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

  By the time Shiro returned, carrying Susano over one shoulder, Saburo’s body was more transparent than not, her blurry form as ethereal as a ghost. In another minute, it would vanish entirely, reclaimed by the spirit realm.

  Shiro joined Emi and lowered Susano to the ground. The storm god’s clothing was charred and torn, and a gouging wound striped his torso from one hip up to the opposite shoulder. As Shiro leaned him against the trunk, Susano grunted in pain, his eyes squinching open.

  “Inari,” he croaked. “What happened?”

  Crouched in front of his fellow Kunitsukami, Shiro flicked a glance at Emi, then shook his head. “Izanagi escaped with Nuboko.”

  Susano dropped his head back against the bark. “Curse him.” The words held no fire, no vigor. He took in the bloody mark on Yumei’s chest. “Who gave him ki?”

  “His daitengu,” Shiro answered, nodding toward Saburo’s ghostly body.

  “Good,” Susano muttered. “Your ki or Emi’s would have killed him in that condition.”

  Emi knelt beside him. “Will you be okay, Susano?”

  He grunted a wordless affirmative. She pressed her hands to her thighs, fingers digging in to her legs. So close. They had been so close to defeating Izanagi and reclaiming the spear, but Shiro had ruined it. He had betrayed everything for which they had fought and suffered just to extend Emi’s life by a few more pointless days.

  Tears stung her eyes, and she squeezed them shut, wishing she hadn’t missed, wishing she had stabbed the spearhead directly into Izanagi’s heart. If she had killed the Amatsukami instead of wounding him, she wouldn’t have had to count on Shiro to finish it.

  He had made his choice, a choice he’d had every right to make, but she feared the cost would prove far too high.

  Emi stared blankly at the wall, barely registering the stinging pain in her arm.

  Beside her, Nanako diligently scrubbed the slicing cuts across Emi’s wrist, left by a kappa’s claws. Emi sat on a stool in the large bathroom, wearing only a towel and a growing number of bandages, as Nanako cleaned and dressed her injuries one by one.

  With Yumei unconscious and Susano too weak to shift to his dragon form, their only recourse had been to travel by foot out of the valley. The Shirayuri Shrine was the closest refuge to Yumei’s destroyed home, but the long walk had been torture for their weary, injured group. Shiro had carried Yumei, with Susano limping along on his own and Emi trailing last, scarcely able to put one tired foot in front of the other.

  Fujimoto and Nanako had handled their staggering reappearance with surprising calm. The two had been outside already, watching the fading pillars of smoke that had been visible for miles.

  “Once you’re patched up,” Nanako said, breaking the heavy silence, “I’ll start on some food. I’m sure you’re all hungry.”

  Emi nodded as Nanako cleaned the gouges on Emi’s upper arm. She had tried to use Amaterasu’s power to heal the scratches, but she couldn’t make the magic work. Perhaps she was simply too exhausted. Elsewhere in the house, Shiro and Fujimoto were tending to Susano’s and Yumei’s wounds. Shiro had survived the battle with no injuries.

  Nanako taped down the last strip of gauze. “There. Now just sit and relax, and I’ll see what I can do to untangle your hair. It’s even worse than the last time you showed up looking like a neglected stray cat.”

  The miko fetched a brush and sat on the edge of the tub behind Emi. She selected a lock and picked out the tangles with meticulous strokes. For several minutes, she worked quietly, detangling one section of hair from ends up to roots, pinning it off to the side with a hairclip, then starting on the next.

  “Do you want to talk about it?”

  Emi flinched at Nanako’s uncharacteristically gentle tone. Her lower lip trembled with the urge to cry. She was so tired. So much of her body hurt. But somehow the deep, weary ache in her heart hurt worst of all.

  She opened her mouth, not sure what she intended to say, and the next thing she knew, words were spilling from her in a tearful babble. Like a breaking dam, all her pent-up emotions spilled free as she blurted out everything she’d kept chained inside since the very beginning, everything she couldn’t share with anyone—from Shiro’s flirtations and her growing feelings for him to her confession to him last night and his reaction. And what he had done in the battle against Izanagi.

  “He could have ended it right then.” Her shoulders shook with sobs, garbling her words. “Why did he save me? He walked away from me. I told him how I felt and he walked away. Why would he turn around and save my life at the expense of the entire world?”

  Nanako brushed at a stubborn knot while Emi pulled herself together.

  “I don’t know why he chose to do what he did,” Nanako said after a few minutes. “Maybe he knows something we don’t. In the myths and tales about Inari, he’s described as the wily fox god, cunning and reckless, but never foolish.”

  Emi sniffed and, pulling a tissue from the box on the counter, dabbed at her eyes. Inari was devious and wise, but was Shiro?

  “Either way,” Nanako continued, “what’s done is done. Maybe he didn’t even decide. Sometimes it isn’t a choice at all. You see the person you love in danger, and you just react.”

  “But he doesn’t feel that way about me,” Emi whispered, more tears leaking down her cheeks. She pressed a fresh tissue to her face. “He promised to never touch me again.”

  Nanako snorted and tugged hard on a lock of Emi’s hair. “That part doesn’t surprise me. I don’t know about yokai, but I know no man wants to hear that his lover thinks his touch is defiling her.”

  Emi almost dropped her tissue, her fingers suddenly numb. Is that what he’d heard when she said she was risking her purity for him? That she thought he was defiling her? “But—but he knew all along that his—that our—our intimacy was a risk for me.”

  “Well, his reaction suggests you two weren’t on the same page about that. After you said that, why wouldn’t he walk away? Why would he keep pursuing you, knowing you’re so conflicted over him? Regardless, I would say his feelings for you haven’t changed. He demonstrated that quite clearly today.”

  Emi squeezed her temples with her fingertips. I didn’t realize that’s how you felt. Why would her feelings—her inner conflict—surprise him? He knew intimacy was forbidden to her, but she hadn’t been stopping him from … She bit her lip. Had she unintentionally misled him?

  Nanako gathered another section of Emi’s hair and brushed the ends. “My grandmother was a distinguished kannushi. As you know, female kannushi are rare, and my grandmother was an extraordinary lady. A few years before she died, I was engaged to be married and struggling with the balance between my personal life and my miko duties.”

  At the mention of marriage, Emi tried to turn to look at Nanako, but the miko pushed her head back and continued with the hairbrush.

  “I went to see my grandmother the day before the wedding. I’d been worrying so much about how I could love my fiancé and be a good wife to him while also being committed to my kami and my makoto no kokoro that I was a nervous wreck. I asked her how I was supposed to do both?

  “She didn’t answer. Instead, she led me outside where the sohei had left an archery target set up. She picked up a bow and single arrow and handed them to me.

  “‘Shoot the target,’ she said. But when I pulled the string back, she put her hand behind my elbow, stopping me at half tension on the bow.

  “‘I can’t hit the target like this,’ I told her.

  “‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘The bow represents your commitment.’

  “‘To my fiancé or my miko duties?’ I asked.

  “‘What does the arrow represent?’ she asked in return.

  “I told her I didn’t know. She gave me a long look, then let go of my elbow. ‘The arrow,’ she said, ‘is not your fiancé or your miko duties. It is you.’

  “I drew the string back all the way and asked, ‘What does the target represent, then?’

nbsp; “My grandmother gave me another long look, and then she walked away.” Nanako ran the brush through Emi’s hair. “The next day, I married my fiancé and we spent fifteen wonderful years together before he passed away.”

  “I’m sorry for your loss,” Emi murmured, caught off guard by thoughts of Nanako being happily married. “Did you have to give up on your commitment to being a miko?”

  “Not at all.” Nanako set the brush down and used a white tie to bind Emi’s hair behind her neck, then smoothed the tail. “There, you’re finished.”

  Rising from the stool and stretching her stiff muscles, Emi turned to Nanako, her brow still wrinkled with confusion. “What did the target represent?”

  “The arrow represented me.” Nanako smiled. “And so did the target.”

  With no further explanation, the miko left the bathroom, leaving Emi standing in her towel, more confused than before.

  In her dream, she heard Shiro’s voice.

  She rolled over, tangling the blankets of her futon, and almost woke before slipping back into sleep. He murmured words she couldn’t make out, the snippets tangling with memories of things he’d said to her.

  “You owe me, Amaterasu.”

  His voice rumbled in her ears and she could almost see him sitting cross-legged in front of her, his face oddly obscured by a silver sheen.

  “What exactly are you asking, Inari?” The reply came in Emi’s voice, but she hadn’t spoken.

  “I am not asking.” A dangerous edge crept into his tone. “I am telling you what you will do.”

  “You do not command me, Kunitsukami.”

  “You owe me. If you refuse to pay your debt, I will extract it in a far less palatable way. You and your vassals will never again walk this world in peace.”

  Emi rolled her head against the pillow, shivering at the menace honing Shiro’s words. Heat pulsed uncomfortably in her chest but sleep still clung to her.

  In her dream, she hissed angrily at his threat. “I must descend on the solstice. My strength is required to stop Izanami, and I can only channel so much ki into my kamigakari before I can no longer withdraw my spirit and must complete the descension.”

  “I am not saying you can’t descend. I am saying you will wait until the last possible moment, when it will make a difference, and no sooner.”

  “Delaying by a few minutes or hours will change nothing. Emi will die on the solstice regardless. I am sorry, but that is her fate.”

  His eyes gleamed in the silvery light flickering over his face. “I have never believed in fate.”

  “Why must you be so stubborn?” Anger snapped through her voice. “Even if Emi were to live, she would be an old woman in a blink of time for you.”

  “This isn’t about me.”

  “Then why?”

  His jaw flexed. “Your power won’t destroy her instantly. Give her the chance to see this to the end. She has suffered so much to protect a future she won’t live to experience. At least let her see victory.”

  “And if we lose?”

  His mouth curved in a sharp, arrogant smirk. “I don’t plan to lose.”

  She made an unhappy noise. “Fine. I will wait until the last moment to descend.”

  He nodded. “Keep Emi alive as long as you can.”

  “And you will share what I told you with the other Kunitsukami?”


  “Keep your head clear and your heart guarded, Inari. You cannot let your feelings weaken you.”

  “I will mind my own business and you can mind yours, Amaterasu.”

  She sighed. “Will the day ever come when the damage to our friendship might heal?”

  “That will depend on you, Amaterasu. Honor your promise on the solstice.” He uncoiled from the floor and rose, and the silvery light faded. Darkness and silence filled her dream.

  Emi’s eyes flew open as she came awake all at once. Power, uncomfortably hot under her skin, pulsed through her kamigakari mark. She flung her blankets aside and rolled off her futon, stumbling in disorientation. Shiro’s voice echoed in her head as she grabbed her haori from the closet and wrapped it around her sleeping robe. Throwing her bedroom door open, she rushed to the entryway, shoved her bare feet in her sandals, and flung herself out the front door.

  Snow fell, thick and heavy. The hot pulse in her chest was almost gone, but she ran down the familiar path anyway, crossing the footbridge and rushing into the stone courtyard where a single lantern hung from a post in front of the tiny hall of worship.

  She flew up the steps. The building had been destroyed weeks ago in her and Shiro’s first confrontation with Izanami, and so far only a rough structure had been erected, the walls nothing more than temporary planks of wood with a flat roof. Grabbing the makeshift door, she dragged it open to reveal the pitch-dark interior.

  Lifting the lantern from the post beside the threshold, she strode inside. Most of the original floor had been salvaged, though some spots were broken and splintered. Near the back of the single room, a small shrine stood alone, the smooth wood a stark contrast to the rough walls. A round mirror on a small pedestal sat in the middle, reflecting light across the space.

  No one else was in the room.

  Breathing hard, Emi approached the mirror—a shintai through which Amaterasu could channel her power into this world. It was new as well; Izanami had shattered the old one.

  Emi brushed her fingers across the glass. The smooth surface was cool and devoid of power.

  But that silvery light on Shiro’s face and the pulsing heat in her kamigakari mark … She stepped back from the mirror and glanced around. Had it been a dream, or had Shiro somehow used the shintai to contact Amaterasu the same way Emi had a couple weeks ago? Amaterasu had struggled to make that connection with Emi; the magic required to reach between worlds had exhausted the goddess and her vassals, who had been aiding her from within Takamahara. How had Shiro done it?

  Kneeling, she brushed her fingers across the floor. When she lifted them, dark soot coated her fingertips. She lowered the lantern and the light caught on faint lines drawn on the floorboards, smudged as though someone had hastily brushed them away.

  A circle. Shiro had drawn a circle, had used magic she couldn’t even imagine to contact Amaterasu.

  He’s a god, Emi. I don’t think you’re seeing that. Katsuo’s words echoed in her ears and she shook her head to dispel them. Shiro’s memories were returning. He was now freed from the onenju curse, and an immortal lifetime of skills and knowledge were coming back to him. The more of his past self he regained, the greater the divide between him and Emi would grow, an unbridgeable chasm of age and power.

  Who was he now? He wasn’t quite Inari yet, at least not the Inari she’d seen in Amaterasu’s and Yumei’s memories. But he was also no longer the Shiro she knew. He was evolving so quickly she couldn’t keep up. His shifts between his past and present self weren’t as pronounced as they’d been in the beginning. Instead, he slid seamlessly from one to the other. The line between Shiro and Inari would continue to blur … until there was no line at all.

  She pressed her lips together to keep them from trembling. Soon, he would no longer need her. Soon, his strength and his confidence as a Kunitsukami would be fully rejuvenated.

  And soon, she would be gone from this world. But maybe she would live long enough to see the solstice to the end and the world saved—or destroyed.

  Chapter 20

  “Please hold still, my lady.”

  Emi attempted to keep her arms steady as three elderly miko tugged and patted at the draping layers of kimono engulfing her frame, murmuring among themselves as they made adjustments.

  “I don’t think this collar is working,” one of them said, standing back to look Emi over from head to toe. “What about the plum one instead?”

  The other two agreed and Emi’s shoulders drooped as they stripped off layers so they could redress her with the plum collar. Frustration bubbled inside her, growing in force, but she tamped i
t down and kept her expression serene. It didn’t matter what color her collar was. It didn’t matter if she wore silk or rags.

  At this point, nothing mattered, because the world as they knew it would end on the solstice.

  They had lost the heavenly spear to Izanagi. Nothing stood between Izanami and opening the Bridge to Heaven. And for the last day and a half, Emi hadn’t contributed a single thing toward reversing that destiny.

  Before they had departed the Shirayuri Shrine, Susano had set off on his own to inform Sarutahiko and Uzume of their failure to reclaim the spear. Without a dragon for transportation, Nanako had driven Emi, Shiro, and Yumei back to Shion; that had been an interesting experience. Despite his fearsome abilities, Yumei, they discovered, did not do well with cars. Emi wasn’t sure if it had been motion sickness or claustrophobia, but Shiro had to threaten the Tengu multiple times to keep him from exiting the car—while it was in motion. If he hadn’t been semi-comatose from his injuries, he might have attempted it. At least the trip had been relatively short.

  Yumei was now set up in a converted maintenance building just outside the shrine grounds, surrounded by his karasu and healing swiftly. Shiro had stayed with him, ensuring his safety while he was vulnerable.

  The role reversal was something of a surprise. When she first met Shiro and Yumei, the Tengu had been the more powerful by far. He had saved Shiro multiple times and guarded the kitsune while he was injured. With only one loop of the onenju left around his arm, Shiro and Yumei had seemed on near equal footing, but now Shiro was the one protecting Yumei.

  While Susano sought out his fellow Kunitsukami and Shiro guarded the healing Tengu, Emi had been trapped in a vortex of preparations for the solstice. From purification rituals to blessing ceremonies to private preparations, her free time had been entirely consumed. Already she had been bathed and groomed from her eyelashes to her toenails, scrubbed until her skin glowed, covered in lotions and powders, and subjected to all manner of ridiculous beautification. She doubted her uneven fingernails would offend Amaterasu upon her descension, but everyone had ignored her protests.

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