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

Giving him a long bow, she straightened and took perhaps a little longer than necessary to clean the blade. A persistent shiver ran along her spine and she had to breathe deep before she could turn to the seventh point of the circle.

  When she finally faced east, she raised her head.

  He knelt before her, crimson robes draped around him. The white fox mask seemed to smile mischievously, with familiar red markings adorning its forehead and cheekbones. Her heart drummed, and she had to fight the urge to throw herself into his arms. She couldn’t break form. She couldn’t disturb the ritual, not when the circle already vibrated with gathering power.

  Their time was over. Today, here and now, he was not Shiro and she was not Emi. He was the Kunitsukami of the Fire and she was the kamigakari of Amaterasu.

  She lifted the blade on her palms and bowed her head over it. “Inari, Kunitsukami of the Fire. On this solstice, Amaterasu asks for your strength. Will you grant it?”

  He held out his hand. As she placed hers beneath it, she guiltily relished the slight contact and the familiar warmth of his skin. Bringing the knife to his palm, she pressed the point into his flesh as she had with the others. Releasing his hand was so hard, and she couldn’t help the way her fingers slid gently across his as she withdrew her arm.

  He turned his hand over. A red drop fell, landing in the middle of the symbol for fire. Heat surged through the circle and the hot smell of flames and smoke scorched the air.

  “I grant my strength to the Amatsukami of the Wind.”

  She briefly closed her eyes, letting his voice sink through her. Then she bent forward in a bow, wishing she could reach across the tiny distance between them. Reining in the urge, she cleaned the knife, then turned for a final time, facing southeast.

  The talisman for the wind lay before her, but no figure knelt on its opposite side. Picking up the jade knife, she raised it on her palms.

  “On this solstice, I, kamigakari of Amaterasu, freely grant my body, my strength, and my fealty, now and forevermore, to the Amatsukami of the Wind.”

  Lifting the blade, she dug the point into her opposite palm and stinging pain lanced her skin. She turned her hand over, holding it above the talisman. A drop of blood fell and instantly soaked into the paper.

  The power in the circle thrummed and shifted, condensing around her. She set the blade, its point still marked with her blood, on the cloth and folded her hands in her lap. Closing her eyes, she waited.

  Soft sounds encircled her as the four Kunitsukami and three humans rose. It took all her self-control not to peek to her left, where Shiro was so close. With iron will, she held perfectly still. The sounds withdrew, and the rasp of a sliding door was followed by the quiet thump of it connecting with the frame. The doors to the inner shrine were closed.

  She was alone. For the rest of the day and into the night, she would remain in the circle, meditating, preparing, and waiting. When the doors opened again, she would join the Kunitsukami and their warriors to wage war on the Lord and Lady of Takamahara.

  Emi’s breath came slow and soft, her body deeply relaxed, chin nearly resting on her chest. Her awareness of time had slipped away long ago, but from deep within her meditative state, she knew hours had passed.

  Inside the circle, still humming softly with the collective power of the Kunitsukami, she came to understand why the solstice ceremony was so important to an Amatsukami’s descension. Though they could descend swiftly and without preparation, as Izanagi had, the full solstice ceremony significantly minimized the strain on their kamigakari. After ten years of preparation, the Amatsukami would be loath to risk their kamigakari’s survival unless absolutely necessary.

  Over the past hours, Amaterasu’s ki had gradually fed into Emi’s body, and with it the goddess’s spirit had come. Emi vibrated with more power than she had ever felt before, but unlike the times Amaterasu had possessed her, there was no pain. Smoothly, naturally, and with careful pacing, Amaterasu was slipping into Emi’s body.

  Are you ready, Emi?

  She stirred at the soft voice within her and partially roused from her meditative trance.

  “I am ready,” she murmured into the silent room, not opening her eyes.

  The sun has begun to set, Amaterasu whispered within her. Soon the Kunitsukami will come, and together we will depart.

  “Where will we go?” she asked, finding it easier to speak aloud than form the question in her mind. “Sarutahiko said Izanami has to go to a specific place to open the Bridge.”

  The Bridge is anchored in the heart of this world, the first land created by the gods of old. The sacred spot can only be reached by the most powerful kami and yokai, and it is where the Kunitsukami intend to intercept Izanami and Izanagi.

  Emi nervously nibbled her lower lip. “Ambushing Izanami right before she tries to open the Bridge doesn’t leave much room for error …”

  A splinter of Amaterasu’s frustration and unease pricked Emi. Destroying both Izanami and the Bridge would have been my preference, but I thought we had years to prepare. Only when Izanami came to Shirayuri to kill you herself did I realize we were out of time.

  Bemusement flitted through Amaterasu. How desperate I was that night when I told you to find the Kunitsukami. With Inari’s memories lost, he was of little help, yet somehow the two of you succeeded. Without you, Emi, the world as we know it would unquestionably end tonight.

  “If I’d found them sooner,” Emi mumbled, “maybe they could have destroyed the Bridge like you wanted.”

  I understand Sarutahiko’s choice, Amaterasu replied. Yet, I fear Izanami’s next attempt will be even more difficult to thwart.

  Izanami had been at least one step ahead of her adversaries from the very beginning. Her plan had been one of subtlety and deceit, but next time, the need for subterfuge would not hamper her. She had successfully incapacitated all four Kunitsukami once; she could do it again, especially if she used well-timed lethal force. Izanagi alone could kill any of the Kunitsukami.

  Could they stop Izanami a second time?

  I wonder the same, Amaterasu murmured, following Emi’s thoughts, as does Inari. He sees Izanami’s assured victory in the future, and his instincts are surprisingly unerring. Faint amusement flavored her next words. His reckless gambles prevail too often for me to doubt his intuition.

  Shifting beneath growing dread, Emi asked, “How long until you complete your descension?”

  I would normally spend many more hours siphoning my ki into you so as not to overwhelm your body, but we will not have that luxury. When I descend, we will be briefly incapacitated, so the timing must be precise.

  And that meant Amaterasu would have to descend before the battle with Izanami began. Otherwise, Amaterasu risked being critically disabled in the middle of a deadly fight. Had Shiro realized that when he extracted Amaterasu’s promise to descend at the last possible moment?

  I do not claim to understand Inari, Amaterasu confessed, but I believe he hopes they can defeat Izanami without my descension.

  Emi’s heart fluttered, but she shook her head. “We can’t take that chance, especially since you can’t descend in the middle of the fight.”

  Yes, Amaterasu agreed sadly. I am sorry, Emi. I must descend.

  In some ways, it was better for Shiro that Emi’s life end now so he wouldn’t have to watch her fade day by day into the grave. There never had been a path that she and Shiro could have walked together.

  Though there will be little I can do, Amaterasu said, I too will watch over him.

  Emi nodded and bit her lip against a quiet surge of sorrow. “He’ll forgive you for the onenju eventually. He’s stubborn, but he’ll come around.”

  For the onenju, he might forgive me, but for taking you from him, I do not think—

  Amaterasu’s internal voice cut off and Emi’s eyes flew open, her meditative trance shattered. Lamplight flickered through the empty room. “Amaterasu?”

  The power imbuing her body shuddered.

  Emi. Am
aterasu’s presence returned as suddenly as it had vanished. A messenger just informed me—Tsukiyomi has left the earthly realm. His kamigakari is dead. His spirit is returning to Takamahara.

  “What?” Emi gasped. “Did Izanami and Izanagi kill him?”

  No, Amaterasu replied, her disjointed thoughts flashing through Emi too fast to follow. They need his blood to summon the Bridge. They cannot open it without him.

  “You mean—you mean, Izanami can’t open the Bridge anymore?”

  He must have chosen this, Amaterasu whispered. He betrayed them.

  “Amaterasu,” Emi repeated forcefully, “does this mean Izanami can’t open the Bridge?”

  It means, the goddess replied, her soundless voice hardening, that they will come for you.

  Almost on top of her words, the shrine vibrated. Emi pressed her hands to the floor as it trembled. On the tray beside her, water sloshed from the bowl, splattering the jade knife.

  With a loud snap, the floorboards by the doors buckled. Thin, squirming roots snaked out of the hole, followed by thicker roots that pushed the gap open wider. They writhed across the floor in an expanding wave, and Emi pushed away.

  Stay in the circle!

  She froze, obeying Amaterasu’s command.

  With Tsukiyomi gone, Izanami needs your blood to open the Bridge. You must stay in the circle. I will—

  With a jolt of shock, Amaterasu’s presence within Emi vanished a second time. The goddess’s power roiled.

  “Amaterasu? Amaterasu!”

  The roots spread across the floor, covering it like a twisting carpet. When they reached the white circle, light flashed in green, brown, bluish-gray, and red—the shared power of the Kunitsukami. The roots parted around the barrier and climbed the walls, enclosing the room.

  Izanami needed Emi for the Bridge ritual—needed her blood to replace Tsukiyomi’s. Would the circle, fueled by the power of four Kunitsukami, be enough to protect her?

  From the dark cavity in the floor, golden light shimmered.

  Emi went rigid as the light grew more distinct. Amaterasu still hadn’t returned, but her power churned as though somewhere—wherever her kami body resided in Takamahara—she was using it.

  Amaterasu had told her to stay in the circle. Izanami couldn’t open the Bridge without Emi. The solstice would pass, and then …

  Then what? Amaterasu’s words flitted through her memory. I fear Izanami’s next attempt will be even more difficult to thwart.

  Shiro also feared this would be their only chance. He had warned Sarutahiko that Izanami was already off balance. The goddess had intended for the Kunitsukami to be debilitated and helpless, but instead, they were gathered in preparation for battle. Shiro believed this solstice was their only chance to stop her.

  Within the root-lined chasm, the golden light brightened and heat flooded the room, baking the air. Emi fell backward, bumping into the tray behind her. The jade knife clattered to the floor. Half blinded by the light, she grabbed the knife and stuffed it between her obi’s heavy silk layers.

  With a final flash that whited out her vision, the light vanished. She squinted blurrily.

  Izanagi stood in front of the circle.

  She cringed back. Forcing herself to straighten, she rose to her feet within the barrier.

  “Again we meet, kamigakari,” he mocked. “How sorrowful to find you all alone on this final night of your existence.”

  “I’m not alone.”

  “No? The Kunitsukami already departed without you, and Amaterasu …” He angled his head questioningly. “Dare I say she has abandoned you as well?”

  Emi clenched her teeth and Izanagi smiled.

  “Say not a word, my dear. Your panic is confirmation enough.”

  If he knew Amaterasu had left Emi alone, he must have had a hand in distracting her.

  “I come seeking a small favor, kamigakari.” Izanagi ran a hand over his jaw. “And I must insist you comply immediately.”

  “You want my blood for the ritual.”

  His eyebrows rose. “News travels most swiftly, I see. Yes, that is exactly what I require. And you will accompany me, or I will destroy this shrine and everyone in it. Then we will see how much of this city I must incinerate before you change your mind.”

  No hesitation, no mercy. He would do it. He would kill everyone and destroy the whole city to force her cooperation, but she couldn’t do as he commanded. She couldn’t leave the protective circle.

  He raised his hand and golden light sparked. Heat blasted through the room and as the root-covered walls and floor outside the circle blackened, she knew the barrier was shielding her from the worst of it.

  “My patience dwindles, kamigakari. Who will die first, I wonder? That innocent boy you brought to my shrine?”

  Katsuo was here. Nanako and Fujimoto and Ishida and all the other kannushi, miko, and sohei she’d grown up with were also here, helpless against Izanagi’s power. Unless he had lied, the Kunitsukami had already left, and she was alone. She squeezed her eyes shut. She had to stay in the circle. Without her blood, Izanami couldn’t open the Bridge on this solstice.

  But what about the next solstice? How long would this threat hang over the world? Izanami could fail again and again, but the Kunitsukami only had to fail once before all was lost.

  But … what if it could end now? What if it could end tonight?

  The Kunitsukami were already at the site where the Bridge would be summoned. Izanami was off balance, her plans disrupted by Tsukiyomi’s betrayal. Izanagi was here, trying to force Emi’s cooperation with threats of massacring a city. They were desperate.

  Would there ever be a better chance than this?

  No. Sarutahiko had decided it was too risky. If she stayed in the circle, the world would remain safe for another year. Even if it meant letting Izanagi slaughter the city, she couldn’t gamble the entire world on a chance.

  But Shiro had been ready to gamble it all. Though it may be the path of greatest risk, it is the only path that leads to victory.

  The only path. And she could make it happen.

  “Kamigakari.” Cold anger coated Izanagi’s voice. “I will not ask again.”

  Trembling from head to toe, Emi took a tiny step toward the edge of the circle.

  Amaterasu? she cried soundlessly, but the goddess didn’t answer.

  She took another step. The barrier shimmered just inches in front of her face. With her blood, Izanami could open the Bridge—and then the Kunitsukami could destroy it.

  Emi drew in a deep breath and, meeting Izanagi’s dark stare, she stepped out of the circle.

  Chapter 25

  The journey through the tunnel was unspeakably terrifying.

  Instead of carrying her as he had on their last encounter, Izanagi had sealed Emi inside a glowing sphere of light and cast it into the black void in the shrine floor. Following in his own golden orb, he sent them racing through the black tunnel at absurd speeds.

  Walls of crumbling dirt and dangling roots flashed by, briefly illuminated by the sphere. Trapped inside it and buffeted on all sides by hot air, she could do nothing but huddle in a ball as the miles passed. Her lungs burned with each breath, her skin tight and dry, her eyes watering from the brightness even though she shielded them with her sleeve.

  Without warning, the orb shot upward. They burst out of the ground and flew above the thick trees and into the clear night. Squinting painfully through the light, she looked up.

  Rising from the earth was the greatest mountain she had ever seen. With smooth, sweeping sides that rose gracefully to a distinct, almost perfectly round caldera at the peak, the monstrous summit towered over the surrounding mountains and valleys in unchallenged majesty. Dark, coniferous forests blanketed the gentle slope of its lower half, while pristine snow, shimmering blue in the moonlight, painted the steep upper half.

  Clouds boiled against the opposite side of the peak, and lightning stabbed through the darkness like furious spears. The red haze of d
istant fire lit the slope as smoke spewed toward the tempest above. Was Shiro somewhere amongst the flames?

  Before she could do more than glance across the view, the orb dropped and splintered apart in a shower of light. Emi fell and landed on her hands and knees.

  Dissolving his barrier, Izanagi landed beside her. “Can I assume, kamigakari, that you will remain obedient?”

  She pushed herself to her feet, her muscles painfully stiff, and said nothing. Even if she’d wanted to resist him, she saw no point.

  Taking her silence as agreement, he turned to a sheer rock face nearly twenty feet tall, scraggly pine trees leaning precariously off its upper ledge. With gold light sparking beneath his touch, he slid his fingertips along the stone, drawing a circle as wide as his arm span. Within it, he etched complex lines and symbols with ease. Adding a final line down the center, he stepped back.

  The symbol flashed brightly, then dissolved—and with it, the rocky wall vanished. Darkness filled the circular opening. It wasn’t a doorway into Tsuchi, for kami could not enter the land of yokai, but it was a doorway to somewhere.

  Izanagi moved aside, waiting for her to enter, and she reluctantly stepped into the darkness. Magic tingled across her skin, but it wasn’t Tsuchi’s cold, alien touch. A warm, familiar earthy scent that reminded her of freshly turned soil filled her nose. She walked through nothingness, blind and helpless, counting her steps.

  On her eighth step, a gargantuan torii took form almost directly above her. The massive red pillars and crossbeams flickered with dancing golden light. She stepped beneath it and the darkness dissolved, revealing what lay beyond.

  She was inside the mountain, and it was unlike anything she’d ever seen.

  The rocky ceiling, veined with thick ribbons of pure, sparkling crystal, soared high above. Moonlight fell in thick beams across the hidden world, and far to her left, delicate waterfalls poured from springs in the rocky walls. Equally distant on her right, the red glow of hot lava met an unseen source of water, sending billows of steam into the air. A thriving forest of ancient trees carpeted the ground, transitioning to a long meadow of swaying grass dotted with splashes of color where wildflowers bloomed. A squat mountain with smooth, rocky sides and a flat top rose in the middle.

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