“I heard the place was cursed,” Anna remarked, briefly flashing a glance over to Emiko, knowing she could hear her words. “Everyone calls it ‘the dark mansion’ for a reason.”

Emiko narrowed her eyes as she prepared to argue with Anna. “It’s called ‘the dark mansion’ because of the yokai surrounding it,” she firmly stated. “There’s nothing cursed about it.”

“Oh really?” Anna playfully smiled and flicked a finger under her chin. “Have you been there?”

Emiko shook her head. “No, I’ve never been. My parents tell me I’ll have to go eventually, as everyone of the family is expected to visit the mansion at least once.”

“All to feed the vampire, I assume?” Anna asked with an open hand, her insult barely veiled.

Emiko lifted her chin up to look down at Anna. “Whatever do you mean? The Uehara shrine doesn’t tolerate evil like that.”

“Come now, Emi,” Anna said with a light chuckle as she shortened Emiko’s name — one which Emiko could barely tolerate. “You’re well aware of the legends: the Uehara family had a pact with the dark mansion; it’s even said that a vampire birthed one of their ancestors. Even if it’s just a legend, your shrine and your so-called mortal enemies are intertwined.”

Immortal enemies,” Emiko corrected Anna in a half-growl. “Our battle has lasted generations and will last many more. So yes, in a sense, we are intertwined by fate.”

“Are you truly enemies if you are so linked to fate?” Anna pointedly asked, pressing a finger under her chin. “It strikes me that you’re more akin to fighting within a family.”

“I did not intend to spark an argument,” Peter interjected as he held a hand up. “I was simply curious about the mansion since the immortal had visited our stall the other day.”

“The immortal?” Anna playfully asked. “Whatever would she buy from your stall? The blood and essence of the living aren’t exactly what your family sells.”

Peter frowned and shook his head. “No, no, she bought tomatoes. My mother seemed to be enthralled by her presence and it almost seemed as if she were going to give our entire stock to the immortal.”

Emiko mirrored Peter’s frown and glanced between Anna and him. “She knew the immortal? How?”

“She told me that she remembered the immortal from when she was a child,” Peter answered, rubbing his chin. “Apparently the immortal had conveyed some wisdom on raising tomatoes to our ancestors many generations ago, allowing the family to establish a strong crop that has lasted to this day. I did not quite believe it at first, but my mother told me not to question it.”

“How curious,” Anna remarked with disinterest, taking a moment to arrange her music sheets. “So much as your family has cultivated tomatoes over the generations, so has the immortal cultivated your family over those same generations.”

“Do you mean to imply that my family is evil?” Peter asked while narrowing his eyes at Anna.

“Of course not,” Anna wryly whispered back. “I’m merely noting that you have a connection as well, even if unintended. After all, is it any different than animal husbandry?”

“That’s uncalled for, Anna,” Emiko growled as she folded her arms. “If you go by that logic, then even you have some kind of relation to the dark mansion. A small brush here or there with the immortal by your ancestors could’ve resulted in the chain that resulted in your existence here and now. Would that truly make her a cultivator of your family as well?”

Anna lightly gritted her teeth, clearly stung by Emiko’s words. “A random brush with chance. That’s all it would be.”

“Ergo, one event in Peter’s family history does not make for a ‘cultivation,’ as you say,” Emiko smartly concluded, failing to mask her grin. “It takes a far more active involvement in our lives to meet that definition. Furthermore, there is little reason for the immortal to do such things.”

Anna displayed a dry look and shrugged. “Perhaps she wanted to have slaves without the burden of calling them as such.”

“By paying for the fruits of our labor?” Peter pointedly inquired. “She paid in gold coins, Anna. She insisted on properly compensating us for our produce, even after my mother attempted to give it all to her.”

“Further, if you believe that the immortal intended to make slaves out of all of us, then that would also encompass you, Anna,” Emiko added with a raised finger.

“I’m not a slave,” Anna growled as her anger got the better of her. “My family is dignified. Dignified! We aren’t servants of anyone of evil like those at the dark mansion.”

“Then you understand why even Emiko would not be a servant of evil either,” Peter concluded, glancing over to Emiko. “Much the same as two mutual enemies would keep lines of communication with one another, Emiko’s family ensures that each successive generation understands the conflict they are born within by blood.”

Anna shook her head and waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, so be it. It’s not my battle or my war. I’ll let the Uehara shrine find their own way.”

“And find our way we shall,” Emiko remarked, moving over to take her seat. “One day, the mansion will be free of yokai and those like them. And then Lescote will be free to chart their own destination without fear of those creatures lurking in the shadows.”

“Is it really something to be feared?” Peter asked as he sat down next to Emiko. “The immortal gave no allure of shadow. She was kind and pleasant, holding a sense of dignity that seemed to be beyond her stature.”

Yokai corrupt those around them,” Emiko answered with a glance out the corner of her eye. “They intend to lead us astray in a myriad of ways. Always be on your guard around them.”

Peter solemnly nodded. “So what Anna said was true, in a sense.”

“In a very broad and general sense, yes,” Emiko begrudgingly admitted. “Evil comes in many forms. It can be small and seemingly innocent just as much as it can be massive and incomprehensible.”

“What is the mansion to your shrine, then?”

Emiko furrowed her brow and sighed. “It’s akin to a gray area. A kind of neutral ground. I suppose the western idea of a purgatory would be apt.”

“So the immortal would not be inherently evil per se,” Peter concluded with an open hand.

“No, I suppose not,” Emiko muttered in defeat. “But those she serves could be. The vampires and the witch, at a minimum.”

“But if you have never met them-“

“One does not attain the title of ‘vampire’ nor ‘witch’ without evil intent,” Emiko sternly interrupted.

“I will give you the witch, but vampires seldom ask to become what they are,” Peter remarked.

Emiko shook her head in disagreement. “They still chose to continue their dark ways after their shift. Instead of finding a way out, they contributed to evil in their unnatural lives.”

Peter lifted an eyebrow at Emiko’s logic. “They should have chosen to die instead?”

“Yes, if that was the only option available to them,” Emiko replied with a brief nod. “Better to die than to contribute to evil.”

“But is such a fitting end for such a minute amount of evil?”

Emiko turned her head to give Peter a judging glare. “A vampire doesn’t constitute a minute amount of evil — they encompass a very large scale of it. The scale increases proportionally to the length of their lives. Remember, they must consume the essence of the living to gain the long lives they’re known for.”

“That seems quite unfair for someone who had no choice in the matter of becoming a vampire,” Peter said, a frown appearing on his face.

“Is it any different than those who end up in accidents and become crippled?” Emiko asked, leaning back and opening a hand. “Those who die before their time for circumstances outside of their control? Or being born into a situation that is inherently disadvantageous to a comfortable life in general?”

“True, but those who find themselves in those circumstances do the best they can with the opportunities they have. A vampire would be much the same, yes?”

“Once again, with the caveat that they must take from others to continue their existence,” Emiko reminded Peter as she raised a finger. “And no, what we do to exist is not on the same level.”

Peter rubbed his chin as he thought about Emiko’s words. “You would not equate the butchering of animals or the consumption of plants as the same?”

“Neither has sentience,” Emiko clarified. “Although broadly speaking, yes, the comparison could be made — and in some sects it is. The difference is we don’t need to explicitly kill in order to survive.”

“A vampire need not explicitly kill either,” Peter countered while opening a hand. “Consuming the essence of the living does not require that they kill either. The same could be said for us, as we do not kill a plant to consume the fruit nor do we kill the cow for milk.”

Emiko paused for a moment and pursed her lips as she considered Peter’s viewpoint. He does have a point. There’s nothing about a vampire needing to kill in order to survive; they simply must consume. The evil nature is… Complicated.

“Surely the Uehara shrine has considered all these implications in the conduct of their sacred duty,” Peter continued with a raised eyebrow.

“Naturally,” Emiko curtly replied, attempting to mask her own uncertainty. “But the fact of the matter is that vampires are evil. They are born in shadow and remain in such for the rest of their unnatural lives.”

Peter glanced around, seemingly trying to ensure no one would hear the words he was preparing to speak. “I had heard rumors that one of the vampires at the mansion could walk in the sunlight,” he lightly whispered. “The immortal even said that the techniques for growing tomatoes had come from her.”

“That’s impossible,” Emiko whispered back as she lowered her head. “Vampires burn up in sunlight. This is unmistakable fact.”

“I am only relaying what I heard,” Peter said, straightening himself. “It would explain things to some extent.”

Emiko let out a sigh and rubbed her eyes. “I must question my parents on this matter at once. If such is possible, we’ll have to investigate more thoroughly.”

“You had not heard the rumors?”

“I might be part of the Uehara shrine, but I’ve yet to take on my full responsibilities there,” Emiko answered. “And my path may deviate, if this apprenticeship works out.”

Peter pointed toward Emiko’s instrument at the back wall of the room. “With your violin?”

Emiko nodded. “My erhu, yes. If it brings a unique flavor that Mr. Ernulf is looking for, then I will embark on the path of a performer instead of a miko — much to my mother’s chagrin.”

“Your mother objects to it?” Peter displayed a puzzled look on his face and glanced back to the instrument. “I would think your father would dictate that.”

“No, in our family, women dictate the future of children,” Emiko explained while shaking her head. “My father encouraged my playing of the instrument but my mother felt at least one of the children should become a miko for the shrine. Skipping a generation would be unsuitable from her viewpoint.”

Peter nodded his understanding. “Ah, so one of your descendants or those of your brother or sister would have to choose the path instead. And if they were to choose not to, then no one from your family would operate the shrine.” He scratched the side of his head and smiled. “In our family — and I suspect most of those of similar background — the father charts the path of the family. Is there a reason for yours to be the opposite?”

“I only know it was decided long ago by our ancestors,” Emiko answered with a shrug. “I’ve never delved into it very deeply outside of that it was determined by the founder of the Uehara shrine, who was a miko herself.”

“Perhaps an eastern tradition?” Peter suggested.

“No, quite far from it,” Emiko muttered while waving a hand dismissively. “As I said, I never delved into it. It’s not the path for me and there’s little reason for me to know about archaic traditions.”

“Even though you have spoken of a constant battle between your shrine and the dark mansion?”

Emiko shook her head once again. “The shrine’s battle, not mine. And that is where it will stay if I have anything to say about it.”

“Forgive me,” Peter mumbled as he shuffled his music sheets. “I assumed with your speaking of evil that you had already committed yourself to that battle.”

All family members are trained for the path of a miko or a kannushi,” Emiko remarked with light annoyance. “It’s the very basis of our family and their association with the shrine. The assumption is that at least one of every generation will continue the tradition.”

Peter pursed his lips and frowned. “I am assuming that the tradition has been broken at least a few times.”

“Not to my knowledge,” Emiko muttered. “This would be the first if neither my brother nor my sister choose the path. Thus far, they seem to be better set elsewhere — which is why I haven’t been given much choice.”

“That must be why you always sound so bleak,” Anna smugly interjected, inserting herself back into the conversation. “It explains the instrument you play: always so sad and pessimistic.”

“The instrument is an extension of the artist,” a male voice boomed from the back of the room, startling Anna. The trio looked back to see Mr. Ernulf walking into the room and past the chairs to the front, turning to give a harsh stare to the group. “The sound comes from the soul, Anna. I’ve told you this many times.”

“Y-yes, Mr. Ernulf,” Anna embarrassingly stuttered. “I’ve committed it to memory!”

Mr. Ernulf sighed and shook his head, then raised an eyebrow at Emiko. “I had the good fortune of speaking with your mother, Emiko. I will only say that while you show promise, much of your future here depends on how well you tame your soul. Consider your motivations thoroughly, especially at this stage in your life.”

“Did she try to sabotage my aspirations here as well?” Emiko grumbled as she folded her arms.

“The only one sabotaging your aspirations is yourself,” Mr. Ernulf replied with narrowed eyes. “Your emotions are uncontrolled and chaotic, resulting in your sound being much the same. When you have focus, you have power — but that focus is often fleeting. If you cannot control it, then I will be forced to find a replacement.”

Emiko dropped her anger and sheepishly nodded. “I understand, Mr. Ernulf. I’ll endeavor to change myself going forward.”

“It’s a constant in everyone’s life,” Mr. Ernulf muttered, changing his attention to Peter. “As for you, Peter: your problem is a lack of emotion. You play expertly, but you have no passion. Consider a walk in the woods; perhaps the various monsters and entities will put some lightning in your spirit.”

“Yes sir,” Peter respectfully acknowledged. “I will find ways to spark my emotions.”

Mr. Ernulf let out a sigh and looked over the group. “The fact is that while you all have potential, each of you has some obstacle keeping you from embracing that potential. Before I can even think about teaching any of you, these obstacles must be removed on all your parts.” He rubbed his mouth, then waved a hand across the group. “Come back again in another week. Work on your shortcomings and we’ll see if you can make it.”

Emiko was about to thank Mr. Ernulf for the opportunity when Anna shot up and broadly smiled toward him.

“Thank you for the opportunity, Mr. Ernulf!” Anna loudly said, briefly flashing a smug grin toward Emiko.

“See me in a week, Anna,” Mr. Ernulf gruffly replied, waving Anna away. She sheepishly nodded, then turned and went to the back of the room, grabbing her viola and quickly leaving.

Peter smiled, saying nothing but standing and walking out of the room himself — as he was a pianist, he naturally didn’t carry an instrument with him.

Emiko depressingly sighed and stood, turning toward the back of the room when she heard Mr. Ernulf clear his throat behind her.

“Emiko,” Mr. Ernulf began in a clear and understanding tone, “I understand that your position in the village is something different, particularly with the fact that you yield from the east rather than the west. Your instrument is unique and I believe you would be a worthy addition to the orchestra, but only if such would not cost something greater for our community as a whole.”

“Mr. Ernulf?” Emiko asked, twisting her head to glance at the older man.

“Your mother’s intent is not to sabotage your aspirations,” Mr. Ernulf explained, “but to ensure that you understand the paths available to you here or elsewhere. There is always room within the orchestra; there is not always room in a shrine.”

“A life of a miko doesn’t suit me,” Emiko dismissively grumbled. “I have no faith in our kami, Mr. Ernulf. I know yokai exist as I’ve seen them with my own eyes, but kami are something completely different.”

Mr. Ernulf let out a sigh and lifted his chin up. “Not everything in the world is visible to human eyes. For that matter, not everything is comprehensible to the human mind.”

“Not to sound rude, but I’m far more aware of what our shrine does than you do,” Emiko replied as she continued to the back of the room, intent upon retrieving her instrument.

“Perhaps so,” Mr. Ernulf continued, taking a few steps forward. “But there are universal truths that apply whether you’re from the east or the west. The world we can see is but one small part of the world as a whole. Whether or not you believe in your ‘kami‘ doesn’t nullify the probability that they may very well exist.”

“Even if so, they have no more impact on my life than the stars in the sky,” Emiko curtly remarked as she grabbed her erhu and began walking out.

“And yet, the stars themselves do impact our lives,” Mr. Ernulf said, causing Emiko to briefly halt. She looked down for a moment and briefly opened her mouth, then shook her head and walked out the door.

Emiko opened the door to the humble abode at the shrine, hoping that the high-pitched sound of the hinges wouldn’t alert her parents. The sounds of footsteps echoing across the floor indicated her failure and she rolled her eyes over the words she knew were coming.

“How did your demonstration go, my dear daughter?” Emiko’s mother asked, a light smile displayed on her face.

“I will try again in another week,” Emiko curtly answered, slipping her shoes off and stepping into the main hall. “All of us will try again then.”

Kanon chuckled and let out a breath. “Then it is not set in stone yet. I urge you to continue to practice, but-“

“I will,” Emiko interrupted as she held a hand up, walking past Kanon and intending to head to her room when she heard an unusual voice speaking to her father in the dining room. She looked back at her mother and frowned.

“I hope that you will speak with an illustrious guest about the shrine,” Kanon continued, opening a hand to the dining room.

Emiko displayed a dry look, then walked into the dining room to see her father sitting at the table across from a woman dressed in a very western style — she seemed to be some kind of maid. “Father?” she asked, eyeing the woman warily.

“Ah, Emiko,” Emon warmly greeted his daughter, opening a hand toward her. “Come. You must meet miss… Schovajs? Is that how you pronounce it?”

“Tereza Schovajsova,” the woman answered, blinking her eyes and lightly bowing her head. “Everyone has difficulty with it, Mr. Yabuta. You may call me ‘Reza’ if it rolls off the tongue easier.”

“Shova-Scova… Fine, Reza,” Emiko mumbled, sitting down next to her father. She looked upon Tereza with suspicion, wondering why someone like her would be at the shrine — and warmly welcomed by her parents no less.

“It is easier with practice,” Tereza said, her mouth stretching in a light smile. She looked over Emiko and briefly giggled, then cleared her throat. “My apologies, Ms. Yabuta.”

Why is she so polite? Emiko thought, feeling more distrustful of the woman.

Kanon moved over and sat down next to Emiko, her own face contorted with a smile. “I sense something about our daughter has given you a brief feeling of joy.”

Tereza nodded, looking over Emiko. “It has. I can see her grandmother in her.”

Emiko glanced over to her father, then to her mother before looking back at Tereza. “How do you know of my grandmother?”

“Emiko, Reza is… Is an immortal,” Emon quietly whispered, placing a hand on Emiko’s shoulder. “The immortal from the mansion.”

Emiko felt herself gasp and almost shot up from her position, but the warmth of her father’s presence kept her in place.

“She has known our family for generations,” Kanon explained, placing her hands on the table. “We met her when we were children and she was present at our wedding, as well as you and your sibling’s births.”

“Father? Mother?” Emiko worriedly asked, looking at her parents.

“Do not fear me, Emiko,” Tereza warmly remarked as she held a hand up. “I mean you no harm. My mistress has simply asked me to be here in her stead.”

“The vampire,” Emiko breathlessly whispered.

Tereza nodded in the affirmative. “Yes, she is my mistress. You need not fear her either.”

“One of my friends knows of you,” Emiko said with a frown. “He said his mother tried to sell their entire stall to you. That you-“

“Yes, I helped his family long ago,” Tereza interrupted, bringing her hand back down to the table. “They seem to forget that there is no debt to be paid to me nor my mistress in the matter.”

“We are in the presence of someone touched by kami, Emiko,” Kanon firmly stated, giving a judging glare to her daughter. “Conduct yourself accordingly.”

“It is quite all right, Ms. Yabuta,” Tereza said, a light smile remaining on her face. “I have done this many times over the years. It is always something of a shock; I can hardly remember the times when it was not.”

“It has been difficult, yes,” Emon conceded with a nod. “To see someone who’s face has remained unchanged throughout the years is hard to fathom. Even I have to admit it is almost impossible to reconcile with my own eyes.”

“But why keep it a secret?” Emiko asked, looking at everyone around the table. “If she has been so close to the family, what’s the harm?”

“You know what position the shrine occupies, Emiko,” Kanon answered, opening a hand and waving it around herself. “Our fragile community would fracture if it became widely known that we held such close relations to a yokai.

“I remember the village before the Uehara shrine,” Tereza said as she knitted her fingers together. “I remember when your founder came here — as a child. I never would have dared to dream a future where our paths would cross, yet here we are.”

“You knew Machiko Uehara?” Emiko whispered.

“Her mother,” Tereza answered with a nod. “Eriko Uehara. I knew them both. They even tried to induct me into the shrine, but my faith lies on a different path.”

Emiko leaned back and lifted her chin up. “The western religions. Your faith lies with one of them.”

Tereza blinked and nodded again. “I suppose my faith remains strong enough that you would be able to sense it. Perhaps it will give you some solace, even if your shrine considers me a yokai.

“How does your faith work with your existence?” Emiko asked, leaning forward and frowning. “Isn’t there a price paid for immortality? Something evil?”

“There has been a great price paid for it indeed,” Tereza solemnly answered. “That price has been to watch you and those before you enter and fade from this world while I remain behind. I will be forced to watch the entirety of the world turn to nothingness before my eyes. Yet maybe, at the end of it all, I will be forgiven and allowed to pass.”

“But what of your soul? Haven’t you given it up for eternal life?” Emiko queried again.

“Emiko!” Kanon chastised Emiko. “Do not insult our guest so readily!”

“It is a fair question, Mrs. Yabuta,” Tereza dejectedly whispered. She let out a sigh and looked into Emiko’s eyes. “I never asked for immortality. I was burned in a fire during what was later known as the Hussite wars. I can remember drifting away to shadow, seeing nothing but flames in my vision, then light. I had thought God had saved me from death.”

“But you weren’t saved,” Emiko whispered in conclusion.

Tereza shook her head. “No. I do not know why I was brought back or why I survived. I never asked for any of it; I have spent many lifetimes attempting to find out why. I sinned in many ways, including the taking of my own life, but the answer to why I cannot die has always eluded me.”

Emiko glanced down as she processed Tereza’s words. I hadn’t thought of it — the idea that someone could become a yokai through no fault of their own. Further, she seems to be tormented by her immortality. Embracing it doesn’t suit her.

“It is well that you are distrustful of me and my motives,” Tereza continued, “for those like me are liable to lead you astray. I am a monster, Emiko, and nothing I ever do will change that.”

“She is a link to our own history, Emiko,” Emon said, opening a hand to Tereza. “Yet she is still someone with a past of her own — long before ours. She has seen and done things we can only imagine. It is difficult to understand because she is not yet a kami, but one day will become one.”

“No, no, that is not my fate,” Tereza objected while shaking her head. “I have no relation to your gods or spirits, Mr. Yabuta. My faith has placed me upon a different path.”

“As you believe one thing, we believe another,” Kanon warmly remarked. “We understand your faith, ‘Reza, but please understand ours.”

Tereza was about to object again, then sheepishly smiled and nodded, her cheeks lightly burning red from embarrassment. “Very well, Ms. Yabuta. I only ask that you not confuse me with gods, for I am quite far from any such wondrous powers.”

“You see it as a curse,” Emiko muttered as she glanced aside. “To never die or to be killed… What’s it like to not have fear?”

“Oh, I have a great many fears,” Tereza replied with a chuckle. “Mortal life is but one thing. My soul is another subject entirely.”

Emiko snapped her gaze back to Tereza. “You aren’t certain you’ve lost your soul?”

“I choose to believe that I have not lost it,” Tereza answered, closing her eyes and smiling. “And sometimes, when I focus on what lies within, I can still feel it within the fiber of my being.” She opened her eyes and shook her head at Emiko. “You are still young. As you gain wisdom, you will understand why I see it as a curse and not a blessing.”

“It’s difficult to see it as something undesirable,” Emiko said, glancing over Tereza. “How many times have you died?”

“Such questions are unfair to our guest,” Kanon growled, giving her daughter another judging stare. “You are representing the family poorly, Emiko.”

“And if the rest of the village should see her like this? What would that say about our family?” Emiko snapped back.

“They would see it as the business of the shrine,” Emon firmly replied, his tone booming with the authority of a father.

Emiko twisted her head to argue with her father, then stopped herself and dejectedly sighed.

“I have not come here to disrupt your lives,” Tereza said as she held a hand up. “I am here simply to ensure the shrine is still in good hands. That is all my mistress has sent me here for.”

“Why would the vampire care?” Emiko impatiently asked.

“You are… She has her reasons,” Tereza whispered while glancing aside. “One of them was a promise she made to the founder of this shrine.”

Emiko leaned forward and narrowed her eyes. “What promise?”

Tereza looked back to Emiko. “That she would watch over the shrine and the families within. That she would ensure that it would never falter on the path of light. And that she would follow her own namesake for the rest of her years.”

Emiko looked between her father and her mother before addressing Tereza again. “So the rumors are true: our family and the shrine do have a connection to the dark mansion.”

Emon let out a deep sigh and nodded, glancing over to Kanon as she looked away. “Yes, it is true,” he finally admitted. “The family has an ancestor from the dark mansion.”

Emiko rolled her head forward and stared at the table. Anna would be intolerable if she found out about this. And… I’d have to run away. Could I run away? The yokai in the forest would eat me if I ran too far. But I could fight them, couldn’t I?

“It is nothing to be ashamed of, Emiko,” Tereza warmly whispered. “I knew him. He was as far from evil as you could ever imagine.”

Yokai consume humans — flesh and souls,” Emiko growled back. “If I have such blood flowing through my body, no matter how little, I am effectively a yokai myself.”

“That’s twisting the truth and you know it,” Kanon snapped at Emiko. “You were taught long ago that yokai aren’t that simple.”

“Yes and their scheming has seemingly landed this entire shrine under their control!” Emiko shouted as she stood up and balled her hands into fists. “Everything here is a lie!”

“Emiko!” Emon loudly growled. “Sit down!”

“I will not sit with-“

“Emiko, please,” Tereza whispered, holding a hand up. “Your ancestor was not truly a yokai.”

Emiko frowned at Tereza. “But you said he was from the dark mansion. That means-“

“Nothing,” Tereza interrupted while shaking her head. “He was born there. That is all. He was raised by yokai, not corrupted by them.”

Emiko looked down and let out a heavy sigh, then brought herself down again. “Why did they raise him?”

Tereza looked over her shoulder, seemingly glancing out the window. “Because no one else would.”

Emiko leveled her eyes at Tereza’s. “No one in the village would take him in?”

“No,” Tereza answered with a brief shake of her head. “I… Tried. But my status made too many fearful of him and what he might have been. The founder of your shrine wanted so badly to take him in, but she could not. In the end, my mistress adopted him as her own.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me about him,” Emiko whispered, narrowing her eyes. “A… Barrier. Some kind of breach.” She gasped and felt as if she was staring beyond Tereza. “Return. Something commanded him to return… To what?”

Tereza shook her head again. “It is not my place to tell the full story, Emiko. That responsibility lies with my mistress — the vampire.”

“We all hear that word in the depths of our minds around your age,” Emon remarked, rubbing his forehead. “Those of us with more direct links to that part of our history, anyways.”

Emiko looked over to her mother, expecting Kanon to elaborate more.

“Yes, your father is more direct, as my family was not related to the shrine,” Kanon said to Emiko’s unspoken question. “I never heard such words, but I remember when your father did.”

“What does it mean?” Emiko asked.

“It is an ancient holdover from a situation long ago,” Tereza answered. “The mistress will explain her side of the story. Ms. Kaempfer may also elaborate on her understanding of it.”

Emiko frowned and blinked. “Miss… Kay… Whatever, who’s she?”

Tereza lightly lifted her chin. “You know her as the witch.”

“Oh, Anna will have a field day with this,” Emiko hopelessly whispered as she rolled her head forward onto the table.

“She taught the young mas- your ancestor,” Tereza said, barely catching herself. “She is not evil as the rumors and legends make her out to be. Much of the village only exists because of her protection.”

“You were his servant, too,” Emiko whispered again, lifting her head up. “Right?”

“To a degree, yes,” Tereza conceded with another light nod. “I cared for him along with the others. In effect, he was the child of us all — a child of the mansion as a whole.”

“But why? For what reason would yokai do such a thing?”

“We each have our own answer for that question, Emiko,” Tereza whispered in answer. “For me, it was because of my faith.”

Emiko shook her head in disbelief. “A faith that the vampire lacks — so why would she not only take him in, but adopt him as her own? Why didn’t you take him?”

“I desperately wanted to do so,” Tereza replied as she stared at the table. “I so badly wanted to protect him from my mistress, for I feared what she would do with him. But if I had taken him, he would have become a servant to her as I was. Yet when I saw her hold him, I could see her fears were the same as mine: that she would falter. That she would fail. She mustered her courage, Emiko, and endeavored to conquer her fears. Because of that, you are here today, untouched by the evil that surrounded her.”

“Would she tell me her reasons for doing so?” Emiko pointedly asked.

“I do not know,” Tereza answered with the shake of her head. “That has always been between her and the descendants.”

Emiko once more looked between her mother and father. “You expect me to go to the dark mansion? To become the next keeper of the shrine?”

“We would like you to consider it, yes,” Kanon conceded. “Your brother and sister have their lives ahead of them. You are still undecided.”

“I’m going to become a musician!” Emiko protested, balling her hands into fists.

“Nothing says you cannot do both, my dear daughter,” Emon remarked with an open hand. “You are more than capable of balancing both your duties to the shrine and the orchestra.”

Emiko was about to argue further when she saw Tereza hold a finger up. She sighed and depressingly waited to hear her words.

“No matter the choice you make,” Tereza began, “at the very least you can see for yourself if the rumors are true. The mistress may surprise you. You will not be harmed; on this I will swear my sacred honor.”

Emiko pursed her lips as she thought for a moment. It’s tempting. I could use it as an excuse to escape through the forest. Make my own future beyond here. There have to be settlements beyond, places I could stay.

“Take the opportunity, Emiko,” Emon warmly whispered, rubbing Emiko’s shoulder. “Nothing says you will be forced into the shrine if you go.”

“Very well,” Emiko relented with a nod. “When should I go?”

Tereza nodded and stood, holding out a hand to Emiko. “I can take you now. We can be back before dusk.”

“You have my permission to stay at the mansion, should the need arise,” Emon said to Emiko.

Emiko glanced over and narrowed an eye at her father. “Why would I want to stay there?”

“The yokai of the forest come out at night,” Tereza answered in place of Emon. “If the mistress’ is intriguing enough to you, there may not be enough time to return before dusk.”

“I’m not going to stay that long,” Emiko flippantly remarked, bending down and securing her shoes. “I’m going to get a few answers and then politely leave. There will be nothing more to it.”

“You may find yourself surprised,” Kanon firmly stated as she smiled while simultaneously narrowing her own eyes. “The vampire is a very interesting person.”

Emiko sighed and sank her head down. “She’s not a person, mother. She’s a yokai. We’ve always known this.”

“The mistress would argue against such eastern definitions for her,” Tereza remarked with a light laugh. “She always much preferred traditional words for her status.”

“And why would she object to being called a yokai when she is one?” Emiko asked.

“Because in her mind, yokai applies to those from the east. Her origins are French and that is a point of pride for her.”

Emiko displayed a puzzled look on her face. “It means the same thing when translated to the western tongues. What does it matter to her?”

“When you reach more than 700 years of age, you become quite set in your ways,” Tereza smartly retorted. “In her case, she associates yokai with more innocuous entities while she feels that her curse is of a more nefarious nature.”

“You will have time to discuss the mansion on the way over,” Kanon interjected while opening a hand toward the doorway. “It has been pleasant meeting you again, immortal.” She bent over in a light bow, to which Tereza returned with one of her own.

“Once again, we shall be back before dusk. I will keep Emiko safe,” Tereza replied as she straightened herself. She turned and glanced over her shoulder, waiting for Emiko to follow.

“I’ll return soon,” Emiko muttered, turning to leave.

“Oh, Emiko,” Emon loudly mumbled, turning around and grabbing a case. “Please demonstrate to the vampire your talent. I am certain she would appreciate it.”

Emiko twisted her head and looked at the case containing her erhu. She opened her mouth to argue against taking it, then sighed and took it. “Yes, of course, father.”

Emon smiled and stepped back, allowing Emiko to leave. She turned around and followed Tereza as she led the two of them out of the house.

“Your father believes in your talent,” Tereza remarked, her long legs moving at a pace that made it difficult for Emiko to keep up.

“He seems to be the only one,” Emiko muttered as she glanced at the erhu case.

“Parents often have conflicting ideas for the paths that they believe children should take.” Tereza lightly twisted her head to look back at Emiko. “Your mother believes it as well, even if it may not seem like it. She simply comes from a more traditional family than your father.”

Emiko glanced up and frowned. “More traditional than my father? Even though he runs the shrine?”

Tereza nodded. “Your father is far more relaxed about the nature of traditions than your mother is. It comes from understanding the shrine and your kami at a deeper level than possible by most.”

“The yokai ancestor,” Emiko concluded with a heavy sigh.

“If you choose to believe he was one, then yes,” Tereza replied. “However, what if I told you I witnessed his birth?”

“His creation, you mean,” Emiko attempted to correct with narrowed eyes.

“His creation would have been long before his birth,” Tereza tersely snapped back. “That is a matter which I will staunchly argue, for it is a foundational principle of my faith.”

Emiko felt herself lightly recoil in surprise at Tereza’s quick retort. “You sincerely believe he was human?”

Tereza sighed and paused for a moment, allowing Emiko to catch up to her. “My faith says he was, even if the reality is far more complex than that. It is not a simple matter of black and white.”

Emiko lightly opened her mouth to speak again, but felt as if she should ponder Tereza’s words further. She feels conflicted by her memories. She is from the past — no, not just the past, but from a different world. What she witnessed was something that challenged the very idea of her faith.

“Your faith would indicate he was something of both — human and yokai,” Tereza continued, looking back to Emiko. She lightly smiled and momentarily reached out to her, then caught herself and pulled her hand back. “But I still see him in you and those that came before. Because of that, I will always see him as human and not a monster like me.”

“You doubted your faith when it came to him,” Emiko whispered.

“There was a situation that arose that caused me to doubt it, ever so briefly,” Tereza conceded with a nod. “However, the foundation held firm. It simply meant God was testing me in a new way — a way that caused me to grow closer to Him.” She turned back and continued walking through the village, albeit at a slower pace than she previously held.

Emiko quickly caught up to Tereza, easily keeping her pace with the taller woman. “What caused this doubt? What was the situation?”

“It was the nature of his birth,” Tereza answered. “His blood mother — she was human, yet not. I never fully understood it, although Ms. Kaempfer did. Her explanation for it was beyond my ability to comprehend, as are many things of such nature.” She chuckled and closed her eyes. “My time should have ended long ago.”

“How long ago?” Emiko asked as she leaned forward.

Tereza opened her eyes and glanced over at Emiko. “I was born over a thousand years ago. That is the time in which I remain, even if I am here. My mind clashes with everything I have seen since, for many such things are intended to be witnessed only once in a lifetime.”

“What things would those be? The various evils within the dark mansion?”

Tereza snorted and shook her head. “The mansion is no different than any other structure in the world. In comparison to the events which I have witnessed throughout my life, the mansion ranks quite low on the list.”

“Yet you still had your faith tested by it,” Emiko remarked.

“Yes, because of my connection to it. The events I witnessed were from long before I arrived here.” Tereza opened a hand forward, indicating she intended to continue walking through the village. “I will tell you about them some time if you wish, but for now I believe we should make haste to meet the mistress. You seem to indicate that you are unwilling to stay past dusk at the mansion.”

Emiko hesitated for a moment, then sheepishly smiled. “Maybe I’ll consider a longer stay. If only to put my conscience at ease with recent events.”

Tereza subtly smiled and continued walking through the village. “By the way, you need not worry about the yokai of the forest. They consider you one of them.”

“What caused you to make that note?” Emiko asked with a frown.

“I sensed that you were considering running away through the forest,” Tereza answered. “A conflict within yourself over the desires between duty, family, and your own fate. Your ancestor had the same temptations.”

“To run away?”

Tereza nodded, briefly glancing aside. “Yes. Well, more accurately, he was tempted to elope with a yokai.”

Emiko blinked and waved a hand. “Wait — elope with a yokai? It didn’t want to eat him?”

“No, she wanted his hand in marriage,” Tereza answered. “If such a thing could be possible, at least. I suspect that miss Shimizu would have prevented such arrangements, however.”

“That name seems familiar, yet I can’t place it.” Emiko frowned and glanced upward. “It seems like I should know it.”

Tereza hesitated for a moment, then let out a sigh. “You know her as a dragon. Some of her essence flows through your blood.”

Emiko felt her stomach churn and stumbled, pushing a hand out to a nearby wall to steady herself. A… Dragon?! Within me?! It makes me-

“Easy,” Tereza whispered as she placed a hand on Emiko’s shoulder to steady her. “My apologies. I was careless in breaking such realities to you.”

“Why… Why wasn’t I told this?” Emiko weakly asked.

“Is it not obvious?” Tereza brought herself down, resting her hands on Emiko’s shoulders. “Your entire faith is based upon the idea that yokai are not to be trusted. It is a principle based upon experience, as the yokai that influenced your ancestors are not the rule to measure others by.”

Emiko took a deep breath and pulled herself back up, regaining her composure. “But if a few can be different, wouldn’t that mean we’re painting them with a broad brush?”

“Sometimes, faith does things in ways that do not make sense,” Tereza replied, withdrawing her hands. “Come. You will have the opportunity to speak with her on the way.” She turned and continued walking again, this time at a faster pace.

Emiko quickened her own pace to catch up to Tereza, the extra effort causing her to push aside the sick feeling within herself. “Speak with who?”

“Miss Shimizu,” Tereza flatly answered, apparently trying to silence most of the conversation.

Emiko sighed and glanced around for a moment and noted that due to Tereza’s speed, they had rapidly gone past the western edge of town and were approaching a lone guard shack on the road. A guard stepped out and waved, broadly smiling at them as they passed.

“Does he know you?” Emiko asked.

“I have striven to improve my relations with the city guards since your ancestor married into the shrine,” Tereza answered, taking a sharp turn off the road down a more humble path.

“The guards can be difficult to be around,” Emiko muttered in agreement. “But that’s to be expected with all the yokai at our borders.”

“Ah, but are yokai really that troublesome?” a new feminine voice playfully joined in, causing Emiko to halt and look around in surprise.

Tereza snorted and glanced over her left shoulder. “I see you are quite eager to meet the latest descendant.”

The sound of tree branches being pushed aside along with footsteps on vegetation gave way to a remarkably beautiful woman, her head adorned by dark red hair and eyes of jade. She glanced over from Tereza to Emiko and lightly smiled.

“The dragon,” Emiko whispered, meeting the woman’s gaze.

“Please, call me Kira,” the woman said, lightly bowing her head. “We are, after all, within the same family. From a certain point of view.”

“Kira Shimizu,” Tereza said, opening a hand to Kira before bringing it over to Emiko, “Emiko Yabuta. The latest descendant of the family.”

Kira lifted her head up, seemingly looking over Emiko. She broadened her smile and planted her hands on her hips. “Yes, she very much is. A bit of dragon remains within her. I am a bit amazed that it has lingered for all this time.”

“I’ll have to conduct a proper exorcism,” Emiko muttered as she glanced aside.

“Now, now, it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Kira remarked, walking up to Emiko and placing her hands on her shoulders. She looked over Emiko’s face and nodded. “Yes, yokai blood remains, no matter how hard they try to hide it. We may achieve unity yet.”

“The village would run us out of town if it became common knowledge,” Emiko growled back.

“Yet it remains myth, legend, and rumors,” Kira replied with a chuckle. “The world is far more complicated than you give it credit for, my dear descendant.” She lowered a hand and pointed at Emiko’s heart. “Trust in your heart if you cannot trust in me.”

“We are already late, miss Shimizu,” Tereza interjected with a raised finger. “You are well aware how these first impressions go.”

Kira nodded and stepped back, releasing Emiko. “Yes, it can be something of a shock to know one is related to a dragon. But that is nothing compared to the vampire.”

Emiko narrowed her eyes at Kira. “There’s no relation there outside of the mansion.”

“Ah, but there is,” Kira playfully whispered, again pointing at Emiko’s chest. “I’ve had to tell many of your ancestors to remember that flesh and blood is one thing; spirit and soul are quite another.”

“It is unwise to-” Tereza began to argue, then stopped as Kira held a hand up.

“She should know this by now, immortal,” Kira interrupted, briefly glancing over to Tereza. She looked back to Emiko and sighed. “A fragment of Estelle Beausoleil’s soul has been passed down through your family for generations now. That relation is one that you will never shed. When you meet her, you will understand the significance of it.”

Emiko frowned, feeling as if she should protest but held back. I want to argue with her, but… Something says she is right.

“Now, continue to the mansion. I promise you will find it surprising — in a good way,” Kira said, stepping away and opening a hand toward the path.

“Come, Emiko,” Tereza loudly ordered, continuing her way down the pathway. Emiko quickly followed her, briefly glancing behind herself to see Kira retreat back into the trees.

“That wasn’t really her,” Emiko muttered, looking back to the path ahead.

“Miss Shimizu’s physical form is quite different from her human idealized form,” Tereza replied. “She is far closer to your classical yokai than others. Despite that, she still considers all of you her children, much as the mistress does. Or perhaps more accurately, her proteges.”

“She helped to raise my ancestor, didn’t she?” Emiko pointedly asked.

Tereza nodded. “She taught him many useful skills. His academic education was handled by miss Kaempfer, however.”

“The witch,” Emiko concluded, noting how the path gave way toward a larger open area, with a mansion situated in the center. Surrounding the structure was a stone wall with a large gate at the entrance.

“The Beausoleil mansion,” Tereza said, opening a hand to the building. “Our home for… Centuries now.” She chuckled and glanced over her shoulder. “It is easy to forget it has been that long.”

“Why a mansion? Would a smaller home not be more prudent?” Emiko asked, looking to the top of the imposing building.

“The mistress and her sister had many belongings, as did miss Kaempfer,” Tereza answered, ushering Emiko through the gate. She walked her up to the door and knocked on it, followed by pushing the door open to reveal a landing at the main entrance, with a hallway running under the stairs and two doors adjacent to the entryway.

“Why knock on the door to your own home?” Emiko asked as her curiosity got the better of her.

Tereza smiled and closed the door behind herself, then turned and opened a hand toward one of the side doorways.

Emiko looked at where Tereza was indicating then gasped and jumped back as a figure stood there.

“Greetings,” the new woman said, bowing her head. “She knocks on the door to keep us from being burned.”

“The vampire,” Emiko breathlessly whispered.

The woman chuckled and shook her head, bringing it back up to reveal her face to Emiko. “No, you’re thinking of my sister. I am Perrine, sister to Estelle. Although I am a vampire as well.”

“Miss Perrine, this is Emiko Yabuta,” Tereza introduced Emiko, waving a hand over her. “The latest descendant of the shrine, as you might have suspected.”

Perrine chuckled and nodded. “I can sense Henri within her. He still shines through ever-brightly.”

“I will leave her in your care, miss Perrine. I must retrieve the mistress from the garden,” Tereza said, turning to leave.

“Wait! I don’t want to-” Emiko began to protest, then stopped as Tereza held a hand up.

“Do not fear miss Perrine,” Tereza consoled Emiko, slowly bringing her hand down. “Besides, miss Kaempfer will keep her in check.”

Emiko twisted back around to see another woman emerge from the side door, a pleasant smile giving her some consolation.

“You’ll be safe with us, I promise,” the other woman said, stepping aside and inviting Emiko into the room.

Emiko glanced over to Tereza, then hesitantly walked into the room with the woman she deduced was miss Kaempfer. Inside the room was a long dining table, several chairs situated around it.

“Please, have a seat,” miss Kaempfer said, walking past Emiko to sit down at one of the chairs. “You may call me ‘Ediva’ if it’s easier. I suspect you’ll not have much trouble with my formal name, though.”

Emiko nervously nodded and picked the chair across from Ediva, setting her instrument case down next to the chair. She glanced around the room and noted the windows had a strange dimming effect applied to them. Magic? But that makes no sense.

Perrine walked over and sat down next to Ediva before looking over Emiko. She smiled and lifted her chin toward her. “What’s your instrument?”

“A-an erhu,” Emiko whispered in answer. “I plan to join the orchestra, if I can improve my skill.”

Perrine lifted an eyebrow, then glanced over to Ediva, seemingly expecting an explanation.

“It’s a string instrument,” Ediva mumbled in answer, reading through a book she laid out on the table. “Comparable to a violin.”

“That’s new,” Perrine remarked.

Ediva shook her head. “Not quite. Remember… What was his name? Ah, yes, Ichika. He played in an orchestra as well. Acacie was also an opera singer.”

“Uh, who do you mean?” Emiko asked, looking back and forth between Ediva and Perrine.

“Some of your ancestors,” Ediva answered, momentarily glancing up from her book. “Their names probably seem unfamiliar to you. I think Acacie was third generation. And Ichika… Hmm, now I don’t recall.”

“First generation,” Perrine confidently added. “I remember. Machiko insisted on a traditional name for him.”

Ediva chuckled and rolled her eyes. “He was their firstborn son. She was a bit more protective of him.”

“Machiko Uehara? The founder of the shrine?” Emiko interjected with a raised finger.

“No, that would’ve been Eriko Uehara,” Ediva replied with the shake of her head. “Machiko’s mother.”

“I keep making that mistake,” Emiko muttered in embarrassment.

“Machiko was far more traditional and strict than her mother was,” Perrine remarked with a chuckle. “And yet, despite that, she loved Henri very much. I think her strictness was in response to her marriage toward a half-breed, an unconscious punishment for a perceived violation of her beliefs.”

Emiko blinked her eyes and held a hand up. “Wait, wait — ‘half-breed’? This ‘Henri’?”

“Yes, he was-” Perrine continued then stopped as Ediva held a hand up.

“Miss Perrine, you know it’s not your place to answer that question,” Ediva remarked with a judging tone.

“Yes, of course,” Perrine muttered. “I still get excited when I think about it.”

“Why can’t you tell me what it means?” Emiko asked as she narrowed her eyes.

“Because it isn’t as simple as ‘half-breed,’ ” Ediva answered over Perrine’s potential response. “We’ve all agreed that Estelle is the one to tell the story, as we each have our own perspective on the subject.”

“And what makes her perspective more valuable than yours?”

Ediva lifted her chin up and pursed her lips. “She took on the responsibility of raising Henri. She took on the role of being his mother.”

Emiko glanced down at the table and sighed. Exactly as the dragon said. A fragment of her soul because she was… Our mother. A vampire. A creature of evil, raising a child of… Light.

The door opened and Tereza walked in, jarring Emiko from her thoughts. She looked up to see Tereza stand aside and open a hand to a new figure, another woman dressed in a white dress, a large gray hat topping her head, with clothing on almost every part of her body.

“Emiko Yabuta,” Tereza said, “my mistress: Estelle Beausoleil.”

Estelle lifted her chin up and smiled warmly at Emiko. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Emiko Yabuta.”

Emiko stood and lightly bowed, keeping her eyes affixed to Estelle. “Miss Beausoleil. I’m not certain I can call this a pleasure just yet.”

Estelle chuckled and nodded. “I understand. It’s always difficult at first.” She walked around to the head of the table and sat down, taking off her gloves and resting them on the table. “Pardon my appearance; I had some work to do in my garden.”

“You… Have a garden?” Emiko mumbled in disbelief, sitting down as she did so. “How does the sun not-“

“With the right apparel, it is no matter,” Estelle answered while waving a hand. “It reminds me of my own vulnerabilities, as strange as that may seem.”

Emiko lifted an eyebrow at Estelle. “Are you really a vampire?”

Estelle lightly bowed her head, then flashed her teeth, briefly exposing her fangs. “Yes, I am afraid so. I’ve been one for quite some time, despite my best efforts.”

“It’s a curse difficult to break,” Ediva added, still focused on her book.

“Yet it’s just… It’s hard to understand,” Emiko said with the shake of her head. “I’m told my family has a relation to you. An ancestor named ‘Henri.’ I find it difficult to believe.”

Estelle nodded. “It’s always hard to explain. Each generation takes it differently. For my part, I sometimes find it impossible to fathom, yet here you are.”

“You’re a creature of evil, though,” Emiko sheepishly whispered. “No offense intended. I think.”

Estelle chuckled and waved a hand dismissively. “That’s quite all right, Emiko. May I call you that?”

Emiko glanced over and nodded her assent.

“Tereza, please bring out some tea,” Estelle ordered, lifting her chin toward Tereza.

“Of course, mistress,” Tereza replied, walking through an open doorway into the adjacent room.

“Now then, Emiko, do you want to know the story of how your family came to be?” Estelle asked, addressing Emiko.

Emiko hesitated for a moment, then slowly nodded. “Yes. I want to know our connection.”

Estelle sat back and smiled. “It started very long ago. Centuries ago. I never knew her name; I only knew her as Henri’s blood mother. We took her in and…”

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