Tag Archives: Takako

Ghost Hunter, Part Three

Ghost Hunter
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Three-

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.

Ghost Hunter, Part Two

Ghost Hunter
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Two-

“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.

“What?”

“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.”

Ghost Hunter, Part One

Ghost Hunter
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part One-

 

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.