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


  Saburo’s expression tightened and she began drawing her sword.

  “Do you want to test Yumei’s wrath again?” Emi asked. “Surrender Ame-no-Nuboko to me and maybe he won’t have to die this time.”

  The daitengu hesitated, sword half-drawn, unable to hide her surprise at how much Emi knew. “Do I appear to be carrying a spear, idiot girl?”

  Emi gritted her teeth. “Yumei is fighting Izanagi right now—because of your actions. We need to take the spear back before it’s too late. Are you going to cower here while he dies for you a second time?”

  Saburo shoved her katana back into its sheath. “The Tengu refuses to forgive me, even after seven centuries. Why should I raced to my death for him?”

  Emi bit back her disgust, seeing why Yumei had no interest in pardoning this daitengu. “If you truly want his forgiveness, this is your opportunity. Give me the spear, and we’ll return to help him.”

  Saburo’s lip curled. “Why should I trust the word of a kami’s servant?”

  How did Saburo know Emi was affiliated with kami? Her hand flew to her cheek where icy water still clung to her skin. Yumei’s mark must have washed off in the creek, erasing her protection from Tsuchi. The forest had further darkened, and beneath the trees, the air seethed with palpable hostility.

  She focused on Saburo again. “I am loyal to Yumei. As a show of faith, I’ll offer you a trade.” She lifted the black spear in her hand. “I’ll give you this in exchange for Nuboko, and together we’ll return to help him.”

  Saburo’s jaw clenched, her dark eyes fixed greedily on Yumei’s spear. She reached behind her back and pulled out a six-inch spearhead. The plain haft had snapped a few inches below the blade, leaving just enough room for a pair of decorative ties that ended in tattered tassels. Despite the plain haft, Emi didn’t wonder why it was called the jeweled spear: the blade was an enormous faceted crystal that shimmered brilliantly even in the dim light, a treasure of kings and emperors—a treasure of gods.

  “Agreed,” the woman barked. She stepped closer and thrust Nuboko at Emi, simultaneously plucking Yumei’s spear from her hand. Emi fumbled the spearhead, almost dropping it. It thrummed, vibrating with unseen magic, and she quickly tied the tassels to the back of her hakama, hiding the weapon beneath her long haori coat.

  Holding the black spear possessively, Saburo turned to the nearest thick tree trunk and pressed her hand to it. Red light spiraled out from her palm, forming a doorway. She lifted her hand as the bark turned to rippling darkness. Without another word, she stepped into it.

  Gulping down her fear, Emi jumped in after the daitengu, praying they weren’t too late.

  Cold magic dragged across Emi’s skin, and then Tsuchi spat her out of the portal. She stumbled forward and thumped into Saburo’s back. Choking on the painfully hot air, Emi grabbed the daitengu’s arm for balance. Her wet clothes steamed.

  The valley had turned to blazing red and boiling black. Flames roared through the forest, leaping toward the sky. Dark smoke roiled in spiraling columns and red embers rained on them like crimson snow. Only the clearing with the fallen oak had been spared by the raging inferno.

  “What—” Saburo gasped. “What happened? This isn’t Izanagi’s …”

  Emi gripped the daitengu’s arm even tighter as her knees weakened with terror. So much fire. Had Shiro done this? Where was he? Where were Yumei and Susano? She didn’t know if the battle was over. She didn’t know who was still alive.

  Across the clearing, the devouring inferno swelled, flickering white-hot at its core, and a new wave of heat rushed over Emi and Saburo.

  Two glowing ruby eyes appeared amidst the blaze.

  The great kyubi no kitsune stalked out of the hellfire. With pale flames trailing off his fur and his long tails merging with the inferno behind him, he could have been a fiery phantom, no more a living creature than Yumei’s shadow raven.

  “Inari,” Saburo stuttered, her composure crumbling as fear hoarsened her voice. “Yomi have mercy, that’s Inari.”

  The fox beast prowled into the open, igniting the dried winter grass with each touch of his paws upon the earth. Fixated on Emi and Saburo, he slunk closer, fangs bared.

  Fear shuddered down Emi’s spine. Her nightmares of the kyubi no kitsune flashed through her mind—dream after dream where the beast had attacked her. Had Shiro forgotten her? Had he lost his mind to the uncontained power of his true form?

  The fox beast stopped, his ears swiveling back and snout wrinkling in a soundless snarl. His posture was aggressive, but also rigid with wariness. He had no reason to approach her and Saburo cautiously. What was he waiting for?

  Heat blasted across her back, and then the point of a golden javelin erupted from the center of Saburo’s stomach.

  The impact tore Saburo from Emi’s grip and the woman was hurled to the ground. She landed on her side, her mouth open in a silent scream as the stench of burning flesh thickened the air.

  At the same moment Saburo fell, the fox beast vaulted toward Emi. Expecting a javelin to tear through her body, she spun around, putting her back to the fox.

  Izanagi dropped through the clouds of smoke and landed on top of the fallen oak tree, already reaching down. He grabbed Emi’s hair, fingers scraping her scalp, and yanked her off her feet. A superheated updraft swept beneath them, lifting him and Emi skyward. As they were flung away from the ground, the fox slammed into the oak, too late to catch them.

  The updraft whisked them through clouds of smoke and into the clear sky above. Emi grabbed Izanagi’s wrist with both hands, pulling herself up before her scalp tore from her skull. As they left the blazing forest far below, he cast a hand out and a swirling, scorching orb of golden light surrounded them.

  In a surge of fire, the nine-tailed fox bounded out of the boiling smoke. His incandescent tails lashed as he raced on air as though it were perfectly solid ground, red flames dancing under his paws. Coming level with Izanagi, he stopped two dozen yards away from the impenetrable orb of sunlight.

  “Well fought, Inari.” Izanagi’s compliment was undermined by his unrepentant smugness. “No foe has ever endured so long against me. It is a wonder we never met in battle before this day.”

  He lifted Emi higher, and she clutched his wrist even though his hot skin was burning her hands. She summoned the wind to her defense, but not even a faint breeze broke free of Izanagi’s iron control over the sky.

  “Well fought,” the Amatsukami repeated, “but I claim the victory—and its spoils. Ame-no-Nuboko is again mine, and the kamigakari will make a fine gift for my sister. I am sure she will enjoy ending this one’s incessant meddling.”

  The fox bared his teeth again but made no move to approach. As Emi clung in place, her feet dangling hundreds of feet above the forest, she pleaded with her eyes for him to attack, to reclaim the spear no matter what happened to her.

  But he didn’t move, and she realized it wasn’t the threat to her life that was stopping him. It was the impassable barrier surrounding her and Izanagi. Not even in his ultimate form could Shiro penetrate it.

  She couldn’t let this happen. She couldn’t let him have the spear. No kami or yokai possessed the power to penetrate Izanagi’s sun barrier—but Emi was already inside it.

  And Izanagi, as he leered at Inari, didn’t seem to consider her a threat.

  “It is a pleasure to see your power returned,” the Amatsukami taunted. “Your years as a powerless mongrel were no doubt a humbling experience.”

  Emi released Izanagi’s wrist with one hand. Ignoring the agony that tore through her scalp, she slipped her hand under the back of her haori and fumbled for the ties of the spearhead. As they came free and she gripped the broken haft, her pulse thundered in her ears, strangely slow to her senses.

  To defeat Izanagi, to reclaim the heavenly spear, Shiro needed an opening—an opportunity to attack without Izanagi’s impermeable defense in place. She had to give him that. As her heart beat a measured countdown, she gathered her
will, her power, her intent.

  She inhaled. Exhaled. Then, praying she could aim while hanging by one arm, she twisted around and stabbed the spearhead into Izanagi’s chest.

  It struck just under his collarbone, missing his heart and lodging in place, but she didn’t falter.

  “Shukusei no tama!” she cried.

  Her ki ripped into Izanagi and his swirling barrier burst apart, destroyed by the purification spell. As the fox beast charged on flaming paws, Izanagi roared in pain and fury—and released her.

  Losing her grip on the spearhead, she hung in the air for the briefest instance as triumph lit through her. Izanagi’s barrier was down and the great fox was only strides away, ready to end the undefeated god’s life and reclaim the spear.

  Then she plummeted.

  She called on the wind, but even before her summons went unanswered, she knew it wouldn’t work. Izanagi’s barrier had fallen but his control over the sky was unshaken. She was powerless to call the element to her aid. She couldn’t stop her fall.

  As she plunged toward the burning forest, the fox’s stride faltered. He was almost on top of Izanagi, almost within striking range—but he didn’t attack. Instead, he changed direction entirely, abandoning his adversary.

  To dive after her.

  “No!” she screamed.

  The flaming treetops rushed toward her as she fell, and the great fox raced downward even faster. His teeth closed on the back of her haori and he smashed through the forest canopy on his back, shielding her. He hit the ground with a painful thump and Emi tumbled from his jaws. She rolled over and shoved herself up, staring into the sky.

  A golden orb shone through the clouds of smoke, already speeding away. Izanagi was fleeing.

  He had escaped. Their chance to defeat him was gone.

  Chapter 19

  Emi whirled on the nine-tailed fox, almost too furious to speak.

  “Why did you do that?” she shouted.

  The fox shook his head like a wet dog and rose to his feet. She staggered back, overwhelmed by his sheer size. Fire engulfed him, then rapidly shrank. In a final burst, Shiro reappeared in his human shape.

  Trembling from head to toe, she balled her hands into fists. “Why didn’t you finish him? Izanagi was open. His barrier was down. You could have ended it with one strike!”

  “You would have died.” His calm, simple answer only infuriated her more.

  “I knew that! The spear is a thousand times more important than my life, and now Izanagi has it!”

  His ears slanted back, the only sign her anger bothered him, and his expression hardened. He closed the space between them until she had to crane her neck to see his face.

  “I told you before, little miko. Amaterasu might be fine with you sacrificing your life, your Guji and your shrine and everyone else might be fine with it, and you might be fine with it—but I’m not.”

  She stepped back at the vehemence in his last words, her anger faltering.

  “It’s my decision,” she said with less strength than she’d intended. “If I want to—”

  “If I can prevent it, I will,” he said flatly. “Until Izanami steps off the Bridge in her full kami glory, this isn’t over. I won’t let you throw your life away in a meaningless sacrifice a single moment before that.”

  “Meaningless?” she echoed furiously. “I would have died to recover the spear and stop Izanami—”

  “Recovering the spear won’t end this. Nothing will end this. Izanagi is immortal. Izanami is immortal. Time is their ally, not ours. Even if we get the spear, they could reclaim it just as easily—today, tomorrow, a year from now, in a century. Even if we kill Izanami, she can descend again in a few years. It will never end. They have all eternity to win.”

  Her throat tightened.

  “We’re fighting a losing battle,” he said with unexpected bitterness. “So if you’re going to toss your life away, at least make it count for something.”

  Before she could find her voice, he strode away. Surrounded by crackling flames, charred trees, and the choking smoke, she stood alone for a moment before following him, too angry and upset to restart their conversation. As he walked, the nearby fires sputtered out in puffs of pale smoke and the inferno quieted around them.

  A red glow, distinctly different from the shrinking fires, appeared among the trees. Shiro approached a small, domed barrier and nudged a toe into it, breaking the circle. The dome dissolved in a shower of sparks.

  Within the protection of the circle was Yumei.

  Lightheaded nausea threatened to overwhelm her. She stumbled forward a step but her weak legs wouldn’t obey. She now understood why his shadow raven had vanished. If he had any ki left, he was using it to cling to life.

  Shiro swept to Yumei’s side and knelt, carefully turning him over and ignoring the damaged wings that looked like they would never fly again.

  “Is …” She swallowed, the bitter taste of ash coating her tongue. “Is he alive?”

  “For now.” Picking up the unconscious yokai, Shiro hastened back through the forest’s charred remains and into the clearing.

  Yumei’s doorway into Tsuchi had faded. In front of the fallen oak, Saburo was slumped on her side, arms wrapped around her middle. The javelin of light that had pierced her body was gone. As Shiro and Emi emerged from the trees, the daitengu’s head slowly turned toward them.

  Shiro leaned Yumei against the trunk and Emi knelt beside him, taking in the burns and puncture wounds. He had fought hard against Izanagi and taken many injuries before falling.

  “Yumei,” Saburo whispered hoarsely.

  “Wait here,” Shiro told Emi. “I need to get Susano.”

  “Is he …?” she whispered, still staring at Yumei.

  “Not as bad.” Without another word, Shiro crossed the clearing and vanished into the smoldering woods.

  “Yumei,” Saburo moaned and struggled to push herself up on one arm. “I shouldn’t have come. I shouldn’t have led Izanagi here.”

  Emi said nothing, silently agreeing.

  Panting, Saburo thrashed with the effort to sit up. “Help me.”

  “What?”

  “Help me … I need to … be beside him.”

  Emi hesitated. She didn’t think Saburo deserved to be near Yumei, but the woman’s desperation was so obvious and sincere that Emi couldn’t refuse her. She moved behind Saburo and lifted her under the arms. As she half-carried Saburo closer to Yumei, the woman’s legs dragged across the ground, unnaturally limp.

  After helping Saburo lean against the oak, Emi crouched in front of her. “Saburo, your legs …”

  “I know,” the woman said, her gaze riveted on Yumei’s slack, soot-streaked face. “Izanagi put his javelin right through my spine.”

  Emi swallowed. “Will it … will it heal?”

  Saburo ran her fingers lightly down Yumei’s cheek. “He would never let me touch him like this,” she whispered. “Sometimes I thought he wanted me to. Sometimes I was so convinced he wanted that closeness, wanted something more than the bond between master and vassal. But he never did. Not with me.”

  Her fingers traced his cheekbone as pain gathered in her eyes. “His ki is fading.”

  Emi’s stomach dropped. “He’s going to die?”

  “Izanagi attacks with weapons not of steel, but of pure kami power. Each strike destroys our ki as much as our bodies.”

  “What about his karasu?” Emi asked, half reaching for Yumei. “They can help him heal, can’t they?”

  “They aren’t here.” A sad smile twisted Saburo’s lips. “My bold, fearless warlord. You could not allow one of your soldiers, even a disgraced one, to be slain in front of you.”

  Emi shifted closer to Yumei, hopeless grief wrenching her insides. He was dying. How could she save him? How could she keep him alive? If he died again from Izanagi’s destructive wounds, he might never revive.

  Toiling for each movement, Saburo tugged the front of his kosode open to expose his chest.
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  “What are you doing?” Emi demanded.

  Without glancing up, Saburo dug her hand into the wound in her belly. Fingertips coated in blood, she touched his skin just below his collarbones. Concentration tightened her brow as she drew a complex symbol in blood on his chest.

  Emi recognized the symbol. She had seen Yumei draw the same one on Shiro’s chest in her blood. So she said nothing as Saburo wet her fingers with blood from one of Yumei’s wounds and drew a matching symbol on her palm, even though the woman couldn’t possibly have excess ki to donate to her estranged master.

  The symbols complete, Saburo hovered her hand over him, her arm shaking with weakness.

  “You will care for him?” she asked almost soundlessly. “You will return him to his karasu and protect him until his strength returns?”

  “I will,” Emi murmured. “I swear it.”

  “Will you … will you tell him I am sorry?”

  “I will.”

  Saburo pushed her palm down on the crimson symbol. Magic saturated the air and her torso arched in agony as light flashed beneath her hand. The seconds stretched into eternity.

  Then the light faded and Saburo slumped against the tree beside Yumei, her faint breath coming in weak gasps. Her eyelids fluttered but she didn’t seem to have the strength to open them.

  Beside her, Yumei’s chest rose in a slow, deep inhalation. He didn’t otherwise stir, but a touch of color returned to his face and his breathing came easier. At the sound, a ghost of a smile crossed Saburo’s lips.

  Then a soft breath escaped her, and she didn’t take another.

  Tears slid down Emi’s face as she took Yumei’s burned hand. “Thank you, Saburo.”

  After a minute, she pulled Saburo away, laying the woman beside the fallen oak and straightening her legs. The daitengu’s body, with ki wholly depleted, quickly began to soften and blur in the yokai death. Emi collected Yumei’s spear, leaning it beside him, and sagged back against the trunk. If she sat, she doubted she would be able to stand again.

 
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