Chapter 2 rewrite. As before, 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
The Honmori Shrine had been abandoned for as long as Akemi could remember. It lay on a side street, but its steps and gate were visible from the route she walked with Hana every day to get to the station. The shrine buildings were shuttered, its kami forgotten and forsaken, and it was always full of feral cats, sleeping in the now-dry stone water basin and on the greying wooden steps of the buildings.
It should have been spooky in the dark, but Akemi had seen spooky up close already this evening, and the quiet stillness of the shrine felt comforting in comparison. Several pairs of luminous eyes watched her warily from a distance. Somewhere, she could hear purring, and the sound of a kitten or two playing with a dead leaf.
She stopped in the middle of the open space.
What had she been expecting? That the shrine doors would be open? That there would be someone waiting here, a priest in ancient robes, or a fox spirit, or one of the guardian ogres come to life? The anger and certainty that had driven her here began to drain away.
Akemi caught her breath. The call was faint with distance, but familiar. The voice was from her dream, but the sense of recognition went far deeper, an almost painful moment of connection.
“Who are you?”
“Come here, Sol.” Now Akemi could tell that the voice was coming from behind the shrine. “I will explain everything.”
Akemi fumbled in her bag for her phone. Using its dim light, she followed the remains of a path around the main shrine building and into the overgrown trees behind. The same route they’d taken to follow the white cat. Her heart skipped. Could it really be…?
Feline eyes shone from the bushes as she reached the clearing, but they darted away at her approach. Akemi swung her phone around, but its light showed her only bits of dead twig, long grass, and a couple of startled cicadas.
“Where are you?”
“I am here,” came the voice from right beside her. Akemi spun around, startled, but all she saw was the tree she’d climbed the day before. There was no-one hiding behind it, or up in its branches. At least… no-one human sized…
“Are you a talking cat?” she blurted out.
“What?” The voice lost some of its calm authority. “A cat? Me? Don’t be ridiculous!”
“If you’d had the kind of day I’ve had it wouldn’t seem so strange,” Akemi retorted. “Come out, then. I can’t see you.”
“You are not looking, Sol. I am right in front of you.”
There was a faint glow in the clearing. Now she realised that its source was the tree in front of her. The light was so faint it could almost be mistaken for reflected starlight, but it clustered like blossoms among the leaves. The branches were moving as if stirred by a heavy breeze, though the air around her was still. All the other trees were motionless, not a leaf twitching. As Akemi stared, the whole trunk of the tree bent towards her, slowly and gracefully, in something like a bow.
“How,” she said after a long moment, “is a talking tree any less ridiculous than a talking cat?”
“I am not a talking tree,” said the talking tree indignantly. “I am a spirit whose anchor to this realm happens to be this sacred sakaki tree. I am here to guide you—”
“Can you leave the tree?”
“No, but there is much I can teach you—”
“… so you’re basically a tree. Who is talking to me. Right now. A talking tree.”
Akemi started to giggle. She couldn’t help herself.
“I am not—” The tree paused. When she spoke again she sounded, for the first time, less formal, and even faintly amused. “Oh, as you please. Call me Sakaki then. Will you listen to what the talking tree has to say?”
Akemi found she couldn’t quite stop giggling, and that there was something close to hysterical in the sound. Her legs suddenly felt wobbly. She sat down in the long grass with a thump.
“Is this really happening? It feels like a dream.”
“It is not a dream, Sol. Be at ease. You are safe here. Though this must seem very strange to you—”
“Very strange doesn’t even begin to—” Akemi shook her head, at a loss for words. She blinked up at the faintly glowing tree. “What do you keep calling me?”
“Sol.” Sakaki spoke the name with an odd combination of reverence and fondness. “Guardian Sol. Chosen of the Sun. Take out your crest.”
“The medallion you took from my branches yesterday.”
Akemi grabbed her bag and started searching through it. She had to empty most of its contents onto the ground, probably losing a few pencils to the long grass, before her groping fingers closed on the bundle of tissue paper. She pulled it out and tore the wrapping away.
She gasped when she saw the locket. The dull black grime was gone. The gold – for there could be no doubt it was gold – gleamed in her hand. The red crystal sun in the centre was clear and clean, and glittered when she turned it in her hand. There were intricate patterns engraved into the metal, fine filigree edges to the setting of the crystal. The chain that had been broken was now whole, as new-looking as the rest of it.
“It really was magic,” she said, stunned. “It really was.”
“Magic is a trivial term for the power within the crest,” said Sakaki. “The power of the Celestial Guard, sworn to fight the Infernal Multitude, which would cover all the world in darkness if left unopposed.”
Akemi’s fingers tightened on the locket.
“Those shadow… things?”
“Those were Spectres. The Multitude is a formless thing, all eyes and mouths and grasping hands, an army of hundreds of thousands all driven by one purpose: to retake the surface world.”
Akemi shuddered, remembering those grasping hands all too well.
“What do you mean, retake?”
“Eons ago, this world was wreathed in fire and shadow. The surface was molten rock; the skies were blanketed with smoke and ash. The Multitude thrived then; this was its realm and no other could endure it. But after many ages of dominion, the world began to cool, and the skies began to clear. The fiery Fiends could not tolerate the cold, and the shadowy Spectres fled in fear from the light of sun and stars and moon. The Multitude dove deep underground and slumbered for long ages, but it never forgot that this world had once been its sole domain. And when new life arose to take its place, its resentment was vast and bitter.”
“And now it’s back?”
“Yes. The Multitude has found itself human allies, who can walk the surface world at will, and draw upon the power of the the depths. They call themselves Archdukes—”
“That guy!” Akemi sat bolt upright. “Neikos, he called himself Archduke Neikos—”
“I feared you had confronted one of them when I sensed your proximity to that haunt. And yet you got the better of him even without your full powers?”
“He left me there,” Akemi said, feeling her blood begin to boil. “Me and the other girl, he just left us there with the Spectres. He took off after the other guy—”
“What ‘other guy’?” Sakaki demanded sharply.
“I don’t know, some other guy in a cloak. There was a… a thing…” Akemi gestured vaguely with her hands. “Something bright and shiny, I guess Neikos wanted it? But then this other guy swooped in and grabbed it, and Neikos chased him. And then the Spectres came.”
She looked down at the medallion in her hand once more.
“And I burned them up,” she said. “How did I do that?”
“Stand up, Sol. Hold the crest against your heart.”
Akemi scrambled to her feet and pressed the medallion against her chest.
“Now repeat after me: I call upon the sun, my liege, bright warden of the day. Grant me the power to overcome the dark.”
The words were archaic, old Japanese like something out of a samurai movie. Akemi paused for a second, making sure she had it all straight in her head.
“I call upon the sun, my liege,” she began, and there was heat under her hand and heat in her chest, “bright warden of the day.”
A certainty swelled in her, a recognition, a deep sense of completion. This no longer seemed strange. This seemed exactly right.
“Grant me the power to overcome the dark!”
Light sprang from her fingertips and raced across her body, so fast it was almost a flash, so warm and golden that it made her heart sing. She felt the change, like being turned inside-out, like something that had been coiled up and tense inside her was suddenly, gratefully released. She wanted to laugh, and she wanted to cry, and she wanted Hana to be here to see this.
Her clothes had changed. She could feel the difference immediately. Her body was wrapped in some form-fitting garment; her fingers were now sheathed in gloves. As the afterimages cleared from her eyes, she saw that the gloves were red with orange trim. They fitted her perfectly.
So did the rest of the outfit. The white underlayer felt like a jumpsuit, its material light and stretchy enough to make movement easy, but with an odd feeling of sturdiness, as if it were reinforced with some stronger fibre. Over it she was wearing a short red dress – or was it a tunic? – with a flared skirt and more orange trim, and a belt of golden links at the waist. Knee-high boots in the same shade of red completed the ensemble.
Akemi stared down at herself for several seconds, then put her hands behind her back, feeling around her waist.
“What are you doing?” Sakaki asked.
“Trying to see if I have some sort of enormous ribbon back here.” Akemi spun around. “Do I?”
Akemi laughed. She felt so light and free, it was as if she’d sprouted wings.
“But I’m basically a magical girl, right? A mahou shoujo?”
“I suppose you could term it thus.” Sakaki seemed to have veered back into amusement. “Put the crest around your neck, Sol. From now on, you must never be parted from it.”
Akemi paused in the middle of slipping the chain over her head.
“What, never? That’s going to be awkward.”
“Nonetheless, it is your protection. The Multitude is rapidly growing in strength. This city is already marred with haunts. You must be cautious, and prepared to defend yourself.”
Some of Akemi’s glee fizzled out. She let the medallion fall onto her chest, where it lay perfectly framed in the curved cut-out of the tunic’s orange collar. For the first time, she noticed that she also had epaulets on her shoulders, holding the tunic in place; red crystals glimmered in a gold setting. It reminded her uneasily for a moment of the red sigil glowing on the wall beneath the bridge.
“Tell me how to fight,” she said.
“You can conjure flame to burn the shadows away. Call the fire: it will respond to your need.”
Akemi cautiously held out a hand. It was there, the heat, under her skin, pooling in her fingertips.
“Burn,” she whispered.
Flames leapt from her hand. She flinched back, and watched in dismay as a small shrub went up in flames.
Sakaki shook her branches. Drops of water from the earlier rain quenched the fire. They also drenched Akemi, who glared at Sakaki even as she rushed over to stamp on the remaining embers.
“Now I’m wet. Great.”
“You’ll forgive me for being a little nervous around open flames,” Sakaki replied dryly. “I do not wish to go up in smoke.”
Akemi had to concede the point. She looked at the charred remains of the shrub for a long moment.
“So if I go back to that… haunt,” she said, “I can destroy the Spectres?”
“Not yet,” Sakaki said. “You need to learn more about your powers. Now that haunt has been bolstered with the power of a shard, it is too potent for you to confront.”
“But the other girl… I can’t just leave her there.”
“There is nothing you can do for her.”
“Is… is she dead?”
“No, but she is beyond your reach,” Sakaki said as if that would be the end of it. She sounded all too much like Akemi’s mother. “To begin with, Sol, you must focus on the weaker haunts—”
“My name is Akemi.” Her fists clenched. “And I’m not leaving that girl with those Spectres.”
She took off running, darting through the overgrowth, out to the shrine courtyard and down the steps. She could hear Sakaki calling after her, but she ignored that, focusing on her breathing, the rhythm of her stride. Running always made her feel better, always helped clear her mind, and there was so much to try and understand right now, so many impossible things, and wasn’t it just easier, to run as fast as she could, to save the girl, and save the day?
She was back at the park before she knew it. She slowed to a walk, then stopped in front of the entrance. The unnatural darkness still sent a chill through her, but now she had a fire of her own to dispel it. She took a deep breath and strode into the tendrils of shadow.
The black fog closed around her, making her skin crawl. She could barely make out where she was going. For now, at least, there didn’t seem to be any Spectres nearby. She made her way slowly through the park, feeling her way towards the canal. The darkness thickened around her as she approached the chain-link fence.
Something moved, something she felt more than heard. Fire leapt from her hands with barely a thought. Its light cut through the darkness, and she saw Spectres flinching back from it, even as the one that had been sneaking up on her went up in flames.
Exhilaration and fear blended into a heady rush of adrenaline. Before the fire died, while she could still see what she was doing, Akemi sent more flames racing towards the fleeing Spectres. They went up like paper, curling and twisting, and a savage part of her was disappointed that they didn’t make a sound. She would have liked to hear them scream.
She plunged through the gap in the fence and into the deep darkness beyond. Claws immediately snagged her legs. With a shout, Akemi sent a torrent of fire in that direction, and saw something indescribably inhuman writhe and burn.
She couldn’t find the girl. The darkness seemed to go on forever, and she walked easily far enough that she should have come out the other side of the tunnel. Twice, she found herself somehow back at the chain-link fence. She kept burning the Spectres, but they kept coming, and now there was a… a weight to them that hadn’t been there before, a thick blackness that burned at the edges but could survive her fire long enough to duck away.
Just as fear began to close cold fingers around her chest, she spotted an outstretched hand lying limply on the concrete. The girl hadn’t moved at all, still lying exactly where Neikos had left her. The cold feeling plunged deeper into the pit of Akemi’s stomach. Sakaki had said she wasn’t dead, but…
Akemi knelt beside her. She looked to be Akemi’s age or a little younger. Her eyes were closed, her skin drained of colour. Akemi checked for a pulse, and let out a shaky breath when she found it, slow and steady in the girl’s throat.
“Hey.” She shook the girl gently, then harder. “Hey! Wake up!”
She might as well have been shaking a doll. The girl made no sound, no response. Her head lolled to one side, and Akemi stopped, afraid she would hurt her.
Something slithered and reared behind her. Akemi snarled over her shoulder. Fire leapt to engulf the Spectre. It reeled back, but then she saw it begin to shrug its burning outer layers free, like a snake shedding its skin.
She hauled the girl into her arms. It was harder than she’d thought it would be. Somehow she’d imagined she’d just scoop the other girl up and carry her bridal-style, but they were about the same height, and the girl’s body was just dead weight. Some distant memory of a school trip to the local fire station gave her the idea to sling the girl over her shoulders, but even then, she could barely stagger upright.
Something was gathering in the darkness. She could feel it. Gritting her teeth, Akemi turned back to where she thought the entrance was, and began to walk. She had to keep pausing, balancing the girl with one hand while she threw fire at the Spectres with the other. Each time, it seemed the flames did less damage to the Spectres, and the glimpses she caught of them were enormous, towering over her like something out of a nightmare.
And she couldn’t find the way out. She was sure she’d turned and retraced her steps, but the fence, which she’d been unable to get away from before, was now nowhere to be found. Her heart was hammering in her chest from the exertion of carrying the girl and the fear that at any moment, one of the Spectres would lunge towards her. It was getting harder to summon the fire, as if she was using up a supply of energy. Sakaki hadn’t said anything about that. But she hadn’t given Sakaki a chance to finish explaining how all of this worked…
The attack came suddenly and from two sides. A fist like a hammer slammed into her head and sent her reeling, while razor-sharp talons sliced at her body. The only reason she wasn’t gutted was that the first blow had spun her around; the talons raked across her hip, opening deep gashes even through the protective suit. Akemi cried out, stumbling to her knees. The girl slipped from her shoulders. Desperately, she summoned up every scrap of strength she had left.
Fire sprang up in a circle around them, a wall to keep the Spectres back, but Akemi could feel how precarious it was. Her head was throbbing and her hip was a hot mess of agony. The edges of her vision were blood-red and pulsing, and beyond the ring of fire the Spectres were thronging with a monstrous eagerness. She could see the outlines of them against the red glow, all spines and fins and humped shoulders…
Akemi shook her head, trying to clear her vision. That glow… it wasn’t coming from the fire. It was the deep red light that had spilled from the sigil inscribed on the wall. She squinted, trying to find its source.
There – she could just make it out. Faint in the depths of the darkness, like the afterimage of the trail left by a sparkler.
She didn’t have much left in her. She was starting to feel light-headed, either from concussion or from loss of blood. If she passed out here, the Spectres would devour her. She knew instinctively that if she tried to summon any more fire, the protective circle would fail.
But that symbol tugged at something buried deep in her mind, like a dream she’d forgotten, like deja vu. Like it was the glue holding this whole thing together…
The flames that sprang from her hands were so bright they blinded her, but her aim was true. The fire rushed past the Spectres and engulfed the strange symbol. For a moment the red light grew brighter, and Akemi had the horrible thought that the sigil was feeding off the fire…
And then it winked out like someone had pulled the plug, and the world seemed to bend around her, a wind rushing through the darkness, and as the fiery circle died away, the last of its light showed her the Spectres warping and rippling, turning to flee, running like water down the concrete walls of the tunnel.
She could see the walls. She could see the blackened outline of the sigil on the nearby pillar, and the manhole cover that had been flung aside in the Spectres’ haste to get away. Light filtered in from beyond the tunnel, dim and artificial but as welcome as sunrise after the endless dark of the haunt. She was barely an arm’s length from the chain-link fence.
It was all Akemi could do not to just lie down on the gritty concrete and close her eyes. Her head was swimming. She looked down at her injured hip, pulling aside the skirt to reveal that the white leggings underneath were soaked in blood. She… probably ought to do something about that. Like, call an ambulance. And get help for the girl too…
Her hand went for her phone automatically, before she remembered that she’d left her school bag in the shrine clearing with Sakaki. She leaned over to check on the other girl, who was as still and unresponsive as ever.
There was a faint ringing in her ears, like a distant chime. It had been there for a while, but she’d thought it was part of the headache. Except it brought with it a tugging sensation, a conviction that that she should respond.
Akemi lifted the medallion from her chest, stared at it for a moment, and then flicked open the catch and opened it for the first time. There was no clockwork mechanism inside, nor a portrait: instead, she found herself looking into a small round mirror like a makeup compact. Her own white face peered back at her for a second, before the silvery metal surface began to glow.
“Sol? Can you hear me?” Sakaki’s voice was desperate and afraid. “Akemi?”
“Yeah,” Akemi said, rocked by weary guilt. “I’m here.”
“Are you all right? I can no longer sense the haunt—”
“It’s gone. I destroyed the… symbol thing.”
“Are you hurt?” Sakaki sounded like she already guessed the answer. “Can you return to the shrine?”
Akemi opened her mouth to say that she didn’t think she could walk, then paused. The pain in her hip had diminished, the tearing agony reduced to a fierce soreness, and the heat of her own blood had cooled.
“I think so,” she said, “but there’s something I have to do first.”
When she limped back into the shrine clearing, Akemi was back in her school uniform. Dealing with the police had taken longer than she’d hoped, and she’d been on edge the whole time, afraid they’d notice how she was favouring her right leg, or ask more questions about what had happened. But everyone involved – the police, the paramedics, the woman who’d called the ambulance for her when Akemi had accosted her outside the park – had accepted Akemi’s explanation that she’d heard a scream and found the girl in here unconscious.
She didn’t try to tell them about Neikos. Even if she could have described his face, which was a blur of malice and shadow in her memory, there would have been too many other questions she couldn’t answer. What was he wearing? Oh, a long black cloak. Did he have a weapon? Yeah, some sort of magic sacrificial dagger. Was he alone? No, there were all these living shadows…
The glow had faded from Sakaki’s branches, but her leaves shivered in relief when Akemi finally arrived. Akemi said nothing, finding her school bag in the darkness and sitting down next to it with a wince for her throbbing hip. She braced herself for yet another scolding.
“How badly are you hurt?” Sakaki asked, her voice surprisingly gentle.
“I don’t know.” The blood-soaked leggings had vanished when she’d transformed back into her normal clothes. “I thought it was really bad, I was bleeding a lot, but now it seems like it’s not such a big deal—”
“You are made more resilient by the power of the Celestial Guard,” Sakaki explained. “Your wounds will heal faster than normal, and your body will recover swiftly from blood loss and sickness.”
“Oh. That’s good to know.”
Akemi laid a hand gingerly on her hip. She could feel the thick, lumpy scabs beneath her school tights, three parallel slashes each as broad as one of her fingers. They were still very painful, but yes, now she thought about it, it was the kind of pain you got a few days after an injury, a mixture of bruised ache and sharp jabs when the muscles and flesh were pulled.
“And the shard-bearer?” Sakaki asked.
“The girl you attempted to rescue.”
“I did rescue her,” Akemi said. “I got her out. I called an ambulance, they’re taking care of her…”
“You have done all you can, then,” Sakaki said, still with that gentleness. “At least she will not be lost to the darkness.”
“I don’t understand what happened to her.” Akemi shivered, remembering the limp body and slack face. “Did Neikos stab her? There wasn’t any blood. She was alive, but she wouldn’t wake up…”
“I am afraid, Sol, that she will remain in that state.”
“What?” Akemi stared at the tree, fists clenching unconsciously. “No, they’ll help her, at the hospital, they can figure out what’s wrong—”
“Her shard was taken, and her soul along with it,” Sakaki said quietly. “There is nothing any healer can do for her, except to keep her body alive for a time. That is… what I was trying to tell you before you returned to the haunt.”
“What… what’s a shard?” Akemi asked, forcing the words past the lump in her throat.
“A source of great power. They are carried within the souls of certain people. The Multitude seeks to gather them, for it is only by using their power that the darkness can hope to conquer light.”
“So if I stop the Archdukes taking any more—”
“I fear it is not so simple.”
“You too must seek the shards,” Sakai said, the words dreadful in their simplicity. “For it is only by their power that we can hope to defeat the Multitude.”
“You… you can’t be serious.” Anger and disgust battled for control of Akemi’s voice. “You can’t expect me to… to suck out people’s souls… like some sort of vampire—!”
“The Archdukes will be the ones targeting the shard-bearers.” Sakaki’s voice was still quiet, but there was a remorselessness about the way she spoke, a determination to make Akemi understand. “You cannot stop them; you cannot protect all the shard-bearers at all times. All you can do is be ready to seize the shard once it manifests, so that their sacrifice is not in vain, and so that the Multitude does not gain additional power.”
“No.” Akemi hardly recognised her own voice, it was so faint and ragged. “No. That’s not… that’s not fair.”
“No, it is not,” Sakaki agreed, with a sudden deep emotion that made Akemi go still. “It has never been fair, Sol. I am sorry for laying this burden upon you. But,” she went on before Akemi could speak, “take heart. There is some hope for these victims. If you can obtain the shard yourself, there is a way to return the soul to its bearer.”
“Guardian Luna. The power of the moon has always been connected to the secrets of the soul. Find Guardian Luna, and you will at least be able to save some of the shard-bearers.”
“Another Guardian…?” But Akemi’s thoughts were racing ahead. “So… wait… if we get strong enough… if we defeat the Archdukes and take back the shards they’ve stolen… we could save everyone? All the people whose souls have already been taken?”
“Perhaps,” she said cautiously. “If the healers of this time are as proficient as you think, if the bodies of the bearers have been sustained while the soul is absent…”
It was enough for Akemi to seize on with both hands.
“Okay,” she said. The helplessness was fading beneath a rising tide of determination. “Then that’s what I’ll do. Destroy the haunts. Fight the Spectres. Get the shards. And find… how do I find Guardian Luna?”
“Luna feels the same stirrings of awakening that brought you to this place and led you to the haunt,” Sakaki said. “It is only a matter of time before your paths cross.”
“Right, guess it would be too much to hope for that you could give me her phone number or something,” Akemi muttered.
Then a thought struck her like a thunderclap.
“Wait… is it Hana? Is she Guardian Luna?”
“No, she is not the one.”
“Are you sure? You haven’t met her—”
“I have,” Sakaki replied. “She was with you when you retrieved the crest, yes? The one who does not climb trees.”
“But she’s my best friend,” Akemi protested. “We do everything together. How can you make me a Guardian and not her?”
“The choice is not mine,” Sakaki said quietly. “I am just the guide.”
“But how am I going to tell her—”
“You must not!” Sakaki’s voice turned sharp. “Secrecy is your first defence. The Archdukes will search for you once they know you have awakened. You cannot take the risk of confiding in those who do not understand the danger.”
“She would never tell anyone!”
“Then you would place that burden on her? To know of the Multitude and be powerless to oppose it? To live in fear of the shadows?”
To that, Akemi had no rejoinder. She bit her lip, remembering the terror and helplessness she’d felt in the haunt. The thought of making Hana feel that way was unbearable.
“No,” she said finally, “I guess not.”
“You will keep her safe,” Sakaki said gently. “Even if she does not know it.”
“I guess now I know why superheroes have secret identities,” Akemi muttered. “I mean, apart from how I’d be grounded forever if my mom found out…”
Then she had a terrible thought. She dug in her bag for her phone, checked the time, and felt a rush of panic seize her.
“Oh, shit, I am going to be in so much trouble, even if Mom took the late shift she’ll be back any minute…” She started shovelling her belongings back into her bag. “Sakaki, I have to go!”
She jumped to her feet and immediately stumbled as the wounds on her hip protested. There was no chance of running to get home quicker. She gritted her teeth and hobbled towards the edge of the clearing.
“I’ll come back tomorrow!”
“Very well. And if you need to, you can reach me through the crest,” Sakaki replied. “Simply open it and focus your mind upon me. If I do the same, you will sense me calling.”
“Right, I remember what it felt like, just, um, try not to do it when I’m in school, okay? I’ll be back!”
For the second time, she hurried out of the clearing before Sakaki could respond, but this time, the tree did not call after her.
The shrine fell silent after she left. Sakaki rearranged her branches, but whatever she was thinking, this time she did not voice it even to the empty sky.
Shoichi dreamed of the sound of the sea.
Later, he’d realise how strange that was. He’d never lived by the sea, or at least, not this kind of sea. Osaka’s coast was all harbours and concrete and reclaimed land, still water and sluggish tides. This was a sea that rose and fell with a soothing, ever-changing roar against beaches and rocky shores. The rhythm of the waves should have been alien to him, but in the dream, he knew it by heart, and it was home, the most comforting, familiar sound he could imagine.
His feet were bare on cool stone as he hurried through hallways with carved columns and rooms with high ceilings. The walls were painted with murals depicting a long history, but it was too dark to read them. He needed to find a light.
Behind him, as he left each room, darkness seeped up out of the gaps between the flagstones and covered the floor like ink. All he could do was hurry blindly through the next door and hope it contained some source of light. But it seemed as though every candle, every lantern, every spark had been extinguished, and there was no end to the rooms, no end to the rising tide of darkness…
Shadows fear the blazing sun.
Terror drove him ever faster through rooms and halls and rooms again until suddenly he was outside, running through a cool night towards the sound of the sea. There was no sun in the sky overhead; not even the stars could be seen. He reached a stone balustrade and stopped, seeing that beyond it was only a steep drop to the waves below. He turned. It was too dark to see the building he’d just fled, but knew in his heart that the shadows were welling out of every window and door. There was no escape.
Shadows flee the rising moon.
Silver light streamed past him. The creeping darkness flinched back, and fled. Shoichi spun to see the full moon hanging in the sky, the last wisps of cloud billowing away from its remorseless light. Beneath it, the sea was as still as a mirror, and words seemed to hang in the air…
“I call upon the moon, my liege,” he whispered… and then the sea shattered, the world shattered, a thousand echoes of breaking glass pierced him like a song for the dead, and he didn’t even have time to scream…
… before he woke, the tears still sliding down his cheeks.