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


  When they reached her room, he pulled the door open and stepped aside.

  “Though I had hoped it would not be necessary, you will henceforth remain confined to this room. My vassals will visit periodically to see to your needs. Do not leave the room otherwise.”

  Her hands curled into fists. “You have Sarutahiko locked in that cellar, don’t you?”

  He lifted his hand toward her room, the command obvious.

  “Why are you helping Izanami?” she demanded. “How can you betray Amaterasu like this?”

  Though Tsukiyomi had seemed nearly impossible to agitate or fluster, at the word “betray,” his expression hardened.

  His face swiftly cleared again, his displeasure replaced by consideration. “Come, kamigakari.”

  She followed him along the corridor to a small room with a low table and several cushions surrounding it. When he sat, she reluctantly sank down across from him. At his wordless gesture, one of the kami swiftly retreated. The other waited in the hall.

  Tsukiyomi gazed absently at a scroll on the wall. She fought the urge to fidget, waiting with growing impatience. Finally, the kami returned with a tea tray. Once he had set it on the table, bowed, and left, the Kunitsukami spoke.

  “You believe,” he murmured as he prepared drinks for them, “that Izanami will descend to your realm in full divinity and proceed to destroy it.”

  He poured water into the cups and whisked it. “You are misinformed as to her intent. Izanami has no desire to glory in her power over humans or oversee your destruction. She intends to save this world—the forests and oceans, the mountains and skies. She wishes to save the land and all its creatures, humankind included.”

  Emi accepted the cup he passed her. “I don’t understand.”

  “Izanami is the Amatsukami of the Earth. She considers this realm hers to protect, but her power is no longer enough to defend it.”

  He fell silent as he finished preparing his own tea and took several sips. “Humans are strange beings. They reproduce swiftly and gather in excessively large numbers, and as they expand, they devour the land upon which they live. Resources consumed, nature destroyed, earth polluted. Humanity suffers. The earth suffers.”

  She sipped her tea, his bleak perspective on humankind surprising her.

  “The Kunitsukami swore many eons ago to shun rule, and so choose to do nothing. Izanami, as the ultimate caretaker of Earth, is bound to protect this world, and to do so she requires more power than she can achieve through a kamigakari. She sees this as a sacrifice she must make to fulfill her duty. Once she descends to this realm on the Bridge to Heaven, she will never be able to return to Takamahara.”

  Emi straightened. “Never?”

  “Takamahara will not accept her once she has touched this land. She does not undertake this obligation lightly or for personal gain. What does she gain but exile? Yet she believes it is necessary. She will do what she must, regardless of the personal cost.”

  Emi pursed her lips. “What do you believe?”

  “Without intervention, humanity will bring their world to ruin. Still, I would not walk the same path as Izanami to prevent it.”

  “Why are you helping her, then?”

  “I am minimally invested in the fortunes of humankind,” he murmured. “However, my sister … Amaterasu has always felt a peculiar compassion for humanity, a tender bond with your fragile and often violent kind. For countless years, she has watched over humans, guided them, protected them … yet they die. They slay their kin. They fall into illness or dark misdeeds.

  “It wounds her, my gentle sister. She cares too deeply, and humans cause her naught but pain. A human’s grief lasts only a few decades before death, but a kami’s grief is eternal. I will do what I can to end the ever-growing burden of grief upon my sister’s shoulders. Izanami will end humanity’s suffering and, by extension, my sister’s.”

  “But—but it won’t end Amaterasu’s suffering.” Emi squeezed her cup in her hands. “She’ll never condone humans being reduced to puppets.”

  “My sister will come to see this is the best path. The transition may be difficult, but Izanami will bring balance and peace to humankind.”

  Desperation crept into Emi’s voice. “But we’ll lose our free will.”

  “An unfortunate necessity,” he replied calmly. “Humanity has grown weak and impure, with too few left who care to preserve the harmony of the natural world. In their weakness, they are corrupted by greed, lust, fear, even malice. They lack the conviction to save their world, or themselves, by their own strength.

  “You as well, kamigakari, lack conviction. Your ki is threaded with doubt and conflict.” His features softened. “The blame for that, however, falls upon your teachers more than you.”

  An unpleasant sinking feeling pulled at her innards. “What do you mean?”

  “For many generations now, the shrines have sought to shield their kamigakari from corruption. Instead of nurturing purity from within, they limit the kamigakari’s exposure to temptation or even hardship. Thus, they ensure the vessel’s survival, but at a cost.”

  “But …” Shock numbed her thoughts and she struggled to respond. “But isn’t it necessary to avoid corruption?”

  “Purity and morality are not synonymous. Purity is born of pure intent, of faith and confidence in one’s choices. When one acts with conviction, his ki will be pure and powerful, and that, kamigakari, is the source of all strength.”

  Her head spun with ideas that ran counter to a lifetime of training at the shrines. Unbidden, from a memory that almost seemed to come from another life, Shiro’s voice murmured. Actions change our course, influence our futures, but intentions define us, empower us. Without intent, we are nothing.

  If intent and conviction were the true source of purity, why was her ki tainted with doubt?

  She lifted her chin. “What strength I have, I’ll use to fight Izanami. Just like Amaterasu will fight.”

  Tsukiyomi sighed and rose to his feet. “It is time for you to return to your room. Do not leave without my invitation.”

  Emi bowed as he left. The kami waiting in the hall escorted her back to her room and closed the door. She stood at the foot of the futon with her arms wrapped around herself, listening to the soft roar of the waves.

  The shrines hadn’t so much as mentioned that unwavering conviction, not adherence to moral rules, was the path to pure ki. If Tsukiyomi was right, Ishida had deliberately kept her sheltered in a safe bubble where her strength would never be tested, where she would never be at risk of weakness or impurity. But she wasn’t safe at the shrines anymore.

  If her ki and purity really were compromised by doubt and conflict, she feared she knew exactly where it had originated. Yet she couldn’t stop the longing and loneliness that ached deep in her heart. When she closed her eyes, she still saw Shiro’s face.

  Chapter 7

  Though Emi had failed to reach Sarutahiko or find Tsukiyomi’s barrier around the island, her excursion hadn’t been a complete waste: she’d smuggled the small book from the storehouse back to her room.

  After skimming through the damp pages, she began the painful process of reading what content remained decipherable. For the rest of the night and the following morning, she crawled through page after faded page of ancient, handwritten text. Using the supplies she had collected on her previous explorations of the house, she jotted notes on the most pertinent information.

  Hours later, she leaned back against the wall and closed her exhausted eyes as she tapped an ink brush against her lips. A scant page of her neat handwriting filled the paper beside her: all the information she had gathered about shikigami.

  It wasn’t much. The book described numerous spiritual arts, shikigami being only one, but she had finally learned what the water serpent outside her door was.

  A shikigami was an extension of a kami’s ki given its own form. It could be controlled by the kami or created to independently fulfill a specific purpose. In the case
of the water serpent, Tsukiyomi had commanded it to follow Emi and prevent her from leaving the house. According to the book, kami mainly used shikigami to defend their fragile host bodies in battle, though summoning one required a certain amount of preparation.

  The text—what had survived years of mistreatment—offered no suggestions on how to destroy a shikigami. Emi nibbled the end of the brush. Her marugata had worked on the water serpent, but she doubted she could escape that way a second time. Now that she was confined to her room, her options were further limited.

  The symbol Tsukiyomi had inflicted on her kamigakari mark blocked her access to Amaterasu’s power, and though Emi had summoned the wind on her own several times, she didn’t understand how it worked. Despite her many attempts since waking up on the island, she hadn’t succeeded in calling it again. But what if she could draw on the power of the wind in a different way?

  Amaterasu’s ki still lay dormant inside Emi, even if she couldn’t directly use it. And according to Yumei, Emi’s own ki had flavors of kami too. If she could create her own shikigami, she would have a way to fight.

  She flopped down on the futon and opened the book to a marked page. The process of making a shikigami was a cross between creating an ofuda and a marugata. Three circles were drawn on a sheet of white paper and within them were inscribed the key elements of the shikigami: the creator, the form, and the command.

  The book was not an instruction manual. It described the making of a shikigami in general terms but didn’t provide step-by-step directions. She wanted to control the shikigami directly, but the book didn’t explain how to do that. It didn’t explain much of anything.

  After a kami delivered her lunch, she spread her materials across the floor. With careful precision, she drew three circles and inscribed her name, “wind,” and “protect” inside them. She figured she would start with a command and if she could summon a functional shikigami, she would go from there.

  To activate the talisman, the creator sealed it with blood. Nerves churned in her stomach. Blood magic was dangerous and she didn’t know enough about it to be experimenting. But what choice did she have?

  When a brief search of her room produced nothing resembling a knife, she broke the teacup from her lunch and selected the largest shard. Returning to her shikigami inscription, she pushed her sleeve up and touched the shard’s point to her forearm. She nicked her skin, waited for blood to well, then tipped her arm. A small droplet landed in the middle circle.

  She held her breath as the seconds ticked by. Nothing happened.

  Muttering, she flipped through several pages of the book, examining the examples of shikigami inscriptions. Some contained additional symbols and markings, some didn’t. She pressed her thumb to the tiny cut on her arm. What if, like a marugata, each stroke of the inscription had to be drawn in a specific order? The book didn’t say.

  Throughout the afternoon, she experimented with the shikigami ofuda, but no matter what she inscribed or where she splattered her blood, the paper remained inert. Surrounded by crumpled attempts and with her wrist wrapped in a red-spotted scrap of cloth, she collapsed onto her futon in an exhausted sleep.

  The days slipped by, blurring together as she struggled with the shikigami ofuda. After every half-dozen attempts, she scoured the book again, hoping desperately to find some tidbit of information that would explain what she was doing wrong. Was she supposed to speak an incantation? Was she missing part of the inscription? Was she drawing the symbols in the wrong order? It could be anything.

  She had no choice but to keep trying. Hunched over the low table with what seemed like her hundredth attempt at the spell sitting in front of her, she rubbed an ink-stained hand across her face. Behind her, near the door, her untouched dinner sat where a kami vassal had left it hours ago. In another hour or so, he would return for the tray and escort her to the bathroom, as he had the previous evenings.

  She held the brush above the third circle and carefully wrote the character for “defend.” She’d tried a dozen different words without results. Already expecting another failure, she picked up her shard of broken teacup and looked at the underside of her forearm. Unwilling to again reopen one of the small, sore cuts edged with puffy red skin, she set the point on a new spot and dug it in.

  Pain stung her arm and blood welled—much faster than it should have. She lifted the shard and a track of crimson snaked down her arm. In her anger, she had sliced too deep. Hissing irritably, she let a few drops fall onto the paper, then grabbed her makeshift bandage and pressed it against the cut.

  The red stain absorbed into the paper and, as usual, nothing happened.

  Her hands clenched and her fingers dug into her cut arm. Frustration and despair lanced her, followed by a wave of unreasonable anger. This was impossible! Everything was impossible! Izanami would descend and destroy the world, and Emi couldn’t do a thing to stop it.

  Furious tears stung her eyes and she jerkily twisted the cloth around her arm to stem the bleeding. Snatching another piece of paper—one of only a few sheets left—she slapped it on the table and wet her brush. She glared at the blank page, breathing hard through her nose. How many days had she been here, trapped and helpless? Useless. Incompetent. She couldn’t access Amaterasu’s power. She couldn’t break Tsukiyomi’s barrier. She couldn’t reach Sarutahiko. She couldn’t make a shikigami. She couldn’t do anything.

  Jabbing her brush at the paper, she scribed a circle and her name in angry strokes. She drew another circle and scrawled the character for wind, then whisked the brush in the shape of a third circle. The ink blotted at she finished it. Ruined.

  Biting her lip to hold back a fuming exclamation, she slammed the brush down on the table. It rolled off the edge, clattering to the floor, and she lurched to the side to grab it. The cloth around her arm unwound and fell onto her flawed spell.

  Grabbing the brush from the floor, she set it down properly and picked up the cloth to press to her arm again. Wet blood had stained the paper in the empty third circle, leaving an untidy red blotch.

  A faint breeze washed across her face.

  The black ink lines glowed.

  She shrank back as the lines brightened and a strange tug pulsed through her chest. An air current spun through the room, then gusted like a gale-force wind. She ducked, throwing her arms over her head as the discarded papers on the floor whipped upward and the scroll on the wall tore free. The low table flipped, sending her ink stone and brush flying.

  The luminous paper hovered and the wind drew in around it, condensing into a visible shape.

  Emi scrambled backward, then pushed to her feet. Hovering over the floor with the glowing talisman in its center, the swirling air held the vague shape of a woman, her long hair dancing above her. The blank, featureless face pointed at Emi as though waiting.

  She swallowed hard as the breeze coming off the woman-shaped whirlwind ruffled her simple blue kimono and tugged at her hair, trying to pull it out of its tie. The small cyclone spun with a quiet whooshing noise that sounded almost like whispers. The elemental woman was the same height as Emi and her long, airy hair was the same length.

  She stepped closer. Was this really a shikigami? How had the spell worked? She hadn’t even finished it. The “command” circle of the shikigami was blank. Unless … unless that was how a directly controlled shikigami was created?

  Elation sparked in her. She had created a shikigami. She’d done it! But could she control it?

  Turning toward her door, she gestured with one hand.

  The spinning wind erupted in a shrieking gale and the womanly shape in its center launched at the door. Wood splintered and tore apart, hurled into the hallway with an ear-splitting crash. Emi went rigid, her mouth hanging open. Then she raced to the threshold.

  Her shikigami hovered just outside the door, and several feet away, the water serpent faced it, hissing with its liquid jaws open threateningly. With no idea what she was doing or what would happen, Emi flung her hand co
mmandingly toward the serpent.

  Again, her shikigami spun toward its target. It collided with the serpent in a spiraling gust. Water flew everywhere as the snake came apart, but it swiftly reformed, the water sucking back together. Wind and water twisted together in a violent dance as the cyclone tore the snake apart and it reformed again.

  Emi clutched the door frame, transfixed by the battle of elements. Had the kami heard the door breaking? Were they coming? She couldn’t stay here long. As the hissing serpent writhed and churned in a vain attempt to destroy her wind shikigami, her gaze shot to the glowing spot in its center—the paper talisman that gave it form.

  Her shikigami condensed again into the shape of a woman. It extended one arm and the limb flattened into a blade of air. It lashed out, cutting right through the heart of the serpent.

  Water splashed lifelessly to the floor and the rectangle of paper fluttered downward, torn cleanly in half. Had she commanded her shikigami to do that?

  Shaking off the shiver in her spine, she whipped toward her room. She had minutes at best and no time to waste. Rushing to her closet, she snatched a cotton obi off the shelf and ran back to the corridor.

  “Come!” she ordered her shikigami.

  The woman-like whirlwind ghosted after her as she sped through the halls, her tabi socks sliding on the wooden floors. If not for her days of exploration, she wouldn’t have known where to go, but she had the layout of the house memorized. At the rear of the building, she jerked open a storage cupboard and grabbed a large metal canister from the bottom shelf.

  “Kamigakari!”

  A kami vassal strode out of the kitchen, the long length of his haori coat flowing behind him. She clutched the canister as the vassal swept toward her, his face hard.

  “You are not permitted to—” His gaze shifted to the glowing talisman within her nearly invisible shikigami. “Is that a—”

 
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