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

  A young man with an armload of books came into view, his nose buried in the open volume on the top of his stack. He strode right past them toward the worktable. As he reached the last row of shelves, his stack of books wobbled. The volume on top slid sideways, and before he could grab it, it tumbled off and hit the floor with a thump. Huffing in annoyance, he turned and squatted, reaching for it.

  Halfway through the motion, his gaze fell on her and Katsuo standing in the shadows. He went rigid with surprise and jerked upright, almost spilling the rest of his books on the floor.

  “What are you doing in here? This is the Guji’s private library.” His dark eyes scrunched as he peered at them. “Who are you?”

  Emi couldn’t move as a blank buzzing filled her head. The young man’s yellow kosode and dark hakama were neither sohei uniform nor kannushi robes, but he wasn’t a kami either. Was he some kind of administrative assistant? His physique—tall and well built—was similar to Katsuo’s, suggesting he wasn’t the bookish type. He looked around Katsuo’s age too and was equally handsome.

  As suspicion hardened the man’s features, Emi’s paralysis snapped. She contorted her face into a look of horror. With surprising ease, a flood of tears spilled down her cheeks.

  “I’m so sorry!” she gasped, bending forward in a deep bow. “I’m so sorry. I know I wasn’t supposed to come in here but my grandfather has been telling me about the Guji’s library for years and how amazing it is and how many really old histories are in here and I’ve been waiting for so long to get transferred here because I love history and I’m starting my own collection of books and I just wanted to take a quick peek because I know I won’t get to come in here otherwise and I swear I didn’t damage anything—”

  “Okay, okay!” the young man interrupted, cutting off her deliberate babbling. “As long as you didn’t damage any of the books … Some of these volumes are over two thousand years old. They’re very fragile.”

  She grabbed Katsuo’s arm and forced him into a bow with her. “We’re so sorry.” She peeked up from her bow. “You won’t tell—I mean, would you …”

  “I won’t tell anyone,” he said gruffly. “Just don’t trespass again or you won’t be at this shrine for long. You’re lucky I caught you and not one of the kami downstairs.”

  Her breath caught at his casual, and not particularly reverent, reference to the kami. That wasn’t how an assistant should speak of kami. Even a kannushi would be more respectful. So who …? She tensed with the belated realization of who the young man had to be. Not a kami, not a sohei, not a kannushi. A young man a few years older than her who lived in the hall of purification, who could freely enter the Guji’s library, and who did his best to shield the shrine servants from the kami.

  He could only be Izanagi’s kamigakari.

  She’d never imagined she would meet another kamigakari in her lifetime. Did he know the truth about his fate, or had he been lied to as well? Was he eagerly awaiting the solstice in a week’s time, or did he dread the coming end of his life?

  “She’s been obsessed with history since she was a kid,” Katsuo said, filling the awkward silence she had left hanging. He ruffled her hair and smiled sheepishly. “Thanks for letting her off the hook. We’ll get out of your way.”

  The kamigakari hesitated, then returned the smile. “I’m a history buff too, especially when it comes to shrines and kami. The collection here is pretty amazing, and there are even books from before the fire.”

  “What fire?” Emi asked blankly.

  He gave her an odd look. “The fire that destroyed the shrine. The grounds are over two thousand years old, but the buildings only date back about seven hundred years. They were faithfully reconstructed, but much was lost.”

  “Oh.” The shrine had burned down seven hundred years ago—the same time the records about the spear had stopped. “That’s … terrible.”

  He raised his eyebrows. “Isn’t that the kind of thing a girl who loves history and was dying to see this library should know?”

  She blinked, containing the surge of alarm that her facade had slipped. “I’ll have to ask my grandpa why he never mentioned it.”

  “Hm. Maybe he believes the stories that yokai destroyed the shrine.”

  “That sounds familiar!” She sidled along the bookshelf toward the center aisle, pulling Katsuo with her. “Thank you. We’d better get back.”

  “Stay out of trouble.”

  Reaching the aisle, she gave the kamigakari a quick farewell bow and turned toward the door.


  Her heart gave a hard thud. She turned back, her expression innocently questioning.

  “Forgetting something?” He gestured.

  She looked at the book still tucked under her arm. “Oh! I completely forgot.”

  Blurting an apology, she fumbled for the book and held it out. He reached for it, but her numb fingers slipped on the cover and it fell from her grip before he could grab it. It hit the floor with a loud smack and fell open. She and the kamigakari cringed at the same time.

  “I’m sure it’s fine,” he mumbled, shifting his armload of books as he reached down. “If it survived this long …”

  He trailed off, bent awkwardly with his hand hovering inches above the open tome. Sprawled across the yellowing parchment was the ink drawing of Izanagi riding on clouds, wielding a long spear in one hand.

  The kamigakari looked from the drawing to her face. “This isn’t a history book.”

  She involuntarily stepped back. Leaving the book where it lay, the kamigakari straightened to his full height. “Who are you? What is your interest in Ame-no-Nuboko?”

  Emi took another step back, forcing Katsuo to move with her. The room was suddenly stiflingly hot, the air too dense to breathe.

  “N-nothing,” she stuttered. “I was just grabbing random books to look at.”

  “You—” The books fell from the kamigakari’s arms and crashed to the floor with the sound of tearing paper. His hands leaped to his chest, fingers digging into the front of his kosode as his head dropped down and his shoulders bowed inward. His body shuddered.

  He panted, unmoving except for the rise and fall of his ribcage. Then, the motions oddly drawn out, he raised his head and fixed his gaze on her. Her blood chilled despite the unnatural heat in the room.

  Cold, cutting, cruel eyes. They looked so wrong in the young human face, like an ancient demon peeking out of its host.

  “We meet at last, kamigakari.” The man’s voice rumbled, deep and archaic, and a smile stretched his lips, as hard and malevolent as his eyes. “How lovely of you to visit my shrine.”

  Her heart slammed against her ribs. She slid her foot back, inching toward the door.

  His smile widened. “Stay a little longer, kamigakari. Allow me to greet you properly.”

  She tensed, intending to turn and run for her life.

  Power exploded from the kamigakari in a blast of unbearable heat. It tore through the bookshelves and hurled Emi and Katsuo back. They tumbled to the floor as the temperature in the room shot higher, the air rippling and steaming. Rolling over, she scrambled onto her hands and knees.

  In the middle of the destruction, the kamigakari clutched at his sternum. The mark on his chest blazed so brightly it shone through his shirt and hands, and his skin glowed. He fell to his knees as his body convulsed, and for a single moment, his contorted eyes met hers.

  Agony and terror spilled from his blank stare.

  Katsuo hauled her up. Gripping her arm with bruising force, he flung the door open and bolted out of the library. She ran on his heels, her thoughts reeling. All she could see was the look in the kamigakari’s eyes—a window into his final experience in this world, the agony of Izanagi’s power and spirit ripping his mortal mind to shreds.

  They raced through the Guji’s office and into the corridor beyond. As they fled up the hallway, the crash of collapsing shelves reverberated through the floor as the entire building rattled.

nbsp; Katsuo staggered and caught himself on the wall. “Is that the kamigakari?”

  “It was,” she replied shortly. “Izanagi is descending.”

  He swore. “How long will it take?”

  “I don’t know.”

  As they reached the end of the corridor, two figures flew around the corner. The kami sprinted right past her and Katsuo, power swirling around them in answer to Izanagi’s growing presence.

  She and Katsuo charged down the stairs and into a crowd of panicked kannushi in the vestibule. They shouted frantic questions as another boom vibrated the ceiling. Emi and Katsuo pushed through the tangled gathering, ignored by them all—just another miko and sohei fleeing the strange explosion. Katsuo pushed ahead of her and used his elbows to clear a path. They tumbled through the doors and almost fell onto the steps.

  Down the stairs, they ran full tilt across the square, blazing past the frenzied sohei and miko.

  Power shuddered through the ground. With a screeching hiss, the atmosphere turned scorching hot and ripples distorted the air across their path. Emi grabbed Katsuo’s arm and hauled him back.

  The air thickened into a wall of boiling heat and they skidded to a stop, shielding their faces. The skin on her hands burned. Retreating from the nearly invisible barrier, she spun around.

  Kannushi spilled out of the doors to the hall, falling over themselves to clear the stairs. As the last one scrambled away, the kamigakari swept through the threshold.

  Except he was no longer the kamigakari. The human who had lived in that body was gone forever.

  With the two lesser kami behind him, Izanagi, Amatsukami of the Sky, studied Emi and Katsuo from across the courtyard. Emi labored to inhale the thick, hot atmosphere that crackled with his power. It weighed on the shrine grounds like the sun had come to rest upon them.

  Hands shaking, Emi pulled out her ofuda and mentally summoned the wind—but no breeze stirred the stifling heat.

  Izanagi’s dark eyes fixed on her, and even with the distance between them, she could see how much humanity had already faded from his host. The lines of his face seemed harder, sharper, older. More stern, more cruel. Izanagi was not a gentle god, and she suspected he would enjoy punishing her and Katsuo for invading his shrine.

  He strode down the steps.

  Ofuda in hand, she stepped in front of Katsuo in the futile hope that she could buy him enough time to escape. As he grabbed her haori to pull her back, a whisper of chill air touched her face.

  And then darkness submerged the courtyard.

  She almost feared she’d gone blind, then screams erupted in the pitch black as the nearby humans panicked. A spot of yellow light burst to life amidst the artificial night—Izanagi. The light expanded outward in a dome, flashing across the courtyard, banishing the darkness—

  And revealing the massive raven diving out of the sky.

  Yumei dropped toward the flagstone at full speed. His wings snapped wide and he snatched Emi and Katsuo in his talons. Beating the air, he propelled himself back into the sky as red and black light rippled over his body. Crushed in his grip, Emi craned her neck to peer down.

  Izanagi looked up at them and extended his hand to one side. In his palm, a long shape formed out of blinding light. It took her an instant too long to recognize the shape as the Amatsukami raised his arm and took aim.

  “Yumei!” she screamed.

  Izanagi hurled the javelin of light. As power coalesced over them in the beginnings of Yumei’s teleportation magic, the raven banked hard—and then crushing pressure and black nothingness closed around her, erasing the world from her senses.

  Chapter 16

  In a torrent of light and icy wind, the world returned, reeling wildly.

  They were falling.

  The raven plummeted in an uncontrolled spiral, wings pumping ineffectively. Below, a spinning vista of the Shion Shrine whirled past. Magic rippled over Yumei but he couldn’t stop their fall.

  Barely able to breathe from his crushing grip, she flung her hands out and called on the power within her.

  The wind howled out of the sky and swept beneath them. Their violent spiral slowed. Yumei beat his wings hard, struggling to generate lift, and she saw why. The long flight feathers on one wing had been torn away, leaving nothing but ragged stumps.

  They plunged toward the ground, their speed gradually decreasing as a gale buffeted them. Wings straining, Yumei angled toward an open space among the towering spruce trees that covered the grounds. As he passed the treetops, still falling dangerously fast, he opened his talons.

  Emi and Katsuo fell from his grip. As she grabbed Katsuo’s arm, an updraft countered their downward momentum. They hit the ground, the impact ricocheting through her bones.

  Yumei, without the wind to slow him, smashed through the trees and slammed into the ground in a shower of snow and leaf litter.

  Emi staggered to her feet, panting from the pain and lingering adrenaline. Beside her, Katsuo groaned and sat up, one hand pressed to his forehead.

  “Are you okay?” she asked urgently.

  He shook his head. “I’m fine.”

  Leaving Katsuo to get his bearings, she dashed across the snow to Yumei. He lay where he’d landed, beak open and sides heaving. His giant wings were splayed across the snow, one beautiful and perfect with sleek feathers, the other mangled and missing the long feathers needed for flight.

  Kneeling beside his head, she brushed snow off his feathers. “Yumei, are you hurt?”

  He fixed one solid silver eye on her but otherwise didn’t move.


  Shiro’s call preceded him into the glade. He burst out of the trees, Susano right behind him. At the sight of the raven on the ground, he slid to a near stop, then darted to her side.

  “Are you hurt? What happened?”

  A tremor ran through her, terror still weakening her limbs. The image of him walking away from her last night replayed in her mind, but she grasped his hand anyway, needing his touch too much to fear another rejection.

  His fingers tightened around hers.

  “Katsuo and I are fine,” she said shakily. “I’m not sure about Yumei. He hit the ground hard and his wing …”

  Shiro glanced at the raven. “He just lost a few feathers. He’ll be fine. What happened?”

  Crouched beside Yumei’s damaged wing, Susano passed his hand over the ragged edge of a broken feather and it crumbled like ash beneath his touch. Lifting his hand, fingers smeared with black dust, he said grimly, “I would hazard this is Izanagi’s work.”

  “Izanagi?” Shiro repeated. “But he hasn’t descended.”

  Yumei huffed loudly and folded his wings in, feathers fluffing.

  “Izanagi …” Emi swallowed. “His kamigakari caught us in the Guji’s library and realized we were looking for information on the spear. Izanagi descended right there, in the library.”

  Shiro knelt beside her, his fingers still entwined with hers. “Izanagi has descended and he knows we’re searching for Nuboko?”

  Her shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry.”

  Susano joined her and Shiro. “If Izanagi descended specifically to prevent you from searching out the spear, he will likely claim it for himself. Once he holds it …”

  “We’ve lost,” Shiro finished.

  She wilted further. A handful of crows fluttered through the trees and landed on nearby branches, their beady eyes fixed on their grounded master.

  Katsuo limped closer, stopping a few paces away from the raven’s deadly beak. “If Izanagi gets the spear first, you’ll be able to—to feel it being moved, won’t you? Can’t you take it then? Two Kunitsukami against one Amatsukami?”

  Susano closed a hand around the hilt of his sword, sheathed at his hip. “We can sense the movement of the spear, but not in a way that allows us to identify its location. As for reclaiming Nuboko from Izanagi, the sun god is the only opponent in any of the worlds that I am unwilling to challenge. He cannot be defeated. To battle him is
to battle the power of the sun.”

  “Even the three of you …” Katsuo mumbled hopelessly.

  As another dozen crows glided into the clearing to gather around the raven, Shiro rubbed his free hand through his hair. “Yumei would be lucky to last five minutes. His shadow magic is useless against Izanagi.”

  Yumei snapped his beak with displeasure, but he couldn’t disagree. Izanagi had banished Yumei’s darkness in seconds. What magic could a Prince of Shadows call upon to defeat the sun god?

  The great raven rose to his feet, forcing Emi and Shiro back. Dozens of crows fluttered out of the trees and landed all around him as he spread his wings to their full span. Black magic rippled over him in tendrils of smoky darkness. The crows flared their wings as well, shadows slithering around them. The magic thickened until the wisps of night merged around Yumei’s damaged wing, forming long feathers.

  With a final ripple, the darkness evaporated. Yumei stretched his wings, extending all his feathers—perfect, fully repaired feathers. As Emi gaped at his flawlessly regenerated wing, the crows croaked self-importantly, then took off into the trees.

  Shadows surged, enveloping the raven, then dispersed like clouds of smoke as Yumei appeared in his human form. Emi gave her head a slight shake. She had underestimated how deep the connection ran between the Tengu and his karasu.

  “What did you discover at the shrine?” he asked her.

  “Not much,” she admitted. “The spear was kept there until the fire, but after that, we don’t know if …”

  She trailed off as she stared at Yumei.

  “Fire?” Shiro echoed. He looked between Yumei and Emi. “What do you mean?”

  “Fire destroyed the shrine seven hundred years ago.” She stepped toward Yumei. “But there are stories that the shrine was actually destroyed by yokai.”

  Faint puzzlement crossed his features at her intense scrutiny.

  “Yumei, is that the same shrine you and your daitengu attacked?”

  His brow furrowed, eyes losing focus as he looked back in time. “I suppose it must be. I had not considered … The landscape has changed significantly with the spread of the city.”

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