Disclaimer: Not mine, boo-hoo, be kind, don't sue.


The first rays of morning stabbed into her eyes as she stepped out onto the veranda, and the wooden beads that comprised their doorway caught briefly in her hair. The rice fields were still clouded in thick ropes of fog at this hour, and the young plants looked muted, just fuzzy dots of green. Paired with the misty mountains high over head, the whole world felt no more real or substantial than her lingering dreams. The babe in her arms twisted and cooed, searching for a nipple with his fat fingers, and Rin squealed when his hand found its target.

"Shush, child!" Rin smiled at her nephew and shoved his hands away. "I ain't your Momma."

A stray dog pressed against her thigh and whined low in its throat, begging for rice cakes. "Scat!" Rin told it, and shoved it aside so she could sit down on the porch steps. Her back ached these days, now that the planting season had started, and she had no energy or inclination to listen to dogs. "Get on outta here!" she cried, and the mongrel slunk off to dig through the trash pile.

Mindful of the baby, Rin eased herself down on the bottom porch step and dipped her toes into a puddle. It must have rained all night from the smell of things, and the cool mud was heaven around her feet, coaxing the knots out of her sore ankles. Her brother would have a fit if he saw her playing like this, but for now he didn't exist—still asleep in his bed, leaving his wife to mind breakfast and Grandmother. Sister-in-law's child squirmed again, as if he were reaching his own small toes down toward the puddles, but Rin held him close and made sure he stayed firmly on her lap. Muddying her own toes was one thing; muddying Ichiro's quite another.

The mist continued swirling around the edges of the marshes, and it seemed like the road itself had a curtain drawn across it, a mystical barrier keeping the real world from everything Beyond. It reminded her of her dreams, of the faint ghostly creatures she'd seen coming to fetch her, and she fancied they'd been the spirits of her parents coming to visit. Even now she could hear them call out to her, beckoning her to follow that misty path to its end and then straight into the sky, where no one had ever gone before and no one else would ever go.

But that was something Grandmother would say, or put into one of her stories; it was not for the like of a farm girl to see. Rin shook her head briskly and gazed out at the fields again, taking in the familiar sight of water, and plants, and rice paddies gleaming like the shards of a giantess's mirror. They'd done well for themselves here, despite being out in the marshlands where the thorn-weeds were notorious for ruining the rice crop. By the muffled cursing coming from the supply shed, Grandfather was already busy preparing the seedlings for the day's planting, and Rin knew that in a little while he would be calling for help. She looked down at her muddy feet and laughed, realizing they would soon be even dirtier in the murky rice paddies. Why had she done that? Her rebellion was meaningless. There was planting to consider, and then the long nights of fending off crows from the fields, and eventually the hot summer days full of weeding, and none of it required her childish flights of fancy. She smiled wistfully and rose to her feet--

And then, as if in a dream, one of the ghosts of her childhood appeared.

He rose from the marsh-mists like a strange, fuzzy spectre, surrounded by fog so thick that it looked as if a solid wall rolling toward her. Yellow eyes, set in a hard face, glared at her impassively from the veil of fog, and she was suddenly five years old again, staring up at the stranger who'd come to visit Grandmother at her parents' wake. The rest of the picture came into focus now, yes, a strange, exotic man with stripes on his face, and hair like a waterfall crafted of ice.

He stepped out of the fog altogether, and she knew him.

"My Lord." she breathed, and ducked her head respectively. Grandfather was beside her now, still carrying a tray of his seedlings—but his mouth was pressed in a thin, hard line, and he did not look happy to see their strange guest. He bent over and laid his burden beside her on the porch, lungs rasping gamely from the effort, and Rin winced to hear of their harshness. One hand dropped to his scythe, and his thumb pressed briefly along the curved blade's hilt.

Then, as if his whole body had suddenly wilted, Grandfather sagged in defeat.

"She is inside." he said slowly and took a step backward, gesturing to the curtained doorway.

The pale ghost said nothing, but started moving again, somehow avoiding the pot holes and puddles. He mounted their porch in a single fluid motion, and his elegant boots swerved carefully around the space where Rin sat, paying her no more attention than the seed tray right next to her. He pushed aside the humble bead curtain, and swept into the hut where Grandmother lay dying.

They had known for many days now that this season would be Grandmother's last, but somehow his presence made it all the more real. Her namesake Grandmother, her teacher and mentor, had been fading by inches; now, Rin understood that she would finally disappear. She swallowed hard and clutched Ichiro tighter, trying to digest the terrible truth.

Grandmother was going to die.

She vaulted to her feet and ran to the doorway, sending the bead chains flying aside; her nephew lurched in her arms and started wailing in terror. Sister-in-law was cowering the corner of their hut, her breakfast stew all but forgotten, and Brother had his hand clamped firmly around her mouth to prevent her from screaming. Ichiro was still screaming, gasping harsh, infant sobs into the room. Rin jiggled the baby gently, trying to calm him, but he could not be eased right away. Desperate, she offered a finger to him, and he suckled it gladly. From what she remembered, their visitor appreciated quiet.

All the while the ghost simply stood there and watched Grandmother, looming beside her sick bed like a gentle giant. His alien eyes flickered slowly as he took in her labored breathing, her sunken eyes, her pale, flaky skin. Then, after some indeterminable amount of time, he made his move. It looked so out of place to see that pale specter kneeling, but that's what he did—knelt down to place a hand on her brow, and brush his elegant claws through her thin, gray hair.

Grandmother stiffened and cried out. "Who is it?" She gasped at the claws on her face. Then her expression smoothed and relaxed, and she turned her head toward him. She had not had eyes for many, many years, but to Rin it looked as though Grandmother could see.

"Yes, my lord." the old woman croaked quietly. "Yes, I know you."

The ghost said nothing in response, merely sat there and stroked her hair…and then, with a gentleness Rin had never thought a dog demon could possess, he bent down and began to whisper in her one good ear. Whatever words he said were lost to the rest of them, but it was obvious that Grandmother understood. Rin watched as her old eyes slid closed and her stiff limbs relaxed, a gentle stillness replacing the tension in her brow. Hands gnarled from years of work in the rice paddies reached up carefully to twine in his long, silver hair, and for a moment they were as deft and as nimble as Rin had remembered them when Grandmother had first taught her how to sew. Gently, almost reverently, the ghost scooped her up—lifting her effortlessly, though he only had one arm. Then he turned and started moving, and his gait was as powerful and inexorable as the march of the cold ocean tides. His armor was gone, though no one could recall seeing him remove it, and Grandmother's withered fingers were clutching at the folds of his kimono—devoted, to the very last.

Rin watched as he carried her out through the doorway, staring ahead blindly as if nothing else existed. He cared nothing of Grandfather's sobs, nor of the tears spilling freely from Brother's fair face. He simply held his head high and walked back into the mist, back into the past, and Rin knew without asking that at the end of that road he would walk into the sky and keep going, where no one had ever traveled before and no one would ever follow. For the briefest of moments she wanted to cry out and run after them, to tag along and see what was beyond that horizon…

And then the cock crowed and her nephew cooed and smiled, and she turned her back from the past and looked out at the future, in the form of the rice paddies shining with sunlight. She smiled and waved, and finally the tears started falling.

The ghosts disappeared, and the world turned on toward morning.