Tellest Short Story – Ghost Guardian

A Tale by Aaron Canton

 

The great temple within Daimyo Tatsunori’s capital city was known far and wide. Visitors from distant lands spoke of the beautiful architecture of its buildings, the intricate statues and sculptures which flanked its shrines and graced its halls, and the elaborate rituals that its robed monks performed every dawn and dusk. Merchants called it a place of bountiful wealth where fortunes could be made by anyone whose wares could meet the stringent standards of the priests who purchased items that they deemed worthy of honoring the gods above. And criminals all over the country, from prisoners in local jails, to members of chain gangs working in distant mines, whispered to each other of the horrible fates that awaited those whose crimes were so monstrous that they were hauled to the dungeon under the temple for punishment.

Yasuoka Takako, however, just knew it as home.

The shaman smiled to herself as she stepped through the temple’s massive gates and felt familiar flagstones through her thin sandals. A mixture of scents arose from the buildings and Yasuoka could almost taste the sandalwood incense from the nearest altars, the pollen of the azaleas in the sacred garden, and the fish noodles being prepared in the staff’s eating quarters. Even the distant squabble she overheard of two monks bickering about some error one of them had made during the dawn ritual felt familiar.

“Yasuoka!” The hunter turned to see Kiyosuke Takahara, one of the temple’s gatekeepers, waving at her from his post. He sounded astonished, and Yasuoka had to fight not to laugh at his shocked expression. “You’re back!”

“Of course, I’m back.” Yasuoka allowed her smile to grow by the slightest amount. “You didn’t think a handful of decrepit ghosts could defeat me, did you?”

Kiyosuke shook his head, but then he asked, “You really defeated Goh O-Kai?”

“I did. He will trouble the people of this land no more.” Yasuoka inclined her head. “And all the other shamans he slew are finally at peace.”

“That’s incredible!” Kiyosuke glanced at a nearby jade sundial as if hoping time would suddenly speed up. “My shift ends soon. I would love to hear all about it!” This his voice grew hopeful. “There’s a food stall a few blocks from here that opened after you went on your trip. Their dumplings are spectacular. Perhaps, if the priests don’t send you on another mission…?”

“I will be happy to tell you of my battle, but for now, I need to see High Priest Kitano.” Yasuoka glanced down the temple’s main walkway, which ended in a five-story wooden building that towered over the rest of the complex. “I have important information he must know.”

Kiyosuke quickly nodded, and a flicker of disappointment flashed over his face before his expression became the stoic ideal which the temple’s monks required of all their on-duty staff. “Right,” he said. “Of course. I’ll see you later, Yasuoka.”

The shaman nodded goodbye to Kiyosuke and then walked up to the five-story building. When she reached its massive oaken doors and pressed her hand against them, she felt a tingle as an unseen force pushed back. Yasuoka took a single breath to focus before bringing forth a tiny bit of chi, wrapping it around her hand, and drawing on it to bring forth a strength that could breach spiritual barriers just as her flesh could battle physical ones. Then she pushed again, felt the door swing open easily, and stepped into the inner sanctum of Tatsunori’s ghost hunters.

The room before her was wide open, and though there were altars against the walls as well as elaborate murals depicting the gods above, the center of the room was free of all adornment and consisted only of a simple oaken floor onto which several mats had been placed. Other shamans were on the mats and were either sparring with swords and staves or were sitting in the lotus blossom position while practicing their channeling. A few additional monks scurried between the altars, some leaving offerings and incense, others bowing down to perform the rituals which were required of them.

Yasuoka could see about forty people in the room in total. But she knew from long experience there were many more entities here than that, and so she channeled a little more chi and then looked around again. And, as her gaze passed over the room, for a second time she could see the chained spirits.

Before her were two ghosts whom Yasuoka recognized as the Peng twins, a con artist duo said to have infiltrated noble houses a century ago by pretending to be servants before robbing their new employers and slaughtering everyone on the way out. Both twins were working on a scuffed spot of floor, and as Yasuoka watched, one of them chanted a few words which made the scuff marks quiver and then crumble away. An alter along the far wall was being tended to by another bound spirit, the pyromaniac arsonist Ahuinan, who was being made to use his magic to keep the candles surrounding that altar burning in perfect unity. And when Yasuoka turned to look behind her she saw the ghost of an ancient wizard who had once used magic to shield an invading army from magical attack. That mage, whom Yasuoka had once heard referred to as ‘the demon O-Tsubi’, was now standing by the building’s front door and casting the shield which prevented anyone who didn’t know how to channel from breaching the inner sanctum.

It had unnerved Yasuoka when she’d first been brought to the temple as a starving orphan and learned that the building was maintained by the ghosts of the worst criminals the land had ever known. But the priests had helped her understand that the criminals were now controlled by the shamans who channeled them, so those spirits could not possibly hurt anyone while they did penance for their heinous crimes. Now she didn’t even flinch as she passed the Peng twins to approach a ghost hunter practicing his fencing on the mats. “Ganzaya,” she said as she pressed her hands together and kowtowed to show respect. “I have slain Goh O-Kai and returned. Now I must tell High Priest Kitano about an important discovery I made during my travels.”

Ganzaya waved his sparring partner back and then saluted Yasuoka with his sword. Three magical talismans, each capable of binding a powerful spirit, dangled from its hilt and clanged together in an almost musical manner. “Thank you, Yasuoka,” he said. “Your service is once again appreciated.”

Yasuoka nodded but said nothing in response, and Ganzaya went on. “Kitano will be happy to learn of Goh’s defeat. Daimyo Tatsunori was becoming impatient with our temple’s failure to eliminate that spirit. And, of course, it is a relief that no more shamans will be slain by that damned monk.” He paused. “I don’t sense Goh’s spirit within you. Did you not bind him?”

“No. I banished him instead.” Yasuoka frowned. “If anyone does not believe I truly defeated the spirit, they can travel to his monastery and see for themselves that his blight has been eradicated. He is gone and will never trouble anyone ever again.”

Ganzaya grimaced. “I believe you, Yasuoka. Your devotion to our order is well known and nobody who knows you would think you’d lie about such a matter. But High Priest Kitano is going to wonder why you released the spirit instead of compelling him to atone for his crimes by helping you defeat the other evil spirits which still plague the land.”

Yasuoka glanced at a recessed door in the back of the room. “I would be happy to explain the matter in person. May I see him now?”

“His ritual to bless Daimyo Tatsunori’s health should have ended just a few minutes ago, so he should be available.” Ganzaya waved Yasuoka towards the door. “He is on the top floor. I’ll send my messenger spirit so he knows you are coming.”

“Thank you.” Yasuoka gave another small bow before heading towards the door and the stairs beyond it.

As Yasuoka climbed the stairs, her chi-infused senses observed a spirit named Hare racing upwards. Hare’s true name had been lost to history but everyone knew she had once been a makura sagashi ‘pillow thief’ who had seduced her way into her target’s bedrooms, robbed them once they slept, killed them if they awoke, and then used magic to bolster her speed and enable her to outrun any guards who gave pursuit. Hare had been the first spirit that Ganzaya, the captain of the ghost hunting shamans, had bound, and her ability to traverse long distances in mere moments had proven invaluable in enabling the shamans to learn of distant crises and react in time to avert catastrophes. And even now that Ganzaya was stationed at the temple itself instead of traveling some distant region which was beset by hostile spirits, Yasuoka thought, it still seemed as if Hare still had some use yet.

The thought of spirits and their uses brought Yasuoka back to the reason why she’d wanted to see Kitano so urgently, and she hurried up the rest of the stairs. When she got to the top she took a breath to compose herself, made sure her uniform was as immaculate as it could be after the week of traveling it had taken to reach the temple from the ruins of Goh’s monastery, and stepped into the most sacred chambers in all of Daimyo Tatsunori’s domain.

High Priest Kitano and six other priests were sitting cross-legged in front of the Tatsunori family altar. They wore ornate robes which indicated their high ranks as well as jeweled medallions which they used as foci to help each of them control the many spirits they had bound over the years; additionally, all had shaven their heads as per temple tradition. Incense was rising from the offering bowl in front of the altar, and Yasuoka could see two spirits fanning the incense to ensure the smoke went straight up without lingering in the room. Kitano turned to see her, then smiled and waved the other priests to turn as well. “Yasuoka,” the old man said, but then he frowned and cut off whatever he’d been about to say. Instead, he asked her, “Goh’s spirit is not with you. Have you failed?”

“No, High Priest.” Yasuoka prostrated herself before him and waited until he bid her rise before continuing. “I have defeated him. Let me explain.”

Yasuoka quickly recounted how she had traveled the land for months to locate and bind the spirits she’d thought were necessary to battle the nigh-invincible Goh O-Kai. One of the priests next to Kitano drew a list from inside his robes and began marking names off it, and Yasuoka was pleased to see that she’d eliminated several dangerous ghosts whom the temple had been trying to defeat for years. “The last spirit I wanted was that of the monk Anand Chah,” she said. “He was known to be a channeler who could manipulate many entities at once. I had assumed that he was an evil spirit, like all those we have bound for our work, and so hoped to use his power to channel all my other ghosts at once and defeat Goh. But when I met him, I discovered something important.” She took a breath. “He was not wicked.”

One of the priests raised an eyebrow. “That is impossible,” he said. “Ghosts are bound to this world by unfulfilled desires, but good desires, like protecting one’s family or seeing a pet theory proven correct, are by their very nature limited in scope. It is immoral goals and wishes, such as conquering the world or slaughtering millions, that are limitless. Spirits strong enough to manifest and cause problems are thus inevitably formed by wicked desires. We all know that.”

“We all believe that, but it is not true.” Yasuoka shook her head. “Anand had no malevolent intentions. He simply wished to continue teaching.”

“You were mistaken.” Kitano’s voice was flat and harsh, and Yasuoka fought back a jolt of surprise. She’d never heard him use that tone. “Anand must have tricked you.”

“It was not only him,” Yasuoka explained. “When I went to Goh’s temple, I did not defeat him by channeling my own spirits. Instead I called upon the ghosts of the dead shamans whom Goh had killed over the centuries. None of them were evil; in fact, all were heroes of this order. They came when I summoned them and they battled by my side freely, of their own volition. It was they that allowed me to defeat Goh.”

The priest with the list asked, “But you didn’t bind him?”

“No. The spirits who fought alongside me wanted to see Goh destroyed, and so I did. It was the least I could do to honor the help they gave me.”

Nobody spoke for a moment. Then Yasuoka glanced at Kitano and was amazed to see that his face had reddened and he was trembling as if suppressing an angry tantrum. “I submit,” she said as she tried to hide her dismay and confusion, “that we reconsider our doctrines. If innocent spirits exist, then ghost hunters like myself need not only travel the world fighting evil spirits and binding them to our service. We can also search for the spirits of good people which linger on after their deaths. No doubt virtuous ghosts have many skills that would be useful to us, just as the evil ones do, and if we help the virtuous ones achieve the final desires which bind them to this world then they may agree to help us in turn. And—”

“Stop.”

Yasuoka froze as she heard Kitano’s voice, which shook as if barely withstanding fury. “Our doctrines are absolute,” he went on. “They have been passed down for generations and are not in error. You have been fooled, Yasuoka. The spirit Anand tricked you, and no doubt Goh did so as well. I’m sure a spirit of his power would have found it easy to fake his own death… especially for a shaman who was so foolish as to not even attempt to bind him!”

“Then send Hare to Goh’s monastery and confirm for yourself that his blight is gone!” Yasuoka insisted, trying and failing to keep her frustration out of her voice. “I—”

“You have failed.” Kitano’s voice was like a slap and Yasuoka winced. “You have fallen away from the fundamental truths of our order. And you have disgraced us all.” Kitano closed his eyes. “Remove yourself from my presence and the temple grounds. When we have decided what penance, if any, would serve to redeem you and return you to our ranks, we will let you know. Until then, this place is forbidden to you. Now be gone.”

It took Yasuoka a moment to recover enough to speak. “High Priest Kitano, I defeated a ghost whom nobody else could slay. I deserve—”

“Remove yourself or we will remove you!” Kitano snapped. “At once, Yasuoka!”

Another moment of silence stretched between them. Then, at last, Yasuoka forced herself to get up and leave the sanctum.

 

#

 

“Has something happened to High Priest Kitano?”

Kiyosuke chewed his final dumpling thoughtfully before looking back at Yasuoka. They were sitting at the food stall he’d mentioned earlier, and the old lady who had cooked and delivered their orders came over to refill their tea before resuming her post at a huge wok full of sizzling noodles. Kiyosuke picked up his cup, swallowed, and then said, “Daimyo Tatsunori visited last week, and from what I could tell, the meeting went badly. Kitano was snapping at people for the entire rest of the day. That’s the only thing I can think of.”

Yasuoka finished the last of her dumplings and then sipped her tea as she considered the gatekeeper’s words. “Ganzaya said the daimyo was displeased that Goh was still afflicting the land. I’m guessing that’s why he visited. But High Priest Kitano always controlled his temper before. I can’t imagine he’d still be so upset days later that he’d throw me out without even listening to me.”

“Are you sure?” Yasuoka gave a startled glance to Kiyosuke, who drank some of his own tea and then shrugged. “I haven’t talked to Kitano that much, but he’s always seemed cold and aloof to me. Snapping at someone is just like him.”

Yasuoka shook her head. “You don’t know him like I do. After Daimyo Tatsunori brought me to the temple, High Priest Kitano and his closest acolytes raised me. They taught me everything I knew about being a ghost hunter and a shaman. Kitano can be very strict, but he never just dismissed me out of hand, even when I broke a rule and got into trouble.”

“You broke rules?” Kiyosuke chuckled. “This I’ve got to hear.”

A smile flickered over Yasuoka’s face before she pushed it away. “Another time,” she said. “Right now I need to think of a way to make High Priest Kitano understand. We ghost hunters could be so much more powerful if we learned to work alongside good spirits instead of only drawing on the powers of evil ones, but for some reason he won’t listen to me.”

“I’m sure you and he will have more chances to talk,” Kiyosuke said. “You don’t have another mission now, right? That means you can just hang around the temple training until they send you out again. Kitano has to come down to get food or stretch his legs sometime, so you’ll be able to speak with him then.” He waved for the waitress to come back. “Now, how about we have some mochi to follow up those dumplings? This place has fantastic mochi, some of the best in the city. And you can’t have had many chances to enjoy sweets while you were traveling to all those distant temples.”

Yasuoka didn’t answer, instead just staring down into her cup of tea. Kiyosuke went on to say, “I could also tell you about my own studies, if you’re interested. You know how I was thinking about becoming a ghost hunter myself, right? Well, I’ve been practicing chi exercises for months, and I’m pretty sure I finally got to the point where I can just barely perceive ghosts.” He paused. “As long as nothing else is going on. And the ghost sits still.”

His mouth quirked up in a smile, but Yasuoka still didn’t react. “It doesn’t make sense,” she told him after several moments of silence. “Kiyosuke, are you sure nothing else unusual has been going on with the high priest?”

Kiyosuke’s smile grew strained. “I see,” he said. “That’s why you finally accepted my dinner invitation. All you wanted was to pump me for information about Kitano.”

“Kiyosuke…” Yasuoka sighed. “We’ve been over this. I’m on the road for months at a time traveling to distant ruins where I fight ghosts who might kill me. I can’t return your affections.”

“Sure.” A hint of bitterness crossed Kiyosuke’s voice, but he shook his head and then quaffed the rest of his tea in one gulp. When he next spoke, he sounded like he was in control of himself again. “Well, to answer your question, everything else has been normal. He’s been conducting all the rituals and training the other monks and the shamans like always. He’s even been sitting in when Ganzaya’s hunters come back from missions and show the ghosts they bound.”

That struck Yasuoka as odd, but it took her a moment to realize why. “Usually a lower-level priest would do that,” she mused, her gaze wandering into the clouds of steam billowing up from the giant wok. She could almost imagine the shadowy, silvery shapes of spirits forming within the steam as she thought back to the many times she herself had presented new spirits to the temple monks. “High Priest Kitano has many more important things to do. How could he neglect his other duties just to check on new spirits acquired by the hunters?” Then her eyes narrowed. “Unless he wanted those spirits for himself…”

“Why would the high priest want more spirits?” Kiyosuke asked. “He’s got dozens already.”

“He would want them if he was planning on personally battling Goh.” Yasuoka nodded. “It makes sense now. Daimyo Tatsunori probably gave the high priest an ultimatum: deal with Goh soon or else the temple will be punished. So High Priest Kitano decided to fight Goh himself, and to prepare, he began checking the other shamans’ spirits and taking the strongest ones. But strong ghosts are hard to control and some can even possess those who try and fail to break them. I’ll bet when Kitano tried to control the new ghosts, one of them overwhelmed him. That’s why he was acting so strangely earlier. I wasn’t talking to Kitano, but a ghost using his body.”

Kiyosuke frowned. “Wouldn’t someone else have noticed?”

“Not necessarily.” Yasuoka finished her tea and stood. “If the ghost is very powerful, it may know how to conceal itself in the high priest’s chi. Then nobody would notice unless they were specifically examining him.”

“Or,” Kiyosuke said, “the high priest could just be rude and self-absorbed. It’s been known to happen.”

“Not in our order.” Yasuoka took a few coins from her pocket and tossed them on the counter before Kiyosuke could protest. “We have served the daimyo and the people of this land for centuries. We wouldn’t be able to do our work if we could not meet the highest standards. Someone so self-absorbed that they could not listen to wise counsel would not be able to advance to the rank of high priest; the other monks and shamans would prevent it.”

Before Kiyosuke could respond, Yasuoka went on. “And even setting that aside, I know High Priest Kitano. He is not a cruel or self-important man, and he would not normally dismiss me out of hand. If he is acting oddly, there must be a reason, and I suspect I know what it is.” She turned. “I will determine if he is possessed, and if so, I will exorcise him. Then he will listen to me.”

Kiyosuke rose too, but Yasuoka was already hurrying away. “He should still be doing the nightly rituals,” she muttered to herself. “If he skips them, the others will realize that he’s not acting like himself, and the spirit can’t risk that. I’ll be able to find him in the upper shrine.”

The doors to the temple complex had been closed for the night, and while shamans could knock and demand admittance whenever they wanted, Yasuoka was confident that the possessed Kitano would have ordered the guards to turn her away. Fortunately, shamans also had ways around that. She slipped around the temple wall until she was near a large tree, then took a breath and focused her chi. “Mi-Jae Oh, damned spy,” she whispered as she called to one of the many spirits bound to her. “Lend me your agility.”

Yasuoka shuddered as her chi wrapped around the spirit and dragged it inside of her. Moments later, she felt a surge of energy and realized she had started to balance on the balls of her feet without noticing. She allowed herself a grim smile before springing up the tree, climbing almost as quickly as she could run and flipping from branch to branch without even slowing down. Mi-Jae had famously honed her acrobatic skills to the point where she could launch herself up into rafters or down through deep caves in order to spy on her master’s hidden enemies, and Yasuoka made full use of those talents as she hauled herself up the temple wall.

When Yasuoka reached the top, she flipped over the wall and dropped down behind one of the smaller outbuildings before any of the guards saw her. Then she dismissed Mi-Jae and channeled another spirit, a sprinter named Jiwari who was said to have won every racing competition for five years before finally losing and then murdering the victor in a jealous rage. Jiwari’s speed empowered Yasuoka to race through the compound at an almost inhuman pace, and though a few guards heard her pass, by the time they’d turned, she’d rounded the next corner and was out of sight.

Yasuoka switched back to channeling Mi-Jae when she reached the five-story inner sanctum and then swiftly climbed up to the top level. Once there, she crouched in a shadowy nook as she took her staff from its strap on her back and levered one of the temple windows open. O-Tsubi’s barrier didn’t even slow her down as she funneled chi into her hand and pushed through the spirits’ best efforts. Then the way was clear and she dropped down to the temple’s fifth floor to see that the room was almost empty. It was just her…

And High Priest Kitano.

Yasuoka saw the old man meditating in front of the Tatsunori family shrine, and she took a moment to catch her breath before she focused her chi into her senses. Then she peered at Kitano with magic-enhanced eyes, searching for even a hint of a disturbance in his aura that would indicate another spirit had hijacked his body.

But there was no sign of that. His aura was as it always was: as smooth and deep as a waveless ocean, without even a single disturbance to indicate an intruder.

Then, while Yasuoka continued to peer, Kitano stood up in one swift motion. “Yasuoka. I ordered you to leave these grounds.”

Yasuoka froze. Kitano hadn’t looked behind himself, and he wasn’t channeling anyone, so she had no idea how he could have not just sensed an intruder but recognized who she was. “High Priest, please—”

“You were given specific instructions not to return unless I summoned you!” Kitano turned and Yasuoka could see a burning rage in his eyes. “Once again, you disobey!”

“I don’t know how you possessed the high priest and evaded my detection,” Yasuoka began as she raised her staff, “but I will not allow you to harm that man one moment longer.”

Kitano’s mouth worked soundlessly for a moment before he spat, “Possessed? You attribute my actions to that of some spirit? You know nothing!”

“You—”

“I guard and protect our order! I will stop you here!” Yasuoka stared at the man as he approached, but he didn’t explain the non sequitur. Instead, he ranted, “I will defend our land from all threats, including you!”

“I am no threat! I—”

Then Kitano grasped his medallion in an old, weathered hand. “You were a willful child, and though I thought I’d trained that out of you, I now see I was mistaken!” he thundered. “But I cannot allow the whole order to pay for that mistake. If you do not surrender and allow me to escort you to the dungeon, Yasuoka, I will take you by force.”

Yasuoka’s mouth dropped. Distantly, she realized that Kitano had referenced her childhood at the temple, and there was no reason for a possessing spirit to have known about that. And that meant the man before her wasn’t possessed. She was being attacked by the real Kitano.

But she knew she couldn’t worry about that until after she’d dealt with the immediate threat. “You and I both know the dungeon can’t hold me,” she pointed out. “My spirits make me too strong.”

“Oh?” Kitano smiled sardonically. “Really?”

And then he summoned some kaja spirit that Yasuoka had never seen before, and she knew she had to fight.

Yasuoka reached out with her chi and grabbed the hulking rhinotaur that she often used in battle. His strength flooded into her and she lunged for Kitano with a blow that could have knocked boulders from a mountainside. Kitano, however, twisted around her with a grace she’d never have imagined from someone as old as him. She lashed out again and again, struggling to catch or strike him, but he dodged each time.

Then Kitano channeled another spirit, this one a shrouded harpy with bone-like talons, and Yasuoka leapt backwards just before the high priest’s hands could grip her shoulders. She quickly swapped spirits and summoned a pyromancer. His knowledge of fire magic filled her mind and her fingers twisted into a complex sigil as she cast a wall of fire around herself. She needed time and space, she thought, so she could figure out what was going on and how to stop Kitano or at least escape—

But then Kitano used his harpy spirit to soar over the fire wall and drop lightly behind her. Desperately, Yasuoka switched back to the rhinotaur spirit and swung her staff to knock him down. He once again evaded her, looking more like he was dancing then dodging around blows that would have staggered any other opponent Yasuoka had ever sparred with, before he suddenly channeled what looked like an ancient, decrepit crone. That spirit seemed even more ghostly than the others and Yasuoka’s next blow passed harmlessly through the monk. She gaped as the monk stepped through her, then turned, but not before Kitano had dropped whatever spell the spirit had empowered him to cast and resolidified. She felt sharp jabs over her spine as Kitano hit her in three precise spots.

And her chi disappeared.

Yasuoka gasped and frantically grasped for her power, but it was like Kitano had ripped it away. Then she felt his hands on her head and something cold tore through her, causing her to shiver uncontrollably and fall to her knees. There was a horrific wrenching feeling and a bolt of pain unlike any she’d ever known. The floor rushed up towards her but she could do nothing to stop herself from hitting it.

A few moments later, the room swam back into focus. Kitano was standing over her with a grim smile, and as he waved his hand, all the spirits that she’d spent years capturing and binding manifested themselves next to him. She reached out to them but could no longer feel the bond, and as she watched, Kitano gripped his medallion and they were brutally dragged into it.

“A shaman with strong spirits might be able to break out of my prison, but not a traitor with no magic whatsoever,” he hissed. “Your rebellion ends here.”

“High Priest,” Yasuoka managed as pain flooded through her. “I’ve done nothing to deserve this!”

Anger flashed over Kitano’s face, but he shook his head and forced it away. “You almost destabilized the entire order and destroyed what my predecessors and I spent centuries building,” he growled. “Whatever your merits and your services, I cannot allow that to happen again.” And then he looked away. “Guards!” he bellowed with a voice so loud he had to be channeling a spirit to bolster it. “To me! There is an intruder that must be brought down to the cells at once!”

Yasuoka tried to get up again, but her body was too weak to move, and when the armed monks came to pick her up she couldn’t resist at all.

 

#

 

The underground dungeon of the temple complex was bigger than Yasuoka could have imagined.

It hadn’t seemed so large when she’d been allowed to glimpse it as a child, Yasuoka thought as she lay slumped on her thin cot. Back then, Kitano had simply led her down a narrow flight of stairs within the inner sanctum into a basement that held maybe a dozen cells. Each of those chambers had been built out of thick stone and iron bars, but their furnishings had been comfortable and there hadn’t been torture devices or anything else that would have made the temple monks look cruel. And after Kitano had explained how the temple was sometimes called upon to punish the worst criminals in the land, the ones so bad that they could only atone by having their spirits removed from their bodies so they could be made to serve the temple and its monks, Yasuoka’s fears had been assuaged.

But it turned out that the single block of cells she’d seen as a youth wasn’t the full extent of the dungeon. Now the guards had taken her down below the inner sanctum and then through another concealed door which led to a maze of passages that seemed to sprawl under the entirety of the complex. There had to be hundreds of empty cells, and Yasuoka couldn’t help but wonder why they were there. After all, it wasn’t like there were that many criminals who deserved such a harsh punishment, and Yasuoka had never seen more than a few men and women be sent down to the dungeon in a year.

Of course, she had more things to worry about than just the temple’s jail being too large.

As the hours passed and feeling slowly returned to Yasuoka’s body, she kept thinking back to her confrontation with Kitano. “Why is he acting like this?” she muttered to herself. “What did I do? I know how hard he’s fought to stop evil spirits from hurting the land, how much he’s sacrificed to uphold the temple and its traditions. He’s spent his whole life serving our order. All I did was give him information that could help us to fight evil spirits! Why oppose that if he’s not possessed?”

Even the fight in his room didn’t make sense. Yasuoka could well imagine him being mad that she’d disobeyed him and returned to the temple grounds, and of course he could be offended at her insinuation that he was weak enough to be possessed. But he hadn’t needed to fight her; he could have simply let her verify for herself that he wasn’t being controlled by some monstrous ghost and then could have ordered her out again or even suspended her and refused to send her on any more missions. Attacking her was unnecessary. And ripping away her ghosts wasn’t just an unnecessary move given how badly Yasuoka had been outmatched, but it made her completely useless as a shaman. How could she fight evil spirits when she had no ghosts of her own to draw on?

“Unless he really does plan to keep me down here forever,” she muttered.

As a feeling of pure despondence enveloped her, Yasuoka once again tried to summon her own chi, but while she finally felt a faint flicker of power for the first time since Kitano had defeated her, it was nothing like the power she’d been able to wield before. Even if she still had her ghosts, she thought bitterly, she’d never be strong enough to wield them. What had Kitano done to her?

With no answers forthcoming, Yasuoka stayed still for a few more moments before she slowly and achily pulled herself into a lotus position on the cot. She couldn’t see what use meditation would have at the moment, but it was what her mentors had taught her to do when she was confused, and she wasn’t going to doubt everything she’d been taught just because her high priest was acting strangely. She took a few breaths, summoned the tiny scraps of chi that she’d managed to recover, and then began to focus inwards.

Time seemed to slow along with her breathing as the aches in her body faded by the slightest amount. She could feel the few bits of chi she’d gathered up flowing through her, brushing past her senses and giving her flickers of sights and sounds from the spirit world. It wasn’t anything like how being immersed in chi usually felt, but it was all Yasuoka had, and she let herself open up to those sensations as she continued to meditate.

And then she heard someone crying.

Yasuoka flinched, the sound vanished, and a frustrated scowl flickered across her face before she caught herself. “Who’s there?” she called, but nobody answered. “Who else is here?”

Only silence answered her.

Frowning, Yasuoka wondered if she might have heard a ghost, but she couldn’t think of why a bound spirit would be permitted to hide out in the cells crying. Nor was it possibly that she’d heard a free spirit; the only people who could have died and left ghosts here were either prisoners being punished, in which case their spirits would have been bound immediately, or the temple monks themselves, who would have no reason to haunt the dungeon. So who had she heard?

Yasuoka shook her head and then focused as best she could on drawing out the tiny remnants of chi still within her. Soon she heard the crying again; it seemed to be coming from the cell to her left. “Spirit,” Yasuoka called. “Come before me. I want to see you.”

There was no reason to think that would work, Yasuoka told herself. She didn’t have the power to control a bound spirit, let alone induce a free one to serve her. But then a silvery presence began to appear in front of her cell and her eyes widened. “Impossible,” she hissed.

The ghost that formed before Yasuoka was a woman a few inches shorter than her. She wore a simple dress unlike any the ghost hunter had ever seen in person; it reminded her of a mural on the temple walls depicting one of Daimyo Tatsunori’s ancestors leading a small force of shamans in routing Kara “Tiger-Claw” Yatsushiko’s army of outlaws. Some of those bandits had been depicted as wearing uniforms with similar textures as that of the ghost’s dress. Yasuoka asked, “Who are you?”

“You can see me?” the ghost asked, her voice trembling as she peered at Yasuoka.

“Yes.” Yasuoka tried to stand but couldn’t; it took all her effort to just keep drawing on the remnants of her chi, and after only a few seconds her body flopped back to the lotus position.  “Who are you?”

“My name is Mai Lin, ma’am,” the ghost said.

Yasuoka inclined her head. “Why are you here?”

“I was a camp follower of a large army which came to this land long ago.” She looked down. “I cannot remember when. I have been here for so long…”

Yasuoka said, “Never mind that. You were part of Kara Yatsushiko’s bandit force?”

“General Yatsushiko led us, yes. My brother was one of his scouts and I followed him; the army let women stay with them as long as we did chores in camp.” Mai tilted her head. “But the general was not a bandit. He was a great warrior who had beaten many foes. We never expected to be defeated by the local daimyo.”

It was not surprising, Yasuoka thought, that the woman didn’t want to consider her leader a mere bandit. It was even possible that Mai had forgotten Yatsushiko’s depravity during her long stay in the dungeon; ghosts were almost always unstable, and the dungeon was hardly conducive to mental health. “How did you get here?”

“After our defeat, we were all brought to this dungeon. They did not tell us why.” Mai shut her eyes. “There were rumors they would use horrific tortures on us, so I hung myself before they could do so, but somehow I stayed here even after I died.” She lowered her head. “I could not stop myself from watching as the temple monks picked General Yatsushiko’s strongest warriors and bound their spirits into captivity before letting Daimyo Tatsunori send the rest to another prison.”

“I see.” Yasuoka fought to maintain her lotus pose even as her exhausted body demanded rest. That had to be why the dungeon was so large, she thought. It had apparently once been used to house enemy armies so the monks could pick which spirits would best serve the ghost hunters. And that also explained why nobody had seen Mai; the dungeon wasn’t used for armies anymore, so nobody would have any reason to go to its distant corners in centuries. But then why, she wondered, had Kitano put her here and not in the central block of cells everyone knew existed?

Yasuoka let her head drop into a nod. “I suppose bandit leaders like Yatsushiko often had many powerful followers who—”

“We were not bandits!” Mai cried, tears beginning to flow from her eyes again as Yasuoka made herself look up. “My brother and those with him were soldiers. I understand that a losing army is subject to being captured and imprisoned, even made to suffer, but none of them did anything to merit their spirits being seized by the people here!”

“You are mistaken.” Yasuoka tried to make her voice as gentle as possible. “The temple monks would not enslave a spirit simply for fighting on the side of a losing army. Only the worst criminals are punished in this manner. I would know; I have bound many ghosts, and each showed itself to be irredeemably evil before I battled it. The prisoners too are carefully screened so only the very worst ones are held here and subject to execution. We would never hurt someone who did not deserve it.”

“Maybe your monks don’t do it anymore, but that’s what they did to us!” Mai’s voice was pure anguish. “I was with the army. We did not steal; we paid for any supplies we took. We were not bandits!”

Yasuoka shook her head. “Even if prior generations of ghost hunters were willing to bind those who were not evil, which I cannot imagine, the current generation would never tolerate that practice. I have served with them for several years and I know them well. If your companions really were honorable soldiers and not bandits, then their spirits would long since have been freed.”

“But it’s true!” Mai wailed. “I don’t care if everyone here thinks my brother and the army were bandits and not soldiers; it’s what happened!”

The ghost sounded completely sincere, and as Yasuoka considered, she realized that her story might actually be possible. Not that the temple order as it currently existed would knowingly enslave innocents, of course; they would never do that. In fact, as far as Yasuoka could tell, nobody else in the order had ever knowingly encountered an innocent spirit, which was why Kitano’s acolytes had been so astounded when Yasuoka insisted they existed. But what if Mai was right and some previous generation had been less enlightened? And then, what if in the intervening time between Yatsushiko’s defeat and the present day, the true facts had passed into myth and everyone had come to believe that Yatsushiko’s army really was a collection of bandits? If that were true, then the ghost hunters really were unknowingly using spirits who didn’t deserve to be bound and forced to serve the temple—

Yasuoka’s eyes widened. If that were the case, she thought, it could explain why Kitano had been so enraged when Yasuoka had tried to explain that good spirits existed. If the other monks and shamans grew to believe that not all spirits were evil, they might think to check the ones who were serving in the temple. They might then find that Yatsushiko’s army didn’t deserve to be bound, and they would want to free them. But Kitano lived and died for the order. He’d worry that releasing powerful spirits like Yatsushiko and his soldiers could devastate the temple’s ability to defend itself and protect others. And so he very well might want to prevent that from happening, no matter the cost.

Moreover, who was to say that Yatsushiko and his people were the only potentially innocent spirits who had been trapped? Yasuoka didn’t think any new prisoners were being punished here who didn’t deserve it; she knew too well how stringent her companions were about making sure only the worst of the worst were forced to atone in this way. But if Yatsushiko’s army could have become bandits in legend, than so could other ghosts who had had lingered on for centuries while myths and legends sprung up around them. How many hauntings were attributed to some monstrous bandit or psychopathic murderer when the spirit in question had never really hurt anyone?

Yasuoka didn’t think any of the spirits she’d bound were like that; as she’d told Mai, the ones she’d encountered had demonstrated their evil before she’d fought them. But if other shamans believed the legends and didn’t check their targets before casting their binding spells? Then even more of their spirits, the ones they relied on to defeat hostile ghosts, defend the temple, and even fulfil its basic rituals, would need to be freed. But Kitano would never stand for that. In fact, he might do whatever he could to keep those spirits bound and in service.

Even as she thought that, Yasuoka wanted to dismiss the very notion that Kitano would cover up harm done to innocents. But she had to admit that he was a man solely devoted to the order, and that he might very well try to hide evidence such as her testimony rather than see his life’s work weakened. And while that was undeniably an evil act, just as Yasuoka had come to learn not all spirits were evil, she thought she had to at least consider the possibility that not all those who served the temple were good. After all, if Kitano was doing what Yasuoka thought he was, then he was unquestionably committing a great evil.

And he needed to be stopped.

A flicker of despair rose up in Yasuoka at that last thought, since of course she was still trapped in the temple dungeons with no spirits and barely any chi. But then she looked at the ghost standing before her and smiled as she understood what she could do. It was a plan that just might work, and what was more, Kitano could only anticipate it if he was willing to admit innocent spirits existed.

Which he would never, ever do.

“Ghosts can manifest and interact with living beings when they become extremely agitated,” Yasuoka said. “Are you still able to feel that depth of emotion?”

“I would never!” Mai quickly shook her head. “I don’t want the temple monks to see me!”

“But you could do it?” When Mai slowly nodded, Yasuoka went on. “How far, precisely, can you venture outside the temple grounds?”

Mai frowned. “Anywhere in the city. But I don’t leave the temple anymore. There is no point, and when I see the living people building up their city, I only think—”

“There is a point this time.” Yasuoka took a breath. “I can stop Kitano and make sure all the innocent spirits here are freed, but you’ll need to deliver a message and do one other thing for me.”

The ghost frowned. “What else do you need?”

Yasuoka slowly made herself stand, wobbling a little but managing to stay upright this time, and then looked directly at Mai. “How many other free spirits are down here? Surely there were others who died before the guards could bind them?”

“Perhaps fifty,” Mai said.

A grim smile flitted across Yasuoka’s face. “Please gather them up. We have work to do.”

 

#

 

Kitano’s men came for Yasuoka within a couple of hours. What she hadn’t expected was who the lead henchman was. “Get up, traitor,” growled Ganzaya as he led three other muscular ghost hunters to her cell. He kept one hand on his sword hilt as if he thought Yasuoka was about to burst free and attack him. “On your feet.”

Yasuoka did not resist as Ganzaya opened her cell and beckoned her out. “You know better than this,” she said as she exited the room and fell into step between the guards. Her body was still exhausted, but she’d recovered just enough that she could walk without stumbling. “You know what Kitano is doing.”

“I know that I serve the temple.” Ganzaya turned and spat at Yasuoka’s feet. “We’ve been this land’s only protection from evil spirits for centuries. If we fall, ghosts will destroy everything. Our homes, our families, everyone we care about will be ruined.” He clenched a fist. “I’m not going to let that happen.”

“I have no intention of destroying—”

“High Priest Kitano said you tried to murder him to take his spirits for yourself!” Ganzaya snapped.

Yasuoka shook her head. “He is lying. You told me earlier you know my loyalty to the temple—”

“I also know Kitano’s. I would never have believed you capable of this if he hadn’t told me himself.” Ganzaya’s eyes flashed with anger. “But he did tell me, and I trust him more than anyone else. He is the temple, and just like our order, he will never be corrupted.” He shook his head. “Now move along.”

They didn’t stop when they reached the central area of the dungeon. Instead, Ganzaya went up the stairs to the ground floor of the temple’s inner sanctum, and his men forced Yasuoka to follow him. That was as Yasuoka had expected, just as she’d expected Kitano to send people to get her. Enough time had passed for Hare to check the ancient monastery and confirm to the ghost hunters that Goh O-Kai was truly defeated, and no other shaman had been able to handle such a monster, so Kitano would know that Yasuoka was as powerful as she claimed and he’d fear that she might be strong enough to eventually escape despite him stealing her ghosts and sealing her chi. That meant he’d want to deal with her permanently.

Moreover, Kitano surely wanted as few people to know about this as possible. That had to be why he’d put her in a distant cell rather than one of the ones everyone knew about, and also why he’d picked the ultra-loyal Ganzaya and a few handpicked acolytes instead of sending more people. It was also why he was having her taken away now that it was time to kill her: he didn’t want to take the risk of other guards bringing some prisoner into the dungeon and stumbling upon Yasuoka’s murder, which was remotely possible even if he had her killed in the furthest cell imaginable. Instead, he had no doubt told Ganzaya to bring her up to his rooms, where nobody in the order would dare intrude without his explicit permission.

The ground floor of the inner sanctum looked deserted, and Yasuoka guessed that all the other shamans had been sent away by Kitano to further ensure secrecy. When Yasuoka glanced behind her she could see the guards had strained expressions on their faces, which indicated to her they were probably channeling. That made sense; if she had managed to keep any spirits in reserve after fighting Kitano, now would be the time to use them, so of course the guards were watching out for any ghosts she might summon.

And hopefully, she thought, not paying attention to anything else. “Ganzaya,” she asked. “Is Kitano going to kill me?”

“You deserve nothing less.” Ganzaya’s voice was a harsh growl.

“Only the worst criminals are supposed to be executed and bound to the temple.”

“Treason against the temple is the worst crime.” Ganzaya snorted as the group passed a thick statue near an altar. “I’m not sure even centuries of serving the temple will be sufficient penance for your actions. But—”

Kiyosuke stepped out from behind the statue and swept his staff at the legs of the guards who were trailing Yasuoka.

Normally, Yasuoka knew, any of the three guards could have beaten Kiyosuke without effort. But now they were completely focused on watching for any spirits that Yasuoka might summon, especially since they ‘knew’ that Yasuoka must have some very strong ghosts to have returned from her last mission alive. With all their attention on the spiritual world, they had none for mundane opponents, and when Kiyosuke’s staff tripped them, all three fell in a heap.

The men reacted quickly and raced to get up, but they needed a few seconds to do so, and in that time Kiyosuke had thrown himself down on top of their prone forms. That knocked them down again and kept them occupied as Ganzaya swiveled around. His lips drew back in a sneer and he said, “I don’t know what you’re doing here, gatekeeper, but you’ll share her punishment if you try to help her escape!” Then he brought his hands together as he began to channel chi—

And a look of horror raced across his face.

Yasuoka didn’t need to use any of her own chi to know what he was seeing. His gaze swept around at what could only be the army of unbound, innocent ghosts which Yasuoka had directed Mai to gather up, hide under the floor, and then rise and surround Ganzaya with once Kiyosuke had created a distraction. Ganzaya didn’t know they were harmless; he just believed that Yasuoka’s spirits were so powerful they’d let her defeat the unstoppable Goh O-Kai. For ghosts like that, killing one lone shaman would be simplicity itself.

“Get back!” Ganzaya screamed. “Now!”

Yasuoka didn’t wait for him to recover his wits. She instead drew on every scrap of energy she had left and lurched forwards into him, tackling him down and then falling on top of him. Her hand reached his sword hilt and she drew it from his scabbard before he could stop her. Then she put the tip to his throat and got around him so she could also look at the other three men, who had just gotten up to advance on Kiyosuke. “Surrender or I kill Ganzaya.”

“You wouldn’t.” One of the guards took a shuddering breath. “That’s – that’s murder.”

Yasuoka’s voice was quiet and implacable. “I am a ghost hunter. I travel the nation slaying and binding those spirits that would harm others. I can guarantee I have dealt more death than all of you put together.” She let the point of the katana press into Ganzaya’s neck just hard enough that a single drop of blood dripped down. “I am perfectly willing to deal some more.”

“Stop!” Ganzaya cried out.

The other guards looked at each other and then dropped their own weapons. “Lock them in a storeroom,” Yasuoka ordered Kiyosuke. “Then come back and get Ganzaya too.”

When all four men had been locked up, Kiyosuke gave Yasuoka an amazed expression. “What is going on?” he demanded. “Why are they trying to kill you?”

“It’s a long story.” Yasuoka hesitated, knowing she needed to press on and stop Kitano or else he would just keep sending people after her, but she couldn’t make herself advance on what was still possibly a suicide mission without saying something else. “But thank you for coming. You were the only one I could think of who might help.”

“Help?” Kiyosuke shook his head. “I was about to go to bed, when my shutters began banging and the shrine on my dresser fell over. When I figured out it was a ghost I channeled to see it, but before I could attack it, the ghost said you’d sent it and told me to wait here!”

Yasuoka inclined her head. “Right. I meant that you were the only person I could think of who would be able to perceive the ghost but would not immediately attack her or assume she was lying.” She shrugged. “You told me you could make yourself see them, but you are not a ghost hunter yourself, so you have not learned to instinctively hate them like everyone else here.”

“Oh.” Kiyosuke smiled a little before he shook his head and said, “Well, if these monks are really trying to kill you, then we need to leave. I unlocked one of the side doors to enter and we can use it to get out.”

“I cannot leave yet.” Yasuoka dropped Ganzaya’s sword, which she did not know how to use well, and instead took Kiyosuke’s staff. “Kitano will come after me forever if I do. I need to stop him now, for good.”

She turned towards the stairs to the upper level, but her body shuddered with exertion and Kiyosuke dashed to her side. “I don’t think you’re ready for another fight,” he said. “Let’s go and you can come back when you recover—”

“There will be no coming back from this.”

Both Yasuoka and Kiyosuke stepped back as Kitano descended the stairs. The old man showed not a trace of his age as he stepped onto the temple floor with the strength and gravity of a seasoned warrior, and when he took his staff from his back and swung it around, his motions were smooth and sure. “You will not be permitted to destroy that which has been built here,” he told Yasuoka. “You both will be slain and bound to serve this temple like any other criminal. As will all this other trash.” His eyes flicked around at what could only be Mai’s group of innocent spirits.

Kiyosuke uttered a noise of protest and stepped forward, but Yasuoka thrust out her hand. “You have already helped me immeasurably,” she said quietly. “But this fight must be mine.”

“Why?” Kiyosuke asked.

Yasuoka let out a soft breath. “Because I helped support this man’s power. It is my responsibility to stop him.” And then she managed a faint smile. “Besides. Between the two of us, I am still the more seasoned warrior.”

“He’s not a ghost!” Kiyosuke’s voice was a sharp hiss. “You haven’t fought someone like him and—”

Yasuoka advanced towards Kitano and stopped when she was about three meters from him. “How many of the spirits held here truly deserve their fates?” she asked. “And how many should have been released long ago?”

“Every ghost deserves its fate.” Kitano thumped his staff into the ground, and the building seemed to vibrate under Yasuoka’s feet. She took a quick breath and tried not to think about the army of ghosts that Kitano was no doubt calling to his side. “To question that is to risk bringing down our order.”

“Our order would survive.” Yasuoka raised her own staff higher. “We would retain all our martial abilities, and the ghosts of the truly wicked besides. We—”

“You cannot know which spirits we will have need of!” Kitano’s voice thundered through the room. “Any future battle could rely on any of them; if we release one and need it later, we could fall.”

Yasuoka shook her head. “If our order truly requires the sacrifice of the undeserving, then we deserve to fall, no matter what other good we do. But it doesn’t. Have you so little faith in our order that you think we cannot go on without sacrificing the innocent to our cause?”

“There are no innocent spirits! There cannot be any innocent spirits!” Kitano jabbed his staff at Yasuoka. “And when you are just another shade bound to me and my temple for eternity, perhaps you will finally understand that!”

Yasuoka summoned a spark of chi in time to see Kitano bringing several ghosts into himself. He leapt forwards—

And the rest of the ghosts, led by Mai, plunged into Yasuoka.

The ghost hunter felt a wave of brutal cold envelope her and for a moment she could only try to draw upon her empty reserves of chi to control the spirits that were occupying her body. But then her mind caught up and she reminded herself that these were not evil spirits who had to be wrestled into submission so they would obey her orders. These were allies. Friends.

They did not need to be ordered. They had already been asked. Nothing else was required.

And so Yasuoka stopped struggling and let their ghostly strength fill her. Each was weak on its own, but with fifty ghosts or more inside her and funneling her chi at the same time, she felt a wave of strength like she had never before experienced. When Kitano’s staff slammed at her head, Yasuoka barely had to think before her arms snapped up to block with her own weapon, and she didn’t even felt the blow as she deflected it.

Kitano let out a scream of rage and redoubled his attacks, and as Yasuoka directed a thin stream of the newly-given chi into her eyes, she could see the spirits he was using. He called upon a rhinotaur ghost to give him immense strength, and she darted to the side, relying on the energy of three dozen dead soldiers to move quicker than she could have imagined. Kitano swiveled and drew upon Ahuinan to create a massive vortex of fire from his fingertips, but one of the ghosts empowering Yasuoka had once known some shield spells, and Yasuoka reflexively twisted her fingers and muttered the few words needed to create a barrier of shimmering water which enveloped and drowned the flames. Kitano unleashed a flurry of additional attacks, even jumping in close to strike at her pressure points again, but Yasuoka dodged the attacks easily before smashing at his head with her own staff.

With a roar of anger, Kitano grabbed the ghost of Mi-Jae Oh. Yasuoka grimaced at seeing one of her own spirits bound and forced to empower Kitano, but when he darted towards her and then used Mi-Jae’s supernatural agility to slip around her and strike at her back, Yasuoka drew on her ghosts’ energy and just barely managed to dodge away. Then she summoned another water barrier and hurled it at the high priest’s head. The attack was too big to evade and Kitano had to switch spirits to block it, which allowed Yasuoka to close in and hit him in the ribs. She heard a faint cracking sound and Kitano gasped before making himself jump back.

Kitano grabbed at the spirit of the demon O-Tsubi and formed a shell of protective magic over himself. Yasuoka hit it with her staff but could not break through, and he snarled at her before backing up a step. “Deal with her!” he screamed at the ghosts around him. “Now!”

Yasuoka flashed a grim smile. “It is easy to use bound spirits, because as long as we are strong enough to compel them, they cannot resist our orders,” she noted. “But only if we are indeed strong enough. You have many spirits, Kitano. You even have the ones you stole from me. But you cannot make them all obey you at once.”

“You aren’t strong enough to make any obey you at all!” Kitano spat. “I blocked your pressure points. Your chi is sealed off and will stay that way indefinitely. Not even I could heal you. You cannot control those ghosts!”

“I don’t need to.” Yasuoka stepped back. “Just watch.”

Then she spread her arms wide, drew on the strength the spirits were giving her, and shouted in a voice she knew boomed throughout the city, “Innocent spirits who have been trapped in this realm for years, decades, and even centuries without cause, who have been forced to hide from the temple monks and shamans that would have enslaved you! I beg of you to give me your strength and help me stop the leader of those monks! In return, I will personally examine each of you and release any who is not guilty. And…”

She felt herself hesitating, because she knew the next promise she had to make would truly separate her from the order of the ghost hunters forevermore. But there was no choice. She could not back down with the knowledge she had.

“…and I will also examine the ghosts of every other shaman, and release those which deserve it,” she vowed. “I will use force, if need be. No matter what it takes, I will see justice done. Please give me the strength to carry out my mission!”

There was silence for a moment, and then Kitano looked behind Yasuoka and paled. Yasuoka turned too and froze for a moment. And then a fierce grin formed on her face.

Spirits were there, not just fifty or even a hundred but what looked like thousands. Some wore clothes that looked decades old, others had crests from ancient dynasties, and a few wore items so foreign and ancient that she could not place them at all. The forgotten spirits of the city, those which the temple monks did not think were strong enough to be worth binding or even to become ghosts at all, or those which had simply died and been overlooked. The dead of the centuries rose in a tidal wave and flowed into Yasuoka, who stiffened as she felt a vortex of energy so pure and powerful that she felt like it was pulling her apart.

Kitano screamed something, but Yasuoka didn’t hear it. She simply raised her staff and batted aside O-Tsubi’s spell as if it was made of cotton. Then Kitano grabbed an ornate ritual dagger from inside his temple robes and charged—

Yasuoka struck him in the head with her staff, and the high priest collapsed in a heap.

 

#

 

“Are you invincible now?” Kiyosuke asked.

Yasuoka smiled at him, then shook her head. She was sitting in the lotus position on the temple floor with Kitano’s form in front of her as well as Ganzaya and his three henchmen, all of whom were unconscious thanks to a sleeping spell taught to her by an innocent ghost who had been a magical doctor before dying. “If I were to try binding them all, I could perhaps empower myself that way, but I will not do that,” she said. “I pledged to help them pass on and I will. Even if I hadn’t, me potentially needing their power doesn’t entitle me to keep them here as my slaves when they don’t deserve it.”

Kiyosuke nodded and then asked, “How will you determine which ones are truly innocent? I mean, can’t ghosts lie?”

“Yes.” Yasuoka examined Kitano’s body for a moment. “Just like humans. I will need to investigate. For those who are reputed to be monsters, I will need to talk to other ghosts who knew them, and will need to unearth whatever reputable records exist to learn the true stories. I have no doubt it will be difficult.” She then looked up at the ghosts around her, using the chi a few were still lending her to see them. “But it is worth doing. And there is at least one whose wickedness I already know beyond question.”

She leaned forwards and chalked a final ritual symbol around Kitano’s body, then drew on the chi from the ghosts around her and grasped the high priest’s form. His body writhed for a moment, and then Yasuoka’s hand pulled his ghost up into the air. “You will serve me until the order is cleansed of all innocent ghosts,” she told him.

“You have no right!” he screamed. “You—”

She waved an arm and concentrated, and the high priest’s mouth slammed shut. “Better,” she said. Another wave of her arms brought forth the ghosts that Kitano had bound, as well as those of Ganzaya and his henchmen, none of whom could resist her. “I will inspect you all as soon as I can,” she pledged. “And free any who deserve it.”

Kiyosuke coughed. If he was upset by Kitano’s death, he didn’t show it, although Yasuoka figured that was likely due to Kitano having threatened to kill him too. “What about your chi?” he asked. “Will that heal on its own?”

Kitano smugly shook his head no and Yasuoka said, “I doubt it. If I need help in battle I will likely have to rely on innocent spirits who are willing to aid me in exchange for me trying to complete their final tasks and help them pass on. At least, that is, until I can find a healer who can undo what he has done.”

“Right.” Kiyosuke then gestured around Yasuoka. “What about the ghosts who helped you just now?”

Yasuoka looked at the innocent spirits around her and her mouth quirked upwards. “Fortunately, I suspect the only thing which was binding most of these spirits to the world was their desire to see the destruction of the temple which threatened all of them. With Kitano gone, I think…”

She spread her arms and drew on the spirits’ chi again, this time directing it back at the ghosts. “Be freed,” she said. “And move on in peace.”

Then almost all of her strength left her and she sagged. When she made herself look up again, she could only see Mai, who flashed a brilliant smile. “Thank you for saving them,” she said.

“And yourself?” Yasuoka asked. “What desire still binds you to this world?”

“I want to help you liberate any other innocent ghosts enslaved by your order,” Mai said at once. “And then I’ll be able to pass on. I’m sure of it.”

Yasuoka relayed that message to Kiyosuke and then made herself stand. “Kitano sent the other shamans away so they would not interfere. I will track them down so I can examine their ghosts and free those who are not guilty,” she said. “And I will also look for a healer. Just because Kitano could not undo his own damage does not mean that it is impossible for me to be healed.”

“I guess you won’t be back here anytime soon,” said Kiyosuke.

Yasuoka actually laughed at that. “I cannot return to the temple for obvious reasons,” she said. “I will no doubt journey all throughout the land. By myself if necessary… though I hope it will not be.”

“Why? Who do you think will go with you?” Kiyosuke asked.

Yasuoka just looked at him with a smile.

Kiyosuke’s eyes widened and he blushed. “I—I appreciate it, but I’m not as good at ghost hunting as you. I’m just a gatekeeper. I can barely channel!”

“I trust you to have my back and to protect me when I need it,” Yasuoka said. “That is much more important than pure combat skill. And I…” She took a breath. “I enjoy being with you. Before I could not act on it because I thought I had to devote myself entirely to the temple, but now I see how wrong that was.” She moved closer to Kiyosuke. “I would be very happy if you were to join me on my journey, Kiyosuke Takahara.”

The gatekeeper seemed stunned for a moment longer before he forced himself to nod. “When do we start?” he said as a radiant smile spread across his face.

“We need to leave town immediately before the other ghost hunters find Kitano and start looking for me,” she said. “Then we can ambush the first ones who come after me to examine their spirits, and I can also start inspecting the ghosts I just took off of Kitano and the others. Follow me.”

She headed towards the door with Kiyosuke and Mai behind her, and though Yasuoka was so weak in the absence of the spirits’ chi that she had to use her staff as a walking stick, she still felt better than she had in months. She had been wrong about all ghosts being evil and about all ghost hunters being good, but now her errors had been corrected and she’d made a start at fixing the evil at the heart of Daimyo Tatsunori’s domain. Now all she had to do was keep going and free innocent spirits just as she punished guilty ones.

And she would not stop until both evils, those of ghosts and ghost hunters alike, were purged from the land forever.

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Michael DeAngelo

Michael is the creator of the Tellest brand of fantasy novels and stories. He is actively seeking to expand the world of Tellest to be accessible to everyone.

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