“Why should we allow this? Our village’s heritage is at stake! We should not stand for this!” The voice boomed off the temple walls.
Seated at five stone chairs, the village elders argued over the fate of the village. In the middle of the semi-circle, an ornate red lantern glowed with an unnatural, unwavering light. A young girl sat stiffly on her knees before it, struggling to ignore the shouts from around the room.
“Would you instead see that spirit’s continued existence in the realm of the living? Now that it has reawakened, all we can do is banish it!”
A silence enveloped the room as the five elders looked at the lantern, and then the child. Before the council had convened, disaster struck when a boy touched the lantern that had been untouched for millennia. The boy had inadvertently awakened the spirit that was sealed within.
“No one in the village can rekindle the seal, and after so many years I do not believe it is even possible. The only thing to do is to return the lantern to its true resting place in the summit beyond the forest. Only then will that… thing have its peace. Its peace will mean our peace.”
“You think this child can do this?” One of the shadowy figures waved a hand in her direction.
“This child must do this,” the leader said, looking down at the girl. “She witnessed the spirit's true form, and the laws of the spirit world are clear. Only she can carry the lantern and its prisoner.”
Her task was simple: trek through the forest to the summit that loomed beyond the woods. There, she’d find a temple, and in it, the lantern’s resting place.
The forest was farther from the village than the girl would have liked, and it had taken the last few weeks of autumn to reach the beginning of the woods. She was lucky that the lantern and the spirit inhabiting it were with her.
Deep in the snowy woods, Mitsuko saw the summit, but no path through the forest. She sighed and sat against a tree, the lantern propped between her legs.
“We’re lost,” she told it with a sad smile, expecting to be berated.
“Are you now?” a voice cooed from above her. Glancing up, Mitsuko saw a face looking back from the branches, grinning with sharp teeth. It jumped down from its perch and landed in a crouch.
“You… you’re a Tengu…” She stared at it, her grip tightening on the light. She'd heard myths about such creatures, but never thought she'd come face to face with one.
“And you’re lost with only a lamp,” the creature said. Its upper body resembled a human, but its legs were that of a bird’s, and a hawk's wings sprouted from its back. They stared at each other in an uneasy silence as the little girl gulped, and the lantern pulsed gently.
“I could help you get out of here, you know," the Tengu said.
“Uh-huh,” it grinned and stood, spreading its wings. “We could fly straight to wherever you need to go. No more getting lost would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
“Uh, well yes, it would…” she admitted. “Why would—”
“Don’t listen to it,” a man’s voice chided.
“Huh?” Mitsuko watched the lantern pulse as a wisp of smoke filtered out and solidified into a legless humanoid shape.
“It’s a Tengu,” the spirit reminded her.
“She knows that,” the creature remarked.
“He’s more likely to eat you than help you,” he continued, frowning at the demon. “He can’t be trusted.”
“Why you!” The Tengu dove for the child and the lantern.
Two screams ripped through the air. One was from Mitsuko, who bent forward to protect the lantern, and the other was from the Tengu.
Mitsuko opened her eyes and looked up. A wall of flames surrounded her, but the tree she leaned against was untouched by the fire. Beyond the wall of flame, the Tengu lay splayed in the snow. It sat up with singed hair, its feathers ruffled and standing on end, angrily staring at the pair before it saw the wall of magical fire up close.
“You… You’re that…” The creature jumped into a crouch. It watched as the barrier disappeared and the spirit reformed itself, this time with a glare on its small face. The Tengu growled.
“Kids are all skin and bones anyway… She looks even worse than most,” it added. It spread its wings and stood. “If I’m really desperate for food, I’ll just wait for you to die out here.”
The Tengu took off to disturb something else. Mitsuko remained still.
“I don’t think he’ll be back,” the spirit said, as though soothing someone was new to it. “Tengus aren’t that stubborn.”
“Have you met a lot of those?”
“I’ve seen many creatures. When I was still among the living, his species was much more common, and much peskier to deal with.”
She stared at the wisp and looked back at where the Tengu had been. A few moments later she realized the lantern spirit was speaking again.
“Huh?” She blinked at it, coming out of her daze.
The spirit frowned up at her in disbelief. “I said we have to keep moving. And don’t try to tell me we’re lost, either. I know my way to my own temple.”
“If you say so,” she ventured. After thousands of years of being sealed, it was bound to have memory problems.
The wisp grunted and disappeared into the lantern. The girl glanced around and clung to it with all her might as she looked around the heavy woods.
A warm sigh floated up from the light. “Find the sun and face it,” it said. “Turn to your right from there and you’ll face north. Go that way.”
The spirit had been right. It took most of the winter to hike through the forest, but as Mitsuko passed the final trees, she could finally see her destination. Built into the face of the mountain, the temple was, long ago, once an ornate structure, with long stairs leading up to a grand entrance. Now, rubble and ruin blocked the doors.
The spirit huffed and glowered at the ruined temple. “Who dares?!”
“Is there another entrance?” Mitsuko asked, unfazed by his outburst.
“That isn’t the point! My temple is in shambles! Who would dare? When I find the one responsible, there will be—” It cut itself off as a familiar laugh rang out behind them.
“I would love to watch you fight nature! That sounds like it would end exactly the way I’d want it to!”
“You again…” the spirit groaned as the child turned and found the Tengu perched on a branch. “We’re out of the forest and therefore out of your reach, bird! Go harass someone else!”
“I can see that, ghost. But your complaining was so scrumptious that I wanted to get a better taste of it.”
“Ignore him, Hisoka-sama,” Mitsuko said, finally saying his name aloud. “I think he’s just having fun with you.”
The spirit frowned. It was surprising how easily she trusted him now that they’d come this far.
“So you are who I thought you were,” the Tengu said. “Odd that someone who was once so feared would get so close to a child. Or is she just expendable?”
“No!” Hisoka snapped. “Mitsuko-chan saw my true self in the moment of my reawakening. The laws of the spirit realm dictate that she is the only one who can fulfill this task. I swore to help her return home in exchange.”
“Even though it was someone from her village who sealed you away in the first place?”
“That happened a long time ago… I was vengeful after being betrayed by those I swore to serve…” his voice trailed off in a whisper. Mitsuko glanced down and held the lantern closer to herself. “But that isn’t the problem right now,” Hisoka said. “What happened to my temple?!”
“Nature happened.” The Tengu shrugged. “Some hundred years ago, an avalanche caved the entrance in. It’s been like that ever since.”
The spirit vanished back into the lantern with a tut as Mitsuko giggled.
“There’s an entrance along there,” the Tengu said, extending a finger towards the east side of the mountain. “I’d be careful, though."
Mitsuko bowed and thanked the Tengu before following its directions. Approaching the face of the mountain where the steps once were, she noticed a stone path along the side.
“That’s the path the bird mentioned. Don’t worry, it should be safe.”
“I’m not worried. Even if it’s not safe, I have you here.” She giggled when the only reply was an embarrassed glow.
The spirit reappeared as the entrance came into view. “This is turning into a bad joke."
“There’s a barrier over the entrance. As if sealing me wasn’t enough… I’m starting to believe that someone does not want me to regain my real form…”
“But I’ve seen your real form before…”
“Yes, but you haven’t seen it since, and there’s a reason for that. This temple isn’t technically mine, it’s the resting place for my… well, for the lantern.”
“What about you?”
“I need this place because the only way to regain my true self is to return the vessel of my imprisonment to its proper place. That’s the only way to break the seal on me. Once that is completed, I’ll finally be able to cross over,” it said. “Any hatred I had when I reawakened is gone now, perhaps because of you.”
“Yes… I died alone, feared and betrayed. When I tried to seek revenge, I was sealed away. It’s been a long time since anyone has shown me any kindness.”
A peaceful silence fell over them. Mitsuko approached the entrance and held out the lantern.
“This barrier is sealed by a riddle, naturally. There’s nothing easy in this world anymore. ‘Without air I am nothing, but with it I am death’. …Excuse me?”
The girl sat and stared at the entrance in silence as the spirit debated with the seal. As she watched the angry wisp try to burn the barrier away, something clicked. She stood, interrupting Hisoka's magic.
“What was that for?! I’m trying to get us through. Would you rather freeze out here?”
“I know what it wants!” she said. “The answer to the riddle! The answer is ‘fire’!” As she said the word, the barrier crackled as though in flames, burning like paper.
“Of course it would be something obvious."
The hall beyond was simple, if small. Mitsuko adjusted her hold on the lantern and kept one hand on the wall to steady herself as she walked over piles of rock. Long cracks flowed along the walls and ceiling around, wide enough for mice to inhabit. They both stayed quiet as she walked, and even the sound of rodents stopped by the time they saw the pedestal. She stepped to cross the threshold when something hit her hair. Reaching up to grab it, Mitsuko found a stone in her grasp.
“Move!” The cry was too late. The child moved and threw the lantern to safety, but the caving frame still hit home. The dust settled and the lantern slowly rolled into its resting place.
Light and flame flashed into a man's ghostly form. He was tall and slender, with a young face framed by dark hair tied in a thin ponytail.
He drifted over to where the rubble covered Mitsuko. “Damn!” There’s no time to send her back… She won’t make it… “Gods, how could you even think of me before yourself like that?”
She coughed and shook her head. “Y-you were like family to me…”
He smiled. It was small and sad, but it was real. “Silly girl… I’m here for you. And I will continue to be here, even when you wake up,” he whispered, watching her close her eyes one last time.
Catherine Arbour is a Professional Writing student with a background in animation and a bias towards fantasy. She frequents as many conventions as she can, mostly in the Ottawa area. When she isn’t writing, she can be found playing video games, reading, or knitting as part of the Spiritual Centre’s Knit ‘n’ Knatter.