The Moonlit Path

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 1 (v.1) - dark shrine

Submitted: September 11, 2019

Reads: 182

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Submitted: September 11, 2019

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“We’ve lost the sun...”

Mizaki turned his eyes from the steep path ahead when he heard his daughter’s voice.

“It appears so, Ai” he replied as she gently pulled back on the reins to slow her horse to a pace equal to that of the wagon her father guided along the curved road leading upward toward the ancient shrine.

“I don’t understand why you’ve decided to transport the mirrors to such an isolated place,” she said, “and one so difficult to reach.”

“For those two reasons alone this was an excellent choice,” he declared. “It‘s less likely they will fall into the hands of thieves, especially since the shrine is located so close to a ghost town abandoned after a deadly plague.”

Their conversation was interrupted abruptly when the scout Mizaki had sent before them rounded the curve ahead on his way back to report. He smiled when he saw the small caravan then quickly rode to meet them as Mizaki slowed the wagon to a crawl.

“The stairs leading to the shrine are a half mile ahead,” informed the scout as he approached. “We’ll have to leave the horses and wagons behind when we reach them. Apparently the rumors we heard were accurate.”

“Rumors, Kosuke?” questioned Ai.

“Hai,” he confirmed. “It was rumored there were a thousand steps leading to the shrine. Although I didn’t count them personally, there certainly appears to be that many. When viewed from the ground, the stairs seem to fade from sight. It’s going to be a long and difficult climb, especially carrying those large mirrors by hand.”

“We will do what we must,” Mizaki responded. “Lead the way. I want to be done with this before the sun sets.”

“It’s past mid-day,” said Ai as they began to move. “We will have to sleep at the shrine tonight.”

“Hai,” her father replied. “There should be plenty of room. All of the monks have left. Only the caretaker, Hsiao, and his aide Souta remain.”

They continued the arduous ascent in reflective silence until the road began to level out and disappear into the trees. The path was more narrow there but soon led to a small clearing, with more than adequate room for the two wagons and fourteen horses.

Including Mizaki, his daughter Ai and Kosuke, there were fourteen in their party. There were three mirrors, each requiring four men to lift and carry. If his calculations were correct, they should be securely packed away in storage by sunset.

The small group patiently waited while Kosuke climbed the stairs to announce their arrival, and were pleased when he returned in less than twenty minutes with Hsiao and his aide.

The grey in the caretaker’s hair and lines on his face betrayed his years. Mizaki and Ai bowed in respect when he approached.

“You’ve come a long way,” he said as he greeted them. “I’m Hsiao, and this is Souta. He will help your people transport the mirrors. You and your party are welcomed to stay the night. We’ve rooms prepared.”

“Ariegatou gozaimasu (Thank you),” Mizaki replied.

While he and Hsiao talked, Ai felt as if she were being watched. Instinctively she turned her eyes toward the trees where, for just an instant she saw a shadowy shape suddenly duck from sight.

“What is it?” her father asked.

“I’m not sure,” she replied slowly. “I thought for a moment I saw a young girl watching us from the shadows,” she said as she pointed, “over there.”

Souta looked the direction indicated then glanced nervously at Hsiao, which didn’t go unnoticed by Mizaki.

“I thought you two were alone at the shrine,” he remarked.

“We are,” Souta replied, “the only residents.”

“And the town nearby is abandoned?” asked Ai.

“Hai,” he replied.

“Then…” Ai began.

“You may have seen Ayaka,” said Hsiao.

“Ayaka,” Ai repeated. “Colorful flower. A nice name. Who is she?”

“A child from the village.”

“You said the village was abandoned…” Ai began

“Should we unload the mirrors?” Souta interrupted. “It will be dark soon.”

“Hai,” agreed Hsiao, putting an end to the current conversation.

“Yes, of course,” Mizaki said. He gave his daughter a wink then placed a finger to his lips indicating silence as she began to speak. “Ai and I can carry some of our supplies. After the mirrors have been moved a couple of our men can remain with the wagons and horses for the night.”

“There is a small well at the shrine. You can draw water from there for yourselves the horses,” offered Hsiao.

As everyone busied themselves, and just as she and her father began to follow the caretaker up the stairs, Ai briefly scanned the trees around them for a sign of their silent observer, to no avail. She had an uncomfortable feeling, which she blamed partially on Souta’s interruption earlier, but there was more. Something she sensed but could not explain.

 

By evening the work was done. Mizaki and Ai watched as Souta moved the thick sliding wall back into place, sealing the mirrors in a hidden room.

“Perfect,” said Mizaki. “It was because of that secret room I chose to have those enchanted mirrors brought here. I was not concerned about protecting them from the world…”

“But protecting the world from them.” Ai finished his sentence.

“Hai,” her father agreed. “Their magic is good in essence, but after the events that led to the death of the samurai Ahn Sung Ji, I know they can be employed and manipulated by negative forces for the purpose of evil. Much better that they are tucked away and secured in a holy place rather than at the castle of my former employer.”

“Sanada’s sister is an old and dear friend,” said Hsiao. “I’m pleased I am able to be of service to her.”

“So am I,” Ai stated happily. “Father has a gift when it comes to magic, but those mirrors always made me uncomfortable. Although they could reveal possible future events, I felt it is better we don’t know what will come. Mother always taught me to learn from the past, live in the present and pave the way for a better tomorrow by making wise decisions today.”

“Excellent advice,” mused Hsiao. “She must have been a patient and intelligent individual.”

“She was,” said Mizaki

“She taught me well,” Ai added. “Before she left this world she asked me to always take care of father. I’m not certain if she passed on that responsibility to distract me from the grief of losing her, or if she sincerely believed father needed someone to watch over him.”

“A bit of both I presume,” Mizaki said with a smile.

While Hsiao and her father shared a laugh, Ai glanced for a moment at Souta, who quickly turned his face from her, as if in guilt or shame. As before she let it go, but inwardly wondered about his odd behavior since she had mentioned seeing the young girl in the trees at the clearing.

 

Later, awakened by an uncanny sense of being watched, Ai opened her eyes to see a young girl seated quietly on the floor near her pallet. Startled, she blinked then squinted as the girl slowly rose and turned to glide away.  Pausing for a moment at the curtain that served as a door, she looked back at Ai, then, without moving it aside, abruptly passed through it as if it wasn’t there. Ai rose quickly and followed her into the torch lit hall, where the girl stood waiting.

“Ayaka…?” Ai spoke.

The child smiled, then turned and silently moved on, pausing after a few steps to glance back again at Mizaki’s daughter, as if she wanted her to follow. When Ai took a step her direction the girl continued on her way, leading her outside of the shrine through the darkness to a wooded area a short distance from the building, where she suddenly disappeared. Ai hurried to that spot and a few feet away saw Souta kneeling before a small stone memorial. He slowly turned to look as she approached, but did not seem surprised to discover her there. When she came closer she saw that he had placed fruit, bread and a small cup on a flat rock in front of the memorial.

“Did she lead you here?” queried Souta.

“Hai,” Ai replied.

“She’s restless since you arrived. You are the first woman to visit this shrine since she died,” Souta explained. “Ayaka was my niece…my brother’s only child.”

“She was so young…” mused Ai. 

“A victim of the plague,” said Souta. “My brother died first, followed by her mother. By the time I arrived at their home Ayaka was gone and her grandmother soon after. Most everyone in the village and surrounding area had left by then. Those unaffected or those who survived abandoned the others.”

As she listened she thought about what he said initially, that Ayaka was restless since she arrived. She was reminded of Kasumi then, a young girl who became attached to her after losing her mother. It made sense, she thought, why Ayaka would only now show herself.

“Where is her mother buried?” Ai asked.

“At the cemetery outside the town, beside her husband.”

“Why did you lay Ayaka to rest here…alone?”

“This is a holy place,” he replied. “Peaceful and quiet. Safe from grave robbers. I am closer to her here and can visit her daily.”

“She should be near her mother,” Ai said firmly. “That is why she is restless. If you want her to remain here, close to you, then you should move her parent’s remains here as well. I’m surprised Hsiao hasn’t suggested it.”

“He doesn’t know I’ve buried my niece here…” Souta reluctantly revealed.

“Ah so…” Ai responded thoughtfully.

"I can only imagine what you're thinking," said Souta. "It's long past time to tell him."

 

The following morning, Mizaki awoke with a foreboding, an uneasy feeling, as if something were amiss. The eerie impression was reinforced by a gloomy, overcast sky. He sensed something uncanny was afoot, and later assumed it was due to the clandestine actions of Hsiao’s assistant. He and his daughter Ai stood by as Souta revealed to Hsiao that he had moved Ayaka’s ashes to a small, makeshift memorial on the grounds of the shrine.

“That explains a lot,” said Hsiao. “I knew she haunted this place, but had no idea why. I believe the best thing to do now is to bring the urns of her parents here and place the three of them in an appropriate grave inside the shrine.”

Souta bowed low in gratitude, and begged for forgiveness.

“If you want my forgiveness for misjudging me, you’ve got it. But I trust that from now on you will have the confidence to speak to me regarding anything. If you had asked about bringing your family’s remains here to begin with, I would have happily granted your request.”

 

Later, following breakfast, as Mizaki and his entourage were departing, Souta thanked Ai for her intervention and informed her that he would retrieve the urns of Ayaka’s parents before the day was done.

Afterward, as the small caravan began their descent Ai’s attention was drawn to place in the trees that lined the clearing at the base of the stairs. For just a moment Ayaka appeared there, and when their eyes met, she smiled and then slowly faded from sight. It was the young spirit’s way, Ai understood, of showing her gratitude.

Although the others were oblivious of Ayaka's brief appearance, while they made their way single file down the mountain they were aware that unlike the previous day, the woods were quiet. There was no breeze to stir the trees, and no sounds of birds or insects. The closer they came to the bottom of the escarpment, the clouds began to lift, until finally at ground level the sky was clear, with the exception of that area directly above the mountain. That part of the sky was still overcast, with grey and black clouds swirling as if being stirred in a celestial mixing bowl.

Ai paused for a moment to look back and was mildly shocked by the sight. Mizaki, noticing her confused expression, likewise turned. Although not surprised by what he saw, the foreboding he had sensed earlier returned with a vengeance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2019 C Wm Bird. All rights reserved.

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