A Story by Aaron Canton
“Business for Daimyo Tatsunori,” said Yasuoka as she glanced from the face of the sentry in front of her to the mouth of the cave stretching away behind him. One week had passed since her victory over Sovann, and she had finally reached the location of the last spirit she would need to deal with the haunted monastery; despite her attempts to stay controlled and wary, she couldn’t stop herself from speaking a little faster and more urgently than usual. “Let me pass.”
“But shaman…” The sentry hesitated for a long moment. “Surely you wish to come back during the daytime? The temple opens at sunrise, and I assure you the view is—”
“I am not here for the view,” This temple was as dissimilar from the tomb ruins as two sites could be; the ruins were on top of a mountain while the temple was deep within a series of caves; the tomb was a shrine to the dead while the temple’s monks worshipped life and the gods which made it possible; and most of all, while the tomb had been abandoned for many years, this cave temple was still operational. She had in fact attended services earlier that day to scout out the site and make some preliminary efforts in finding her quarry.
The sentry still seemed hesitant, so Yasuoka took a step closer to him. “My seal from Daimyo Tatsunori,” she said, holding the carved block up to his torchlight. It bore the Tatsunori crest, an image every retainer of the powerful noble could be expected to know on sight. While this particular cave wasn’t in Tatsunori’s domain proper, the ruler of the local fiefdom had become one of Tatsunori’s vassals in exchange for financing and military support, and that obligated every samurai and guard in the realm to treat Tatsunori’s orders as if they came from their own ruler. “Let me in, guard.”
At long last, the man nodded and stood aside. “Do you want a guide?” he called as she lit her torch and walked into the cave mouth. “Some of the monks meditate late into the night. They might be awake and willing to—”
“No!” snapped Yasuoka. The last thing she needed was someone else the ghost could attack or even possess. “Remain at your post, guard. If I do not return by dawn, send word to Daimyo Tatsunori.” And with that she strode around a corner in the tunnel, and the guard was lost to sight behind her.
A few steps into the tunnel, Yasuoka slowed and put a hand to her head. She had been rude to the sentry, she acknowledged—ruder than he deserved. She ought to apologize. But she was so close to obtaining the final spirit and finishing the mission. She had been working towards this moment for the past six months, traveling across the Numasa archipelago and seeking the most dangerous, strongest, and obscure ghosts to add to her collection so she could call on them when she needed to. It was perhaps understandable she would get snappish—
No. That was the attitude of the ghosts she fought, the monsters whose hate and spite for every other being was so strong that it prevented them from falling into death. She did not claim to be perfect, but she knew if she let little spites build in her, the same could happen to her when she died—shamans came back as ghosts more than any other profession. And so, after taking a few moments to steady herself, she returned to the cave mouth and apologized to the guard for her rudeness. Only when he assured her he had forgiven her did she return to the cave and resume her progress.
The tunnel opened into a large cave temple of the type common on the island. Shrines were set up at various points around the cave, and paintings of local deities and scenes from the local mythology had been layered over the rock walls. She stopped under a rocky overhang covered with an excellent painting of a bird-headed man pulling a sheep from a well, then turned and examined a series of bulges in the wall she’d observed earlier that day. They were small, but a nimble child or a sufficiently skilled adult might still be able to use them to climb on top of the overhang and maybe from there into one of the higher passages set along the upper wall. She’d checked the other routes out of the room, and they all dead-ended in shrines or just blank rock. The way before her was the only one she hadn’t been able to examine during her previous visit.
Yasuoka knew she would need both hands to climb the outcropping, so she reluctantly put out her torch and focused on the chi she carried within her. She chanted, and the masses appeared in front of her, struggling to escape as always. After a moment, she nodded at the newest one. “Mik Sovann,” she ordered. “Damned thief. Lend me your eyes.”
The chi slammed into her with enough force that Yasuoka almost took a step back. She managed to jam her staff down and catch herself, however, and when she looked around again, she could see the cave as if it was out in the midday sun. The paintings and shrines were so clear, she could even pick out the little grey patches where paint had flaked away over the years. On the ground, she could see the six different tunnels she’d gone through earlier that day that all led to auxiliary shrines, and in front of her was the overhang, now with clearly visible handholds for her to grab.
Yasuoka began to climb, hauling herself about ten meters into the air in a span of a few minutes. When she reached the top of the overhang and looked around, though, she saw only a featureless rock wall. There was no trail to the higher passages there she could find—but now that she was higher, she could see the top of another overhang a few meters farther down the cave from her. And at the back of that overhang, there was a faint, steep trail up the wall and into the upper tunnels. Of course, that didn’t help if someone couldn’t get between that overhang and the one she was standing on, but after a few moments of searching, she found a loose rock at the back of her overhang and shifted it to reveal a tiny tunnel running parallel to the cave. A child could fit through it and make his or her way to the other overhang, then rush to the upper tunnels. She, however, wouldn’t fit, and she couldn’t see any other way for a normal adult to reach the opposite overhang.
That didn’t mean Yasuoka was stuck, but the option she did have would be dangerous even if she didn’t have good reason to believe the temple complex was haunted. Still, there was no other choice, so she reluctantly dismissed Sovann’s chi. Darkness slammed down around her as she began to channel again, this time choosing the rhinotaur with its powerful legs. Then she lit her useless little torch, looked out in front of her, prayed she remembered where the next overhang began, and jumped for it.
The wind whistled around Yasuoka, and she tensed, but the ground slammed into her boots, and she stumbled forward before catching herself against the far wall. She took a few relieved breaths and wiped sweat from her brow before switching back to Sovann’s chi so she could see once more. “Well,” she murmured. “At least once I get this ghost, that won’t be a problem anymore.”
As she scrabbled up the trail, she thought back to the tales she’d heard about the temple. There were the usual problems caused by an angry and vengeful spirit: broken or vandalized objects in the shrines, children caught wandering around the grounds having claimed someone was calling to them, and the occasional child who vanished from the surrounding houses. The monks who worshipped in the temple had also told their lord they felt an odd presence sometimes, though none seemed to have been able to deal with the spirit directly. There had even been strange laughs heard by locals late at night, the sounds any evil spirit might make if it thought it was close to achieving its goals.
It had taken longer to work out who the spirit might be, but after Yasuoka went through the temple archives, she’d eventually come up with a suspect. Centuries ago, the temple had been home to the famed monk Anand Chah, whose enlightenment was said to be so great he could channel the minds of those around him, know what they thought, and provide advice to the dilemmas in their hearts they dared not speak aloud. It was said he had once sat in front of a crowd of hundreds for a few moments and wrote messages that were taken by his pages to the people in the crowd; each person who got a slip of advice later said it had led them true, though Anand could have had no more than a few moments to consider each one. He had vanished one day, disappearing into the temple and never coming out, and his despondent disciples had assumed he had left them on some spiritual quest. Yasuoka, though, was of a more practical mind; she guessed the monk had wandered into a far tunnel in the temple, died, and came back to haunt it in revenge for his death.
His motives didn’t really matter to Yasuoka, but she was interested in his ability to channel the thoughts of those around him, particularly in his ability to do so for many people at once. If she had that ability, she might be able to channel the chi of multiple entities at the same time. That would let her use all her powers together, which would mean she wouldn’t need to choose between Sovann’s sight and Kuang’s hearing. Or Kuang’s hearing and Cho’s combat skills. Or any of the others. She would be at her peak, and she would be able to battle the monastery ghost where every shaman before her had failed.
But first she had to beat Anand and stop whatever evil he practiced there, so she walked through the entrance of the upper passage and moved through a corridor she could tell wasn’t much used. Most of the wall paintings were dustier and faded, not having been touched up in many years. A few looked newer, but these were crude, like children would draw. One in particular was still wet, and Yasuoka frowned as she touched it, but then she saw a faint light ahead and hurried forward. She quickly dismissed Sovann’s chi and summoned the warrior Cho’s again, then burst into a room—
And saw about thirty living children aged seven to nine sitting cross-legged in a semicircle around a smiling ghost. The ghost was bald, with tanned, wrinkled skin, voluminous robes, and a stocky frame. Around his collar he wore a necklace with a holy symbol on it; Yasuoka recognized it from her research as a symbol granted to Anand Chah by the highest monk of his order. It was her target.
“And since you’ve been such good students, I’m going to teach you the story of the monk and the lotus blossom!” Anand said. The students clapped and cheered as Yasuoka watched, baffled. “This was one of my favorites when I was a child, but if I tell it to you, you have to promise me one thing.”
“What is it?” called one of the children in front.
“That you share the story with others who might want to hear it. Knowledge and stories should not be hoarded, but should be made available to all.” Anand turned slightly to look at Yasuoka. “Ah, and for this story, we have a very special guest! Children, please say hello to the shaman Yasuoka Takako!”
“Hello, Miss Yasuoka!” the thirty children chorused. They didn’t seem possessed to Yasuoka, which she would at least have been able to understand. They just seemed like regular kids—who were up at midnight taking lessons from a ghost.
“Do you know what shamans do?” Anand asked. “They go all around Numasa and protect people from evil ghosts! Like—”
“Like you,” Yasuoka interrupted. If the monk was putting a spell on the children through some demented sermon, she couldn’t let it continue. “Kids, go home. I’m going to deal with him.”
“But he didn’t get to the story yet!” complained one of the kids, a girl of about eight with a large bow in her hair. “And we were really good! We meditated, an’ we tried to do good things like helping sick puppies an’—”
Yasuoka shook her head. “That’s not the point. He’s an ancient spirit. They’re evil.”
“Why?” asked Anand, with a genuinely puzzled expression on his face.
“Why am I evil?” Anand looked down at himself, a hint of a smile playing over his face. “I mean, I don’t think I am…”
The children giggled, and Yasuoka flushed. Normally she’d have started fighting by now, but the kids had to leave first so Anand couldn’t use them as shields. There were too many of them to simply haul away. She’d have to talk them out. “A ghost is created when a creature—usually, but not always, a human—dies with a deep desire unfulfilled,” she said. “Someone might want to win a contest, or protect a loved one, or be proven right. Because they want their desire so badly, their spirit remains even after their body fails.”
“True,” said Anand. “But that does not make them evil, does it?”
Yasuoka glared at him. “Ghosts fade when they achieve their desires or realize their desires cannot be achieved. A ghost who wants to protect a loved one will fade from this realm when the loved one is protected or the loved one dies and is beyond protection. A ghost who wants to be proven right will fade once he is in fact shown to be right, or wrong and knows he can never be proven right, or nobody remembers the argument and nothing will ever be proven. In this way, most ghosts fade within a few years or decades as their desires either come true or become impossible. But…there are some ghosts with desires so vast and grasping they will never be fulfilled: a thief who wants all the treasure in the world or a conqueror who wants to rule it all. These are the kinds of ghosts that last for centuries—as you have, Anand Chah.” She swept her bo staff at him, earning a chorus of squeaks from the children. “I do not know your desire. But I know that if it is so vast that after all these centuries it is still unfulfilled, it can be nothing good.”
“Can’t it?” Anand asked. “Perhaps my unfulfilled desire is something beneficial.”
“I’ve encountered thousands of ghosts. I’ve captured dozens. None—”
“Yes,” interrupted Anand. “I can see them.” He shuddered slightly. “Poor souls… perhaps they are deserving of their fate, but it is still most regrettable. You would bind me as you bound them?”
Yasuoka nodded. “I have need of your abilities. And these children need to be protected.”
“No!” yelled the girl with the large bow. “He’s not bad! He’s a good teacher! He’s funny, and he has good stories, and when I scraped my knee, he held me and made it feel better!”
The other children chorused their agreement, and Yasuoka slammed her bo staff on the ground to quiet them. “I have fought many ghosts,” she said. “No ghost who survived for more than a century was anything other than a monster.”
“Perhaps I am the first,” insisted Anand. “Although… I am curious. How do you know the others were monsters? Did you investigate them?”
“Yes,” snapped Yasuoka. “Very thoroughly. I could recite all their crimes—”
Anand shook his hand. “Strange, then, that you don’t seem to know why I am a monster. Only that I must be one because I am ancient.” He was silent for a moment. “Are you in a hurry for some reason?”
Yasuoka hesitated. It was true she had studied her other targets more thoroughly, but that this one was better at hiding meant nothing. She hadn’t yet found an exception, and she doubted Anand would be the first. “I have an urgent mission from my lord. I must drive out a monstrous ghost which has defeated and killed more than a hundred other shamans. To win, I require your ability to channel multiple ghosts at once.”
“And for this ability,” said Anand in a quiet, serious voice, “you would reduce me to…that?” He gestured in Yasuoka’s direction, and she figured he was referencing the spirits. “Do you think that is just, and that your lord would approve?”
“I wouldn’t do it if you didn’t deserve it!” insisted Yasuoka. “You’ve—”
Anand stood incredibly quickly as the children huddled around each other. “Can you name,” Anand asked, “one misdeed I have committed?”
“Children in the area have been found wandering at night, no doubt lured—”
“Hey!” said the girl with the bow. “That’s not fair! It’s not his fault we gotta come here at night when all the adults are asleep to hear his stories!”
“Yeah, and so what if I got lost on the way home that one time?” asked another kid. “It was dark!”
Yasuoka scowled. “Some children vanished,” she said. “Just last year one child, the son of the local fishmonger—”
“I knew him,” said a third kid. “He didn’t disappear! I saw him stow away on his uncle’s boat one day, the one that got caught in a storm and sank! That’s what happened to him.”
That was technically possible; Yasuoka had read all the information she could find on the missing child, but none of it precluded the child having drowned at sea. The other missing children, a few every decade, could be similar stories. “Well—the temple has been defiled, things broken and taken! What excuse would a good monk have for that?”
Anand tilted his head, then turned to the children. “Have any of you anything to say?” he asked in a gentle voice. “Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble. But if you’ve done something, you should admit what you’ve done.”
A few kids raised their hands. “We mighta broke one of the shrines a few weeks ago,” said a little kid. “Sorry. It was dark, and we tripped over it.”
“I took one of the offerings,” said another kid. “It was my favorite type of orange. But I’ll replace it! I promise!”
Anand looked back at Yasuoka. “That doesn’t…” she growled. “Okay, then, what’s your desire, if it isn’t to do wrong? What do you want that has kept you going for hundreds of years?”
“To teach.” Anand paused for a moment. “I admit, despite my best efforts towards enlightenment, I maintained one desire. I wanted a school, a place where children could be educated in matters of the spirit as well as the world. I approached the local liege lord time and again, but was denied every time, and since then…well, I couldn’t stop. Not when the children needed me.” He smiled, and the children all began to talk about how great of a teacher he was. “Is it so surprising that someone might have a good desire that sustained them for centuries?”
“It has never happened,” growled Yasuoka.
“Never that you were aware of. But if—before you began hunting quiet, obscure, ancient ghosts for this quest of yours—you only went to places troubled by dangerous ghosts, would you have had the chance to meet any good ones?” Anand shrugged. “In any event, that is the case. But tell me—why are you reluctant to believe this? Surely you would want to think the situation is less dire than you had feared?”
“Because—because I can’t let you confuse me!” Yasuoka insisted. “I need your powers to defeat the monastery ghost! My lord has demanded it. He’s made me everything I am; I need to do this for him!” She pointed her bo staff squarely at his head. “I can’t—”
“Would you really,” asked Anand quietly, “bind me if you weren’t really sure whether I deserved it?” He spread his hands wide. “Perhaps your suspicions are correct. Perhaps I am hiding something and deserve punishment. But if not…well. Hold you your own spirit so cheaply that you would take mine just to make your task easier?”
Yasuoka hesitated, trembling. She could strike now, she thought; if Anand wanted to keep up this pretense, he couldn’t use the children for shields, and if he abandoned it, she could at least get the children out. And she couldn’t be wrong. She’d never been wrong before. She had to strike, to beat this ghost like all the others so she could use his powers to cleanse the monastery. The worst that could happen was—
The worst that could happen was she became the kind of person who hurt innocents to fulfill her own desires, she realized. And if that was the case, then no matter how many evil ghosts she defeated, when she died she knew there would be one more. Maybe it would battle the other ghosts of the world forever, or maybe it would haunt Tatsunori in a mad quest to protect him and his clan for all eternity. It would lead to nothing but pain and despair…until another, better shaman found a way to defeat her and bind her for use against others.
She realized she was sweating, and she slowly sagged against her pole. Anand made a vague gesture, and then the children were by her, helping her to a cushion and fetching a cold drink from a deep, cool crevice of the chamber. “I…” said Yasuoka at last. “I—no. I can’t bind you if I can’t prove you’re hurting anyone.”
Anand smiled slightly. “You see?” he told the children. “Even adults sometimes need to be reminded of the right thing to do. That is why we all must look out for each other. Do you promise to do that?” The kids nodded. “And you, Yasuoka?”
“What? Um, of course…” Yasuoka shook her head slightly as she began to grasp the magnitude of what the realization would cost her. “If I don’t take your powers, how can I possibly vanquish the monastery ghost? It has killed a hundred others—”
“Each one, no doubt, channeling some special ghost he or she was confident would bring about victory.” Anand tapped his fingertips together. “But perhaps with what you have learned tonight, you can perceive another approach.”
That confused Yasuoka, but after a few moments, she understood. “Of course,” she said. “I…I’ll try that. Thank you. I’ll talk to your liege lord—and mine too. See if we can get a school set up.”
Anand looked startled for the first time, and a faint red blush tinged his ghostly cheeks. “I would very much appreciate that, shaman Yasuoka,” he said. “Children, what do we say?”
“Thank you, shaman!” they all chorused.
“Excellent. And now, since I think we still have a little time, would you like to hear the story of the monk and the lotus blossom?”
The kids clapped and cheered. “Yes!” called the girl with the bow. “Yes, please!”
Anand turned to Yasuoka. “You may stay as well. Perhaps you will find it…enlightening.”
Yasuoka smiled, and for the first time in a while, the cold chi bound to her own didn’t seem as heavy. “Yes,” she said. “I would like that.”