CHAPTER 11

Riko was beside herself. Her anxiety showed in her face, in her body posture, in every visible aspect of her being. Choryu himself fought against a sickening chill in his guts, struggling to keep his jaw set and his eyes resolute.

He had utterly failed. Michiko was gone and he had failed her, failed Riko, failed his masters back at Minamo. If he couldn’t recover the princess and escort her safely to the academy, he would be casting his own life and that of everyone he knew into the most dire peril.

“We have to keep looking,” Riko said for the hundredth time. Choryu had stopped listening to her long ago. So long as the archer kept searching, she could say whatever she liked.

Where had Michiko gone? They were all within sight and sound of each other, but that cursed storm hit and seemed to swallow the princess whole. When Choryu and Riko dug out from under the dust, they found they were on the opposite side of the road-they had followed Michiko east and wound up to the west.

They retraced their steps and found the place where the storm had driven them from the road. There were three sets of hoofprints leading off the road and into the forest for a hundred yards or so, and then all three disappeared. It was like the storm lifted the horses into the air and threw them each in different directions.

Off to his right, Choryu heard Riko calling for Michiko. His fellow student was distraught about what had happened, but she didn’t know half the extent of their predicament. She had no idea.

Choryu quietly slipped down into a trench and then jogged about a hundred yards until he was well clear of Riko. He glanced around, spread his open palms out wide, and began to chant.

“Ichikawa, spirit of the great river,” he chanted softly. “Your power flows through me. Hear my words, kami of the rushing waves. Your power flows through me.”

Be quiet, a cold, hollow voice said. It felt cold in his ears, so cold it burned.

Where is Princess Michiko?

“Lost,” Choryu whispered. “I was bringing her to the school as instructed. We were driven apart by a freak storm.”

Fool. Who told you to take her from the tower?

“M-my instructions came from Headmaster Hisoka himself. I saw the scroll with his seal upon it.”

Hisoka takes his orders from me. From now on, you will do nothing that I did not instruct you to do.

“No,” Choryu gulped. “I will obey. What must I do?”

Retrieve her and complete your assignment. Under no circumstances let her venture too deeply into the forest. The snakes are restless and their kami is poised to interfere. Keep her away from the spirits of nature and the forest-dwellers who worship them. Else all we have worked for will come undone.

Protect her, water wizard. Without her, you are less than meaningless.

“But how can I find her? Where shall I look?”

The bodiless voice sighed in exasperation. Who were her guardians in the tower?

“Her father?” Choryu hesitated. “Kitsune,” he said, with greater conviction. “Foxfolk.”

Then seek her to the north where the foxes dwell. She will most likely be drawn there. Whatever Finds her will also find you. Pray that it is benevolent.

“Choryu!” Riko’s voice sounded near panic even at this great distance.

“Over here,” the water wizard called. “Come quick! I think I’ve figured out which way she went!”

Choryu waited as Riko came crashing through the underbrush. The cold, patrician voice lingered in his ears. He was afraid for Michiko. He was afraid for the future of Kamigawa.

And under the cloud of his unseen patron’s ire, he feared greatly for himself.

“Michiko,” he whispered. “Stay safe. We’re coming for you.”

*****

Michiko rode throughout the day and on into the evening. The shining orb always stayed about twenty yards ahead of her, but it remained in sight at all times. She had dined on trail bread and fruit as she rode, and she’d drained half her goatskin of water. She felt rested, relaxed, and eager to ride on.

As the sun disappeared and darkness settled over the forest, Michiko was torn. The foxfire was waiting up ahead, impatiently flashing at her. She could easily follow it in the gloom, but she was not willing to ride or walk Kaze over terrain she could not see. One misstep could result in a broken leg for the horse or worse, especially if he fell on her.

“I must wait here,” she called. “I must wait until morning.” She slid down from the horse and began unrolling her pack.

The orb shot toward her like a bird, stopping a few yards from her mount. It circled overhead, flaring from near-blinding light to almost complete darkness.

“You must wait with me,” she said. “Or go on alone.” She pulled an apple from her supplies, cut off a section, and held it out for Kaze.

The glowing orb buzzed furiously, flickering among the cedar boughs overhead. When Michiko spread out her bedroll and started to build a small fire, the foxfire floated down, illuminating her efforts. Once the blaze was going strong, the ball of light seemed to fasten itself to a tree branch, hanging like a lantern over the princess’s solitary bivouac.

Michiko smiled, careful to keep her back to the orb. She was still following the foxfire on faith, but she was doing so according to her schedule. It could go on without her, but it would not.

As the campfire crackled, Michiko’s thoughts drifted to the spirits. Some kami were still friendly to the citizens of Towabara, despite twenty years of strife between the human and spirit worlds. She wondered if the great kami were like the leaders of great nations, with their own individual goals and spheres of influence. If one kami attacked a village, would another come to the villagers’ aid? Or were they like the tribes of Towabara, powerful in their own right but subordinate to a hierarchical leader like her father?

When it came to honoring the spirits, there were almost as many schools of thought as there were spirits to worship. She practiced the rituals and spoke the prayers that were common to her father’s tribe, but her studies had exposed her to the songs of the forest druids, the group meditation of Minamo sages, and the complicated symbols of kanji magicians. Nearly everything in Kamigawa had a spirit, and it seemed that everyone had a different method for invoking those spirits.

Michiko cut herself a branch and wedged it into the ground. She hung a small pot from the end of the stick, poured more of her water into the pot, and then positioned the pot over the fire. The water quickly began to boil, and Michiko scattered a handful of tea leaves into it.

The most powerful kami, such as Towabara’s patron spirits, could be invoked to affect the physical world. Her father’s generals prayed to Cleansing Fire before they rode into battle and performed rites to gain favor from the Sun. She had heard both spirits manifested when her father won the climactic battle to unify the tribes of Towabara. Also, Lady Pearl-Ear taught her that the cedar spirits worshiped by the kitsune-bito would aid some and hamper others, based on how the humans treated the forest.

But until the Kami War started, it was unheard of for a kami to attack the physical world. Absent invocation, prayer, or ritual, the kami were purely spiritual beings who were content to remain in the spirit world. It wasn’t until after Michiko’s birth that kami attacks became frequent and eventually commonplace.

A wave of bitter grief surged through the princess, and she shifted uncomfortably on her bedroll. She pulled the stick with the teapot out of the fire and set it on the ground to cool.

Her mother had been among the first killed by hostile spirits. Michiko had not known Yoshino, and her father would not speak of her. Daimyo Konda had ordered all Yoshino’s likenesses removed from the tower after her funeral. Lady Pearl-Ear kept a small portrait of Yoshino in a golden cameo, but she rarely wore it. She had shown it to Michiko several times, however, usually on the day of the princess’s birth.

Michiko had memorized every finely etched line of that portrait. She believed that she favored her father physically, but that her personality came largely from her mother. Lady Pearl-Ear had said so once, indirectly, complimenting an essay Michiko had written. When pressed, the fox-woman grew distressed and changed the subject.

As Michiko sipped her tea directly from the pot, the glowing orb suddenly swooped down to eye level. It darted left, then back in front of Michiko’s face, then left again. It was buzzing excitedly and flashing on and off in succession.

Instinctively, Michiko followed the foxfire’s motion with her eyes. She spit out her tea and leaped to her feet, smoothly taking the bow and quiver from the horse’s back.

Several yards away, the air had grown thick and was folding in upon itself. The denser cloud slowly sculpted itself into a series of squat and burly bulbs, all emanating from a central core of lumpy, fibrous material.

Michiko nocked an arrow and took aim. She had personally seen half a dozen kami attacks, but the one in the tower was freshest. She remembered Sharp-Ear’s off-the-cuff advice when he first started training her: the larger the target, the easier it is to hit, and if nothing else presents itself, go for the eye.

The gnarled, root-like shapes had no eyes that she could see, so she trained her arrow at the center of the mass. She was hesitant to fire until she had to-there was no need to antagonize the creature until it attacked. The mass was now as big as a pony, and she decided to hold her fire until it was as big as Kaze.

Perspiration formed on the princess’s brow as she waited. She remembered her previous train of thought, and wondered if the bow was the proper tool for this encounter. If this was all part of her destiny, as her dreams and her spirit guide seemed to indicate, perhaps she was meant to reach out to the enraged kami instead of fighting them.

“Hear me,” she told the growing mass of bulbs and roots. “I am Princess Michiko of Towabara, daughter of Daimyo Konda. I do not wish to fight you, but to understand you. We need not be enemies. Will you speak with me?”

In response, the kami continued to grow. Two of the bulbs came to a single point over the main mass. They were joined by another pair, and then another. As Michiko watched and waited for a response, a skeletal facsimile of a human rib cage formed before her, complete with a fibrous brown heart that throbbed at its center.

Then the rib cage split vertically and lunged forward at Michiko, snapping like some great pair of jaws. She released her arrow straight into the thing’s heart, and it recoiled, snapping shut well clear of her. A cloud of greenish-black spores puffed out from the pseudo-organ, and Michiko covered her mouth and nose to keep from inhaling them.

More rib-cage maws formed around the original one, each with snapping jaws and a dense, beating organ within. Being pierced through the heart did not seem to affect the first one after the initial shock of the arrow sinking in. Michiko nocked another arrow as a light flashed from the corner of her eye.

She spared a glance toward the light and saw the foxfire orb hovering over Kaze’s saddle. It flashed frantically, urging her to follow.

The princess looked back at the monster, growing larger all the time. It would soon have more mouths than she had arrows, and her weapons didn’t seem to be doing much good in the first place. She let fly the bolt she had ready, then vaulted up onto the horse’s back.

As her feet found the stirrups, the glowing orb grew brighter and more intense-so bright that she could see the ground for twenty yards in all directions. Her spirit guide had led her this far and was now capable of leading her on. She might not be able to defeat the kami, but she was certain she could outrun it.

She spurred Kaze just as three of the rib cages shot forward, snapping like hungry birds. Michiko instinctively stood upright as Kaze galloped forward, aimed back over the horse’s hind end, and fired a second arrow into the creature’s original heart.

The central jaws recoiled once more, blocking the others and granting Michiko time to ride clear. She heard a hideous mewling and the snapping of bony jaws behind her, but she kept her eyes fixed on the terrain as she steered Kaze through the maze of trees.

Then, the glowing guide doubled back and rushed past her like a shooting star. A cry formed on Michiko’s lips, but she kept her composure and pulled back on the reins. She fumbled with another arrow for a split second and then turned, ready to fire.

The glowing orb surged straight into kami’s body, blasting through multiple jaws like a cannonball through thatch. When it reached the center of the mass, the foxfire’s glow became too bright to look at. Michiko shielded her eyes and smelled a horrific burning stench just as the orb exploded, sending dirt and debris hurtling across the forest.

The blast snuffed out her campfire, and the orb’s light was also gone. For a moment, Michiko could only sit in the sudden darkness and comfort Kaze. She began to wonder if she could sit perfectly still until daylight, or if another kami would come for her in the night.

A glimmer of yellow light shone from the shattered remains of her campsite. It grew into a brighter glimmer, then a glow. Considerably diminished, the foxfire orb rose once more and floated toward Michiko and Kaze.

It stopped in front of the princess’s face and flashed wearily.

“I am sorry,” Michiko said. “From now on, I will follow until you stop.”

The orb flickered and then grew brighter, recreating the shine that made travel possible. She would have to go no faster than a canter, but Michiko knew she could navigate by the orb’s reduced light if she were careful… and no more kami attacked.

Slowly, carefully, she followed the foxfire as it lead her northeast.

*****

Pearl-Ear sat meditating in the early morning mist. Merely being in her home village had a restorative effect on her, but she was no closer to the answers she sought.

Two days ago, she had met with Lady Silk-Eyes, the village elder and one of the most respected kitsune-bito in all Kamigawa. The wise old fox had told her to sit, remain awake, and clear her mind. He said she must empty her thoughts before attempting to organize them. Since then, Pearl-Ear had spent her time sitting, chanting, and fasting, consuming only fresh water from the village well and the occasional pot of tea.

The kitsune-bito had villages scattered all along the northwestern section of the Jukai. Taken together, the foxfolk population was barely a third that in the Daimyo’s tower, but they had proven their worth to Towabara as both citizens and warriors. They were a careful, circumspect people who liked visitors, but rarely invited them. Pearl-Ear was enjoying the solitude and the cleansing effect of her vigil, but her problems were too many and too pressing to be completely dismissed.

She sat with eyes closed in the doorway of her hut, provided by the elder for the duration of her stay. In the distance, she heard the careful tread of a kitsune-bito, which served to announce the foxfolk’s arrival. If it had been anything but a formal visit, she would not have heard a sound until the visitor opened the gate.

“Lady Pearl-Ear of Towabara?”

Pearl-Ear opened her eyes. “I am Lady Pearl-Ear of the kitsune-bito,” she corrected. “It is only of late that I have been a member of the Daimyo’s court.”

The visitor was another female, roughly Pearl-Ear’s size but visibly younger.

“Forgive me, noble Lady Pearl-Ear. “I am called Cloud-Fur.”

“Cloud-Fur. Welcome.”

“The elder sent me to fetch you. You have a visitor.”

“Here?” Pearl-Ear straightened and retied her robes. “Is there trouble in the tower?”

“I cannot say. I was asked to bring you around so that you might greet a traveler from Eiganjo.”

“Was it a messenger? A soldier?”

“I have not seen the visitor, only the elder.”

“Thank you, Cloud-Fur. I will come with you now.”

Together, the two kitsune-bito made their way across the sparsely populated village. At this early hour the clerics were in prayer, the farmers hard at work, and the warriors were patrolling the woods. The foxfolk homes were spaced wide and many were partially concealed by low-hanging cedar boughs or great sheets of climbing ivy. There were larger kitsune villages, grander ones with gleaming white towers, but they were all to the south, closer to akki territory and Godo’s bandit horde.

At the entrance to Lady Silk-Eyes’s dwelling, Cloud-Fur stopped. Her mission complete, she bowed to Lady Pearl-Ear and headed back into the village.

Pearl-Ear watched her go and then turned to the elder’s hut. Most likely the Daimyo had sent someone after her, calling her back to the tower. As she passed through the waist-high gate into the elder’s yard, Pearl-Ear was mentally preparing her polite refusal. She had made progress here in the village, but she needed more time before she was ready to return to the tower.

She stopped at the doorway and called, “Sensei?”

“Come in, Lady Pearl-Ear. We have been expecting you.”

The interior of the hut was dark, but Pearl-Ear’s eyes quickly compensated. The elder kitsune sat at the far end of the room next to an overstuffed straw mattress. The occupant of the mattress was asleep.

“Wake, child,” Lady Silk-Eyes murmured. “Lady Pearl-Ear is here.”

The sleeping form stirred. The young woman sat straight up, and Pearl-Ear recognized her a heartbeat before she could speak her first breathless words.

“Lady Pearl-Ear,” Michiko cried happily. “Praise the spirits, I made it!”

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