Ayakashi: Vengeful spirit
On the last day of the ninth month of the year, one day before the start of Kannazuki, Inari sent for Hiro. The previous night, the sky had suddenly broken with lightning and thunder, and it had been raining ever since. Hiro and Ryū had stayed inside their hut, keeping themselves warm around the fire.
That evening, as was his habit, Ryū fell asleep first. The fire crackled in the hearth, and a wolf called from far away. Ryū’s brow knitted in his sleep, and he pulled away and turned onto his back. He jerked his head and closed his hand into a fist. Nightmares again. Hiro leaned in to hold him and secretly kiss the wrinkles away.
“You’re safe,” he whispered, bold under the cover of night. “You’re here with me.”
Rustling near the door captured his attention. Small grunts filled the silence in the hut, and the irori’s embers illuminated the upper half of a tiny creature trying to squeeze through the gap under the door. Hiro narrowed his eyes and propped himself up on his elbow. What was that?
“Stupid, stupid fat butt,” the creature muttered as he pushed up with his hands, struggling to pull his lower half through. “How did I think…” he huffed, “this was going to be a good idea? Stupid bird brain.”
Hiro walked over to crouch by the door. “What are you doing, yōkai?” He pinched the back of his robe and pulled him free of the narrow space.
The yōkai dangled in the air, glaring up at Hiro. Festively dressed in an olive-green agekubi, with long sleeves reaching his feet and a beautiful purple sash tied at his torso, he looked like a miniature prince. A white mask with red swirls completed the ensemble.
“What are you looking at, moron?” he grumbled, taking a swing at Hiro’s nose.
Hiro dropped the yōkai into his palm and held him away from his face. The spirit leaned on Hiro’s thumb, exhaling loudly. “Give me a moment,” he said, one hand on his belly while the other rubbed his backside. “My back is killing me.”
Hiro opened the door and carefully exited the hut, hoping they hadn’t awakened Ryū.
“Hey!” the creature shrieked. “I did not break my back getting into this ramshackle sorry excuse for a home, just for you to kick me out again!”
“I don’t want to wake up Ryū. Why were you sneaking in?”
“First of all, I’m hurt that you don’t know me. Genuinely hurt. Secondly, Inari-sama asked me to bring you to him. He has something important to show you before he leaves.”
“Oy, I’m confused. Have we met?”
The yōkai sighed and shook his head. The mask wobbled on his face. He stretched his hands wide and did a full turn as if that would make him more recognizable. “Nothing? Nothing at all?”
Hiro’s head tilted as he turned memories over in his mind. When nothing came to him, he shrugged. The little yōkai crossed his arms. “Humans. What imbeciles,” he sneered. He pulled his mask back a bit to reveal his sharp canines, and then he lunged to bite Hiro’s thumb.
“Itai!” Hiro cried, almost dropping him.
“That is for insulting your creation,” the yōkai announced proudly.
“Why did you— Wait. My creation? Don’t tell me you are the uguisu from Mount Kasuga?”
“You’re Biko-chan…” Standing in his hand was the soul he had reaped, whom Inari-sama had given a new life. Happiness erupted inside Hiro’s heart. “It worked!” He brought the yōkai close and kissed his head. “You’re alive!”
Biko-chan patted Hiro’s nose. “The yōkai world was in shock that a beansprout like you managed to do a shinigami’s job. You’re a legend. The old kappa in your family’s pond worships you. He also misses you. Hasn’t seen you in ages.”
“The what in my pond?”
“Yikes,” Biko-chan clapped a hand over his mouth. “I forgot I wasn’t supposed to say anything about that geezer. He thinks he’d be banished from there if people knew about his existence.”
Seeing Hiro’s confusion, the yōkai moved on. “Never mind that. Inari-sama is waiting. He has something important to tell you. We shouldn’t delay. Come on.” Biko-chan pointed in the direction of the lake. “Onward, my steed!” he called. Then he burst out laughing. “I’ve always wanted to say that.”
As Hiro approached the moonlit shore, Inari didn’t turn to him. The large white fox was sitting on his hind legs, focused on the ethereal reflection of a lonely, white sand beach. Hiro knelt next to him with his head bowed, eyes on the grass.
The kitsune’s presence seemed to swallow the sound around him, as if a soothing mantle dropped over the trees and put everything to sleep.
“We meet again, Fujiwara no Hirotsugu.”
“Inari-sama,” Hiro said. “I apologize for my behavior during my first day on Mount Kurama. I should have bowed in your presence. I was not myself. Forgive me.”
“I felt your despair from your first steps on the mountain. I knew something bad had happened to you, so I came to inspect,” the god said. “Tonight, I have a different reason. Kannazuki has come, and I need to leave the mountain for a month to attend the celebration of the gods in Izumo. But before I leave, I must show you something.” He lowered his body. “Climb on.”
“Put me down first,” Biko-chan insisted. “I’d rather be chased by wild cats than go where you’re headed.”
Hiro dropped Biko-chan onto a reed, and then he hesitated behind the fox. “Your Divinity, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to—”
“Get on,” Inari-sama cut him off. “You are on a dangerous mountain. You need to learn this if you want to protect your boy from harm.”
“My boy?” Hiro asked, taken aback.
“Yes, the one you are in love with. The one sleeping in the hut. Come.”
Hiro climbed on, his cheeks ablaze. His hands grasped the soft white fur that tickled his skin. He inhaled the miasma of irises and spring, of autumn leaves and winter snow emanating from Inari’s coat. Hiro’s blood rushed as he shivered from the smoldering divine energy under him.
“Hold on tight.”
The fox leaped, and the world became a blur.
The ride felt like the bridge between a split second and eternity. Branches parted to make way for their passage. Green-skinned yōkai waved from the trees, greeting their god and his companion. The sky exploded with falling stars, and the peacefulness fell over Hiro until he began to drift off to sleep.
The kitsune stopped abruptly. “Open your eyes,” he commanded.
Hiro glanced at the edge of the cliff in front of them. A vine bridge connected that cliff with another, where a jutting peak topped with a plateau held a forest of blossoming plum trees. His pulse quickened when he recognized one of the trees, larger than the rest and standing proudly in the middle. Hiro slid down from the fox’s back and moved closer to the bridge.
“Don’t touch it,” Inari said. Hiro stepped back, startled.
Purple-reddish plum flowers shimmered on the other side, beckoning to him. A milky lilac spring widened around the trees and tumbled over the edge in a small waterfall that disappeared mysteriously in the air.
The green grass was covered with hydrangeas. Wisteria vines coiled around the plum trees, blowing in the wind.
“What is this place?” Hiro asked.
“This is the property of the Cursed Wisteria Princess,” the god said. “It appears at the end of September for a month, and it’s home to a very dangerous ayakashi.”
Hiro took a step closer to the bridge, the pull too strong to ignore. The roots that made up the bridge felt alive, and it somehow seemed incredibly familiar.
“I wanted you to know about this place, so that you’d be sure to stay away from it until I return. No human is safe here. In the yōkai world, this is called a shinigami trap.”
“A trap?” Hiro asked.
“Yes. At the bottom of the cliff, there is a crossroads,” the god said. “The cliff grows over the intersection every year. It first appeared more than eighty years ago, when a pregnant woman was killed by her consort in return for a favor from a shinigami.”
The hair stood up on the back of Hiro’s neck. “But if her soul was given to a shinigami, shouldn’t it have been taken to the Land of Yomi?”
“Yes. That’s what most shinigami would have done. But the one who answered this sacrifice call was ancient and powerful, and instead of reaping her soul, the shinigami turned her into an ayakashi.”
“Can’t you do something about it, Kami-sama?”
Inari shook his head. “Not as long as she stays on her side of the bridge. I’m not allowed to cross. She has never crossed, either.”
“Then where’s the danger? This place seems hard to reach.”
“She plays her koto, and the song makes her victim lose awareness and amble toward the sound. Many even sleepwalk to her from nearby villages. When they touch the bridge, they are dead.”
“Does she eat them?”
“Not their bodies, but she drinks their life force. The shinigami comes at the end of October to collect the souls. Then he leaves, and the cliff disappears until the following year. At the crossroads, the victims’ bodies are found broken, as if they’d jumped from the cliff willingly.” Inari paused and then added, “October is the Month Without the Gods, so I won’t be here to protect you. Stay safe.”
He returned Hiro to the hut just as the sun was rising over the mountain. The rains had temporarily stopped, and the clear sky belied the danger of Inari’s message.
“Kami-sama?” he called as the kitsune was about to depart.
“Why do you care what happens to us?”
“I have not forgotten your part in saving a bird’s life.”
“But the uguisu died. It lives as a yōkai now.”
“The soul stayed the same. When a soul is shifted to another body, death becomes irrelevant.”
Hiro thought about that as he entered the hut, the new knowledge weighing on his shoulders. He stirred the coals, placed another log on the fire, and then climbed into bed with Ryū.
Today began Kannazuki, and the mountain would not be safe. To hell with the exile and his fall from favor. He had a bigger purpose now.
He caressed Ryū’s cheek tenderly. “I will protect you from the ayakashi,” he vowed.