What’s high school without a little influence from seven powerful death gods, a kitsune with boy-band looks, and a regal demon courtier on your side?
Oh, was that not everyone’s experience?
Courtney Alameda and Valynne E. Maetani take YA retellings to a whole new level with Seven Deadly Shadows, a thrilling novel that should get on everyone’s TBR right now. This retelling of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai features seventeen-year-old Kira Fujikawa who can speak to yokai, the ghosts and demons that haunt the streets of Kyoto, Japan. When she learns that the demon king will rise at the next blood moon to hunt down an ancient relic to bring the apocalypse, it’s up to her and the yokai to save the world. No pressure, right?
Kōgakkan High School
I am a girl surrounded by monsters and ghosts from an ancient world. Most days, they scare me less than people do.
“Baka!” Ayako-senpai snaps, shoving me to the ground in the school’s courtyard. The contents of my messenger bag scatter across the asphalt. Some of my books fall open, their pages tearing and flapping in the wind: Chemistry. History. English. Colorful pens, pencils, and erasers flee from the girls who have trapped me. Do you really think I’m the idiot here, senpai? The baka? I’m supposed to respect the upperclassmen at my school, but Ayako-senpai treats me like trash. She no more deserves the honorific of senpai than I do the insult of baka. While her parents have the money to buy her a spot here at Kyoto’s prestigious Kōgakkan High School, I had to earn my way. Of course, being a newer student at Kōgakkan makes me an outsider, a girl on the fringe.
When I try to rise, Ayako puts a foot on my back. The girls circle tighter. Their shadows fall over me, surprisingly heavy in the hot sun. My cheeks burn. No matter how much shame I feel, no matter how violent their bullying may get, I will not cry.
I. Will. Not. Cry.
I clench my teeth and repeat these words like a mantra. From the ground, all I can see are the graceful stems of the girls’ legs and the whiteness of their socks, styled fashionably loose and scrunched over their shoes. Their pleated skirts make jagged lines above their knees.
“You understand this is for your own good, don’t you, Kira-chan?” Ayako says, removing her foot from my back and crouching down. She keeps her legs pressed together and clasps her hands in her lap. Her patella bones look like birds’ skulls, white and fragile. Of course you believe that, I think, wishing I could say the words aloud. But I know better than to talk back to an upperclassman— not only will Ayako make my life more hellish, but anyone I might complain to would tell me I was a fool for picking an argument with her.
“We’re your big sisters, your senpai,” Ayako continues. “We want you to fit in . . . but that might be difficult for a girl who’s hardly more than a scholarship student. I’m surprised your parents can afford the tuition here.”
The other girls snicker. Ayako slides a finger under my chin and turns my face toward hers. Movement draws my gaze left, where a ghostly tentacle curls over her shoulder and slides its tip into her ear. My heartbeat picks up. The bracelet I wear around my left wrist grows warmer, the protective metal charms reacting to the demon’s presence. It’s an old heirloom my grandfather gave me, one that has been passed down through the Fujikawa family for generations.
As a Shinto shrine maiden—a miko—cleansing evil is supposed to be part of my job. Few people can sense the yokai: the demons benevolent, malevolent, and everything in between. Yokai thrive on the energy created by extreme human emotions, which means it’s best to try to avoid or ignore them. Most days, similar tactics work with human bullies: Keep your head down. Don’t antagonize them. Ignore their insults. They feed on your embarrassment and your shame.
But evil is harder to deal with when it shows up wearing kneesocks and ombré extensions. I don’t know what sort of yokai infests Ayako, but it must be why her bullying has escalated to a physical attack. Ayako and her friends have been shunning me since the first day I stepped foot on Kōgakkon’s grounds. I’ve grown used to it, even if it makes me miserable.
Physical abuse, however, is more than unusual—it’s almost unheard of, at least among female students.
Another tentacle slithers out of Ayako’s mouth. I can’t be certain that she means anything she says or if the yokai speaks for her: “Kōgakkan prides itself on its excellent student body, and we don’t want anyone putting a mark on our sterling reputation. Especially not some priestess who works in a beat-up old shrine. Did the priests have to take you in because no proper after-school program wanted you?”
“I chose to work at my family’s shrine, Ayako,” I say, intentionally omitting the honorific.
The girls around me suck air through their teeth. “That’s Ayako-senpai to you,” one of Ayako’s girls snaps, spitting on the ground. “Apologize!”
I let the command hang in the air, unanswered. The wind whistles through the school’s courtyard, making the girls’ skirts swing like bells. Ayako doesn’t move.
Neither do I.
“Well?” another girl says. “Go on!”
“No,” I say coldly. There are many ways to say no in Japanese without offense, but I’m done calling Ayako senpai. “My family has tended the Fujikawa Shrine for almost a thousand years, and I am proud to be a miko there. All your family’s money couldn’t buy a legacy like mine.”
There’s a beat, a moment of pure silence, before Ayako rises and kicks me, driving her shoe into my sternum. Pain clatters through my ribs. Choking, I collapse to the ground. The asphalt’s heat bakes my cheek and reeks of burned rubber. Pebbles bite into my flesh. I curl my knees into my chest to protect my stomach.
I can’t think. My lungs feel like they’ve deflated, making it difficult to breathe. I can’t focus enough to push myself up from the ground.
“Ayako!” someone gasps. “You said you weren’t going to hurt her!”
“Shut up,” Ayako says, grabbing me by my hair.
My breath hisses through my gritted teeth. “Let me go—”
A shout rises from the other side of the yard. Ayako straightens, and her pack of girls turns toward the sound. Their legs tense.
Someone’s coming our way.
“Go,” Ayako snaps at the other girls. They stampede around me, fleeing and hiding their faces. Relief and embarrassment wash through me in equal amounts. I push up to a sitting position, wincing and rubbing my chest. My heart sinks when I see my younger sister, Ami, and one of the school’s office secretaries hurrying toward me.
I’ve already lost enough dignity today. My little sister’s pity is the last thing I want or need.
“Kira!” Ami’s voice bounces across the courtyard, bright and high as a ball.
I don’t want my sister to see me this way—my skirt is hiked up, exposing the tops of my thighs. Blood bubbles from the scrapes on my knees. My books and things are scattered around the empty courtyard, papers and assignments rolling in the breeze. Ayako’s shoe left a large, dirty skid mark on the front of my white dress shirt.
Ami’s pigtails bob as she runs toward me. I rise, squeezing a pebble out from under my skin and dropping it to the ground. It patters on the asphalt.
“Kira! Are you okay? Did she kick you?” my sister asks, almost crashing into me. She balls her fists in my blazer to keep her balance. She looks like she’s about to cry.
I put my hand on Ami’s head, refusing to make eye contact with her. “I’m fine, it was . . . a misunderstanding.” My voice strangles on the last few syllables. I take a steadying breath. If I didn’t cry in front of Ayako, I’m certainly not crying in front of my six-year-old sister.
“What happened, Fujikawa-san?” Miss Oba asks, calling me by my surname. “Are you all right?”
No, I’m not “all right.” I wish people would stop asking that question—if someone needs to ask it, the answer is almost always no. I’m bruised down to the quiet, dark places of my soul. I tug my skirt into place and beat the dust off the pleats, succeeding only in smearing blood across the fabric. I curse mentally, knowing it will stain.
But I’d rather have blood on my skirt than evil slithering across my skin.
“Who were those girls?” Miss Oba asks. “They don’t attend Kōgakkan, do they? Surely our students have more decorum than that.”
You saw their uniforms. “I didn’t see their faces. They knocked me down and wouldn’t let me up.”
Miss Oba purses her lips. I’ve never been a good liar, but neither is Miss Oba. She knows those girls were Kōgakkan students. I know who they were. It’s easier for us both not to admit it and avoid the messy details. Neither of us wants Ayako making the consequences worse for us on Monday morning.
Besides, I can’t tell Miss Oba about the yokai. Adults don’t handle the inexplicable very well. Even my own parents refuse to believe that Grandfather and I can see and interact with yokai. Despite my mother’s upbringing at the Fujikawa Shrine, the yokai exist only in the realms of pop culture and manga to her. And while Shinto is the cultural backbone of Japanese life, many people don’t identify as religious. Not in the strictest sense, at least.
Miss Oba helps me gather my things off the ground. “Would you like to make a report?” she asks.
I shake my head, trying to shove my books into a bag too ripped to carry them. “I’m already late for work. I’ll get some bandages at my family’s shrine, it’s not far.”
“I’m fine, thank you. Have a good day, Oba-san,” I say with a short bow. With that, I usher my sister away from the courtyard before Miss Oba decides to ask any more questions.
Ami and I are fifteen paces away when Miss Oba calls out, “Fujikawa-san, wait!”
I pick the last rock out of my palm and pretend not to hear her.
On our way to the shrine, my sister asks me enough of her own questions, tugging on my skirt to get my attention. I keep my head up and walk fast, clutching my tattered book bag to my chest, ignoring strangers’ curious gazes. Despite the late November chill, sweat dampens my clothes, making them stick to the small of my back.
“Don’t you need some bandages?” Ami asks. “You’re hurt!”
Bandages can’t fix me, I wish to say but don’t. I’m too distracted by the number of yokai monsters on the street today, and I need to focus to keep us safe. Not all yokai are evil, but many love mischief for mischief’s sake. They’ve adapted to living in modern Japan by concealing their true natures in human-looking glamours, concealing their hides, horns, and claws under expensive business suits, construction workers’ clothing, or even grandmotherly flowered prints.
Ami waves to one of our “neighbors,” Mrs. Nakamura, not realizing she’s waving to a hone-onna, or “bone woman.” Ami can’t see the yokai’s skeleton face, and always insists on greeting the neighbors on our route as we head home.
Some people, like Grandfather and me, are born with the ability to see through yokai glamours. Others can be trained. Once upon a time, Grandfather tried to teach my mother to spot the yokai. Mother was his heir, his eldest daughter, the pride of his life. I don’t know what happened, only that their story didn’t end happily. Now Mother visits the shrine only on major holidays. She and Grandfather hardly speak.
I’m Grandfather’s backup heir, preparing to carry the legacy that my parents and elder brother, Ichigo, try so hard to ignore. In their minds, there’s no fortune to be made in working at a shrine. My mother might have been raised in one, but neither she nor my father is religious. At least not anymore. And my brother, Ichigo, has no interest in becoming a priest.
“Kira?” Ami asks, tugging on my skirt again.
We pass a café’s big windows. Inside, a young woman looks up from a magazine, sees my blood-spattered clothing and wrecked knees, and smiles. Ghostly whiskers ripple across her cheeks.
My bracelet burns almost as hot as summer sunlight.
Everywhere I look, I see yokai. What’s going on? I wonder. I never see this many of them on the street—
“Kira!” my sister shrieks, startling our neighbors on the street. Their eyes narrow, blaming me, the elder sister, rather than the squawking child five paces back. Their thoughts are plain from their faces: Kira should be able to control that child, she is the elder sibling. Somehow, I’ve managed to disappoint even the neighbors and bystanders today.
I whirl around to face Ami, digging my fingernails into my palms. “What?”
“We passed the shrine, dummy.” She pulls her lower eyelid down with one finger, sticks out her tongue, then turns on her heel to run down the sidewalk. I look up, realizing the Fujikawa Shrine’s vermilion torii gate lies half a block behind us. I’d been so lost in my thoughts, I hadn’t even noticed passing it by.
Ami sprints past the main gate, nearly colliding with a shrine visitor. She always forgets to walk under the left side of the torii gate, which is proper, and has barreled into our patrons more than once. With a sigh, I hurry after her.
“Don’t take too long on your homework,” I call out. “I don’t want to be late getting home again!”
Ami waves me off and continues up the shrine’s steps.
One of the shrine’s priests stands at the bottom of the stone staircase, saying goodbye to a couple of elderly patrons. I hurry by with a short bow, not wanting to embarrass myself in front of our regulars. There are tourists on the steps, too, taking selfies with the stone lion guardians. They laugh too loudly, twisting their faces up in ugly grimaces, mocking the statues. Foreigners don’t always respect our shrines the way they should, ignorant of what these spaces mean.
Step by step, the shrine comes into view. The Fujikawa Shrine is nearly a thousand years old, set like a gem into one of Kyoto’s lush mountainsides. The main hall stands at the heart of the shrine. The resident kami spirits are enshrined inside the honden, or main shrine, behind the hall. While there are hundreds of thousands of kami—the spirits that animate the landscape around us, or the ancestors who graced this earth before us—chief among them all is Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, and the most venerated kami in all Shinto.
The shrine’s offering and assembly halls stand to the left and right of the main hall, respectively; the three buildings form a large public courtyard area, one that hides the more private places in the shrine from view.
The moment I slip past the shrine’s gate, I breathe easier. The air cools my face, smelling verdant. Green. Alive. I pause at the purification font to cleanse my hands and mouth, then hurry past a large courtyard pond and racks of wooden ema plaques. The plaques bear our patrons’ good wishes to the kami. At the shrine office counter, Usagi uses both hands to present a protective charm to a patron. If she’s out front, it means the private office area might be empty. Good.
Priests pass me by, occupied with their own tasks or with preparations for the upcoming autumn festivals. Everyone’s busy, everyone’s in a hurry. Nobody notices me. Which is great, because I’m not in the mood to explain the state of my school uniform.
To my relief, I find myself alone in the office. Stowing my books and busted backpack in a cubby, I grab my miko’s uniform from a set of drawers, careful not to smear my blood on my white kimono. I go into the bathroom, close the door, and bang my forehead on it thrice.
I tell myself that they’re wrong, that they’re liars. I’m no fool. Still, their words stick to the insides of my ribs, like I’ve swallowed something rancid. Those girls can pretend they’re defending Kōgakkon’s “reputation,” but in reality, they’re cowards looking for an easy target. I just hate that their target is me.
Hanging my school jacket on a hook, I locate the first-aid kit under the sink. My hands shake with frustration as I pop the box’s clasps. No, with fury, because there’s nothing I can do to stop Ayako and her friends. Her father owns one of the largest J-pop record labels in the country, and were I to embarrass his daughter, I’d bring contempt down upon my family and the shrine.
I fight to open an antiseptic wipe, cursing when the paper tears but the plastic stretches. I shouldn’t feel like such a failure: I get excellent grades, am polite to my teachers and classmates, and try not to stand out too much. My father runs a successful precision electronics company in Kyoto, and while his work may not be glamorous, it’s profitable. Plus, it’s an honor to work with my grandfather at the Fujikawa Shrine.
But 99 percent of my classmates are from a different economic sphere, one with different social rules and expectations. I’m often accused of “kuuki yomenai,” or “not being able to read the air,” because I sometimes miss the subtleties in social interactions.
In spite of my efforts, I stand out. A lot. It’s hard to start over when you stick out so much. At least I belong here at the shrine, among the ancient rituals, talismans, and old cobblestones; I love every inch of this place—it’s my sanctuary from the world.
I bandage my wounds. When I dress, my shrine maiden’s uniform smells of cedar: crimson hakama pants, a pure white robe, and red hair ribbons. The feeling of crisp, clean fabric against my skin wicks the rest of my anger away. With a sigh, I consider doing some purification rituals before I begin work—I’ve spent too much of the day angry.
My inner peace lasts less than a second. As I exit the restroom, I look up and find I’m not alone anymore.
One of the shrine’s kitsune guardians, Shiro, sits at the office desk. He’s about my age, maybe a year or two older, with pop-idol good looks and a nose for mischief. Shiro looks human enough, except for the fox-shaped ears that poke out of his thick, reddish hair. Like most yokai, he keeps these ears glamoured while in public. Not all kitsune are benevolent, but shrine guardians like Shiro protect the sites dedicated to the worship of the kami and Amaterasu. Shiro serves at the Fujikawa Shrine with his icy yet talented elder brother, Ryōsuke, who prefers to be called Ronin. When we were introduced, I thought his nickname was strange, but it seems to fit him.
Shiro looks like he’s been waiting for me.
“Hey,” he says, leaning forward in his chair to rest his forearms on his thighs. He wears a priest’s teal hakama, rather than my red ones. “Rough day?”
I pause, clinging to the bathroom door handle. My kimono sleeves are long enough to hide the white bandages on my hands, but not the humiliation seared into my skin. I don’t know Shiro well enough to burden him with my problems.
“I tripped and fell at school,” I say, tugging on my sleeve. “I’m a little embarrassed, but I’ll be fine.”
He cocks one of his fox ears down, as if unconvinced. “You can’t lie to me, Kira. I was raised by the best liar in all of Yomi, and can spot a lie before it’s off your lips.” He rises from the chair and starts across the room toward me. “Who hurt you?”
“I’m not lying.” I step back as he approaches, but find myself bumping into the bathroom door. “I tripped.”
Shiro’s tawny eyes flash with mirth. He reaches down and takes my hand, lifting it gently, peeling back my sleeve to expose my injured hand. “I know a thing or two about not fitting in,” he says, covering my hand with his own. “If you ever need to talk about things, I’ll listen.”
He’d be cute if he weren’t so annoying, but he’d be really annoying if he weren’t so cute. I don’t like how easily he sees through my defenses, and his directness makes me uncomfortable. I won’t tell him as much, though. “Thank you,” I say, gently taking my hand from his. “But I should really get to work.”
“Take a deep breath,” he says. “Fujikawa isn’t missing you yet—” “You should call my grandfather Fujikawa-san, as is proper,”
“Typical Kira, using the rules to avoid having a real conversation.” Shiro pretends to roll his eyes, voice lilting as he teases me. His smile’s so inviting, I’m almost tempted to tell him everything. But my scars and bruises, inside and out, are not the parts of me I want him or anyone else to see. When people know your weaknesses, they can exploit them. Or at the very least, they’ll
think less of you for them.
“I should go.” I slip past him, heading for the door.
“At least let me walk you home tonight,” Shiro says. “There were a lot of yokai in the streets earlier. I can help keep you and your sister safe.”
I pause. Turn. Shiro leans against the bathroom door, arms crossed over his chest. When in his priest’s garb, he always manages to look majestic and roguish. There is a quiver to him, almost, even when he’s standing still. Perhaps it’s the way he lifts his head an inch, nostrils flaring, as someone passes the office window. Or his sense of perpetual alertness, as if he expects an attack to come at any time, from any angle. That’s the life of most anyone who deals with yokai daily.
“Do you know why they’re here?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “No, but until their numbers thin out, nobody should leave the shrine alone. Something’s not right.”
“I’ll meet you out front at sunset, then.” At least this arrangement will make Ami happy; she adores Shiro. She’ll probably pester him for a piggyback ride, and Shiro will oblige her all the way home.
He follows me out of the office. I step into the afternoon sunlight, pausing to let it thaw the rest of the fear from my soul. While it’s my turn to sweep the shrine’s courtyards, I’m almost looking forward to the work. At least I’ll get to be alone for a little while.
“I suppose I should check the wards around the shrine, just in case,” Shiro says with a sigh, placing his hands on his hips. “I’ll see you in a few hours, okay?”
With a nod, I turn to the afternoon’s work: sweeping. Endless sweeping. The Fujikawa Shrine is one of the larger shrines in Kyoto: it boasts two courtyards, an assembly hall, a teahouse, gardens, and dormitories for the priests, and that’s to say nothing of the magnificent main shrine itself. And while Grandfather employs groundskeeping staff to keep the shrine immaculate, he still expects me to sweep the leaves. I guess he thinks it builds character.
It doesn’t. It builds calluses, lots and lots of calluses. Which I suppose gives my palms more character, now that they have little white seeds planted at the root of each finger.
The hours of sweeping and the calluses are all worthwhile.
Someday, Grandfather will teach me the ancient art of onmyōdō, which will give me power over the yokai demons and onryō ghosts who threaten our way of life. For a girl who has spent her days in the unwanted company of nightmares and monsters, my greatest wish is to be able to banish them at will. Despite my near-constant pleas, Grandfather says I will begin my training at twenty-one, when I become old enough to formally inherit the shrine. For now, he focuses on my martial arts training and lets me observe rituals and business transactions, greet patrons, and, of course, sweep.
As the sun drops toward the horizon, a chill creeps into the air. Patrons wave to me as they exit the shrine, on their way to warm homes and hot meals. Some will return to work, no doubt. The shadows lengthen and the place empties of everyone, except for the priests, my sister, and me.
I’m tidying the gatehouse when I spot something small sitting under the first torii gate.
Curious, I descend the grand staircase, taking the steps two by two. A small origami fox sits at the bottom of the staircase, alone. When I pick the fox up, a child starts singing a folk song in the distance, her voice carried by the wind:
“Kagome, Kagome . . . circle you, circle you . . .”
My bracelet grows warm. I glance over my shoulder, expecting to see Ami giggling behind one of the gateposts. She graduated from children’s kancho-style mischief at five. Now six, she’s seen enough variety shows on TV to have learned a more sophisticated style of pranking.
“Ami?” I ask. No answer. Tree branches click in the breeze. The air tugs the loose hairs at the nape of my neck, and the small of my back prickles. My body senses something’s off, but my mind can’t figure out what. “Hello?”
The stone steps lie empty, but I feel as though a thousand eyes have turned on me, their gazes brushing against my skin, my hair, and my chest. Fear uncurls against the base of my spine, something eyeless and primal. I back away and whirl, running up the steps, through the gatehouse, and toward the shrine.
The origami fox pricks the inside of my palm as I reach the top. I double over, panting. When I look over my shoulder, nothing waits in the torii gate below. I tell myself there isn’t anything odd about finding a piece of origami at a Shinto shrine. It’s an offering, not a warning. At worst, it’s a child’s prank.
It’s fine. Everything is fine. I tuck the origami fox into my pocket. The sun slides ever farther down the sky, glittering through the tree branches.
Twenty minutes later, I finish sweeping the main courtyard. As I head back to the office to change, a little flash of white catches my eye. I pause and gasp: a second origami fox sits on a large, flat stepping-stone near the pond’s edge. Had I missed this second fox earlier? No, I’d have noticed something so obviously out of place. The breeze clangs through the wooden ema boards on racks nearby. I jump, my pulse ringing like Grandfather’s old landline phone, and then roll my eyes at myself. I pluck the fox off the stone to carry him back to the office. It is, after all, just a bit of folded paper I can cage inside my fingers.
In the distance, cars rumble and honk, and the trees filter people’s shouts and laughter down to a comforting hum. Beneath it all, the child’s song continues: “Kago no naka no tori wa . . . the bird in the cage . . .”
“Ami?” I halt and turn in the courtyard. “If this is another prank, I’ll make you walk yourself home tonight! In the dark!”
Giggles echo through the shrine. With a tsk, I slip my hand into my pocket, expecting to feel the paper’s sharp points prick my fingers.
But my pocket is empty. The first fox is gone.
I stab my hand into my pocket, rooting around, my breath catching. Did Ami somehow steal it from me? No, that’s impossible. My sister may be many things, but a cunning thief isn’t one of them. Something is wrong. The knowledge chills me from the inside out, as if my bones have turned to ice. I need to find Grandfather.
I start across the courtyard. Grandfather takes his evening tea at the shrine’s teahouse, no matter the time of year. He says he finds beauty in every season, and upon reaching his age—he’s robust even at seventy-five—each month feels as fleeting and bittersweet as cherry blossoms.
As expected, I find him sitting on the teahouse veranda, watching koi dance under the pond’s clear surface. He still wears his regular shrine robes with black hakama, cradling a cup of tea in his weathered hands. His hair, which used to be black as the deepest part of the midnight sky, is now the color of the moon— silver white and glowing in the last embers of daylight. He looks up as I approach, smiling.
“Good evening, Kira,” Grandfather says.
I bow to him, then rest my broom against the teahouse’s low fence. “Hello, Grandfather. How is your tea?”
“Never mind the tea,” he says as I join him on the veranda. “Do you hear that voice on the wind? Something is amiss today—other shrines in the area are reporting that yokai are swarming their streets. We are lucky so far, but there have been reports of violence in the north.”
“Not too lucky,” I say, offering the origami fox to him. Grandfather frowns. He sets his teacup down, then plucks the tiny fox from my hands. “I found this at the shrine’s main gate. I put it in my pocket, only to lose it minutes later. . . .”
I trail off, unnerved by the look on Grandfather’s face. The lines on his forehead multiply and deepen, the shadows drawing inky lines in his skin. Dread drops into my gut. He turns the tiny fox in his hands, examining it from every angle.
“Here is a lesson in onmyōdō for you,” he says, pinching the fox’s tail between his thumb and forefinger and holding it up. “This is a shikigami, a sort of servant that both onmyōji exorcists and yokai use in rituals. I did not summon it, and its magical resonance does not feel familiar to me.”
“What does that mean?” My voice shudders over those words. Grandfather holds up a hand, asking me to be quiet.
The wind kicks up again, whispering, “Itsu, itsu, deyaru . . . when oh when shall we meet . . . ?”
My bracelet flares white-hot, so bright and quick, it tricks my nerves into thinking the links have frozen. I grip my wrist in pain.
“Listen carefully,” Grandfather says as he rises to his feet. “Go directly to the house, collect your sister, and hide in the cellar under the Seimei motomiya.”
“What are you talking about?” I whisper. “Why?”
He removes a stick of incense from a nearby ceramic dish, then touches its burning tip to the shikigami fox. As the flames eat the shikigami’s paper feet, Grandfather says, “Go. Do not leave the cellar until I come to find you. There are powerful protective wards in the motomiya. They will keep you safe.”
Fear tastes like copper and bile on my tongue. My scabbed knees ache as I stand. “Grandfather—”
“Do not argue with me, Kira! Go.”
I turn on my heel and leap off the veranda, running down the teahouse path and grabbing my broom. Grandfather lives in a modest house on the shrine grounds, one that shares a garden with the priests’ dormitories. The Seimei motomiya—or small shrine—stands on the very edge of his garden and property. It’s the last original building on the site. The place honors our most famous ancestor, Abe no Seimei, who was the most talented onmyōji astronomer, magician, and exorcist of ancient Japan.
I jog onto the main path. On my right looms the shrine proper: the main hall, courtyard, and ponds beyond; straight ahead, obscured behind a high hedge, are Grandfather’s house and the dormitories.
Something screeches in the darkness. The sound drags itself across my skin, sharp enough to leave welts. I halt. The shriek seems to come from the front of the shrine, and echoes across the deepening night. Men shout. Someone screams. Fear makes my head feel too light, as if it could float away like a festival lantern. The path blackens. I clutch the broom’s handle to my chest, and my heart beats fast and hard against my ribs.
The shrine is supposed to be protected from malevolent yokai, I tell myself. It’s supposed to be safe.
A sound clicks behind me, like a cicada but louder. The noise rattles inside my bones. I whirl. Behind me, a funnel of conjured shadows stretches across the air. A yokai crawls from the weblike strands and steps onto the shrine grounds. The beast has the head and torso of a beautiful woman, her hair styled as intricately as any geisha’s . . . but the rest of her ends in a nightmare. She is half-woman, half-spider. Her eight elegant legs step in concert, and her claws click like knives against the cobblestones. The eight eyes in her face look like gashes, their insides burning bright as the embers of a fire.
It’s . . . it’s a jorōgumo.
I didn’t even think those were real.
Her abdomen bobs behind her, strands of silk descending from her spinnerets. She hisses at me, then strikes.
“No!” I scream, swinging my broom like a baseball bat. The bristles slam into her left cheekbone. Her head snaps to one side. Something cracks in her neck. The jorōgumo staggers back, her growl rumbling like deep, shackled thunder.
Dodging past her, I sprint toward the shrine’s assembly hall. I scramble onto the veranda, slipping on the wood and catching myself against the outer wall. The yokai leaps after me with a shriek, drawing my attention backward. Moonlight glimmers on her abdomen, and on the sickled ends of her feet. She looks like a scream made flesh.
I push off the wall and run. I make it ten steps, maybe more, before a rope of spider silk snares my ankle. It yanks my feet out from under me. I crash down, broom clacking to the wooden floor. As my heart pounds in my throat, I flip onto my back, snatching my broom. The yokai approaches. She keeps my tether taut, wrapping her silk around one hand. The veranda groans under her weight.
She lunges for me.
I lift my broom with a cry, jabbing the handle into her chest to hold her off. Her cheeks split and open like a set of glistening crimson leaves. Hot saliva drips off the needlelike teeth embedded in her flesh, splattering over my chest and face. It smells of bile and coppery blood.
She leans in closer, her weight pressing the broom’s bristles into my gut. I grit my teeth, pain flickering across my vision in bright red bursts.
“What do you want?” I gasp.
She grins at me, but it’s just a sick approximation of a smile. “Isn’t it obvious, little priestess? You have a yokai’s sight—can’t you sense the weakening of the sun? Can’t you feel her getting colder, darker?”
“Yeah,” I say, grimacing at her smell. “And it’s called winter—” A shadow darts in on my left. Air hisses as a blade winks in the darkness, slicing into the back of the jorōgumo’s neck. Her jaw falls open in shock. Great splatters of blood hit the ground. The jorōgumo becomes boneless, collapsing beside me, the life gone out of her. Her claws slice into the veranda, leaving great red wounds in the wood.
With a shriek, I scramble away on my knees and palms. “Useless creature.” A shadowy figure spits on the corpse. “I ordered you to leave the girl alone.”
I know that voice. I’ve heard it ringing in the shrine’s halls, even when it wasn’t louder than a whisper. The white peaks of his fox ears almost glow with unearthly light. Black bloodstains spread across his kimono. If Shiro channels sunlight with his laugh, then his elder brother, Ronin, can funnel darkness with a look.
His gaze fills my whole soul with dread.
“W-what’s going on?” I whisper, shocked to see the katana in his hand. The blade glows with a muted gray light, like a lightbulb coated in grime. Kitsune don’t use katana—it’s not possible to cast an onmyōdō spell while holding a sword, and magic is a kitsune’s specialty. I blink fast. “I don’t understand, h-how did you—”
“Ronin!” someone shouts behind us. I turn, surprised to see Shiro standing on the path behind us, his face and chest splattered in blood. The inky fluid drips from the tips of his fingers, which end in long, sturdy claws. Shiro’s voice sounds lower, rougher, as though he’s shifting deeper into his yokai form, leaving his human elements behind: “Let Kira go.”
“I’m not going to hurt her, brother,” Ronin snaps.
“I can’t trust anything you say,” Shiro says. “You’ve betrayed us all.”
Ronin stares Shiro down. “I don’t expect you to understand—” “Don’t pull the manga villain card on me,” Shiro spits. “You’re
getting people killed!”
A sob hitches in my throat, drawing the brothers’ attention. “Get out of here, Kira,” Shiro says, shifting his gaze back to his brother. “I’ll deal with Ronin.”
He doesn’t need to tell me twice. I turn and run, nearly tripping over my own feet. Strange, dark lumps now line the shrine’s paths, blood spreading like inkblots under their lifeless forms.
You’re getting people killed!
Another sob burns in my throat.
Please be safe, Grandfather, I beg him in my head. I need you to be safe.
I sprint up the path to Grandfather’s house and throw the front door open. “Ami!” I shout. “Ami? Where are you?” I find my sister’s homework forgotten on the kitchen table, and hear sobbing coming from one of the cabinets. Ami whimpers as I open the door, looking up at me, blinking. Snot trails from her nose and crusts around the top of her lip.
“Kira?” she asks in a voice so small, it sounds even younger than her six years. No matter how annoying she may be, she’s still my little sister. Seeing her frightened breaks something inside me. “What’s going on? Are there terrorists attacking the shrine?”
How does a six-year-old know about terrorists? And how am I supposed to answer her question? I can’t tell her monsters are attacking our family’s shrine—for one, Mother would never forgive me. Two, it sounds crazy even to my ears. The shrine is supposed to be warded. Protected. Safe.
“Something like that.” I take a knee beside her. “Grandfather wants us to hide in the motomiya till they stop. We need to go, okay?”
She nods, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. I pull her to her feet. Staying low to avoid being seen from the house’s numerous, darkened windows, I lead my sister out of the kitchen and into the entryway.
Shoes—Grandfather’s and Ami’s—sit neatly against the wall. I glance down, realizing that in my panic, I forgot to remove mine upon entering the house. The offense makes the knot in my gut draw tighter.
“Hurry,” I whisper to my sister. Ami slides her feet into her shoes, fat tears still rolling down her face. “Don’t make a sound once we’re outside, understand?”
“Okay,” she says, sniffling.
“One, two—” I mouth the word three and open the door. I keep hold of my sister’s hand as we step outside. The sky looms so dark it swallows all light, including the stars. I don’t know if the yokai have enchanted the sky somehow, or if the stars have turned their faces away from us.
The grounds lie silent. I guide Ami past the front of Grandfather’s house, keeping to the shadows under the eaves, listening for footsteps. We slide past the topiary bushes without being spotted or followed.
The motomiya stands apart from the rest of the shrine, hidden in a copse of trees. The wooden structure is about thirty feet by fifteen, with a clay tile roof and a checkerboard lattice on the outer wall. A shimenawa rope hangs over the door lintel, denoting the motomiya as a sacred place. With Ami in tow, I slip through the open doorway and then tiptoe across a floor that sings like a nightingale. I give the altar inside little more than a cursory glance.
Hurry, I hiss to myself. Kneeling, I run my hands over the floorboards, wincing as wooden slivers prick my skin. I flinch when my hand brushes up against the corpse of a dead mouse. Swatting the bones away, my fingers locate the right wooden knot. I slide them back toward my knees, counting the number of boards. One. Two. Three.
I dig my fingernails between the third and fourth boards, drawing up a secret, sawtooth trapdoor. A breath of chilly, arthritic air puffs out to greet me. I shepherd Ami down the steps first, slip in behind her, and carefully lower the trapdoor over my head. It settles into its frame with a groan.
We huddle on the steps under the door. Only the faintest bit of light ekes through the floorboards. The rough steps were cut from stone many centuries ago, and their chill leeches the warmth from my body. The air here smells of mold and decay, almost like a tomb.
“Kira?” Ami whispers. “W-what’s going on?”
“Shush,” I whisper, wrapping my fingers around hers. “We have to stay quiet down here. Understand?”
Ami nods against my arm, her cheeks as wet as my own. We hold very still. Long minutes pass. My knotted nerves begin to unravel. Perhaps the demons won’t find us here, hidden inside the motomiya, under a layer of protective wards older than the stones themselves. This shrine is a special place, one that may have been blessed by Abe no Seimei himself. Its power is ancient. Formidable. When the rest of the shrine burned down five centuries ago, only the motomiya remained untouched.
For a few moments, I allow myself to believe we’re safe . . . until another shout rings from the garden outside. A scream cuts off mid-breath, strangled into a wet, whistling sound. Cringing, I squeeze my eyes shut and clap my hands over Ami’s ears. She pulls one of my hands off, stubbornly. She hates to be treated like a child, even if she’s acting like one.
A voice sings through the garden, winding down to us. It no longer sounds like a child’s voice, but one that cracks like bones being burned. The sound rasps over my skin:
“Ushiro no shoumen daare? Who is behind you now?”
The air grows thorny, filling the shadows with sea urchins’ spines. Static crackles in my ears, raw and electric, as the light between the boards flickers, fights, and finally dies.
Heavy footsteps scrape the floorboards overhead. The yokai’s stench slips into my nose, heady as plums rotting in the summer sun. A bit of dust rains between the cracks in the floor, catching in my hair and eyelashes. My bracelet burns so hot it sears my skin. I bite my tongue to keep from crying out; I don’t dare move, not even to slip the bracelet off. If the creature finds us, we have no place to run.
The storage area under the motomiya isn’t much larger than the small shrine itself.
Tap-tap. The rap of claws echoes through the cellar. Ami trembles and wraps her arms around my waist. My head whirls, and I silently chant a prayer Grandfather taught me, which stops my vertigo for a few breaths.
Tap-tap, in the middle of the shrine floor.
Tap-tap, by the altar.
Tap-tap, near the trapdoor.
“Ibaraki-sama, lord of ogres,” someone says. Despite the wheeze of his breath, I would recognize the timbre of Grandfather’s voice anywhere. He sounds like he’s badly injured. My heart squeezes at the thought, but at least he’s alive.
Ibaraki, I think, biting down on the tip of my tongue. Why does that name sound familiar?
Grandfather continues: “You have come down . . . from the mountains . . . but for what purpose?”
“Don’t pretend you’re stupid, priest,” the ogre says. “You know why we’re here.”
“I . . . most certainly . . . do not . . . ,” Grandfather rasps. “Lies!” The creature spins. “You have hidden the last shard of a
holy sword in this place for five centuries. My master, the demon king Shuten-doji, has recovered all the pieces but one. Where is the last shard of Kusanagi no Tsurugi, sword of the Sun Goddess?” “This shrine . . . has been rebuilt many times . . . ,” Grandfather replies. “Everything . . . lost. You . . . must . . . go.”
The yokai growls, but not in the way a wolf might. This sound gets mangled with a scream. It rakes my soul over sharp spikes, deflating my courage. The floorboards squeal as the monster charges forward.
Grandfather shouts the first syllable of a kuji-in exorcism mudra.
Another vicious shriek rends the night. Silence seeps out in the aftermath.
The floorboards jump when something heavy hits them. I startle, clapping a hand over Ami’s mouth. Her small whimper dies under my palm. Grandfather groans. Blood drips through the floor, spattering my knees and scalp, cooling on my skin. When I squeeze my eyes shut, but tears leak out. I can’t hold them back, not when the mixture of horror, pain, and shame cuts so deep.
I thought my worst enemy was Ayako. I was wrong, wrong, wrong.
“We will find the last shard,” Ibaraki says. “The next full moon will rise as a blood moon, weakening the Sun Goddess’s power over this world. When that happens, my lord Shuten-doji will return to this mortal plane to make the Light suffer for the oppression of our people.”
Grandfather’s answer dies with his final breath. Tears prick the corners of my eyes. I’m listening to my grandfather’s last moments, and there’s nothing I can do to save him. If Grandfather could not defeat this demon, what chance do I have?
The yokai’s steps crunch over the flagstones outside, fading into the shadows.
Ibaraki. I sear his name into my memory, repeating it over and over again. Ibaraki killed my grandfather. The thought turns into a cold, hard kernel of hate inside my heart. Ibaraki killed my grandfather, and his master is Shuten-doji.
I will make them pay for their crimes against me, my grandfather, and this shrine. But first, my sister and I need to survive the night.
Several minutes shudder by. Five, ten maybe, with no sign of the yokai. Police sirens roar in the distance. Releasing Ami, I open my eyes and wipe my cheeks with the backs of my hands. I place my palms on the trapdoor over our heads, gasping when something pricks my palm. It’s softer than a shard of wood or a nail, and doesn’t break the skin. Reaching up, I tug a small object between the boards. I run my fingers over its sharp, bloodied corners and gasp when I realize what I’m holding.
It’s the shikigami fox, soaked in my grandfather’s blood. And somewhere in the distance, I hear the yokai singing:
“Kagome, Kagome. Kago no naka no tori wa . . . circle you, circle you. The bird in the cage . . .”
The yokai’s voice fades into the police sirens. I crush the little fox in my fist, its points breaking the soft flesh of my palms. My bracelet stops burning. It’s all I can do to keep from screaming until these walls collapse and bury me in my grief and shame.
Kagome, Kagome. We are the birds in the cage. And the monsters will come for us.