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


  “And Amaterasu,” Susano added.

  Shiro’s humor evaporated as his eyes went flat. Emi’s heart twinged and she dropped her gaze, quashing a spark of trepidation.

  “How do we find the spear?” Yumei asked into the heavy silence.

  When no one spoke, she pressed a hand to her forehead, thinking of what she knew about kami. “You said Izanagi sealed the spear away somewhere safe. Where could be safer than his shrines, where his power is strongest? The spear is probably at one of his larger shrines, where it could be protected even when Izanagi is in Takamahara.”

  “Izanagi is in Takamahara more often than not,” Susano told her. “He dislikes the earthly realm and only descends when he must.”

  “So protecting the spear would fall on his vassals and shrine servants.” She massaged her temples with two fingers. “If Izanagi’s shrines are anything like Amaterasu’s, I bet there’s some kind of record about the spear. That’s the kind of thing that gets included in shrine histories.”

  “You think they would write it down?” Shiro asked. “Doesn’t that seem risky?”

  “They might not know what it is, but I bet there’s some kind of record of a divine artifact under their protection for untold years.” She looked questioningly at Susano. “Before all this with Izanami, would Izanagi have had a reason to hide the spear or just keep it safe?”

  “Hiding it was probably not a concern,” Susano replied. “Even if its location was known, who would be brazen enough to attack Izanagi’s servants?”

  Emi resisted the urge to glance at Yumei, who probably didn’t appreciate the reminder of his painful past.

  “Further,” Susano continued, “the spear is not a prize most yokai wish to hold. Any who attempt to wield it will be confronted by Amatsukami and Kunitsukami alike.”

  “In that case,” she said, “I think our search should start at Izanagi’s largest shrine.”

  Shiro rolled his eyes. “Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to declare war on Izanagi with a bit more finesse? If we get anywhere near his prominent shrines, he won’t ignore it.”

  “The three of you should stay far away,” she agreed. “But a large shrine will be full of miko. What’s one more? Most shrines have similar layouts. I can sneak in, find their records room, and walk right out again without raising any suspicions.”

  Shiro and Susano exchanged glances.

  “Emi,” Susano said slowly, “you must understand. Izanagi is not merely the leader of the Amatsukami. He is the ultimate ruler of Takamahara, of all kami. His power is … undefeatable. For you to enter one of his bastions …”

  A thrill of fear turned her stomach.

  “Izanagi is not in the earthly realm,” Yumei said.

  Susano’s head snapped toward him. “What?”

  “Izanagi has a kamigakari waiting for him to descend, but he is still in Takamahara. He is likely waiting for the solstice, like Amaterasu.”

  “How do you know that?”

  Yumei glanced at Emi, and she smiled in understanding. He had searched out the Amatsukami at her insistence, when she had been searching for the truth about her fate. The information he had gathered was more useful now than it had been then.

  Her pulse jumped with excitement. “The sooner I can get into the shrine, the better.”

  “You’re not going into an enemy stronghold alone,” Shiro growled.

  “I can—”

  “Inari is correct,” Yumei interrupted. “Alone, the risk is too great.”

  “But none of you can come with me. I need someone who can blend in at a shrine. Someone human.”

  “What human is strong enough to be of any use?” Susano asked.

  “I’ll bring a sohei.” She looked at Shiro. “Katsuo will come with me. I know he will.”

  Shiro’s jaw flexed, then he nodded. “The boy is devoted to you. He will guard your back.”

  “We can stop at Shion to get him. Izanagi’s oldest and largest shrine is about an hour south of Shion.” The mundane aspects of her miko education hadn’t proved terribly useful so far, but at least she knew where all the major Amatsukami shrines were. She rose to her feet. “I can get a miko uniform in Shion too—and something to eat. You three might be able to go indefinitely without food, but I can’t.”

  “Shion?” Susano murmured as he, Shiro, and Yumei stood. “That is Amaterasu’s foremost shrine, is it not?”

  Arching his back in a stretch, Shiro cast a mischievous grin at her. “You do realize you just invited the Kunitsukami of the Storm to your shrine, don’t you? Whatever will your Guji and little sohei friend think?”

  She shook her head. She had invited not one but two Kunitsukami into her shrine, and once Guji Ishida realized who her preeminent companions were … she didn’t want to imagine his reaction.

  Chapter 11

  To cross the northern mountains back to Shion, Yumei created a passageway through Tsuchi that allowed them to traverse the distance in only a few steps. He had used the same skill to access Orochi’s island. Although preparing the spell took several hours, it was easier for him than transporting passengers with his disconcerting teleportation ability.

  When she stepped from the dark threshold, she heard drums. Her head jerked up as sickening dread swamped her.

  “What’s with all the noise?” Shiro asked her as Susano joined them and Yumei dispelled the dark, rippling hole through realms with a wave of his hand.

  Emi wrapped her arms around herself to quell the shivers that shook her body. Her lungs constricted.

  “Today must be the twelfth of December.” She couldn’t hide the quaver in her voice. “It’s the festival to celebrate the start of the Eight Blessings of Heaven and Earth—the eight days leading up to … to the solstice.”

  For the next week and a day, the shrine would honor each element—Wind, Sky, Wood, Water, Mountain, Earth, Storm, and Fire—and seek their blessings before the solstice on the ninth night, the longest of the year. The night her life would end.

  She drew in an unsteady breath. Only eight days left. Where had the time gone? The indistinguishable days she’d spent on Tsukiyomi’s island had blurred together so much that she hadn’t realized how long she’d been there. Now, she had little more than a week left before it was all over. She closed her eyes, focusing not on her impending demise but on finding the heavenly spear.

  “Emi?” Shiro murmured, his presence close beside her.

  Pulling herself together, she straightened her shoulders. “The festival could make it difficult to find Katsuo. We should hurry.”

  Without looking at the three yokai, she marched forward. Yumei’s portal had deposited them just outside the eastern grounds near the river—she could hear the water—and after only a few minutes of walking, gentle warmth whispered from the ground. She had crossed onto sacred land.

  A few steps behind her, Susano hissed. “I forgot how unpleasant kami shrines are.”

  She glanced at him but didn’t comment. The torii barrier might be uncomfortable for a Kunitsukami, but at least it wasn’t rejecting him. Shiro, as always, seemed unbothered by the shrine grounds.

  Night lay over the land, bringing an uncomfortably cold breeze with it. She thought wistfully of her long-lost coat as she wove through the mature spruce trees, a thin layer of snow crunching underfoot and melting into her socks. She wished she’d grabbed some shoes before her dramatic escape from Tsukiyomi’s island.

  The drums grew louder and an eerie orange glow leaked between the trees, flickering as festivalgoers passed in front of the lanterns. As Emi and the yokai slipped through the woods, chatter became audible over the steady boom.

  When she was close enough to make out the shapes of individual people, she stopped and turned to her companions. There was no way the kannushi, miko, and sohei of the shrine would fail to realize her companions weren’t human.

  “You three will have to wait here,” she told them.

  “The last time you came to this shrine, a kami attacked y
ou,” Shiro said, raising his eyebrows. “You don’t actually think I’ll let you out of my sight, do you?”

  Her heart gave an odd little flutter, and she quickly shook her head. “I won’t go far. I can ask someone to find Katsuo for me.”

  He gave her a long look and folded his arms. “Five minutes.”

  “But that’s …” She sighed. “Fine. Five minutes.”

  Wasting no time, she hurried through the last stretch of trees and into the wide avenue. The gravel path down the center was lined with dozens of colorful booths offering everything from food to talismans to souvenirs to games with prizes, with miko, kannushi, and a handful of private vendors manning the stalls.

  Visitors moved from booth to booth, some dressed in casual winter clothes, others wearing traditional kimono and hakama with heavy haori coats for warmth. The festive air, accentuated by the colorful clothing, flashy booth signs, and shining paper lanterns hanging above their heads on long ropes strung between the trees, infected every person. Though some festivals were solemn affairs, tonight’s was one of merriment and joy, a celebration of the ending of one year and the bright hope of things to come in the next.

  Pausing in the shadows, Emi tugged futilely at her clothes. Her blue kimono would have been appropriate if not for the smudges of dirt, smears of dried blood—Shiro’s—and permanent wrinkles. She probably looked more disreputable than her yokai companions, including Shiro. Uzume had worked a mysterious magic on his clothes to clean and repair them, so only Emi looked like the casualty of some sort of catastrophe.

  Hoping the orange light would disguise the stains, she hastened toward a booth at the end of the row where two young miko waited for their next customers. Rows of multicolored dumplings on skewers sat on display, and behind them was a counter with pots of bubbling water and containers of sauces and dips.

  When she bowed in greeting, the two miko automatically mirrored her, but once they straightened and got a better look at her, they dropped into much lower bows.

  “My lady!” the older one—perhaps sixteen or seventeen—exclaimed. “We thought you—why are you dressed like—I mean, um, how can we help you?”

  “I need to speak with Sohei Katsuo. Do you know where he is?”

  “Sohei Katsuo?” The miko looked at her companion. “Do you have any idea?”

  “Chihiro might know,” the second girl replied. “Taro, her boyfriend, trains with Katsuo. I could ask her. She’s at the omamori booth.”

  “Please hurry,” Emi said with a bow of thanks.

  The girl left the counter and trotted along the row of booths, vanishing among the crowds of cheerful visitors. The drums continued in a steady, terse tempo.

  “My lady,” the remaining miko said tentatively, “I thought you’d left for a safer location after the attack …”

  “I’m only visiting briefly.” Not wanting to be drawn into any life-or-death topics, Emi gestured at the selection of food. “The dango looks delicious. Did you make it?”

  “Yoshiko and I made them all,” the girl said brightly. “It’s my grandmother’s recipe and the best you’ll ever taste, I promise.”

  With Emi’s prompting, the miko launched into a description of the various flavors and sauces for the dumplings. Hiding her impatience and ignoring her empty, aching stomach, Emi listened politely until the other girl—Yoshiko, she assumed—came jogging back, her red hakama flapping around her legs.

  “Katsuo is participating in the procession.” Yoshiko bowed in apology. “It starts in a few minutes.”

  Emi’s shoulders drooped. It would be a couple hours before she could surreptitiously pull him aside.

  “Thank you,” she said with another bow. “I’ll wait until he’s free.”

  As she backed away, the two miko frowned at her.

  “My lady,” the older girl said, “may I ask … is everything okay?”

  “Yes, of course. I’m just going to—to take the walking trail to the shrine to avoid the crowds.”

  Leaving the girls with worried expressions, she retreated into the concealing shadows of the trees.

  “That was more than five minutes, little miko.”

  Jumping and barely holding back a shriek, Emi spun to find Shiro only a step away, leaning against the trunk of a young oak tree. He leveled a tortured stare on her.

  “I can’t believe you let that girl talk about dango for so long and didn’t bring any with you. Talk about cruel—”

  “My lady!” a voice called, almost directly behind Emi. “My lady, where—”

  The miko from the stall wheeled around a shrub and almost crashed into Emi’s back. She pulled up short, clutching a plate of bite-sized dumplings in her hands.

  “My lady, I thought you might like—” Her gaze moved past Emi to Shiro, who’d ducked behind a tree too narrow to hide him. The girl’s eyes grew wider and wider, darting across his face and up to his ears before fixing on his ruby irises. Her face went white and the plate tumbled from her hands, landing facedown in the snow.

  Fearing the girl was about to scream, Emi grabbed Shiro’s arm and pulled him to her side. She forced herself to smile.

  “This is Shiro,” she said calmly. “He’s my guest at the festival tonight.”

  The girl’s mouth opened and closed. “But that’s a—that’s a—”

  “He’s a yokai, yes,” Emi said, “but he’s also an ally of Amaterasu and welcome at the shrine.”

  “He—he is?”

  “Yes, absolutely.”

  “Oh.” The girl blinked a few times, struggling to regain her composure. Pressing her hands to her thighs, she offered a wobbly bow of greeting. “It is an honor to meet you, Yokai Shiro. My name is Aya.”

  “Aya,” Shiro purred. “The pleasure is mine. Any woman whose cooking can produce an aroma so divine is a lady I want to know.”

  Emi’s jaw fell open. She snapped it shut.

  A blush bloomed across Aya’s cheeks and she ducked her head. “I’m sorry I dropped it. Would you—would you like me to bring some more?”

  “I wouldn’t want to trouble you,” he replied, that alluring purr coating his words. Emi knew exactly the kind of shivers it was sending down Aya’s spine, because it was doing the same to her.

  “I don’t mind,” Aya said breathlessly. “I’ll get some right now!”

  Smiling shyly, she rushed back toward her booth.

  The second she was gone, Emi turned her glare on Shiro. “What was that?”

  “What was what?”

  “That!”

  He raised an eyebrow. “I’m perfectly fine with eating off the ground, but you said you were starving. Don’t you want some?”

  “I—yes, but—but you didn’t have to—” She bit off the rest of the sentence, not wanting to accuse him of flirting with the miko. “Why didn’t you hear her coming?”

  “Hear one person’s footsteps in this racket? There’s so much noise I wouldn’t hear if—”

  Yumei appeared out of the darkness, followed by Susano.

  “—someone walked up behind me,” Shiro finished.

  “What is the delay?” Yumei asked, irritation skimming his eyes.

  “Food,” Shiro replied.

  “What?”

  “We’re waiting for food.”

  “Here? Have you arranged delivery service?” Yumei asked sarcastically.

  “We should go,” Emi said quickly. “Aya might be okay with one yokai, but—”

  Aya swept around the shrub, beaming brightly and carrying a tray loaded with every kind of dango from her stall. Her steps faltered when she saw the number of people waiting for her had doubled.

  Then behind her, another miko carrying a platter of food peeked around the shrubbery. And another. Four young women crowded behind Aya, drinking in the three yokai with a mixture of awe and trepidation.

  Aya bowed, managing grace even with her food-laden tray. “I thought … I thought you might enjoy trying a few different kinds of food?”

  Emi pressed
her lips together. She suspected Aya’s desire to show off one of the elusive and forbidden yokai was her real motivation for inviting the other miko.

  “Thank you, Aya,” she mumbled, not sure how to gracefully dismiss the five miko.

  The girls shuffled closer, staring unabashedly at the three yokai. Susano shifted behind Yumei.

  “Would it be cowardly to retreat?” the Kunitsukami muttered.

  “Yes,” Yumei replied without hesitation.

  Susano grumbled something else, the words too quiet for Emi to hear.

  Shiro smirked at his fellow yokai and stepped around Emi. At that sign of welcome, Aya’s hesitation vanished and she smiled delightedly as she suggested a type of dango for him to try. He picked up a skewer and, as though that were some sort of signal, the other four miko surrounded him, jostling to offer him something next.

  Standing beside Yumei and Susano without a clue how to react, Emi watched as Shiro sampled food from each platter and offered generous compliments that had all five miko beaming with pride. Her heart sank at the girls’ blushes and admiring looks. He had the same effect on her.

  One of the girls turned to Emi and extended her platter. Unable to ignore her hunger any longer, Emi accepted a plate and let the girl load it with several delicacies.

  Stepping away from Shiro, Aya shyly approached Susano, probably choosing him over Yumei because his boyish looks softened the threatening aura they both carried.

  “May I offer you some dango?” she asked.

  For a moment, it appeared as though the Kunitsukami of the Storm would continue to hide behind Yumei until the humans went away. Then, with an irritated glance at Shiro, he plucked a skewer off the plate and unenthusiastically pulled the first dumpling off with his teeth. Aya gaped in fascination at his mouth, where his pointed canines had briefly been visible. He chewed quickly and swallowed, then squinted at the skewer.

  “That is very good,” he muttered reluctantly. He looked at Yumei. “You should try it.”

  Aya indicated a skewer drizzled with dark sauce. “Try this one.”

 
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