Chapter 3: The Master of the Hill

The next morning Ginko refused to get out of bed. For the rest of the day he remained curled up in a fetal position under the covers. His eye stared at nothing.

He curled himself tighter. His useless leg-stumps were pulled into his chest. As he did so he bitterly cursed the gods; how could they do this to him?

He could never again walk alone among his beloved mushi at night. He could never again explore the wild forests and glens to discover and marvel at those beautiful creatures. Even with a wheelchair or a cart he would be limited to travel only along the main roads, where mushi seldom ventured. He would no longer be able to watch their beautiful glow. Because of the steepness of The Hill he wouldn't even be able to visit the mushi that were floating only a few hundred yards away, right on his very doorstep.

All that was taken away from him now. He knew that his life was over.

Shuuri came into the room. She said softly, "The day is getting late and you have not yet eaten anything. Can I make you something?"

"Go away."

"Please. You must eat. You need to build up your strength."

"Whatever for? Just go away!"

She looked at him sadly in silence. Finally she said, "Yoki, I'm so sorry. I know I should have told you sooner."

Her voice started to break. "I'm so very sorry.."

His anger grew. He sat up and attacked her savagely. "Why didn't you just leave me in the snow? Why didn't you let me die? Curse you!"

His bitter words sliced through her like a sword. Tears streamed down her face. She turned around and fled the room.

He continued to brood alone in his dark thoughts. He grimly thought that he was always a walking curse to others, that he was a curse his whole life even as a boy. And now he was yelling curses at her.

He knew that many people believed he brought ill-omen with him wherever he went. More than once he was chased away by angry villagers carrying pitch-forks who believed that their troubles with mushi were caused by him.

And maybe they were right. He attracted mushi. Maybe his presence caused the mushi to create the very same problems and illnesses that he tried so diligently to cure.

He never felt so bitter and so worthless.

An hour later he sensed a subaudible vibration of the bed's headboard. It was caused by Shuuri closing the door to her own room. Ginko pressed his ear against the headboard and closed his eye to listen. He could just make out Adashino talking to Shuuri.

Adashino said, "No, it is too risky."

The girl responded, "I know Yoki. His strength. It will work."

"The bond between them would have to be incredibly powerful."

"It will be. That power, you know how strong it is. It is the most powerful force in the universe."

"True, it is. But even if it works we still might lose him forever."

"We won't."

"Are you sure? How do you know? He could suffer a fate worse than death. After you had perished at least you had your family's memories to comfort you and you were happy. But if he crosses over he will be lost in the mist. All alone, with no way home."

"The guardian will guide him back. I am certain of it."

There was silence.

Finally Shuuri said, "Adashino, we have to do this. After all he has done for us, for your village, for me, for everyone, we at least owe him this chance. No matter the risk. We need to give him that hope."

"I suppose you are right. And he would never agree to our plan otherwise."

"No, he would not."

"So what do we do now?"

"We wait."


More days passed. Ginko was refusing all food despite Shuuri's best efforts to get him to eat. He was growing weaker. He didn't care.

On the seventh day there was a knock on the front door. From his bed Ginko could hear Shuuri make a joyful shout. There were mixed voices overlapping that he could not make out clearly. A commotion.

Ginko sat up and waited.

Finally, Shuuri opened his bedroom door and entered the room. Her face was unreadable.

"Yoki, there is someone here to meet you."

"I don't care. Leave me alone."

"Please. Come out."

"Why?"

"Because a visitor is here who very much wants to see you."

"I'm not accepting any visitors." He turned his head away.

Shuuri held out her hand. "Please. Come with me. An important person is here."

He turned his head back to face her. "Who is it?"

"A mushi-master."

"Which one? I know several. Is it Suguro?"

"One that might possibly be able to heal you."

His voice was bitter again. "That's impossible. You cannot heal my legs, they are gone."

"Just come and see."

It was clear to him that she would not leave him in peace, so he finally gave in to her incessant badgering. "All right. Whatever. Fine." He waived his hand. "Bring the chair over."


Shuuri wheeled Ginko into the main room.

And there she was.

It was Tanyuu Karibusa.

He was astonished. It had been five years since he first met the girl, the Fourth Scribe of the Great Library. She was doomed by a hereditary curse to have a blackened and useless leg. He knew that it would eventually kill her. Even so, he had made a promise to her that if she could ever walk that they would travel together, side by side. They would journey together through the hills and glens of the land for the rest of their lives.

She loved him. It was only her young age and her disability that kept them apart. And now here she was, a beautiful and fully grown maiden, a far cry from the shy girl that Ginko had first made his promise to so long ago.

And Ginko saw that her right leg was now white and unblemished.

And her smile was radiant.

Behind them Shuuri and Adashino were standing and smiling at him. They were clearly enjoying the moment.

All Ginko could say was, "Tanyuu.."

She finally approached and embraced him. Her skin was soft to the touch, and her hair was long and fragrant. She whispered into his ear, "I missed you so much. I am so sorry for my delay. I would have come faster if I could."

Tanyuu's elderly aunt, Tama Minai, then groused to herself, "Why did that idiot boy have to pick such a high and remote place to live? Ugh, my back is killing me.."

Tanyuu continued to whisper to Ginko, "But as you can see Tama insisted on coming with me so I was delayed. I'm sorry. She is a slow traveller."

Tanyuu turned and addressed her aunt. "Tama, you didn't have to come with me you know. I don't need a chaperone anymore. I am of age."

Tama was indignant. "But of course I had to come! I could never miss this! I could never miss your mmpphf.." Tama stopped talking because Tanyuu had gently but firmly placed her hand over the old woman's mouth to shut her up.

Tanyuu looked a bit flustered. "Uh, my apologies. She's getting a bit senile. Just ignore her. She babbles sometimes." Tama's eyes glared back at her niece, then she nodded. Tanyuu removed her hand and Tama remained quiet.

Ginko was still in shock. "Tanyuu.. I'm so happy.. but how..?"

"It took me five years but I finally was able to contain the Forbidden Mushi and exorcise them from my leg. They are still inside of me, but now I control them so they no longer are a threat to my life. They still provide the ink for the scrolls that I write." She raised her right index finger. Ginko saw that it had a small smudge on it. "I still have their gift of magic writing and perfect memorization of the scrolls. And I have written a new scroll that explains to my descendants how to contain and control the Forbidden Mushi as well. So the line of Scribes will continue."

"That's wonderful."

She approached him again. "Yes. I am so happy now. We can now travel together. We can explore every hill and dale, visit every mountain and every deep valley, every lake and stream. We will journey together and discover all of the wonders of the mushi. You and I together."

"Yes, I made that promise to you." He looked down. "It is a pity that I cannot keep it. It would have been perfect."

"But you can."

"How?"

Tanyuu turned and presented Ginko with a small wooden box.

He asked, "What is inside?"

"Open it." He did.

Ginko chuckled to himself. He saw the soft glow of the mushi that was inside.

He understood. "Of course." He smiled. "You will be my legs."

"Yes."

Shuuri whispered to Tama, "That was quick of him. You know, sometimes that boy is not as stupid as he looks." Tama nodded and whispered back, "I know. Hard to believe isn't it?"

Tanyuu ignored the old women's jibes. The maiden then kneeled before the man she loved.

"Ginko, our roles are reversed now. I will travel far and wide.."

He completed her thought. ".. and I will remain here."

"Yes."

Adashino said, "So what is inside the box is.."

Ginko explained, "They are kairogi, which means 'flow'. They allow someone who loves another to become spiritually connected to that person and to communicate with that person over long distances. If I ingest the kairogi I will be able to share my thoughts with Tanyuu no matter where she is."

"Yes. I remember. I had no idea that such creatures existed until Shuuri told me about them during dinner on my first evening here. Truly remarkable. You must love this woman very much."

Ginko turned to face the young maiden and smiled as he said, "I do."

He had never said it aloud before. In reaction she blushed and looked down.

He continued to gaze at her lovingly for a moment, then he leaned forward and gently placed his hand under her chin and propped it up. Their eyes were inches apart. Again he said to her, "I do." She then held his hand in her own.

There was unspoken communication. He finally released her chin as he leaned back in his chair. She did not let go of his hand.

Finally, Ginko turned to Adashino and explained, "I think I was already starting to fall in love with her at our very first meeting. I didn't even realize it was happening at the time." It was because he had immediately recognized that she had an amazing depth and strength of character, which was combined with a kindness and a gentleness that he found to be so wonderful. And she had such passion for her work despite the fact that she knew it would eventually kill her. He marveled as she continued her writings and ignored the pain. He had never seen such strength before.

Eventually he slowly realized that he was indeed falling in love with her. But he knew it would never work because of his curse and because of her disability. And so instead he would come back to visit the library at least 1-2 times each year. And every time he did, he found that she had grown more wise, more graceful, more serene, and more beautiful.

"Each time I visited the library we would spend hours together in private conversation, and every minute I talked with her my love for her grew a just a little bit more." Then he looked down. "Tanyuu, I'm so sorry I never confessed to you. I didn't want to hurt you."

She used both of her hands to hold his. She was still kneeling. "You have no need to apologize. Words were never necessary. I always knew your feelings for me, just as you have always known mine for you."

Her grip tightened as she went on. "And with the kairogi we will be able to have those wonderful long conversations again no matter where I am. And not just a few times a year but continuously, with our minds sharing our thoughts and feelings for the rest of our lives."

The doctor then asked Ginko, "But isn't there a danger? If the kairogi are used too much? That eventually the kairogi will cause your consciousness to wander away from your body and drift into the endless mist and become forever lost? If that happens you will never wake up again."

Ginko turned and nodded, "Normally yes, that is true. That is why kairogi are dangerous and are normally purged as a harmful infection."

Shuuri spoke up. "It will work because Ginko's astral lifeline is now anchored to this place by the guardian. This is now his permanent home."

Adashino asked, "But how does it work?"

"All of the light-veins in the land are interconnected. They are a network, like a watershed. Eventually they lead to this place. Ginko only needs to find any light-vein and listen to the call of the guardian, then travel in that direction. Each time the vein branches or splits, he need only follow the direction of the guardian's call. Ultimately he will return here."

Ginko asked, "Shuuri, how certain are you about this? Can you trust the guardian like that?"

"Of course I can."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because this is The Hill. It stands astride the largest reservoir of kouki anywhere. This special place is where all mushi life ultimately originates. And so it has a special guardian. A sentient one. One that can actually understand human thoughts and customs."

Ginko chuckled, "A mushi that is sentient. I should have guessed. Shuuri is right, I must be getting slow."

Finally he said, "The guardian is you, Shuuri."

She smiled at him. "Follow the light veins. Listen for my call. And I will always guide you home."

Ginko nodded. "Yes, thank you. Coming back home won't be a problem."

Shuuri replied, "It will not. As the guardian I can guarantee your return. And as long as you are here with me, you will be the co-guardian with me as well."

"I see. So that explains why the kuchinawa attacked me."

"Yes. You weren't merely shooing it away. You were challenging it. It attacked you because it recognized you as a guardian. A soon-to-be-one anyway. And so it tried to eat you. It eats only guardians. And that would have been especially tragic in your case because it would have also eaten all the memories of your existence. All the help you had given to all of those hundreds of people over the years would have been forgotten."

She took a step toward her adopted son. "Yoki, I love you. That is why I am here. I cannot ever leave this place. I travelled here through a light-vein from the pond with the tokoyami. Now that I am the guardian of the Hill I can exist only here now. I am bound by the kouki under this place.

"And here I will remain. I am your guardian. Your protector. Nothing can harm you here. During your astral travel when your physical body falls asleep, I will guard it for you. As long as I am here the mushi will not approach this place. Nor will I permit any human to harm you."

Ginko then turned again to face Tanyuu, "And so I will be able to safely leave my body and travel with you, to share your thoughts and feelings.."

Tanyuu said, "Yes. It will be wonderful."

Then Ginko sighed, "I suppose it is enough for me.." His face looked a bit disappointed.

"Ginko, what is the matter? I thought you would be happy about this?"

"Oh I am. It is just that I will only be able to hear your thoughts about what you see. Your narration. I won't be able to see anything for myself. True, I will be able to reach out with my mind and share your thoughts, even your feelings, but only that. I won't be able to observe the mushi myself. You can speak to me but I will be blind. The kairogi transmits only thoughts, nothing more."

Tanyuu tightened her grip on his hand. "That's not necessarily true.."

"What?"

"If the love connection is strong enough, it is possible to communicate much more than that."

Ginko's eye lit up. "Really? You mean.."

Tanyuu was still kneeling before the love of her life. "Yes, Ginko. If the love connection is powerful enough, if it is strong enough, you will be able share all my senses: sight, smell, sound, touch, taste. You will be able to see everything I see. Hear everything I hear. Even walk beside me."

He looked down at her face in wonder. "That is so.. incredible. Why, that is absolutely wonderful! Yes! But how do we generate that much power?"

Tanyuu stood up again. "Ginko, look at me."

He did. She was wearing a formal kimono.

A red and white kimono.

Ah. So that was why Tama insisted on coming.

Ginko shook his head with a smile.

Tanyuu said to him shyly, "After the ceremony, we will need to.."

He understood.

Then he made a hearty laugh. That wonderful girl. That wonderful wonderful girl.

Adashino stepped forward and addressed the happy couple. "Ah. I see. Well, you both are fortunate. In my village I am duly authorized to perform the ancient ceremony."

Tanyuu bowed to him. "Thank you."

And so, with Shuuri and Tama both looking on as the duly designated representatives of each family, Adashino asked the couple, "Well, shall we begin?"


Some years later.

The great master was sitting on his throne. The farmer kneeled before the Oka no Omo.

Ginko looked down at him. He felt completely fake, like he was playing the role of the Great Wizard of Oz.

He sighed. Let's get this charade over with. The aging man finally spoke the required lines to the supplicant that was kneeling before him. "What is your problem, my child?"

The farmer's head was still down so Ginko took the opportunity to quietly tug at the uncomfortable collar of the stupid ceremonial robe that Shuuri had sewn for him. It itched his neck.

Shuuri was wearing her own ceremonial outfit as she stood respectfully behind him like a resplendent shrine maiden. She acted the role of his servant. Ginko did not mind that part of the charade because it prevented her from slinging any insulting jibes at him while any visitors were present. The truth was that she had as much authority in this place as he did, perhaps even more. Pay no attention to the girl behind the curtain!

The farmer finally raised his head from the floor. He trembled, then he spoke: "Great master, it is my daughter. She has faded away."

"Faded?"

"Yes. There was a lunar eclipse last month, and she ran outside to watch it..."

{ Ginko: Tanyuu, what do the archives say? }

{ Tanyuu: There was no such lunar eclipse last month. There hasn't been one in over a year. }

{ Ginko: Good. Thank you for the information. }

{ Shuuri: Hmm. Fake eclipse. Probably tsukihami. I think we can help. }

{ Ginko: I concur. }

{ Tanyuu: As do I. }

Ginko smiled inwardly. The girl could be saved. He remembered long ago the huhamukage* and a young girl he had met named Hiyako and her sister Hinata. The latter had disappeared in a similar fashion. It had happened because the girls' mother was pregnant with the twins when she was exposed to a false lunar eclipse, where the light of the moon had been consumed by the tsukihami [moon devourer]. It caused her first daughter to become an albino that could not see the sun without being badly burned. Her twin sister, Hinata, was protected from the rays of the tsukihami in utero because her fetus was positioned behind Hiyako such that her sister protected her from the harmful rays.

And so Hiyako was condemned to never go outside, to never see the sun or the birds or the sky. It had caused Hiyako to become bitter about her life of perpetual darkness and isolation. She angrily railed against her fate. She wished aloud that Hinaka could take her place, or, failing that, that she herself had never been born. Hinaka heard her curses and was in tears because she loved her sister so dearly. To trade places? Hinata asked, "How would I.. even do that?" Her sister bitterly responded, "If you cannot, then just go away! Go away!"

Her sister became distressed and fled. And the huhamukage took her and made her disappear even as it removed Hiyako's curse. And so Hiyako's wish was fulfilled. But as she faded away, Hinata was glad to die in her sister's place. For greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for another.

She was gone.

Hiyako soon repented of her selfish wish and ran outside to search for her sister in the dark. She searched and searched and finally found her as a faded shade. She was now an ethereal being who had crossed to the other side, who could not be seen by anyone except her own sister. Eventually, with Ginko's guidance, by talking to the shade of her sister and being with her constantly and holding her hand, Hiyako was able to slowly, over many days, bring back the one whom she loved.

Ginko looked at the farmer with his eye. "Do you love your daughter?"

"Yes. More than you can imagine."

He smiled. "Then there is a way."

And so together, Ginko, Shuuri, and Tanyuu, using their combined knowledge and expertise regarding everything related to mushi biology and pathology, which together far surpassed all other mushi-shi, had strived to help and care for all those who made the long and difficult trek up to The Hill.

Hundreds of villagers and farmers for miles and miles in every direction made the journey to The Hill to seek the master's help. The journey became famous, a trek known as the Oka ni Tabi, the Pilgrimage to the Hill.

And so for the rest of his natural life Ginko would remain in that place, for he knew that this was his destiny and his purpose: To help all those in need, to help them cope with and understand the most enigmatic form of life on the planet.

For he was the Oka no Omo.

The Master of the Hill.

The End


A/N:

* See the OVA episode, "Hihamukage". The episode takes place between Season 1 and Season 2.