Light in the Darkness

 

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This story was written for the Mouse Girl contest, and also serves as a prequel story in my series, Darkness Prevails, and takes place approximately ten years before the events of Eyes in the Dark. It, like my other contest entry (Uncertain Hearts) was written without any outside proofreading, in the interest of fairness. It may read rougher than my others as a result.

As this story is a prequel, it can be read out of sequence of the other stories. A followup sequel is planned as well.  Enjoy!

Note — When submitting to the judges, I provided a Dropbox link to the original Word document. As some folks may have been reading that version, I will keep the link here. The text is identical, but the formatting is more typical of what you’d find in a novel.
Link to original.

#Darkness Prevails

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Better to light a small flame than curse the darkness.

— Mist Proverb

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A soft, plaintive cry startled Feihuo from her restless slumber. One large, round ear twitched. Had she imagined it? The low moan of fear reached her again, as surely as the night’s chill bit into her skin. She gasped, dashing from her room and into the one beside it. The flames mingling upon the fur of her wrists threatened to conflagrate, but Feihuo willed them to subside.

“Hisa?” she called softly, so as not to frighten the boy. “Hisashi?” Feihuo said a little louder, for the boy lying amidst tangled sheets did not rouse. She knelt beside the bed and shook him by the shoulder, frowning as she inspected the knotted expression of fear on his face.

Gasping, the boy woke, his dark eyes flying open, Feihuo’s smiling face the first sight they beheld. “Jie-jie,” he said quietly.

Feihuo’s smile deepened; it warmed her heart that he considered her his big sister, even though she was adopted. “Di-di,” she replied, gently tucking damp strands of hair out of his eyes. “The nightmare again?”

The boy nodded. “It’s always the same. I’m in that awful place. Hiding.”

“I thought they were getting better?”

Hisashi sat up, shaking his head sadly. “I just haven’t been telling you. I don’t want you to worry about me.”

“My flames can protect you,” Feihuo gently insisted, outstretching her arms.

Nodding, Hisashi climbed into his sister’s embrace, and together, they reclined in the bed, his back resting against her chest. Her arms wound around him, and her flames ignited. Their warmth soothed the boy’s shivering body, and the clammy perspiration quickly evaporated.

“Go to sleep, di-di,” she soothed, her fingers tenderly stroking his hair. “I’ll protect you.”

Hisashi nodded and closed his eyes, at last relaxing into deep slumber.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Jiejie.”

“Nn…”

A finger poked her cheek. “Feifei—wake up!”

Feihuo tipped one eye open. “Mhh,” she mumbled, working her jaw to loosen the tension. “What time is it?”

Hisashi, now awake and spritely, yanked open the shades, assaulting Feihuo with direct sunlight. “Almost time for school!”

Feihuo whimpered in surprise, raising her arm to shield herself from the bright light. Her flames burst with intensity, setting Hisashi’s pillow alight.

“Ack!” cried Hisashi. He snapped a pair of pants, the first thing he could lay hands on, against the flames. “Put it out!”

Feihuo attended the problem a little more directly, jumping onto the burning pillow and extinguishing it with her body. “Oops,” she said, blushing. Hisashi giggled at her.

“Mom and Dad are going to be so mad,” he teased. “Thanks for last night, though. Gotta go!”

Before Feihuo could respond, the boy ran out of the room. Good thing, too, for the moment she sat up, the singed front of her thin nightgown crumbled into ashes. Using the pillow for cover, she snuck out of Hisashi’s room and into her own. Once safely inside, she dropped the pillow and her ruined nightgown into a trash bin.

“Gotta be more careful,” Feihuo chided herself, pinning her burgundy and scarlet ombre hair up into a bun and clipping a small decorative fan behind it. A pair of lighter-colored tendrils framed her face, a look that she typically enjoyed. Sighing, she slid into a crimson and gold qipao, wondering why it was so difficult to find flame-retardant nightwear these days.

“Feihuo?” her mother called from the hall.

“Coming!” Feihuo answered, kneeling to tug on her most comfortable traveling boots. She tugged on her black, velvet gloves on the way to the door, unable to calm the blush that spread through her cheeks at having to face her mother after burning yet another pillow.

The expression her mother wore upon facing her surprised Feihuo. Calm and comforting; perhaps a little concerned? Soft amber eyes, the same color as Hisashi’s, studied her carefully. “Feihuo, Hisashi tells me you two spent the night together again.”

Feihuo nodded. “He had another nightmare.”

“I see,” her mother sighed. “He seemed fine this morning.”

“It’s something about my flames,” Feihuo explained for what she felt was the hundredth time. She caught herself scratching at the fur of her wrist and mentally slapped herself for perpetuating the bad habit. “They soothe away whatever’s troubling him.”

Her mother guided her to the common area and set some food down for her. “Your father and I are beginning to wonder if it’s something deeper than that,” she said. “Something darker.”

A chill chased away the color from Feihuo’s cheeks. “Darker?” she echoed. “Like—like what?”

“We’re going to be visiting Lady Kanna today to ask that very question.”

Feihuo nodded, her mind numbed, and her appetite gone. She forced herself to eat what her mother provided. It tasted like ash in her dry mouth.

 

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“Welcome!” a pretty miko greeted Feihuo and her mother. She gazed up with eager, dark eyes as the pair approached her. “Welcome back, Mrs. Toriyama,” chirped the girl. “Will you be seeking an audience today?”

“Yes,” nodded Mrs. Toriyama. “We need to speak with Lady Kanna as soon as she’s free.”

The miko’s smile faded. “Is there trouble? I’ll see to it right away. Please make yourselves ready.” She departed as quickly as protocol permitted, leaving Feihuo and her mother to ascend to the shrine and perform the ritual purification in silence. A dark cloud hung over Feihuo. She suspected something terrible had happened to her brother that he refused to speak of, but she couldn’t have imagined what. Nothing physical, at least. She was ten years his senior, and nothing escaped her keen, flame-colored eyes, nor her perky, round ears.

Or had it?

Had she missed something? Guilt and anxiety tipped into her mind, mixing with the fear already present. How could she have let something like this happen to her didi, her precious little brother?

“Lady Kanna will see you now,” the miko announced, drawing Feihuo abruptly from her thoughts. Sparks danced from her slender tail, drawing the miko’s nervous eyes.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Toriyama replied, not noticing Feihuo’s slip-up. The Hinezumi jogged to match pace with her as they strode into the inner shrine. The moment she entered, Feihuo felt much of the tension leaving her as gentle waves of Kanna’s powerful aura suffused into her. The Inari sat cross-legged upon a raised portion of the room, wearing a white kimono that matched the snow-white fur of her six tails. Mrs. Toriyama offered Lady Kanna a greeting and a bow before kneeling upon one of the many cushions near the Inari.

Feihuo approached and presented the formal greeting of her kind, the Mistborne Hinezumi, before bowing in the more traditional Zipangunese style, and taking a seat next to her mother. Mrs. Toriyama kept her head inclined downward and awaited Lady Kanna’s invitation to speak. Feihuo did likewise.

“A shadow clings to the air,” Kanna announced softly. “An awful burden weighs down upon your family. Speak of it to me, that you might free yourselves of it.”

“It is my son,” Mrs. Toriyama explained, her straight, black hair curtaining the sides of her downturned face. “He experiences nightmares, the likes of which my daughter could better describe, and ones only she can banish. They require her constant vigilance. We long to free Hisashi of this plague. Was he not a gift from the ancestors? So certain were we. Please, Lady Kanna,” she implored, gazing up at the Inari with tearstained eyes. “Tell me how to help him…”

Feihuo imagined the Inari frowning at the news, but kept her eyes on the floor, awaiting her turn.

“Miss Toriyama,” beckoned the Inari, “I call upon your keen insight, heeding your mother’s suggestion. Tell me of the nature of these dreams. I need to know more about them to discern their source.”

Feihuo looked up, meeting Lady Kanna’s sparkling green eyes, narrowed in a concerned frown. “He dreams of a wasteland,” said Feihuo. “Burned. Defiled. Inhabited by ravenous spirits that corrode the will of the living.”

Her mother listened in horror, her fingers lightly covering her open mouth. Neither Feihuo nor her brother had had the heart to tell their mother about the terrible visions before.

Lady Kanna responded somewhat more stoically. “I have heard tell of these images,” she answered. “Of them, they only appear to exceptionally bright and perceptive people, adding further proof to the adage that for whom much is given, much is expected.”

“So, I am to tell my son that these nightmares are natural?!” Mrs. Toriyama snapped before gasping, adding her other hand to the first. “I—I’m sorry, Lady Kanna,” she whispered.

The Inari shook her head, wearing a compassionate smile. “I can only guess at the pain you feel as a mother looking after her treasured son. I imagine I might’ve responded… less eloquently, had he been mine.”

“Is there nothing else we can do?” urged Feihuo.

Tapping her cheek thoughtfully, Lady Kanna rose from her cushion. “Wait here a moment.” She turned and departed, returning before either Feihuo or her mother could fill the silence with conjecture. Returning presently, Lady Kanna knelt upon her cushion and unfurled a scroll, taking a moment to read over ancient script.

“Hmm,” she hummed in thought. “This isn’t the right—oh!” she exclaimed softly, rolling the scroll back up. “I remember now. I left that scroll in the care of the monks of Sento Monastery. They have tasked themselves in the study of maladies, especially those of the mind and spirit. They would be far better a guide to the boy’s freedom than I.”

Feihuo glanced to her mother, who’s face fell. “The monastery is a three-day journey from here,” she said.

“I’ll go,” offered Feihuo.

“You would do that for us?” her mother asked.

Almost taken aback by the question, Feihuo replied, “Of course. You didn’t hesitate when you found me homeless eleven years ago. You didn’t stop loving me when my brother was born. Please, I want to do this for him.”

Tears welled up in her mother’s eyes. Words wouldn’t come.

Lady Kanna answered instead. “The least I can do is offer you my blessing for your selfless desire.”

“I would be grateful,” agreed Feihuo, bowing ever further. She supported herself with her palms flat against the stone floor, only moving when the power of Lady Kanna’s blessing filled her body, inciting the flames on her wrists and ankles. She gasped, jumping back so as not to scorch the cushion.

“Mnn…” gasped Feihuo. Thick, sweet, heady power glowed around the Inari, licking her tails like open flame before drifting off her body and making its way towards Feihuo. The flames on Feihuo’s extremities swelled and brightened, highlighting the glyphs of Mistborne Dragons within. Briefly, the glyphs changed into some she didn’t recognize, before fading away at the end of Lady Kanna’s prayer.

“Go, Feihuo Toriyama,” implored Lady Kanna. “Go, with my blessing.”

Feihuo swallowed, hoping her voice still worked. “Th-thank you,” she stammered, backing out before she risked setting something on fire. The miko that lead her in smiled as she ushered the Hinezumi out, keeping a wide berth and wary eye upon the girl’s flames all the same.

 

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Feihuo’s mother came in as she was packing. “Feihuo,” she said softly.

Turning, Feihuo faced her. “I know what you’re going to say.”

An eyebrow raised. “Oh, you do, do you?” her mother chided. “I simply want to caution you so as to not rest all of your hope on one solution. We do not yet know of any other options.”

“That’s why I’m going,” Feihuo replied. “I’m tired of watching Hisa suffer. It’s about time I sharpened my skills as well.”

Her mother chuckled. “You’re already a master of three martial arts.”

“I’m twenty-one, Mother,” Feihuo reminded her. “Some of my kin have mastered over a dozen arts, married, and had children by now.”

“I suppose Hisashi’s burden has weighed heavily on you,” her mother sighed.

Feihuo blanched. “No!” she protested. “Of course not! I don’t blame anyone, least of all Hisa. I just want…” she trailed off. What did she want? To spare her brother his torment, yes. But what else?

“Something Lady Kanna said worries me,” Mrs. Toriyama mentioned. “Maladies of the spirit? Your father and I speculated that whatever is causing Hisashi’s nightmares might be an evil spirit.”

Feihuo swallowed nervously. Of all the things. She could fight men and animals with peerless cunning and speed, but a spirit? How does one fight something with no corporeal form? Such arts existed, yes, but nothing she’d thus far mastered.

“If that is what it is,” she pledged, “I want to learn how to defeat it. I will defeat it.” Her eyes gleamed with determination.

“Far be it for me to dissuade you from a fight,” her mother conceded. “But please be careful. Borne from another woman you might be, but I love you as my own all the same. If something happened to you, I don’t know what I’d do…”

Both women exchanged tearful glances, and then they were in each other’s arms. “I know, Mother… I’ll be careful. I promise!” Feihuo vowed, her words muffled in her mother’s sleeve. Gentle fingers caressed the back of her head, careful not to disturb her hair clips. The gesture served to galvanize Feihuo against the task she’d set before herself. She’d protect this family, these people who had welcomed her into their home, this she swore to herself.

Mrs. Toriyama bade her goodbye under the noonday sun.

 

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“I wish I could’ve said goodbye to Hisa and Father,” Feihuo lamented as the sun dipped down into the horizon. If she’d waited, Hisashi would have asked her to stay for dinner, and then she would have worried about leaving him alone for another night, so she would have stayed until morning.

Too many would-haves. The time for indecision had passed. Feihuo’s mother remarked upon the trip to Sento taking three days, but that was for a human bearing too many burdens. A Hinezumi, travelling light, could make the journey in one, especially if she ran through the night. With Lady Kanna’s blessing lightening her feet, Feihuo ran with boundless energy, her flames leaving bright trails in the wind. The miles flew by with her feet barely even touching the ground.

That is, until the rain started.

When the first droplet sizzled against Feihuo’s forearm, she fought back a curse. Judging by the flashing in the sky, she’d soon be facing a downpour. Fortunately, the next village had just entered her view. Feihuo sprinted towards it, reaching the inn as fast as she could, but not before a relentless curtain of rain doused her body’s flames.

“Nnngg…” shivered Feihuo as she tiptoed into the inn’s common area. Inebriated voices quieted upon her arrival. She felt accusing eyes upon her, lingering upon her drenched fur and dripping tail. Oh well, better that than the womanly features of her body highlighted by the moisture.

Then it occurred to her. Some of the nearby villagers looked upon yokai as demonic, and this could be one of them. She approached the bar with trepidation, flinching at every loud noise or sudden movement. Ugh. Feihuo hated what water did to her.

“Seven hundred a night,” the innkeeper told her before she even reached the counter. “And if you’re not buying, off with you.”

Definitely one of those towns.

“I have the money,” Feihuo said, working her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering. A fairly muscular man hovered over her as she fumbled in her pack for the coins. Normally she’d have gleefully risen to the challenge of such a gesture, but sopping wet? She just wanted to get out of these damp things, towel off, and sleep away the chill.

Five… Six… Seven hundred. She slid the coins onto the counter one by one.

“I count six hundred,” the innkeeper said. Feihuo glanced over the counter. One of the coins was missing. Had he pocketed it while she was closing up her pack?

“I-I put seven up here!” squealed Feihuo as the muscular man gripped her by the shoulders. “Wait! I have more!” Digging frantically into her pack, she fished out another coin and slapped it down on the counter. The innkeeper shrugged and flippantly tossed her a key that had the number 17 stamped on it. Slipping out of the bouncer’s grasp, Feihuo did her best to make her way up the stairs without attracting too much attention.

Which, of course, ended up with her bumping into someone and spilling his drink.

“You little rat!” hissed the man, snatching out his hand for her. Feihuo squeaked, ducking out of range and darting up the stairs. Shaking with fear, she fumbled with her key at room 17. Footsteps bounded up behind her.

“Come on! Please!” Feihuo sputtered, finally managing to jam the key into the lock.

A firm hand closed around her throat and spun her around, pressing her back into the wall. Stars danced before her eyes as the back of her head connected with the wall. Her hair fan fell from its perch atop her hair, falling past her dangling feet.

“Where do you think you’re going, rat?” growled the man. His breath reeked of cheap alcohol. “You owe me a drink!”

“I didn’t bring that much money!” whimpered Feihuo, flexing her fingers and willing her flames to ignite. No such luck. Exerted from her run and sopping wet besides, she’d be unable to rely on her flames tonight. “Let me go! I’ll see what I have…”

“I can see what you have from here,” the man said, his lewd gaze traveling into her qipao. “I’m not sure I want the money anymore…”

Oh no…

Ancestors preserve her! Feihuo had managed to keep her purity intact, a miracle for most yokai, saving herself for the man she’d marry. She’d be damned if she let someone take that from her.

Closing her eyes, Feihuo pushed her fear aside and fell back on her training. He was drunk and clumsy. Even soaked to the bone, Feihuo still knew how to fight and defend herself. Just needed to wait for the right moment. Hopefully it would come quickly.

It did.

The man set Feihuo down and spun her around, bending her over and flipping the hem of her qipao up over her hips. He paused to unfasten his pants, giving the Hinezumi an opening. Feihuo snapped her right leg back and upwards, straight into the man’s groin. Grunting with surprise, he crossed his legs and teetered unsteadily.

Spinning around, Feihuo knelt, sweeping the man’s legs out from under him. Down he went, collapsing onto the hard, wooden floor. His head smacked into it hard, knocking him out cold. Not keen on waiting around for anyone else to show up, she twisted the key, opened her door, and scooped up her hair fan as she darted inside.

 

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What a miserable night.

Feihuo awoke stiff, cramped, and itchy. The rain managed to soak everything, including her nightclothes, so she’d had to spread everything out on the floor and chairs and sleep nude. At least she was finally dry. Comforting flames caressed her wrists and ankles, and with them, her courage and purpose returned.

No one stood in Feihuo’s way as she strode downstairs, head held high. No sign of the man who attacked her. She shrugged, tossing the key back to the innkeeper, but not before weaving a sleight of hand to heat it up a bit. Giggling softly at him as he fumbled with it, Feihuo made her way for the exit. Her large, round ears perked at hearing something interesting on her way out. Curiosity getting the better of her, she approached the table where she’d heard the rumor.

The men sitting around the table clammed up the moment Feihuo arrived. “What were you saying?” she prompted of their stony-eyed expressions. A familiar muscular hand settled on her shoulder.

“Let’s go,” said the bouncer gruffly.

Feihuo’s smoldering eyes danced up the length of the man’s arm. “That’s a nice arm,” she commented. “Would hate to see it in a sling…”

The bouncer backed off the moment flames erupted from Feihuo’s forearms.

“That’s what I thought,” she sighed, somewhat disappointed. Wouldn’t mind a little practice here and there. When not drenched, that is. “So, what were you saying?” she repeated of the men at the table.

“Just, talk of strange folk abroad,” one of them admitted.

“What kind of strange folk?” pressed Feihuo.

Eyes swept up and down her figure. Pointedly.

The Hinezumi rolled her eyes. “Besides me.”

“Strange men,” said another. “Cursed men.”

Feihuo’s ire withered. “Cursed?”

“Mercenaries,” said another. “And Ronin.”

“No light in their eyes,” another man remarked. “Like they had no soul.”

Something about this felt awfully familiar. Feihuo braced against a chill, despite the warmth of her fur. She waited for the men to continue.

“We will speak no more of this,” they told her, as if reading her mind. “We do not wish to invite evil to descend upon us.”

All eyes rested upon her. She brushed them off as best she could, but she couldn’t deny the fear she sensed all around her. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong. She only hoped she could figure out what it was before it found her.

Feihuo departed from the village, making her way towards neighboring Sento.

 

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Shed light upon the darkness only when prepared to face the truth.

— A teaching of the Inari

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Sento Monastery. At last. Feihuo trudged up the winding steps leading to the stout buildings and courtyards nestled against the mountainside. A brisk wind whipped through the air, fanning Feihuo’s flames. An imposing sight to the untrained eye, but not the monks of Sento.

“Welcome, Mistborne guest,” said the gatesman, bowing deeply to her as she approached. She awaited his rise, returning his gesture of respect with one from her homeland.

“I greet you from Chiyo Village,” Feihuo answered, “And thank you for your welcome.”

The monk pressed both hands together in front of his chest, a gesture that some from the mainland might’ve interpreted as a prelude to prayer, but Feihuo knew better. With his feet firmly placed, the monk could quickly shift to a defensive stance if attacked in his current posture. He smiled warmly back at her, with no hint of malice, only readiness—eternal vigilance. Feihuo’s admiration showed briefly in a slight smile.

“What is it you seek?” he asked of her.

“I seek knowledge,” she replied. “The shadow of a cloud hovers over my brother’s spirit. I seek to learn the source of his nightmares.”

“Are you prepared to face this truth? Even if it is prepared to face you back?”

Feihuo tensed, her hands balling into fists. Her eyes narrowed in determination. “I am.”

“Then proceed.” The monk waved her in through the gates. “And, likewise, may the doors to knowledge be opened for you.”

Bowing slightly, Feihuo entered the courtyard. A subtle magic passed over her as she did so, like walking through a thin curtain of water, without the unpleasantness of getting soaked. What had appeared at first as an empty plaza suddenly bustled with activity. Men and women sparred with staves and shinai, their fluid, dance-like movements a feast for the eyes and soul. Sounds of wood and bamboo clapping together filled the air with almost rhythmic harmony. Elders trained children, human and monster alike, nodding with approval as they wove their small bodies in the intricate katas of their art.

Feihuo sighed with delight, the tension melting from her body. Yes, yes, this would be perfect. But, where to begin? Somewhat weary from her journey, she decided to peruse the scrolls first. Weaving her way carefully through the throng, another pleasurable thought crossed her mind: No one cast her any pointed stares or even so much as considered her out of place.

“Why did I not come here sooner?” Feihuo asked herself. Peace, tranquility, harmony; these things she always sought for herself, even whilst training and honing her fighting skills. Perhaps she ought to bring Hisashi here?

Hisa…

Worry gripped Feihuo’s heart anew as she set foot inside the library. There had to be an answer for what troubled his dreams. If there was, it would be here. But what if it wasn’t? A monk guided her to a collection of scrolls relating to spirit possession and dark intent. She barely responded to him, her mind preoccupied with what could possibly cause such night terrors.

Gently, Feihuo plucked one of the scrolls from its container, stilling her flames and focusing her vision. She scanned the contents, set it aside, and fetched another. And another. Her mind spun with theories, losing all track of time.

What could it be? What could it possibly be? The dreams plagued him night after night, but Feihuo could hold them off with the power in her flames. Could her comforting presence simply be putting him at ease? Or was there some deeper connotation?

The scrolls spoke of ancient evil that could overshadow a person’s mind and take dominion of his body, forcing him to say and do things against his will. Others touched on the possibility of a man seduced by temptations that drew him to pursuing power that resided beyond the mortal realm. One scroll hinted at a place where misery and suffering could be harnessed and channeled into a weapon.

Feihuo shivered at the thought.

Still, all of this sounded like the dark ages before the Demon Lord came to power. Her overpowering will banished such evil thoughts from the hearts and minds of monsters everywhere. What force still existed that could do such things to a man?

“Wait,” whispered Feihuo. Rummaging through the scrolls on the table, she quickly skimmed one. “Desired power from beyond the mortal realm,” she murmured. “A place where misery and suffering… Ancient evil, realm of dark dominion…” Suddenly, it became clear to her.

 “None of this comes from our world.” She shivered at the realization. And the ramifications.

Were there any places outside Maou’s influence?

A place where monsters were still monsters. Where the lingering souls of the vengeful dead still hungered for the flesh of the living. The thought of it chilled Feihuo to the bone. This place, if it truly existed, beckoned to her brother nearly every night.

“But how do I stop it?” she demanded of the scrolls.

The old parchment did not answer.

Sighing in defeat, Feihuo slumped back in her chair, crossing her arms under her breasts.

“I’ve heard that sound before,” said a gentle, matronly voice.

Feihuo sucked in a breath and turned in her chair, gripping the table’s edge. Her eyes swept across the tall woman who stood smiling down upon her. Gentle lines and creases marked the woman as one of many years, yet her radiant beauty remained unbesmirched by age or toil. Curtains of black, glossy hair streaked in the elegant silver of long-lived life draped her sides, not a strand out of place. Though she wore the simple garb of a servant, Feihuo detected a potent aura within the woman. One that commanded respect.

“What’s the matter, little mouse?” she asked, her lips curved in a kind smile. “You look lost in the woods.”

“I—I haven’t been able to find a cure for my brother’s nightmares,” Feihuo admitted, slapping a hand across her lips. She’d spoken without a second thought.

The woman chuckled, gathering up dozens of scrolls in her arms and… in her hair. Her strands of silver and jet bundled the scrolls back together with astonishing precision and care. “The answer may lie closer than you think,” she suggested. “Maybe, instead of finding a cure, find the cause?”

“But I don’t know the cause,” Feihuo protested. Once the words began, they tumbled out of her like water from a cracked cistern. “Ever since he was six, my brother’s been having nightmares. Awful nightmares. He dreams of a place that none of us have ever seen. He dreams of monsters that never existed, or, at least, no one has ever recorded seeing. My flames are the only things that stop them.”

“Have you asked yourself why?” the Kejourou prompted.

“Why what?”

“Why do your flames shield your brother from his fears?”

Feihuo shrugged. “Maybe they comfort him.”

“Or?”

“Or—Maybe what’s hurting him can’t reach him with me in the way…” Realization began to dawn upon Feihuo.

“So, the question you should be asking,” the custodian suggested, “Is not what could cure your brother, nor what he fears, but what fears you.

“What fears me?” Feihuo echoed. Her skin tingled with goosebumps. “I never thought—goodness. Who—who are you?”

“I am called Miyako,” the Kejourou answered, bowing at the hip. Her hair did not slide from its position, as it would a human’s. It stayed fixed by her sides.

“I’m Feihuo,” the Hinezumi said, standing from her chair and meeting the woman’s bow with her own. It occurred to Feihuo she’d offered her given name freely, but so had the Kejourou.

Miyako chuckled softly. “I sense you still have many questions.”

“Why are you a maid?” Feihuo blurted out, slapping her hand over her mouth again. What the Hell was the matter with her today!?

Miyako seemed not to mind. Glancing over her shoulder as she sorted the scrolls back on their shelves, she replied, “I’ve found the greatest joy in life can be attained by serving those I cherish with the simplest of deeds. I cannot speak for all, of course. Many lies deceive well-meaning people, leading them down dark paths in the pursuit of happiness. Some seek power. Others, fame. Many, to rule. These are hard goals to attain, the pursuit of which corrodes the soul to the point that it can no longer feel love.” Her eyes drifted away as she finished her thought.

Miyako’s words echoed in Feihuo’s mind. She found herself eager to know more. “Are some not called to rule?”

“Oft times, those called to rule do not yet know it, until that duty is thrust upon them. Others refuse the calling until the uttermost end of need drives them to accept. Only then do they realize that ruling is simply service. A responsibility. The giving of one’s life for many.”

Nodding, Feihuo recalled several times in history she’d learned of that being the case. “What about me?” she asked suddenly.

The black-and-silver haired Kejourou turned to her, having swept the table clean of dust. “All of us are called to serve a purpose. What do you believe your calling to be?”

“My family adopted me,” Feihuo said. “Took me into their home and into their lives. My place is with them, but I do not know if I can help them by staying with them. I don’t know what to do!” she cried suddenly, tears of bitterness clinging to her lashes.

A cool, gentle hand brushed the side of Feihuo’s face. “You will.”

Feihuo looked up, turning. “But how—” she started to say. Her voice caught in an empty room.

The Kejourou had gone.

 

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Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.

— Mist proverb

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Feihuo huddled alone on an old, wooden bench, watching the stars appear in the twilight, her thoughts as restless as the mountain breezes. A gentle burn colored her cheeks, and not from the sake the monks had prepared for the meal she’d shared. Her soul felt, for lack of a better word, exposed. She never considered herself a very private person, but for someone else to so easily look right through her? It unsettled her, to say the least.

The soft crunching of footsteps upon sand drew Feihuo from her fleeting meditation. A monk approached, carrying a bowl of something that steamed in the wind. His movements were deliberate. Pronounced. Feihuo suspected the man capable of moving much more fluidly and silently. He hadn’t wished to startle her.

“I often come here to commune with the Celestials,” said the monk as he paused beside her. “If my presence disturbs you, there are other—”

“No, it’s all right,” Feihuo assured him, gazing back up at the stars as he sat beside her.

The monk set his bowl down between them. Fresh sake, still hot. “Beautiful, are they not?” he said, slowly tracing one of the constellations. “Someone once told me, the gods face everyday challenges, the same as we do. These challenges manifest themselves in nature. The sun rises and falls. Warmth and chill chase each other across the land, with rushing wind and raging storms protesting the change.”

An interesting observation. Feihuo smiled slightly but said nothing.

“Your presence was missed earlier,” said the monk. “Too few of us have had the honor of sparring with one of your caliber.”

“Forgive me,” sighed Feihuo. “I imposed upon your hospitality only to bury my nose in your scrolls.”

“One must never neglect the mind. Deepen your wisdom, and your body will follow.”

“I thought I understood what I needed to do,” the Hinezumi confessed, “Until someone came in and upended everything I thought I knew. I feel… shamed.”

The monk merely chuckled, a familiar chuckle at that. “Ah,” he replied knowingly. “You met Miyako.”

Feihuo gasped, pivoting to face him. “How did you…?”

“She is well known to us, and much revered,” the monk told her.

“I found myself unable to hold my tongue while speaking with her,” Feihuo admitted.

“Her presence does take time to acclimate to,” the monk said kindly. “The mainlanders might call her an Elucidator, or, ‘One with eyes to see the truth.’ But, that is not the case with Miyako. Her presence is more… transcendent. The truth makes itself known around her.”

“An impressive gift,” Feihuo remarked.

The monk nodded sagely. “She visits with all who venture here when the time is right, but to meet her on the first day? Hmm. She must see something special in you.”

“Special? I don’t… To my family perhaps.”

The monk shook his head, the lines in his serene face accentuating his pointed gaze. “No, honored Hinezumi. The ancestors have a rather unique plan for you. Miyako must sense this.”

“I just want to help my brother,” stressed Feihuo. “I’m not trying to be a hero.”

“In saving your brother, would you turn away a plea for help?”

Feihuo’s mouth opened briefly, closing as she considered her answer. Finally, she shook her head. “My parents did not turn away from me when I needed help. And so, neither would I.”

The monk’s smile deepened. “Then you are already a hero.”

The blush from earlier blossomed; Feihuo turned away before the monk noticed. She was already a hero? How could that possibly be true? She’d never performed any feats of valor or bravery. Never saved anyone’s life. Gazing up at the stars, she silently wondered what trials the gods endured up there. Did any of them consider her special?

Feihuo glanced back. The monk sat as still as a statue, meditating on the heavens above. Unwilling to disturb him, she retired to the small room she’d been offered and climbed into bed. Fearing sleep impossible, Feihuo shifted to her side so she could watch the stars twinkle.

The next thing she knew, a terrified scream rent the tranquility of Sento Monastery.

 

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What separates good from evil is upon whom heartfelt motivation is directed.
A desire to do good focuses this motivation on others.
Evil desire is focused solely on one’s self.

— Ying Meihui, Ren Xiongmao Emissary

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With a gasp, Feihuo woke and leapt out of bed. On her toes, she peeked up and out the window. Her eyes swept across a horrifying sight. Sickly, pale-green mist covered the courtyard, and from it, shadowy men snuck, their forms blurred by some kind of magic. Each one carried something.

Or someone.

“They’re taking the children!!”

Feihuo’s hand covered her mouth in shock. She garbed herself faster than she’d ever done, flying from the room and into the open air. All at once, the mist assaulted her senses, blurring her eyes and stinging her nose with the acrid stench of burned flesh and rotting corpses. This—this wasn’t natural! Stamping her foot, she ignited her flames, blasting away whatever magic surrounded her.

Her technique proved effective, but only for a radius of about ten feet. Monks rushed past her, seeking combatants to engage, but their opponents held a solid advantage. They moved through the mist, swift and cunning as serpents. Feihuo needed to do more. She needed to help them!

But those damned cowards stealing the children were avoiding her. Twirling around on the spot, Feihuo fell into the motion of one of her katas, designed to entreat upon a dragon’s essence. No one opposed her. Their mistake. It only took her a few seconds to complete the kata.

With a shout, Feihuo thrust her arms wide, sending a wave of heat into the mist all around her. Half of the courtyard illuminated, searing away the mist and empowering the monks. All of the sudden, several of the aggressors found themselves up against the trained monks of Sento. They dropped their captives and ran—those that could, anyway. Half a dozen fell in the first few moments.

Then, their warriors appeared.

Dressed in ragged, dusty armor, their eyes cold and dead, they stepped forward out of the mist. The rumors had been true! Not to be dissuaded, Feihuo charged, parrying one of the weapons and sending a flaming palm into the warrior’s chest. The man—if he could be called such—slid back several feet before rushing back towards her, as if he’d felt no pain. Feihuo ducked, unwilling to test the effects of the eerie blue-white flames licking the katana being used against her.

Gods—it was pure chaos.

The monks fought valiantly alongside Feihuo, but their opponents attacked with no honor at all, and neither did they make any effort to protect themselves from lethal blows. Several monks fell as they took a dozen unholy warriors with them. In a proper battle, the monks should’ve had the upper hand.

The eerie soldiers kept coming, however, trickling from the mist like roaches from an infested storehouse. A shout from somewhere nearby drew Feihuo’s attention. She looked around frantically for the source.

Miyako.

Standing upon a precipice overlooking the courtyard, Miyako stood, her arms outstretched, and her hair fanned out all around her. With a mighty clap of her hands, a wave of magic washed over the courtyard, dispelling the mist entirely.

At last, the monks began to turn the tide. Until the unthinkable happened.

Miyako gasped as a blade pierced her body, protruding through her chest.

“NO!!” cried Feihuo.

Miyako’s body blurred. Her hair whirled and whipped around, cocooning her completely, as well as crushing the man behind her. When the strands of hair unraveled, only the crumpled armor of the man remained, clattering to the stones in pieces.

“Wh-what happ—” Feihuo gestured wildly at the spot.

“Look out!!” a monk shouted at her.

Feihuo turned, gasping as a blade sliced through the air above her. She instinctively raised her arm to block with her flames, but she already knew what was about to happen. That blade was going to pierce her shoulder and, if not stopped by bone and muscle, cleave its way through her slender body from neck to hip.

That is, if another blade hadn’t stopped it, meeting its edge with a clash of folded steel.

Feihuo did not waste the opportunity, kicking the assailant away in a rush of flames. She gazed up at the silver eyes of the man who’d saved her, but only briefly. He spun on his heels, cleaving one of the soulless with a precise, curved slice of his katana, the blade of which shimmered with the same eerie flames as ones the soulless carried.

A soulless warrior rushed the strange samurai from his unguarded left side. Feihuo leapt into the way, parrying the assault and thrusting out her palm in a fiery blast that knocked the creature back. The man, or what had once been a man, crumpled, his armor clattering in pieces as his body dissolved into ash.

“On your right!” the samurai grunted, deflecting another attack.

Feihuo ducked, twirling in a low leg-sweep, similar to the one she’d used on the drunkard. This time, however, she attacked with the full force of her flames. The soulless man fell to the ground, his legs charred and burned. Feihuo finished him with a punch into the segments of his neck armor.

Like before, the soulless creature crumbled into ash, his armor separating into its collective parts.

Feihuo checked her surroundings carefully for other imminent threats. Finding none, she spared a moment to observe the samurai. His fighting style intrigued her to the point of distraction—she’d never seen moves like his before. The man moved like the wind and struck like thunder, using a longer variant of the same type of weapons as the enemy. How could he? Unless…

Something bumped Feihuo as she knelt to pick up one of the blades from a fallen soulless warrior. The samurai had knocked into her whilst fending off the attacks of three soulless. Twirling around him, she curled her body into a spinning kick that took out the leftmost assailant. Kicking forward, she forced the middle one into the samurai’s waiting blade. The rightmost one turned to her, far too slowly. A chop towards the throat, followed by flip kick, and finally a diving punch ended him.

If only the circumstances could’ve been different—Feihuo hadn’t faced a challenge like this in years!

“On your guard!” the samurai called. “They come. In greater numbers!”

Feihuo tensed. Sure enough, the soulless warriors turned from the monks and began focusing their attacks on the two of them.

“Turn around!” he grunted, facing away from her. “Watch my back, and I will guard yours.”

Feihuo nodded, turning around. “Who are you?” she asked as the first attack came.

The pair focused their attacks at a particularly vicious strike that involved a pair of curved spears. Their bodies pressed in side-by-side, giving Feihuo a closeup glimpse of the man’s eyes.

Silver. Pure, metallic silver, starshot with eerie blue-white light, and filled with the strongest, fiercest determination of anyone Feihuo had ever seen. Determination the likes of which she’d aspired to her entire life. Envy mixed with admiration for the split second she was permitted to gaze at him.

“Behind!” he grunted, shouldering her into position and setting her up for a vicious counterattack. The soulless failed to respond in time, and wasn’t even able to raise his sword before Feihuo’s attack connected. His armor scattered in many different directions, cast apart by the explosion. No longer surprised by the outcome of her kills, Feihuo fell back in step with the samurai.

Individually, she and the samurai were masters of their chosen arts, and, in normal circumstances, could hold their own in nearly any martial combat situation. Feihuo leapt and spun as if in a dance, while the samurai’s sweeping strikes blurred the air they cut through, fast as the eye could see; sometimes faster. Together, no normal threats could’ve penetrated their defense.

These were no normal threats.

The soulless threw themselves tirelessly and fearlessly at the pair, with no regards for how many of their brethren had fallen. Feihuo panted with exertion. Even her stamina had limits.

“How many are there!?” she cried.

The samurai turned to her during a pause in the waves. “Do any of your techniques permit the creation of a concussive pulse?” he asked, his voice tight with urgency.

Feihuo mentally scanned her knowledge of her infused martial techniques. “Maybe—I augment my attacks with searing flames. I’d need something to act as a catalyst for a proper explosion!”

“Get ready to use it,” the samurai urged.

“Where?”

He pointed a gauntleted hand towards… nothing. Wait. Feihuo peered carefully at location his outstretched hand indicated. There! A sliver of darkness, half again as tall as Feihuo herself, similar in appearance to the slit pupil of a demonic eye—though six feet tall and lacking an iris. Within the slender opening, shapes and figures blurred into appearance.

Feihuo stared up at him. “What is it?”

The samurai shook his head. “When the time is right, attack. Do not let anything or anyone distract you.”

Feihuo took a deep breath and nodded. The next wave approached.

The samurai knelt, gathering mana before somersaulting forwards, up and over the dark rift. He twisted around before landing, and faced Feihuo, kneeling into an aggressive stance, and nodded grimly.

Feihuo charged, straight into the throng of newly arrived soulless.

The samurai rushed towards her.

A tear in the world hung between them.

Balling her hand into a fist, Feihuo screamed, focusing all of her remaining mamono mana into her strike. The fur of her right wrist blazed like the sun. She trusted the samurai to meet her with equal and opposite force, or it would likely kill him.

When they connected, a curious ripple of energy surrounded the pair, warping and distorting the area around them. The ground fell away, lifting Feihuo beside the samurai like two dancers pausing mid-step.

In this moment, the samurai whispered his name to her.

Tetsuo Itzal.

After that, she knew no more.

 

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Evil is patient.
It waits, seething in the dark, for the fool to reach in without looking.

— From a sermon of the Church of Lescatié, circa 983

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Feihuo stood upon a precipice. Behind her, the calm tranquility of Sento. In front of her, a dark, corrupted realm of death and decay. The skies writhed in torment, millions of ghostly hands wringing together in silent pain, casting haphazard shadows upon the land with their ethereal light.

There was something in the light. Something morbidly enticing. Feihuo shuddered, alarmed at how her body’s curiosity held her in place. She reached out to touch one of the flames that silently burned against a rocky outcropping.

NO!! I mustn’t!

Feihuo gasped, stepping back into the pure, wholesome light. The dark vision slammed shut in front of her before the entire scene peeled apart like the rending of cloth.

Her eyes snapped open. She laid upon a large table, covered in cushions. The eyes of half a dozen monks peered down anxiously at her. Feihuo attempted to sit up, but one of the monks rested a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Not yet, honored Hinezumi,” he implored. “We feared you might leave us moments ago. You endured a trial too few of us survived.”

Feihuo squeezed her eyes shut, holding them until her vision burned and flashed. Hot tears escaped, trickling across the sides of her face. “Miyako…”

“Worry not, brave one,” said another monk.

“No, you don’t understand,” Feihuo protested, sitting up slightly, propping herself up on her elbows. “She died. I—I saw her run through with a blade,” she told him with a trembling voice.

Some of the monks did indeed step back in alarm at Feihuo’s words, but not the one attending her. “Miyako commands a gift we do not truly understand. I believe you saw what she wanted seen.”

Feihuo gasped with sudden realization. “The magic shielding Sento—that was hers?

The monk nodded.

“What happened?” sputtered Feihuo. “How did they find us? What did they want? Why—”

“Slow down,” urged the monk, cradling her head tenderly as he guided her back down to rest. “Allow yourself to recover. We will protect you.”

But, those were normally her words. For Hisashi. Still, it might be nice to let someone else watch for once. She was so tired. Her eyes fluttered closed.

 

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If something is lost, does its owner not rejoice when it is found? If love blossoms amidst hardship and toil, is not the bond that is formed stronger than most? Do not regard misfortune with anger and contempt. Seek the treasure instead.

— Excerpt from the scrolls of Lin Jingfei, Hakutaku philosopher

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Feihuo dreamt of the past. Of sneaking through the streets, keeping her arms and legs covered with oily rags in order to hide the flames and remain inconspicuous. Having fled the dangerous streets and wilderness of her Mist homeland, Feihuo stowed away on a ship bound for Zipangu. There, she hoped to find an easier time surviving in a land that had yet to label her.

“Street rat.”

“Filthy, disease-carrier!”

She hated these names, but not because of the spite that inspired them. She hated them because they were true. At least, she believed they were true. Dirt, grease, and grime caked over her clothes and body, smothering the flames that had once flickered on her arms and legs. Insects perpetually buzzed around her, attracted by the filth and smell.

Hungry. Always hungry. The more she ate, the more she grew, and the more she grew, the more she needed to eat. She quickly became known as a plague amidst the shopkeeps of her home town. No one left alive remembered her parents—they lived a quiet life, growing their own food and running a small school for children that wanted to study martial arts.

The water ended all that.

Years later, Feihuo learned a terrible quake somewhere in Zipangu caused it. Churned the sea into a force that defied even the will of the gods. She still wasn’t certain how she survived, only that she’d washed up somewhere that had become the new shoreline. She’d never seen any of her friends or family again.

Leaving all that behind hadn’t been a difficult choice.

But now, amidst even the small towns of Zipangu, the respectable owners of restaurants and shops regarded theft in much the same way. Perhaps with less name-calling. Maybe.

So, when Feihuo heard someone coming while she devoured fresh oysters from his storehouse, she hid and prepared herself for another verbal lashing and quick escape. Problem was, the shopkeep was blocking the only exit. His wife joined his side as tense seconds passed. Feihuo stood upon shaky legs, grease dripping from her chin. She dared not even chew.

“Are you lost, little mouse?” the wife asked gently.

“She’s eaten a sizeable portion of my catch,” the husband noted, a resigned tone in his voice.

Feihuo swallowed uneasily, forgetting how full her mouth was. Tension combined with how full her mouth had been caused the food to lodge in her throat. Her eyes widened, and she stumbled backwards, tripping over a stack of pots. Her throat tightened; she couldn’t even cough.

In an instant, the wife’s arms came around her and squeezed in a rather uncomfortable grip. Somehow, whatever the woman had done managed to dislodge the morsel, permitting Feihuo to at last gasp for breath. The girl trembled, coughing as she squirmed, trying to free herself.

A gentle hand upon the top of her head quieted her fear.

“Shhh, it’s all right,” the wife soothed. “Are you still hungry?”

Feihuo glanced up over her shoulder and nodded at the woman.

“She’s lost and alone,” the wife spoke to her husband. “We can spare a little, can’t we?”

“No more oysters,” the husband said. “Too much of those will make her sick. I’ll heat up some rice for her.”

“W-why?” Feihuo strained to say. She hadn’t used her voice for so long…

“With every misfortune, there’s an opportunity for learning,” the wife explained. “A treasure to find, even if it’s very small.”

Feihuo frowned. “I—don’t under—”

“Do you have a home to go to, little one?”

The husband set down a bowl of fried rice before Feihuo. She stared at it for a moment with tears in her eyes. It had been the first time anyone had made food especially for her in quite some time. She glanced back at the man’s wife and shook her head.

The couple exchanged glances—some unspoken communication Feihuo could not discern, but the man took a seat beside her and offered her a cup of water. What he said next, Feihuo would never forget.

“Would you like to stay with us?”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Feihuo’s eyes eased open, bracing against anticipated pain. None came. A few knots and lingering stiffness protested her rising from bed, but nothing major. The rays of late morning light streaked across her face from the nearby window. Lingering dust accentuated the contrast between the outdoors and Feihuo’s room.

Come to think of it, had the room been so dirty before? Dust and ash coated everything, even the water jug the monks had set out for her. Leaving it there, Feihuo slid from bed, found her shoes, and ventured outside.

In the courtyard, the monks of Sento worked to recover from a nightmare. Dark streaks in the pattern of jagged cracks sundered the ground where the unnatural rift had been. Monks worked to fill in the cracks, while others chanted softly, hoping to ease the nearby spirits no doubt agitated by the conflict.

“Welcome back.”

Feihuo turned to find the same monk who she’d stargazed with standing beside her. He’d moved so silently this time, it was as if he’d materialized there. “How bad was it?” she asked softly.

“Much better than it would have been, had you not been there,” he replied. “They took several of the children, but most remain safe and secure.”

“And Miyako, she—she’s…”

The monk seemed unconcerned. “You need not worry about Miyako, brave child.”

“But she died,” stressed Feihuo. “I saw it.”

The monk merely smiled and shook his head. “With Miyako, all is not what it seems.”

“What about the samurai?”

The monk inclined his head.

“The one who fought beside me?” Feihuo reminded him. “Tetsuo Itzal.”

A brief flare of emotion kindled within the monk’s eyes. Feihuo had never before seen the like. Anger. Fear. Loathing. Disdain. He shook his head, tight-lipped and stony-faced.

“Stay away from that man,” he warned. “His ill intent is not welcome here.”

Feihuo stepped back from the monk’s ire, averting her eyes. “But, he helped us,” she protested, looking back up. Her words fell on bitter wind, for the monk had already departed, halfway up the hill. Feihuo cast her gaze back to the courtyard and the somber mood that descended upon it. She wanted to help, but felt she would just have been in the way. The monk’s ire troubled her, though.

Feihuo could feel it—a nagging curiosity, one that so often got her into the worst trouble as a child. She knew she should heed the elder’s warning. She also knew she was going to search anyway. There was no point in resisting. Besides, if the man truly did harbor ill intent, perhaps he knew where the children had been taken.

Her mind made up, Feihuo went back to her room, gathered her things, and set out in search of the mysterious samurai.

 

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Even venomous creatures respect nature.

— Unknown

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Feihuo sighed, stabbing at the crackling logs at her feet with a sharp stick. The elder monk’s words continued echoing in her mind, tumbling about, wrestling with her uncertain conscience.

“Would you turn away a plea for help?”

“You are already a hero.”

“All is not what it seems.”

“His ill intent is not welcome here.”

The fire snapped back at Feihuo as the log in front of her split in two. Embers danced and soared into the chilly night air. Reaching into the flames, Feihuo considered what the monk had said. All wasn’t as it seemed, so, could that not also apply to the samurai?

A tongue of flame danced in Feihuo’s hand as she leaned back, recalling her search thus far. The outlying villages certainly seemed to agree with the monk; none of them wished to help her. Simply mentioning the samurai’s name drummed up enough animosity to have her thrown out on three separate occasions. Those that would talk to her spoke only of a man of dark intent; a samurai who’d slain his own master in search of greater power than what the old sensei had been willing to teach him.

Feihuo sighed bitterly. An entire day of searching, and not only had she come up empty, none of the villages would even let her stay at their inns. All for mentioning one man. What was it about this person? What could he possibly have—

Feihuo tensed, glancing over her shoulder. Too dark to see for sure, but she felt eyes upon her. “I know you’re there,” she growled, standing up and settling into a defensive stance. Flames burned on her wrists and ankles. “Show yourself,” she growled.

She heard his voice before he entered her view.

“Why did you not heed the monk’s warning?”

A brief shiver of fear flushed through Feihuo’s body, serving only to brighten her flames. She knew the voice belonged to Tetsuo, but the one speaking to her was of another. A different mind. An opposing will.

The samurai stepped into view, his blade drawn and held idly by his right side, not a stance often chosen by samurai, who only drew their weapons when their intent was to protect. Or kill. He stared back at Feihuo with the same death in his eyes as the soulless they’d both fought together.

“Is it true?” the Hinezumi demanded. “What they say about you.”

Tetsuo paused in mid-step. “It is.”

Swallowing to clear her dry throat, Feihuo struggled with the contrast the man presented her. “I don’t understand,” she said unsteadily. “You and I. We fought that evil together. That evil, it—” she paused, gasping. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t…

“Yes, I admit,” came his cold reply, “I found myself rather taken with you, so I wanted to evaluate your skills. You will make a fine match for me. Come. All it will take is one cut. Shed your mortality and stand beside me.”

Eerie blue-white flames began to flicker on the end of Tetsuo’s blade.

“Never,” hissed Feihuo.

“Don’t—” snapped Tetsuo suddenly. “Run—”

“I never run from a fight,” she told him, “And I don’t normally fight to kill, but for you, I will make an exception.”

Breaking into a charge, Feihuo opted to close the distance with her adversary as to limit his ability to utilize the wide sweeping attacks he’d displayed the day before. He moved surprisingly predictably, much unlike yesterday, giving her ample opportunity to strike. She landed a solid blow on his side, knocking him off balance, and opening him up for a series of follow-throughs. Each of them landed cleanly, but the man barely winced. She might’ve well been striking a mat.

Tetsuo took advantage of her confusion and kicked back at her, sending her sprawling several feet. A wide slice went for her middle, quite possibly capable of cleaving her in two. She ducked just in time, twirling around with one of her signature leg sweeps.

The samurai merely leaped over her attack, countering with a short series of gashes. Only Feihuo’s flames saved her from the ghostly steel as she locked her arms in a cross block. Was he only taunting her with his threat, or would she truly become like one of them if he managed to draw blood? She always believed one day she’d be asked to give her life for someone she loved. And she would not turn from such a duty.

But to become a soulless monster? The thought sent sickly shudders of dread through her entire body. What would become of her? What of Hisashi?

Feihuo shook her head, gritting her teeth. Tetsuo’s attacks came faster and with greater precision. Gods! Ancestors! Would any of them, gazing from up above, be watching and hear her? Would they help? Could they even?

Wait. The Inari blessing.

“I come with the blessing of the Inari,” Feihuo chanted. “Through strength and vigilance, we earn peace. So comes the wrath and might of the storm, from which all creatures flee.”

Flames blazed bright as lightning upon Feihuo’s wrists. She cried out and threw a punch, meeting Tetsuo’s slash directly. Feihuo closed her eyes, taking a risk and placing all of her faith in Lady Kanna. Foxes were fickle creatures, and even the Inari, enlightened and serene in their graceful majesty, were known to tease and deceive on rare occasion.

Her blow landed, knocking the blade from Tetsuo’s grip. Flaring pain bloomed in Feihuo’s hand, but she caught him in the shoulder, all the same. The two of them tumbled in the dirt briefly before Tetsuo cast her off of him. Standing, he nursed an obvious sprain in his shoulder.

Feihuo rose a few feet away, not daring to inspect her hand. “Still, you stand?” she hissed. “Go back to the Hell that sent you.”

“Feihuo, wait—”

The shock of his knowledge of her name caught her off guard, though not enough for her to stand down. She screamed, leaping towards him with a vicious flying kick. The flames covering her body streaked like lightning through the sky. Still, the samurai met her unflinchingly, parrying her blows as she bellowed curses at him.

“It was you!!” she cried. “You led them there! So they could take the children! Why? Why!?

If the samurai replied, Feihuo failed to hear it. Flames roared in her round ears, along with the rush of her breath and the ring of her cries. She attacked with passionate abandon, and the more Tetsuo blocked or parried her assault, the angrier she grew. Her vision blurred, bitter tears stinging her eyes. Miyako… The children. Gone. Over a dozen monks dead. Because of him!!

It had to stop! She had to stop him!!

“NO!!” screamed Feihuo as a savage attack sent her spinning and crashing to the ground. Stars danced in her eyes, ringed with blood. Blood… he’d drawn blood. Feihuo struggled to rise, only to collapse as Tetsuo came down upon her, flipping her over onto her back and pinning her arms above her head.

Struggle as she might, she couldn’t move.

“Noo!!” she cried, her anger fading into helpless moaning. “It’s you… it can’t be you!!”

“Feihuo, stop struggling!

“How could it be you!?” she sobbed nonetheless. “How could it be you, the one who defeats me?”

Tetsuo transitioned her wrists to one hand, presumably to finish her off. A mistake. She managed to free one of her hands and struck out with a desperate palm strike against his breastbone. She expected to either fail miserably, or to hear the horrific crunch of breaking bone. A mortal injury.

To her astonishment, she experienced neither. A blast of twisted light erupted from him instead, along with a cry of uttermost agony from the samurai. The light enveloped them both, robbing Feihuo of her consciousness.

Her last memory was of a heavy weight landing atop her.

Crushing her.

 

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Well, where should I run to?
What do you think of Zipangu, which I’ve only heard about from stories?

— The Wandering Scholar

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“Yeah, that’s right, run away!” the cruel child teased.

Feihuo cringed, griping her tail tightly in her small hands. “Please, don’t pour that on me,” she whimpered. Only faint steam remained of the flames on her arms after having been doused with a bucket of water.

“You’re a rat!” giggled the girl, holding up another bucket the boy next to her had offered. “A dirty, smelly rat! Doesn’t matter than you’re trying to dress all fancy. Maybe this’ll clean you up!”

Icy water gushed all over Feihuo’s trembling body, sapping her of any strength she might’ve had left over. She trembled, crumpling to the ground in a soggy heap as the children laughed. Their words added to the misery of the water seeping into every one of her pores, stripping her of the warmth and protection of her kin. These were the same kinds of insults she’d received in her Mist homeland after having been rendered homeless. Same insults, different language.

More than anything, all Feihuo ever wanted was to be loved. Her new family had picked out a pretty white and gold cheongsam for her to wear to school. She’d been so proud of it, but the children reacted with scorn. Maybe she ought to simply dig a hole for herself and disappear?

A teacher arrived, grumbling with frustration to shoo off the bullies. “Toriyama,” he called softly, reaching out a hand for her.

Feihuo blinked droplets out of her eyes. Warmth as meek as a candle kindled in her heart. Toriyama. The name of her adoptive parents. The name that was now her own. Just hearing it helped soothe the despair clouding her thoughts. She took the teacher’s hand and received an early escort home.

Upon arriving, her father gathered her up in his arms. “Feihuo, what happened?” he asked, stroking the back of her head between her round ears. His warmth bled into her, reminding her that she did indeed belong somewhere. She belonged with them.

The teacher spoke first. “I caught some students teasing her. Please accept my sincere apologies, Mr. Toriyama. They will be dealt with shortly.”

“Thank you for bringing her to us,” Feihuo’s father replied, taking her back inside.

“I-I wanted to—wear—this…” stammered Feihuo as her mother came in.

“Have a seat, Feihuo,” she said, setting down a tray full of teacups and a steaming kettle. “We have a surprise for you.”

Feihuo’s eyes widened and she obeyed promptly. Her dress still clung damply to her skin. She ignored it in eager anticipation.

“Feihuo,” her father began. “First, I wanted to ask you a question. Why did you flee to Zipangu and leave your homeland behind?”

The girl averted her eyes while considering her father’s question. “Everywhere I went, I saw families,” she explained. “Something I couldn’t have anymore. I could’ve run anywhere, I guess? I don’t know. I just, sort of ran.” She met their eyes as best she could. The explanations of a despondent child. She wished she could have done better.

“Want to know what I think?” her father asked. She nodded. “You came here because you were meant to come here. So that you could join our family.”

“But I didn’t know—”

Her father interrupted her with a raised hand. “That doesn’t matter,” he said, a warm smile on his face. “Everything happens for a reason. Even misfortune.”

Feihuo nodded slowly. She wasn’t sure she believed him yet, but it sure sounded nice.

“We told you, didn’t we?” he reminded. “We don’t have any children because we haven’t been able to.”

The girl nodded again. “It’s why you wanted me, right?”

“That was only part of it,” her mother said. “We felt you were meant to come to us, and—and—” she paused, emotion choking her voice. Tears welled up in her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Feihuo asked.

Her mother didn’t answer. She covered her mouth in a napkin and glanced to her husband.

“Feihuo, it seems the ancestors are pleased with our decision to take you in,” he said. “They’ve decided to reward us. Because of you.”

“Because of me?” Feihuo echoed, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. “What happened?”

“Your mother is with child,” her father said, his proud smile framed with tears. “You’re going to have a brother or sister, someday soon.”

 

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Even a device designed for evil can be used for good.

— Enna, the Beholder

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Feihuo awoke to the sound of water. Droplets upon canvas. Rain. She braced for the malaise that always followed being doused, but none came. She remained clean and dry. Creaking open an eye, she glanced up and noticed a shroud had been erected directly above her, using the low-hanging branches of a tree for support.

She gasped. The samurai.

A quick pat-down of herself revealed no serious injury, save for the bandage around her right hand. She poked the back of her hand gingerly. It felt—strange. Not painful. Presumably Tetsuo had bandaged it, and discarded her gloves. Feihuo wore gloves everywhere she went, generally to protect others from the heat. She felt almost naked without them. Not a good feeling to be had with a strange man nearby.

Sure enough, as she peeked out from under the tarp, Feihuo spied the samurai, standing off to himself in the rain, which had thankfully been tapering off. Her heat aura would handle the rest. She stepped outside.

“You recovered quickly,” he noted, not turning around. To show his back to her after all they—wait…

“What is the meaning of this?” Feihuo said tersely, buffeting her flames against the dripping boughs.

Glancing over his shoulder, he peered cautiously at her. “Have you suffered any ill effects?”

It was as if the honorable man she’d first met had returned, and the specter she’d fought was merely a nightmare. If only she hadn’t the bruises to show for it. “I’ll be fine,” she assured him, her voice remaining tight with unease. “Tell me what’s going on. Who are you? Who are you really?”

“I owe you an apology, though there can be no excuse for what I have done.”

Much to Feihuo’s astonishment, the samurai turned and knelt before her, laying his sheathed katana at her feet. “I have treated with the darkest of evil, and it gazed back at me, its eyes cold with death. I could not look away. From the moment I glimpsed into its pitiless depths, I discovered that not all light is true. Not all is pure. Some light hungers. It crept within me, wielding me like this weapon, the demonic blade, Yamigarasu, I now lay before you.”

Feihuo swallowed hard, her heart pounding beneath her breast. Still, she had to know. “They say you killed your master.”

“Wielding me as its own, the fell spirit that inhabited me perpetrated many crimes,” Tetsuo explained, “The greatest of which, the taking of life for its own. Yes. It is true.”

Pity now weighed against anger in Feihuo’s mind, each side tipping as Tetsuo’s words reached her. But how could she be sure?

“I have no one to blame but myself,” he told her, unable to meet her eyes. His gaze remained at her feet. “I have failed in my duty as a samurai, and as a kohai. By rights, this blade belongs nowhere but lodged firmly within my heart. Yet I feel a quick death is too kind a judgement for me, so I leave it to you. The one who set me free.”

Feihuo gasped. “Set you free?”

Tetsuo rose, but only from the hip. He pulled aside his upper armor to expose the ashen remains of a powerful sigil, a grisly spectacle garnished upon a canvas of flesh.

All of the color drained from Feihuo’s face. She’d seen that sigil before. Her brother scrawled it for her one morning. The image, and others like it, featured prominently in his dreams.

“You have seen the like?” Tetsuo asked her, meeting her gaze at last.

She nodded. “It is the source of my brother’s nightmares.” Yes. She was sure of it now. Tetsuo said nothing, his expression difficult to read. “Tell me,” she urged, “Did you also dream of it?”

“I did,” the samurai admitted. “It appeared to me as a brilliant fire. Not a flame of warmth, like yours, but of coldness and hunger. To my shame, it fascinated me. I reached out and touched it, and from that moment, I knew little more than fleeting moments of lucidity for months.”

Something still felt off to Feihuo. “When you were with me in Sento, you fought them.”

“I followed you there,” he said.

“You led the evil there…”

“To my shame, I did,” Tetsuo confessed. “However, when I snuck in through a crack in the monastery’s outer walls, the soulless flame within me withered. Its brethren attacked moments later, but its hold on me remained suppressed. I thought if I could fight them back into their domain, I would be free.”

“But when you left, it took you again,” she finished for him.

“Yes.”

“The thing inside you,” Feihuo noted, “It called out to me. It wanted me.”

Tetsuo smiled slightly, the first time she’d seen it. “You burn brightly, like a hundred suns. The soulless within me strongly desired to possess you.” He hung his head, returning to his position of piety. “I fought its efforts to claim you and I failed. I leave my fate in your hands.”

Feihuo considered granting his request. Strongly. If she hadn’t met the man who fought alongside her that day, she might’ve chosen to end him. Problem was, she’d seen the other side of him, the side that now spoke to her with remorse and despair. She shook her head.

“You didn’t fail,” she said at last.

Tetsuo looked up, his brow knotted in confusion.

“I saw you struggling for control while that monster tried to kill me,” she said. “Many times, it had the opportunity to end me, and would have, had you not distracted it and fought against it.”

Tetsuo seemed to consider her words, nodding after a moment. “Something about you interfered with its control. And when you struck the sigil, the soulless’ grip upon me fell away.”

“You are free?” Feihuo asked.

“I cannot be certain,” the samurai admitted. “Which is why I ask that you consider your choice carefully. If that evil seeks to claim me again, neither one of us may be so fortunate as before.”

Feihuo balled her hands into fists. Her flames swelled. “Then, we destroy it,” she snarled.

Tetsuo cocked his head in contemplation. “That will be difficult, but not impossible.”

“Tell me how,” Feihuo demanded.

“Like any flame, cut off its source of fuel, and it will wither and die,” the samurai explained.

“Dare I ask what its fuel is?”

“Life,” answered Tetsuo. “Souls. The strong and the innocent.”

Feihuo shivered. “Miyako and the children…”

“They will not be satisfied with just them, for the soulless were denied many at Sento.”

“Do you know where they might strike next?”

Tetsuo rose, gripping his sheathed katana. He held it out for her. “I do. Does this mean you have made your choice?”

“Prove to me you are an honorable man,” Feihuo said, taking his katana and presenting it back to him. “Help me defeat this evil. Make them regret giving you such power as this.”

Tetsuo nodded, strapping the blade back to his side.

“I shall. You have my word.”

 

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Freedom comes at a cost.

— Roper Queen Ashlynn

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Feihuo and the samurai emerged from the shade of the woods and into the pre-morning light. “Which way?” she asked him.

“Shimohei Village,” Tetsuo answered, indicating they head east. “It is not far. I only hope we are not too late.”

“Then, we run,” Feihuo said. “I hope you can keep up with me.”

Narrowing her eyes at the horizon, she took off, the soreness and stiffness complaining with every bound. She paid them no mind, allowing the aches and pains to remind her of her recent defeat. Her mind kept revisiting the moment. Before her mother had died, she spoke to Feihuo of the tradition of the Hinezumi and how they find their mates. She’d traveled the world in search of him, challenging various masters to duels and defeating them every time. She’d almost given up hope.

And then, her mother met a man that fought with wild abandon, yet with no malice. He fought simply for the thrill of the challenge, just as she did. The match lasted over an hour. In the end, he defeated her, winning her heart as a prize.

Feihuo’s defeat, on the other hand, came at the hands of a man who could barely control himself, and she’d lasted mere minutes against him. What did that say about her? Was she so weak as to be won so easily?

“Feihuo, stop!!”

With a gasp, she skidded to a halt. The village was in eyeshot. Why had he—

Tetsuo rested a hand on her shoulder. “Be still a moment. Something is amiss.”

Feihuo’s skin tingled where he’d touched her; a slight warmth radiated from the spot. She shuddered, bracing for a wave of revulsion. None came. Her heart beat a little faster, but that was all.

“There,” the samurai said, pointing at nothing in particular. Feihuo approached slowly, but Tetsuo gestured for her to hold her position. “Stay back,” he warned, gripping his blade tightly. With a single sweeping motion, the samurai drew his blade from the scabbard and lashed out at the air. It connected with some sort of transparent spell, which shattered, crumpling like scorched parchment as it peeled away from her vision.

An obfuscation spell. Just like…

“Miyako’s power…”

She rushed towards the village, only to snap to a halt in Tetsuo’s firm grip.

Wait, Feihuo.”

The Hinezumi’s face flushed with embarrassment and some other emotion she couldn’t identify. All she knew was, Tetsuo’s rigid arm held her body against him. She felt briefly dwarfed by his taller, broader presence. Why was this affecting her so? She shook her head slightly, gazing back towards the village.

Oh…

“We’re too late…” she said softly, relaxing against the samurai’s hold.

“And there are no doubt numerous traps left for us,” he said, slowly letting go of her. “We should proceed with caution.”

Feihuo nodded, flexing numb fingers as she carefully followed the samurai into the village. The scene played out in surreal, ashen coldness. Huts, homes, buildings, farms, all burned their frames by cold fire, leaving behind strange, black clumps of charred waste. Here and there, scraps of cloth and clothing fluttered through the cheerless breeze. The air tasted bitter and dusty.

Quiet… So quiet. No birds or insects dared break the morbid silence. Only the slight crunch of crisp, burnt soil reached Feihuo’s ears. She noticed the samurai avoiding darker patches, as well as seemingly-untouched areas, and could only guess at his reasoning. He knew the evil’s motives and thought processes, and for the moment, she trusted him.

“It’s gone,” whispered Feihuo. “It’s all gone…”

“Not all. Not yet.”

She glanced up, nearly bumping into him. Tetsuo pointed towards a small hill off-center from what remained of the village square. The shrine.

“Surely the Inari couldn’t have survived?” Feihuo lamented. “She’d have given her life to shield the village from such a travesty.”

“Unless they made her watch,” Tetsuo replied darkly.

Feihuo swallowed the bile rising in her throat. “Why—why would the soulless come here?” she asked.

Tetsuo began picking his way across the charred streets. “Because of the new life blossoming here,” he explained. “The Inari was preparing a ritual to infuse her miko with Kitsune-bi. The soulless wanted this pleasure for themselves.”

Gritting her teeth against the sick anger festering within her, Feihuo followed closely, almost wishing she hadn’t asked. They passed through the torii, which somehow remained intact, and entered the shrine. Everything else had been destroyed. Even the water used for purification had been reduced to black ash. There was nothing. Just nothing.

“They didn’t even leave the body,” Feihuo said upon setting foot inside the remains of the shrine. She hung her head, wiping tears from her eyes. Tetsuo halted her, again with his hand upon her shoulder. She found the touch oddly reassuring, though her flames dimmed with the fading hope in her heart.

“I sense her life,” Tetsuo announced. “She still clings to it.”

“Where?” asked Feihuo, meeting his gaze. He took her hand in his, guiding her carefully to kneel beside him.

“Here.” He pointed down at what would have been the floor. “Burn it.”

“It’s already ash?”

Tetsuo only gestured more pointedly.

Shrugging dispassionately, Feihuo complied, spreading out her palm and sending heat into the floor. Much to her surprise, something beneath the ash reacted to her flames and popped open. It would have smacked right into her, had Tetsuo not taken hold of her and jumped back. His hands gripped her bare arms tightly, surprising her with his strength.

“A door?” she said. Tetsuo released her, and they inched towards it together, with Feihuo being the first to peer down. “I sense it, now!” she cried, leaping into the hole.

“Feihuo, wait!!”

Feihuo dropped a bit farther than she’d judged the distance, landing roughly upon her feet. Her flames illuminated a small chamber with a figure lying crumpled upon the floor nearby. A tangle of strewn fur and crumbling clothing was all that remained of the village Inari. As Feihuo drew nearer, the nature of the woman’s wounds became clear.

None of Feihuo’s training could have prepared her for what she saw. Strange markings etched into the Inari’s flesh, cut with knives, stones, or whatever else the attackers had on hand. Feihuo could scarcely guess at their intent. Turning from the sight, she squeezed her eyes shut until they burned. She doubled over, retching, attempting to vomit up the horror she’d just witnessed. Her mind reeled, begging to have been anywhere but here. She could almost feel herself separating from her own body.

And then, Tetsuo was there.

Gathering up her trembling body, the samurai held her against him, tightly gripping her against his chest as she continued to void the contents of her stomach. She couldn’t… she just couldn’t. Such evil shouldn’t exist! It couldn’t exist! If this was truly the source of her brother’s nightmares, how could she possibly—

“…closer…”

Coughing, Feihuo gasped, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “W-was that–?”

“Life,” said Tetsuo, relaxing his grip on her.

Feihuo slipped from his grasp and quietly knelt by the Inari, tenderly tucking aside sticky, matted hair from the woman’s face. Through all the pain and misery the woman must’ve felt, she still managed a smile.

“…you found me…”

“I’m so sorry,” Feihuo sniffled. “We came too late…”

The Inari shook her head as best she could, reaching up for Feihuo with a bloodstained hand. “…they wanted to break me,” she explained as best she could. “…they do not understand—the true nature of what opposes them…”

“Help me understand,” implored Feihuo.

“…you already know…”

“I don’t!” Feihuo protested. Hot tears fell from her cheeks. “Please tell me! I’ve been fighting this evil for so long!”

The Inari shuddered, gripping Feihuo’s hand tenuously. “…not—yet—mmph—I must…” she coughed, gazing up at Tetsuo. “…you…”

Feihuo glanced back at the samurai, who could not bear to meet the Inari’s gaze. “I am not worthy to stand in your presence,” he said.

“…you will listen,” the Inari answered as forcefully as she could. “…she is—the light—in the darkness. Protect—her…”

Tetsuo turned back to the Inari, his eyes wide in amazement. “After what I have done, you would still trust me?”

“…I—forgive—you…”

Feihuo’s jaw went slack. These two knew each other? She glanced at Tetsuo, who fell to his knees, his face in his hands.

“…Promise—me…”

Fists on his knees, Tetsuo bowed and nodded. “You have my word.”

The Inari’s eyes settled back on Feihuo, but her strength was fading. Her hand slipped from Feihuo’s grasp and settled on the girl’s thigh. “…I—give you—my…”

Feihuo sucked in a breath to stifle a sob, reaching for the Inari’s hand. It felt different this time. Lifeless. She gasped again, shuffling back. The Inari’s eyes stared ahead. The light within them had passed at last.

“She’s…” Feihuo tried to say. Tetsuo’s hand rested on her shoulder, steadying her as he reached for the Inari.

“Go now, Noriko,” he said reverently, his fingers brushing her eyes to close them. “Claim your place amongst the stars.”

 

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The truest love can neither be bought nor bartered for.

— Comtesse Vanisa de Gwynn

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The small ceremony Feihuo and Tetsuo held for Noriko took them the better part of the day, but Feihuo felt she needed to do this. The Inari’s passing weighed heavily on Tetsuo, and she longed to ask him why. Doing so would reach into fresh wounds, so she held her tongue. When he was ready, he would tell her.

“Would that we had time for the entire ritual,” Tetsuo lamented. “She deserved better.”

No words of comfort became apparent to Feihuo to say, but one thing grew vividly clear: she no longer doubted the samurai’s sincerity. He would stand by her side until he too joined Noriko in the afterlife.

They departed the village in silence. Questions gathered in Feihuo’s mind like thunderclouds, each one darker than the last. She glanced back at the samurai, who followed at her left, slightly behind her. Briefly she sensed that same sensation within her—a gentle reassurance. This feeling continued to perplex her, for she trusted others without feeling this way. Her adoptive parents, for instance. She loved them dearly. And her brother, Hisashi. She’d give her life for him if the cause arose. Sometime soon, it just might.

But Tetsuo? She trusted him in a different way. She trusted him to protect her. Such a strange feeling! She never even knew she craved that feeling before now. He met her gaze briefly before focusing back on the road in front of her.

“I sense you have many questions,” he said at last.

Feihuo nodded, turning back to the road. “Tell me about this evil that defies the will of the Demon Lord.”

“There are some forces that predate her birth.”

“Of course,” Feihuo said. “But all of them, dark and light alike, have been affected by her influence.”

“Not all light,” Tetsuo said after a moment. “And not all darkness.”

“But what is it?” Feihuo persisted. “What sort of mindless hunger could still exist after all this time?”

“It is anything but mindless,” Tetsuo countered. “While I was a slave to the will of the soulless within me, I sensed it serving an ancient, cunning will. This is an evil that has existed for millennia, and one not so easily deposed.”

“But where does it come from?”

Tetsuo stopped, forcing Feihuo to do the same. She turned and faced him as his gaze settled upon her. “Look at me,” he said, his narrowed eyes piercing her soul.

Feihuo’s heart fluttered to peer back into such intensity. His eyes met hers as sharp as the blade he wielded, but for some reason, this did not frighten her. What frightened her was the memory that appeared unbidden before her mind.

The precipice.

She stood upon the brink of two worlds. One full of life, and one craving to devour that life. One loving. One envying. One world was real. The other, a deathly reflection of reality. A mockery—a grisly caricature of what might have been.

“You’ve seen it,” said Tetsuo at last.

Feihuo gasped. “Oh, my gods… That place, the one in my vision, it’s real?” she cried, stumbling backwards. She’d seen it. Stared into what could easily have been Hell itself. Was this what her brother dreamt of? A numbing chill pervaded her soul, sapping her of warmth. She’d always assumed an evil spirit or something similar toyed with him. Not this. Feihuo’s foot slipped, and she tipped backwards.

 Tetsuo reached forward and caught her, drawing her close to him. Her hand reached out instinctively, splaying out against his chest, but the moment she discerned tears forming in his eyes, she relaxed into his hold.

“You—you were there,” he said through the emotion tightening around his throat.

“The evil flame beckoned to me…”

“And yet you did not touch it. You resisted temptation, when I could not.”

Feihuo studied his face, the rigid lines and dark shadows cast by his numerous brushes with death, not to mention the desperate battle he fought for his own soul. “You touched the flame, that cold fire…”

“It offered itself to me.” He nodded. “And like the fool I was, I reached in without thinking. In that instant, my foolishness made me a slave. A weapon for evil. Its grip only faltered when it witnessed a stronger flame. Yours.

A rush of color flushed Feihuo’s cheeks. Her flames were stronger than the cold chill of the soulless?

“Without you, I would have remained enslaved until the soulless had no further use for me,” he murmured softly. “I feel it even now, hovering near, like the chill of the night waiting for the embers of my soul to dim.”

His words threatened to bring Feihuo to tears as well. The way that ethereal monster continued to twist its cold apathy into Tetsuo’s heart like a poisoned blade, waiting for just the right moment to capture him again invoked a new emotion within her. One she recognized as the same feeling she experienced whenever the samurai touched her, or when he plucked her from danger.

Warmth. Gentle warmth. A feeling she knew he needed as well. Something she wished to share.

Feihuo’s hand left his chest and rested against his face. “I’ll protect you,” she offered, echoing the same words she’d often spoken to her little brother.

The shock of her words rent a tremor in Tetsuo’s body. For a moment, Feihuo wondered if he might drop her, for he still held her closely. She also wondered at his response. Would he say he did not deserve her kindness? Or that he was unworthy? Her smile deepened, for she already knew what she’d say in response.

What he did, she never could have predicted.

Tetsuo kissed her.

All at once, that new emotion Feihuo had been feeling surged from her heart and suffused through her whole body. The gentle warmth within her blossomed into an all-consuming heat. Her eyes widened in shock, while Tetsuo’s closed tightly. His grip tightened, though not in such a way as to restrain her. It tightened as if he were terrified of losing her. A trembling, desperate hold, yet one of tenderness.

Feihuo’s flames roared into life, far stronger than they’d ever done so before, forcing a gasp from her. Tetsuo’s presence consumed her, fueling her flames into a lurid frenzy that enveloped them both. Swept away by the rush of her heart, Feihuo wrapped her arms around the samurai’s neck and curled herself into him. Her eyes fluttered closed, releasing tears that sizzled away upon her cheeks.

At last… At long last, Feihuo beheld the breathtaking power of love, the love of a man who desired to give her his all, to entrust his heart and soul to her, and to accept the honor of guarding hers with an even greater passion than he’d ever known on his own.

Fading light from the setting sun gave way to the burning flames of love. Freshly kindled, challenging the starry skies with its splendor, heartfelt vows of devotion made room for the song of passion at the joining of kindred souls.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Together, Tetsuo and Feihuo basked in the warmth and gentle rush of the flames. Flames that were no longer Feihuo’s alone, but theirs. The power draped over Tetsuo, the man her soul had chosen, garbing him and robing him in her protective spirit. When their lips parted, neither one of them could scarcely believe what had just happened.

“I knew…” Tetsuo said softly, caressing Feihuo’s cheek with his thumb. “From the moment I first saw you, that you would be my salvation.”

Feihuo smiled contentedly, nodding. “I think I know what Noriko meant, now.” Her smile shifted into one with an edge. “The soulless have no idea what is coming for them.”

“We may yet surprise them,” her husband agreed. “Hope burns within me once more.”

“You have a plan?” she asked him, rising out of his embrace. To her surprise and elation, her flames continued to burn white-hot, traveling up her calves and elbows, with such dazzling power as to form spots in her eyes.

“Remember when I told you we needed to destroy the rift in Sento quickly?”

Feihuo nodded. “I do. You said once it fully opened, only one on the other side could close it.”

“Correct,” said Tetsuo. “You have seen that place for yourself. It is a reflection of this world. One without love. Without life. Nature abhors a vacuum, and that realm has been drawing in loose spirit energy and mana for aeons. The evil within feeds upon it, and upon itself, festering and metastasizing, but with no plausible way of forcing itself within our world.”

“How is it managing it, then?” Once again, Feihuo wondered if she truly wished to know the answer to the question she’d just asked.

“Remember, this evil force is not mindless, as we originally thought. A cunning, sinister mind guides it, shaping it into individual sentient entities, each capable of external thought.” Tetsuo paused, and Feihuo recognized the pain behind his eyes. She drifted back to him and gently caressed his forehead, coaxing soothing warmth within. Her wrist rested in his hand, his fingers stroking the blazing fur.

Suddenly, she understood.

“Oh gods,” she gasped. “It was using you? To open the rifts?”

Tetsuo winced, instantly making Feihuo regret having asked. He shook his head, wordlessly quelling her remorse. “Yes and no,” he explained. “To create a rift, and to close one, cooperation from both sides is required. Someone, or some thing on this side must desire it. Crave it. The desire forms a beacon that the soulless can then latch on to.”

“There’s got to be more to it than that,” Feihuo said. “Or there would be many more rifts popping up everywhere.”

“Correct,” nodded Tetsuo. “Remember when I said the soulless are separate, sentient entities? Yes. One of them discovered a way to mimic a portion of our world in theirs, which has the effect of blurring the boundary between them. This is done by fashioning an item that is identical to something of significance here, and imbuing it with the same desire as the slave on our side. The soulless have named this one amongst them, ‘The Artificer.’ That is the one we must put an end to.”

Feihuo shivered despite her searing flames. She briefly wondered if she was strong enough to vanquish such a foe before realizing—before remembering—she was no longer alone. Together, with their love, she and Tetsuo would prevail. She nodded, refocusing herself.

“Where do we find this Artificer, and how do we destroy it?”

“The artifact it creates is frail and fragile,” explained Tetsuo. “It crumbles easily, and so, the Artificer must remain within it at all times, binding it together with its own essence. Destroy its artifact, and you destroy the creature that made it.”

“Oh…” murmured Feihuo. “So that’s why the rift can only be closed from the other side.”

“Indeed. Once the artifact is fully formed, the rift itself becomes strong enough to withstand any bombardment.”

Feihuo stood, straightening and tightening her garments, readying herself for battle. “We may not come back from this.”

“Unlikely,” Tetsuo said. “Regardless, I will follow you wherever you choose to go, even unto the depths of Hell.”

Feihuo smirked. “Not the depths. Just the gate.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Allies can be found in the most unlikely of sorts.
So too can enemies. Beware.

 — A sign posted outside the Southland Mercenaries Guild

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

“How dare you return here.” The elderly monk from Sento trained a steely gaze upon Tetsuo. “You bring great evil with you! Leave this place at once.”

Feihuo returned the monk’s gaze calmly, as she assumed Tetsuo did as well. “Yes, you’re right,” she said firmly, attempting to draw the monk’s attention. The monk’s ire remained fixed upon her husband, so she stepped in between them, igniting her flames.

“Honored Hinezumi,” the monk addressed her, wary of her intent. “Why do you defend this man? Evil drives him. Surely you must sense it.”

Feihuo nodded. “And I have driven the evil from him.”

She and the monk stared in tense silence for several moments, while Tetso wisely kept his eyes on his wife. Other monks, as well as a pair of children emerged from nearby buildings to observe the exchange. The gentle whoosh of Feihuo’s flames seemed to keep tempers in check, however.

“Your flames have changed,” the monk noted.

“I found something I didn’t know I wanted,” she answered. “Since becoming part of the Toriyama family, all I ever desired was to grow strong and to find a cure for my brother’s affliction. I never knew I wanted—needed—this. Needed him.”

Feihuo smiled and glanced back at Tetsuo, who nodded slowly back at her, and returned her smile with a sage nod. She turned back to the monk, blushing slightly at how many eyes now observed the three of them.

The monk sighed and stepped aside. “Very well. I can see your intent is sincere. It may not be so easy to win the trust of the others, however.”

“I understand,” Feihuo said with a slight bow. She turned and headed in, glancing back over her shoulder. Tetsuo bowed a little more deeply, but said nothing. Probably wise.

Her husband crossed back over to her. “You told me the soulless are the source of your brother’s nightmares,” he said quietly. “Why then did we return here, and not speed to his side?”

“Because going there would draw them to him,” Feihuo told him. “And I want to keep my family out of this. We will keep those damned spirits plenty occupied, trust me.”

“I do.”

Feihuo paused. His tone sounded so sure, more so than simple trust. This man entrusted his very being to her. Everything he was, both valor and shame, he bequeathed to her, leaving it up to her to decide what to do with it. Her face flushed with the warmth of that knowledge.

Problem was, this was where her plan ended. She hoped to find some kind of lead here. Some marking or pattern of damage that might reveal to her which step to take next. However, the monks had performed a rather marvelous job at clearing away rubble and patching up the cracks. They’d even mostly filled in the crater that rift left behind.

“Curious, the alacrity of the Sento monks’ repairs,” Tetsuo murmured, echoing his wife’s thoughts.

“Do you sense something?” she asked. She trusted his perception far more than hers in this manner.

“Something…” whispered Tetsuo, his silver eyes scanning the courtyard.

“Try to pinpoint it,” his wife urged. “It may be important.”

“I hear a voice,” he said softly. “A voice that does not belong.”

Feihuo cocked her head, straining her large ears. She heard murmurings, exertions of strength. The gentle tapping of hammer to nail. Stone scraping soil. Footsteps, some slow, some small and rapid, pattering against the beaten ground.

“What does it sound like?” she asked at last.

“Singing,” answered Tetsuo. “A woman singing. She sounds distant, yet nearby.”

Feihuo stiffened. “Miyako?”

“Perhaps.”

A dull ache in her right hand distracted Feihuo from her need to listen for the voice. Plucking carefully at the bandage, she attempted to peek under the—

Feihuo!” hissed Tetsuo, taking firm hold of her arm. “You must not!”

“It aches,” she complained, stiffening at the sudden tension in Tetsuo’s grip. His silver eyes swept the surrounding area, narrowed with concentration.

“One of them is here,” he warned.

Feihuo gasped.

“Continue walking,” urged Tetsuo. “More than likely we are being watched.”

“We have to find it!” hissed Feihuo, her flames crackling around her. The pain in her hand gradually intensifying wasn’t helping, either.

Tetsuo rested a firm hand against her mid back, guiding her forward. Or urging, more like. “Calm down,” he insisted. “We will not discover the creature’s identity without a modicum of subtlety.”

Feihuo cringed; a lance of pain sliced into the back of her hand. Tetsuo detected this from his touch upon her back and gazed down at her with concern. “I can feel its eyes upon me!” she said, panting.

Moving his hand to her shoulder, he squeezed gently, his thumb trailing into the curve of her neck. The touch sent tingles of pleasure into her core, which warred against the pain for dominance. Her eyes suddenly felt heavy. Mmm.

“Tetsuo,” she panted softly. A door closing snapped her out of it. He’d led her into a nearby building. Breaking line of sight only partially quelled the pain and unease, which returned to fill the void of his touch.

“Hold out your hand,” he commanded, sandwiching it between his when she complied. Tetsuo’s warmth spread into the tepid chill she’d not noticed until now. “Yes, you were right,” he sighed. “One of them has locked on to—”

Feihuo’s eyes flashed in alarm. “What is it?”

“It cannot be!” the samurai hissed. “I know this one. It is the Artificer!”

“What?” Feihuo cocked her head. “I thought you said the Artificer had to stay on the other side and maintain its artifact?”

“That is correct…”

“What’s it doing here?”

Tetsuo paled visibly. He shook his head. “I do not know, and that troubles me. The soulless are changing tactics. It does present us with a unique opportunity, though. If the Artificer is here, that means the rift can be opened and closed from this side.”

“But, you also said there needed to be cooperation from both sides to open one.”

He nodded. “Also correct. I believe we have it. A special invitation, in the form of a song.”

Feihuo gasped. “Miyako!!” Tetsuo clapped a hand over her mouth.

“Shhh,” he urged. “Remember. Subtlety. The soulless may yet believe they defeated her.”

She nodded, speaking more quietly. “She’s inside that awful place… How do we get to her?”

“If the Artificer is here, it means it is hard at work fashioning an artifact with which to sustain the rift,” explained Tetsuo. “If it has built enough of the artifact already, we may be able to slip inside their realm unnoticed.”

“I thought we had to wait for the Artificer to open it?”

“Normally we would,” said Tetsuo with a sly smile. “Except the soulless left us with a pair of gifts. Namely, this blade.” He tapped the sheathed katana at his side. “And the glyph on your right hand.”

Feihuo gazed at her hand, then back at him. “You’re saying I can open the rift?”

“Yes, Feihuo.”

“Here?”

“There is a reason I chose an uninhabited structure,” he said, wearing a bemused expression. “I simply did not yet know that reason. Are you prepared?”

Feihuo swallowed, her eyes tracing her husband’s hand, which still held hers lightly. “Yes, but first,” she offered, stepping closer to him. Reaching up, she bridged the distance and eased into a kiss, one that began lightly and quickly escalated into something powerful. Passionate. Her flames burst to life, threatening to reveal their location just as surely as her clothes threatened to slip from her body.

Their lips parted with a soft smooch. “Feihuo…” Tetsuo murmured, his silver eyes shining.

“If my brother’s dreams are any indication,” she whispered, “We’re about to pass through that gate to Hell. Focus on me. On us. Never lose sight of that.”

“Wisely spoken,” Tetsuo replied, smiling proudly at her. “You speak as if you’d already been there firsthand.”

“Many a restless night shielding my brother from that Hell,” sighed Feihuo. “He dreams of it often.”

“Fortunate indeed that he had you to protect him,” Tetsuo said with a nod. “We should return there after this unpleasant affair has ended.”

“What happened to our survival being unlikely?” Feihuo asked with a smirk.

“Forget our chances, they are irrelevant,” the samurai said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “If we do not succeed, the soulless will devour this world. There is no choice in the matter.”

“There’s always a choice,” clarified Feihuo, “But, only one correct one. How do I open this rift?”

Tetsuo knelt before her, just as he’d done that first night, and offered her the weapon, inclining the hilt towards her. “Take the weapon and hold it out. Grip it tightly with your right hand.”

The moment Feihuo did as he asked, the blade burst into sickly blue-white flames, somehow chilling the room with their eerie emanations. Her hands shook to hold such an evil device, but her husband nodded at her, rising to stand by her side.

“Slice vertically. Carefully.

Feihuo slashed. The air itself resisted slightly, crackling, as if cutting into a spider’s web. She could feel it… The fabric of reality itself tearing, rent apart by the terrible blade and the combination of evil magic that worked in tandem against her world.

For the briefest of instants, Feihuo wondered if this truly was the right thing. What if she’d just doomed the whole world? What if this is what the enemy wanted all along? What if—

A voice. A soothing voice eked in from the flickering slit of a rift in front of her. Feihuo sucked in a ragged breath.

“It’s Miyako,” she whispered. “She’s calling us.”

Tetsuo nodded, his reassuring hand upon her shoulder. “It appears we are bound for the depths of Hell after all.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Feihuo briefly tried to recall her memory of the abyss. She imagined it to have been cold and dark. The reality of it couldn’t have been further from the truth. Sure, dark shadows angled every which way, creeping around corners and through crevices like gnarled fingers. But it was the light that worried her.

Sickly, twisted, writhing, hungry. Ethereal flames twisted in the starless skies, curling in and around themselves, a mass of deplorable energy constantly feeding upon itself. Feihuo withdrew her gaze from it. And as for the chill she imagined? She might’ve preferred that to what she actually felt.

Warmth. Not a soothing warmth, though. A putrid, sickening warmth, like that of a swamp, filled with pulsing and throbbing sensations, like maggots feasting upon corpses. The very air was rank with death, decay, and metastasizing power.

A dull voice called out to her. It sounded familiar. Tempting.

There it was again. She felt drawn to it. No, that wasn’t it. Her soul felt drawn to it, gripped within an almost tangible magnetic pull, to the point of separating her spirit from her body. Delicious pain tore at every fiber of her being. The veil between mortality and everlasting hunger beckoned, so very close…

“Feihuo!”

Tetsuo’s face filled her vision. She gasped, throwing her arms around him, trembling with fear. Had she almost slipped away from him? Nearly been taken and digested by the awful hunger of this place?

“I’m here,” she moaned softly. “I’m still with you…”

“We must not tarry here, my love,” Tetsuo whispered in her round ear. “Come. I have found a disturbance the enemy has not yet detected.”

Feihuo withdrew from his embrace and nodded, flexing her fingers. The fur upon her wrists would not ignite. A crushing helplessness weighed down upon her spirit. “I’m sorry,” she sighed. “I’m not sure I’ll be much use to you in this place.”

“This is a place where no mortal should ever tread,” he replied, guiding her to a nearby ruined building. “Conserve your strength. We will not be fighting here. If we are detected, our souls are forfeit.”

Feihuo gulped and nodded, staying close by his side and listening for the sound of Miyako’s voice. Her keen ears picked up on many sounds, none of which she cared to hear. Whispers. Envious sighs. Distant, terrified screams. Other sounds she could not identify, of squishing and grinding.

Did other mamono know of this place? Did Maou? How could such a place even exist?

“There.”

Feihuo’s attention refocused, scanning the entrance of a building crushed into a diagonal angle with the weight of a massive, stone column that now rested inside its roof. Yet, for all intents and purposes, it looked no different than any of the others.

“Are you sure?” she asked of him.

“Look closer. Deeper.”

Peering carefully at it, Feihuo examined the stone building, noting the half-rotted door, shuttered windows, and cracked foundation. She shook her head. “I don’t see anything unusual.”

A protective hand rested upon Feihuo’s shoulder. “Look again, and this time, tell me what you don’t see.”

Ugh. Feihuo’s eyes stung against the fetid atmosphere, her sensitive nose wrinkling as she drew shallow breaths. Wait. Oh. Ohhh…

“It’s clean,” she said at last. “Everything else is covered in a layer of ash, just like my room at the monastery had been. But this building, it’s spotless. Broken, yes, but clean.” She giggled softly. “It’s a message for me. The soulless wouldn’t recognize it, but I would, because I met Miyako. She’s a maid.

“I beg your pardon?” Tetsuo cast her a perplexed look.

A soft giggle escaped Feihuo, despite their surroundings. “Oh, I’m certain she’s far more than that, but when I met her, she wore the simple apron of a household maid. Thank you for pointing it out. I probably would’ve missed it.”

“I actually meant,” Tetsuo countered, “There is a distinct lack of malignant energy in this location.” He shrugged. “Regardless.”

Feihuo was already at the door. Nudging it open carefully, she poked one ear over the threshold. At last, new sounds reached her. Small gasps. Nervous breathing. Gentle humming.

“You see?” Miyako’s soothing voice reached her. “I told you she would find us.”

Gentle relief soothed Feihuo’s trepidation. She opened the door as wide as she dared and stepped inside, not knowing truly what to expect. There, in the center of the guest room, the only room still inhabitable, sat Miyako, her gown pooled around her, and the missing children seated upon it. They huddled all around her, cocooned within her hair, which she must’ve been using to shield them from the corrosive evil. Every so often, a lock of her hair reached up to brush away ash that built up nearby. Miyako smiled back at Feihuo, though the Hinezumi detected pain in that smile. A brace against the overwhelming hopelessness of her situation.

“Come, children,” said Miyako, holding them close. “It’s time to leave, now.”

The children rose unsteadily, bumping into each other in the dark, for Miyako’s hair occluded their vision. Perhaps she did not wish them to have to witness the wretchedness all around them any more than was necessary.

“You’ve done well,” Miyako gently praised Feihuo, her almond-shaped eyes narrowed in pleasure, before crossing to Tetsuo. “As for you, you have learned through hardship what I have struggled to teach so many, that they might be spared such hardship.”

The Kejourou left Tetsuo shaken and gazing back at Feihuo with tears in his eyes. His wife shook her head, slipping her hand in his, and together, they crept back carefully through the realm towards the rift.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Of the many horrid idiosyncrasies present in the realm, Feihuo despised the waiting the most. She waited for something to creep out of the shadows and attack them. She waited for someone to scream in panic and bring a horde down upon them. She waited for an army to greet them at the rift and block their passage.

None of this happened. It was too good to be true. The rift was clear. Except…

Miyako hung back. “I sense a great swell of evil near,” she warned, clutching the children close.

Tetsuo cast his trained gaze all around, shaking his head. “I do not see it.”

“Neither do I,” admitted Feihuo. “I don’t see anything here.”

“It comes from the other side,” Miyako said with wilting realization.

“What—what’s waiting for us?” Feihuo dared to ask.

“Your next trial,” answered the Kejourou.

Feihuo shivered, hesitation getting the better of her nerves. “I’m… afraid.”

A warm hand rested upon her shoulder. She never tired of it. “It takes courage to admit when you are afraid,” Tetsuo told her, his voice deep, but gentle. “Remember what Noriko told you.”

Swallowing uneasily, Feihuo nodded. “She said the soulless don’t understand the true nature of what opposes them.”

“Do you?” her husband asked her. She shook her head. “Let me show you,” he offered, tucking a finger under her chin so that he might meet her with a gentle kiss.

Feihuo sucked in a breath. Wholesome warmth blossomed in her chest, at last igniting the flames extinguished by the sickness and death all around her. The light of her flames chased away nearby putrescence and fear, shining like a beacon in the night.

“I love you,” she whispered back to him.

“You are the light in the darkness,” Tetsuo said, caressing her cheek, brushing against it with the back of his fingers. “My light. The light that set me free. I will love you until I know no more. That is what the soulless fear.”

“I—I…” sniffled Feihuo. All she could do was embrace him, casting Miyako a glance over his shoulder. Her wide smile spoke volumes. Relaxing, Feihuo slipped back slightly, gazing back up at Tetsuo. “I’m still afraid,” she whispered, her words only for him. “But my love for you is stronger.”

The samurai nodded. “Let us finish this.”

They turned, and together, stepped through the rift.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Within each of us lives two wolves.
One is good, of joy, peace, kindness, and love.
The other is evil, borne of anger, envy, jealousy, selfish desire.
Which wolf wins, do you ask?

The one you feed.

— A Midland tribesman to his grandson

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

“Welcome back,” said a familiar voice.

Briefly, terror gripped Feihuo’s heart, only to be chased away by the ever-welcome touch of Tetsuo’s hand upon her shoulder. The rift behind her had swollen and lengthened. Had she even stepped through it? The sky looked the same. Twisted, writhing, hungry. But… The mountains and horizon mirrored Sento’s.

Feihuo looked for the source of the voice. The elderly monk she’d chatted with that night under the stars. Cold, cloudy death replaced his kind eyes. A terrifying intelligence replaced it. Feihuo sucked in a ragged breath.

“Ancestors preserve me,” she gasped. “It’s you… You’re the Artificer!”

“I was beginning to wonder if you truly were as intelligent as they say,” the monk—or the Artificer speaking through him—said coldly. “But, alas, you are little more than an animal who stumbled upon the gift of language. A rat, cowering in the darkness, pecking at scraps in the gloom.”

Bitter tears of betrayal stung Feihuo’s eyes, clinging stubbornly to her lashes. His words brought to mind the children that used to tease her, driving her away to hide in the shadows. “I—I’m not—” she tried to say.

“Oh, but you are,” chuckled the Artificer. “You are small, weak without the aid of others to hold you up. You cling to compassion, but your true motivations are as selfish as you accuse ours to be. Your little brother. You fear losing him.”

“Leave him out of this!” cried Feihuo. Her voice trembled, and her body shook with terror. This was precisely the situation she’d hoped to avoid.

“Why?” the Artificer asked with curiosity. “Based on what we learned from you, he shows promise. He visits us often, yet manages to keep out of sight. However does he manage it? When we find him, I shall be eager to ask him.”

“Stay away from Hisashi!!” screamed Feihuo, leaping towards the Artificer. Her flames blazed, leaving blinding trails in the air.

“Feihuo, don’t!!” bellowed Tetsuo.

Time seemed to slow. Feihuo hung in the air, committed to her assault, while the possessed monk settled into a classic defensive stance. Feihuo barely registered the hit, but she instantly knew she’d made a grave mistake. Her body bent practically in half as the force of the monk’s kick sent her flying back to Tetsuo, who barely managed to catch her.

“Urrkk,” gagged Feihuo, struggling to catch her breath.

“Just like lesser vermin,” sighed the Artificer. “Hunger and agitation drive them out into the open, where they try uselessly to claw and bite. They meet their end quickly.”

“Shut up,” hissed Feihuo, wiping the stinging tears from her eyes. Tetsuo helped her rise, but this time, firm hands held her close. “Your words are poison, like the worm that sickens a tree.”

“It is the life in this realm that has sickened itself,” the Artificer countered. “Growing and multiplying out of control. Mutating into irreconcilable forms. Rats stand up on two feet and speak. Inanimate objects come to life and assault their owners. Even fungi believe themselves sentient and attempt to guile passerby with their pitiful wiles. Your existence is pointless.”

“And yet,” Tetsuo interjected at last, “You sought Feihuo with rabid fascination. You craved her light—all your thoughts were bent on possessing her. Do not try to deny it.”

“Even a pointless existence can be repurposed,” the Artificer drawled. “You were with us. One with us. Her body will become a potent vessel with which to cast our flame across this wretched land. You understand this. And so does she.”

“Agghh,” gasped Feihuo. The pain in her right hand reasserted itself, traveling up her right arm and into her shoulder. Grim realization took hold. The evil hated her, but desired her nonetheless. It began creeping into her body, changing the flames upon her right arm from orange to blue-white.

“Feihuo!” cried Tetsuo.

Feihuo shook her head. “I—I can’t…” she sobbed. Voices swirled around her, of the children in her past. Rat, they called her. Disease-carrier. Filthy, unwanted, and alone. It was how she began, and it was how she would end.

Tetsuo gathered her up in his arms, resting his forehead against hers. “Feihuo,” he whispered, “This is not the end for you, unless you allow it.”

Feihuo forced herself to look up at those brilliant, silver eyes. “But, everything he said was true,” she sobbed. “My family died in a flood, leaving me all alone. I lived off the streets, stealing what I could, not caring for anything but my next morsel. I only am what you see now because of the kindness of others…”

“And I am only free because of the kindness you showed me,” he reminded her. “Your light is precious. Unkind words and pitiless deeds might sully it, even smother it for a time. I don’t know what you went through as a child; it sounds awful. You mustn’t cling to those burdens. Not anymore.”

“But they’re part of me,” Feihuo cried softly. The blue flame on her arm singed Tetsuo’s hand, but he held on all the tighter. “I can’t change what I am!”

The evil flame scored the samurai’s flesh; nevertheless, the compassion in his eyes never wavered. “You are not defined by your past, but by what you choose to be,” Tetsuo told her. “If you choose to treat with evil, then that is what you will become. If you choose to set aside the grudges and pain others have caused you, you will shine brighter than a hundred suns.”

“Forgive them?” she asked, her voice weakening. “Like—Noriko?”

Tetsuo nodded as tears occluded his eyes. “She was like a mother to me, and I betrayed her by falling into temptation. Still, with her dying breath, sh—she…”

“She forgave you,” Feihuo finished for him. “I—I want… I want to do the same, but what if the world still despises me?”

“Even if the whole world falls into shadow and shuns you, I never will. I love you.

Feihuo wept, reaching up for him with a mournful kiss. Pressed against him, she mentally cast aside the bitter loathing she’d clung to for so many years. The cruel children. The vicious men and women. Even her birth parents, whom she realized she’d never forgiven for leaving her all alone. Briefly, a stroke of shame for doing so crippled her resolve, but she cast that aside as well.

I forgive them…

If Feihuo expected something magical to have happened, she might’ve been disappointed. No grand flashes of light overcame her. No mystical goddesses appeared to praise her choice. Only… release. A gentle sigh of relief at dropping weight she never knew she carried. She realized then, that holding onto such grief was only hurting her. What was the point of that?

Instead, she focused her thoughts on the man who held her. It took Tetsuo to the point of losing his own soul to realize no one would ever truly conquer evil, in any of its forms, with power or might alone. Only love. Pure unyielding love. Only that could deny evil its prize.

When Feihuo opened her eyes, she found herself standing in her husband’s embrace, the two of them protected by a ring of flames. The lancing pain in her hand persisted, but her flames burned with white-hot intensity. That wasn’t all, though.

Her flames also flickered upon Tetsuo, weaving in and out of his armor, and flaring out upon his arms, just like hers, similar to what it had done before, except now, it had become a part of him. An extension of him. The Hinezumi Coat, a priceless gift passed from wife to husband. Ancestors bless her—he was magnificent, standing there ablaze in her glory, basking in Feihuo’s flames. His face shone like a god’s.

Feihuo peeked around Tetsuo’s tall frame. The Artificer yawned theatrically, but was that not a sliver of anxiety she detected in his cold eyes? Noticing her gaze, the Artificer gestured to the other soulless monks, who scattered and began searching.

“They will resume their hunt,” warned Tetsuo. “The children are in danger.”

Feihuo shook her head. “Not while we’re around, they’re not. The fire circle—can we expand it?”

Flashing a grin, Tetsuo nodded. “Take my hand,” he offered. Feihuo reached out and joined hands with him. With his free hand, he drew his blade, the flames of which now mirrored hers. Yamigarasu, the demon blade. It too had become an extension of their love. Drawing strength from Feihuo, Tetsuo combined it with his own and sent it into the blade. With a shout, he slammed it down into the ground, creating a shockwave that expanded the ring of fire large enough to encompass all of the soulless monks.

Several monks cried out at having been set ablaze, crumpling to the ground as an ethereal specter withdrew from their bodies. The flames spread to the evil spirits, engulfing them, smothering even their panicked shrieks.

No longer amused, the Artificer stepped forward with the handful of monks that remained standing. “Impressive, rat. That you could attain such power on your own, with only a traitorous mortal at your side—I commend you. Will it be enough, though?”

“To put an end to you?” Feihuo crooned. “Let’s find out,” she said, beckoning to him. Tetsuo stood by her side, poised to cut down anyone who attempted to flank her.

The Artificer sighed. “Hold the rat as long as you can,” he commanded his minions before taking several steps back and twirling his finger towards the rift.

“The monster is completing the sequence!” shouted Tetsuo. “If that rift fully opens, evil will pour into this world!”

Feihuo nodded. No more words were necessary. She charged, clashing with the soulless monk directly in front of her. The flames on her arms and legs seared into him, dropping him to the floor as the spirit shrieked in agony and fled from him. A serene peace fell upon him immediately after. Feihuo silently prayed he’d survive.

Tetsuo grunted, fending off two at once, forcing them back. A third rushed his flank, only to receive a kick in the midsection. Feihuo flitted from target to target, her movements a searing blur. Faster… faster… must go faster! The ground shook—they were running out of time.

The monks were reduced in number, but still, their attacks had become as desperate as the soulless warriors from the previous assault on Sento. Still, Feihuo and Tetsuo had nearly—

A sickening crack rent the sky.

Feihuo gasped, whirling around to face the source of the noise. The rift reached all the way up into the sky, widening like the eye of a venomous serpent. They were too late. The rift had opened.

“Embrace your doom,” laughed the Artificer.

“Ancestors protect us…” whispered Feihuo. Tetsuo’s warm hand rested upon her shoulder, offering her his serenity. She nodded gratefully. The remaining soulless monks fell back to the rift to regroup with the reinforcements beginning to pour in. It was over.

Or…

Wait. The Artificer stood alone, for all of the other soulless had sprinted to the rift, unwittingly leaving him by himself. Feihuo glanced up at Tetsuo, inclining her head in the Artificer’s direction.

Tetsuo nodded, reversing the technique he’d used earlier to draw power from her. This time, he fed power into her, filling her with energy and strength. She drew every bit of it into herself, quieting her voice and her flames before leaping towards the Artificer.

The monster turned just in time to meet her fist as it conflagrated. Dark energy swirled around him, buffeting her flames and anchoring him to the ground. Through it all, he smiled. Why would he—

“FEIHUO!!”

Something bright and terrifying lashed out at her from the rift, knocking her off her feet and sending her careening away from the Artificer. She landed in a tumble beside Tetsuo, coughing and sputtering.

“Gods, what—urk—was that!?” she groaned, rising unsteadily, only to tumble into Tetsuo’s relieved embrace. His arms gripped her tightly, trembling with relief as he whispered a prayer of thanks.

Feihuo coughed. “Tet—urg—you’re squashing me…”

“Impossible,” growled the Artificer as Feihuo untangled herself from her husband. “You should be little more than ash.”

Tetsuo’s silver eyes flashed with surprise. “Feihuo—look!”

He was pointing at her thigh.

“Wha?” Feihuo gasped. A faintly glowing sigil trailed up the side of her leg, fashioned in a style that struck her as vaguely familiar.

“Damn you,” spat the Artificer. “The Kitsune blessing? Filthy, meddling foxes. When the stars shine no more, they will be the first to fall.”

Feihuo shook her head. “Never. My husband and I are going to send you back to Hell.”

“How are you going to manage that?” the Artificer asked coldly. “Lest you forget, an army marches towards you.”

He smiled wickedly, but only briefly before his leering smile faded. Feihuo and Tetsuo followed his gaze. A group of over a hundred soulless had entered through the rift, but they weren’t marching as the Artificer had said. They too glanced back at the rift, quietly observing a lone figure that stood in the shadows on the other side. The figure possessed feminine features and curves, framed in silhouette and writhing shadows.

Who was she? What was she doing?

“You…” the Artificer hissed, his voice dripping with ire. “You cannot stop us this time. Observe as the very mountains crack with the might of the—”

Feihuo turned back to him, her eyes widening. Dozens of strands of hair wrapped around the possessed monk’s throat. More strands whipped around his wrists and upper arms, binding him.

“No!” he cried out. “Wh-what are you doing!?”

The strands bit into his flesh, but did not draw blood. Writhing flames escaped from the wounds instead. Miyako stepped out from behind him, the calm of her narrowed eyes replaced with that of terrifying wrath. She spoke only one word.

“Cleansing.”

Her eyes met Feihuo’s. She nodded.

Feihuo bared her teeth, focusing all of her energy into her right hand, the one wounded by Tetsuo when he’d been possessed. A strange mixture of her flames, soulless energy, and a third kind of energy she didn’t quite recognize swirled on her arm. Tetsuo stood right by her side, sending her his energy, his strength, and his love, but not only that. He held out the weapon, Yamigarasu, for her.

How fitting. The blade, forged by evil, now overcome with love and passion, would be used to destroy one of its own.

“Lady Noriko sends her regards…” she snapped.

Feihuo struck.

Blinding light encompassed Sento, brighter than a hundred suns, just as Tetsuo had said. The screams of possessive spirits wailed in futile opposition, quickly silenced by the light and power that surrounded the monastery.

Within the center of the burst of light, Feihuo and Tetsuo floated, awash in a remarkable, sublime peacefulness. Feihuo gazed over at her husband, then up at the sky, for she felt sure she sensed someone smiling down upon her. Noriko? An ancestor?

Her birth parents?

Tears welled up in Feihuo’s eyes, but these were far from bitter. A swell of happiness and contentment filled her, mind, body, and soul. When Tetsuo drew her to him, embracing her gently, she felt complete.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Feihuo woke to the sound of quiet conversation, the tapping of metal, and the grinding of stone. Familiar sounds. Sounds that made her feel safe. Her eyes tipped open at the arrival of a new sound, of cloth rustling.

A face of refined feminine elegance, in stark contrast to her simple maid’s attire, hovered over her, lips curved in a gentle smile. “Ah, there you are.”

Miyako, the monastery’s groundskeeper; a mysterious dance of contrasts. Such a curious choice of professions, thought Feihuo, for not the least of reasons as she was a Kejourou. Such highborne yokai often resided in palatial abodes, basked in pleasure, and wanted for nothing. What struck Feihuo as even curiouser was the woman’s spiritual prowess. Feihuo had not once encountered—or even heard of—a Kejourou that could claim dominion over evil spirits.

“A copper for your thoughts?”

Feihuo closed her eyes, forcing her racing mind to ease. “I’m sorry,” she sighed. “I just, um, was wondering—” she paused, glancing around, her mind whipping back into a sudden urgency. “Tetsuo! Where—”

Miyako took a step back, revealing the samurai, having collapsed against the wall from sheer exhaustion. His fingers wound tight around the grip of his katana, even in slumber. A wash of relief doused Feihuo’s panic.

“He never leaves,” the Kejourou said softly, holding up a small pan with a washcloth and brush. Easing Feihuo back down onto the mattress, Miyako gently dabbed at her face and brushed her hair, taking great care not to abrade her ears.

“The monk, that I—” Feihuo started to say.

“Shh, little mouse,” cooed Miyako. “They are free, thanks to you, but each of us must recover in our own way. They have elected solitude, to spend in deep meditation upon the kindness and bravery of Tetsuo and Feihuo Itzal.”

Heat crept into Feihuo’s cheeks at the mention of her new name.

Miyako smiled down at her as she moistened the washcloth. “Normally your husband attends to you in this manner, day and night. In his state, I pray he permits me the privilege of doing so in his stead.”

Admittedly, Miyako’s featherlight touch felt wonderful after such a taxing ordeal. Dozens of questions still tumbled around inside Feihuo’s mind, but every time her lips parted to ask one of them, Miyako sponged away sticky perspiration from her face or neck, or tucked a wayward strand of hair out of her eyes. Each movement was as carefully made as it was tender.

Questions fell away, lost within the love and care of Miyako’s ministrations. Feihuo relaxed, allowing herself to float away into dreamless sleep, carried upon the safety and security of the presence of those who loved her.

 

~ ~ ~

 

“My mother gave me this,” Feihuo said, holding up the small ornamental fan she’d had clipped in her hair.

“It’s beautiful,” Tetsuo said, taking it from her with great care.

“When she adopted me into the Toriyama family, she gave it to me,” Feihuo explained as she turned her back to Tetsuo, holding up her hair for him to work with. “Her husband, my father, bought it in Mist while traveling to barter wares. Said he didn’t know why it caught his eye at the time, but that he wanted her to have it. She said he was buying it for me; he just didn’t know it yet…”

“Your family is a blessing, Feihuo,” Tetsuo murmured, clipping the fan into her hair and pausing to caress the silky fur of her ear. “I wonder if you have any idea how much so.”

“I think I learned just how much these past few days,” she replied, turning back around, but remaining in his loose embrace. “The thought that such evil lies hidden by so thin a barrier… Have we stopped them for good?”

Tetsuo shook his head. “We’ve set them back years, but that evil will continue to fester in its dark realm.”

“What should we do?”

“Travel. Search. Learn,” Tetsuo suggested. “Find out if this has happened elsewhere. Do not disregard any mention, regardless of how historical or mythical, of the sudden encroachment of nameless evil. Only through strength and vigilance, we earn peace.”

Feihuo’s eyes brightened. “Lady Kanna, the Inari of my village, said those words to me when I was a little girl… I meditate on them when I’m frightened.”

Tetsuo took her right hand in his, holding it up between the two of them as he gently kneaded and massaged. The mark on the back of her hand ached, never really having healed, but the tenderness of Tetsuo’s actions nudged away the pain for the moment. She smiled up at him, a rosy glow filling her cheeks.

“Frightened you may be,” he promised, “You will never be alone. Know this, Feihuo: It is also my vow to you that, by my side, neither will you feel true fear ever again.”

Tears streaked the sides of her face. She had to bite down upon her lower lip to keep it from trembling, despite the warmth and security her husband offered her. When he reached down to kiss her, her fears melted away, just as he’d promised, replacing it with warmth and peace. Gentle, loving, tranquil peace, something she’d not known she craved.

Now it was hers, to have and to share with the man she loved.

 

Light in the Darkness
by ehrrr

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