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

  This place was dangerous for him—and Uzume’s barrier wasn’t enough to protect him, at least not this close to whatever lay on the other side.

  “Yumei, come back with me. This isn’t safe.” She pulled on his arm but he didn’t budge, transfixed by voices she couldn’t hear. She looked over her shoulder to call for help.

  She couldn’t see Uzume or the others, only a shimmering rainbow.

  “Uzume?” she shouted urgently. “Shiro? Susano?” When they didn’t answer, she squeezed Yumei’s arm, digging her nails into the sleeve of his kosode. “Yumei, we need to go back right now.”

  “I can’t,” he breathed and, to her horror, stepped closer to the barrier.

  “Yes, you can!” She wrapped both hands around his arm and dug in her feet, but her socks slid across the grass as he approached the swirling wall and gathering shadows. “Yumei, stop!”

  As he closed the distance, she screamed for Shiro and Uzume. No one answered. No one came to their rescue. Her heart hammered a frantic beat against her ribs. Yumei couldn’t leave the barrier—and neither could she. She had to stop him.

  With the edge of the barrier only a few feet away, she jumped in front of him and used both hands to push him back with all her strength.

  He stopped. Her pathetic human muscles couldn’t budge him, but he had stopped.

  “Step back,” she panted, still pushing him. “Take a step back, Yumei.”

  His eyes were fixed on the barrier. Behind her, the rainbow collage darkened as the shadows pressed against it. Smoky tendrils slipped through, reaching for them like inky fingers.

  “Yumei!” she yelled, shoving him as hard as she could.

  His foot shifted to brace against her. She shoved him again and he slid back another few inches. Bracing her feet, she threw herself into him, driving him back a full step. Hope penetrated the icy panic in her head. She could do this. She could get him away from that seductive darkness.

  The shadows beyond the barrier writhed restlessly and cloud-like eddies spread through it, uncurling toward them. Before she could push him again, the inky tendrils reached out.

  They parted around Emi, not touching her, and spun around Yumei’s wrists. A shudder ran through his body and an almost euphoric lust slid across his face. His irises expanded until his eyes turned to solid glowing silver. The inky shadows crawled up his arms and he stepped toward the barrier, pushing Emi in front of him, oblivious to her attempts to stop him.

  “Yumei!” she cried, pushing him back. As she strained against his strength, her hand on his chest slipped sideways, toward his shadow-coated arm where darkness rose off him like black steam.

  The shadows shied away from her hand, withdrawing before she could touch them. This darkness was born from Tsuchi—and she was infused with kami ki. Tsuchi wanted nothing to do with her.

  With jerky movements, she swept her hand down his arm to disperse the darkness. It parted around her, but reformed the instant her hand passed. More darkness poured through the barrier, coiling around him. In a sizzle of magic, his wings took form, rising from his back. Black fog dripped from his dark feathers.

  His staring eyes, seeing nothing of this world, darkened to gray as shadows filled them.

  “No, Yumei!” She didn’t know what the shadows were doing to him, but she knew it was bad. Once the darkness had him, it would never let him go. “Fight it! You have to fight it!”

  The shadows tightened around him and he stepped forward again, making her stumble. A strange wash of hot and cold rippled across her back—the barrier. One more step and they would be beyond Uzume’s protection.

  How could she make the shadows let him go? If only she could wrap him in her ki and shield him from Tsuchi’s reach. If only she could make Tsuchi reject him like it was rejecting her!

  A memory flashed through her—on their very first meeting, Yumei had pulled her hand to his mouth and bit her. I can taste the kami power in her blood.

  Kami power flowed through her veins. She yanked her sleeve up and raked her nails across the scabs from her shikigami experimentation. Blood welled on her skin. Gasping as even darker shadows wrapped around Yumei, she shoved her wrist against his mouth.

  He didn’t react, his eyes still fixed straight ahead, darkening toward black. Then his nostrils flared and he sank his teeth into her wrist. Her blood ran down his chin, and his throat moved as he swallowed.

  The shadows writhed in mute protest where they touched him. As he held her bleeding wrist in his mouth, the darkness around him thinned. The dimness in his eyes retreated, and his irises shrank back to normal, pupils reappearing.

  His gaze focused on her, and in it, she saw fear. The yokai warlord who had faced his own destruction at Izanagi’s hands was afraid of the calling darkness that almost had him—and could still take him.

  He pulled his teeth from her arm. Rippling red and black power surged over him, absorbing his form. With a flash, a raven appeared in his place. Barely larger than a regular bird, he hovered on outspread wings.

  For a single heartbeat, she was too surprised to move. Then she snatched him out of the air and crushed him against her chest, his wings pinned under her arms.

  The darkness roiled angrily, spinning around them, latching onto his feathers. She bolted away. The shadows rushed after her, pushing through the barrier, determined to have him. She sprinted alongside the trunk of the fallen tree, but it seemed to go on forever, the distance impossibly warped. Finally, she glimpsed familiar shapes through the swirl of colors.

  “Uzume!” she screamed.

  As the multihued mist shrank back to reveal the four Kunitsukami, Uzume’s head whipped around. Her face paled and she sprang up, Shiro and Susano leaping to their feet almost as fast.

  Uzume raised her hands and golden light ignited in her palms. Fierce, crackling ki heated the atmosphere all around them, then hot wind blasted out from the goddess. It raced across Emi, whipping her hair out behind her, and caught the inky darkness. With another flash, the shadows vanished, and in the wake of Uzume’s power, green plants sprouted across every surface.

  Relief swept through Emi and her shaking legs gave out. As she dropped to her knees, Shiro and Susano rushing to her side, she looked at the black raven clamped in her arms, his feathers sticking out everywhere. He tilted a silver eye toward her.

  “Caw,” he croaked, the sound dripping with avian displeasure.

  She couldn’t help it. She started to laugh.

  Chapter 10

  The quiet murmur of voices gently tugged her from sleep.

  Emi’s eyelids fluttered but she quickly squeezed them shut. Judging by the brief glimpse of golden light and long shadows across the ground, dawn had only just arrived. She adjusted her head where it rested on her arm and tried to relax back into sleep. Her fingers burrowed into the silky fur beneath her hand.


  She opened her eyes a sliver. She was lying on her side in the long grass just in front of the fallen tree, and in front of her, a white fox was curled up, ears slanted lazily back and nose pushed under his thick tail. She had tucked herself around him, one arm under her head and the other wrapped over him, fingers buried in his fur.

  She blinked sleepily. When had Shiro turned into a fox? She thought back, trying to remember. After Yumei’s rescue, Uzume had instructed him to stay close to Emi and remain in raven form to reduce his ki. She remembered sitting against the tree with the raven perched on her knee, methodically straightening his feathers with his dark, pointed beak, and looking for all the world like a regular bird.

  He was now perched on her hip, feathers slightly fluffed and his head tucked under one wing. Bemused, she combed her fingers through the fox’s luxuriously soft fur. One of his ears flicked up, then slanted back again. Perhaps he had shifted forms to heal faster. She could see no sign of injuries and his ear was perfect again.

  A quiet ache thrummed through her, though she wasn’t quite sure of its source. Was it guilt that her out-of-control m
agic had injured him? Was it relief that she had escaped Tsukiyomi and reunited with Shiro? Was it lingering fear over nearly losing Yumei to Tsuchi’s dark call?

  Lightly stroking Shiro’s fur, she snuggled a little closer to his warmth, careful not to disturb the sleeping raven. As she drifted off again, a quiet murmur of distant conversation grew clear enough for her to discern.

  “Are you sure you would not prefer to rest?” Uzume asked softly. “I will keep everyone safe.”

  “I am fine for now,” Susano murmured.

  “So stubborn,” she sighed. “The other two are wise enough to recover their strength while they can. Did you sleep at all while searching for Emi and my husband?”

  “We rested when we could,” he said dismissively. “It is not the longest I have gone without sleep.”

  “But do you not wish to curl up with the kamigakari as your companions have?” she teased. “They do look comfortable.”

  Susano snorted quietly. “I am not sure what surprises me more—Inari’s attachment to her, or the Tengu’s. Yumei enjoys company almost as little as I do, and a human’s even less so.”

  “His dislike for companionship is based more on circumstance than nature,” she remarked. “Emi is perhaps the greatest surprise, though. Do you know of any other human who could sleep peacefully in the company of those two? Amaterasu chooses her servants well.”

  “Exceptional she may be, but Amaterasu’s influence has changed her. The power she unleashed against Tsukiyomi was far more than any human could have conjured. I could not wrest control of the winds from her creation. I could scarcely dull its force long enough for Inari to reach her.” Susano’s voice hardened. “The elements should never be wielded that way.”

  “She was desperate and did not know any better. I am more curious as to what she has become. She is human, but her ki is touched with kami power.”

  “I expect she will be a far more powerful vessel than any Amatsukami has known before. I hope they do not make a habit of warping their hosts.”

  “I fear we will need all of Amaterasu’s power, and more, before the solstice.” A pause, then Uzume continued with a note of sadness. “For now, Emi is with us. She is ours until the day Amaterasu takes her. Inari and Yumei will allow nothing less.”

  “Were she not human,” Susano said after a pause, “I would suspect Yumei is grooming her as a vassal. All he has yet to do is bind her to his service.”

  Uzume made a thoughtful noise. “I do not think he views her in such a light.”

  “She freely offered him her ki and her blood. I would say she has already accepted him as her master.”

  “She is human, Susano, not yokai. Humans form different kinds of bonds.”

  “Then what would you call the bond between them?”

  “Friendship,” she answered serenely.

  Susano scoffed.

  “You are abiding Inari’s company far better than usual,” she noted. “Is there a change in the winds between you?”

  “He has been almost tolerable, but it will not last. I have seen flashes of his former self, though they swiftly fade. Once he is free of that foul kami curse, I suspect he will recover his previous charm only too quickly.”

  “I know you mean to insult him, but he is charming.”

  “He is infuriating.”

  “Only because you allow him to infuriate you.”

  Susano growled and Uzume laughed. After a minute, he spoke again, his clipped words breaking the comfortable silence between them.

  “He is too attached to the girl.”

  “He is overwhelmed and lost without his memories,” Uzume countered. “She is a comfort to him—a safe, unthreatening source of support. I see no harm in it.”

  “It is more than that, Uzume. I think he is in love with her.”

  Emi’s drowsiness popped like a bubble and her eyes flew open. She closed them again and listened intently.

  “Inari, in love?” Uzume repeated.

  “I have been watching him closely. The signs are obvious.”

  “Would you know what love looks like, Susano? You, who have never loved and never desired to?”

  “I have eyes, Uzume,” he snapped. “He is clearly infatuated.”

  Uzume was quiet for a long moment before murmuring, “Inari, in love. How interesting.”

  “Are you not concerned? He is already vulnerable and broken. Suffering repeated deaths, losing his memories, becoming trapped in his weakest form for decades. And now he is besotted with a human who will soon be destroyed by the same Amatsukami who betrayed him.”

  “Even if Emi were not doomed, she would age and die in only a few decades. He knows this.”

  “But does he care? In his current state, her loss could unhinge him.”

  “Perhaps …” Uzume’s voice softened until Emi had to strain to hear. “Humans are ever-changing and always adapting. They can fall in and out of love many times before their lives end, but that very concept is foreign to immortals. We rarely, if ever, change. Yet Inari has changed. He is different—so different that I am not surprised Yumei failed to identify him sooner. Inari has been living as a mortal. He has experienced something none of us can even fathom.”

  “What is your point?” Susano asked.

  “That it is impossible to guess what comes next for him. Will he continue to care for her after she is gone, or will he experience her loss more in the fashion of mortals?”

  “And what if he is condemning himself to centuries of unrelenting grief out of ignorance because he cannot remember what it is to love as an immortal?”

  “Do you think he could come to love that deeply in so short a time?”

  “I do not know.”

  The two Kunitsukami fell silent.

  Still lying on her side in the long grass, Emi tightened her arm around the fox, pulling him closer. He huffed and tucked his nose under his tail, fast asleep.

  Centuries of grief. Was Susano right? Was it possible Shiro loved her enough that his love, and his sorrow, would be permanently etched into his immortal soul?

  No, he didn’t love her like that. He cared about her and feared losing her, but he was an immortal god. Inari, Kunitsukami of the Fire, would not mourn a human girl he’d known for a couple months of his long existence.

  A single tear escaped her closed eyes and slipped down her cheek. He didn’t love her enough for his soul to be forever changed, but she was afraid her soul had already been rewritten in his flames.

  “There is no way,” Susano told them, “to prevent Izanami from opening the Bridge to Heaven.”

  Yumei, sitting with his arm resting on an upraised knee, looked at Susano. “This is what Sarutahiko told you?”

  Emi, Yumei, and Shiro had slept right through Sarutahiko’s awakening. Only Susano had spoken with him before Uzume whisked him away to a safer place where he could recover his strength. Emi still hadn’t even seen his face—or, at least, she didn’t think she had. Maybe she’d already forgotten it, unable to hold the memory in her mortal mind.

  Now, the four of them sat in the summery glade in the earthly realm, surrounded by the misty forest of the tsuchigumo valley. They couldn’t stay for long; without Uzume, the mist would encroach on the shelter of the spring and surrounding trees.

  “Sarutahiko is not wholly familiar with the ritual for opening the Bridge,” Susano answered, “but he is reasonably certain Izanami has already procured or arranged for everything she needs. Once the Bridge is open, however, she will face a new obstacle.”

  Susano drummed his fingers on his knee. “As Sarutahiko explained it, the Bridge does not open a single passageway to Takamahara. It is an intersection of realms with multiple paths to choose from—roads leading to Earth, Tsuchi, Yomi, and Takamahara. If Izanami takes the wrong path, she could become trapped for eternity in the land of the dead or the farthest reaches of Tsuchi.”

  “She wouldn’t risk that.” Reclining beside Emi, Shiro rubbed his thumb thoughtfully along his jaw. “I’m
guessing there’s a guaranteed way to identify the right road.”

  “Just one. It is called Ame-no-Nuboko, the heavenly jeweled spear. When the gods of old shaped the Bridge, they created the spear as a tool for the Bridge’s guardian, and it will guide whomever holds it upon the path they desire.”

  “The Bridge’s guardian,” Shiro echoed. “So the spear belongs to Izanagi, which means Izanami already has it. Why would Izanagi keep it from his sister?”

  “That is what I told Sarutahiko. Izanami has been exceedingly well prepared for every step she has undertaken—apart from failing to kill Amaterasu’s kamigakari.” He glanced at Emi before focusing on Shiro again. “However, it seems Nuboko is an artifact of such power that handling it causes ripples in the deepest magics of the realms—ripples that Kunitsukami and Amatsukami can detect.”

  “Even if she hasn’t handled it recently,” Shiro said, “that doesn’t mean it isn’t in her possession.”

  “It is likely sealed and bound somewhere protected by Izanagi. As best as Sarutahiko can recall, it was last moved six to seven hundred years ago, and Uzume is certain it didn’t shift in the past two years.”

  Emi leaned forward. “Izanami likely left it where it is so she won’t draw attention by moving it. And that means we have a chance to get it first.”

  “If we can find it,” Yumei said. “And if we can break whatever protections she and Izanagi have placed upon it.”

  Shiro sat back, supporting himself on one arm. “Izanami is probably betting that we won’t be able to locate it in time. As soon as she picks it up, she knows we’ll hunt her down. She won’t reveal her location, or the spear’s location, until the last moment.”

  “Her original plan was to open the Bridge without opposition,” Susano said. “She intended to have the four of us sealed away, Amaterasu trapped in Takamahara, and Izanagi and Tsukiyomi supporting her.”

  “Well, that didn’t work out too well for her,” Shiro said smugly. “She’ll have all four Kunitsukami to deal with.”

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