Summary: Ginko regrets using the Uroana as a shortcut. He's having trouble figuring out where he's come out, and he's at a loss on how to get back. But in the meantime, perhaps he can do some good. A trail of acorns, a camphor tree, two sisters, a mushishi, and a highly unconventional mountain master.

Disclaimer: I do hereby disclaim all rights and responsibilities for the characters in the quirky blend of worlds, especially for the one who takes his job seriously. A round of recognition is due. To Yuki Urushibara for creating the hauntingly beautiful, often melancholy world of Mushishi. And to Hayao Miyazaki, the creative force behind My Neighbor Totoro. Stories like theirs capture my imagination and stir my creativity. May they go on forever.

Chapter One: Uroana

An eerie, almost musical whistling teased at the fine hairs on the back of Ginko's neck, but he dare not adjust his scarf. He'd already let go of the chain once. Perhaps stupidly. Six steps away, six steps back. He'd only wanted a closer look at something snagged in a nest of fine roots.

Not for the first time, he was regretting his curiosity.

Ginko occasionally used the Uroana, pitch black interlocking chambers that formed an endless maze, and he knew the danger. Those who lost their way would wander forever. But this winter was unusually bitter, and an entrance had been convenient. The short-cut was meant to spare him from frostbite and cut his journey in half, but where was the exit?

Six steps forward, six back. Over and over, he replayed the moment, trying to reassure himself. The chain was right there when he reached for it.

But something was strange.

Raising his lantern higher, he scanned the echoing chamber. Some past mushishi had explored the Uroana and brought in miles of chain, anchoring it to black stone, making safe passage possible. Those paths weren't linear, like towns along a road. Mapped paths took travelers reliably between two places, but the entrances weren't convenient. Ginko only considered two of them truly useful.

This was one of them—tried and true.

And he was certain he should have reached the exit by now.

Ginko pressed his lips together and trudged onward. It was easy to lose track of time in the Uroana. No need to get worked up over nothing. It was only six steps. The chain rattled softly as it slipped through the loose circle of his fingers. Proof he couldn't be lost.

He had no reason to question the path. Even so, he grew increasingly wary.

Something is definitely strange.

Of course, he regularly dealt with the eerie and the mysterious. He'd just have to figure out what was going on. With little other choice, he walked on.

A change in the quality of the air was Ginko's first hint that he was nearing an opening.

There.

Matted tendrils draped one section of the wall, writhing and rustling in a way that made it hard to tell if they were plants or animals. In truth, they were neither. Mushi were more basic than most living organisms. They were the fabric of life itself.

"Oho?"

Ginko frowned at the snaking curtain. Clearly, this was an exit, but it was on the wrong side of the chain, which continued along the murky passage. The chain was supposed to end at the exit. Had a new opening formed since the last time he'd used this passage? None of the other mushishi had mentioned a change to the old route.

He should probably check.

Carefully stepping over the chain, he pushed one hand through the twining tendrils. Eyes shut, he endured their creepy-crawly exploration as he edged through. In a few moments, he registered light and heat and noise.

Ginko squinted against the sudden brilliance, and sunlight dappled his upturned face. Cicadas thrummed in the forest all around him. Summertime.

He grunted.

Had he lost time again? Under the right circumstances, a powerful mushi could steal weeks and months, even years.

How far off the mark had he traveled? He doused his lamp, leaving it beside the entrance as a courtesy to the next mushishi. Only the writhing hillock bore none of the usual markers. Had he inadvertently discovered a new path? He needed to investigate further.

Arranging a few stones in the traditional manner, he organized his thoughts.

This would make an interesting report.

A path between seasons.

Unusual … possibly unstable.

He should determine where he'd come out.

Ginko unwound his scarf and patted his pockets for his cigarettes. Lighting one as he scanned the area for mushi, he lowered his travel case to the ground and shed his heavy coat. This was a rich area. He could feel the deep pulse of kouki. He needed to figure out which mountain he'd stumbled onto.

"I should introduce myself."

Mountain, forest, or river—it was never a good idea to tromp through land under the protection of a master. But the only thing he could tell from here was that he was nowhere near the sea. A shame, since he'd wanted to reach a particular seaside village.

He was carrying some rare items to tempt Dr. Adashino. That man had a collector's instinct and a fascination for mushi, both of which made him Ginko's best customer. At the moment, he was carrying a comb that was supposed to add years to its user's life and a stone flower that had bloomed on the back of a mountain's master. Plus, a golden apple that may or may not have been dropped by a man with a face that shone like a god's … depending on how much truth there was to a certain drunk villager's ramblings. Ginko had bought it off him for the price of a jar of sake.

Well, then. If not the seaside, where might he be?

Pivoting on the spot, he found a single opening in the dense foliage, a green tunnel on a gradual incline. Ginko crouched to survey the passage, puffing meditatively. Nothing else for it. Dropping to hands and knees, he pushed his travel case ahead of him, slowly navigating through the thicket.

He tested the soil, digging his fingers deep into rich loam.

This close to the ground, he made out a few tracks—birds, rabbits, fox.

And acorns. They were strewn along the path like a trail of breadcrumbs. Which was only notable because he hadn't noticed any oaks in the vicinity. Accustomed to foraging, he pocketed them.

Birds resumed their summer songs, as if dismissing him as harmless.

No surprise, this close to a kouki channel, mushi were plentiful. Ginko paused before a line of them, tumbling like translucent sea stars across his path. Blowing a stream of smoke their way, he hurried them along.

The habits of mushi were familiar to him—trailing along the ground, whispering through the air, clinging to foliage. Most people couldn't see them, didn't understand their effect on the world. But mushishi studied them and knew how to counteract their influence.

His leafy pathway ended abruptly, delivering him into a shady clearing near the base of a massive camphor tree. Ginko dusted idly at the knees of his trousers and stretched to ease the muscles in his lower back. Oho, this is promising.

A faded torii arch marked this as a sacred place, and one of Ginko's worries eased. The Uroana may have taken him from winter to summer, but he was still in his homeland. He dared to hope there would be a shrine keeper or priest who could tell him where he was.

But all he found was a small shrine, little more than a cupboard, its weathered wood silvered with age. However, the ropes and paper chains were fresh enough to suggest regular tending. People lived nearby. There would be a road or a path, a village or farms.

The tree, though.

He wracked his brain, trying to remember a camphor tree situated on a kouki channel. One of his early mentors had been especially interested in the ancient trees that served as landmarks for wanderers. Ginko was familiar with hundreds of these giants. "Nope. I don't know you."

Just how far off the beaten path was he?

Craning his neck as he slowly circled the massive trunk, he nearly stepped on the child curled up amidst the roots. He hesitated, peering closely and listening with care. The girl seemed to be an ordinary human, but her clothes were of a strange design. She clutched a tiny satchel with flowers stitched onto it, and her shoes were pink. He'd never seen the like.

From what he could tell, she wasn't hurt.

Removing the cigarette from his mouth, he dropped to one knee at a safe distance. "Wake up, kid. Oiii," he softly called.

The girl's eyes popped open, and she sat up, peering around as if baffled by her surroundings. "Totoro?"

"Nope."

She turned, eyes wide as she stared.

Ginko was used to being stared at. His coloring was far from typical. He offered a small wave. "By any chance, are you lost?"

The kid drew herself up, fists balling in indignation. "Mei's not lost."

"I'm glad to hear that, since I seem to be lost." He spread his hands helplessly. "Do you live here?"

She shook her head. "Not Mei. Totoro lives here."

He hummed in polite interest, then tried again. "Do you live nearby?"

A chubby finger pointed.

Ginko stood and shouldered his traveling case, draping his winter coat over his arm. "Will you show me the way?"

The girl stood. With hands on hips, she sized him up. "Mei's not supposed to talk to strangers."

"Will it help if I don't talk?"

Mei considered that, then looked to the tree, as if for guidance. She puffed out her cheeks, then wheeled to trot away.

Ginko guessed he was on his own. At least he had a direction.

But then the girl turned back. "This way!" she commanded. She stood before a gap in the thicket.

"Isn't there a road?" He didn't relish another long push on hands and knees.

Mei's pigtails swung with her adamant headshake, and she disappeared into the undergrowth. "This way!" she hollered back.

Ginko only wavered for a moment before resignedly obeying.

End Note: Posted on December 20, 2018. 1,583 words.