The Old Shrine

Were they not long dead, the originators of the shrine at the foot of the mountain would have surely kept it a very different place, one where the preeminence of the muse Clio remained ever unquestioned, a place where the most dignified tomes of the past remained forever in the present and onto the future. Yet even that desire had been buried by time, the building which made up the shrine’s centrepiece transformed and refurbished, its colours made to suit the sensibilities of the Asuka period and the statue that served as its centrepiece rendered from female to male, from a goddess to a man.

“I feel like we’d want someone more scholarly here for this,” the nameless cyborg muttered, “but that’s okay.” He turned his full attention from the site in front of him to the less familiar of the two woman beside him, the white-haired bodybuilder whose clothing had the same ecclestacial impression as the shrine itself, regardless of the fact it was made of black leather.

Ain shook her head. “No, this is fine. I can tell who this was a shrine to… although if I’m not sure how they got all the way here. This can’t have been early in Japan’s history, can it?”

“I get what you mean,” the nameless cyborg replied. “You made it here, but your… coven, I think you called it, isn’t that old.”

The more familiar of the two women was at the same time even less like him: it was Mem, his robotic partner, roommate, and, as he’d been reminded with muffled shock every time he lost his memories, his girlfriend. Her approach was unlike his and Ain’s, too. The two humans had moved carefully and scoped things out from afar, being wary of nature’s two most dangerous children: demons and environmental hazards.

But Mem, whether it was because of her array of sensory devices and the complicated predicative math she could do, or just because of her own curiosity, was not so deterred. She immediately approached the statue, craning her head up to look at it with eyes that spun and swivelled, her red pupils alternately constricting and dilating.

“It’s not much of a coven with only one member,” Ain told the cyborg, “the nearest other worshippers of Lady Hecate are an island away. But the tradition is pretty new here, and it was well-timed: I was possessed a few years after Her worshippers first touched land.”

“This statue and this shrine are both much older than even ten years prior to your possession by a demon!” Mem said, forgetting until after that declaration to turn around and face her friends to speak. “This statue, which has suffered at least a thousand years of aging slowed by simplistic magic, depicts Prince Shoutoku, a famous political figure deceased in 622 AD.”

The nameless cyborg rubbed his cheek, staring a little bleary-eyed at the statue of a man he didn’t recognize any better now that he knew his name. “Sounds like they replaced the goddess’s statue with his… why, though?”

“The shrine probably kept its original purpose with a new deity. Or deified human, you know,” Ain suggested. “Prince Shoutoku was a historian, or something like one. And he’s a big deal in Japanese history.”

Mem nodded. “Although strictly speaking, Clio was not a goddess, she was treated with much the same reverence and fear as the main pantheon of Greek gods!” Walking forward, back to the other two, she adjusted one of her arms: one of many strange tics she had, picking and prodding at her own construction for reasons she generally chalked up to “hardware-level optimization”.

“I’m starting to get it,” the nameless cyborg said, reaching into his pockets for a stick of gum. The air around the shrine was old and musty, particularly after they’d disturbed it, and his heightened senses made him self-conscious about what that meant for his breath. Putting it in his mouth, chewing, and swallowing, he continued. “What you’re saying is, this goddess moved her sphere of power, and they needed someone new?”

“That’s gotta be at least some of what happened,” Ain nodded affirmatively, a smile on her lips. “If I had to guess, I imagine she took a brief trip to Japan — well, brief for a god — and drummed up some worship, but went back to Europe. Obviously, the shrine needed someone to give it its magical properties, and Prince Shoutoku was a big deal in his time.”

“So we can probably guess that the shrine ended up like this after people stopped caring for Prince Shoutoku,” the nameless cyborg surmised, “although I saw his face on paper bills when me and Mem were investigating an antique coin scam.”

Mem walked up beside the nameless cyborg, looking up at him with her hands behind her back. “Oh, you still remember that? That’s very good news, as it’s a good data point to have. However, we should be mindful that your next reset may be coming soon!”

“We should probably finish this job up quickly, then,” the nameless cyborg said in a voice coated in a shell of confidence. “Ain, will the book we’re looking for do anything now that we know there’s no power in the shrine?”

Ain tapped her foot, a finger to her lips. After a moment, she put her hands on her hips, staring off past the statue, towards the entrance of the shrine. Its wooden offertory box had bent and peeled, becoming long, waterlogged strips the colour of mud that poked at either end and only held together in the vaguest of terms. The offertory box was seated upon a marble dais that had long since cracked and lost its traditional luster, marred by a starlit sky’s worth of mold.

“You’ll still want to find the book first, Mister Investigator,” Ain told him. She wasn’t looking away to be rude; rather, she was trying to get an idea of what their options really were.

“The shrine’s too busted up to offer to even the most desperate demon,” she continued, “so if the ‘book of protective charms’ your… client? Mentioned, is a spellbook or something like it, it’s not going to have any energy to draw off of. Not around here, anyways.”

The nameless cyborg shrugged his shoulders and reached into his coat for another stick of gum, pulling his hand out when he realized he’d had one already. “Could you use it? Or we could bring it back to one of the shrines or churches back in Moss Bay.”

“Cathedral, not church,” Ain corrected him. “The difference is small, but it affects its nature as a place of worship, and that means it affects the magic you can use there. Either way… probably not. What did your client want to do again?”

“RECONFIGURING DATA ACCESS,” Mem droned. A few seconds later, her smile was back on her face, and she spoke up again. “They asked us to help them dispel a demon that was giving them terrible luck and a terrible fate. They’d tripped in the snow six times on one day, for example.”

“Maybe not, then,” Ain spoke confidently, but when both of her allies looked at her for clarification, she realized they needed some. “Folklore is conflicted about whether the full moon is lucky; it’d muddle anything I tried to do to help. And the divine magic you get from a cathedral is better for expelling demons that overextend. When it comes to resist the devil’s — or a demon’s — manipulations or temptations, a lot of that’s up to us, or so it goes.”

“That’s okay,” the nameless cyborg said. “Nothing’s ever simple with demons. What do you think our best options are?”

“We could try tracking down a protector god or mother goddess; they might be able to help more,” Ain suggested. But after a small pause, she continued. “But that’s not our best option, because it’s not reliable. What we should do is polish up this shrine, make it livable, and we’ll probably get exactly the kind of being that your client needs.”

Sharp, tawny bristles extended from Mem’s fingertips, and the soles of her feet began to rotate. “Understood!”