A Mortal Song excerpt
On the afternoon of my seventeenth birthday, I came down the mountain to visit a dying man.
The affliction had revealed itself slowly. I’d first noticed the tremor of discord in Mr. Nagamoto’s ki—the life energy that glowed inside him—three months ago. Over the weeks, that tremor had swollen into a cloud, dimming the ki at the side of his abdomen. Today I arrived to find the cloud twisting and churning while he typed at his computer in the living room. It was draining his already inconceivably short human life away, but neither he nor his wife knew it was there.
They didn’t know I was there either. I kept myself invisible as I watched from beside the narrow sofa, as I always did when I visited the households in the town at Mt. Fuji’s foot. The people living in those homes looked much like myself and many of the other kami, but it was their differences that fascinated me. They shifted from one mood to another in patterns too complex to predict, and their bodies changed quickly too, for better or for ill. As I’d drifted through the beige walls of this house over the years, Mr. and Mrs. Nagamoto had grown plumper and their hair grayer. I’d joined their children’s games unseen and silently shared their laughter before the son and then the daughter had transformed into adults leaving for college. And now this sickness had come.
I stepped closer to Mr. Nagamoto. Seeing how his disease had spread made me feel sick myself, but that was why I’d come. My resolve solidified inside me, overshadowing the worries that had driven me from the palace. If I really wanted to consider myself a part of this family’s lives, I should help them—help him.
I’d have healed him if I could, but the cloud of decay was so large and fierce I doubted even the most practiced healers of my kind would have been able to defeat it. We kami had other skills, though. I knew a few in the palace whose focus was tending to the dying. When a worthy person or creature passed away, they let it hold on to life a little longer by transferring its spirit into something it had loved. I thought Mr. Nagamoto might like to linger in the cypress tree in the yard or one of the koi in the pond beneath it, where he could continue watching over his family.
Any kami was capable of doing that. Any kami but me. Mother and Father hadn’t let me learn the sacred practices yet.
I had so much more power than anyone in this town—more ki in my little toe than Mr. Nagamoto had in his whole fragile human body. It wasn’t right for me to stand by and let his life slip away unrecognized. My parents would just have to accept that it was time I started serving the purpose I was meant to.
I bowed my farewell to Mr. Nagamoto and slipped outside. The summer sun was dipping low in the stark blue sky. Midori, my dragonfly kami friend who always accompanied me on my ventures off the mountain, flitted around me with a mischievous tickle of ki that dared me to try to reach the palace faster than her.
I took off down the street. Midori darted past me, but in a moment I’d matched her pace, sending ki to my feet to speed them on. The houses streaked by, clay walls and red-and-gray tiled roofs standing behind low fences of concrete or metal. It was strange to think most of these people barely believed my kind existed, spoke and prayed to us only out of habit, with no more faith than they had in the characters they watched on their TVs. But as long as kami lived on Mt. Fuji and elsewhere, we’d continue to act as guardians of the natural world, doing all we could to keep the crops growing, to fend off the worst storms, and to calm the fire that lurked deep inside the mountain.
Or, at least, the others did, and I hoped soon I’d find my focus too.
Midori pulled a little ahead of me, and I pushed my feet faster. I was the only one to have been born in the palace in as long as my honorary auntie Ayame could remember. She loved sharing tales of my birth even more than she did those of heroes and sages. “It was a blessing for our chosen rulers,” she’d told me. “When your mother and father announced they were expecting, the celebrations lasted for weeks.” The parties commemorating my birthday weren’t anywhere near as extensive, but kami still traveled from far abroad to pay their respects. Surely while my parents were thinking of how much I meant to them, they’d recognize how much this request meant to me?
In a few minutes, Midori and I had left the town behind and started up the forested slope. An odd quiet filled the pine woods we dashed through. No animals stirred, except for a couple of squirrels that rushed this way and that as if in alarm before scurrying away. I slowed, forgetting the race as I peered amid the branches for the owl kami who normally maintained the harmony in this part of the forest. “Daichi?” I called. There was no sign of him.
He must have already headed up to join the party. I’d mention my observations when I saw him in the palace.
I directed a fresh rush of ki through my legs. As I ran on, my feet hardly touched the ground. Farther up the mountain, the rustling of moving bodies and the lilt of birdsong reached my ears. Nothing was terribly wrong, then.
The voice brought me to a halt. Midori settled on my hair. A tall figure was striding toward us through the trees. My heart skipped a beat.
“Takeo,” I said, trying not to sound as breathless as I felt after that run.
Takeo stopped a few paces away and dipped into a low bow. He was wearing his fancier uniform with the silver embroidery along the jacket’s billowing sleeves. In contrast with the deep green of the fabric, his mahogany-brown eyes gleamed as brightly as if they were made of polished wood. With his shoulder-length hair pulled back in a formal knot, the lacquered sheath of his sword at his hip, and the arc of his bow at his shoulder, he looked every inch the palace guard. But he smiled at me, warm and open, as a friend.
If I’d had a camera like the ones the tourists carried, I’d have captured the look he was giving me for keeps. Although then I’d have to explain why I wanted to, and I hadn’t worked up enough courage to confess these new feelings yet. He might see me as a friend, but before that I was the daughter of his rulers, a child he’d been assigned to watch over and teach since I was seven years old, when he’d arrived at the mountain barely out of childhood himself, seeking to serve.
What if he couldn’t think of me as more? Just imagining him telling me as much, struggling to let me down gently, made my stomach tie itself into knots.
I pushed those thoughts aside. I had another goal tonight. Takeo was the only kami close to my age I knew, and he had been training in all the skills of the kami since he was much younger than me.
“I was a little worried when I couldn’t find you in the palace,” Takeo said. “But then I remembered your favorite place to visit. You were in town?”
“Yes,” I said. “Is something wrong?”
“Only that Ayame is looking for you. She’s fretting that she won’t have enough time to get you ready. You know how she is.”
With a wisp of amusement, Midori cast an image into my head of Ayame calling in her usual frantic voice, “Where is that girl?” I wasn’t late, but unlike humans, who might be panicking one moment and easygoing a few minutes later, kami were much more strict in their natures. It was Ayame’s nature to fret over absolutely everything.
“Hush,” I said to the dragonfly with a suppressed groan. She wasn’t the one Ayame would be fussing over when we got back. “I’m sorry,” I added to Takeo.
“It’s no problem at all,” he said, his smile widening. “I’m pleased to escort you home.“Is everything all right with you?” he asked as we continued up the mountain. “On your birthday, I’d have thought you’d be too busy to leave the palace.”
The question reminded me of the niggle of doubt that had drawn me to the Nagamotos’ house so I could steel myself to challenge Mother and Father’s judgment tonight. “I just needed to get away from the busy-ness for a bit,” I said, and bit my lip. “Takeo, do you think if I ask my parents to let me start learning the sacred practices, they’ll say yes?”
“Of course,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “They’ve avoided giving me any responsibility—haven’t you noticed? Last year Kaito offered to teach me the way of the rain, and the year before that Manami suggested I accompany her to her shrine, and both times Mother and Father said that I shouldn’t have that sort of pressure on me before I’m fully of age. But I’ve been able to best you with ki since I was twelve—I nearly beat you with a sword last week. I know every inch of this mountain. Isn’t it time I learned our actual duties?”
“You should tell them that’s what you want,” Takeo said, ducking under a branch. “I’ve never known your parents to be anything less than understanding. They’ll find the right answer.”
The worries I’d squashed down in Mr. Nagamoto’s house surged back up. What if the answer was that they had good reason not to trust me with responsibility? Grandfather always said, “The one truth I know is, we can’t help but be the way we are.” Which meant if I were capable, it should be as clear as Ayame’s fretting, as Mother’s cool collectedness, as Father’s indomitable compassion.
So much of the time, nothing inside me felt clear at all. I could believe with every fiber of my being that I was ready, and a moment later be completely uncertain again. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe my parents had seen that strangeness in me and decided I was... inadequate. I’d never heard anyone else in the palace mention feeling so jumbled up, so I’d tried not to show it, but it had only gotten worse in the last few years.
I glanced sideways at Takeo. “Did you ever...” I said, and hesitated. “Have you ever felt you needed to do something, but at the same time you weren’t sure you could do it, and—”
My voice broke when he turned his head toward me. His handsome face was puzzled.
“If there’s something I can’t do, I leave it to those who can,” he said. “None of us can do everything.” His smile returned, softer this time. “But I think you’re strong enough to accomplish just about anything you decide to attempt, Sora.”
Even though he hadn’t understood what I’d been getting at, his smile steadied me. Was it really so unexpected that Mother and Father might want their only child to relish her youthful years before turning toward duty? “If you give enough to the Earth, it gives you joy in return,” Ayame liked to say. “You are the joy it gave your parents.” Every time my parents called me their “gift,” every time the other kami bowed to me, every time I stood on the mountainside with its power echoing through me, I remembered those words. The Earth itself had brought me into being to do its work. I was meant to be here, to fulfill that promise. I needed to keep my mind on that and not these ridiculous fears.
For a few dazzling seconds, I let the full force of my ki rush through me in a hum of light. The landscape blurred around me. Midori’s grip on my hair tightened as she sent me a glimmering thrill of exhilaration.
Then I reined myself back. At my fastest, I’d leave Takeo behind. I dodged the pale trunk of a birch—and nearly darted right through a ghost.
“Oh!” I said, jerking to a halt. “Excuse me, Miss Sakai. I didn’t see you.”
The filmy young woman bobbed her head to me. Wan and wide-eyed, Miss Sakai had been floating around this part of the mountain for several months. I’d gotten it out of a maple kami that her boyfriend had been walking with her along the paths and pushed her over one of the sharper inclines. She’d broken her neck. “I imagine she’s stuck around to give him a piece of her mind,” the maple had added, but Miss Sakai always seemed calm when I saw her.
Not today, though. I schooled my gaze away from the space partway down her legs where, as with all ghosts, her translucent body dissolved completely, leaving no knees, calves, or feet beneath her. Her ki was jittering. She stretched her mouth into an over-wide grin.
“I wasn’t watching either,” she said, too brightly. “So sorry.” Her eyes darted from me to Takeo and back. “I should be wishing you a happy birthday, shouldn’t I! The big party is about to start?”
“Thank you,” I said. “Yes.”
I wondered if I should invite her to join us, but she spun around before I could say anything else. “Have a wonderful time!” she said, and shot off down the slope. In a few seconds, she’d disappeared amid the trees.
“That was strange,” I said.
“It’s unusual for the spirits of the dead to cling to this world at all,” Takeo pointed out. “I suppose that can’t help but affect their minds.”
We crossed the spring that babbled just below the palace’s entrance and stepped through the grove of cherry trees to the shallow cave on the far side. Any human who happened upon this spot would see nothing more than a small hollow. But when we walked through the cool stone, which tingled over my skin as if I’d passed under a waterfall, we emerged into the main hall of the great palace that housed most of Mt. Fuji’s kami.
Inside, I released the energy that had held me invisible and settled back into my more comfortable corporeal form. At once, my surroundings felt more solid too: the wooden floor smooth beneath my feet, the muted sunlight that gleamed through the ceiling panels warming my long black hair. On either side of us, sliding doors painted with images of flowers and sweeping branches broke the dark wood of the walls. The thrum of the mountain’s ki washed over me in welcome.
Farther down the main hall, two palace attendants were leading a group of guests toward the large public rooms. The smell of the grand dinner being prepared filled the air—kami could take all our nourishment directly from the Earth when we needed to, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying good food. Frolicking music filtered through the walls. My mouth watered and my feet itched to dance, but as Midori flitted over to join the early merrymaking, I turned in the other direction, where the private apartments lay.
I’d only taken one step around the corner toward my parents’ chambers when a high, nasal voice stopped me in my tracks.
“Sora!” Ayame cried, tearing across the hall with her spindly arms waving and her hair billowing around her petite frame. “Look at you, child. Bare-faced, dirt on your clothes... Augh, I can’t have you seen like this, not on your birthday.”
“I need to speak to Mother and Father first,” I said as she tugged me toward my rooms.
“You can go when you’re properly prepared.”
Well, it might be wise to look my best when I made my appeal. I relented.When we reached my inner rooms, Takeo hung back. “Wait for me?” I said. Takeo’s protection was merely a formality at my age, but I’d feel more confident approaching my parents with his steady presence at my side.
“Of course,” he said.
Ayame shoved the sliding door shut between us. Her assistants—one human-shaped like Ayame and me and the other three kami in the forms of a robin, a crane, and a monkey—were waiting in the bathing room. I was scrubbed and rinsed with water scented with cherry blossoms, then powdered and combed and lotioned and powdered again. Finally I was allowed to get dressed, in a silky robe more flowing than any humans ever wore. The pale blue fabric danced with golden butterflies.
“Ah!” Ayame said, clapping her hands together. “Magnificent.”
“Am I done, then?” I asked as the monkey tied the sash around my waist.
Ayame made a dismissive sound and launched into a tirade about my hair. I stared longingly at the door. If I didn’t distract myself, I was going to burst.
As the robin started coiling my hair and Ayame brought out her make-up palette, I exhaled, sending out a stream of ki shaped into a kite. At my mental nudge, it drifted through the door. Takeo and I had played this game since I was first learning how to use the energy inside me, but these days I offered it as a challenge.
The kite was caught by an impression that was purely Takeo, gallant as one of the mountain’s young pines. I drew it back. His ki resisted, dragging the kite toward him, and the corners of my mouth twitched upward.
“Hold still!” Ayame said.
Quieting my expression, I reeled the kite in against Takeo’s pull. At the last instant, Takeo whipped it away. It took all my self control not to lunge after it physically. I clung on with sharpened focus and yanked. The kite shot straight to me, Takeo’s connection snapping. In the room outside, he laughed at his defeat. Ayame shook her head.
“So strong, my Sora,” she murmured. “All right, you’ll do. Walk carefully—and keep your hands away from your face!”
I hurried with Takeo down the narrow hall that separated my rooms from my parents’. The lamps along the wall were starting to flare on with the fading of the sun. Around us, an anxious tremor rippled through the mountain’s ki. I glanced at Takeo, startled, but he showed no sign of concern. That must have been my anxiety, trembling out of me.
My pulse beat faster as we came to a stop at the door to my parents’ private chambers. Takeo tapped on the frame and announced our presence, and Mother’s voice answered.
She and Father were sitting on crimson cushions by their low ebony table. A light sandalwood scent wafted from the incense burner set in an alcove. Takeo eased the door shut, staying on the other side. I padded across the finely woven rush of the tatami mats to the other side of the table.
Because kami age so slowly once they reach adulthood, Mother and Father both looked as young as humans of about twenty, but otherwise they were each other’s opposites. Mother was thin and lithe with ivory skin, while Father was broad and bulky and ruddy complexioned. The way they smiled at me matched their temperaments perfectly: Mother soft and bright, Father wide and warm.
“We were about to send for you,” Mother said. “You look beautiful, Sora.”
I blushed, lowering my eyes. Strong, I reminded myself. Strong and capable.
“I can’t believe you’re already seventeen,” Father said in his rumbling voice. “Three more years and you’ll be all grown up.” He sounded strangely sad.
“It isn’t so short a time,” Mother said gently, as if I might someday leave for college or other far away places like the Nagamotos’ children.
A distant shout reached my ears. Mother frowned, glancing toward the hall. Kami usually got along, but occasionally there were disputes between the guests.
The faint silhouette of Takeo’s form moved away from the door’s translucent panel. He must have gone to see what was the matter. I drew my mind back to my goal.
“I’ve been doing everything I can to prepare,” I said.
“Let’s not worry about that,” Mother said before I could go on. “Tonight is one of the few occasions we can think of celebration instead of duty. Your father and I wanted to give you your birthday present.”
She nodded to Father, who lifted a long rectangular object from the floor behind him and set it on the table. It was a lacquered case with a leather strap and a gold clasp. “Open it,” he said, grinning.
I leaned forward and pushed up the clasp. As I raised the lid, my breath caught. “Thank you!” I said, staring at the instrument inside. “It’s wonderful.”
It was a flute made of polished bamboo, so carefully crafted I could feel how pure its sounds would be just by running my fingertips over the wood. I picked it up and brought it to my lips. The scale hummed through me as if I were as much an instrument as the flute. Each note expanded into the quiet like a flower bud unfurling. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard—and it was mine.
I set the flute back in its case, closed the lid, and hugged it to me. “Thank you,” I said again. “I’ll play it tonight.” I’d meant to use my old flute, the one they’d given me when I’d started lessons years ago. But this was a true musician’s instrument. One for a woman, not a girl. Maybe they knew I was ready to finally find my place among the kami.
I slid the case’s strap over my shoulder. As I opened my mouth, another shout carried through the wall, followed by a heavy crash that shocked the words from my throat. Footsteps thumped down the hall outside. Takeo pulled open the door, and one of his fellow guards stumbled to a halt on the threshold, his breath rasping.
“Your Highnesses,” he said, “forgive my intrusion. We’re under attack.”
The mountain’s ki shivered through me, and I realized I hadn’t imagined the distress I’d felt in it before.
“Attack?” Mother said faintly. “Now?”
Father sprang to his feet. “By whom? Tell us everything.”
“It’s a demon,” the guard said with a shudder, “with a terrible fury of power, leading an army of ghosts. They swarmed us at the entrance—they’re carrying ropes and nets so vile we can’t cast them off—and the demon burns with his touch alone. I barely managed to escape to warn you. Already some are heading this way. We’re fighting as well as we can, but...”
Ghosts. I scrambled up, remembering Miss Sakai’s odd demeanor, the way she’d hurried away from Takeo and me. Had she known an attack was coming and not warned us? My stomach turned. Was she out there joining in the assault right now?
“Our defenses?” Father asked.
The guard swiped his arm through the air. “Nothing could withstand them.”
Mother stood. “We must do everything we can to stop them and protect the mountain,” she said, her voice now firm. “There’s still a chance. We...” She hesitated, and then turned to slip her arms around me. I only had a moment to squeeze her back before she’d let me go. Behind her, an inhuman roar thundered through the palace. Goosebumps rose on my arms. Screams echoed down the hall, and Mother blanched even whiter.
“Takeo,” she said, “you must stay here with Sora. If our enemies reach this end of the palace... You remember the instructions I gave you when you were assigned?”
Takeo blinked at her and then nodded with a jerk. “Mother,” I said, “what—”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “If I’d known... But there isn’t time.”
Father squashed me in a hug as brief as hers. “Be safe, daughter,” he said roughly. He and Mother swept out of the room.
“No!” I said, moving to run after them, but Takeo caught my arm. He closed the door as he held me away from it. The screams and shouts of the battle rose, louder, closer, and my heart thudded louder too. The way Mother and Father had embraced me—it was almost as if they never expected to see me again.
I wrenched against Takeo’s grasp, but he refused to let go. “They ordered us to stay here,” he said, his expression strained.
“So what?” I said. “We have to help!”
“Your mother gave specific orders.”
I gritted my teeth. While I was “strong” and Ayame “frantic,” the word that best described Takeo’s nature was “steadfast.” He wouldn’t have been chosen as a palace guard otherwise. But there were times when unwavering loyalty was a pain in the neck. He’d tie me up and throw me in a closet before he’d disobey my parents’ word.
Another cry rang out. A paper screen ripped. My hands clenched. I needed my sword—in my rooms down the hall. Takeo drew his, taking a defensive stance I’d seen him fall into so many times when we’d sparred, but never to meet a real enemy. Our martial training served mostly to focus the mind and keep our traditions alive. The sorts of creatures kami might have fought against once rarely traveled close to Mt. Fuji, especially now that so many humans lived nearby. I’d never witnessed even a minor skirmish. How could this be happening? Nothing made sense.
Takeo’s grasp on my wrist had loosened. I lunged forward, snapping his hold, and shoved open the door.
“Sora!” Takeo said, but I was already scrambling out into the hall. The sight of the scene at the far end made my heart stop. Three palace guards and a group of other kami were caught in a wave of shadowy figures that blotted out what remained of the sunlight. The onslaught of ghosts moved like a tsunami, crashing through the hall. One ghost snapped a rope tight around a bear kami’s neck. Another swung a curved blade at a guard and split the billowing sleeve of her uniform. Dozens more swarmed past them, toppling some kami with the sheer mass of their momentum and heaving darkly knotted nets into their midst. The ghosts’ cackles and the kami’s grunts of pain ricocheted off the walls.
A cold sweat had broken over my skin, but I dashed forward all the same, gathering ki in my hands. “Catch them all!” a voice was shouting. “Push them into the rooms! We can hold them there.” More ghosts charged through the panels along the hall. One burst out just a few feet ahead of me and flung a mottled net my way. I dodged backward, my feet stumbling as a sickly, rotten smell filled my nose. Then Takeo’s solid hands caught my shoulders. He yanked me back into my parents’ chambers with a surge of ki.
“They’re almost on us,” he said. “We have to go.”
I struggled against him, even though my body was trembling. A shriek pierced the air from just outside. “We can’t abandon everyone!” I said.
“Your mother thinks this is best.” Takeo pulled me around to face him. He met my gaze, his eyes dark. “You trust her, don’t you?”
Before I could answer, a body smashed through the door beside us.It was one of the guards. As he groped through the shreds of paper for the sword he must have lost, four ghosts leapt in after him, driving their knives into his chest and sides. The ethereal weapons left no damage on his corporeal body, but they’d be raking at his ki, bringing a different sort of agony. His limbs spasmed.
The ghost at the back of the pack, a young man in a slim gray suit whose hair was streaked as red as the stain on his own knife, grinned as he watched the guard’s torment. Then his gaze flicked to Takeo and me.
“Them too,” he said with a jab of his hand.
I’d already shifted into a fighting stance, my legs braced and arms ready. My pulse pounded in my ears. Takeo’s hand tightened on my shoulder. His ki washed over me. “Meet me below,” he said into my ear and dragged both our now-ethereal bodies away from the ghosts, into the wall.
We slid through the wood and into the mountain’s rock. Darkness closed in on me, so thick I could no longer see or feel Takeo beside me. I spun around, disoriented. I had to go back. The guards, Mother and Father, Ayame, Midori...
I reached to my sash instinctively, though I was carrying no blade. My flute case, still at my back, would make a poor weapon. The image of those stabbing knives flashed through my mind. I wanted to fly at all those translucent legless figures with their vicious smirks, to drive them out of here and over the horizon.
But I didn’t have the slightest idea how to do it.
I drew in a shaky breath. Tears had sprung into my eyes, but the mountain’s ki wore away my urge to fight even as it shuddered with displeasure.
There must be hundreds of ghosts in the palace, and there was only one of me. Throwing myself into the fray now wouldn’t be strong—it’d be foolish. Mother was known for her wisdom. I did trust her. Whatever instructions she’d given Takeo, maybe they’d allow us to come back and recover our home.
I eased toward the mountainside and poked my ethereal head through the layer of soil that covered the slope. Immediately, I jerked back down. Ghosts were prowling all through that glade. The mountain was choked with them.
Had they seen me? I needed to move. I needed to find Takeo.
He’d told me to meet him “below,” so I began to stride downward as if on unseen stairs, following the slope. The dark rock rippled past me, its pressure tugging at the edges of my body. Simply holding myself in this ethereal state took energy—moving through solid matter was draining my ki even faster. I listened in the stillness for any sign of pursuit, but all I could hear was the uneven beat of my heart.
As I neared the base of the mountain, the rock squeezed against me so tightly my chest ached. I couldn’t go much farther like this. Surely by now I’d left the ghosts behind?
I peeked into the outside world and, finding myself alone, leapt up through the soil into the humid evening air, in the midst of the forest that stretched around the base of the mountain. Only the breeze stirred as I caught my balance. I turned, hugging the strap of the flute case across my chest. The mountain’s peak was hidden by the trees.
“Takeo?” I called. “Takeo!”
No one answered. What if the ghosts had caught him? What if they’d—I closed my eyes, shoving away the memory of bloody knives. Then I reached for the nearest tree, a towering pine. Pulling myself with both my muscles and my ki, I scaled it in a matter of seconds.
The mountain rose above the green sprawl of the forest, looking perfectly normal at first glance. Then, in the ruddy light of the sunset, movement glimmered between the trees that cloaked most of its lower half. Farther up, my ki-sharpened eyes made out hazy bodies swarming the rocky peak around the more solid living figures of the tourists hiking the paths to the summit, oblivious. The ghosts would be as invisible to them as I was in my ethereal form.
My fingers tightened around the branch I was clutching. Our enemies were everywhere.
A sparrow hopped onto a tuft of needles beside me and chirped. “Don’t go up there,” I said tightly. “Not now.”
I half jumped, half glided down to the lower branches. From there, I peered into the depths of the forest, hoping my position would keep me hidden if the ghosts ventured this far. A more tender memory tickled up: playing hide and seek among the mountain’s trees with Takeo as a child. Once he’d hidden so well that after a half hour of searching I’d burst into tears. And then he’d been there at my side in an instant, hugging me and promising he would never truly disappear.
A lump filled my throat. I set my jaw and gave all my senses over to the forest. After several long minutes, the crackle of pine needles reached my ears. I twisted and caught a flash of silver embroidery amid the trees.
“Takeo!” I dropped to the ground and raced to him. At my voice, he swiveled toward me. He met me halfway, catching me by the arms. A few strands of his hair had slipped from its knot, softening the severe style, but his expression was determined.
“Thank the heavens,” he said. “You’re all right?”
“They have the mountain,” I said as I nodded. “All of it. Everyone there...” Not just the palace kami, but all the guests who had gathered. Was that why the demon had chosen tonight to attack—had it wanted to capture as many of us as possible? Or had it simply hoped the party would leave us distracted?
“They’ll be alive,” Takeo said. “The demon and his ghosts might have been powerful enough to overcome us, but every kami on the mountain has enough ki to live through ten more battles like that.”
It was true that while kami could die, it took a long time to wear down the ki that sustained us. The people we’d left behind could still be saved. But the stabbed guard hadn’t looked as if he had much more battle left in him. And even now the ghosts could be torturing my family, my friends. Hurting us had seemed to amuse them.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What could they want? Why would they attack us?”
“I don’t know,” Takeo said. “I’ve seen ghosts hurt humans before, but never kami.”
“How is it even possible? I wouldn’t have thought there were that many ghosts in the entire world.”
“Neither would I,” Takeo agreed. “And normally the few of the dead who remain in the world of the living are tied to the places of their deaths. For them to travel this far, to gather so many together... Perhaps the demon has lent them power somehow. But I’ve never heard of a demon working with ghosts either.”
“What does it want? Where did it come from?” I hadn’t been aware of a demon existing near the mountain in the entire time I’d been alive. They were rare enough that I knew of them only from old stories, in which they were monstrous creatures, full of malevolent energy and eager to destroy. I wouldn’t have expected any to be powerful enough to subdue the entire palace, though. No enemy had ever even attempted that. My gut twisted. “Did you have any idea we might be in danger?”
Takeo shook his head. “But we may have someone else we can turn to for answers.”
“Mother’s instructions.” I stared at him. He’d been keeping a secret from me—for how long? “What did she tell you, and when?”
He lowered his head, abruptly awkward. “It was so long ago, I’d put it out of my mind. When I was named your principal guard when you were eleven years old, your mother gave me orders she told me I must keep to myself. She said that if the mountain ever faced so great a threat that our survival was uncertain, I was to go to the valley of the doves to speak to the kami sage Rin, and if possible bring you with me. I’m supposed to tell Sage Rin that the time of the prophecy has come, and she should tell us what to do.”
“Prophecy?” I repeated. “Then they knew...? But Mother and Father didn’t seem prepared. They hadn’t expected the attack.”
“Whatever your mother anticipated, I don’t think she believed it would happen soon,” Takeo said. “She said she was telling me merely as a precaution, but it was likely I’d never need to act on it. She seemed to think it was best I didn’t know more.”
Best for her then maybe, but not for us now. “Rin.” The name sounded familiar. “Rin the Obtuse! Oh, no. Ayame’s told me tales about her. In all of them she gives advice no one can figure out until it’s too late to use it. She’s supposed to help us?”
“According to your mother,” Takeo said. “Perhaps the stories exaggerated.”
I glanced back toward the mountain. We’d have to hope so. We had no other path to follow. And we couldn’t know how long the kami trapped in the palace would be able to withstand the ghosts’ torment.
“Let’s hurry to this valley of the doves then,” I said.
Takeo crouched down and detached a sheath from his boot, half the length of the one that hung by his hip. “My short sword,” he said. “We should make our way as quickly as possible, but you’ll need to be armed in case we have no choice but to fight.”
I tucked the sheath into the sash of my robe. “Thank you.”
Takeo grasped my hand. We had only run past the first few stands of trees when we came upon a ghostly patrol: five young men in suits that disappeared below their thighs. We were racing forward too quickly to avoid them. Instead, Takeo squeezed my fingers, and we dashed straight through the middle of the group. The touch of their filmy bodies left my skin crawling, as if I’d bitten into a peach and found it rotten.
“Hey!” one of the ghosts hollered. “Stop where you are!”
“Faster,” Takeo whispered.
I sent all the energy I could summon to my feet. We darted around trees and through bushes, the ghosts’ furious shouts trailing after us. My lungs burned, but I kept running, on and on, past the houses of the town and the farmlands beyond it, long after the voices behind us faded away.
Finally, after we’d slipped into another patch of forest, Takeo slowed beside me. The sky had gone dark. As soon as I let my pace falter, my legs buckled. I caught myself against a tree at the edge of a clearing. My body shifted back into its corporeal state, the humidity of the air congealing against my skin.
“I think we’ve lost any that might have tried to follow us,” Takeo said. “You’re worn out. We should rest and regain our energy.”
“How far is the valley?” I asked.
“At our fastest, I think we could reach it tomorrow afternoon.”
Tomorrow. And then there would be another day coming back. I couldn’t see Mt. Fuji at all through these trees, couldn’t feel the faintest hum of its ki. I’d never really left the mountain before, never gone farther than the town at its foot. But Takeo was right—my descent and our dash here had left me exhausted. I wasn’t sure how much farther I could even walk.
I slid the flute case around my body, cradling it. The memory of my parents’ beaming faces swam in my head. What was happening to them right now? What had the demon intended to do to them and the others once it had control of the mountain?
Takeo circled the clearing, scanning the forest. “We’ll still have to be careful as we’re traveling, but I may know a way we can fight the ghosts if we encounter more.”
“What?” I said, raising my head.
“Your grandmother, Hoshi, showed me once.” He brushed the fallen leaves from a spot in the middle of the clearing and arranged a handful of sticks on the dirt. “There was a ghost, not long after I came to the mountain, who was... stuck to a spot by one of the roads.”
“Like Miss Sakai,” I said.
“Miss Sakai keeps to herself,” Takeo said, and hesitated. “At least, she did. But this ghost, he would jump out in front of the cars, startling the drivers. There were several accidents. Hoshi asked me to help her send his spirit into the afterworld. She showed me using a slip of paper, but I think bark or cloth would do as well. It’s the characters you write that matter. They’re like the ones on the ofuda charms humans hang by their doorways and windows to keep out evil spirits. You place the charm on the forehead of a lingering spirit—maybe other parts work too, but Hoshi seemed to think the forehead was most effective—and the ghost vanishes back to the afterworld where it belongs.”
I thought of my glimpse of the mountainside. Not just hundreds, but thousands of ghosts. We were going to need a lot of ofuda.
“I’m not sure I remember the characters perfectly,” Takeo went on, “but I’ll try. We just need something to write with.”
“Charcoal,” I said, understanding. I knelt down by the pile of sticks and held out my hands. Closing my eyes, I reached for the ki within me. Heat, light, burning. The sharp twang of the energy flashed behind my eyelids and flooded my chest with warmth. I shoved it through my palms.
My arms quivered. I inhaled, exhaled, and thrust my hands forward. Not a single thread of ki leapt from them. What was wrong with me? I dragged in another breath and found myself trembling.
“Sora!” Takeo bent down beside me. I turned my head away.
“It’s not working,” I said, as calmly as I could manage. “I can’t make the fire start—I don’t know why I’m not—”
The familiar weight of Takeo’s arm slid around my back.
“You’re tired, and upset,” he said quietly. “Your thoughts are scattered—you can’t focus. It’s not surprising. Here, I’ll do it.”
Wasn’t it surprising? Had he gotten any less steadfast since this afternoon? Why should I be any less strong?
Takeo stretched his other arm toward the sticks. A flame shot up amidst them. I pressed my hands against the solid ground. I had bigger things to worry about. The life of every kami on Mt. Fuji might depend on Takeo and me.
“I’ll go find some smooth bark we can write on,” I said, standing up. “Then I want you to teach me those characters.”
But as I walked away, my failure gnawed at me. I’d seen my abilities weaken when I was tired before, but they’d never left me completely.
I slept first while Takeo kept watch, both of us holding several birch bark ofuda in our sleeves. Or at least, I tried to sleep. When I closed my eyes I saw the mass of ghosts surging down the hallway and the guard I’d watched falling under their knives in my parents’ room. His form shifted into Mother’s, Father’s, their lips pressed tight to keep from crying out as the blades stabbed them again and again.
They would be that stoic. They wouldn’t want to give their captors the slightest bit of satisfaction while they bled and healed, bled and healed, feeling their energy ebbing, waiting for rescue.
When it was my watch, I stalked the edges of the clearing, fingering the rough edges of my ofuda. The scattered stars cast too faint a light to penetrate the forest’s shadows, but a ghost’s ki should glow brightly enough that I’d be able to spot it in the darkness if one came near.
Dawn was just touching the horizon when thin wings whirred by my ear. I glanced up, and my heart leapt. A metallic green dragonfly was hovering in front of me, her multifaceted eyes fixed on mine.
“Midori!” I said. “You got away! Did anyone escape with you? How did you find us?”
Midori extended a tendril of ki to me, and images flitted through my mind. I got the impression she had darted beneath the swing of a sword and through a gap in a net, and then bolted down the mountain. In one flash I glimpsed two figures racing ahead in the distance, the shimmer of ki making them briefly visible through the trees. Takeo and me. That particular image came with a trickle of relief at finding she wasn’t alone.
She’d followed us—only her.
Was every other kami who’d been in the palace for the celebration still trapped there?
I reached out to give Midori’s head a gentle stroke of welcome, but she circled me and dropped onto my hair. She tugged me as if urging me downward with an urgency that held none of her usual playfulness. “What?” I whispered as I crouched behind a cluster of bamboo plants. Her wings buzzed anxiously.
A moment later, twigs cracked under stomping feet. Several paces from our clearing, a group of hunched figures stalked through the forest in the faint dawn light. I squinted, trying to make out their faces. My hand jerked to the sword I’d borrowed from Takeo.
The nearest creature was easily eight feet tall, with bristly gray hair sprouting down its neck and across its hulking shoulders. Two immense fangs jutted from its upper jaw over its chin. The one just behind it was shorter and squat. Wide horns protruded from its shaggy mane and five scarlet eyes scattered its forehead. Their companions were similarly monstrous.
Ogres. I’d never seen them before—they were too wary of Mt. Fuji’s power to set foot there—but I’d heard enough tales. They might not be as powerful in their maliciousness as demons, but they enjoyed causing what harm they could. They were certainly no friends to the kami.
As I watched them pass, my spirits sank. They were heading in the direction Takeo and I had come from, toward the mountain. Maybe it was a coincidence. Or maybe they meant to join the demon and his ghosts while the mountain’s guardians were incapacitated.
When the last of the ogres had vanished from sight and hearing, I scrambled to Takeo’s side and grasped his shoulder to wake him. As I described what I’d seen, he leapt up, hefting his bow.
“They’re gone,” I said. “But I don’t know if more will come.”
“They might,” he agreed. “We should move now. I’ve rested enough.”
A smudge of dirt marked his cheek and stray pine needles clung to his uniform, but he looked as dauntless as ever. I squared my shoulders. At least I still had him.
Midori, my equally faithful companion, settled onto her usual spot on the back of my head. As we ran, my hair tumbled over my back. In the rising heat of the day, it stuck to the sweat dampening my neck. My ceremonial robe dragged at my arms and legs. The strap of my flute case dug into my shoulder, which had started to radiate a dull ache.
None of that would have affected me if I had slipped into the ethereal state, but except to avoid human eyes when crossing the highways, train tracks, and villages that broke the stretches of wooded land, I was using all the energy I had for speed. If we encountered more ogres or ghosts, I didn’t want to be as drained as I’d been last night. Even now, after sleeping, the flow of ki through my body felt muted, like a stream shrunk by dry weather. I thought of the mountain, of the warm thrum of its embrace, and had to blink hard to keep tears from forming.
If Takeo noticed, he didn’t let on. When he spoke, it was about Rin.
“What exactly have you heard about this sage?”
“Mainly that her advice is always difficult to follow,” I said, grateful for the distraction. “She used to let humans know about her, and they would go looking to get her advice. But she would just confuse them. She told a commander that the best time to strike was when darkness fell, so that night he sent his army into battle—and they were slaughtered. Because it turned out Sage Rin had meant they should take advantage of the eclipse two days later.”
Takeo grimaced. “I remember that story. We’ll have to hope she’s mellowed in her old age.”
Just after the sun had reached its peak, we crossed the ridge of a low mountain and looked down into a narrow valley. Below us, a waterfall burbled over pinkish-gray rock into a series of egg-shaped pools, shaded by stands of bright green bamboo. A delicate floral scent mixed with the crisp smell of cypress in the breeze. No roads cut through the forest below us, and no roofs showed through the trees.
“The valley of the doves,” Takeo said. “I don’t think we should draw too much attention to ourselves. We don’t know what else might be lurking.”
I eyed the forest. “I suppose it would make the most sense for Sage Rin to live near the bottom of the valley—close to the water and sheltered from the weather.”
We hurried down the steep incline into the thicker vegetation, grasping saplings and bushes to keep our balance. Leaves hissed against my robe. When we reached the waterfall, we walked along the slick stone around the pools. Seeing no sign of Rin or her home, we pushed deeper into the valley. The mountains rising on either side blocked the harshest of the sun’s rays, but the summer heat still hung over us. I was wiping my forehead with my sleeve when a tiny object flew through the air and pattered at my feet. Midori let out a spark of bemused consternation as a small face with a shock of red hair disappeared amid the branches of a nearby beech tree.
“A nut,” I said, nudging the object at my feet with my toes.
Takeo nodded. “Tree fairies like to play, but they don’t mean any harm. They’re simple, friendly creatures.”
I was about to ask Takeo whether the fairy might direct us to the sage when the ground beneath us shuddered. I stumbled backward into a cedar. Takeo grabbed its trunk as the earth swayed, shivered, and stilled.
“Just a small tremor,” he said.
A throat cleared behind us. “Small or not, the cause is what tells,” said a rusty voice.
I flinched and spun around, my hand dipping into my sleeve for my ofuda. My arm stilled when I saw the kami standing on the log beside us.
The short, pot-bellied woman studying us was so old that old hardly began to describe her. The sunlight seemed to shine right through her colorless hair, and the lines on her face ran so deep it was hard to make out which were wrinkles and which her mouth and nose. Her shoulders were stooped within the thin robe she wore, which, though scuffed, looked like silk. Shriveled toes clung to her leather sandals. She must have been thousands of years old., but her dark eyes glittered with a vitality completely at odds with her appearance, and the air around her rippled with ki. I didn’t have to ask her name.
“Sage Rin,” I said, and bowed. “It’s an honor.” The hem of my robe was splotched with dirt. I bowed lower, suddenly wishing I’d at least been able to wash before meeting with this most respected sage, obtuse or not. I couldn’t tell anymore, but I probably smelled. And not of cherry blossoms.
Takeo bowed too, his tanned face forming an expression of grave deference. When we straightened up, I knew which line was Rin’s mouth. It was curved into a smirk.
“I can see your purpose well enough,” she said, “though I hadn’t anticipated you arriving so soon.” She hopped down from the log and started to shuffle away from us.
We followed her along a path we’d missed, which wound tightly through the trees at the base of the slope. “Do you know what’s happened?” I asked when I couldn’t take the silence any longer. “My mother—Kasumi of Mt. Fuji—she told Takeo something about a prophecy and that you would be able to help.”
“I know very much and very little,” Rin said.
“But you know what we have to do to save the mountain?” I said. “To rescue my parents, and everyone else?”
“Hmmm,” she replied. “Possibly you have to do nothing at all.”
“But—” I caught myself, swallowing my impatience. This was Rin the Obtuse. We’d be lucky to get a clear answer out of her on her own terms.
She stopped at a huge cypress that looked as though it might have been as old as she was, and tapped her knuckles against the gnarled bark. A door swung open in the trunk.
Inside, the sage’s house looked like a pavilion, round-walled and high-ceilinged, with winding wooden steps leading up between its levels. Takeo and I padded after Rin to the second floor. There, she motioned for us to sit. A ceramic teapot was already set on the low table beside a single cup. The pot started to steam as she took another cup off a shelf and squatted down across from us.
“First, it is you who must talk,” she said. She poured the golden liquid into both cups, passing one to Takeo and keeping one for herself. Takeo frowned. I didn’t understand why she’d neglected me, but it was hard to be very bothered when we were so close to getting answers.
“We’ve come from the palace on Mt. Fuji,” I said. As I explained about the ghosts’ attack, the demon who apparently led them, and the ogres that had passed us in the morning, Rin sipped her tea.
“Ghosts and a demon,” she said when I’d finished. “Not what I would have guessed. But my guesses are far less accurate than my prophecies. And even a prophecy is far from fact.”
“Then the prophecy Her Highness mentioned, it was yours?” Takeo said. “You foresaw this attack?”
“I will share with you the same words I said to Kasumi and Hotaka years ago, after the vision came,” Rin said. “I have seen a darkness that rises up over the mountain, engulfing it and nearly devouring it.”
“The ghosts,” I murmured, remembering the dark wave of them in the hall.
“So it would seem,” Rin said. “I knew nothing other than it would be a force terrible enough to overwhelm even the sacred mountain as never before. But that is only the beginning.” She fell back into her reciting voice. “I have seen a powerful kami striking back against that darkness and driving it away. A young woman, bearing the three kami-blessed treasures of human imperial rule: the sword, the mirror, and the jewel. And the girl herself was a marvel, with more power than I’ve ever seen, air lifting her hair and fire in her eyes and water flowing through her movements and earth holding her firm. A kami born of the elements combined.”
“Like Mother and Father.” My grandparents on my mother’s side had affinities to air and water, and on my father’s side to earth and fire. Which would have passed from my parents on to me. Which meant that—
“So it is clear that a daughter of Mt. Fuji’s current rulers will save it in its time of greatest need,” Rin finished, folding her hands in her lap.
That had to be the reason they’d tried so hard for a child. Why Mother had sent Takeo here with me. So that I could make Rin’s vision come true.
“And that’s me,” I said, looking up at her. I really was going to save them. It had already been decided.
“You think you speak the truth,” Rin said, “when you know none of it?”
“What do you mean?” I said. “If there’s more, please tell me.”
“You have no place in this at all,” Rin replied, her wizened face implacable.
For a second, I could only blink at her. “But... everything you mentioned,” I said. “Those are my parents. I am their only child. How can the prophecy not be about me?”
“She is the daughter of Their Highnesses Kasumi and Hotaka,” Takeo said. “I can attest to that. I’ve known her since she was a child.”
“Yes,” Rin said. Her smirk returned. “You’ve known this girl. But this girl is not a child of Mt. Fuji. She is not even kami.”
@2016 Megan Crewe