A Story by Aaron Canton
The crumbling walls of the ancient tomb complex shone in the moonlight, their white stone standing tall on the mountaintop despite the damage wrought by six hundred years of tomb robbers. A stiff breeze blew through the stony plain leading to the walls, and a few pebbles made eerie plinking noises as they bounced off the rubble before rolling to the other side of the complex and tumbling down the cliffside to the forest far below. But besides those rocks, there were no other sounds; not a single animal scampered about looking for a late-night snack. Nor did a single bird fly overhead, and even the buzzing of mosquitos and other pests had died away within a hundred meters of the summit. It was as if the site was dead, motionless as the tomb before it and silent except for the occasional pebble…and the faint vibration, too low to be a sound proper, emitting from the magical wards scattered all over the landscape.
Yasuoka Takako, though, knew how to listen for the wards, and she murmured a faint sigh as she finally stirred from the trance she’d been sitting in for the better part of an hour. Yasuoka was a tall, slender woman with a fit build, dark eyes, and darker hair tied into intricate braids. She wore the traditional shawl of a shaman, but beneath it, she was dressed for the road, with tough leather clothes and belt pouches full of everything she had reason to think she’d need. She also carried a long bo staff on her back, and it was the staff she reached for after shaking off her stiffness with a quick stretch. “These wards weren’t set up with the tomb,” she murmured as she swung the staff in front of her. “Too recent. The army, I’m sure…”
In the six hundred years since the civilization that had built the tomb complex had fallen, the mountain had been seized by neighboring kingdoms at least three times Yasuoka knew of, and now it seemed another of the local warlords had tried to stake a claim on the ruins by rigging the entire plain with magical wards that would surely afflict horrible consequences on anybody who stepped on one. No doubt if she went back down the mountain and did some research, she could find a local with a map of the safe paths; there was bound to be a veteran who helped lay the wards or a treasure hunter foolhardy enough to plot a way through and lucky enough to survive the attempt. There always were, after all. But she was running out of time on this job already and had no desire to spend another three days slogging back to the town on the mountain’s base just to get someone to tell her how to cross a hundred meters of rock.
So instead, she pointed her staff in front of her, aimed at the ground, and began to chant. After several moments, the air in front of her glistened, and dozens of faint, luminescent masses appeared, each swirling rapidly as if to flee from the shaman. Her eyes flicked between the masses before settling on one. “Wen Kuang,” she ordered in a voice of absolute authority. “Damned musician. Lend me your ears.”
The other masses vanished in a blink as Kuang’s spirit, or soul, or chi as Yasuoka thought of it, writhed all the faster. Then the chi was drawn into Yasuoka’s body, and she stiffened at the blast of pure, utter cold that swept through her—no matter how many jobs she performed, she knew she would never grow used to that sensation. Moments later, though, the cold receded, and she was again alone on the mountaintop. But when she listened, it wasn’t just her.
She could hear a ward exactly three steps to her left, vibrating a fraction of a note higher than the ones around it. And she could hear another ward half a meter to her right and just in front of her, this one warbling a little slower than the others. Right in front of her, though, there was nothing at all; the ground was empty of magic. She pressed down on the spot with her bo staff, then took a step forward and listened again. Now the only safe place to advance was one pace in front of her and half that distance to her right, so she stepped there and continued.
Yasuoka sighed again as she reached the halfway point of the magical minefield. She hated channeling Kuang, a wandering zither player once notorious for having used his remarkable skill to charm his way into rich, isolated estates before slaughtering the inhabitants at night and fleeing with all their treasure. He had been executed on the grounds of the conservatory where he had trained, but even that hadn’t stopped his depredations. His ghost had appeared days later and had driven no fewer than seven of the most promising students to suicide with his haunting, beguiling music. Yasuoka had dealt with him as she dealt with all the ghosts she encountered, and she had to admit he had his uses, but she always felt unclean when she drew upon his skills. At least some of the monsters she dealt with were just brutes acting according to instinct. Kuang was evil.
Still, the musician was much more tolerable than being blasted by the wards, so she suppressed a grimace and continued to channel his spirit as she walked. It was several minutes later when she reached the end of the minefield and stepped on the ancient slabs of the complex’s upper level, and only then did she dismiss Kuang’s chi with a wave of her staff. The warbling of the wards behind her faded, and she took a few breaths to center herself.
The visible tomb ruins had truly been stripped bare, she found, and there was nothing left of even the faintest value to anyone. Those walls that remained had been carefully scoured and every bit of statuary or molding chipped off, no doubt long since sold to private collectors. She saw a couple fallen columns, toppled so some valuable item could be removed from the top, and empty holes in the rock where other columns must have once been—perhaps taken in their entirety to decorate some daimyo’s living room. Hallways that were said to have once led to beautiful chambers now led only to piles of rock. The fabled gemstone murals and lifelike carvings were long gone as well. But she knew there was something here, and so she kept looking as she paced through the complex. There would be something that didn’t fit—some clue or hint to further treasure. After all, if there wasn’t any more treasure, then the stories wouldn’t have—
She froze and took a closer look at a slab lying on the ground. It was old, but not as old as the ones surrounding it. Most of the ruins were six hundred years old, and the walls and floor, though still shining, were pitted and covered with cracks. This slab, though, was entirely intact. Plus, the other stones didn’t fully fit together anymore since the wear and tear of the centuries, a legion of robbers, and at least three separate armies had driven them apart. But this stone made a perfect fit amongst the others around it. It was as if it was put in later, after the other stones had already been worn down.
Yasuoka chanted again, this time drawing on the chi of a different defeated enemy. “Rhinotaur, wild beast, lend me your strength,” she ordered. Cold slammed into her, followed by a feeling of pure exhilarating power, and she smiled as she walked to the slab. She raised a foot and kicked down with her channeled might, shattering the slab of thick stone as easily as breaking a twig.
The broken pieces of the stone collapsed into a downward-sloping tunnel as Yasuoka dismissed the rhinotaur’s chi, and after the rubble settled, she climbed down as well. She had nothing to help her see in the dark—yet—so she took flint and tinder from a pouch and lit a torch before descending. The tunnel itself was bare, no doubt having been looted before the upper slab was installed, but Yasuoka continued anyway. There was something more to the tomb; there had to be. And when she found it, she’d find what she was really looking for too.
After several minutes of traversing the coiling tunnel, it opened, and Yasuoka found herself in a large square chamber with one door in each of its four walls. This room too was empty of gemstones or art that could help indicate which door led to which room, but Yasuoka didn’t need directions anymore. She could see a faint glow through the door to her left and could even hear someone whispering. “Almost got it!” someone gibbered. “Almost there, just a bit more!”
Yasuoka took a breath to prepare. Then she turned and strode through the door.
The new room she found herself in had at least a dozen doors leading off into all kinds of little passages, most likely smaller rooms where servants, family members, and pets could be buried. As for the room itself, it had a high ceiling and many three-sided columns surrounding a central platform. No doubt the platform had once held a coffin, but it was long gone, and truthfully, Yasuoka didn’t care about it. What she cared about was the skeleton lying next to the platform and the ghost crouching over it and blathering on about how he ‘almost had’ something or other.
“Mik Sovann,” called Yasuoka, instilling her voice with a bit of chi so the ghost would be sure to hear her. “I come for you.”
Sovann’s ghost turned, startle evident on its long, lean face. “You know me?”
“Even two hundred years later, children still grow up hearing tales of Numasa’s most famous tomb raider,” said Yasuoka, taking a few steps closer. “They hear how you looted the treasures of the dead snake-kings of Ashanti from inside a pit of one thousand deadly vipers. How you brought seven companions to burgle the tomb of a great archmage and guided each one into a deadly rune, killing them but depleting the runes and enabling you to seize the archmage’s dread staff. They even say you dared rob the tomb of the emperor’s daughter, and though the four hundred guards in the complex were all executed for their failure to stop you, you escaped to tell the tale.”
“Yes, yes, that’s me,” said Sovann. “But why are you here? Nobody’s been here in so long and—wait!” His expression clouded. “You’re not here to steal my treasure, are you? I found it. It’s mine!”
Yasuoka shook her head and looked at Sovann’s skeleton. One of his arms was extended into a small hole that had been blasted into the base of the platform. “I read the people of this kingdom buried their king’s greatest treasures in the base of the platform that bore his coffin, so as their king’s spirit sank into the afterlife, he would be able to take his wealth with him. This was a sacrifice on their part, but they were blessed with virtuous kings and did not mind the sealing of their treasures. It looks like you tried to dig them up regardless. But…”
“I did dig them up!” protested Sovann. “I dug the hole, I could see the gold! But the stone shifted when I stuck my arm in, and—and—oh, it doesn’t matter! I can reach it now!” He stuck his ghostly hands into the platform to demonstrate. “And even if I can’t touch it yet, I’m sure I’ll figure out how soon! And then I’ll have it at last! And—how did you know I was here anyways?”
“My research at the local monasteries showed that, two hundred years ago, this tomb was rumored to be haunted,” said Yasuoka. No doubt the tunnel had been sealed shortly after Sovann’s spirit had manifested; some local ruler had probably blocked the entrance to prevent any helpless people from falling into its grip. But then two centuries passed without anyone going into the tunnel or seeing the ghost, and gradually both the lower tomb and Sovann himself had been forgotten except in a few ancient scrolls. “The same time when your own tales vanished from legend. It was a reasonable guess that there was more to this tomb than commonly known and that you were lurking somewhere in its depths searching for one last piece of treasure.” She stepped into the center of the room. “Speaking of those legends. The tales say you can see even in complete darkness. Is that fact or fiction?”
“See in the dark?” Sovann smiled. “Yes, I found a magical scroll in one of the first tombs I robbed. Why, do you want to know what that scroll said so you can cast the same ritual? Well, I could teach you…if you carry that treasure to my hideout. But if you steal it away from me, I swear I will—”
Yasuoka grimaced. If the spirit got what it wanted, it would fade and be at peace…but a man who killed seven companions and consigned an army to death just to sate his own greed did not deserve to be at peace. “No,” she said. “I am not here for the treasure. I am here for you, Mik Sovann.” She pointed her bo staff at him. “I am here for your soul.”
Sovann’s face flashed. “No, you’re here for my treasure! And you won’t get it! Because it is mine! And—wait. If you’re here to attack me, why didn’t you do so?”
For a ghost, Yasuoka thought, Sovann was unusually perceptive. “Ghosts can only hurt humans when they get angry or upset enough to manifest in the physical world,” Yasuoka explained. “But that’s also the only time when humans can hurt ghosts. If I’d snuck up on you without disturbing you, I wouldn’t be able to actually bind you; all my spells would just go through you.” She walked to Sovann’s body and kicked the bones aside. “Which is why, if you don’t stop me, I’m going to steal your treasure myself.”
“Wait. You can’t—” Sovann’s body trembled for a moment, but Yasuoka knew the ghost would give in to its anger. A human might be able to resist, but ghosts were really a creature’s strongest emotions, memories, and desires made manifest. Sovann was little more than greed incarnate now. The ghost was literally incapable of resisting her provocation.
And it didn’t. With an angry scream, a wicked knife appeared in its hand—it even looked like the one in the legends, Yasuoka noticed—and it dropped down into the ground.
Yasuoka chanted, and the spirits she had defeated and bound appeared before her again. She picked one of her most frequent summons, the ghost of the infamous military officer Yong-Il Cho who had slaughtered his own daimyo and a hundred retainers after being passed over for promotion. As the damned soldier’s strength flowed into her body, she dropped into her usual combat stance and focused. Sovann’s ghost could come at her from any direction, but this was probably the first real fight it had undergone in this form, so it wouldn’t know any tricks. The ghost would do something obvious, which probably meant coming from behind her or from beneath the floor. Her boots had runes in the soles to stop ghosts from simply stabbing her through the bottom of the floor, so if the spirit did come from below it would likely sneak up behind her and—
A prickle on the back of her neck told her the ghost was near. She took a small piece of glass from a belt pouch and held it so she could see behind her, and moments later, she saw Sovann’s ghost leap from under the ground. It moved to slit her throat—but she was already turning with a veteran soldier’s reflexes, and his blade skidded harmlessly off her bo staff. She slammed the butt of the staff into Sovann’s nose hard enough to send the spirit back through the wall.
Sovann’s ghost came at her again, first on one side and then the other, but both times Yasuoka managed to parry the blows. “Why are you doing this?!” roared the ghost as it fell back again. “Just let me have my treasure!”
“I’ve been commissioned to defeat a very powerful ghost in an ancient monastery,” Yasuoka told him as she blocked another blow. “The monastery is shrouded in magical darkness. To defeat that spirit, I will need to be able to see in the dark.”
“I’ll never let you bind me!” screamed the ghost. “I—”
Yasuoka smashed her staff into its head, and it fell back, stunned and floating a short distance above the ground. Before the spirit could get up, Yasuoka drew a lotus petal symbol around it with chalk she’d taken from her belt. “No!” it yelled. “No!”
“Damned spirit,” Yasuoka began to chant, holstering her bo staff and cutting her palm with a little dagger from yet another pouch. “Your strength, I take it for my own. Your skills, I take them for my own. Your memories, I take them for my own. Your—”
Sovann screeched loud enough to cut off Yasuoka and then charged at her. Her bo staff was in its holster, and her dagger wouldn’t be able to stop the ghost—but Yasuoka had been doing this for many years, and she had some tricks of her own. Sovann was greedy, and she knew it, so she took a gold coin from one of her pouches and tossed it into the center of the lotus petal. Sovann immediately wheeled around to grab it.
And Yasuoka finished her chant. The lotus petal drawing glowed, and Sovann flickered and vanished. Moments later, Yasuoka felt the settling of new chi within her, another sharp, cold sensation at the back of her mind along with the other monsters and criminals she had defeated and pressed into service. Though most of her enemies had no useful powers for her and were simply banished so they could no longer haunt and persecute humans, dozens still remained bound to Yasuoka. Their presences were like cold icicles piercing into her bright, warm chi, but she knew how to bear them. And with them, she could beat even worse monsters. Protect more people. Defeat more evil.
And please Daimyo Tatsunori, the lord who had found her as a begging orphan, who had listened to his mystics when they told him what she could be, and who had trained her into a shaman that kept all Numasa safe from wandering spirits. She owed him everything, and she would not fail him. If he wanted the ancient monastery in the center of his fiefdom cleared of its ghost, though that ghost had stayed there for a thousand years and a dozen shamans before her had tried and failed to fell it, she would purge it. She already had almost all the spirits she thought she would need. Now she just had one more ghost to capture before she could perform the most important job he’d ever asked her to do
As she moved to leave, she looked down at the hole Sovann had drilled. With his body out of the way, she could see several ancient treasures, precious gemstones set in jewelry and the most expensive of metals worked into beautiful shapes. She paused for a moment, then summoned another ghost: Liu Huang, a famous sapper who had betrayed his people and undermined their fortifications so an enemy could conquer them, only to be executed by that same enemy and haunt the abandoned fort for decades until Yasuoka had dealt with him. She used one of Liu’s spells and shifted the stone platform just slightly, sealing the hole. The king’s treasures would be out of sight, kept safe for him and his spirit just as they were intended.
She sighed, feeling a wave of weariness pass through her, but forced herself to stand and retrace her steps. She’d have to channel Kuang one more time to make her way back through the wards, and she wanted to get that over with as soon as possible.