email: ringhappy [at] comcast.net
artist: fightfair (fightfair)
The snow had curled around the mountain like a sleeping fox. The fog still hung low around the peak, and it painted features across the fox's pointed face: lazily closed eyes and a small, satisfied smile, like it was sleeping off a very large meal. It was never comforting to see the mountain looking so sated.
There was a loud throat-clearing behind me, and I managed to plaster a smile back on my face before turning around. "I'm sorry," I laughed, "what was that again?"
Sanja, the grocer, shot me a particularly withering look, and for the first time I noticed that he had to crane his neck slightly to look me in the eye, just like everyone else in the village. I wondered if that was why he'd been so short with me lately; it couldn't have been pleasant to be dwarfed by someone less than half his age.
"I asked," he said, enunciating a little too clearly, "if you actually intend on paying me this time, boy. This is a business, not a charity kitchen.”
"Mr. Sanja," I said with as much patience as I could manage, "I'm keeping track. This isn't even half of the weekly credit you agreed to."
"Hmph." His eyes narrowed, but he handed over the things I asked for. "That'll be it, I hope?”
I started to agree, but a platter of hot, fresh-looking dumplings caught my eye. "And two of those, please.”
"Are you..."He took a deep breath and flexed his hands, presumably to keep from reaching across the counter and throttling me on the spot. "Those were just made. You can have the leftovers if you come back later."
I liked Sanja well enough. We got along - or, at least, he actually talked to me, which was a better relationship than I had with most of the village. But just like he had his shop to run, I had mine.
"My master is recovering from a bit of a cold, you see," I said evenly, still smiling. "So it's important that he have hot food, right? If he doesn't stay healthy, his workmanship might slip. And if his workmanship slips, your next deliveries might-”
The dumplings were wrapped in crisp paper and in my hands before I finished my sentence. I stacked my bundles one on top of the other, said my goodbyes, and stepped out of the shelter of Sanja's shop and into the cold.
I paused in the entrance and bent to dig some snow out of the heel of my shoe, and I could hear every voice down the street go fearfully silent as they realized I was there. I inspected my shoe for a moment, let them compose themselves, and by the time I straightened up, they had gone back to their normal conversations.
I walked down the middle of the street and pretended not to notice when they edged closer to the sides. At that point, I had to wonder if they did it just out of habit - in my four years living in Yaoka village, I had never bitten a single one of them. Then again, maybe they thought I was lying in wait.
Well, if they wanted a rise out of me, they weren't getting it. It was hard to be offended on the morning of the first snowfall, when I wasn't yet sick of the cold and could just enjoy how picturesque the village could look sometimes, like the picture books of the North I read when I was younger.
It was mornings like these that the villagers would look at their cozy little snow-covered houses and wonder to each other why Yaoka wasn't flooded with Southern tourists every winter, like some other overrated villages they had the courtesy not to mention. Of course, they would have treated those tourists with the same warmth and hospitality they showed me every day, but it was the principle of the thing.
They knew perfectly well why, but that was irrelevant. It was one of the first things I learned about the villagers: that they had a certain game. It didn't matter that we lived in the shadow of the Gods' Territory. They were locked in a competition to see who could go the longest without saying it.
Where I'm from, the North has a great reputation for its spirituality; even the name of the village, Yaoka, translates to "mountain shrine". But as I learned very quickly, most people knew very little about the religion they were famed for.
I studiously ignored the villagers and the mountain both until I was home: on the other side of town from Sanja's, on the border to the forest. The house was the biggest in the village, but definitely not the newest, and I would often see neighborhood kids lining up outside at night to stare fearfully at its hulking outline against the dark trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of the monsters inside.
It had annoyed me before, but was oddly satisfying now. One got used to being a monster - though really, I was only a monster by association.
I stepped through the entranceway, ducking under the door frame, and slid the door shut, expecting another quiet hour to start a fire, maybe get breakfast prepared. But, uncharacteristically, my master was already up.
"Leo?" Hokuto leaned around the wall to look at me before disappearing back into the kitchen. "Good timing. I need you to get the good cups down.”
It was a great joke between the villagers and me that I served a master a little bit younger and a great bit shorter I was. Or it would have been, had the villagers and I been on joking terms. But I always thought there was inherent comedy in the sight of the two of us together; Hokuto was so slight and unimposing that it was as if a calligrapher had painted him onto the backdrop in thin brushstrokes. Next to him, I looked even more the hulking, redheaded Southerner.
I knew exactly what getting the good cups down meant, but I played dumb in the hopes that I was wrong. "Special occasion?"
I rounded the corner into the kitchen to find him staring at me pointedly. He looked like he'd only just woken up; he wasn't even dressed yet. "Set out two, please. Our clients will be here soon."
"I thought you'd say that." I sighed as I reached over his head and laid the cups out. "Why would anyone be crossing the mountains in this weather?"
"You say that like it's my fault," he sighed as he filled both cups with tea, but the look he gave me when he turned around was slightly more apologetic. "Sorry. I know this is usually a quiet time of year."
If he saw any flicker of panic in my expression, he didn't bring it up. I had thought I would have more time to think about how to bring it up, how to convince him that it would be a good idea.
"Well, it can't be helped," I said with a forced shrug. "How complicated it is, being the assistant of a-”
He glared. "Don't say it."
I laughed, and in a bid to buy a little more time, I tossed one of the dumplings at him. "Here, breakfast.”
"... this is fresh." Hokuto's eyes narrowed. "You threatened Mr. Sanja again, didn't you?"
"I just implied--"
"Which is the same thing as threatening." His shoulders slumped. "I'm not going to stop escorting his deliveries just because he gives us leftovers.”
"Yes," I said, pointing at him, "but he doesn't know that."
"You used to be so well-behaved," he said flatly.
"I used to think you were a heathen, too.”
"At least you were polite about it." He shook his head, but smiled just slightly. "But thank you. Would you mind waiting down here to let them in? I need to finish getting ready.”
He started to turn around, and forgetting all my reasoned arguments, I just blurted out, "I want to come with you this time.”
Hokuto was always very annoyed with me when I insinuated that he knew everything, but all the same, there was very little that surprised him. So despite the look he gave me when he turned around, I think he did know that I'd ask him eventually - but he hadn't expected the question to come so soon, either. He just stood in the middle of the kitchen for a moment, opening and closing his mouth as he cast around for a response, until he muttered something about needing to get ready and retreated up the stairs.
I let out a long breath and leaned against the wall as I heard his door close, and the whispers from the back of the house began to filter in. I crossed the room and made sure the back doors and windows were shut tightly, hoping to muffle the sound a little, but we were close enough to the forest that it could never be completely shut out.
For a little while, I just listened to them. After being with Hokuto for so long, I could almost make out individual voices in the mangled torrent of noise.
"Well," I told them, "that wasn't exactly a 'no'.”
Sometimes, I wondered if they actually did respond when I talked to them. But voices were one thing; I had never been able to make out any words.
Two hesitant raps from the door brought me back to the present. I took my time crossing the house, straightening up the room here and there; it put clients on edge if I answered the door too quickly. It would seem like I was just waiting there for them. Never mind that I was.
I knelt on the floor - something I would never get used to - and bowed low as I opened the door. It was just as well that I was facing the floor. It wouldn't have been professional of me to show the clients my grimace at the blast of cold wind.
"Welcome," I said, as neutrally as I knew how, and straightened and stood. "Please come in."
I then got my first look at the clients. A man and a woman stood in our entranceway, a little too old to be middle-aged but too young to be considered elderly. The man was nearly as tall as Sanja, with a broad, smiling face, and the woman had nervously hunched shoulders and pale lips drawn in a tight line. Judging by the casual way his huge hand rested on her arm, they were a married couple.
"Sorry to barge in so early," the man said, much more congenially than any of the other villagers would deign to speak to me. "Is your master up?"
"Yes, sir. He will be with you shortly." I gestured to the living room. "Won't you sit down?"
"Gladly!" He pounded my shoulder with enough force to send me through the floor before leading his wife into the house. As his back was turned, I rolled my shoulder, massaging the joint. It was hard enough for me to sound so serious and formal to begin with, but Hokuto's usual clients were dour and not at all talkative. It was easier to keep a straight face around those types.
I followed them, and filled the cups as if we hadn't set them out specially, and we just had those sorts of nice things lying around. I handed one to the husband and one to the wife.
"Thank you, son," the husband said. When his wife only stared at the cup like I'd handed her poison, he prodded her with his elbow. "Honey, say thank you." She muttered something too soft for me to hear, and the husband laughed. "Don't mind her. She's got quite the imagination."
She looked up at him, her eyes flashing. I had pegged her as the passive type, but I could clearly see my mistake. "Be straight with me, boy. Were you expecting us?"
And she was pretty smart, too. "What do you mean by that, ma'am?" I said with a polite laugh.
"Meaning I don't see a single speck of dust in this house. Meaning you've got two cups already laid out. Like you were already expecting company." She glared at me. "We didn't even know we were coming until this morning."
Hokuto was fastidious about keeping everything clean for prospective clients. He was sure that it gave them a better impression of us, and he was always so set on it, I would have never told him otherwise. But it put people on edge to know that they were expected. Thankfully, when it came to defusing these sorts of situations, I had practice.
"We often have clients drop by unexpectedly," I said, without missing a beat, "and my master prefers to be prepared. So in that sense, ma'am, we were expecting you."
"Good business sense, that," the husband said approvingly as he prodded his wife again. "See? I told you it was something like that." When she only mumbled darkly again, he ignored her and smiled up at me. "Leo, was it?"
I smiled. For a while, I had tried to give my full name - 'Leopold' - to clients, in order to sound more professional. When I realized that Northern accents tend to mangle double-consonant sounds, I started going by my nickname full time. "At your service, sir.”
I wondered how long I'd be expected to entertain them there, especially when the wife was shooting surreptitious glares at me, but I wasn't kept waiting long. I heard the creak of light footsteps on the stairs behind us, and then a quiet, calm voice that he never used when talking to me anymore. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting.”
The husband and wife both instantly snapped to attention, and I heard them both inhale slowly. The villagers would often whisper that Hokuto had an "otherworldly" air about him, though personally, I didn't see it. He dressed a little nicer for clients - he only had one set of good robes, and it was an investment he'd only been able to make recently - but otherwise, there was nothing otherworldly about him that I could see.
He always had quite a mystique around him, though. I imagine that anyone who plays such a central role in so many rumors would.
The husband was still smiling, but it wasn't quite as jovial. "Thank you for seeing us on such short notice."
"Not at all." Hokuto merely smiled and waited. He always waited for the clients to start the conversation.
"I'm Yachi. This is my wife, Fuka," the husband said at length. "We need to cross the mountain. We heard you can help us with that.”
"I can," Hokuto said, nodding. "When do you intend to leave the village?”
"Well..." Yachi looked almost guilty. "Tomorrow, if possible."
"You'll forgive me for saying so," I interrupted, "but that's very short notice."
"Our daughter is dead." Fuka looked up sharply, and I noticed now that her eyes were rimmed with red. "We only just got the news this morning. We didn't exactly have time to prepare, either.”
"I didn't..." My formal speech faltered, and I stood there like an idiot for a moment before managing, "I apologize."
"Fuka," Yachi whispered, shooting her a brief glance before he turned back to us. "I'm sorry. I know it's inconvenient. But she was living in the capital with her husband, and her burial is in three days..."
If Hokuto was the least bit perturbed at being rushed out the door, he didn't show it. "We'll have to leave immediately at dawn. Is that all right?"
Yachi smiled wide again. I never would have guessed that he'd just lost his daughter. "I'm willing to double your fee."
"That won't be necessary," Hokuto said, before I could stop him. This was why I usually handled the business aspect of things. "But there are a few things I want to ask, first." When the couple nodded, Hokuto said, "Have you ever crossed the mountain before?"
Yachi exchanged a glance with his wife. "No," he finally said. "Never."
It was what neither of us had wanted to hear, but I'd been half-expecting that response anyway. "I can imagine you've heard some things," Hokuto said.
"We've heard some things about you, too," Fuka said darkly.
"I can imagine." Hokuto shifted slightly. "But whatever you've heard, most of it isn't true. I don't have any powers to speak of. I can't predict the future." Before, I had called foul on his assertion that he couldn't tell the future, but he was firm in his belief. It wasn't anything special, he said; he was only told, that was all. I would argue that the source of that knowledge makes it pretty damn special, but it wouldn't get me anywhere.
"And I certainly can't control the mountain," he continued. "What I have is permission to cross. And that permission extends to everyone who travels with me. But before I can take you there, I want you to listen."
It was a lecture I'd heard countless times, but this time, he kept glancing over to me to make sure I was listening. I stared dumbly back at him the first few times, until it hit me: this time, he was addressing me, too.
"It's called the Gods' Territory, but that's not really correct, you know," he began, as he always did. "At the very least, it's an oversimplification, but either way, those living in the mountain are not necessarily gods." Fuka shuddered. "I promise you: if you stay close to me, no harm will come to you. But as I told you before, I don't have any sort of power. If we get separated, there's only so much I can do. I need your word that, no matter what you hear, you'll do whatever I say.”
"... yeah," Yachi said slowly, his smile diminished but still there. "Yeah, of course. You're the expert, right?"
Hokuto nodded, and then glanced at me again out of the corner of his eye. I almost laughed. It was their first time up the mountain, not mine - I wasn't going to carelessly wander away. I knew what I was getting into. I nodded back.
Still looking unsure, he stood, and addressed our clients again. "Then I suggest you go back to your home to prepare. Meet us at the edge of the woods before sunrise."
"I still can't believe you.”
The transformation was always amusing to watch. Hokuto was never anything but collected and mature in front of his clients, but the look he was giving me then was pure, bewildered frustration. Then again, I presented a rather different front to clients, too.
"Can't believe what?" I asked.
"Don't even..." He inhaled, slowly. "Do you know that I've taken some people to the city just for errands, visits with their family, things like that, who decided to just stay there to avoid taking the return trip? And have you ever noticed that the person who delivers Mr. Sanja's supplies is almost always someone different? No one crosses the mountains unless they absolutely have to, Leo, and very few can be convinced to go back for seconds. Except, apparently, you."
"Yes, I know, and yes, I've noticed," I said, much more confidently than I felt. "And I also know that you're always saying that it's such a headache to have to keep an eye on your clients and the mountain at the same time. I'm a big guy. I can help out.”
He didn't look convinced. "I've crossed the mountains dozens of times. I've somehow managed this long.”
"No shame in lightening the load though, right?" I said. "I sort of thought this was always going to be the arrangement. I mean, I'm not exactly earning my keep as it is."
"Leo..." he sighed. "I told you from the beginning. There's no need to earn your keep.”
"Yes," I laughed, "and that's why I handle the business matters around here.”
Hokuto threw up his hands.
I gripped my forearms and shivered. The sun hadn't quite risen yet, and there wasn't a trace of warmth in the air. At the very least, it was a dry cold - the wind wasn't strong, for now. A few small snowflakes were falling, and Hokuto was looking at them with concern.
"If this picks up," he muttered, "we might not make it across before dark."
My shiver that time had little to do with the cold. "What'll happen then?"
"Hopefully nothing," was all he said in return.
I jumped as I heard a whisper from the trees. The noise from the forest got a little less overwhelming when Hokuto was standing next to me, but I could hear it nonetheless. I heard it again, and smiled weakly. I could always tell when they were addressing me. They took a certain tone.
"What did it say?" I asked.
Hokuto smiled back humorlessly. "Welcome back."
I kept smiling, though I really wanted to vomit instead. Why was I doing this again? "Thanks, I suppose."
I could have sworn it laughed at my bravado, and then it spoke again, more quietly this time. Something in Hokuto's expression shifted slightly, and I leaned forward. "What?”
"... the man is the one you should be careful of," he said. He looked over at me, his face shadowed in the sparse light. "You said you could watch the clients, right?"
"Y-Yeah." I tried to pass the stammering off as chattering teeth.
"Then you have your first job," Hokuto told me. "Don't take your eyes off him."
The sun rose, but it didn't get much warmer.
The snow had started to fall in earnest by the time the four of us entered the woods. Hokuto was watching its progress with a wary eye, but he didn't say a word about it to the couple or me. I didn't expect him to. He would have considered it unprofessional.
Yachi and Fuka were too busy taking in their surroundings - and for that matter, I was, too. I had only crossed through here once before, but I only remembered how the woods had looked before Hokuto found me. I remembered a dense, oppressive atmosphere that I couldn't navigate through if I tried.
Standing next to him, though, the sight was completely transformed. The snow that blanketed the ground was completely different from the muddy slush in Yaoka: it looked brighter than white, and every inch of it caught the morning sunlight. Even the sky itself was different. Every snowflake and every gust of wind left a light, barely visible path in the air, like a stone skipping across the water. Though the trees were bare, and there wasn't a single animal I could see, everything around us seemed to be pulsing with life.
They called it 'crossing the mountain', but that wasn't completely true either. We were really just passing through the surrounding thick woods. Hokuto didn't dare take people through the mountain itself.
"It's beautiful here," Yachi understated. "I have to say, I didn't expect..."
Hokuto simply nodded. I imagined most people didn't.
As we walked, I kept an eye on the clients, as I was supposed to. Fuka was as tight-lipped and shifty-eyed as she was in our house yesterday, but Yachi looked fascinated with his surroundings, constantly looking around and taking it in. What, exactly, was I supposed to be watching for? It wasn't a very specific warning.
I enjoyed the snowfall at first, but as time wore on, I started to see why Hokuto had been worried. The drifts started to grow deeper, and Hokuto and I were in decidedly better shape than our clients. It was already becoming afternoon, and I got the sense we hadn't gone far. Finally, Hokuto spoke up.
"We should take that path." He pointed off to the right, where the trees were thicker.
Fuka's face wrinkled. "What about wild animals?”
"There aren't any animals living here, ma'am," Hokuto said. I think as soon as he heard it, he realized that it wasn't comforting at all, because he added, "There will be less snow on the ground there. We have a better chance of making it to the city before nightfall.”
Yachi let out an impressed whistle. "As expected, you know a lot about this place, don't you? I heard you've been a guide since you could walk.”
"That's an exaggeration," Hokuto said, coloring slightly. It wasn't much of an exaggeration. He had been pretty young when he started.
"I'm curious,"Yachi pressed. "How does one become a guide, anyway? You're not a priest, are you?”
"No, I don't belong to anyone," Hokuto said. Priests and priestesses were lucky enough to be favored by a single god. Hokuto had to deal with all of them, and yet he was the one people were terrified of. He claimed not to be bitter, but I was bitter enough for him anyway. I've since met some that I've come to like - a lovely, self-righteous priestess of the sun, in particular - but it was a sore point for me at the time.
"We would have been better off with a priest,"Fuka muttered.
"You wouldn't make it halfway through these woods," I retorted before I could stop myself. "Do you have any idea what would happen to a priest in a place like this?"
"Leo," Hokuto warned, and I backed off. I was supposed to be keeping them calm. I don't think Fuka would have liked to hear how delicious the less-than-holy residents of the mountain would find a priest.
"It's all right, Fuka." Yachi shot her a warning glance, as well. He turned back to Hokuto and attempted a smile. "I was just a little curious. Y'know. Because of your name."
Hokuto really did blush this time. In Yaoka, it was considered exceedingly presumptuous to be named after a god. But to be fair, that part was my fault.
Or, if you wanted to split hairs, it was my parents' fault. Before their pilgrimages, they liked to learn all about the local religions - to "know their enemy", as they'd say. In the process, I'd ended up with dozens of children's primers from the North, and before I knew it, I knew more about the Northern religion than my parents did.
There were the major gods, of course, like the feuding twins: Koro, the sun, and Kesiel, the moon, but I knew even the most minor gods. Bara, patron of growth. Heri, patron of marriage. And Hokuto, patron of the lost.
When I was found at the base of the mountain, my savior had shyly admitted to not having a name. So without thinking, I gave him one.
Upon hearing it, he had just stared at me, but I had just babbled on about the story of Hokuto from the book, and how he'd nobly given up immortality and entered the cycle of reincarnation in order to guide the mortals as one of their own. "So," I'd concluded, "it's perfect for you, isn't it?"
He had just rubbed his temples. "You know it's blasphemy to take the name of a god, right?"
Oblivious, I frowned. "Weren't you listening? I just told you that Hokuto was human."
"I don't mean to pry," Yachi said, breaking into my thoughts. "I just couldn't help but think about how worried your families must be. If Kirie ever...”
He stopped. Judging by the look on his face, I was pretty sure he'd just remembered that he wasn't a parent anymore. Whether it was the awkward situation or the mention of family, Hokuto looked just as uncomfortable. I wasn't sure what else to do - I wasn't any good at comforting people - so I changed the subject.
"It's not really like that. My parents lost me, actually."
I could feel Hokuto giving me a sharp look. He never liked it when I said it like that: "You lose a wallet," he'd snapped once. "You lose a bead on a necklace. You don't lose a child." Even he'd been surprised at the uncharacteristic harshness of the words.
In any case, it hadn't been the right thing to say now, either. Yachi looked just about as at a loss as I felt, and Fuka was looking at me with a strange, unreadable expression. I decided to shut up.
At the very least, Hokuto had been right: the snow was thinner where the woods were deeper, and we had an easier time walking. The snow made a canopy in the trees above us, but it wasn't too hard to see. Every so often, I could hear rustling and crackling around us, but it was only the weight of the snow breaking down weak branches. Nothing to be alarmed by just yet.
After a while, Yachi said, "Kirie would have liked this, I think."
No one responded. We walked on like that for a long time.
Hokuto wasn't being pessimistic that morning after all. We covered more ground than we would have on our original path, but we still didn't make it to the city before night fell.
When he announced that we'd be stopping to gather firewood, Fuka broke her usual silence to address us. "You mean we're going to spend the night here?"
Somehow, it seemed to lack her earlier combative tone, and I found myself not as annoyed at her. I had lived right on the edge of the Gods' Territory for the past four years; I'd had no choice but to get used to it. It was easy for me to forget that, for other people, this was something completely new and terrifying. She had a right to be afraid of us.
"It's dangerous to move around too much at night," Hokuto explained. "It's going to be dark soon. We're going to have to build a fire."
It didn't take us long to find enough firewood - the branches I'd heard falling throughout the day littered the ground, and Yachi and I gathered as much as we could carry and made a pile. We lit our campfire and settled around it. I couldn't stop shivering. It was hard enough for me to get used to how cold it got in the North, but usually I at least had my blankets to keep out the cold. I drew my legs to my chest in an attempt to keep warm.
"Are you sure we'll be safe?" Yachi's good humor seemed to be dwindling. I couldn't really blame him for that.
"I promise," Hokuto said. "As long as you don't leave the firelight."
We lapsed into silence, and I realized with a start that the little sounds all around us had started to intensify. The whispering, which had left us alone most of the day, now seemed to crowd around our campfire, and indistinct words shot back and forth through the trees. I wondered if they were talking about us. I would have asked Hokuto, but he wouldn't have told me anyway.
"What are those?" Fuka whispered. Apparently, fear made her a bit more talkative.
"Don't worry," Hokuto said. "They're harmless."
"That doesn't answer my question," Fuka hissed.
"There isn't an easy answer to your question," Hokuto said. She scowled at him, but fell silent again.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see little pinpricks of light, moving slowly through the woods. They formed a line in the distance, and bobbed up and down with the cadence of a brisk walk. It reminded me of watching the festivals in Yaoka in the summer, where the crowds of people would parade down the streets with paper lanterns in their hands. I usually enjoyed watching it, but not tonight - it wasn't a festival night, after all.
The line moved past us, and I held my breath, hoping that neither Yachi nor Fuka would see it. My wish came true: they were focused on warming themselves by the fire. The line of lanterns moved away into the woods without a sound.
The firewood made a loud crack, and I jumped, scrambling backwards. The clients stared across the fire at me - which was understandable, considering the fact that they didn't know I was new at this, too. I heard a small cough next to me. Hokuto hastily covered his mouth with his sleeve, but not before I saw him smiling. It was good to know that I was providing entertainment, at least.
"Say," Yachi asked. "You said earlier that it's not just gods that live here, right?"
"Yes?" Hokuto said.
"Well... I mean, it's not..." He cleared his throat. "You don't mean ghosts, right?”
"I... don't know if that's the right word, no," Hokuto said, but again, he opted not to continue. There was no good way to explain that 'ghost' implied that there was still a person there.
It was a while later when I heard it.
I started, clambering onto my knees and ready to stand. I had never heard those voices speak actual words before. I looked around the fire, wondering if I imagined it, but Hokuto and the couple were tensed, staring off in the direction the voice came from. I followed their gaze, and realized suddenly that the voice was coming from the huge, hulking shape of the mountain.
"Hurry up and come."
It was a young woman's voice, calm but beseeching. "Hurry up and come. It's so cold without you."
"Hokuto, what..." I started to whisper, until I got a look at Yachi's face. He had completely blanched. As creepy as it was hearing the voice, I hadn't expected Yachi, with his easygoing nature, to panic that much.
"That voice," he croaked. "That's...”
"Please," the voice begged. "It's so cold in here. Hurry up and come.”
"Kirie?" Fuka started to get up.
"That's not her," Hokuto said, much sharper than usual. Though he still sounded calm and in-control, there was a little edge in his voice, one that sounded a little like fear. Except that was just crazy, because Hokuto didn't get scared. "Don't listen to it."
"Hurry up and come," the voice crooned again.
"It is her!" Fuka rocked back and forth on her knees, and I inched closer, ready to grab her if she tried to run. "She... she had just gone for a walk," she said, her voice high-pitched, "and they found her in the woods, frozen to death. She could still be here, couldn't she?”
"She's not here," Hokuto said firmly. "That's the mountain trying to trick you.”
"Hurry up and come,"came the voice again.
"We could go look, couldn't we?" When Yachi spoke, I remembered immediately the words Hokuto had heard at the beginning of the day: to be careful of him. I tried to shift my attention completely to Yachi, but every time Fuka shifted, I couldn't help but look back at her. She looked like she was going to bolt at any moment. "Maybe--”
"I told you, we can't leave the firelight now,"Hokuto said. "I told you: you can't trust the mountain."
"Hurry up and come. And when you do, it won't be cold anymore."A giggle echoed through the woods. "A place like this needs lots and lots of people to make it warm. Hurry up and come, and all the snow will melt away."
"You can't be sure it's not her," Fuka said, and again, my attention snapped from Yachi to her. "We have to go look."
Hokuto tried to object, but Kirie's voice came again, louder this time. "Hurry up and come. I don't know how much longer I can stand it."
"Aren't you listening to this?" Fuka demanded. "We have to go!"
"Mama. Papa." Kirie's voice was still wispy and plaintive, but I thought I heard a smile in it, nonetheless. "You're there, aren't you?"
Fuka started to stand, and I lunged forward and grabbed her arm. But at the same time, Yachi leapt to his feet and went plunging into the woods, directly towards the mountain.
"Dammit!" I swore, and jumped over the fire and sprinted after him. I heard Hokuto call my name after me, but his voice was quickly swallowed up as the whispers crashed down around me.
The fog slammed into my chest as I leapt headlong into it, and I nearly stopped running, momentarily disoriented. Without Hokuto standing next to me, I couldn't see where Yachi was running, and I couldn't hear him over the torrent of whispers. All I had were the vibrations of his pounding footsteps, and Kirie's voice, making herself heard above the rest of the whispers. "You're coming, aren't you?"
Finally, I flung a wild arm at his back, and managed to grab him and hit the ground. He howled and started to flail under me, and though I was bigger, it was nearly impossible to hold onto him. Without any idea of where I was or how to get back to Hokuto, I clung to him the best I could and kept us both on the ground.
"Let go, let go, let go," he begged, clawing at the snow around us. "Kirie! Where are you? Kirie!"
In all this noise, Hokuto could hear us, couldn't he? He would be coming any minute now. I wouldn't have to hold onto him for much longer. I could make it until then.
Sitting on top of Yachi, I could hear his screaming and thrashing above the whispers, but the fog was especially thick here, almost as thick as the day I'd gotten lost in the woods. It had been heavy, almost viscous the day I'd crossed the mountain with my parents, and it was heavy enough that letting go of my mother's hand for one second was enough to lose her completely. If Yachi got away from me, I wasn't going to catch him again.
All I could see now was one dark, towering shape rising from the ground in front of us. Yachi had chased the voice to the base of the mountain.
The whispers dimmed, and the fog started to clear.
We were lying at the mouth of a cave, and though it was still the middle of the night outside, daylight streamed out of the cave and into our eyes. I blinked hard as I adjusted to the brightness, and when I opened my eyes again, the figure of a woman stood just past the snow.
She rested one hand on the side of the cave and smiled at us, pushing one side of her long hair behind her ear. And behind her, it was spring. I thought it was a trick of the light at first, but I could see it clearly now: green hills that rolled deep into the cave and out of sight, dotted here and there with people on blankets enjoying the warm gusts of wind. The woman stood under a flowering dogwood tree, and she stretched out her palm and let the petals fall into her hand.
"Papa,"she said. "Please come in."
Yachi struggled and tried to pull away again, and I was so transfixed by the scenery that I almost let him. I screwed my eyes shut and held him back, even though the warmer the air around us grew, the more tempted I was to let go.
"Please come in,"she said again, though this time, I heard other voices behind her. My fingers started to uncurl from Yachi's arm involuntarily.
"Leo." Two voices began to overtake the woman's as they called to us - a man's and a woman's, both equally familiar. "Please come in."
At the same moment I let go of Yachi completely, the voices stopped, and the warmth dissipated.
Yachi shoved me off and leapt to his feet, and as I struggled to right myself, I heard him frantically ask, "Where did she go? What did you do to her?"
I raised myself to my knees and followed his wildly pointing finger. The cave in front of us was empty.
"I tried to tell you." I whipped around to find Hokuto, supporting himself on a tree trunk as he struggled to catch his breath. Fuka stood behind him, pale and silent. He regarded both of us harshly, but not unkindly, and said, "You can't trust anything the mountain says.”
Somehow, we made it to the city.
I hung back as Hokuto talked to the clients; I noticed that, this time, Fuka was the one doing most of the talking, and seemed rather confident about it, too. Yachi kept looking at me as if expecting me to back him up, admit that I saw it, too. I wasn't sure what I saw, in any case.
Finally, they were finished, and Fuka handed over the fee and left through the city's gates without a second glance. Yachi lingered for a moment, looking at me one more time, before he followed her.
As Hokuto walked back towards me, I smiled and said, "So, what now?" When my only answer was a stony glare, I said, "I was beginning to think you'd forgiven me already.”
"It would have been unprofessional to say anything in front of those two," he said dryly. "So, was that what you had in mind when you said you'd do everything I said?"
"It's partially your own fault," I retorted. "You never told me that they try to lure people onto the mountain.”
"I wasn't lying about that. Nothing like that has ever happened." He sighed. "Unfortunately, I think they like you."
"Charming,"I muttered, trying not to think too hard on that.
"Well, it's over now, at least." Hokuto rubbed his temples. "Those two have decided to extend their stay in the city, so we'll have a quiet trip home. And then you never have to-”
"Never have to what?" I raised my eyebrows. "I said I would help you from now on, didn't I?"
Hokuto was always very annoyed with me when I insinuated that he knew everything, but all the same, there was very little that surprised him. But for once, I had said something that he hadn't anticipated.
"I was helpful, wasn't I?" I protested. "I kept him from going into that cave.”
"And had I been a few seconds later, you'd have gone in yourself," he said.
"Well..." Briefly, I remembered those two familiar voices from the cave: the man's, then the woman's. I would remember them just about every day for the next few years, but for the time being, I put them out of my head. "At least I know what to expect now, right?"
"Honestly..." Hokuto exhaled and sat cross-legged in the snow, not seeming to care about the cold at all. Behind him, the morning fog had lifted from the mountain, and the snowfall of the past few days had shifted, giving it an uneasy, unsatisfied look. To me, that was usually a good sign.
We stayed like that quietly for a moment, listening to the whispers from the forest, before I spoke again.
"That aside,"I said, sitting down beside him with an ill-concealed shiver, "it always surprises me. When I was a kid, I always got the impression that Northerners were so spiritual, but they know so little about their own religion. I mean, they didn't figure it out at all."
"Figure out what?”
I grinned. "How apt your name really is."
He shook his head. "And let's hope they never do figure it out. And that's another thing. If you're going to come along on these ventures, you can't say a thing about that, understand?"
The day I guessed who he really was, Hokuto told me that it was less complicated to be reviled than revered. As much as I disagreed with that, if he wanted to keep things private, that was his business.
"Ahh," I sighed. "How complicated it is, being the assistant of a god."
Hokuto, patron of the lost, then proceeded to throw a clump of snow at my neck.
It was the first of many times I crossed the mountain. And though I passed by that cave many times, I never saw the spring there again.