In the cool, dark, predawn mist, Princess Michiko rode into Eigan Town proper for the first time since she was a child. Concealed beneath one of Riko’s student robes and flanked by Riko and Choryu, Michiko kept her head bowed as they rode past the sentries. Traffic was light, but there were enough merchants and pilgrims moving to and from the tower to keep anyone from taking a closer look at the three student wizards headed back to Minamo.
Her heart hammered in her chest until they cleared the north ridge and the torches on the tower walls and guard houses went out of sight. She could still see the white tower stretching high into the clouds, but to anyone looking back down, she was just another traveler.
She and Riko had planned their route very carefully. They would skirt the northwest edge of the Jukai Forest, following one of the less-traveled paths that would also keep them far from the criminals to the west and the bandits to the south. They would remain on the border between Towabara and kitsune-bito territory, where dangers were few and every citizen was a loyal supporter of Konda. If they ran into trouble and had to reveal themselves, they would find no shortage of volunteers eager to assist the Daimyo’s daughter.
By sunrise they were looking at the western boundary of the Jukai, with an almost unbroken curtain of cedar trunks and boughs that stretched into the horizon. The road was wide enough for them to ride side by side, and as they had hoped, there were no other travelers to be seen.
Riko seemed nervous and Choryu excited, which did not surprise Michiko. Of the three, Riko had been the least interested in traveling incognito. She and Michiko were closer than sisters, and the student archer was clearly concerned about the dangers they would face. Choryu, on the other hand, seemed to live for exploration and adventure. He approached this trip as a challenge to be met, a chance to experience something new. He was especially animated this morning, almost jittery as they stole away and glancing back long after they were clear of Eiganjo.
Michiko stole a glance at Choryu from beneath her hood. He was handsome, with strong features and those dazzlingly clear blue eyes. His close-cropped white hair made him look even more manic, however, as if there was too much thought energy in his skull and it had bleached the hair above it and fused it into points.
Choryu was a year ahead of Riko and close to graduating. He would soon be a full-fledged water mage and an assistant instructor at the Academy. Riko said that he had focused on his spellcraft almost exclusively, advancing higher and faster than normal at the expense of every other subject. Riko herself adopted a wider focus, unsure of where her true interests lay.
Privately, Michiko thought Riko’s archery was every bit as advanced as Choryu’s magic, and she had told her friend so. She had not mentioned this to Choryu for fear of offending the proud young man. She liked both of her friends from the Academy, and at times she could see herself as a combination of the two. Perhaps she should consider enrolling at Minamo. It would help her to choose a discipline to focus on and to show her father that she was competent on her own.
They rode on, stopping only for a midday meal and to water the horses. Michiko relaxed more with each passing mile. The smell of cedar and the feel of fresh air on her face nourished her-she had not realized how stale and stifling it was in the tower. She hoped they would see some wildlife on the way. Besides horses and her father’s dog, the tower had very little in the way of animal life.
Michiko’s brow furrowed as she rode. There was very little life of any kind in the tower these days. Her father was always locked away in the upper reaches of the tower. The survivors of kami attacks were all dour, silent, and traumatized. Even the tower staff and the armies of Towabara looked wan and drained, almost overwhelmed by the fighting and the influx of refugees.
She straightened in her saddle. She was doing the right thing. When she was little, her nurse referred to her as “Towabara’s hope for the future.” If that were truly her destiny, then perhaps this journey was the first step toward it. Even if she didn’t find the answers she sought, merely making the attempt would change her, teach her, maybe even redefine her. Michiko the sheltered princess was of no use during a Kami War. She was resolved to becoming someone who mattered, someone who could help.
“You see?” Choryu said, when the sun started to set. “We’re halfway there and we’ve barely seen another soul.”
“Halfway is the most dangerous point,” Riko replied. “Our starting point and our destination are equally far away. We’re completely removed from assistance at either end.”
Choryu smiled, his eyes twinkling in the dusk. “Well, don’t say that. You’ll jinx us.”
“Worse than you did by gloating at the halfway mark?”
“My friends,” Michiko interrupted. “I am pleased with our progress, but I won’t be comfortable until we get where we’re going. How much longer can we ride before we have to rest for the night?”
“There’s plenty of daylight left,” Choryu said. “If we press on and pick up the pace, we can probably make it to the edge of falls.”
“And the Academy is at the top of the falls.”
“Close enough,” Riko said. “But reaching the edge of the falls doesn’t mean we’re there. It’s the largest river in Kamigawa, and by far the tallest and widest waterfall. On horseback, it will take at least another day to climb the path.”
“It would only take half a day by boat.”
“We can’t rely on a boat being available. Nor can we expect a ferryman to keep our presence a secret.” “If we can hire a ferryman,” Choryu smiled, “we won’t need to keep our presence a secret. I would even send word to the headmaster that Princess Michiko has arrived.”
“I would prefer to arrive unannounced,” Michiko said.
“Excuse me, Princess. I only meant-“
“No need to explain,” Michiko cut in. “Let’s just keep going and see how far we go.”
“Of course. Riko?”
“Agreed. But when it gets dark, I want you to help me weave a concealment spell so we can spread out our bedrolls and get some sleep. I don’t fancy someone stumbling across us in the middle of the night.”
The resumed riding in silence. Michiko took in the view of the forest to the east, straining to memorize every leaf. The rich browns and deep greens of the trees were such a striking contrast to the dull, dusty gloom that hung over her father’s tower. Kamigawa was so colorful, and she had seen so little of it.
On the west sat the vast plains of Towabara, once fertile but now dry and lifeless due to three years of drought and two decades of war. Far in the distance, she could see the vast, rolling dust clouds that scoured the flatlands. She had heard soldiers tell of giving their swords a mirror shine just by leaving them out to be polished by the wind-driven grit.
As she mused, Michiko followed the dust storm’s movement. It rolled over the plains like a cloud, making its way steadily west.
A strong breeze kicked up, rushing from the plains toward the forest, and Michiko squinted against it. Choryu’s horse coughed, and Riko pulled her hood over her face.
“It’s just a squall,” Choryu called, raising his voice to be heard. “It will pass.”
“Let’s hope so,” Riko said from under her hood. “I may ask you to conjure me a jug of water when it does.”
“It’s coming toward us,” Michiko said.
With cold dread in her throat, Michiko pointed at the distant dust cloud. “When the wind changed, the storm changed too. It’s heading right for us.”
Riko spurred her horse and came up beside Michiko. “Are you sure?”
“See for yourself. It’s picking up speed.”
“She’s right,” Choryu said. He patted his nervous mount, reassuring the beast. “It’s bearing down on this spot.”
“I don’t like this,” Riko said.
Choryu laughed. “It’s just a storm, I keep telling you.”
“It’s a storm that changed direction.”
“Changed direction with the wind.”
“The wind felt natural. That storm feels anything but.” She turned to Michiko. “The kami attacks have been spreading, haven’t they?”
The princess nodded.
“And there was one in the tower recently, wasn’t there?”
“Yes,” Michiko said. She grabbed her friend by the arm. “Can you and Choryu shield us?”
The student wizards looked at each other, their expressions dismal.
“No,” Riko said.
Choryu looked nervous for the first time since they’d cleared the tower gates. “I could conjure a flash flood to take us away from here,” he offered.
“That’s more likely to kill us as the dust storm,” Riko snapped. “Not to mention the horses. We’re better off taking cover in the trees. Once the storm passes, we can return to the trail.”
The rolling dust cloud was now a few hundred yards away. It would reach them in a matter of minutes.
“Princess?” Choryu spoke gingerly. “I would not recommend going into the trees. There are-“
“Hold.” Michiko held up a finger, her eyes still fixed on the storm. The student wizards followed her gaze.
Together, they watched as the dust cloud approached a large, lone tree. It was an old cedar, as thick as a person’s waist, from a time long ago when the forest reached farther into the plains. As the storm cloud approached, the wind tore each of the cedar’s leaves away and tossed them into the churning cloud of dust and debris. Then the cloud engulfed the tree, and they heard a terrifyingly loud crack as fragments of the ancient cedar were hurled back into the maelstrom.
“Into the forest,” Michiko said. She prodded her horse, which sprang forward.
“Princess, wait!” Riko and Choryu followed, bringing their horses into a gallop and falling in behind Michiko.
The princess called out as she rode. “Deep as we can get before the winds catch us! One tree couldn’t stop it, but perhaps the entire forest can.” Free from the need to stand and take aim, the princess rode like the expert she was, putting even more distance between her and her friends.
Michiko broke through the tree line, weaving her steed in between the ancient cedars. There was no trail to follow, but she was covering ground quickly, charging deeper into the Jukai. Riko and Choryu were far behind, but she could hear them yelling after her.
Michiko ignored their cries and spurred her horse on. She could hear the roar of the wind and felt the first stinging specks of dust through her academy robes.
They were well into the forest when the dust storm caught them. Wind and grit filled Michiko’s ears, blinded her eyes, and almost lifted her from her saddle. She heard Riko calling for her to wait, and Choryu simply shouting her name.
She pulled up on the reins, but the horse refused to slow down. Foam flew from its lips into Michiko’s face as the fear-maddened steed ran for its life.
They had been so careful, she thought. They had prepared for sentries and bandits, but now they were in real danger from one of the most common weather phenomena in all Towabara.
The wind’s fury seemed to double, and Michiko lost sight of anything but the inside of her eyelids. Dust coated her throat and nostrils. She struggled to breathe. The horse beneath her was charging at full gallop, and it was all she could do to hang on.
The horse whinnied in terror and fell away beneath her. The reins were torn from her hands and Michiko could feel herself still sailing forward, tumbling gently as she soared. With her eyes still clogged with dust and tears, she could only wait for the inevitable impact and hope that she survived it. She was amazed she had traveled this long without hitting a tree.
The roar of the wind suddenly ceased, and Michiko felt as if she were floating, carried along by tender hands. She no longer felt the wind on her flesh, but she still could not open her eyes. If Riko and Choryu still called her name, she could not hear it, nor could she feel sting of the wind-driven grit.
Uncertain if she were conscious or dreaming, Michiko felt herself slipping away, lost in a void of quiet darkness.
She awoke to the sound of game birds calling to each other.
Michiko started and sat upright, squinting against the slanted beams of sunlight that pierced the forest canopy. It has been dusk when the storm hit, but now it seemed like midday. How many sunrises had she missed while she was asleep?
Nearby, a horse whinnied. She spied her mount, who was absently munching on a patch of tall grass.
She could scarcely believe her luck. This animal had been in headlong flight when Michiko lost consciousness. Either her father’s stables produced exceptionally clever animals, or the kami that protected Towabara were watching over her.
She rose on unsteady legs and made her way to the horse. It snorted and shook its head as she took up the reins.
Michiko paused to remember the horse’s name, then whispered, “Thank you, Kaze-san.”
Kaze snorted again and offered her the top of his head. Michiko obligingly scratched between his ears.
As she patted her mount, Michiko scanned the forest for any sign of Riko or Choryu. She cupped her hands and called as loudly as she could, but she got no response. She felt cold, a lonely ache in her stomach, but Michiko tried to buoy her own spirits. She had survived the storm, somehow, so they must have as well. She tried not to think of Riko lying wounded and alone, calling Michiko’s name. She tried not to think of Choryu, scouring the endless woods all the way back to the tower.
The real question was what to do next. She did not recognize where she was, and she had no idea how she had gotten there. She knew they had been traveling northeast, but after her long nap she wasn’t sure where she was in relation to the Academy or her father’s tower.
She decided to lead the horse in an ever-widening circle until she found her friends, the road, or something else that could tell her where she was. She was carrying enough food and water for three days, so she would not starve until then. She had her bow and a full quiver of arrows, so she was not defenseless. She was alone, a condition that usually eluded her as the Daimyo’s daughter. Rather than afraid, Michiko felt exhilarated by a sense of purpose and the prospect of achieving something no one expected her to attempt.
Michiko began to walk, marking the trees she passed with the short knife she carried. She walked for hours without seeing another living thing. She shouted herself almost hoarse with no reply but a ghostly echo among the trees. She felt she was moving farther away from her friends, but she kept walking, leading her docile steed behind her.
The lost princess marked more trees and expanded her circle, thinking of her friends and their joint decision to travel to the Academy. Where Riko had been passionate about Michiko’s opportunity to effect change in Kamigawa, Choryu had been militant about her responsibility to do so. His eyes flashed when he spoke of it, and the sheer force of his personality was at least as powerful as his arguments.
She came to an unfamiliar clearing, paused to look around, and sighed. Her search must have covered more than a mile, and there was still no sign of the wizards. She faced northeast, orienting herself against the sun, and mounted her horse.
If Choryu and Riko were here, she could guess what they would say. They would tell her to press on for Minamo and complete the journey. To return to the tower would be worse than never having left. Her father would rage and she would have armed escorts at her heels forever after. The only thing that would make that bearable would be if she could produce something concrete for the people of Towabara.
Michiko raised her heels to prod her horse forward, but stopped in mid-kick. Across the clearing, in the shade of a giant cypress, there flashed a yellow light. It sputtered at first, like a newly lit candle, but then it shone bright and strong. The tiny glow drifted up and out of the shadows, but Michiko could still see it plainly, even in direct sunlight. It floated to the center of the clearing and hovered there, pulsating like a beacon.
The princess smiled, tears of relief in her eyes. She had been driven from the path by a rogue storm, but now the spirits had sent her a sign. Lady Pearl-Ear had often told her kitsune-bito folklore about foxfire, hovering flames that led lost travelers to safety. Perhaps this was foxfire in action. Perhaps Towabara’s patron kami of Sun and Justice had taken pity on her. Perhaps they were rewarding her initiative or even encouraging her to continue.
She had never spoken of it to anyone but Riko, but Michiko had heard whispers of a dire spirit curse that hung over her father’s tower. She was uplifted by the presence of the friendly light, grateful for the good will of the foxfire and the kami who sent it. She was kept hidden behind stone walls in Eiganjo Castle, but here, in the depths of the Jukai Forest, the spirit world smiled upon her.
The foxfire glow bobbed up and down, then drifted toward the far side of the clearing. Michiko prodded her horse and it trotted forward a few yards.
The orb of light glowed brighter. It withdrew further.
Michiko encouraged her mount and followed another few yards.
Then the orb passed through a line of cedars, out of sight. Michiko brought her horse to a trot, and as they passed through the same trees she saw the orb ahead. It was traveling northeast, slowly enough that she could follow it but quickly enough that she had to keep moving to do so.
Michiko stared at the foxfire light as she rode, hypnotized by its soothing glow and comforted by its company. It was probably a mere spell effect, but whatever it was, it signified that someone was aware of her situation and was trying to help. Even if it hadn’t been sent by Riko and Choryu, it was leading her in the right direction.
The princess guided her horse through the forest, keeping one eye on the spirit guide and one on the trees around her. As she rode forward into her future, she wanted to impress upon her memory the beauty and danger that surrounded her in the present.