A Story by Aaron Canton
The monastery in the middle of Daimyo Tatsunori’s domain was an imposing structure. A gigantic square pyramid that rose fifty meters into the air, the building was visible from a great distance and had been ever since its construction one thousand years before. Unlike the cave temple, the monastery was long-abandoned, but unlike the mountaintop tomb, no robbers had managed to cart away any of the ancient sculptures that adorned its eleven levels. Officially, that was because the Tatsunori clan and its predecessors had always protected this most famous monument. Privately, locals whispered that the monastery ghost had killed all those that had tried.
But as Yasuoka used her bo staff to help pick her way up the worn steps, a sense of peace filled her. Yes, the upcoming battle would be dangerous, possibly the most dangerous she’d ever fought. In an ordinary fight, the monastery ghost might well be unbeatable; certainly the scores of other shamans who had tried to slay it over the centuries hadn’t been able to do so. But now she had another plan that wouldn’t require her to channel the chi of twenty different monsters just to have a chance at victory. She was poised, she was calm, she was…enlightened. If she used the strategy the monk had helped her to understand, she knew she just might be able to win even without his spirit.
“All that, and he told a pretty good story too,” Yasuoka mused as she continued. She’d heard the children’s tale of the monk and the lotus blossom before, of course; her mother had taught it to her as a child, and so had the mothers of almost all her childhood friends. But the monk had told it with an energy and passion all the more remarkable for his deeply advanced age, and he’d seemed truly concerned that all the children were listening and learning and having fun. It would almost be a shame when his spirit too passed on, though she could tell he knew it was getting to be his time. Once the new school was set up—and the local lord had seemed interested in the idea, as had Daimyo Tatsunori when she’d stopped to visit him before going to the monastery ruin—she knew it would happen. Then the children would be taken care of, and Anand Chah’s quest would be fulfilled at last.
But that was for later. For now, she had a job to do, and as she climbed the final step to the top of the pyramid, she knew her target was near. She could feel a dark, malevolent, deeply powerful spirit moving all around her, and as she looked around the flat surface ringed with statues of long-forgotten gods, she sensed it gathering its power. “Spirit,” she called in a calm, clear voice. “I would speak with you.”
After a long moment, the space in front of her seemed to ripple. Then a mass appeared—a cloud of silver and black that somehow seemed to have more weight than the solid stone statues around them. The sun was starting to set, but the cloud was lit with its own inner glow. Despite everything, Yasuoka had to fight not to look away. “Shaman,” the spirit intoned. “Know you who I am?”
“You are Goh O-Kai,” said Yasuoka after a moment. “The abbot who once led this monastery.”
“The abbot who once—and still—rules all you see,” corrected the ghost of O-Kai. Its voice held no anger, or rage, or spite—just conviction, the strongest Yasuoka had ever felt, and a staunch refusal to brook even a hint of dissent. “This land, all of it, was once consecrated to my sect. I serve as its caretaker and ensure no other hand takes what the gods decreed would be ours.”
Yasuoka gently inclined her staff to sweep over the edge of the monastery. Beyond the base of the pyramid was rocky, arid soil, stretching on as far as she could see in every direction. This ghost was the reason, everyone knew, why the soil refused to yield to even the most tenuous of farmers. The weather, water, and everything else was just right for growing rice, but thanks to the spirit’s power, nothing—not even a blade of grass—would grow around the monastery. “You have destroyed the crops of farmers for a thousand years. And every year, your influence grows. Now it reaches to the very edges of the capital city.” Tatsunori’s family had been monitoring the “dead zone” around the monastery for at least six generations and trying to deal with the problem for at least that long, but to no avail. There was no fertilizer or irrigation technique that could reinvigorate the soil once O-Kai had corrupted it. “I have been sent to ensure the capital survives and to recover the use of our land.”
“It is not your land. It is mine.” O-Kai’s voice was as implacable as steel. “And my influence will continue to grow, shaman, until it is returned to my sect in its entirety.”
There was no malice in his voice, but that didn’t matter. O-Kai’s influence would extend until the entire province was a barren wasteland, a collection of skeletal ruins crumbling in on themselves and one single stone monastery standing over all. Yasuoka took in a steadying breath and looked at the spirit. “I cannot permit you to continue.”
“You cannot stop me,” said O-Kai. “Return to your lord and tell him he cannot change my mind or withstand my power. Or fight me and fall, and let your lord know the futility of challenging me by your loss.”
“I am not here to fight you.” Yasuoka took a piece of chalk and drew a large lotus petal in front of her, then sat cross-legged behind it and focused. “I know I cannot. Humans can only harm ghosts who become agitated, and I sense that you are…implacable.”
“Indeed.” O-Kai’s spirit bobbed slightly. “In my lifetime I achieved enlightenment. I cannot be angered or frightened against my will. If I manifest and become vulnerable to humans, it is by choice.”
In other words, O-Kai’s ghost could control its emotions enough that Yasuoka wouldn’t be able to hit it—it would make itself calm, even zen, when she struck—but it could stimulate its own anger for just long enough to hit back at her. Her blows would pass harmlessly through it, while it could attack her at will. No wonder all the other shamans had lost. “Then I will not attack,” said Yasuoka. “I will talk instead.”
“I cannot be placated,” said O-Kai. “I cannot—”
Yasuoka smiled slightly. “I did not mean, revered abbot,” she said, “that I would to talk with you.” She clapped her hands together as she forced chi into her voice. “Zhu Ni, I ask for your strength! Song-Nyun Park, I ask for your skills! Kiyoko Bakasami, I ask for your abilities! Truc Nguyen, I ask for your memories!”
The abbot’s ghost tilted slightly. “Who are these beings you summon?”
“Them?” Yasuoka looked squarely at the ghost. “They are the shamans you have killed, revered abbot.” She spread her arms wide. “Fallen shamans of the monastery, I call upon you! I am here to fulfill your final desire: that of defeating Goh O-Kai at last. Come to me, and help me achieve the goal for which you all died to achieve—and for which you have remained all these centuries. Come to me.”
And they came.
Yasuoka smiled, and O-Kai floated backwards, as ghost after ghost floated up through the layers of the monastery. Some wore familiar styles of clothing, while others were so ancient she couldn’t even name their garments. But all carried the tools shamans had used ever since there were shamans; they had staves, and knives, and chalk at their sides. And all looked upon O-Kai with burning desire in their eyes.
O-Kai said nothing, but suddenly the statues around the roof began to move as bright silvery light filled their eyes. They raised their hands and turned to Yasuoka—but the spirits were there, forming a protective wall. They had lain dormant for centuries, but no ghost could resist coming when summoned by a shaman who knew what she was doing. Before meeting Anand, Yasuoka wouldn’t even have believed these spirits had persisted all these years, but that would have been her own foolishness. After all, she knew shamans were more likely than any other people to come back as ghosts. She knew the shamans had all wanted to defeat O-Kai and had failed in the process. And she should have known, even if she had ultimately needed Anand to teach her, that the spirits of those who died with good desires unfulfilled could last just as long as those who died upset they hadn’t stolen every gold coin in the world. She didn’t need to call upon monsters and beasts for help in this battle. She had scores of allies to call on instead.
The ghosts took positions around Yasuoka as the statues moved in, fending the ancient sculptures off with a dozen different combat styles. She watched as a statue of a dog-headed man was flipped by a ghost and shattered against the ground, then turned just in time to see another flung off the side. Then she looked back at O-Kai’s chi and saw it falling back under a flurry of attacks. “How can you strike me?” he asked. “Humans cannot—”
“No human has touched you,” said Yasuoka. “Only spirits.” She rolled to one side as a statue made it through the ghosts surrounding her and smashed a fist into the temple roof, but even before she could strike back, she saw another two shaman spirits grab it and begin wrestling it away. “And they will overwhelm you.”
“For my sect, I have defeated them all before,” said O-Kai. But now there was strain in the voice of the spirit, and the cloud that masked its presence flickered slightly. “I will defeat them again.”
“You defeated them individually. You cannot face them all at once.” Yasuoka slipped a hand forward and erased a tiny fragment of the lotus petal outline in front of her so the shape was incomplete. “You will lose. And the last traces of your sect will be erased.”
O-Kai’s spirit shuddered. “You cannot—”
“You cannot stop me,” said Yasuoka. “There is nothing you can do to stop my lord from destroying this old ruin and erecting temples to his own gods. Or building a palace where he himself is worshipped. Your sect ends tonight.”
And the cloud vanished, revealing a very fit monk holding a long naginata blade. “You cannot!” the ghost yelled, its enlightenment broken by the first sign in a thousand years that it might actually be defeated. “I will not allow a heretic to—”
The spirit stepped into the image, and Yasuoka immediately closed it again with a stroke of her chalk. Then she drew her dagger as O-Kai’s ghost jumped at her and the statues surged forwards. But the lotus blossom glowed, and O-Kai’s chi bounced off its edge, trapped inside. At the same time, the spirits around Yasuoka fought mightily and pushed the statues away for one more crucial moment. She drew her dagger and cut her palm, then began to chant.
O-Kai’s spirit wailed. “Do you want my powers that badly?” it cried. “I will give them to you—just release me!”
Yasuoka turned to the ghost, and though she continued her chant, her question was evident on her face: what powers?
“You will be able to use this place as a sanctum!” continued O-Kai’s spirit. “As a base where none can hurt you! All I ask is you reestablish my sect—if you do, I will teach you how to use my powers to turn any patch of land in the province to dust! People will have to bow to you, revere you—”
But Yasuoka shook her head. She did not want to rule the province; she only wanted to please her lord, who in turn wanted to protect his city and to provide more land for his farmers. And so as her chant finished and O-Kai’s spirit vanished, she did not bind it to herself. Instead, she aimed her dagger and stabbed into it. She heard a faint cry, then felt it dissipate as she banished it from the world—and every statue around her suddenly crumbled to rubble.
“Well done,” she heard someone say, and when she turned, she saw the shaman spirits looking at her. They were beginning to fade, but she could see the relief and glee evident on their faces. “You have saved the province,” said the ghost which had spoken. “The land will recover. Its people will thrive.”
“You have saved us,” said another. “Thank you.”
She bowed her head to the shamans as they bowed back to her, and they all exchanged smiles. After a few more seconds, the ghosts faded, and Yasuoka knew they had finally passed on, released from their decades or centuries of moldering in the old monastery and wondering when somebody would finish their quest. More than a hundred souls were able to move on at last. It wasn’t a bad night’s work.
In fact, Yasuoka thought, she should do it more often. Yes, of course she would continue to hunt down evil spirits and banish them or bind them so they wouldn’t hurt innocent people anymore. But she would also put more time into finding good spirits, those trapped in this realm past their time by their unfulfilled desires to do good. If she could help them move on, surely that was just as important a use of her time as ensuring the spirit of some vile thief got what was coming to it.
But that was all for later. Duty urged her to report to Daimyo Tatsunori and tell him the monastery ghost was finally gone, his domain was secured, and his trust in her for all those years was not misplaced. And so she moved to the edge of the pyramid, bowed one more time to the memories of the shamans who had given their all, and slowly walked down into the deepening night.