by Amanda Dier
Aki stumbled on a jutting cobblestone in the darkened alley and clipped his face against a pole at the edge of a steam-wreathed stall that sold roasted meats. The vendor hurried over to him, fist raised to deliver a blow, but as Aki raised his head the vendor lurched back, face white.
Soft, rotting wood crumbled and fell to the ground, and Aki grabbed at it frantically. His searching fingers wandered into something sticky, but he pried the shards of wood out of the dirt like they were gold, holding them gently to avoid damaging them further. The other hand reached up and probed at his mask where he’d hit the pole. He knew the white-painted wood in his fingers would match the new hole there, but he wanted to feel it anyway, to know the damage to his soul. It wasn’t something he could feel inside; wasn’t something that he had clearly lost like empathy or his memories, but every mark to the mask, every new hole was a sign of the deeper rot within.
He pulled out a tightly woven bag of silk from his trousers and tipped the wood cupped in his palm inside. It already held so much; what was a little more?
Aki walked away from the booth as the vendor made a protective sign against him. The meat smelled so good, but there was little chance of getting any. To help one such as him was dangerous since his curse could consume him at any moment, leaving him a shell of himself, marbled with dripping rot. He would be a pox on all he touched. So they shied away, leaving him friendless and alone in his shame.
He continued out onto the main, gaily lit street. He was taking a risk by coming here to one of the last great kami cities, but there was a place he needed to go.
The bright lights in the street cast the space above into shadow, and if he didn’t look too closely at the blackness overhead, he could almost believe the community around him was still under the natural sky instead of eking out a living as a city full of refugees in the vast cavern below Edo. The thin veil around the city that kept the pressures and dangers of the modern world at bay reminded him of the thin cloth wrapped around the crumbling fragments of his soul. Pieces from all over nestled together in the last shreds of guardianship that could be offered, but it was a fleeting protection at best that would one day fray into nothing.
Ahead, a stone frog perched on a roof rose above the rest of the skyline, and he headed towards it, keeping his face down to avoid more trouble. The bright lanterns hanging from the edges of the wooden roof taunted him with their cheer, and he pushed beneath the ones on the lowest level to get under the eaves.
A few walls in the back alley blocked out a tiny house underneath the restaurant above that impossibly supported the structure above it.
“I am here to seek the services of En no Izu Oshima,” Aki announced himself, hating how his voice quivered.
One of the walls slid back with a clack of wood, revealing a tall woman in a blue happi coat and black hakama pants that almost swallowed her slender form. A white fox-mask perched over her unsmiling face.
“You will enter through this door,” she said, and he entered to find that the little house was far bigger on the inside than it had appeared on the outside.
She led him down a short hallway and into a hot, dry room lit by a steadily burning flame on an altar.
“Sit,” she commanded, pointing to a pillow on the floor.
He did, tucking his legs beneath him and sitting in the proper penitents pose, awaiting the honor of her full presence. She sat across from him in a rustle of cloth, the objects of her trade already in her hands. Her mask was pushed up, revealing a thin face with high cheekbones and wrinkled, suspicious eyes.
En was a woman of few words; several brief questions satisfied her, and with quick hands she carved the characters of his question into the white bone of the turtle shell she held.
A few minutes later she was finished, and she held out the shell and a knife without saying a word.
Aki took the knife first, slashing it across his palms with quick movements before he reached for the shell. Blood dripped from his outstretched hands and onto the tatami mats below.
He gingerly took the shell and interlaced his shaking fingers as best as he could around it. The blood from his palms smeared the dry surface and filled the cracks between the bones and the new carvings.
What do I do now? It was his dearest wish and the only one he had the money to pay for, so he isolated it in his mind and closed his thoughts to all else.
“One, two, three,” the ekisha instructed him through casting it into the fire which leapt up to consume it eagerly, like a spoiled pet. He said nothing and watched her watch the flames until her eyes narrowed and she fished it out with a stick. She laid it down carefully on a ceramic plate and they both watched the bone steam as it cooled. His blood seemed to have cooked away to nothing.
En suddenly bent low over the cracked bone, humming to herself as she examined it. She glanced up at him once, lips pursed speculatively.
What was she seeing?
She turned back to him, eyes distant.
“You must go to the Bay of Funka,” she intoned, and the bottom dropped from his stomach. Another destination on a journey with no end.
“Do you know where I need to go there specifically?” he ventured.
“Akkorokamui will remove the rot that sullies your mask,” she said. “But it will cost you everything that you are now. Know that if the darkness that sleeps in you overtakes your strength, you will become the monster you fear.”
It was a kind way of saying he was going to die. As much as he loathed to admit it, the fear that most kami had of him wasn’t misplaced. His mask was fragile and crumbling for a reason, and once it was gone, his sense of self would go with it. He sat lost in thought, staring at the cracked bone that spelled his fate.
His tie to the mortal world had been broken in violence, damaging him, and without a link to bind him, it had turned to a black blight on his very core.
“Get out,” En no Izu Oshima announced.
“What?” he stammered. “Now?”
“It grows within you,” she said, staring at something within him that even he couldn’t see. “Go.”
He stumbled out, dropping his payment of gold next to the oracle bone.
The bright red lanterns that lined the street seemed garish to him now as he strode past, heading for the city’s exit.
Thick red posts marked his goal, and it was these he hurried towards. The bitterness within him was unquenched, and he couldn’t risk staying any longer.
A group of fox women wearing ancient enameled armor stood across the gate, blocking his way. A lacquered sun surrounded by blackness that was supposed to represent the cavern stood out in each of their chests.
“What do you want?” one asked rudely, lifting her mask to spit out a mouthful of seeds. Aki jumped as they barely missed his feet.
“I need to go to Ezochi,” he said, fighting the rage that had erupted inside.
“No one goes to Ezochi,” she said. “It’s a dead village.”
“I have business there,” Aki said as mildly as he could.
The fox woman opened her mouth to spit more seeds at him, and another guard grabbed her arm with a hiss.
“He’s marked,” she said to her companion, pointing at his mask.
Eyes wide behind the laughing eyes of the mask, the woman cursed. “You think you can bring that filth here?” she shouted.
“I seek only to leave, mistress kitsune,” Aki said.
Another of the fox women grabbed the first one by the armor.
“Let him go, Ruri,” she said. “Better to get him out of here.”
The two foxes who had remained behind at the gate uncrossed their spears, clearing the way to the red torii gate that marked the edge of town. The guard who seemed so opposed to his presence slapped her hand to the side of the gate, and the empty space within sparkled and seemed to stretch. In the blink of an eye, the rough stone wall visible between the posts had changed to show the brown trunks of trees.
“Get through quickly,” the ranking guard snapped.
He bowed with respect he did not feel, declining to leave a gift of thanks. They wanted him gone and he would oblige.
Golden and red leaves swirled in the crisp air, bringing the scent of autumn with them as Aki stepped onto the mountain path to Funka. He had gone from the cobbled and dark caverns under Tokyo onto the pine-needle carpeted slope of a mountain in an instant, and the sudden light blinded him momentarily.
He looked back, expecting to see the scared faces of the fox gatekeepers peering through after him, but the magic that had powered the transitional gate was already fleeing. The last glimmer of light swarmed from the edges of the shinmei torii gate and vanished into the air, and the wood of the already badly splintered gate split and fell. The vermillion paint had clearly flaked off a long time ago, and while the gate had been without human attention for a long time, the structure was still sound and should have continued standing for some years yet. Whatever they had done on the other side of the gate had bled over and destroyed this end of the portal.
The thud of the posts hitting the ground barely settled when it hit Aki that the way back was closed to him forever. Anger rose inside of him, ugly black as it filled him with energy that had no outlet. The destruction of the gate had been deliberate and the rage was hard to fight, alone as he was in the middle of nowhere. He washed it down with the knowledge that he would have done the same if he’d been on the other side. No one wanted the thing that resided inside of him to have a way back to the caverns where so many of the kami hid, and the easily visible signs that he was a kami without a Name had stripped even the most basic signs of respect from their eyes.
His home was gone, leaving him a dying being with no name and a shattered self, and there was no way to hide it. Any who saw him would see the overt damage, and for their own safety they could offer nothing but directions and a means to move on. And that left him here, wandering a lonely road to his own unmaking.
The jinja he now stood in front of clearly held nothing for him. There were no offerings here, no kami that it supported, and no one to help him. Who had once lived here? Had they suffered the same fate as their shrine received fewer visitors and was eventually forgotten to decay, alone in the forest?
Of its own volition, his hand rose and stroked the cracks in his mask. They ran deep and jagged, trailing from the edges of his eyes down to the corners of his mouth. All the edges were crumbling like a piece of untreated wood that had been left out and given over to rot. For one’s mask to do so spoke of a deep, incurable wound to their very soul. The chin to his mask was now held on by string and glue, the paint peeling away more and more every day under no pressure but that of his own movement.
Beneath his questing fingers, a long sliver of wood along the edge of his forehead parted from the rest of the apple wood that made up his mask. He brought it down, fingers trembling, but no matter how gentle he was, it lay straight and dead in his palm. Aki stroked it for a second with forefinger, debating trying to affix it back to the rest with the cheap glue he’d resorted to using. Instead, he pulled out the bag, slipping the piece in with all the rest that had come loose.
There had undoubtedly been some that he’d missed, but the flexible bag in his hand held most of them. He put it back in his pocket and began to walk. He didn’t know how long it would take him to get to the bay of Funka, but the longer he tarried the more he risked. He could not slow though the dirt beneath his feet still felt alive in a way that the cobblestones of the city hidden beneath Edo hadn’t, and he wanted to relish it.
Something moved in his chest, and he pressed his fingers into his breastbone as though he could feel it beneath the bone and skin. This had been what had made him too unsafe to stay in the already crowded cities of kami that hid from the humans crowding the islands. This was what happened when your mask shattered and your home was destroyed and you gave into it, holding onto that hate and despair and rage instead of simply giving up. There was a seed in Aki’s breast, one that would devour the world if he didn’t find a way to snuff its life soon along with his own.
That was what kept him moving, kept him seeking an audience with Akkorokamui. Its tentacled grip on the waters of the bay were unchallenged, and the waters remained as clear and blue as they had ever been. If the great kami and its waters didn’t cleanse him and undo the ties that bound his soul and made him who he was, if they didn’t accept the sacrifice of his very being in return for destroying the seed of Nothing inside him, at least there was more than one great kami to appeal to. Perhaps the Wolf of Ezo might stand a chance against whatever he was becoming.
He pushed on even when night fell, using the stars and the great arc of the silver river that ran in the sky overhead to navigate. The path he followed was old, barely followed even by deer, and there were times he might walk for an hour before seeing the straight lines of a tiny yorishiro lantern-house. More of the little lanterns sat empty and abandoned than those that gave a tiny spark of light from the inside.
He still delighted at those that remained, tiny fires against the darkness that encroached on the kami, and he laid an offering at each one. They were tiny nuggets of what gold he still had remaining, but he didn’t think that it was his imagination that their lights burned a little brighter in his wake. He was no kitsune to leave foxfire behind him, but he would do what he could as a dying little god.
Aki pushed the mask up off his face as gently as he could, feeling the pull of his magic hold it to the top of his head. He only hoped the gentle pressure wouldn’t damage it further.
Though walking along the path in the spirit world made things more visible and made it so that the light from the human towns didn’t pollute the sky, Aki couldn’t let the slim eye gaps in his mask restrict his vision more. The trees were dark shapes around him, mysterious and tall in the darkness, though they lent a comforting smell as he walked. Beneath his feet, the deer path glowed dimly and he followed where it led down the slopes of the mountain like a dim reflection of the great heavenly river above.
At some point when he grew too tired to continue, he curled up in the gnarled, armlike roots of an old hinoki cypress and slept. His dreams were troubled and full of crashing waves and darkness, but he couldn’t discern any meaning to them. Was it an omen, or just bad feelings? The darkness around him pressed close like a blanket, and he lost himself to it.
He awoke to the sound of songbirds overhead and the sky bright above him. The air wasn’t any warmer than it had been the day before, so he drew his cloak around him and continued down the old path that would eventually lead him to the bay. It wouldn’t be that long of a walk; even with the lack of a clear trail and his own reduced walking speed, Ezochi was an island, and that left one with only so much land to walk before they reached the ocean.
The trees around him stretched long arms up to the sky, all old-growth cypress and pine that reminded him painfully of how the world had once been before industry and progress had split it up for development, burning away the green to build cities and towns with little to no green spaces. Their leaves fell like rain around him, so different from the cherry blossom showers that he remembered from his youth in the south. Iron and concrete smothered the ground like a heavy fog even here. He dared not linger as the forest thinned quickly to nothing where the fields and farms had cut into the forest in long swathes.
The sun was sinking in the sky when he began to smell the sea, pungent and with a weight that scraped along the insides of his nose and lingered at the base of his throat as he breathed. This close to the water, the human homes were clustered closer together and blocked his way so that in some areas he had no choice but to skirt along the borders of farms. He was careful to not be seen, and the only thing that he scared as he walked along the edges of the rice paddy terraces on his journey to the west were a few cows.
Gray shadows and the purples of twilight had begun to touch the land when he finally stood on one of the beaches that sloped into the Funka Bay. The island curved away to the right and vanished into the haze of sheer distance, and the sun lit the bay as though from below. The water almost glowed, and though the weight in his chest pulled him down, Aki drank in the sight with a wonder he hadn’t felt in a long time.
The pebbles beneath his feet crunched as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the silken bag again. He tipped the broken pieces into his hand–so many!–and closed his fist around them. His mask was affixed to his face as firmly as it could be without causing further damage, and he pulled on the last of his strength to wall in the little seed inside of him.
His time had come at last.
The last edge of the sun sank below the horizon like Amaterasu had stepped into the sea, and Aki could see a large shadow waiting for him in the water. He stepped forward into the chilly waves, bringing the Nothing inside his chest with him. Around him, the water began to boil.
A glimmer of red surrounded him as he kept walking, but it wasn’t from the sun. Gentle arms wrapped around him, touching his shattered mask so very gently, plucking at his shirt, and bringing him deeper into the water. His feet left the bottom, and he felt himself being pulled further in. The need to breathe vanished as the last of the air left his lungs, and he watched dispassionately as the bubbles strove for the surface.
Memories of a long life well-lived surrounded him, along with the feel of the bulldozers in the dirt and the trees being ripped from his flesh. Something tugged at the rage in his chest, and he no longer felt the need to trap it inside of himself.
Aki caught a glimpse of infinite black as the currents bore it away. A moment later he heard a snap and rejoiced in the knowledge that his journey hadn’t been in vain. The little seed that would have destroyed the world was gone, and he could finally rest in the water, warm as the womb. Solace flooded through him, and he closed his eyes for the last time.
The crying of seabirds awoke him first. There were no seabirds in the High Plain of Heaven, he knew, nor should he be damp and taste salt when he licked his lips.
Early morning light greeted him through the eyes of his mask, though the angle was different than before. He sat up in wonder that he was still alive. The bitter pain in his chest was gone, even when he recalled the way he’d been cast out of any town he attempted to get supplies or help in, trying to call up some sensation of rage or abandonment. The seed was well and truly gone, but he was exhausted at the loss.
It had burrowed inside of him for so long that it had left a wallow in his soul. He had no idea how to fill it, but the relief was still astounding. It had been a constant weight inside of him, and he reeled now at how light he felt. If he could fly, he would.
The sky above him was blue and gold in the rising sun, and the odd sight of crimson beckoned his sight towards the ocean.
The great red mass of Akkorokamui waited above the gentle lap of the ocean, tentacles moving around in the waves around it almost playfully. Its eyes squinted at Aki, and he bowed deeply, reverently at the great kami.
With trembling fingers, Aki reached up to touch his mask, and the tips of his fingers met a surface that was lacquered once again. Hot tears slid down his face as he felt over every inch of it. Even from behind it he could see the blue varnish that coated the inside of the mask, and he fell to his knees and bowed into the ocean, not even caring when his mask touched the water. He touched it again, feeling unfamiliar ridges where there had once been splits.
With a minute swirl of one of the great kami’s arms, the motion of the waves stilled in a small patch of water, and Aki leaned over it, trying to find the meaning behind the cool threads running through his mask.
It was hard not to gasp as his reflection showed him the glints of gold where there had once been wide gaps in the wood, and in the space above one eye where a chunk had fallen out and crumbled to dust in his fingers, a shard the exact red of Akkorokamui’s flesh filled it in, surrounded by that wonderful, rare gold.
An emergency dispatcher by day, Amanda Dier has been previously published by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Nosleep Podcast, and other markets. She lives in Florida with her partner and dog in a carefully curated forest.