BLOOD DEFINES WHAT MADE US. ACTION DEFINES WHAT MAKES US.
Secrets forge families. Secrets forge empires. Secrets tear lives apart. Will the dark histories dug up by Aihi, Hidekazu, and Masanori liberate them, or are they doomed to repeat past mistakes?
Aihi’s enemies torched villages and killed innocents. They believed her youth and inexperience made her a weak Shōgun—they were wrong. Now, it’s up to her to decide how far she’s willing to go to maintain the peace her mother established, and if peace is still a worthwhile dream at all.
Masanori knows his existence is a threat to everyone he cares about, but to reunite with his loved ones, he’ll travel back into the depths Nightmare that broke him in the first place. To free himself from the shard of darkness still haunting him, he’ll need to prove himself to an elusive kami. Otherwise, he may never see his family again. But how much is a broken man worth?
To atone for the Genshu family’s past atrocities, Hidekazu attempts to undo one of the Warlock Empire’s oldest crimes, an act committed by the Dragon Goddess herself. To succeed, Hidekazu must accept his true nature… and the dark power that comes with it.
When war threatens the trio’s homeland, the twins must face the choices that set them on different paths, or this time, they will be pulled apart for good.
Masa, Hide, and Aihi’s journey continues in the last book of the Yokai Calling series: an epic fantasy adventure inspired by selections of Japanese mythology and folklore.
A winding road of pure energy curled from the lip of Tatsu-Ji’s eighth floor, glittering coral and violet as it passed from the pagoda and over the pathway of protective wisteria toward the Cedar Palace. Thousands of Nagasou’s citizens cheered to the beat of the ceremonial drums as Aihi descended along the Path of Celestials, beginning her journey to the mythical Garden of Starlight.
Within the raving crowd, Hidekazu shouted Aihi’s name amongst the others, but his cries of delight were lost to the music, to the ebb and flow of people. Such stories had once fascinated Hidekazu: a hidden garden, reserved only for the heir of the Warlock Throne on the night of her Ascension, giving her one opportunity to commune directly with the Goddess. Now, he saw through these tales: narratives woven to hide the true horrors of the Warlock Empire.
After uncovering a journal detailing the truth about the Genshu clan, the only stories that mattered were the ones left to poison Hidekazu’s mind. A history rife with deception and sick experiments. A family who thrived on murder and slavery.
Stories about his family.
Under the pretense of attending Aihi’s coronation, Hidekazu came to Nagasou, reveling alongside the rest of the city as she bathed under the Goddess’ Purifying and Ascended to Exalted Dragon Shōgun. He prayed for his sister’s fortune, and the sound of his voice rung out above all others when he called for her success. This ceremony, despite the shadows haunting Hidekazu, filled him with a sense of warmth and joy, a promise of a future: if anyone could right the wrongs of the Warlock Empire’s dark past, it would be Aihi. She was a beacon of hope, brighter than the fireworks crackling through the skies.
He had always intended to stand by her side as she rewrote history, but now, as Aihi’s soaked jūnihitoe sprayed blessed water on those beneath the Path of Celestials, Hidekazu’s intended position as a Shōgun-bushi seemed further away than ever before. Mist splashed his face, and he clutched a wyvern leather journal to his side to protect the pages containing the secrets that changed how he would perceive the Genshu family for the rest of his life.
The notebook undermined the power and influence of the Genshu clan, challenging their carefully constructed image of piety and devotion to the Goddess.
Hidekazu could be responsible for destroying his family’s reputation, but not before first interrogating his parents about their roles in the horrific experiments undertaken by their clan. He wanted answers, ones the journal couldn’t give him. Where did his father, Genshu Dano, and his mother, Genshu Sachi, stand on the results of their clan’s tests on shishajya? Did they know that Hidekazu was the final product of generations of fusing the sacred serpents’ blood and spirits into the Genshu line?
Did they hide the truth because they believed him a monster, as he now did?
If he rushed into ruination, he might never pry the information he needed from his mother and father. He needed to understand why they hid from the past instead of confronting their truth.
As soon as Aihi’s path led her into the cedar forest and she disappeared between the trees, Hidekazu looked up to the highest floor of Tatsu-Ji, where her journey had begun. On both sides of the Path of Celestials, dragon lanterns flared with gold and storm-blue light, and between them stood the person Hidekazu sought an audience with.
The woman’s blonde hair was braided with blue ribbons and a dragon hairpiece that rivalled the intricacy of the new Shōgun’s, and yet she was the High Priestess of Tatsu-Ji, Genshu Sachi. Hidekazu’s mother.
People often called Sachi unnatural, unable to discern the source of her ethereal beauty; many said her devotion to the Goddess elevated her to another plane. Her stunning appearance came with an unquestionable gravitas, leading to stories about how her grace and wrath were one and the same, like Shirashi herself.
Hidekazu seldom witnessed Sachi’s displays of power, and never anything to substantiate the fear and caution other nobles regarded her with. She always looked at him with the warmth befitting a prized son. Still, she was the High Priestess, favoured by the Goddess. Sachi wielded Shirashi’s strength without reservation. To some, that was intimidating enough.
Now, gazing from the top of Tatsu-Ji, she wore her displeasure with Hidekazu like a blade meant to maim. And though he did his best not to show a reaction, he recoiled from her golden glare.
A chill wrapped around his mind as a voice whispered to him, “I warned you not to come here,” Naoji, the White Warlock, said. “She will not relinquish the information you require. If you remain nearby, she will sense the Book of Inochi. You risk us both.”
Hidekazu dismissed Naoji’s concerns and pushed in the opposite direction of the crowd, which would follow Aihi into the cedar forest until she disappeared into the Garden of Starlight. As much as Sachi’s look stung Hidekazu’s pride, she was one of the few with the background to explain the contents of the Genshu journal he’d found in the Tsukiko Academy’s library. Her disappointment wouldn’t keep him from the answers he deserved. Besides, he preferred the idea of facing her rather than his father Genshu Dano, who had banished Hidekazu and Masanori from their clan in the first place. Hidekazu wasn’t sure he could maintain his composure if faced against Dano.
Since Sachi was the High Priestess, she met with the last living shishajya whenever the creature visited Nagasou. Hidekazu needed her to confirm that the serpents weren’t sacred to the Goddess, but slaves taken from an ancient war with the kan’thir.
Did she play a role in imprisoning the last shishajya? Or was she ignorant to the truth?
If Hidekazu went much longer without an explanation, the higher chance he convinced himself of the worst truth he could imagine: that every word he read was fact.
Fragrant sandalwood incense burned around the statue of Shirashi, which Hidekazu bypassed and headed for Tatsu-Ji proper. Two monks clad in simple blue robes guarded the temple entrance. Their shakujō staves were adorned with silver dragon heads and rings that jingled whenever the monks moved.
The first took one look at him and barked, “Apologies young master, but there is no entry during the Ascension Ceremony. Please come back tomorrow morning.”
The second scrutinized Hidekazu with more care. This monk was Ena, only Ena, for unlike priestesses, monks relinquished their clan and family names. He bared his black-stained teeth, revealing silver dots that copied the shape of the Goddess’ constellation. The mark of one of the High Priestess’ most trusted within the temple.
“Ah, it’s you,” Ena said. “Our Lady Priestess gave special instructions in case you came snooping around.”
He and the other monk hefted their shakujō, pointing the horn on the dragon’s head at Hidekazu’s ribs. Though not sharp, the staff was as deadly as any other weapon in the hands of one of Shirashi’s monks.
Despite the threat, Hidekazu bowed his head in respect. “I request an audience with the High Priestess.”
“Denied. Now leave.”
The command bounced off him, ineffective. He held his ground.
“Is making a scene on the day of the Exalted Dragon Shōgun’s Ascension a wise decision?”
Cold energy swarmed inside Hidekazu like a hive of wasps, the monks having rattled their nest. Frost coated his skin as the Book of Inochi at his waist trickled ki through his veins. These monks were nothing to him. With the tome’s power, he could freeze flesh solid with a touch, force his way into the pagoda and confront Sachi. He would make her give answers.
He reached for Ena’s shakujō. He would turn the metal to dust, he would—
He curled his fingers away from the staff before making contact. What was he thinking?
Attacking a monk was a severe offence and would jeopardize any position in Nagasou that Hidekazu might still obtain. As uncertain as he was about his future, burning bridges over a petty monk seemed pointless. He shoved the Book of Inochi’s energy away, blinking away the daze brought on by the artifact.
“Surely you will deliver a message to her instead,” Hidekazu said.
Ena grunted. “What’s the message?”
What would catch Sachi’s attention? Hidekazu looked up at the glittering starlight path, which was now fading from sight. On the night of Aihi’s Ascension to Shōgun, one phrase came to mind.
“Tell her, ‘Ascension has three meanings.’ She will understand the importance,” Hidekazu said.
He left without waiting for Ena’s decision. The monks would understand the message was coded and deliver it, or perhaps they would decide it nonsense and not bother Sachi at all. However, Hidekazu wanted to believe Sachi would order the monks to report anything he said, regardless of the content. In any case, whether Sachi interpreted the message the way Hidekazu intended, he would have to wait and find out.
In Ryuugo, otherwise known as the Old Language, ascension was usually translated as jouten, which was the name of Sachi’s beloved katana. Jouten also had several meanings. Ascension to a higher purpose. Shirashi’s realm in the sky. Less often, the term was used as a name for Shirashi herself, the Creator of all Yumihari, the world.
“You should not have told her that,” Naoji said. “She will come looking for you. And when she does, she will not give you the reunion or the confrontation you crave.”
“Don’t speak of my mother as if you know her,” Hidekazu said. “You don’t.”
Naoji sighed, and then his presence drifted away.
Hidekazu pushed through the crowd and toward the palace next. If Sachi wouldn’t talk to him, he still had a chance with Dano, though the prospect was unsavoury. However, as Hidekazu walked the palace’s halls, doubt nestled in the back of his mind.
For jouten also had a fourth meaning: death.
Not simply death, but the destruction of a spirit. And that meant Sachi could interpret his message as a threat.
* * *
The telltale sensation of ki biting Hidekazu’s fingers and dissipating into the air came when the Book of Inochi disabled the protective spells on Genshu Dano’s office. Hidekazu tripped one of the alarms to avoid the hassle of tracking Dano down; the disturbance would, instead, lure him here.
In the meantime, he slid open the fusuma and entered the room. Dano’s office was minimalistic yet refined by Seiryan standards, with ravens painted in different flight patterns on the wall panels. Shelves fitted with organized rows of books and scrolls lined one side of the room, and though Hidekazu was tempted to snoop, the hanging scroll behind the desk caught his attention.
The scroll hadn’t been there the last time Hidekazu visited. It was the same height as him and decorated with a single raven and a golden dragon. Unlike most of the other scrolls in the palace, the watercolour wasn’t animated, so the only characteristic of note was the dragon’s colour: gold.
Naoji’s younger sister was the only known golden dragon in existence. Why did Dano have a painting of her in his office? Hidekazu expected Naoji to comment on the discovery, but he remained silent. No matter.
With Naoji always close, Hidekazu acclimated to using the Book of Inochi for small tasks such as breaking into this office. A frivolous use, perhaps, but now that he and Naoji were bonded, using the tome felt good. Yet the words of Hidekazu’s former spirit companion, Sayuri, echoed in the back of his mind: when it comes to the Book of Inochi, there is no ‘only once.’
How right she had been. Naoji’s and Hidekazu’s spirits were intertwined as a result of the book. Inseparable.
In the future, Hidekazu would use the tome many more times without remorse.
Hidekazu ran his hands along the spotless oaken desk and knelt on Dano’s cushion, where he performed his duties as Emperor Takeha’s Daijō-daijin. His most trusted advisor. Once, Hidekazu believed himself set to inherit the role when Aihi became empress. In the end, Dano’s plans had been much grander; he’d devised for Hidekazu to marry her instead.
The title of empress used to be absolute, controlling all aspects of the Warlock Empire, including the military. However, scholars now believed that one person possessing so much power was the cause of the Warlock Empire’s quick and violent expansion and, thus, its eventual fall.
As a result, Emperor Takeha—the first male leader of Seiryuu in over two hundred years—penned the tradition of dividing the empress’ responsibilities by turning his wife into the first Shōgun. When Aihi Ascended to empress, her husband, or future husband, would become Shōgun in her place.
Had the arranged marriage between her and Hidekazu gone through, he would taken the noble position.
A whole different life from his current one, playing the part of a dutiful son, oblivious of his family’s crimes. An impossible life to imagine, now, with what he knew. He might still wear the title of Daijō-daijin one day, but he could not feign ignorance.
At last, a flash of ki probed the room, detecting Hidekazu’s presence within. He folded his hands on the desk, and then the door slid open to reveal Dano in the doorway. He wore his finest kimono and haori, all vibrant blues and golds, fit for an Ascension Day celebration. The scar he’d obtained during the civil wars shone on his chin.
“How did you get in here?” he said.
Hidekazu placed the worn wyvern-leather journal on the desk. He had waited long enough for the truth. Now he would have it.
“You have one chance to explain yourself,” Hidekazu said.
The threat hung in the air as Genshu Dano knelt on the other side of the desk. He brushed a hand over the bumpy cover. “The bushi will arrest you for trespassing, and I will have you thrown out of the Tsukiko Academy.”
“After all your efforts to preserve the Genshu name? To truly forsake me would render your work meaningless. You would not risk it.”
Dano’s eyes narrowed on Hidekazu. “And you risk losing your status forever. For what gain? Pride?”
Last year, Hidekazu would have done anything to recover the Genshu name and reclaim his position as scion. Now, he’d uncovered the secrets his father tried to erase from history. This journal, written by one of their ancestors, detailed their clan’s experiments from about 160 years ago. And, if Naoji told Hidekazu the truth—which was always up for debate—then those experiments had persisted until Dano ended them less than three decades ago.
“What makes you think I want to come back? If the contents of this journal were made public, the Genshu family would be destroyed.”
“You would bring yourself down with us. Whether you possess our name or not, you are blood. For whispers to breathe life to these crimes again… no one would forget you no matter where you go.”
Hidekazu paused to consider. Perhaps so, but for the impurities in their blood, he deserved to fall into the mud alongside his parents and anyone else who colluded with them. A nagging question popped out: “It’s true, isn’t it? Every word.”
Dano focused on the journal. He was a man of few emotions, and yet, for the first time in Hidekazu’s life, he witnessed the turmoil on Dano’s face.
He splayed his fingers across the leather cover. “I destroyed this notebook.” Though he didn’t acknowledge Hidekazu’s statement, Dano weighted his words with the unspoken truth.
“You told us the Genshu clan would pursue peace because Seiryuu’s time for war was over. That was a lie.”
With this journal as evidence, the Genshu family was indicated for unimaginable crimes. Now because of the dead shishajya killed by the Genshu clan, war was on the horizon. In four years, when the kan’thir finished their game of Yolilice Patolli, they would declare war on Seiryuu for the first time in centuries and take revenge for the slain shishajya, serpents which were sacred to them, not the Dragon Goddess. War would be not with the Genshu clan, but all of Seiryuu.
“If you read this journal from front to back,” Dano said, “you understand these experiments empowered the Genshu bloodline to compete with warlocks.”
Seiryuu’s enemies were numerous and growing, and still Dano insisted upon reciting his usual song about peace and prosperity.
Hidekazu scoffed. “Because our ancestors couldn’t stand to be second to the Goddess’ own kin?”
“Had their reasons been so vain, the Goddess would not have permitted the experiments to persist.”
“And now you defend them. What they did.”
“I personally put an end to these disgusting experiments,” Dano said. “Condoned by the Goddess or not, continuing was unethical after the warlocks died.”
“After enjoying your fair bounty of the shishajya’s power as a result?”
Ki spiralled around Dano as heat rose in the room. He required but a spark to ignite a blaze.
“Do you think I relished witnessing my father dissect a shishajya?” Dano said. “Our ancestors believed Shirashi destined our spirits to merge with that of the sacred serpents. Their power was our power, granted from the Goddess so long as we kept our blood separate from the warlocks who were her kin—and, of course, did our part to keep the warlocks and wyverns in their place.”
“Our family failed.” Hidekazu pushed further, risking igniting his father’s fury. “All those shishajya died for nothing.”
“My forefathers took joy from such experiments. I may not share the attachment you have to the beasts, but it made me sick, and I vowed to put an end to their heinous crimes.”
“And yet you attempt to justify these sacrifices. Why?”
Dano turned the journal’s pages to a familiar entry, and he read aloud, “‘Grave tidings arrived in Nagasou. Not a jun ago, Kyozan burned to the ground. A dozen wyverns crossed the Blithe Desert and laid waste to all dwellings within the Konarerian Mountains. Her Shining Blade, Warlock Empress Reo the Second, mourns the loss of her mountain palace and the thousands of lives lost to the Wyvern God’s bloodthirst.
“‘Today, we, the warriors of the Genshu clan, set out on Her Shining Blade’s behalf to slay the terrors responsible for this slaughter and destruction. The Goddess and her sacred serpents fuel the energy in our veins. Our power shall not be wasted this day.’” Dano shut the journal and slid it back to Hidekazu.
The Eastern Capital, Kyozan, had burned about 140 years ago. Though the land had since been purged of wyverns by Genshu warriors, Hidekazu didn’t understand how this event justified butchering hundreds of shishajya.
“When did you last spot a wyvern over Seiryan soil?” Dano said. An answer formed in Hidekazu’s lips, but Dano continued: “What a privilege, to live without the daily fear of a rogue wyvern reducing your home to ash. Your only experience with wyverns is the binding making this book, a testament to our family’s hunting prowess in ridding the wyvern scourge from Seiryuu. This fact you take for granted. Our ancestors sacrificed themselves to accomplish the security we Seiryans have today.”
Tales came from Tajida, every now and then, of how sand wyverns destroyed caravans and whole cities with their ruthless storms. Stories told of when the same vicious creatures attacked Seiryuu on the regular as well. Now, they didn’t dare come over the mountain border between eastern Seiryuu and the Blithe Desert.
“The truth you tried to hide with this book is unchanged,” Hidekazu said. “Our family has been murdering shishajya for generations. Why not leave warlocks to tend to the wyvern plague?”
“I do not condone our family’s methods,” Dano said, “nor that they persisted far after the wyvern threat was all but eliminated. However, this does not mean we, in the present, must bear our ancestor’s crimes in their entirety.”
Hidekazu’s hands betrayed him. They shook with the immense ki he wielded in his palms, energy that had resided within him even before he gave in to Naoji and accepted the Book of Inochi. Ki he had once attributed to the Goddess as her blessing, the favour of shishajya and benevolent spirits.
Now, when he looked at himself, all he saw was the final product of a genetic experiment—the result of generations of tainted blood and spirit infusions.
“Doesn’t it?” he whispered. “All my life, you let me believe our family earned this extraordinary power.”
“Our power was earned. Through means neither of us are proud of, but—”
“It was stolen!”
Dano raised a palm. “Quit your insolence.”—The energy in the room shoved Hidekazu’s head into a bow—“You may not be a member of the Genshu clan anymore, but I am still the Daijō-daijin to the reigning Emperor of Seiryuu and you will remember your place.”
A growl rumbled in Hidekazu’s throat. He shoved his energy up to fight against Dano, but he was far more practiced in the ways of bending people to his will. Hidekazu alone had experienced such discipline at Dano’s hand several dozen time in his life.
“My apologies, Master Genshu,” Hidekazu gritted out, “I must have forgotten I am worth less than the mud on your sandals.”
“You will not forget again.” Dano released the field of pressure. “You may not like where our power comes from, but it is a fact of our lives, one we must live with. Ever since you were a child, your instincts always fought the nature of our blood. You always desired an explanation, always searched for one. Now you possess the truth.”
You are one with a future birthed in books. Pages are your roots, and within them, one day, you shall unearth your latent power’s origins. The last living shishajya had said this to Hidekazu ten years ago after rescuing him from a pack of oni. He’d made a suicidal attempt to leave Nagasou, in the dead of night, in search of the sacred serpent.
“The shishajya warned me,” Hidekazu said.
“You always worked to feel worthy of your ki,” Dano continued, “and I pushed you to this purpose because our responsibility is to the future. What made us is irrelevant; all that matters is what we do with what we are given. You are misguided and wasteful of your power. Instead of threatening to tear our family apart, you should be supporting our mission for a better world.”
In a sense, Hidekazu understood why Dano went to the extreme to teach Hidekazu and Masanori lessons of humility and obedience. Honour and duty. Hidekazu liked his position no more now than he did before he’d uncovered the truth, but to wield this history—and the Genshu family’s blood—was a greater responsibility than he had ever been prepared for.
But that was just it: no one had prepared him to take on the burden of his family’s truths.
“Had you been accountable for our history,” Hidekazu said, “Masanori and I would have grown up as different people. Perhaps you could not have shaped us into the heirs you wanted us to be. But even running from the truth, you failed to shape us into your perfect image. Now, we will bear the scars of your failures for the rest of our lives. Though I might understand the depth of the decisions you were forced to make, I will never forgive you.”
Hidekazu retrieved the journal, rose from his seat, and swept around the desk and Dano. At the door, Hidekazu rested his hand on the frame. “War is coming, Master Genshu. And we are so woefully unprepared.”
“That is where you are wrong young Hidekazu; we are more prepared than you think.” Dano’s gaze locked on the wall scroll of the raven and the Gold Warlock as Hidekazu left the office, his father’s final words following him as he left: “And that is what I fear most.”
Starlight glowed beneath Aihi’s bare feet as she traversed the Path of Celestials in search of the Garden of Starlight. Chilly ki misted around her with each step, the starlit path cool and slippery on her soles. like walking on ice. Drums beat through the Palace District, erratic in their ceremonious rhythm, and as the music picked up, so did Aihi’s racing pulse.
The many silken layers of her jūnihitoe weighed her down, still drenched from the Ascension Ceremony, where the High Priestess doused Aihi in the Goddess’ Purifying Waters. Droplets splattered the people of Nagasou below as she passed, all of them gathered here to witness her Ascension to Shōgun. Her people. Their cries buoyed her, lending her strength against the permanent ails inflicted upon her body when she killed Lacotl. Everything she did, from now on, would be for them.
Yet she wanted to run with the quick beat of the drums and the cheers of her people as her guide. Their energy was her energy. Their strength, her strength.
She kept her steps steady, unhurried. Show no weakness. Rise above all others. She was a beacon of resilience and hope so long as her head remained high, no matter the troubles she faced.
Her purpose was far too important to show any cracks: tonight, she would earn the blessings of the Seiryan people, and, if she was lucky, one from the Dragon Goddess Shirashi.
Though there were stories of the Garden of Starlight, no empress had shared its secrets. Aihi would discover them for herself, and, if the Goddess smiled upon her, Aihi could, at last, honour her mother’s legacy of peace as the new Shōgun.
Cedar trees brushed her sides, perfuming her with their woody scents as she left Tatsu-Ji and delved into the forest. Streams of people followed her into the trees, but she rose high above them, and soon, their clamour quieted as she moved where they could not follow.
Neither her mother, the former Shōgun, nor her father, the emperor, had walked this path before. Aihi was the first since the last Warlock Empress had been crowned and died. No familiar spirits could guide her through this place. She was on her own, armed only with stories recorded in books.
The prospect of walking alone didn’t fear Aihi anymore. She now understood the road she must tread; not as a copy of her mother nor the empresses who came before her, but as the one who would lead Seiryuu away from their war-torn past, even if, to do so, she had to navigate a thousand more threats to the livelihoods of her people. She took this task upon herself gladly.
Ahead, a curtain of gold and silver oscillating light fell upon the pathway. The time had come to commune with the Goddess and receive direction for the arduous years to come.
A slight buzz burrowed in her gut. Would Shirashi be as fierce and benevolent as Aihi imagined?
She bowed her head and stepped through the shimmering curtain. A mixture of warm and cool air flooded over her shoulders, like wearing a cloak of wind, but only for a second. On the other side, it took a moment for her eyes to adjust to her new surroundings.
The cedars lining the path were gone, replaced by swirling constellations that danced into a vast forest of silver trees. She stood at the centre of a breathtaking grove, where every blade of grass reflected moonlight like shimmering glass. A swarm of leaves flowed through the air, their unintelligible whispers like a song as they floated by. A sense of uneasiness lingered on the edge of Aihi’s senses, imposing upon the serene beauty of the starlit grove.
Someone was watching her, wary of her presence. Could it be the Goddess? Besides the prickling sensation, Aihi found no other evidence of another person in the garden.
Still, she bowed her head again, bells clinking in her hair as she did. “O Goddess, hear my prayer. I am but a humble servant of your will, seeking guidance for the troubling years ahead. Show me how best to defend your sacred land and I will act on your behalf.”
Across the grove, the floating leaves flew toward a makeshift stone monument and collapsed to the ground. Aihi’s eyes fluttered open in surprise. Here, the Goddess responded in an instant, whereas so often before, she spent days or months waiting for a response.
The leaves caught in Aihi’s toes as she examined the rocks, running her fingers along the bumpy surface. Several boulders were piled together and unmovable, but the space at her feet was a smooth, oval bowl implanted in the earth, big enough to fit a human in.
An empty pond, perhaps. But where was the water? Had it been too long since the last empress came here?
On the side of the rocks, a bamboo tube stuck from the formation and a second larger one was propped up beneath. Both were motionless and empty like the pool, but Aihi recognized the device. Together, the bamboo tubes formed a sōzu, where the higher pipe poured water into the second, which then filled up and clattered down on its hinge to scare away animals. They had many of them on the grounds of the Cedar Palace in the areas the gardeners wanted to keep the wildlife from, and Aihi liked to listen to them rise and fall; she found their rhythm soothing, reliable, adding character to silence. She hadn’t expected to find one in the Garden of Starlight.
Was this her task, to bring water back into the pool so she could commune with the Goddess?
Aihi glanced around in search of other clues. The grass formed a circular plateau about half-way up the height of the trees, and there were no pathways away from the grove. There was only the unusual, waterless pond and sōzu. She would fill the pond, then, and seek the Goddess’ blessing that way.
The irezumi on her arm flickered crimson, and she called to the water kigou, mizu, imprinted on her flesh. Drawing energy from the tattoo and deep within herself, she searched the air for water. She sensed the power of the wind, but water molecules wouldn’t budge. Aihi relaxed her draw on the elements. If water wasn’t the key, prayer might be.
She gathered her robes, knelt at the base of the monument beside to the bamboo tubes, and then pressed her forehead to the cool stone.
“O Great Goddess,” she murmured, “Mother of Storms and Seas, Dragon of Life and Creation, I come to you with one wish: how can I prevent the war with the kan’thir from coming to pass?”
A high-pitched warbling reverberated through the garden. Aihi covered her ears, but she couldn’t escape the sound. It echoed through her bones and skin, shaking the foundation of her spirit and ripping through her like a bolt of lightning. She let out a hoarse cry the sensation abated.
Trickling water came from above. The world spun when Aihi lifted her head in search of the source, and black spots obscured her vision when she opened her eyes. She blinked away the dark, but her teeth chattered, as if the shrieking noise had taken all warmth from her body.
Cool liquid fell over her knees. The sōzu was working again, and she tried to move her legs out of the way, but her legs were waterlogged; the sound triggered by her prayer had sapped away all her strength.
“Goddess?” she whispered.
Icy wind rushed through the Garden of Starlight, and frost formed on Aihi’s damp eyelashes and clothes.
She peeled her eyes open. The rocks in front of her were hazy, but a flicker of colour brought everything into focus. The liquid falling from the bamboo tube was silver, like starlight, but a faint streak of violet tainted its purity.
Purple, the colour of corruption, the twisted energies used by Lacotl. How could such ki reach this sacred place?
The sōzu tipped over again, spilling the silver and purple mixture over her hakama. Ki sizzled through her from the liquid, spurring Aihi from her seat. She stumbled away from the device, but the thick liquid was stuck to her clothes, clinging to her in grey globs. Aihi flinched, expecting the violet energy to assault her as it always did in Lacotl’s presence.
Another batch of star-water fell into the pool, bringing it to Aihi’s ankles. The flow of lavender energy increased from the tube, deepening the colour of the stream. This ki, despite the dubious colour, didn’t affect her the same was as true corruption did. Was it something else altogether?
“Goddess, what do you want me to do?”
The stone at the apex of the monument shimmered, and when the glow disappeared, a black porcelain bowl was balanced on top.
Lavender gushed from the pipe until the silver was but a thread of white within.
Aihi could put the liquid into the bowl, but what would she do with it then?
“Goddess Shirashi,” Aihi said, “I do not understand. Please, help me. How can I stop the coming war?”
The leaves picked up again, swirling into the shape of a woman’s face. She was breathtaking in her beauty, and though she appeared not as how the statues depicted Shirashi, there was an unusual familiarity to her features, the curve of her jaw and nose, her cheekbones. Ki crackled in the air around her with immense pressure. Aihi’s mouth parted with awe, for while this woman was not the Goddess, she still beheld divine authority.
Where had Aihi seen her before?
“Drink.” The woman’s command vibrated through Aihi’s spirit like the strings of a plucked koto.
“You are not the Goddess,” Aihi said.
Silver leaves twisted into the shape of two cupped hands lifting the porcelain bowl toward Aihi.
“Drink, and you will understand.”
The dish hovered in the space between them, but she hesitated. This woman was not the Goddess as all stories of the Garden of Starlight spoke of. Should Aihi question Shirashi’s absence, demand the audience she was promised? But to do so might risk leaving the garden empty-handed. Without the Goddess’ blessing, Aihi would fail her ambitions. To secure a future for her people, she had to return to the Cedar Palace with word from the Goddess. A plan for what would come next in Seiryuu’s history.
Regardless of whether the blessing came directly from the Goddess, or an avatar of her authority should make little difference so long as Aihi received the boon she came for.
She took the bowl, and the woman flitted backward, hovering over the monument.
The next time the sōzu tipped over, Aihi let it spill into the dish. Violet smoke drifted up like steam even though the liquid was cold. When the water settled, her reflection stared back at her.
“Drink,” the woman repeated.
With a deep breath, Aihi subdued her reservations and tilted her head back, pouring the purple substance down her throat. The concoction burned as it went down, and bile, in turn, swirled in her stomach. Holding it down and not throwing the liquid back up was a matter of self-preservation: she would succeed at this task, no matter how strange or difficult. She would not leave the Garden of Starlight without the Goddess’ aid.
An unnatural amount of ki seared Aihi’s insides, and the energy spread from her stomach into her blood and skin like a disease.
Aihi screamed and buckled, collapsing into the pool. She thrashed, covering herself with the metallic liquid. Corrupted energy consumed her insides, eating her alive. A trap. The visage was a trap. The Goddess was gone, and Aihi fell for a trick.
“What did… you…” she moaned. “Oh, goddess. H-help…”
She gagged, trying to force her body to throw up the substance, but the corruption tore through her veins, burning her up, up, up. She could have drowned in that pool, convulsing in the darkness, and no one would have known. Clank. Clank. Clank.
No legacy to uphold. No responsibilities. Only death.
Crimson flashed on Aihi’s arms, and she gasped in a breath of fresh air, dragging her back from the precipice. Ki from her irezumi trailed up her spine, across her shoulders, through her biceps, easing the burning as it went. But the energy also crossed her collarbone, seeking downward where it wasn’t supposed to go.
Tingling coursed up her torso, and another red glow danced from beneath her robes. With shaking hands, Aihi pushed her kimono down her shoulders and to her waist, exposing her front. The outline of a dragon’s tail circled her navel, its body coiled around her breasts, its maw snapping for her throat.
The dragon’s scales solidified on her flesh in lifelike detail; the shimmer of an iridescent fish, the sharp edges of a knife. With each additional thread of ink, the ki within her flickered and changed.
Aihi raised her palms. Flames coiled around her fingers at a thought, directed by the tattoos imprinted on her arms and shoulders. She delved deeper into herself, focusing on the new ink snaking up her torso. Energy blazed within, responding to her call with eagerness.
Fire erupted from her hands. A serpentine coil of ki swirled around her, taking the shape of a dragon before smoldering down, threading back through her fingernails and into herself.
She laughed, breathless. Not by exertion, but by the mere thrill of how easily ki came and went through her body.
With this new irezumi, she claimed the strength of a true Shōgun.
At last, she would follow in her mother’s footsteps. But where did she go from here?
Water rippled around Aihi. Her eyes fluttered closed, searching for an answer in the energy floating through the garden.
“May starlight guide your path,” the woman whispered, “and when ink splatters the heavens, let the eyes of dragons bring you peace.”
Those were Torra’s last words to Aihi before her spirit faded away forever. But this woman wasn’t Torra—why was she repeating those words?
Aihi tried to open her eyes and object, but her lids stayed shut, and the specks of starlight floating around her intruded on the blackness of her mind. Like stars, they shimmered behind her eyelids, collecting into a cluster. Their silver light flickered and faded, overtaken by violet. They solidified, not as stars, but as a crystal. Corrupted energy leaked from the reflective facets.
The aki that had killed her mother, the former Shōgun Furahau Mika. The aki that still dwelled beneath the Cedar Palace. A sense of purpose rose within Aihi.
She knew exactly what her first act as Shōgun would be.
Want to discover how the Yokai Calling series ends? Blood of Dragons will be available on May 25th, 2021 and is currently on a special launch discount. Snag the book at $1.99 for a limited time!