Ino slides the door to his room shut as he feels the numbness that had pursued him throughout the day begin to ebb. He lets his cauldron down with a thump, and stares into its cast-iron depths. Fear blossoms in his chest, but this time he stamps it out. He knows what he must do.
The package is at the very bottom of the cauldron, wrapped in a fading crimson banner branded with an axe and a shepherd’s crook. He lifts it out with a mix of terror and reverence, as though he expects it to explode. The package is placed on the floor, and is carefully unwrapped with slightly-trembling fingers. At last the banner comes free, and Ino sits back.
The Shepherd stares up at its master with sockets of vacant steel, and there is the briefest moment where Ino meets that gaze with one of longing… before he sees the old axe-head resting beneath the helmet, dull and stained. The Shepherd grins its terrible, pointy-toothed grin, and Ino meets that grin with distain.
“…it has been a long time.” Ino sighs, “I had hoped it would be much longer.”
The Shepherd grins, its hollow expression full of cold malice.
“I hope you know I hate you with every fibre of my being, and that I will always do so. You bring only death and leave only misery…”
The Shepherd grins, its rusting jaws flecked with painful memories.
“…yet…I fear you more. And that fear has only worsened over the years, ever since that moment when I realized who you- what I- what you were.”
The Shepherd grins, its many scars a roadmap through blood-salted lands.
“I had thought I was fleeing you for his sake… That if I simply melted down my armour to make a cauldron I could somehow honour Ori’s spirit…”
The Shepherd grins, its empty eyes beckoning oblivion.
“And in doing so, I only failed him a second time. You are a monster… but I am a coward… I allowed a lone 16-year-old girl to make decisions that would crush even a king. All because I was afraid that if I stood tall my shadow might resemble yours.”
The Shepherd grins, its dented brow ringed with a circle of pilfered gold.
“…my son is gone, this time not by your hand but by my own. Even in death he was braver than us both, and now… now he… h-he is…”
The Shepherd grins as Ino hides his face in his war-weathered hands, tears tapping against the helmet’s face as they slip between broad fingers. The giant’s shoulders heave as a sob escapes his chest, then another, until he cannot hold himself any longer and the dam breaks.
“M-my boy…!” He wails, as tears trickle down the Shepherd’s brow and hiss against the axe-blade beneath, “my ch-child! M-my baby! Huh-how? How cuh-can you forgive suh-someone as…as wretched as me?”
Ino is helpless against the great grey ocean of grief that comes pouring out from within. It stains his cheeks and tangled his beard, it rakes his lungs and contorts his spine, it fills his heart and empties his mind, until at last his body is too weak to continue, and grief leaves him be.
“How?” He whispers hoarsely, staring at the ceiling, “Ori… how can you forgive me? How…how do you do it? After I failed you over and over… how do you forgive me when I cannot even forgive myself?”
His bloodshot eyes widen as they fall on the Shepherd, its ghoulish face flecked with his tears, its head ringed with gold.
“I…understand.” Ino murmurs as the Shepherd weeps. “Even now… I have been selfish. Ori… when you gave yourself up… it didn’t matter what you wanted… only what we needed. Hiro, Fuu, Norihiko, Miyahira, even Amako… I cannot give them what they need as a cook, or as a monster. But… that is not all that I was… or all that I am. What did sensei always say? ‘To kill your past, embrace his future?‘”
Ino reaches down and -with a grunt- pries the shining ring from the Shepherd’s rusting temples. He sees himself reflected across its warm, curving shape, and smiles.
“Ori… my son… I have failed you twice now. Once as a father, and once as a monk. I will not fail you again. You did not sit and hope that Enya might curb my tyranny… and I cannot sit and hope for someone else to guide my friends.”
Carefully Ino laces his beard through the ring, pulling it up towards his chin until it binds the wild mass into a ponytail. He re-wrap the Shepherd in its banner, and as he stands to banish it back to the cauldron’s depths, he does so with a firmness that was not present before; an assertive air now fills his formidable frame. As the crown of Skorvlan glints in his locks, Ino Chichikuma prepares to assume a role both familiar and foreign.