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Go slowly she did. I was grateful for it. Not only for the bark under my feet, but for the great difference in our strides. Without her hand on my hand, forcing me to keep pace, I realized her long legs took steps half again the size of mine. I worked to match her speed. We walked up the steady incline of the root, the Ayakashi coming closer.
“Humans in Gensokyo have a word for what I have in mind,” Yukari said as we went. “They call it an intervention. A man may make himself sick indulging in too much drink or smoke. He may want to stop, but his addiction is too strong for his own broken will. If he’s lucky, his loved ones will step in. They take away his liquor and pipe weed. He may threaten and demand and bargain to get his vice back, but his family’s decision is absolute. He will never again drink or smoke, if they have anything to say about it. And once the man’s withdrawal has passed, he finds himself grateful to his family. For they did what needed to be done, which he himself could not do.”
“You wish to intervene with Yuyuko-sama?” I said. “Forcibly take the Ayakashi from her? Then you have greater problems than earning her temporary ire. You might simply fail. She is no trifling ghost, but an immensely powerful spirit. She isn’t to be taken lightly.”
Yukari looked down to me. Her eyes burned with indigo flame.
“Neither am I,” she said.
That silenced me. I hadn’t thought of it, but a hard truth hit home just then. Yukari could kill me.
“I know Yuyuko’s might, for I am her equal,” said Yukari. The light was gone from her eyes. She kept walking. “And you are correct to think her power supersedes mine while in the netherworld. I can affect nothing here directly. But Hakugyokuro and Gensokyo are inextricably bound, for human ghosts must transfer from one country to the other. I will change my own country, and through that I can change Yuyuko’s country.”
We were nearing the Ayakashi’s base. The root had risen and widened up from the ground. Yukari and I could now easily stand abreast as we walked, and the wet ground was many feet below us. We couldn’t walk much farther. Shortly ahead, the swampy basin ended. The ground took a sharp incline to form the plateau upon which the Ayakashi stood. We could no longer follow the root up unless we wanted to start climbing.
Here Yukari stopped. She craned her neck back, looking straight up to the tree’s bare canopy above us. Seeing those bony branches stand against the sky, so high up and far away, gave me a sense of vertigo. The Ayakashi seemed bigger each time one looked upon it.
“I will intervene,” said Yukari. “It will hurt me. Any intervention hurts the family as much as the man whose addiction is broken. But that makes it no less necessary. Thankfully, the family has strength in numbers on its side.” She looked to me. “It’s always easier with help.”
“Tell me what you plan,” I said. “I’ll decide if I should help you.”
“As you should,” she said. “Your trust wouldn’t be worth earning if it were easy to earn. As I said, my power doesn’t follow me into Hakugyokuro. I leave it behind in Gensokyo when I come here, and I reacquire it when I return there. But if I had a way to bring it here, I might be able to contest Yuyuko, and take the Ayakashi from her.”
“But how could you do that?” I said. “I don’t claim experience in magical matters, but serving Yuyuko-sama my whole life has taught me some things. The energy in Gensokyo is different in nature than that here. You could no more bring worldly magic here than summon an army of mortal men to storm Hakugyokuro. The netherworld wouldn’t permit it.”
“Very true,” said Yukari. “But then again, it’s not impossible to bring the premortem here. You have never died. Neither have I. Yet here we both are.”
“Nor am I alive in the mortal sense. My spirit has never dwelt in my flesh. I can exist here on a technicality.”
Yukari laughed. “Interesting way to put it.”
“And as for you.” I said, “You and your shikigami are not human, so your presence in Hakugyokuro already violates natural law.”
She held up a finger. “There you have it. You admit those laws can be broken. That’s how I’ll help Yuyuko, by doing more of the same. I already know how I can bring my power here. I’ll show you in a moment. But first, the deeper problem of what to do with my power once in the netherworld. It’s no more effective than a man trying to cut through a ghost with an axe, or a ghost trying to tear that man’s flesh from his bones. They simply pass through each other. The two exist on different planes, and so can’t harm one another.”
“Then what’s the point?” I said.
“You.” She put a hand to my face, again cupping my cheek in her palm. Caressing my temple with her thumb. “You are the catalyst. Your dual nature may allow you to change magical energy from mortal to immortal, or vice versa. That’s why I brought you out here. If you will trust me and try this, we might find that only you have the power to save Yuyuko.”
My heart thumped hard once. My mind rebelled against the idea. I was not important enough to be the only in any sense. But I badly wanted to believe what Yukari said. That I, insignificant little gardener of the netherworld, was the sole being able to help my mistress in such a profound way. I wanted it to be true. I wanted it as strongly as men who lust after women, and women who lust after vanity, and as both feel a need to be important.
Importance. Here it was offered to me, and I was ravenous for it. I could earn revere from the mightiest beings. Whether they loved me or not, my deeds would demand that they respect me. Even Yukari Yakumo herself, the greatest of , would concede that I did what she could not. And my own mistress, Yuyuko Saigyouji the ruler of Hakugyokuro, would see me in a new light. Even treat me as an equal in some things. I would be more of a partner and less of a servant.
My breath caught in my throat. I swallowed.
“I will try,” I said. “Show me how you bring Gensokyo’s magic here.”
Yukari nodded. She took her hand from my face, and turned as if to show her back to me. But her motion was sudden, and she slapped at the air as if she meant to swat a bug. There she caught something. The air itself seemed to resist her hand, but she was stronger than it. She pulled down, and a black split ripped and widened, trailing behind her fingers. It was shaped liked a lateral cut in someone’s flesh, but no blood came out. There was nothing at all in the place where that gap led.
I looked away and covered my eyes. I didn’t want to see the darkness outside. Yukari used it as a means of travel, both within worlds and between them. In that place there is no matter, energy or space. The lack of those things also means there is no travel time from anywhere to anywhere else. I can accept that, but I will never approve of its use. The emptiness beyond reality is not fit for living things. Yukari invoking it now reminded me to be cautious. I didn’t know her as I did my own mistress. She might not deserve the distaste of my first impression of her, but neither did she yet deserve my trust.
“Just a minute,” she said. “I need something I forgot to bring.”
She reached into the gap, sticking her arm in up to the shoulder. I kept my eyes positioned just so that I could see most of her, but not what she had put her arm into. She rummaged around for a moment, like bear trying to paw honey out of a beehive. Then her face lit up.
“There!” she said, pulling her arm from the gap. It shut behind her. A little pop sounded from the air snapping back into place. “Look at this, Youmu.”
I turned my eyes up to her. In one hand she held a wooden carving of a bird. It seemed shaped in the likeness of a dove, but was smaller than one. It snugly fit in Yukari’s palm.
“Where did that come from?” I said.
“My living room.” Yukari held it out to me. “Here. Hold it.”
I didn’t sense any threat from a piece of woodcraft, so I took it in both hands. I looked it over, turning it over to see it from all sides. The workmanship was exquisite. The wood was dark and richly colored. The carving’s feathers, eyes and beak had been shaped with a finer woodworking tool than I knew existed. Its legs were tucked up against its underside, as if resting in a nest.
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “But why show me this?”
“That will be obvious once you learn its purpose,” said Yukari. “This is Ayashi Tori, a magical artifact. Like Lavatein I mentioned over dinner.”
I had to think to recall those two words.
“That’s an unusual name,” I said.
“You know the old language?” Yukari said.
“Not fluently. Only some common words, from what I retain of my lessons long ago.”
“Your memory serves you well. But I dislike its given title, so I have a nickname for it. I call it President Strangebird.”
I looked up at her. “You call it what?”
She smiled. “Think about it.”
I did, but first I searched her face. Seeing if she was making up nonsense at my expense. I saw no mischief there, only amusement. She was having fun with me to make a point. It took me a minute to make sense of it, but then I understood. I put a palm to my face. My ghostly half did the same.
“Kaichou,” I said. “With what respect is due, Yukari-sama, that’s horrible.”
“Oh come now,” she said. “Even you must appreciate a good joke now and again.”
“I do. That’s not a good joke.”
“Fine then. Its name is less important than what it does. Hold it up to the sky.”
The carving in both hands, I held it above my head as far as my arms would stretch. The Ayakashi’s bare branches were foreground to the sky.
I stood there for many long seconds.
“Is something supposed to happen?” I said. The blood was falling from my arms.
“You have to speak the pass-phrase to activate it,” said Yukari. “But I’m afraid you’ll laugh.”
“I promise you, I find nothing humorous about this.”
“Good! Then here goes.” She took a deep breath and shouted, “Vote for Strangebird!”
That was the limit. I knew she was toying with me. And I would have given her a very polite scolding for it, but I was distracted by the odd sensation of a wooden carving standing up in my hands.
I felt its sharp talons gripping the skin of my palms. Its feathers ruffled and its wings flexed. A girlish yelp came from me and I dropped the bird. Even in my surprise, I regretted letting go of it. It would fall to the Ayakashi’s hard root bark and shatter, or at least come away scuffed and nicked. It would bounce off the root and fall to the watery earth below, and we would spend an hour looking for it.
Yet none of that happened. Halfway between my hands and the root, the carving took flight. It beat its wings and flew off just as a bird would when released from its cage. It disappeared against the darkening sky.
Yukari cupped her hands around her mouth and called, “Come back, President!”
I thought her yell went unheard, and the wooden bird had gone never to return. But I heard the flap of wings, and then saw the bird glide back to us. It flew to Yukari and perched on her shoulder, beating its wings to balance before folding them behind its back.
“Please forgive Youmu, Mister President,” said Yukari. “She doesn’t know any better. She will learn to treat you with respect.”
The carving didn’t twitch as a bird would. It stood still on Yukari’s shoulder, looking down its beak at me. I stared back at it, my mouth hanging open.
“That thing is alive?” I said.
The carving beat its wings at me, as if trying to shoo me away. Yukari put a hand before it, calming it.
“Be polite, Youmu,” she said. “Yes, the president here is alive. Its life is a variation of youkai, magical energy bound together in patterns so complicated as to be a heart and mind. President Strangebird is a lesser form of that, but no less worthy for its part.”
“And what is that part?” I said. “Bringing your power from Gensokyo to here?”
Yukari nodded. “And conveniently enough, the president has come prepared for a demonstration. Hold up your arm like this.” She held a fist several inches before her breast, putting her forearm out as one would expect of a trainer of hawks or falcons. I kept my arms at my sides. Doing as she said hadn’t led to any good so far this evening.
“I doubt giving it a place to perch will improve its opinion of me,” I said.
The wooden bird beat its wings again. It lifted off Yukari’s shoulder and flapped over to me. I shied away from it, but it moved faster. It settled atop my head, gripping one talon into my hair and the other on my bow. I felt its claws digging into me.
Yukari laughed. “You’re wrong, it seems!”
I tensed all over. My fists bunched into tight balls. I fought the urge to whack the carved bird away. I didn’t want to touch it. It was a magical thing, and magic was unknown to me. So instead, I moaned like a schoolgirl who had just been told there was a bee on her shoulder.
“Please get it off me,” I said.
“Relax, Youmu,” said Yukari. “The president won’t hurt you. It just prefers a good vantage point to view its surroundings. It won’t find such, perched on the head of someone with so diminutive a stature. But a good president will make the best of things. Besides, it recognizes the need to be close to you. The two of you must work together to save Yuyuko.”
“Must that salvation involve this thing drawing blood from my scalp?” I said. And I learned right then how intelligent President Strangebird was. Its feet gripped my head more tightly. Fresh nails of pain shot down through my skull. I clenched my teeth and moaned again.
“Only if you insist on calling the president a thing,” said Yukari. “Show her, President, so she may understand.”
Enough was enough. I reached up, ready to rip the wooden creature off my head. I would peck the skin off my hands and tear out locks of hair, but that seemed a fair price to have it off me. My hands lost momentum on their way up. I suddenly felt as if I had held my breath for two straight minutes, light and dizzy. A shock of warmth pounded down through my head, and flooded down through my body after it. My eyes filled with bloody red patches, and I could see nothing. My skin was numb, and I could feel nothing.
“Easy!” said Yukari. “Be careful with her, President. Don’t force it all through her. Let her get used to it first.”
I could still hear, though half my other senses were gone. I couldn’t tell where Yukari’s voice came from. It seemed both above and below me, both before and behind me. Both inside me and miles away.
“Relax, Youmu. I’ve got you.”
The warmth went deeper than my flesh. It pierced me, went into the core of myself. It burned my heart with excruciating joy and exquisite pain. The sadness I knew when I had failed one of my teacher’s lessons. The happiness I knew when I won my mistress’s approval. The dread of an insurmountable pile of undone work. The satisfaction after the work was done. The love of beauty and honor and truth. The hatred of weakness and stupidity and falsehood. All these things, the most intense of my emotions, came together all at once.
I laughed, and I cried. My sight returned slowly, as if a pressure on my eyes had been lifted. I could feel myself again, but only like my body was a foreign thing. I must have lost my balance and fallen, since I now lay on the root. But only my lower body was on the bark. Yukari held me from the waist up in a firm hold, hugging me to her. My face pressed against her breast.
I couldn’t stop laughing. It was the laugh of a madman. The laugh of one forced to feel so much at once that she can’t feel anything. Yukari rocked me back and forth, trying to calm me.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have brought the President with a full load.”
“A full load!” I said, and I found the phrase hilarious. I laughed harder. Fresh tears flooded from my eyes and soaked into Yukari’s dress. She held me tighter, as if to keep me from laughing myself to pieces. She spoke then, in a low and even tone.
“Yes,” she said. “The Ayashi Tori was saturated with energy from Gensokyo. It’s designed to hold magical power of nearly any variety, though it has little absolute storage due to its small size. I haven’t yet worked around the limitations of material capacity. But the power it carries is often enough for spontaneous casting in precarious situations.”
Speaking in monotone and using colorless words, Yukari pulled me back from mania. My laughter eased, leaving me feeling empty and tired. My face was wet. I used her dress to dry myself, but didn’t notice until after I had done so. I was embarrassed.
“I’m fine,” I said, my voice scratchy. My throat was raw.
“Are you sure?” she said. “The President was too harsh. I should have known he would try transfer all his power at once.”
I pulled myself out of her hold, sitting up on the root bark. There I stayed, and my chest heaved as I caught my breath.
“What happened?” I said. “What did that bird do to me?”
“See for yourself.” Yukari put her fingers to my cheek, gently turned my head around.
I saw my ghost. My breath left me again.
My spirit had been floating nearby this whole time, her face likely showing the mix of pain and mirth I had just suffered. Now she showed only surprise, mimicking how I felt.
My ghost was glowing, emitting a dusty rose color. It was the brightest light nearby, illuminating the root and we on it like a dozen oil lamps. The light hurt my eyes, after adjusted to the evening’s dark.
“Good heavens,” I said.
“I didn’t expect that to happen,” said Yukari. “But I suppose it makes sense. Congratulations, Youmu. You’ve just changed your first batch of magic from mortal to immortal. Your ghost is full of energy that can affect the netherworld.”
“How?” I said. “Why? What should I do?”
“We’ve spent all evening answering those questions, silly girl. Stand up, first thing. You’ll feel better if you open your lungs.”
Yukari got her arms under mine and lifted me to my feet. She showed no muscular build like her shikigami, but she was strong, and she lifted me as if I were no heavier than a scarecrow. I stood, but only with her help. My chest still worked to regulate my breathing. Yukari leaned down, lowering her mouth to my ear, and she whispered. Her breath tickled me.
“Youmu,” she said. “Can you consciously move your ghost?”
“Yes,” I said between breaths. “I can’t send it far from my body, but I can control them both alike.”
To demonstrate, I held up a hand. My ghost mirrored the gesture.
“Good,” Yukari whispered. “Then touch your ghost to the tree. I believe that will complete the transfer.”
I was eager to be rid of these feelings, so I did as she said. My ghost lowered until its feet touched the bark of the root. The difference was immediate. The intense love and sorrow fell out of me, like water from a sink when the drain is pulled. It matched the look of my ghost. The pink glow emptied from her, absorbed into the Ayakashi’s root, and the light faded into nothing. We were left in dark once again. Yukari still held me up. I was limp in her hands. Having magical power pumped through me was exhausting. I couldn’t imagine how mages did it.
“Excellent!” said Yukari. “It works just like I’d hoped.”
I leaned back against her. It was more intimate than I ever wanted to be with any youkai, but I stood with her support or not at all. As if in gratitude, Yukari put her arms around me and held me steady.
“Nothing happened,” I said. “The magic is gone.”
“The Ayakashi is big, Youmu. That much power was like adding a cup of water to a lake. But if you refill that cup again and again, eventually....” Her voice trailed off. She gasped, looking up at the bare branch canopy. She pointed to the sky. “Look! Up there!”
I bent my neck back I looked up to where she pointed. I squinted, but nighttime was upon us. It was too dark.
“I can’t see anything,” I said.
“You can’t?” she said. “Oh, yes. Human eyes. I forgot. Then let’s get up close, shall we?”
“Get up close to—whaagh!”
I made that surprised noise with good reason. Yukari took me by the shoulders and turned me around to face her. Then she knelt down, wrapped one arm around both my thighs, and hefted me over her shoulder like a sack of oats. Her shoulder pressed into my belly. I saw the ground behind her.
“What are you—put me down!”
“Don’t worry, Youmu. I won’t drop you.” Yukari took two quick steps forward, and started jogging up the root. She ran towards the steep slope that lead up the Ayakashi’s base. I bounced along on her shoulder, which repeatedly punched the air out of me.
“Where are you taking me?” I said. And then I made a sound that might be written as, “Aa-eeeeee!”
Again, a totally justifiable exclamation. Where the root became too steep to walk, Yukari jumped up it, like a hypertensive mountain goat. She easily cleared a dozen feet per jump, going from ledge to ledge that stuck off the root bark. Her grip on me was firm. She didn’t drop me, but I held on to her with every muscle in my body. Her hair whipped at my face as we ascended, getting in my mouth and forcing my eyes closed. I was grateful. If I looked, I would have seen the ground rapidly retreat below us.
Forward to Part Six
Back to Part FourReturn to Chapter Index