Koto: The thirteen strings zither
Hiro was already desperately crying out for Ryū as he ran into their hut. The fox scrambled from her place by the irori and huddled in a corner. The koto strings grew sweeter and more melodic with each passing second, like a ningyo’s call to a sailor from the depths of the sea.
Hiro clamped his hands over his ears, trying unsuccessfully to block it out. “Inari-sama!” he shouted. “I summon you!”
Within a few seconds, the kitsune god appeared in the clearing, wild and bristling with the power of his divinity. His hackles were up, and his sharp white fangs glinted. His ears perked at the sound coming at them from all directions. He roared, scratching the snow with his large paw.
“I feel her on my mountain,” he growled with disgust. “She’s never stepped outside the bridge.”
Hiro ran to him and buried his hands in the kitsune’s chest fur. “Kami-sama, Ryū is missing. Can you tell where he is?”
“She has him.” Inari’s golden eyes flared. “Hurry, get on my back, Hirotsugu.” In moments, they were off.
The stupid boy hadn’t taken the sword with him. I wanted him to have it when he faced the ayakashi. The danger was too great without it.
I pushed away from the throne and opened the veil. When I passed through and stepped on Mount Kurama’s tallest peak, I could see the vine bridge. The kagerō hid me from Inari, who was connected to the golden threads of life underneath the mountain and observed every living creature under the sky.
The ayakashi sensed me and turned to glare, ripe with hatred. The koto song died away and her terrible laughter took its place.
The vine bridge connected to a cliff bordered by a line of spiky trees. Here, near Kurama’s highest elevation, heavy snowfalls had dominated all winter. It must have been hard to trudge through on human feet, yet Ryū had managed, powerless to the hypnotic spell of the koto.
The air rushing against Hiro’s face was filled with minuscule icicles that blinded his sight and abraded his skin. The clouds and mist shrouded the slopes, and the sheared-off rock faces added to the confusion. It would have been impossible to discern their location without knowing the place intimately. Hiro sunk down on Inari’s back, hiding in the white coat. The sounds of the world faded behind the howling wind clamoring in his ears.
“There!” Inari nodded in front of them.
Hiro raised his head. Not far away, Ryū ambled through the snow in his sleeveless summer robe. He’d taken on a lilac hue from the freezing wind, but he wasn’t shivering. He didn’t even seem to feel the cold. The kagerō that covered the bridge stretched toward him in greeting.
The twilight fought the clouds for supremacy over the sky. Some of the stronger sun rays pierced through, illuminating the mist in pink, gold, and purple. The bridge’s vines stirred under the sun’s touch as they coiled among themselves, twining and looping.
Ryū arrived at the bridge and looked up. The vines moved under the weight of something unseen, hidden by the mist. Two hairy spider legs emerged first, then an arm, and then a woman’s head with long black hair.
A gust of wind revealed the full form of a half-human, half-spider ayakashi. In the cradle of her arm, she held a koto with strings made of spider silk. She elegantly offered her sharp-nailed fingers to Ryū, and he reached out to accept them.
Inari lunged. His seven powerful tails knocked the koto out of the ayakashi’s hand and over the bridge, where it smashed on the crags below. She hissed as she retreated into the mist, still keeping two of her front legs on Mount Kurama.
“Be gone, vile thing,” Inari bellowed. “You are not welcome on my mountain.”
She disregarded Inari’s contempt and extended her hand again to Ryū. “Come to me,” she sang.
Hiro jumped off the kitsune and seized Ryū from behind. “Listen to me, you’re in danger!” he pleaded. He tried to drag Ryū back but couldn’t budge him.
“Mother,” Ryū sobbed. He pushed at Hiro’s hands, trying to escape his grasp.
The ayakashi made a grab for Ryū. Inari attacked her, snapping his jaws and biting her parchment skin. He tore a limb from her body and spit it on the ground. “Creature, don’t make me destroy you. Get away from my mountain.”
The ayakashi looked at her severed limb in amusement, red blood pooling at her feet.
“Do you forget, Inari-god, that you exist to protect the yōkai?” she asked. “I may be vile, but I am a yōkai too, and I have every right to live on your mountain. And to feed.”
“You are foul,” the kitsune snarled. “You do not have my welcome.”
“Men,” she shrugged in disappointment. “When I was alive, one fell in love with my beauty and fought many others for me. But after he won my heart, he locked me away. He used me when he needed me. He killed me when he needed me dead. He let my baby die in my womb as my limbs shattered on Mount Kurama and my life seeped out. Then, another man took possession of my soul and locked me in a different cage, denying me Heaven.” The blood on her shoulder took shape, dark tendrils knitting themselves into bone and flesh. “I refuse to stay locked again!”
The missing limb was quickly replaced with the blade of a praying mantis. She attacked Inari with it, the sharp edge tearing a gash on his shoulder. The god howled and struck her neck, and Hiro heard the bone snap.
He was still struggling to keep Ryū from stepping onto the bridge, but the fight between the creatures had briefly frozen them both. Ryū took the opportunity to elbow him in the ribs. As Hiro gasped for breath, Ryū made a run for the spider.
Inari saw Ryū’s approach and turned around to stop him, leaving his own right flank unprotected. The ayakashi lashed out and split him open, down to the bone. Enraged, the kitsune thrashed her legs with his tails, breaking them all. She stumbled sideways. Inari shoved her once more, propelling her over the cliff.
“No!” Ryū dove to catch her wrist. “Mother, hold on!” He clutched her hand and bound himself to her.
The ayakashi’s body was pulling Ryū down with her. Inari dropped the weight of his paw on the boy’s back legs to keep him from going over. “Let her go, or I will let you fall to your death with her.”
“Ryū, let her go!” Hiro cried out as he leaned over the edge of the cliff. He gripped the outcrop in terror, slicing open his hand on a sharp rock.
“I can’t!” Ryū insisted. “I can’t let Mother die again.”
The spider threw Hiro a vicious grin. Somewhere, underneath the monstrosity of what she’d become, lay the features of what must have been a beautiful woman. She reminded him of someone he’d once seen… on a mural hidden in an underground library.
A drop of blood from Hiro’s hand fell on the spider’s face. She licked it clean, revealing a nightmarish mouthful of leech-like teeth.
Hiro frowned as his memory became clearer. Slowly, the ayakashi’s expression shifted to uncertainty, then confusion, and finally shock.
“Boy,” she said, “you have my husband’s blood running through your veins.”
Hiro stared. “It can’t be.” He stood up and stumbled backward. “No. No!”
“What is it, Hirotsugu? Do you know her?”
Hiro was shaking and he felt like his knees would give out. “She’s, she’s…”
The words were written in stone.
Oh, Yasumiko I have won!
Mine is she whom all men,
They say, have sought in vain.
Yasumiko I have won!
“Fujiwara no Yasumiko.” Her eyes narrowed. “Kamatari’s wife.”
“Drop her,” Inari ordered Ryū. “The longer you hold her hand, the more she devours your energy.”
Ryū refused to listen. The web around his thoughts was too potent.
“How is this possible?” Hiro said.
“Your great-grandfather wanted fame. Power. He would have given anything to get it.” She exuded hatred at recounting the story. “At the crossroads, he made a deal with a shinigami for his clan to become the most powerful family in Yamato. The shinigami asked for three things in return: For one hundred years, all the souls of the Fujiwara clan after their deaths, in order to build a throne of skulls. An heir’s life at birth, which the shinigami would choose himself. And the soul of the woman Kamatari loved most.
“You were born into wealth built by murder and dark curses.” Her voice turned sorrowful. “He pushed me from this very cliff eighty years ago, and from my broken bones rose the reign of the Fujiwara. You think I wanted this existence between life and death?” She looked down at the cliff and then back at Hiro. “The Fujiwara clan is cursed. They destroy everything and everyone they touch.”
She shifted her attention to Ryū. “You’re making a mistake befriending one of them, boy. You should leave while you still can.”
Ryū shook his head. “I could never leave him. I love him too much.”
“Pity. You are a good boy. I’m glad I didn’t kill you. You can let me go now,” she said gently. “It’s all right.”
As she relinquished her control over him, Ryū released his grip. The mist consumed her and muted the sound of her body smashing on the rocks below.
Inari grabbed Ryū’s collar and dragged him back from the edge, depositing him on the snow. Hiro was frozen in place, unable to take his eyes off the crag.
“She’s not dead,” Inari said.
Hiro nodded. He watched as the bridge’s vines writhed in agony.
I willed the mist to cover the vines and block them from view. Then I called the wind to close the gap in the veil that bridged the world of spirits to the world of humans. Nothing remained—no vines, no bridge, no cliff covered with plum trees. It was as if they had never been.
“We’ll talk of this later,” Inari said. “You should get him to a fire. The shock is setting in.”
“Will you kill her?” Hiro looked up at the waning moon. The sky had cleared.
“Do you want me to?” the god asked.
“No,” Hiro admitted. “She didn’t want to become an ayakashi. She thought she was loved. And protected.” He felt a lump form in his throat. “I didn’t… I didn’t know.”
“People are like blades of grass. They wither and die, but their deeds, like roots, remain forever. The mistakes of ancestors weigh heavily on their children’s shoulders. There is a reason for everything. There is a reason you are here now, and not with your family.”
“Yes, but what is it?”
“That is only for you to find out.”
Hiro lifted Ryū into his arms and bowed to the god. “Thank you for saving us, Kami-sama. We wouldn’t have survived this without you.”
The moonlight shined in Inari’s immortal eyes. “He’s not out of harm’s way. He touched her,” he said, peering at the angry welt on Ryū’s right palm. The wind intensified and ruffled his coat. “I’ll take you both home so you can get him warm, and I’ll send Biko-chan to protect you in case she returns.”
With a snap of my fingers, I gave the ayakashi freedom.
“The pact is done. Live as you wish.”
Without a second glance, I returned to my throne of skulls in the Land of the Dead.