As promised, here’s the rewrite of chapter 1. No guarantees it won’t change again but I’m pretty happy with it and I expect to publish it much like this (after editing ofc).
Web of Shadows
Following a mysterious albino cat into an abandoned Shinto Shrine was supposed to lead to adventure in a magical kingdom, not getting stuck halfway up a tree and losing a shoe. It would be less embarrassing if Hana wasn’t laughing quite so hard.
“This was your idea,” said Akemi, leaning over to see where her shoe had ended up. “So how come I’m the one in the tree?”
“You’re always the one in the tree,” Hana managed between giggles. “Cos you’re better at it and I’m scared of heights.”
“This doesn’t count as a height.” Akemi was barely two metres off the ground, though it had taken a lot of effort to get there through the tree’s dense branches. “Can you find my shoe?”
Hana began scuffling around in the bushes, still laughing. Akemi swung her shoeless foot idly back and forth. At least it was April, the weather clear and warm, a month or more before the summer rains set in. It was pleasant, sitting here on the branch of the sakaki tree, its deep green leaves giving off a gentle scent. Quiet, too: the sounds of the city were muffled behind the overgrown trees and bushes of the shrine grounds. She could almost pretend that she wasn’t in the middle of the immense urban sprawl that made up Osaka.
At the edge of the small clearing, the white cat was watching them with suspicion, punctuated by the occasional warning growl. Close up, it was less ‘mysterious’ and more ‘hostile and mangy’. Its utterly non-mysterious tabby kitten was stuck on a branch some way above Akemi’s head. It peered down at her and mewed pitifully. Akemi waved.
“Oh, here’s your shoe!” said Hana. “No, wait, this is someone else’s. It’s all slimy, ew! Why would there be more than one shoe here?”
“It’s a shoe-eating tree, obviously. Tricks people into climbing it and then steals their shoes.”
Hana gave a huff of laughter, then stooped to grab something from under a bush. She squinted at it, then looked up at Akemi, grinning.
“Okay, this one’s definitely yours.”
She passed the shoe up to Akemi, who checked it for slime (just in case) before putting it on. Then she resumed the slow climb upwards, weaving her way through the thinner branches and testing her weight on the bigger ones before moving.
The kitten hissed at her.
“It’s going to scratch you,” Hana said. She sounded less concerned than Akemi felt was strictly fair. “Just so you know.”
She was almost within reach of the kitten, but paused to assess the best way to grab it. Unfortunately it was facing her, which meant that teeth and claws were both poised to maul her hand. After a moment’s thought, Akemi untied the green ribbon from one of her pigtails, letting the hair on that side fall lopsidedly over her shoulder. She dangled the ribbon temptingly at the kitten. As its head whipped around to follow the movement, she tried to grab it around the middle.
The kitten sank its teeth into her hand before falling sideways off the branch.
“Oh no, kitty, don’t–!” Hana shouted, but the kitten had already hit the ground – feet first, to no apparent harm.
It spun in a frenzied circle, hissed at Hana, spotted its mother, and ran towards her. Both cats vanished into the bushes before Akemi even had time to say, “Ow!”
“Are you okay?” asked Hana. She was still fighting giggles, but at least she sounded like she meant it. “Are you going to need stitches?”
“Hardly.” The kitten’s small teeth hadn’t even broken the skin. “Great, now I have to get down…”
“You could just jump. It’s not that far.”
“Too many branches in the way.” Akemi started edging back down the way she’d come. “At least it should be quicker getting down than it was getting up…”
A glint of something caught her eye and she paused. Now she was facing the trunk of the tree, she could see a little hollow where two branches came out and curved straight upward, and something inside glittered in the light of the setting sun.
“Hang on,” she said. “There’s something shiny up here.”
“Ooh!” Hana circled around, trying to see it from the ground. “Maybe the cat was onto something after all! What is it? Magic ring? Magic wand?” She paused thoughtfully. “Magic piece of gum wrapper?”
“I can’t see from here, wait a sec…”
Akemi stood up on the branch, balancing so she could reach as far as her arm would go. She could just get her fingers over the edge of the hollow. She hoped there wasn’t anything nasty in there. Just as she got a grip on something metallic, her foot slipped… and she discovered that it was, indeed, quicker going down than getting up.
“Oh my gosh are you okay?” This time Hana wasn’t laughing as she rushed over to where Akemi had landed. “Akemi?”
“Is anything broken?” Hana knelt beside her and started prodding her arms and legs. “Can you sit up?”
“Yes you’ve broken something or yes you can sit up?”
“No— I mean, yes— I mean—”
Akemi rolled her eyes and sat up, hopefully ending the confusion.
“Nothing’s broken,” she added, just to be safe. She hadn’t hit her head, but her arms were scratched up and she was going to have an enormous bruise on her hip. “Ow.”
Then she looked at her hand and brightened, lifting it to show Hana. “But I got it!”
“What is it? A watch?” Hana leaned in to look at the disc of metal, almost completely darkened with age and dirt, lying in Akemi’s palm. The only shiny part was a bit of red glass in the centre. “It looks like an old pocket watch on a chain.” She lifted a short length of broken links on one fingertip. “The chain’s broken.”
Akemi turned the disc over, looking for a catch that would open it, but if there was one, it was jammed shut. She tried rubbing the grime off the surface, but she mostly just left smears on the metal and turned her fingertips black.
“It needs a good clean, whatever it is. Think I’ll get three wishes if I polish it hard enough?”
“Oh, definitely.” Hana took the disc and held it up in a patch of fading sunlight. The glass glittered in the way that had caught Akemi’s attention originally. “It’s too thin to be a watch, I think. There’s no room for the gears.”
“It’s probably just a really fancy button. Or a charm off someone’s school bag.”
“I think it’s a locket. Maybe there’s a picture inside.” Hana offered her the locket with a smile. “Anyway if it turns out to be magic, we’re coming back to find me one too.”
Akemi laughed, and put the locket in her bag.
“You’re a mess,” Hana went on, smile fading into a frown. “You’ve got green stains all over. What happened to your hair?”
Akemi held up the ribbon. Hana took it from her and retied her pigtail while Akemi examined her school uniform. The stains didn’t show much on the green skirt, but she’d taken her blazer off to climb the tree, and her white shirt was looking distinctly sorry for itself. Plus she had a hole in her black tights, her shoes were scuffed, and her hands were too grubby to get clean with the tissues Hana pulled out of her bag. Akemi shot an envious and slightly baffled look at her friend’s pristine uniform.
Hana was as much a tomboy at heart as Akemi, but somehow she never seemed to end up, just for example, falling out of a tree. Her waist-length braids were always sleek and neat, while Akemi’s shoulder-length hair did everything in its power to escape from the basic pigtails she forced it into every day. Hana even seemed to understand the mysterious art of accessorizing, something Akemi struggled with beyond ‘the colours shouldn’t clash’. Today she was wearing a sweet pair of pink rose-bud earrings and just a hint of matching lip gloss. Akemi was wearing several dead leaves, a scattering of tree bark, and a big scratch down one arm.
“Mom’s going to give me hell when I get home,” she muttered.
Hana winced. “Sorry. It was my idea…”
“Like I wouldn’t have done it anyway.” Akemi clambered to her feet. “Come on, it’s getting dark.”
Hana jumped up, grabbed her bag, and looped her arm through Akemi’s as they headed back towards the shrine gate.
“Maybe you can sneak in and change before she notices?”
Behind them, in the now-empty clearing, the albino cat reappeared from the bushes and went sniffing around the base of the tree to see if they’d dropped anything edible. The leaves rustled as if in a breeze, although there was no air stirring anywhere else, and a few of the branches settled into more comfortable positions.
The tree said, “She climbed me.”
The cat hissed at the voice from nowhere, and bolted back to the bushes with her tail puffed out to twice its normal size.
“She actually climbed me. How undignified.” A pause, then laughter like bamboo chimes on the breeze. “Oh well, it’s a start.”
They were too old to really believe in magic, but with her mother’s scolding still ringing in her ears after dinner, Akemi couldn’t help but hope for three wishes. She tried to clean up the locket, to get it to do something, even just open up to reveal an old photograph. Ordinary soap and water turned a pile of tissues black, but made no difference to the metal. When she cleaned away the grunge from the faceted red crystal at the centre, she found that it was in the shape of a sun, but its surface was so scratched and dull that she couldn’t see through to the inside. She wondered it was possible to polish it until it was clean again.
There was that little antiques store by the station. Maybe someone there could help.
Or they’d tell her it was just junk.
With a sigh, she folded the locket up in a wad of tissue and put it back in her bag, then pulled out her homework. It would have been nice to be, say, whisked away to a land where homework didn’t exist.
They’d always hoped for something like that, she and Hana, ever since they’d met on their first day of junior high. When they were twelve they actually kind of meant it. When they were fifteen it was their private joke. Now they were seventeen and starting their last year of high school and… they did silly things like chasing a cat into the depths of an empty shrine in case it led them on an adventure. It was still their joke, but sometimes… Akemi felt a kind of desperation in it. Everything was about school now, studying to pass the entrance exams for university, facing her mother’s constant disappointment, cramming herself into the poorly fitting shape of a dedicated high school student.
She felt like she was being stripped away until there was nothing left of her except memorised facts and orderly equations. Everyone kept saying it was only until she got into university, only another year, but sometimes, she wondered if there was going to be any Akemi left by then, or if she would forget how to do anything else except try her hardest and never quite be good enough.
You are awakening.
In the dream, she was late for school and running towards the station, but she kept getting turned around. There was water around her ankles. She could feel the tug of the current. Had she fallen into the rain gutter? But this water stank of mud and brine, and it was choppy and full of debris. She turned another corner and found she was going the wrong way again.
The water was up to her knees. She lost her balance, and heard herself cry out in fear. She knew, with the remorseless logic of dreams, that if she fell in, she’d never get out. Her flailing hand caught hold of something. It was a tree branch, the sakaki tree from the shrine. She quickly pulled herself up, climbing to a safe height.
The water was still rising, and now it was below her, it seemed as if it had suddenly become much deeper… as if she was leaning out over a great ocean. Somewhere beneath the rushing, tumbling green she saw a bright light blazing, until it faltered, and went out.
She heard a bird shriek overheard, the piercing cry of a hawk.
You are awakening. The voice was like the wind through leaves. Come to me. Come back to the shrine, Sol…
Akemi tried to speak, but her voice wouldn’t work. The water lapped her dangling feet. She grabbed hold of a branch to climb higher, and it snapped in her hand.
She fell, and the water boiled up to meet her, and she screamed—
— and woke up with a gasp, too scared to move, the feeling of the scream in her throat. But there was no sound from the rest of the apartment, no indication she had made any real noise. Akemi reached shakily for the light and turned it on. It was five in the morning. It was only a dream.
It was raining a little outside. That was probably where the water theme had come from. The rest of it… just things in her brain, getting mixed up together. She should just turn the light off and go back to sleep. It was only a dream, and she wasn’t scared of anything, not heights, not spiders, not the ocean rising remorselessly to swallow her…
She left the light on.
When Akemi stumbled groggily into the main room of the apartment for breakfast, she found her mother, Izumi, standing at the kitchen sink. She was trying to bleach the green stains out of Akemi’s school shirt while she watched the morning news. Akemi glanced at the scrolling headline. The police were still looking for the person who’d attacked that schoolgirl a few weeks back. She’d been in a coma ever since, though the authorities hadn’t been forthcoming with details.
“I want you to start coming straight home from school after class, before it gets dark,” Izumi said. One glance at her face told Akemi that this was more about the shirt than the news story. “No messing around with Hana, you’re too old for that kind of thing, and you’re a bad influence on her. It’ll do you good to get some more studying in anyway.”
“I’m not missing track,” Akemi replied, scowling. “And I’m not a bad influence—”
“Running around like a lunatic won’t get you into a good university.” Izumi gave the wet shirt a savage squeeze. “I’m not going to stand back and watch you let yourself down again.”
Akemi clenched her fists. Two years on, and her mother still wouldn’t let her forget how close she’d come to failing the entrance exam for Cross High. Never mind that it had been Hana who’d pulled her through it. In the wake of the divorce, the only reason Akemi had cared about the exam was because she couldn’t bear the thought of them going to different schools.
“I’m not missing track,” she said again. She groped for something to bolster her argument. “Exercise is good for the brain. All our teachers say so.”
“You get plenty of exercise,” Izumi said. “That’s one thing I’ve never worried about, the way you dash around.”
She pulled the plug and drained the water out, holding the shirt up critically. Akemi could see the faint marks even from here.
“It’s no good, I’m going to have to buy you a new one. I’ll need to work some extra shifts this week.”
Guilt and shame engulfed Akemi. She pushed them angrily away.
“We could just ask—”
“We are not asking your father for money.” Izumi’s voice was quiet and cold. “Not ever. And certainly not for something like this.”
That was the way Izumi always referred to him now: your father. Never by name. As if somehow, he was Akemi’s problem, Akemi’s fault. As if he had been cleanly erased from Izumi’s life, and she was irritated that Akemi kept reminding her of his existence.
Akemi grabbed her bag and started for the door, because her other options were to start shouting, or burst into tears.
“Fine. I’ll see you later.”
“You haven’t had breakfast.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I mean it, Akemi. Come straight home tonight.”
If you’re picking up extra shifts, you won’t even be here, Akemi thought viciously. Just like you’re never here when I need you.
She waited until she had her shoes on and the door open to reply.
“I’m not missing track.”
Third time was the charm, right? Especially if you immediately shut the door behind you and ran for it.
The rest of the day followed the pattern set by the morning. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Akemi had somehow completely forgotten about the History homework, which meant a nasty lecture from the teacher, who had never liked her. At lunch time it rained unseasonably hard, so they had to stay at their desks to eat lunch. Akemi almost started a fight with a boy from another class when he wouldn’t stop trying to get Hana to go on a date with him.
And she couldn’t get the dream out of her head. She felt agitated and on edge, like she was still trying to get away from the rising water. Even beating her own record at track couldn’t dispel the feeling. A part of Akemi wanted to defy her mother by heading into the city centre for ice cream, but another part was relieved when Hana said she needed to go straight home today.
They parted ways at the Sanjo Junction, like they always did. The road from the station met the district highway in a T-shape. Hana headed east along the highway while Akemi crossed the footbridge and took her usual shortcut diagonally through the park on the other side.
She’d walked through it so many times she barely saw it any more. It wasn’t much more than some grass, a few solitary trees, a lot of dry, sandy dirt, and a small play area by the drinking fountain in the centre.
It seemed… darker than normal. Akemi’s steps slowed and she looked around her, frowning. The streetlights nearest the edge of the park were unlit, she saw now, and the light from the rest of the city was strangely muted. All at once this innocuous space she knew by heart seemed like part of another world, and not a welcoming one. Akemi shivered and began to hurry homeward with renewed vigour.
That was when she heard the scream.
The east side of the park was bordered by a canal, with the highway crossing over the water on a concrete bridge. In the angle between the bridge and the canal bank was a large triangular space that children and rough sleepers had once frequented, until it was blocked off by a chain-link fence. But the fence didn’t stop the determined and inquisitive – Akemi should know – and the scream had come from there.
Akemi was running towards it before she even had time to think. She grabbed the fence, intending to climb it. It peeled away in her hands: someone had cut through the links on one side. She hauled it out of the way, ducked through the gap, and clambered up over the concrete lip of the bridge’s foundations.
There were two people in the angled, tunnel-like space, frozen in a tableau that was lit by an eerie pale light. A girl was crumpled on the slope, her hand clutched to her chest. A man stood opposite her, arm outstretched, muttering something under his breath. He was holding a knife… or rather, a dagger. The blade was long and black, its edges wickedly sharp. It looked like something Akemi had once seen in a museum, displayed alongside a human skull. It was glowing with a faint and eerie radiance.
“Stop!” she yelled, even as it hit her that she was way out of her depth, that he could just as easily stab her with that knife like he must have stabbed the other girl. “Get away from her!”
The man turned towards her with a scowl. He was wearing some sort of black hooded coat, obscuring everything but his face. It was dark behind him, so dark she couldn’t see the other end of the tunnel, even though she knew it opened out onto the canal bank beyond the highway.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I’ll call the police!” Akemi fumbled for her phone, realising that she should have done it before she came in here. “Don’t you dare move!”
The man looked her over, scowl twisting into a dismissive grin. It wasn’t a coat he was wearing, she realised. It was a cloak, long and black, its folds undulating like an oil slick.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Try it. Just stay out of my way, I’m busy.”
He turned his attention back to the girl and began speaking again. Akemi couldn’t understand the words: they weren’t Japanese, and she didn’t think they were English either. The light around the dagger grew brighter, creeping out towards the girl and surrounding her in a foxfire shroud. Somehow the radiance did nothing to dispel the darkness, but now a red glow sprang up behind the man. With a shock of disbelief, Akemi saw that it was coming from a symbol inscribed on the concrete pillar, a set of fiery lines that curled and swept together to form a strange and meaningless sigil.
She hit the emergency dial button on her phone. It beeped at her. No signal. She started to back away, intending to get out from under the concrete, but the girl was still lying there, and the light that poured from the tip of the dagger made Akemi sick to her stomach, like she was watching someone drown.
“Help!” she shouted as loud as she could. “Someone help!”
“No-one can hear you now this haunt is active,” the man replied, shooting her a nasty, self-satisfied smirk. “You should have run while you had the chance. Now you’ll never leave. Too bad, so sad. When the Spectres eat your soul, tell them Archduke Neikos sent you.”
Akemi’s fists clenched, defiance racing to overcome her fear.
“Archduke Knickers? What sort of stupid name is that?”
The smirk fractured into a snarl.
“What sort of stupid little girl are you? Walking in here on your own?” Neikos retorted. Then he seemed to recover his composure. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. I’ve got better things to do.”
He rattled off one more phrase in the unknown language, and the dagger’s light flared brilliantly for one more second before suddenly contracting. It drained away from the girl and from the blade like water, coalescing at the mid-point between the two, compressing into a glittering object that hovered in the air.
Neikos stepped forward, hand outstretched to take it. And suddenly, from the deep shadows at the other end of the tunnel, there was movement. Another figure rushed forward, also hooded and swathed in a cloak, and dived towards the bright object. Neikos shrieked a curse and tried to snatch the thing away, but the new arrival moved as fast as a bird of prey, and Neikos’s hand closed on air.
The figure didn’t stop, diving past Akemi without so much as a glance in her direction. Neikos whirled, spitting out more words in that other language.
There was a manhole cover set into the concrete at his feet. It began to rattle and shift as if something were trying to get out from underneath it. Inky black shadows oozed out around its edges, spreading across the floor, resolving into claws and teeth and malice, scrabbling up the walls, and launching into pursuit of the thief. Akemi flinched back as they passed her. The sigil on the wall was crawling with a fire as red as blood, but everything else was getting darker and darker, the space under the bridge filling with a deep blackness like a moonless night.
She looked back at Neikos, but he was gone, swallowed up in the shadows. She couldn’t see the girl. She could barely see her hands in front of her face. Even the red symbol was starting to disappear into the darkness.
Now you’ll never leave.
All around her were small sounds, slithering and shuffling that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Akemi closed her eyes tightly as if that would help her cope with the darkness. She had been facing the girl. If she took a few careful steps forward…
Hands seized her from the shadows. Hands? They had too many fingers with too many joints, and sharp claws dug into her skin. Akemi screamed, more from shock than pain. Her eyes flew open, but there was nothing to see but blackness. The inhuman hands tightened, wrapping around her arms as she struggled, hooking cruelly into her hair, and she could hear a chittering sound like warped laughter.
“Help!” she yelled again, but the way the cry fell dead into the still air told her that Neikos had spoken the truth. No-one would hear her. No-one was coming.
Maybe it’s another dream. Maybe I’ll wake up…
The hands were dragging her down, into darkness like deep water, into oblivion. They’d left her here to drown, Neikos and that other person. They’d left her behind like she didn’t even matter.
You are awakening.
All at once, every scrap of fear in her blood turned to anger, like kindling roaring into flame, red and gold and too fierce to deny.
“Let go of me!”
Fire leapt to life all around her as if someone had thrown a match on a pool of gasoline. The things holding her shrieked and released their grip, and the ring of flame leapt higher, a wall of heat and light that pierced even the unnatural darkness. In the split second of illumination, Akemi saw them, the things Neikos had called Spectres: twisted nightmares, some like caricatures of people, and others with too many legs and too many eyes and too much hunger to ever be satisfied.
But where the flames touched them, they burned, crumbling to ash in a heartbeat, and all the shadows thronging that place flinched away from her, and their fear was a balm to the wounds of her own terror.
The fire was already dying down, but its light was enough to show her the way out, the edge of the concrete and the sagging chain-link fence. It seemed close, but the short distance was somehow stretched out, and after a few steps she began to run, desperate to reach that point of escape before the last of the embers flickered out.
The fence was cool under her hands as she ducked through the gap. Outside was too dark, unnaturally dark like the space under the bridge, but here the shadows had less hold, more like a dark fog than absolute night. She stumbled up the bank of the canal and through the park. Only when she reached the highway did the last tendrils reluctantly let her go.
It hit her then that she’d left the other girl behind, forgotten in her own terror. As if she didn’t even matter, either. Guilt hit Akemi in a wave so powerful it brought her to her knees, her shaking legs no longer able to hold her up. Tears started in her eyes as she stared into the deep darkness of the park, and knew that she couldn’t go back in there. Not even to try and help that other girl.
Coward, she thought viciously, closing her eyes and clenching her fists. Coward!
And just like that, the anger was back, a towering rage that drove her to her feet again. She stared into the darkness for a few more seconds, remembering that smirk on Neikos’s face. The feeling of helplessness as the shadows dragged her down. And the dream that had been echoing through her head all day, the voice that had called out to her.
She turned her back on the park, dashed a hand across her eyes to wipe away the tears, and headed for the shrine.