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

Together, she and Katsuo looked like any other miko and sohei of an Izanagi shrine. She glanced past the driver—also on loan from Ishida—to the road beyond the windshield. As the car rounded a wide bend, an unfamiliar city in the snow-dusted valley came into view.

  “Don’t worry,” Katsuo said bracingly, misinterpreting her tension. “Compared to spider monsters and eight-headed dragons, this has to be the easiest thing you’ve done so far. Izanagi isn’t even there.”

  She nodded and forced her thoughts away from Shiro. Yumei was certain Izanagi hadn’t yet descended, though the Amatsukami’s kamigakari was supposedly ready and waiting. Izanagi’s absence, however, didn’t mean the shrine would be devoid of his kami vassals. And even without otherworldly threats, they could get themselves in a lot of trouble with the humans at the shrine.

  “We’ll blend right in,” Katsuo assured her. “You know how busy Shion is at lunchtime. No one will notice us.”

  “Let’s hope.”

  As the car wound down the mountainside toward the city, she checked her sleeves for ofuda and found the hidden pockets well stocked.

  Katsuo shifted on the seat beside her. “Emi … when you were telling me everything that happened …”

  She glanced up at his hesitant tone.

  “You didn’t say much about Inari,” he finished.

  Forcing herself to relax into the seat, she looked at her hands in her lap. “What do you mean?”

  “You …” He struggled for words. “What do you think of him, now that you know who he really is?”

  “His memories haven’t returned yet, so he isn’t much different.”

  Katsuo was silent for a moment. “He still looks at you the same way.”

  She flinched. After Katsuo’s last encounter with Shiro, he’d told her that Shiro looked at her like he wanted to devour her. But as of last night, he didn’t even want to touch her. “No, he doesn’t.”

  “He …” Katsuo shifted again and pink tinged his cheeks. He cleared his throat. “Has he ever tried to … seduce you?”

  She bit hard on the inside of her cheek and leveled a glare on him, communicating without words what she thought of his question.

  Wincing, he said defensively, “It’s not just me. Guji Ishida is concerned too. He noticed how possessive Inari is around you.”

  She turned to the window, signaling that the conversation was over.

  “I’m just concerned,” he persisted. “We already know he’s manipulative and—”

  “Shiro is not manipulating me,” she interrupted.

  “Inari,” Katsuo corrected. “Not ‘Shiro.’ He isn’t the simple kitsune we thought he was. He’s immeasurably powerful, thousands of years old, and used to getting whatever he wants.”

  “You don’t know anything about him.”

  “Neither do you,” he said, firm but apologetic. “How can any human really understand a Kunitsukami? He’s a god, Emi. I don’t think you’re seeing that.”

  She folded her arms stubbornly, unsure why she was arguing about Shiro after last night. “He doesn’t remember being Inari.”

  “You talk about him like he’s two different people. Shiro and Inari are one and the same. Not remembering everything doesn’t make him any less of a Kunitsukami.” Something too close to pity flickered in Katsuo’s eyes. “Just because you don’t want him to be Inari doesn’t mean he isn’t. Calling him Shiro only makes it easier for you to ignore that.”

  “You don’t understand.” She tightened her arms around her middle. “He’s supposed to be a powerful Kunitsukami who’s lived for millennia, but he can’t remember any of that. He can’t be what everyone needs him to be—at least, not yet. I’ll keep calling him Shiro because he needs someone to see him for who he is right now, and not a broken god who may never be the same again.”

  The car slowed, then began moving with the stop-and-start rhythm of city traffic.

  “Emi,” Katsuo finally said, his voice low and almost pained. “Are you …?”

  She glanced at him warily. “Am I what?”

  He bit his lip. “Never mind.”

  She looked out her window as the car passed a busy shopping mall. She suspected what his aborted question would have been. Are you in love with Inari?

  In love with Inari … was she? Shiro had claimed her heart, but Inari? The Kunitsukami she’d seen in Amaterasu’s and Yumei’s memories was a stranger, someone who intimidated and even frightened her. And yet …

  She frowned out the window. More of the Kunitsukami had been surfacing in Shiro lately. Could his rejection last night have come from Inari more than from Shiro? Had enough of his memories and his true self recovered that he was no longer interested in romantic entanglements with a human girl? Had her confession of deep feelings changed his perspective, causing him to distance himself?

  She had known it was a risk—an inevitability—that Shiro would lose interest in her once his memories returned. Even as she’d hoped it wouldn’t happen, she’d tried to prepare herself for it. For that very reason, she’d never intended to admit her feelings. If he hadn’t pressured her last night …

  If Inari didn’t want her, she could accept that. Shiro turning his back on her was a torment she could hardly endure, but an immortal god’s disinterest she could bear.

  The driver announced they had arrived and the car turned into a parking lot at the base of a wide, forested hill. Sealing away thoughts of Shiro and Inari, she climbed out and adjusted her long-sleeved haori coat as a cold wind swept steadily down the hillside. Katsuo joined her, restlessly surveying the other side of the lot.

  In warmer months, the slope would be bursting with greenery, but now the tree branches were bare and a mixture of snow and dead leaves covered the ground. An oversized torii gate arched across stone steps that rose high up the hillside until they disappeared over the crest. Scattered groups of people were ascending and descending the wide stairs.

  “Caw.”

  She looked up. Three crows perched together on a lamppost, their beady eyes surveying her intently. Relief eased her nerves. Yumei was here and watching.

  They had decided it was too much of a risk for Shiro and Susano to approach Izanagi’s shrine. If their presence was detected, it would not only put Emi and Katsuo in danger, but it might also alert Izanami that her foes were searching for the heavenly spear. So Shiro and Susano had stayed behind at Shion while Yumei had gone ahead to ensure it was safe for Emi to enter the shrine.

  He would watch over her and Katsuo through his karasu and if anything went wrong, he would be nearby to help.

  “Let’s go,” she told Katsuo.

  After bowing at the torii, they fell into step behind a pair of businessmen carrying briefcases. By the time they crested the hill, her breath burned in her throat.

  Cleverly hidden from view below, a two-story roofed gate marked the entrance of the main shrine grounds and towered over the visitors with imposing grandness. She and Katsuo passed beneath it and entered a curving corridor of countless smaller torii, so close together they almost formed a solid wall on either side of the path.

  She kept her shoulders relaxed as they walked through the bright red corridor. With the path curving one way or the other, it was impossible to see how far the torii went. The wind rushed over her and Katsuo with greater force than it had at the base of the hill.

  They rounded another bend and the end of the torii came into sight. Across the extensive grounds, nearly a dozen vast structures were interspersed by twice as many small buildings, all connected by a maze of stone pathways that bustled with visitors and servants of the shrine.

  She scanned the area, identifying the various buildings as best she could—hall of worship, hall of purification, lodgings for shrine servants, offices, stages for festivals, shops for selling talismans and charms, and more. The grounds were far grander than the Shion Shrine. Everywhere she looked, there were beautiful structures, ancient trees, and intricate stonework.

  As the businessmen took the p
ath to the hall of worship, Emi grabbed Katsuo’s arm and steered him in the direction of the offices. Unfortunately, as they left the public paths, dozens of kannushi, sohei, and miko hurrying about in the midst of various tasks filled the walkways instead of visitors. Keeping her head low, she set a pace she hoped looked purposeful but not urgent, and Katsuo matched her stride. A chattering group of miko breezed past them, not even glancing over, and Emi’s confidence increased a sliver. Maybe this would actually work.

  By either miracle or luck, they reached the offices without drawing any unwanted attention. Emi cracked the doors open and peeked in. The entryway was empty. Increasing the gap, she slipped inside. Katsuo followed and shut the door behind him.

  The building was almost identical in layout to the Shion offices and they quickly located a filing room. Ishida had shown her how the Shion records were organized and where to look for information on artifacts and historical treasures. With Katsuo standing guard at the door, she pulled open a filing drawer and rifled through the folders.

  Twenty minutes later, she shoved yet another useless folder back in the drawer and hissed in frustration.

  “Look at this!” She waved a handful of papers she’d pulled from a file. “This list talks about every artifact stored at the shrine, where it is, how old it is, its historical significance—everything. It even describes Izanagi’s shintai. But there’s nothing about Ame-no-Nuboko or even a spear.”

  “Does that mean the spear isn’t here? Or just that it isn’t in the records?”

  “I don’t know.”

  Katsuo shifted nervously. “What’s next?”

  She rubbed a hand over her eyes. Lunch would be over soon and sneaking into other buildings would grow exponentially more difficult. Somewhere in this room, there was probably a document listing the other shrines and what their artifacts were, but it would take too long to find and read.

  “The hall of purification,” she said.

  He grimaced as though he’d feared that would be her answer. “If there are kami at this shrine, that’s where they’ll be.”

  Ishida had been clear about where to look—and what to avoid. He’d said to stay away from the hall of purification, but his reasoning had more to do with the risk than the prospective information they might find. It was the building where Izanagi’s Guji, his kami vassals, and most of the kannushi lived and worked. No structure was more dangerous for her to enter, except possibly Izanagi’s inner shrine.

  But she also knew, despite Ishida failing to share the information, that the hall likely contained the Guji’s library—a room of histories and records where Guji throughout the history of the shrine had recorded everything of importance. She wasn’t sure whether this shrine had one, but the Shion Shrine did.

  “Come on,” she said and hastened out of the room. They crossed the offices to the main doors. “If we hurry, we can slip in before—”

  She opened the exterior door and almost walked into a man on the step outside.

  Jerking back, she stumbled into Katsuo behind her. The stranger halted in surprise—as did the five others with him, all in identical sohei uniforms.

  “Excuse me,” Emi stuttered, bowing.

  “My apologies,” the sohei said. “I don’t seem to recognize you. Are you new?”

  “She’s gotta be,” a younger sohei whispered loudly to his companion. “No way I’d forget a miko that pretty.”

  Emi opened her mouth but she had no idea what to say.

  “We’ve just arrived,” Katsuo said with easy cheer. “We’re supposed to be meeting with—uh.” He scrubbed his hand through his hair, looking convincingly embarrassed. “I can’t remember his name, but we were told to meet him at the office. T—Ta—?”

  “Takashi?” the sohei supplied. “I’m surprised Kannushi Takashi would be greeting new arrivals. That’s not usually his job.”

  “He’s a relative of our last kannushi,” Katsuo said, shrugging. “I don’t think he’s planning an orientation. Probably just making sure we don’t embarrass him,” he added with a self-deprecating laugh.

  Several sohei grinned sympathetically.

  “That sounds like Kannushi Takashi.” The sohei stepped aside and gestured for his comrades to open a path. “You should check the talisman shop. He probably forgot about your meeting. Just head that way”—he pointed—“take your first right, and you’ll see it just before the hall of purification.”

  “Thanks,” Katsuo said.

  “No problem, and good luck. We’ll see you on the training field sooner or later.”

  “We won’t go easy on you,” another sohei chimed in.

  As Katsuo started past them, Emi took a few steps, then paused. She turned to the group of sohei and widened her eyes to look as young as possible.

  “Can I ask …” She leaned a little closer and lowered her voice to an awed whisper. “Are there actual kami here?”

  The sohei chuckled, but unease tinged the sound. “Yes, but they stick to the hall for the most part. If you see one, just make sure to bow low and … stay out of his way.”

  She nodded earnestly before hurrying after Katsuo. Behind her, a younger sohei said dryly, “I remember when I used to think meeting a kami would be the coolest thing ever.”

  “No kidding,” another replied. “At least we have the kamigakari running interference for us most of the time.”

  “But if Izanagi descends on the solstice …” A sigh. “I just feel bad for the guy, stuck in the hall all the time with—”

  The door to the offices closed behind the last sohei, cutting off their conversation. Emi looked back anxiously, then fell into step beside Katsuo.

  “Multiple kami and the kamigakari in the hall,” she muttered. “We’ll need to be careful.”

  As they sped along the path, she scanned the tree branches but couldn’t see any watching crows. The hall of purification was a wide building with elaborate architectural details that lent it a sumptuous, palace-like feel, and treetops peeked above the roof from what must have been a large central garden. Emi and Katsuo strolled toward the front doors, watching people pass by.

  When no one was looking, she rushed inside, Katsuo on her heels. The entryway was as grand as the exterior, but she didn’t pause to absorb the details. They dove down the first side passageway they found. One advantage of the large building was the sparsity of inhabitants, and they easily avoided the people they did encounter. The disadvantage, however, was how difficult it was to find the right room.

  Eventually, they stumbled upon a staircase leading to the second floor, and from there, they located the offices. The Guji’s was at the end of the corridor and, thankfully, empty. Katsuo closed the door behind them as Emi assessed the large room, luxuriously appointed with surprisingly modern furniture, including a heavy maple-wood desk and leather chair.

  Behind the desk, another sliding door beckoned—the entrance to the library. The room within wasn’t particularly large, but with four rows of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a spacious central aisle, it felt huge. At the far end, tomes of all sizes were scattered on a waist-high worktable.

  “We need to find the histories and archives,” Emi whispered. “Hurry.”

  They split up, Emi taking the shelves on the left, Katsuo the shelves on the right. She skimmed the titles but abandoned the first row as nothing but geographical maps, shrine locations, and architecture layouts. The second was equally unhelpful—full of ancient manuals on kannushi, miko, and sohei arts.

  When she stepped into the second last row, she called for Katsuo to join her. Almost every book on the shelf in front of her was a history of some kind, some on this shrine, some on others. He crouched beside her and scanned the lower titles. Huddled in the shadows, the stillness pressing closer with each minute, she ran her fingers across the leather-bound spines.

  “Here!” Katsuo exclaimed in a whisper. He raised a thin book, the pages yellowed and one corner charred black. “Look, there’s a picture of a spear on the side and
—see?”

  He tilted it toward her as she dropped to her knees beside him, showing her a page with a faded ink drawing of a man holding a spear, riding a swirl of cloud with the sun blazing behind him. The caption beneath: Ame-no-Nuboko.

  She pulled it from his hands and balanced it on her knees as she flipped through the fragile pages, scanning the headings and images. A detailed description of the spear, an outline of its properties and ancient history, instructions on how to store it, pages and pages on how to protect it, warnings to never move it. She flipped over to a new section—a list of names and dates and—

  “This is a maintenance list!” Katsuo whispered. “The name of the Guji, the date he checked on the spear, and a recording of its condition and anything he changed or updated.”

  “So it is kept here!” Excited, she flipped more pages. The list went on and on.

  “Look at the dates,” he muttered in disbelief. “This was eight hundred years ago.”

  She turned the book over and opened it to the last few pages. Going backward, she found the end of the list—a date marked just over seven centuries ago.

  “Why does it stop?” She again flipped through the last dozen pages. “There’s nothing else here. It just stops.”

  “The book is damaged. Maybe they replaced it with a new one.”

  They scoured the volumes near where he’d pulled out the book, but the other tomes detailed different artifacts. Nothing else on the shelf related to the spear.

  “Damn it,” he hissed. “We were so close. Why would they stop keeping records with no explanation?”

  “The records must be somewhere else. This book is so old it’s falling apart. There must be a new one.” Still clutching the ancient volume, she stood. “Let’s look for newer books that might—”

  With a soft scraping sound, the door to the library slid open.

  She froze in place beside Katsuo. Where they stood between bookshelves, they were hidden from whomever had entered the room, but only if the person remained near the door. She crept away from the center aisle, Katsuo moving with her.

  Quiet footsteps tapped across the wooden floor, drawing closer. Emi shoved the book under her arm and stuck her hand in her sleeve, pinching a binding ofuda between two fingers.

 
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