Immortal Fire (The Red Winter Trilogy Book 3) by Annette Marie




  Immortal Fire

  The Red Winter Trilogy: Book 3

  Annette Marie

  Contents

  Also by Annette Marie

  A Note About Names

  Amatsukami & Kunitsukami

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Pronunciation Guide

  Glossary

  About the Author

  About the Artist

  The Spell Weaver Trilogy

  The Steel & Stone Series

  Immortal Fire

  Book Three of the Red Winter Trilogy

  Copyright © 2017 by Annette Marie

  www.authorannettemarie.com

  All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations for review purposes.

  This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, places, or events is purely coincidental.

  Dark Owl Fantasy Inc.

  PO Box 88106, Rabbit Hill Post Office

  Edmonton, AB, Canada T6R 0M5

  www.darkowlfantasy.com

  Cover Copyright © 2017 by Annette Ahner

  www.midnightwhimsydesigns.com

  Artwork Copyright © 2017 by Brittany Jackson

  www.beagifted.com

  Editing by Elizabeth Darkley

  arrowheadediting.wordpress.com

  Version 04.07.17

  ISBN: 978-1-988153-12-4

  Also by Annette Marie

  THE RED WINTER TRILOGY

  Red Winter

  Dark Tempest

  Immortal Fire

  THE STEEL & STONE SERIES

  Chase the Dark

  Bind the Soul

  Yield the Night

  Feed the Flames

  Reap the Shadows

  Unleash the Storm

  A Note About Names

  A full glossary of names and terms is provided at the back of the book, which includes pronunciations and definitions.

  A spoiler-free Pronunciation Guide for character names and key terms, listed in order of appearance in the book, can also be found just before the full glossary.

  Use the Table of Contents to visit the guide and glossary.

  Chapter 1

  Beyond the window, snow swirled toward the ground in a shimmering curtain. A hush lay over the land, all activity quieted by the snowfall, and within the room, the warmth of the coal-heated brazier filled the space with a soft, serene glow.

  Emi wished she could enjoy the calm evening, but anxiety tightened her nerves. From the assortment of supplies on the table, she selected a roll of white fabric.

  Yumei sat on the floor in front of her. His bare torso told the tale of the battle he had fought. The gouges from dragon claws and the dark bruises from crushing impacts turned her stomach. The same injuries would have left a human immobile in a hospital bed, but yokai were far tougher. And Yumei, a raven yokai known to most as the Tengu and to a select few as the Prince of Shadows, was tougher than most.

  She pressed one end of the bandage against his shoulder. She’d dropped the roll twice and had to restart when the bandages sagged, too loose to hold. He’d waited patiently without comment—a surprising deviation from his normally irascible temperament.

  Now, with far more confidence than her first attempt, she wrapped the reddish-purple bruises and four deep slices down his ribs and tied off the bandage. Touching him at all was rather strange. Unlike Shiro, who frequently and deliberately invaded her personal space, Yumei rarely allowed any kind of physical contact. Despite that, once her initial embarrassment had passed, she found a simple familiarity in their interaction. She wasn’t sure if that was because she was more comfortable around him, or because he was more relaxed around her.

  When she picked up another roll, he extended his arm and she began to bind it from shoulder to elbow, covering the half-healed gouges in his bicep from Orochi’s teeth. She debated with herself as she worked. Did she want to test his tolerance toward her?

  “How are you feeling?” she asked quietly.

  His eyes turned to her. The pale silver irises rimmed by a dark outline had always unnerved her, seeing as much as they concealed. “Fine.”

  The single word was flat and irritable, as she’d expected. The Tengu was a proud yokai, and accepting help, or even allowing her to see his injuries, wasn’t easy for him. He would prefer no one to know his strength was compromised, let alone discuss it.

  She wound a few more loops of bandage around his arm. “Are you recovering as well as you would like? Is there anything else I can do?”

  “No,” he answered unhelpfully.

  She tied the bandage in place, unsurprised that fishing for information wasn’t working. “You’re healing much slower than Susano. Why?”

  Earlier that day, Susano had left the inn. His injuries had been almost as bad as Yumei’s but he had recovered far more swiftly. By the time he left, his once deep wounds had been no more than pink lines on his skin. In comparison, Yumei’s rate of healing concerned her.

  He pulled his arm away and tore the excess bandage off with his teeth, briefly revealing his sharp canines. He dropped the scrap onto the table.

  “I am not a Kunitsukami.”

  His terse answer pulled the corners of her mouth down. She was well aware that Yumei and Susano were not equals. Susano wasn’t a mere yokai. He was the Kunitsukami of the Storm—one of the four earthly gods who ruled the yokai.

  She glanced toward the far end of the room, where white hair and a pair of fox ears protruded from the blankets on a narrow futon. Shiro was technically a Kunitsukami too, but with a curse binding his power and memories, he lacked the ancient air that Susano and Yumei carried. Occasionally, though, the immortal god sleeping within Shiro peeked out, and those glimpses of his true self were more than a little unsettling.

  Focusing on Yumei, she held out her hand. He gave her a long stare—a warning to drop her line of questioning—before offering his other wrist. She used the scrap of bandage to bind the punctures in his forearm.

  “Are you healing slowly because you’ve been away from home for too long?” She tightened her grip on his wrist. “Do you need to go back?”

  Yumei pulled his arm away, his strength far greater than hers.

  “There’s no shame in going home to recover for a few days,” she persisted. “If you’ll regain your strength faster, then you should go.”

  She shrunk as his glare turned glacial. Dealing with prideful men was difficult enough, but yokai had centuries to accumulate ego.

  “You don’t know when to quit,” a sleepy voice mumbled from the other end of the room. “Do you, little miko?”

  Yawning widely and flattening his vulpine ears to his head, Shiro sat u
p. “You,” he said, pointing at Yumei, “don’t say anything. She’s just worried about you.” He pointed at Emi. “You, stop pestering him. If he needed to return home, he would have already.”

  “I wasn’t pestering him,” she mumbled.

  “You are almost as irritating as the kitsune,” Yumei told her, rising to his feet and picking up his black kosode shirt. He pulled it on over his bandaged torso and strode out the door. It closed behind him with a snap. Perhaps he wasn’t as tolerant of her presence as she’d thought.

  Huffing, Shiro flopped back onto his futon and draped an arm over his face to block out the dim light. “As entertaining as it is, you probably shouldn’t antagonize him.”

  “I wasn’t trying to antagonize him.” She straightened the first aid supplies on the table, fighting embarrassment. “You told me that being away from his mountains for so long is weakening him.”

  “And he knows that better than anyone. He doesn’t need you to tell him.”

  “Why doesn’t he go home, then?”

  “It isn’t necessary. Even injured, he’s perfectly capable of handling most adversaries.”

  “What about the ones he can’t handle?”

  “If Izanami showed up, Yumei’s presence could mean the difference between you and I escaping alive or not, so he won’t leave.” He lifted his arm from his face and smirked at her alarm. “Not an actual concern, though, since kami can’t enter Tsuchi.”

  The mere mention of Izanami, the Amatsukami of the Earth, who’d repeatedly attempted to kill Emi, was enough to chill her blood.

  “This location still isn’t very safe,” she pointed out. “We’re too close to where Susano was imprisoned.”

  “That’s why we need to get out of here the minute Susano returns.” Shiro yawned again. “He said he’d be back the day after tomorrow.”

  Since Yumei needed a few more days to heal, Susano had departed to take care of some Kunitsukami matters. After five years of imprisonment, he probably appreciated the opportunity to start picking up the pieces of his life.

  If Emi were to panic over anything, it would be their next mission. In a few short days, they would head east to the Sabuten Islands, where Sarutahiko, the Kunitsukami of the Mountain, was imprisoned under the guard of Tsukiyomi. She didn’t know if the Amatsukami of the Water was a true enemy. Had he been tricked and manipulated by Izanami as so many others had?

  The four Amatsukami, rulers of the kami, should have been Emi’s allies. To descend from the heavenly realm, Amatsukami needed a mortal body to host their spirits, and Emi was exactly that: the kamigakari destined to host Amaterasu, Amatsukami of the Wind.

  Emi would soon fulfill that destiny at the cost of her life.

  When Amaterasu descended into Emi, the goddess’s divine power would consume Emi’s mind and soul. She would cease to exist, while Amaterasu would live on in Emi’s body. Her fate, her end, awaited her on the winter solstice, a mere twenty-three days away.

  She shrugged off the thought before her anxiety grew worse. Gathering a new roll of bandages, she rose and crossed the room to Shiro’s futon.

  She knelt beside him. “Since you’re awake, I can rebandage your arm too.”

  He lifted his forearm again to peek at her drowsily. “I’m fine.”

  “Then you won’t mind if I check your wound,” she said pleasantly, taking hold of his wrist just above the loop of glossy red beads—the cursed onenju that bound his power and memories.

  He sighed in a long-suffering way and let her pull his arm into her lap. She tugged off the bandages and found that the gash in his arm was no more than an angry red line that didn’t need cleaning. It probably didn’t require bandaging either, but since she’d insisted on checking it, she stubbornly wrapped it in a fresh cloth.

  With the bandage applied, she ran her fingers over the smooth beads of the onenju. She wasn’t yet ready to attempt to remove the final loop—if she failed, it would likely kill him—but that day wasn’t far off. Once he was free from the curse, how long would it take his lost memories to return? How long until those memories changed him?

  Her fingers drifted from the beads to the back of his hand where a red symbol, similar to the ones on his face, marked his skin. Eyes closed, face relaxed, he lay with one arm tucked behind his head. Had he fallen asleep again while she was wrapping his arm?

  “Shiro?” With the warm weight of his arm across her lap, she leaned closer. “Shiro, are you awake?”

  One of his ears twitched toward her. Not sure if he was feigning slumber, she gently tugged his ear.

  Grumbling, he flicked his ear out of her fingers and turned his head away. So he was asleep. He had slept a lot in the past four days, and she suspected his fatigue had as much to do with her removing the second last loop of the onenju as it did with his battle against the eight-headed dragon Orochi. Shiro had a lot of ki—his life force and the source of magic—to recover.

  She glanced around the empty room. They were alone. Since returning from battle, Yumei or Susano, or both, had almost always been in the room, allowing her and Shiro no privacy—though whether by design or coincidence, she didn’t know.

  Her pulse quickened and she again stroked the silky fur of his ear. He twitched his ear away and his chest rose in a deep, waking breath. His eyes, gleaming ruby hazed with sleep, slowly opened.

  I fear losing you more than anything that might befall me.

  The memory of his whispered words slid through her, wrapping her in silken chains. As his gaze focused, drawing her in, capturing her as it always did, sorrow crept into her heart. His greatest fear was losing her, but that was exactly what would happen. In three weeks, she would be gone.

  For millennia and more, Inari has been alone.

  Izanami’s words cut Emi like a knife. When she died, his eternity of solitude would resume. What if he never found another to love? What if, once his memories returned, he was incapable of love? What if he was alone forever, trapped in never-ending isolation that he couldn’t escape, not even in death?

  His eyebrows drew together and he brushed his thumb lightly over her cheek. When she felt the cool wetness in the wake of his touch, she realized he’d wiped away a tear.

  “Emi,” he murmured, “what’s wrong?”

  “Nothing,” she replied quickly, struggling to compose herself.

  “That is a lie, little miko.” He braced himself on one elbow. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

  “Nothing is wrong. I just—”

  The door slid open. She jerked upright, inadvertently pulling away from his hand. Yumei glided inside, and behind him, the innkeeper—a strange, boyish yokai with a single large eye instead of two—minced in with a loaded food tray. He half-bowed in her direction before setting the tray on the low table and retreating.

  As soon as the door closed, Shiro sat up, his attention fixed on her. She quickly rose and straightened her peach kimono, smiling brightly without looking at either yokai.

  “I’m going to visit the baths,” she announced. “Enjoy your meal.”

  Not giving them a chance to protest, she darted toward the door.

  “Emi—”

  Ignoring Shiro’s call, she stepped outside and closed the door. The snow danced beyond the covered walkway and a faint breeze chilled her skin. Suppressing a shiver, she angrily rubbed at her traitorous eyes and strode away, hoping to leave behind her sorrow over a fate she couldn’t change.

  Chapter 2

  Ajisai was certainly not a luxury inn, but Emi had no criticisms for the hot spring baths. She reclined against the stone edge of the pool as steam washed over her face and the near-scalding water soaked the stiffness from her muscles. Beyond the natural rock walls, the sheer planes of the mountain rose through curtains of snow before disappearing in the darkness. On a clear day, many summits crowded the skyline.

  The inn was among several strange places she’d visited in Tsuchi, the yokai spirit realm. Her favorite was Yumei’s oak tree home, where she’d spent several d
ays recuperating a couple weeks ago. Though small and cluttered with an inexplicable collection of junk, she’d felt oddly comfortable there—even with his crow yokai constantly watching her like a particularly delicious snack they weren’t allowed to eat.

  At least the karasu wouldn’t actually attack her. She couldn’t say the same about the yokai at the inn. Luckily, the baths had been empty the past few nights.

  Adjusting the towel wrapped around her hair, she sank lower until the water lapped at her throat. Cold spots dotted her cheeks as snowflakes melted on her skin. Would this be her last time bathing in a hot spring? Similar questions had been slipping into her thoughts more and more often. Had she eaten her favorite battered fish for the last time? Had she seen the beautiful dance of falling snow for the last time?

  Had she already kissed Shiro for the last time?

  The question scattered her thoughts and she dipped down until her chin touched the water. Only four days had passed since she had kissed him on the garden walkway in the snow—only four days since she’d realized she was in love with him.

  She let her head fall back. She was in love with a yokai … who was also a Kunitsukami. He was immortal, even if he didn’t remember his past life. She had only a few weeks to live, while he would live forever. Love between them was impossible and doomed to end in tragedy. He, though, would be the one left behind to grieve alone.

  The thought tore her apart. That was the pain that had driven her to flee the room. He didn’t need reminders of his inevitable solitude.

  Soon—perhaps even before she was gone—Shiro’s memories would return, and with them, Inari would slide into Shiro’s place, erasing her playful kitsune. She had seen Inari through a memory Amaterasu had shown her. Though he and Shiro shared many traits, a cutting undertone lined Inari’s mischievousness and a predatory edge sharpened his smile. And beneath was a bitter, hardened core of ice that didn’t at all suit a god of fire.

 
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