."

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The Lord Yama bowed politely in response even if his form was ill suited. He much enjoyed the soothing aroma of a lovely tea and Dream Eater had always proven an artisan in the craft. He looked forward to such a lovely exchange. The samurai so filled with the fire of youth shouted something akin to what he claimed he hated... he seemingly had a way of words when it came to explaining anything that related to battle or the slaughter of foes. Truly fascinating in it own right. As he left the Dream Eater to attend his business with the Young Grasshopper he knew that soon in the moment he'd need to prepare for whatever stupidity would fly out the mouth of The Dark Flame. It was only natural the wild one's attention would turn back to he when he was the only left with which to converse. 

To his surprise it was tamer then the usual drivel that poured forth from the burning youth. Praise for his elder and to know of his travels. As much as he was driven mad by this one he genuinely enjoyed the company as well. Due to his nature the others seemed much less willing to engage him in any manner let alone that of battle, whether physical or of wits. The Dream Eater and The Dark Flame seemed the two that had no qualms with the One who had once lorded over the mountains. They did not shy away, a thing he certainly found himself grateful of. But an answer was warranted...

"Hmmm, if I did not bear the truth of danger and of killing you in my intent, then nothing would be learned of true battle Dark Flame." which wasn't untrue of his viewpoint. However most of his intent in those bouts certainly came from his desire to be left the hell alone. He didn't feel the need to mention this knowing that it'd not hurt his feelings, just that Dark Flame would never believe that was the true reason no matter how convincing he was. "We've the ability to restore our corporeal form here so there is no true risk even if l "go all out" so to speak. Therefore, l should clearly afford you a true lesson in the art of battle and war.

He seemed to ponder a moment...his feathers ruffling and the chimes atop his head tingling as his head darted about. "As for my travels... l could speak about the Oni of the Mountain l had battled with. The battle had held me for a week and a fair few days. She was quite the powerful warrior, one of great skill and rage like myself."

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Well, Nil certainly had to admit... it did suck. Not having a voice while everyone else was able to freely speak among themselves... while Nil could still communicate just fine with their words, it was sometimes hard for people to notice unless they were directly in conversation with them. Especially when their words sometimes blended in with their appearance once the letters faded out into black. Either way... the ability to write down their thoughts was an enormous blessing, Nil had to agree as they gave a slight nod.

 

Nil gave a slight wince of pain as the cat had leaped onto their shoulder, especially considering Nil didn't expect anything of the sort. They managed to calm down their brief recoiling as Ivoh'to rested on their shoulders, finding them warm despite their icy prowess. Thankfully, Nil did not have to reorient their words when writing, their magic managed to face towards the one they were speaking to. It was a bit messy whenever they talked to multiple people as the words would often try to find a middle ground, but it worked out quite nicely one on one.

 

Before they wrote, however, they gave a slight pause. What did they like to do?... All of the things they could do were... squandered. And now they don't really know how to do anything. Their powers, however...

 

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"..."

 

I can create magical effects using my words. If I had to fight, that would be how I fight, I think.

I don't know what else I can do that I like doing.

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