The Sword of Kaigen
is a multi-part novella that takes place thirteen years before the events of Planet Adyn and Orbit, (so, when the Theonite protagonists were all infants or not quite born yet) in the Shirojima region of the Kaigenese Empire. It is a standalone story, meaning that you do not need to have read the Theonite books to appreciate it. Although, if you have read Theonite: Orbit, then you have some idea who survives and who doesn't :( which brings us to our scary, bolded, all-caps...
WARNING: As stated in its subtitle, The Sword of Kaigen is a war story and all that implies (i. e. graphic violence, major character death, child death, sexual assault, and other unpleasant subject matter). So, if you are one of my younger readers or if you are sensitive to disturbing content, please give this one a pass.
A Theonite War Story
I’m not dying here!
The thought surged through Mamoru as he and his classmate plunged through open air down the mountainside. I am not dying here! Not because of a dinma of uncharacteristic clumsiness. Not because a lying outsider had made him lose his temper.
With Matsuda speed, Mamoru seized control of the mist around him, turned it to liquid, and slung a tendril of water upward to latch onto the nearest temple railing. As soon as the water made contact with the wood and stone, Mamoru started to freeze it, but he and Kwang were falling too fast. The tendril wasn’t fully frozen when their weight jerked against it. The ice shattered and they kept falling, plummeting out of reach of the temple.
Dimly, Mamoru realized that Kwang was screaming, but the sound was lost in the roar of the wind as he scrambled for a solution. Twisting his body over in the air, Mamoru found the rope and yanked on it, bringing Kwang in close—a decision he immediately regretted when the screams got closer too, nearly breaking his eardrums. But at least this way he could protect them both at once.
Ignoring Kwang’s shrieks of, “Oh Gods! Oh NAMI! AHHHHH! AHHHHH!” Mamoru extended his jiya to sweep the surrounding mist into his control. Holding onto Kwang by the back of his uniform, he threw all the water, ice, and mist he could beneath them. If they were going to hit solid rock, the best he could do was minimize the impact.
The darkness and mist racing past on all sides made it impossible to see where they were falling, so Mamoru closed his eyes. He felt the break in the mist below—condensation-slick rock racing up to meet them terrifyingly fast—but he was faster. Pushing his jiya into action, he just managed to turn his mass of mist and droplets to snow before he and Kwang hit the side of the mountain.
The snow cushion tempered the collision, but the mountain still slammed hard into Mamoru’s body. Tucking into a ball, he rolled with the fall, but they must have hit a steep slope because instead of rolling neatly onto his feet, he just kept tumbling. Rocks battered his spine and shoulders, his limbs tangled with Kwang’s, and the two boys tumbled the last few bounds together before finally crashing into a solid outcropping that brought them to a stop.
Mamoru uncurled onto his back, shaking with shock, his whole skeleton ringing with the echoes of rock against bone. Closing his eyes, he took stock of the damage to his own body. Broken blood vessels pulsed beneath his skin, promising violet bruises. His back and knees were badly scraped and blood seeped from cuts on his forearms, but he was going to be alright. He was alive.
“Kwang-san?” He opened his eyes. “Are you okay?”
The response was a muffled groan. The other boy was alive. That was enough for Mamoru to lie flat on his back for another few moments, getting his breathing under control. He didn’t need his voice and limbs trembling when he rose. When he had calmed his breathing and heart rate, the first thing he did was roll over onto his hands and knees and take stock of their surroundings. They were perched on what seemed to be the only level place on what was otherwise a steep incline. When Mamoru peered over the side of the ledge, he found sheer rock face stretching down into the darkness.
“Is there any way down?” Kwang asked gingerly.
Mamoru wasn’t sure how to answer without causing more panic. “It’s not going to be easy.” He was not even sure what part of the mountain they were on. Turning on the narrow ledge, he scanned the mountainside for something he recognized, but it was hard to see through the darkening mist, and nothing looked familiar. He could have used his jiya to clear some of the surrounding mist, but he doubted it would do much good. There wasn’t enough light left.
“Are we going to die here?” Kwang asked.
“No,” Mamoru said, trying to sound more confident than he felt. “Worst case scenario: we’ll have to wait for the morning light to find a way down. But we should try to find a way down now, while there’s still twilight.”
“Sorry,” Kwang said. “I don’t think that’s going to be possible.”
“Kwang-san.” Mamoru turned around in exasperation. “I know you’re scared of heights, but—oh... oh no.”
The northern boy was crumpled against a nearby rock. His left forearm was bent the wrong way, broken.
“Sorry.” Mamoru crawled to Kwang, who appeared to be considerably more bruised than he was. “I should have done a better job breaking the fall.”
“I think you did okay,” Kwang said, though his teeth were gritted against what must have been terrible pain and he seemed afraid to move. “We’re alive. I’ve never seen someone materialize that much snow at once. I didn’t know the fierce Kusanagi warriors could make fluffy snow pillows.”
“Are you hurt anywhere else?” Mamoru asked. “Is there any bleeding?”
“I-I don’t think so,” Kwang stammered.
Sensing the distinct drip and flow of blood, Mamoru pulled back the leg of Kwang’s hakama to reveal a deep gouge, where a jutting rock had taken a piece out of his calf. Blood was seeping freely from the injury, dripping down his shin to stain his white tabi.
“Oh!” Kwang squeaked like a girl. “What? How did you—Nami, that looks terrible!”
“It could be worse,” Mamoru said, “but we should stop the bleeding.”
Kwang reached down to wash the wound cleaning with shaking jiya, but Mamoru pushed his hand away.
“I’ll do it. Hold still.” With a wave of his hand, he ran a sheet of water over Kwang’s leg, washing the blood away. Kwang jumped and sucked in a breath through his teeth, but managed not to squirm too much. “This is going to feel weird,” Mamoru warned, putting a hand to the wound before more blood got a chance to seep out. Using his jiya to hold the welling blood in place atop the wound, Mamoru began to draw the moisture from between the iron and carbon molecules, forcing the liquid to thicken and congeal.
“What are you doing?” Kwang demanded, undoubtedly feeling the crawling, needle-like itch that always accompanied accelerated healing.
“I’m creating a temporary scab,” Mamoru replied. “Please hold still.”
Kwang gaped, his pain seemingly forgotten in his astonishment. “You can do that? You can control blood?”
Mamoru’s jaw clenched and he tried to focus more deeply on his work. “A bit.”
“That’s a rare ability!”
“Not in my mother’s family,” Mamoru answered without looking at Kwang. “She’s a Tsusano.”
It was Kaa-chan who had taught Mamoru how to create a makeshift scab. For emergencies only, she had told him sternly. Blood manipulation is not a toy, nor is it something an upstanding Matsuda should flaunt in public.
The lesson had made Mamoru wonder at the extent of Kaa-chan’s abilities, but it would have been rude to ask. Aunt Setsuko had once whispered that his mother could use the Blood Needle—a Tsusano bloodline technique wherein the jijaka froze a drop of their own blood into a needle thin and sharp enough to pierce human skin without detection. But Mamoru’s jovial aunt could easily have been joking just to scare him; she liked to do that.
And local lore had no shortage of horror stories about Tsusano blood manipulation. There were chilling tales of Tsusano jijakalu so adept at controlling blood that they could manipulate the fluid in the bodies of other humans, using them as puppets. Unlike the Whispering Blade, Tsusano Blood Puppeteers were nothing more than a legend; no living Tsusano could attest to their existence. But it made for a good story to scare children.
“That’s amazing!” Kwang marveled as Mamoru withdrew his hands from the gash to reveal a thin red scab.
“Don’t touch it,” Mamoru said sharply before Kwang got a chance to prod at his work. “It’s no substitute for natural healing; it won’t hold under stress. And if you could... please don’t mention this to anyone else.” The ability was frowned on within the Matsuda family. Blood, after all, was impure.
“Why not?” Kwang asked tactlessly.
“It’s not... it’s not an ability that a Matsuda should have,” Mamoru said shortly.
According to Mamoru’s father, it was the reason Mamoru couldn’t master the Whispering Blade. When a true Matsuda drew water from his surroundings, it was pure. The master Matsuda formed his weapon by compressing several billion water molecules to a thin blade through sheer force of nyama, creating ice as hard as metal and an edge the width of a single water molecule. Mamoru always managed to catch other things up in his water—some iron particles, some dirt, some salt, some air bubbles—that weakened his ice and caused it to shatter under the pressure.
“Just don’t tell the other boys at school.”
Kwang looked confused, but agreed. “Okay, I won’t.”
Sitting back on his knees, Mamoru looked Kwang over. The broken arm needed to be set properly before his theonite body started to heal, the makeshift scab might not hold, and Kwang could have internal bruising that needed a healer’s attention. Mamoru sighed.
“This can’t wait until morning,” he decided. “The moon then.”
“We’ll wait until the moon is high. It’s nearly full. It should cast enough light for us to... well, for me to carry you down the mountain.”
“We can’t just call an ambulance?” Kwang asked.
The question actually made Mamoru laugh aloud. “Takayubi doesn’t have an ambulance.”
“Okay—but there must be a hospital, right?” Kwang said anxiously. “Where’s the nearest hospital?”
“The medicine men live in the western village.”
“Not medicine men!” Kwang growled, his pain manifesting in irritation. “I mean a real hospital, with real medical equipment and vehicles and stuff.”
“Too far,” Mamoru said, “at the base of the mountain. And even if it were close, what difference would it make? No ambulance could reach us here.”
Kwang made a miserable noise. “You know how many different schools I’ve gone to? Like twelve. And you know what? This is the worst first day of school I’ve ever had. Ever.”
“You’re going to be okay,” Mamoru said. “I’m going to get us down.”
In his head, he tried to plot out their position on the mountain. They had fallen from the eastern side of the temple, meaning they had to be somewhere east of the lake. It wasn’t a part of the mountain Mamoru had ever been before; there were no footpaths, and the steep rocks made climbing too risky for even a foolhardy adventurer. The slope they were perched on now was so steep that they probably would have gone right on rolling down the mountainside to their deaths if not for this bizarrely jutting rock formation... which now that Mamoru was paying attention did not feel much like rock at all. It was too perfect in its flatness. Too hard and shiny.
“What is this thing anyway?” Kwang gave voice to Mamoru’s thoughts.
Kwang, who had fallen with his whole body against the smooth surface, pushed himself up with his good arm and ran a hand over the strange formation. Standing, Mamoru stepped back as far as the ledge would allow to survey the shape. It was darker than the rest of the mountainside, like a deep shadow behind Kwang. A flattened piece protruded from the body of the shadow, like a fin... or a wing?
“It’s a plane!” Kwang exclaimed, just as the same realization dawned on Mamoru—and a smile lit his face.
“Oh!” Mamoru clapped his hands together as the pieces slid together on his mental map. “I know where we are!”
“This is the black plane wreck,” he explained. “It’s been here forever. You can see it from the lower steps when you look across the lake, which means we must be close to the water.” Relief coursed through Mamoru. The climb would be manageable after all.
“Oh,” Kwang looked from Mamoru to the plane halfway buried in the mountainside. “So, this has been here for a long time?”
“Yeah.” Mamoru remembered the first clear morning Yuuta had pointed it out—a smudge of dark metal lodged in the slope on the far side of the lake. “It was here before Kumono became a school.” His father and uncle had mentioned seeing the plane when they climbed the steps as boys.
“Wait, so... how did it get here?” Kwang asked, squinting in confusion.
“It crashed during a military exercise, back when the Empire had troops in training here.” That was what Hibiki Sensei had told Yuuta when he asked. “The government was testing out some unmanned stealth aircraft. There was some kind of malfunction with this one, its engines failed, so they steered it into an uninhabited part of the mountain to crash.”
“Really...?” Kwang reached out to touch the plane with the fingers of his good hand, his brow furrowed. “So that would have been when?”
“During the Keleba.” The Great War was the last time the government had maintained any military presence in Shirojima.
Kwang was running his hand in slow circles over the body of the plane, as though searching it for something. “Matsuda-san...” His voice had grown quiet and strained. “I don’t know how to tell you this... This isn’t a Kaigenese plane.”
“What?” Mamoru let out an incredulous laugh, even as dread pulled at something dark and weak inside him. “Of course it is!” Of course it was. “Where else could it have come from?”
Kwang shook his head, looking apologetic, almost afraid. “It’s Yammanka.”
“Why would you say that?” And damn Kwang, Mamoru couldn’t keep the anger out of his voice! “Why would you say that!?”
Now Kwang was definitely afraid, but that didn’t stop him from explaining, “Kaigenese planes are made of metal. This isn’t metal.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Mamoru crossed to the plane in two angry strides. “Of course it’s made of...” But when his fingers touched the body of the plane, the words stopped in his throat. No metal was that smooth. “What... what is this?”
“Zilazen glass,” Kwang said.
“Zilazen glass,” Kwang repeated. “Yammanka obsidian, the hardest material in the world.”
“You’re not a craftsman,” Mamoru said in desperate indignation. “How could you possibly know that?”
“Just look.” Kwang put a hand against the plane and painstakingly stood to point to where its nose had rammed into the mountain. “This jet crashed here and didn’t break. It went straight into the side of the mountain and there isn’t even a crack in it.” And now that Mamoru looked, Kwang was right; the plane’s exterior couldn’t have been smoother if it were manufactured yesterday. Even the purest Kotetsu steel didn’t have that kind of durability. “Only Zilazen glass could do that.”
Mamoru’s fingers curled against the shell of the plane.
“No,” he breathed. “You’re lying.” This wasn’t a Yammanka plane. It wasn’t Zilazen glass. “You’re lying.” He would prove it.
Mamoru dug his hands into the side of the plane until he felt his fingernails threatening to break, then dragged them down, trying to scratch the allegedly impervious glass. But even as Mamoru’s nails bent and broke, he couldn’t leave the tiniest mark on the plane. The surface was so perfect that in the weakening twilight, Mamoru could see his own face reflected in the blackness. Troubled. Frantic. The face of a lost child, not a warrior.
“I’m not lying,” Kwang said quietly. “You could take all the swords in Kaigen to that glass, and you wouldn’t be able to scratch it.”
“Shut up!” Mamoru snarled, hating the fear in his voice. He would make Kwang shut up. Like he had back in the school yard. He would break through this black glass and prove him a liar, and this would all be over. Mamoru drew an arm back, and punched the side of the plane with all his strength. A spear of pain slammed through his arm, but he didn’t slow down. He struck again and again, in a rain of blows that would have dented any metal. Mamoru’s hands could break steel. But the only things that broke were the skin and blood vessels on his knuckles.
“Matsuda-san, stop! Stop!” Kwang begged, though he didn’t seem willing to put himself in range of those fists a second time. “You’ll break your hand! I’m telling you, that’s the hardest glass in the—”
“No,” Mamoru growled through gritted teeth. “No, it’s not!
Drawing his fist back, he froze blood and mist into the hardest ice he could form across his knuckles and punched again. The ice broke, sending a shockwave of pain through his hand. The plane’s shining black exterior was not even scratched. But Mamoru was shattered.
A waati earlier, Kwang’s assertions had been just words—words and a few holographic images. Those could be faked and made up. Now a piece of his story was right in front of Mamoru. It was Zilazen glass, harder than his own ice. Unbreakable. Irrefutable.
“Matsuda-san.” Kwang’s voice would have sounded gentle, if the words he spoke weren’t like twisting knives. “Just look at it. Have you ever seen a Kaigenese jet this shape?”
Mamoru wished he couldn’t hear the words—tried not to hear them—but the plane was right in front of him. And Kwang was right; it looked nothing like any jet he had ever seen thunder overhead, nor any plane in the Kaigenese military pride films. It took him a moment to realize where he had seen this type of jet before: in the form of an obsidian memorial statue, with a proud woman pilot beside it. A pilot...
In a desperate lurch, Mamoru was scrambling up onto the tilted wing of the plane.
“What are you doing?” Kwang demanded, trying and failing to hold the stronger boy back with his one good arm. “Be careful, Matsuda-san! You don’t know how stable that is!”
Hibiki Sensei had said that the black plane was part of Kaigenese forays into unmanned jets during the Keleba. Mamoru could confirm that it was the truth. If he climbed onto the top of the plane and there was no pilot’s seat, he could ignore everything Kwang had said. He could lay this all to rest. He could—
The hope died as he reached the top of the plane and found a raised cockpit before him. While the body of the plane was as black as cooled coals, the cockpit glass was as clear as if it had been cleaned yesterday. Mamoru should have stopped there. He should not have crawled forward to peer through the perfect glass.
But he looked—and his whole body stiffened. The blood fled his cheeks, leaving him as pale as the face before him—if one could call it a face. All that remained of the pilot was a jumble of white bones. The shreds of fabric clinging to the warrior’s ribcage were too deteriorated to identify as any kind of military uniform. The skin, whether it had been snow white or deep brown, had decayed from the bones a long time ago.
Mamoru’s first impulse should have been to start back from the human remains. But he was frozen, trapped in the emptiness of those sockets, where once there had been a pilot’s sharp eyes.
“Matsuda-san? What is it?” Kwang made as though to climb up to look into the cockpit too, but Mamoru shook his head. The look on his face must have said everything, because Kwang stopped.
“Is it bad?” he asked quietly.
“Just... don’t look,” Mamoru said, though he himself couldn’t take his eyes off the skeleton before him. “Don’t look.”
Pilots were young people with keen eyesight and quick reflexes, skilled enough to maneuver a machine many times the speed of a human, brave enough to battle from the sky. And this young fighter had been left to rot here with no grave, no memorial, no one to remember them. Until wind and rain had washed away their face, their skin, their uniform, any indicator of who they were and what they fought for.
Mamoru looked into the sockets and wondered if the pilot had had black eyes like his. Would his face look the same stripped of all its skin? Would the mountain wash him away as easily?
He put his hand to the cockpit glass and let his fingers trail down until they ran over a series of fine grooves in the glass. Turning his attention to the shapes beneath his fingertips, Mamoru saw that the cockpit was lined with Falleya symbols of strength and protection. And among the symbols, in Yammaninke letters, was an inscription.
“N... nyama du-gu la,” Mamoru read out slowly. “N’nyama ga-na la.” He turned to Kwang, unable to keep his voice from shaking. “What does it mean?”
“N’nyama dugu la. N’nyama gana la?” Kwang repeated the words with the musical ease of a native speaker. “My nyama for my country. My nyama for my king.”
The strength went out of Mamoru’s limbs. Involuntarily, he found himself crumpling—in something like a bow, something like pain—until he felt his forehead clunk against the clear glass of the cockpit. It had been decades since this plane hit the mountainside, yet Mamoru could feel it crashing through everything he knew, scattering the broken pieces to the elements.
It didn’t seem to matter whether the skeleton belonged to a man or a woman—a Kaigenese pilot or a Yammanka one. A warrior had died here. And Hibiki Sensei had lied about it. The whole village had lied about it.
Mamoru’s nyama seethed with something different from anger, different from hurt. It was utter disorientation. The force of his world falling apart churned the mist. Condensation writhed and slithered over the rocks.
“Matsuda?” Kwang said as the blood rose from his skin, pulled into the whirl of Mamoru’s jiya. He looked on nervously—until Mamoru’s turmoil tugged at the blood inside his open wounds. “Ow! Hey!”
The shout of pain was enough to yank Mamoru out of his confusion.
His head jerked up. A sharp gasp brought the mountainside back into focus. With a few measured breaths, he managed to bring his jiya under control. He was far from stable ice, but he managed to release the water particles around him, including those in Kwang’s blood.
“Ow...” Kwang repeated, looking on in a mixture of wonder and horror as his own blood settled back onto his skin in a sticky mess. The wound in his calf was bleeding again, worse than before.
“Sorry,” Mamoru breathed, his hands shaking. “I’m sorry. Here, I’ll fix it.”
Jerkily, he climbed down from the plane and folded to his knees to tend to Kwang’s leg. He tried to find solace in his own jiya, repairing the broken scab. But his control had fled him, his jiya scattering out of his grasp.
“Ow!” Kwang pulled his leg back as Mamoru’s third attempt to repair the scab only made the bleeding worse.
“Sorry,” Mamoru repeated in a weak voice that didn’t seem to belong to him. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Kwang said, though he had put a hand over the wound, silently refusing Mamoru’s help. “I’ll just cut off part of my sleeve and tie it.”
Mamoru nodded and tried to laugh it off. “I guess I’m not as good with blood as I thought.”
“That’s fine with me.” Kwang gave Mamoru a strained smile. “I don’t want to wake up one day to find you using me as a puppet.”
“That’s not—” Mamoru shook his head, barely able to focus on Kwang’s words. “Blood Puppeteering isn’t real. It’s just a myth.”
“Well... I thought all the rumors about the Shirojima warriors were just myths, but you island people are more powerful than I thought.” Kwang pressed his lips together and stared at Mamoru with a strange expression—something guilty and pitying that made Mamoru want to retch. “Maybe there is some truth to what your history teacher told you. Maybe—”
“Don’t,” Mamoru whispered.
“Just don’t...” His voice was strained. “Don’t speak to me.” He was one slip-up away from losing his tenuous grip on his jiya all over again. Stiffly, he turned away from Kwang and the cursed glass plane. “I’m going to meditate.”
It was the only thing he could think of to do.
His sheer exhaustion helped. Often Mamoru could meditate better when he was drained, near sleep, when the whole world melted away except for the power of his own jiya. Mamoru retreated deep into his own mind until Kwang disappeared. The plane and its pilot disappeared. The rock disappeared. The only thing left in the world was pure water—clear as daylight and clean as polished steel. Deep in his trance, Mamoru could feel the outline of the mountain, coated in a sheen of condensation.
He followed the mist and condensation, sinking and trickling gently downward until he could feel the heavy ripple of liquid water—the Kumono Lake. Its weight eased a slow breath from Mamoru’s body, relaxing his muscles. He settled into the embrace of the lake and nestled there for a long time, swirling with the spring water. Then, when it was time, gravity drew him to the biggest of the lake’s outgoing streams, and he slid into it.
The stream carried him down the mountain, through the dewy grasses of the western village, until it splayed its fingers over the rocks around the finawu’s temple, becoming many streams, all flowing down, down, until they met the salty weight of the ocean—the primordial power that had given birth to Kaigen, humanity, and life itself. Here, even things as fleeting as mountain streams became part of eternity. Here, there was a truth that ebbed and shifted but never died. Here, he was home.
Rooted in the depths, he felt the moon rise. Drawn to the irresistible lure of Nami’s mirror, he rose, lifting fishing boats at their moorings. Tide pools filled up all the way down the coast, silver as dragon scales under the full moon, little mirrors to answer her brightness.
He opened his eyes to the sight he knew he would find—Nami’s mirror held high in the sky, pure light that pierced the realms of past and present. Breathing out, he was Mamoru again, but more. Whole.
“The tide pools are full,” he said without emotion. “It’s time.”
“What?” Kwang started upright from where he had been dozing against the side of the plane. “Time for what?”
Mamoru nodded toward the sky. “That’s all the moonlight we’re going to get. Don’t worry. We don’t have far to go.”
“F-far to where?” Kwang mumbled, still half asleep.
“The Kumono Lake. It’s just ten or so bounds below us.”
“Are you sure?” Kwang asked.
“Why wouldn’t I be sure?”
“Well, ten bounds is a long way to sense clearly.”
Still attuned to the water all around him, Mamoru couldn’t help a human smile of amusement. “Not for me.”
“Fine. But I swear to Nami, if there are more rocks down there, and we jump, my ghost is going to haunt your ghost to the end of the Laaxara.”
“We’re not going to jump.” Mamoru wouldn’t admit it, but he didn’t think he had the nerve for any more freefalling through the darkness—no matter how clearly he could sense the water below. “You’re going to get on my back and I’m going to climb down.”
“I don’t know if I can hold on with just one arm.”
“Good thing we have a rope.”
Mamoru had never tried scaling a sheer cliff face, but his mother had once told him that it was easy to climb smooth walls with only ice if your jiya was strong and your technique was right. How a housewife like Kaa-chan knew how to scale walls, Mamoru had no idea, but she turned out to be right. Recalling her instructions, he formed a disc of water around each hand and then turned the water to ice, freezing his hands to the rock. To descend, all he had to do was melt the ice beneath one hand enough to shift it down, refreeze it, and then repeat the process with the opposite hand.
A weaker jijaka might risk the ice breaking from the flat surface, but Mamoru’s jiya was easily strong enough to secure him to the mountain—even with a nervous Kwang tied to his back. Hand under hand, he lowered himself and his classmate down the cliff side.
The mist grew thicker as they neared the lake, coiling tendrils reaching from the water’s surface to wrap around them, smothering the moonlight. Visibility grew steadily worse as they descended, and Mamoru had to rely on his jiya to feel his way down the last few bounds to the water.
“Okay, so what’s your plan now?” Kwang asked as he too sensed the lake beneath them. “I don’t know if I can swim that far with one arm.”
“You won’t have to.” Mamoru was already at work, freezing the lake water directly beneath them, forming a broad shape.
When he lowered them to the lake, their feet touched the bottom of a boat made of sturdy, buoyant ice.
“Oh,” Kwang said in surprise, and looked appreciatively at the sleek vessel. “Well done, Matsuda-san. It would take me a whole gbaati to form a boat this nice.”
“Sit,” Mamoru said, lowering himself to his knees. The boat wasn’t perfectly balanced; it would capsize if either of them stood and moved around too much.
“Okay.” Kwang gingerly arranged his damaged body into a sitting position opposite Mamoru. “Do you need me to help propel or—”
“No,” Mamoru said, and with a sweep of his hand set them gliding quickly over the lake’s surface. “You don’t know where we’re going.”
People whispered that the moonlit curls of mist on the lake were ghosts from the next world, striding their silvery way over the water’s surface. But Mamoru had never feared them. The people who had lived and died here in times past were Matsudas and Yukinos. They were family.
Tonight, for the first time, they seemed like strangers.
This was the first time he had had to look at the wisps of the past and wonder what they were really. Were they the ancestors he had always imagined, or something entirely different? Had they fought in battles the rest of the world had covered up and forgotten? Had their lifeblood stained these waters before it was washed to the sea? If so, they must resent the living for washing away the memory of their sacrifice as easily as some blood down the river.
The finawu at the temple said that spirits only ever remained bound to the Realm of the Duna unwillingly—trapped there by bitterness, regret, or simple spite. Was there anger in the silvery tendrils crowding around Mamoru? Did they resent him for his ignorance?
Or was it his treasonous thoughts that had turned them sinister? Maybe, somehow, Kwang had really tricked him. A liar had made him doubt his family, his village, and everything he had been taught. Now his ancestors, stung with the insult, had come seething out of the Laaxara to drag him away. Either way, the spirits here had every reason to be furious with him.
Shadows wavered through the fog and Mamoru found himself pressing closer to Kwang.
“What is it?” the other boy asked, oblivious to the otherworldly presence.
“Nothing.” Mamoru raised a hand, dispersing the mist before the keel, pushing aside any ghostly faces waiting in the darkness ahead. “It’s nothing.”
Mamoru managed to keep himself calm across the remainder of the lake, but he still let out a breath of relief when their vessel bumped the shore and the two stepped off onto solid ground. His shoulders tense, Mamoru realized he was too afraid to turn and look back at the lake.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Kwang asked, peering at Mamoru’s face in the low light.
“Of course I’m okay,” Mamoru said, doing his best to adopt an icy tone. “You’re the one with a broken limb. Come on.” He took hold of Kwang’s uninjured arm with both hands. “Stay close. I know the path here, but it’s steep and uneven. I don’t want you to fall and break any more bones.”
It was a good excuse. But at that moment, it was Mamoru who really needed a living thing to hold onto.