Happy New Year! Sorry for the long, long delay—real life has not been kind lately. One of my resolutions is to finish this story without more major interruptions. Apologies for the wait.
Disclaimer: Ghost Hunt does not belong to me; this is a fanfiction for fun and not profit.
"Do you think she'll be alright?" whispered Mai. She and Naru stood outside the bedroom where their prone hostess reposed on a mauve satin coverlet. Naru and Mai between then had picked her up off the floor and carried her to the nearest cushioned surface they could find—a settee in one of the downstairs rooms. It was probably just as well she was unconscious; the move hadn't been very graceful. Mai had noted before that Naru wasn't particularly good at heavy lifting. They had then called Reynolds-san, who said he would be home immediately. He arrived in less than ten minutes, looking frantic, and had carried his wife upstairs.
"I think that she'll be back to her usual state of dysfunction once the pills kick in," replied Naru. He had been grumbling since the incident because they hadn't had any equipment set up to record the phenomenon. He had examined the statue, which he found to be cool to the touch, and unmarked except for the cut where the head had been separated from the torso—smooth as hot wire through butter. It was, he explained to Mai in his patented lecturing tone, unusual for a spirit to react so quickly to newcomers. Spirits usually went dormant for a while when researchers came in. The quick response indicated either a very powerful ghost, or a hoax. The incident could easily have been rigged—the cut could have been made earlier, and the unattached head dislodged by a thin wire or string from the landing above at the opportune moment. Naru was impatient to begin work, but Reynolds-san had asked them to postpone their set up until his wife recovered—he feared the noise might make her even more nervous.
Naru was of the opinion that Mrs. Reynolds was such a mess already that a bit more stress wouldn't make any difference, but he had long ago realized that making such comments tended to get him banned from interesting sites, and so had learned to hold his tongue. Instead, he took Mai's elbow and steered her towards the stairs.
"Let's go for a walk until Reynolds leaves," he said. They retraced their steps down the stairs and out the front door. Mai immediately felt more cheerful as soon as they left the ugly, oppressive house. Wordlessly, Naru wandered past the van, which was parked at the top of the driveway. The drive was the sort that inclined up from the road through a stand of trees which served to screen it from passersby before leveling out into a parking area before the house. Mai stood beside Naru at the end of the drive, breathing deeply and consciously enjoying the brightness and warmth of the sun on her skin. Naru stood for a long moment, arms crossed and brows drawn slightly in thought, gazing at the road that ran in front of the Reynolds house.
"Come on," he said to Mai, as he started off to the left. Mai wondered if he had a destination, or if they were just going to wander aimlessly to get a sense of the area. She briefly considered asking Naru, and then thought better of it. Questions would do nothing to soothe his lacerated temper.
The road on which the house was situated wound along the very bottom of a hill, one of the foothills which eventually rose to meet Mt. Yudono. To their left, the wooded rise continued, forming a wall of deep green. On their opposite side of the road, the land dipped a bit before stretching off into a patchwork of rice paddies punctuated here and there with fruit trees. The afternoon sun rode low in the sky, making the fields gleam a mellow gold. Mai felt more tension in her muscles relax; it was a beautiful scene. It reminded her of pictures from her history textbooks—this was the traditional Japan that had endured revolution and war, and had weathered westernization, economic boom, and financial crisis unchanging. She looked at Naru out of the corner of her eye, and wondered what he saw. He spoke Japanese so fluently and was so versed in traditional supernatural beliefs that it was easy to forget that Naru was, for most intents and purposes, a foreigner. Naru carried himself so confidently that he always seemed to own whatever situation he faced, but now Mai wondered what it was like for him. Did he find this landscape familiar and reassuring, or was it alien to him, reminding him that he was far from the country (countries?) in which he grew up? Or for someone like Naru, who had been uprooted so many times in his life, were all places basically the same? Mai occasionally suspected that as long as Naru had his books, his equipment, and his ubiquitous black notebooks, he would be home.
Mai was so deep in her thoughts that she didn't notice when Naru made a sharp left; it took her a moment to realize that he had turned onto a deeply shadowed path that wound through the trees and ascended upwards in a twisting series of stone steps. She was puffing lightly by the time she caught up to Naru, who had paused before the first of three torii gates marking the entrance to a shrine complex. The gates were a weathered grey wood—they may once have been painted, but the paint had long since been worn away. The trees grew close around the gates, encroaching upon the shrine and giving it a shadowed feel. The shrine itself was small, the honden and haiden combined together into a single, modest building constructed of the same grey wood as the gates. The atmosphere was utterly still, so silent that Mai was certain that there were no worshipers present at all, not even a priest.
"How did you know this was here?" asked Mai.
"We aren't far from the Dewa Sanzan here, the shrines of the three holy mountains. There is a popular pilgrim's trail that connects the three shrines," said Naru quietly. "This isn't one of them. This is just a small local shrine, which has fallen largely into disuse. Most people who want to go to a shrine in this area would go to Yudono-san, which is much more impressive. This one is, however, still in the guidebook."
He briefly rinsed his hands at the fountain, and then prowled noiselessly into the shrine itself. Mai watched him and considered following, but then decided against it. Instead, she found a convenient boulder near the edge of the clearing and settled onto the smooth surface. Though it was shaded, the stone still retained the warmth of the day and Mai, who had had a long day, was lulled into a drowsy trance. She could hear cicadas, and the occasional rustle of a branch, but they all seemed very far away.
Mai was on the verge of snoozing when a voice startled her out of her reverie.
"Gracious, child, when did you get here?"
Author's Notes: Torii: Still are gates (see previous chapter). Honden: Main hall, the inner sanctum where the shrine's holy object is located. Haiden: offering hall, where worshipers offer gifts to the kami in hopes of receiving blessing or aid. I've located the town of Tokai in the Yamagata Prefecture, an area towards the north end of the Honshu island of Japan, northwest of Tokyo. This largely mountainous region is described by Wikipedia as "Hidden Japan," well off the tourist routes. However, the three shrines of the Dewa Sanzan are real, and Yudono-san, Haguro-san, and Gas-san are among the most famous shrines in Japan.