THE SOUL WALKER
Disclaimer: I don't own Ginko (though I wish to the highest power in heaven that I did), nor do I own the concept of mushi. I DO, however, own Akira, and the concept of Mushi-Hime.
Dreams embrace the coming of change: night visions can reflect the deepest truths of the soul. But beware emotional attachment to those you meet at night, or you may lose your very self to its power.
The young woman smiled shyly at him, her long light brown hair clashing exotically with her fair Japanese features. Her eyes were aglow with life and supernatural energy, shifting from brown to yellow and back again, so they appeared to flicker like twin balls of fire. She knelt before him, hair covering her beautiful face and falling down her sky blue kimono like a bronzed waterfall. He crouched beside her with a sigh of exasperation, tilting her chin up with one finger to see her face. Her eyes were full of tears, and she shook in terror.
He smiled at her empathetically, trying to calm her down. "Don't cry. I will find you."
She stared into his eye and smiled, though she was still obviously shaken. Suddenly, her eyes flashed fiercely, and she grabbed his face in her hands and kissed him deeply, her fingers locked in his snowy hair. He gasped in protest and fought against her, but without understanding why, he found himself surrendering to her lips, returning her kiss passionately, sinking deeper and deeper until . . .
Ginko awoke with a start. He looked about himself groggily, getting his bearings faster than most would. His campfire had gone out, but stars still specked the sky. Dawn was still far off. The forest was relatively peaceful, though every once in a while the animals and mushi would peer at him in curiosity from the shadows. He sighed and fumbled in his coat for a cigarette.
"I'm getting really sick of these dreams," he said to no one in particular. Every night for three weeks, the same strange dream. Every day for three weeks, wandering through mountains and forests, seeking its meaning. Whenever he closed his eyes, she was there, silently pleading with her eyes. Always the same. The kiss was new though.
He smiled ambivalently, running his fingers over the back of his head where she had grabbed his hair.
"I must be getting close," he murmured.
The next morning, Ginko wandered into a dilapidated village on the edge of a bamboo forest. The fields were overgrown and full of weeds; every house's paint was cracked and peeling; even the air seemed to be in a state of profound neglect. Hesitatingly, he knocked on one of the doors.
"Come in, if you wish," murmured a raspy feminine voice, bland and almost inaudible. He slid open the door and stepped inside.
A fire burned brightly in the hearth, but even with this light, it was difficult to see the woman crouched in the southeast corner. Slowly, as if with great effort, she tilted her head up and looked at him. Her hollow black eyes were set in an abnormally pallid and wrinkled face, which was framed by clotted and tangled black hair streaked with grey.
"What happened here?" Ginko asked, reaching for a cigarette.
The old woman smiled grimly, showing off her blackened teeth and red gums. "It all started with a girl," she said, her dead eyes flickering with recognition. "My daughter, Akira.
"Akira was a very happy child, full of life and energy. Her late father and I had to be constantly vigilant for scrapes and cuts, for she loved to run barefoot through the forest. We used to call her our little Kami." The old woman laughed bitterly. "She had quite the imagination, too. In fact, she kept a diary of all her fictional adventures in the forest."
Ginko crinkled his forehead. "A diary? Do you still have it?"
"Yes," sighed the old woman, "but I can't see why something like that would interest you, traveler. They're just stories."
"All the same, I'd very much like to read it. But after you finish your story, if you don't mind." He smiled charmingly.
"Yes, of course, if you want to hear it. I hope I'm not boring you."
"No, you're not. Please tell me about your daughter. There's got to be more to the story."
"Yes. . ." she sighed in what might pass like pain to the monotoned. "Yes, there is. When Akira turned eighteen, she was engaged to the son of one of the local lords. She wasn't entirely pleased about it, but she agreed to marry him to help our family."
"So what happened?"
"One day, Akira started acting strangely. She stopped smiling, which was incredibly unusual for her. I was afraid it had something to do with her upcoming wedding, but then . . ."
"Let me guess. Then it got worse."
"Exactly. She stopped leaving the house. Then, she stopped eating. Soon, she didn't even speak. It was as though someone had. . ."
"Taken away her soul?"
The old woman gasped. "Yes!" She looked at him, puzzled. "How did you know?"
"I'll answer that in a moment. First, I have a question for you."
"When did the other villagers stop going to work?"
"About a week after Akira stopped moving. Why?"
Ginko sighed. "I've heard stories like this before. My guess is some kind of mushi is responsible for your daughter's condition. But I've never heard of a mushi like that who could affect an entire town."
The old woman grimaced. "Mushi? I should have guessed it would be something like that. So you're a mushi master, are you?"
He smiled, his vibrant green eye sparkling. "That's right. My name is Ginko."
"Well, Ginko, do you think you can save my daughter?"
He looked at her, startled. "What? She's still here? Still alive?"
"Yes, although I'm not sure if you could say alive." She gestured to the northwest corner of the house, where a large pile of rags lay. He stood up and walked over to it.
Placing his hand on the top sheet, he pulled it aside quickly.
"I should have guessed." He stared at her. "So, Mushi-hime, we meet at last."
The girl was just as beautiful in real life as she had been in his dream. But the alluring spark of life he had seen in her was gone. Her eyes were open, but hollow and unseeing, as though someone or something had striped her of her soul. He leaned his ear over her mouth. She was not breathing. Yet, her skin was warm and supple: life was still in the hollow shell, somehow.
"How long has she been like this?" Ginko asked.
"Almost four years now," she relpied. "But the oddest thing is that she hasn't aged at all."
He stared at the body, searching for some clue. Suddenly, he saw it: a slight glow about the nostrils, as though a candle was wedged deep inside her skull.
"Well, that's interesting."
"What?" asked the old woman.
"There's mushi residue on her. But the mushi I know who causes these symptoms, the Sabishiineru, doesn't leave residue."
"So, can you help my daughter?"
"I don't know," He looked up, his eye alight with curiosity. "But now I'd really like to read Akira's diary."
Ginko sat on the floor, a dusty scroll open in front of him. He flipped through it relatively quickly, stopping from time to time to stare at a picture or a line of text.
"Interesting," he murmured, then looked up, meeting the old woman's gaze. "This isn't a diary like you thought. This is a field journal."
The old woman started. "What?"
"It seems your daughter could see mushi. These stories are actually accounts of meeting mushi in the forest." He wrinkled his brow suddenly, pointing at the passage open before him, near the end of the scroll. "But this one, this is a mushi I've never heard of before."
He read the entry aloud:
I was sitting on my favorite boulder in the middle of the forest when I saw it: a ball of fire flickering between the stalks of bamboo. I was worried, because I thought the forest might be on fire, but I found myself both unable and unwilling to move. My flight reflex vanished, and I began to feel sleepy. Although the flames were still a long way off, I could feel their heat deep inside of me, and it was accompanied by a great peace such as I had never known before. I soon found myself completely relaxed, and I curled up on the stone and fell asleep.
I awoke to find myself surrounded by living flames. I tried to scream, but found the impulse taken away from me almost as soon as it started. The flames were all over my body, warm but surprisingly not painful, cooing at me in delight. Then, suddenly, they left, and I walked home in a daze.
Ginko looked up at the woman and smiled, his eye sparkling with interest.
"I think I might be able to help," he said, pulling his wooden pack on his back and walking out the door. "I'm going to go have a look at that boulder."
Evening was near by the time Ginko left the village, the lazy haze of dusk casting magic on the houses and trees. The forest was eerie in the half-light, every shadow holding something strange and unknown. He pulled out a cigarette and wandered deep into the dusky depths of the forest, breathing in the fragrance of early night.
He found the large rock quickly, as though he had been drawn to it by some mysterious force. It was dappled grey in color, streaked with water marks and sea green lichen. Nothing unusual there. But still, he had the feeling that someone or something was watching him, and he didn't like it very much.
"You might as well come out," he called. "I know you're there."
A glow shyly appeared from behind the stalks of bamboo in front of him, purring soflty and flickering like a blaze. As it approached, the flames gradually began to take on shape, and Ginko found himself staring in awe.
The beautiful young woman stood before him, flames playing about her body like kittens to their mother. Her eyes shone even brighter than the flames, and the energy from her gaze held him transfixed.
"Welcome, mushi master," she crooned. "I'm glad you found me."
"Akira." Ginko smiled warmly. "Or should I say, Mushi-hime?"
The girl gasped, a cry of confusion caught in her throat. "Mushi. . .hime?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you knew what you were." he held a hand over her translucent shoulder, unable to actually touch her. "You were so informed in your journal, more so than many mushi-shi I've met. You could talk to mushi back then, couldn't you?"
She sighed, lowering her eyes. "I still can." She looked up at him. "But can't you? I mean. . ." she gestured at herself.
"Yes," he replied, "though not as well as you can. For instance, I could never grow so close to them as to become one myself." He stared at her, smoke drifting between them like a barrier between worlds.
She stared back at him, giving him the uncomfortable sensation of being absorbed into her firey eyes. "What are you saying?"
"You can't go back to the human world, can you Akira?"
Her eyes widened and began to fill with tears. "No," she sighed. "I want to, so very badly, but I can't return to my body." She curled up against the stone and cried softly.
"I think I can help you," Ginko said, perching abover her on the rock.
She looked up at him, wiping nearly invisible tears from her cheeks with the back of a hand.
He smiled down at her reassuringly. "You're a rare individual, Akira. Very few people can see mushi at all, only a handfull in the whole world. and of these, maybe only two can actually communicate with mushi in a meaningful way. I think that's probably why this happened to you."
"What exactly did happen to me, Ginko?"
"Well, I'm not sure, but I have some ideas. The little flames around you are an undocumented form of mushi. My best guess is that they survive by feeding off of the emotions and personality of their hosts. When you fell asleep on this boulder, you probably inhaled one of them by accident, and due to your close bond with the mushi world, you actually absorbed it into your soul. That's why these mushi follow you around: you're like a sister to them." He cocked his head, studying her. "Then, one night, while you were asleep, your soul wandered off into the woods to talk to the mushi, and now you can't find your way back."
"So what can you do to help me?"
He reached into a compartment of his pack and withdrew a small scroll. "I discovered this ritual in my travels not too long ago. It's a trade, of sorts. I can use it to remove the effects of mushi from anyone who can see them. But, in exchange, their memories of mushi and everything connected to them will vanish."
She stared at him in disbelief. "But I've seen mushi since I was a little girl! I'd have to lose almost all of my memories. Isn't there anything else you can do?"
He stood on the rock and glared back at her. "No. I'm sorry, but I don't know enough about this mushi to come up with a reasonable cure."
"Sorry? You're sorry? This is my life we're talking about! You don't know how to help me? Then what do you know?"
"I know that, as long as you remain here like this, you will continue to destroy the lives of everyone you love.
Akira hissed in annoyance. "What do you mean?"
Ginko slid down the rock and sat next to her on the forest floor. "These mushi around you are multiplying at a tremendous rate. If you do not make the trade, these mushi will consume your entire village. A lot of damage has already been done. Soon, no one will feel joy, pain, sorrow, love, or anything else. They will be alive, Akira, but they will stop living."
"I understand what you're saying." She dropped her gaze and clenched her petite hands into fists. "But I don't want to lose my memories. It's like starting all over without anyone to love or care about, no one to tie you to the world. Do you have any idea. . ."
He drew her eyes to him with a sidelong glance, his own emotional loss reflected in his eye.
"You. . .you. . ."
"I can't remember anything before I was ten years old."
She looked away and blushed in shame. "I'm sorry."
He smiled softly. "Hey, don't worry about it. It wasn't you who wiped my memories. But I hope you understand, if there was another way to fix this, I would take it."
She stood up and paced the forest floor, a hand on her chin. "I've got it!" she cried, one finger raised triumphantly in the air. "What if I leave the village. If I don't stay in one place for too long, no one will get hurt, right? I could even travel with you!"
He looked at her in surprise. "Sorry, but I travel alone. Besides, you deserve a normal life, Akira. Be reasonable."
"So do you." She gazed back at him with intense eyes. "But you didn't get the choice. You're a mushi-shi. Your life will never be normal. Why should I give up my abilities to live a normal life when someone like you sacrifices his own desires to protect everyone else? Let me come with you."
He glared at her, annoyed that she'd put him in a corner. Finally, he relaxed and sighed, fumbling in his coat for a cigarette. "Ok. You can come with me, as long as you don't get in the way." He smiled amusedly at her gleeful expression. "But you have to promise me that the minute I figure out how to return you to your body without negative side effects, you will find a place to settle down and make a new life for yourself."
"Sounds like a deal." She giggled, but even before she stopped laughing her eyes darkened. "Wait. Ginko, if I suck the emotions out of people by being around them, won't I do the same to you?"
He smiled, impressed. "Normally, yes. If I were a normal person, that'd be true. But I think that in order to absorb emotions, the mushi has to be able to feel them strongly. That means that as long as I keep emotional expression to a minimum, I should be ok." He grinned widely. "Good thing I'm pretty stoic, huh?"
"Ok, mushi master," she said, laughing. "You've made your point. Let's get moving."
"Sure. But I have to stop at the village first." The pair walked back towards the village together.
Akira gasped when she saw her body in the corner of the dimly lit hut. Ginko looked at her and smiled.
"That's gotta be pretty strange for you," he whispered, amused.
"What?" croaked the old woman in the corner. Ginko looked at her.
Damn it. That's right. She thinks I'm alone. "Nothing. Just talking to myself."
"Did you find a cure?" She looked at him hopefully. He grinned reassuringly at her.
"Maybe. But I'll need to take a lock of your daughter's hair with me."
"Whatever you need."
He walked over to Akira's body and cut off two chunks of her chestnut hair. Ginko thanked the old woman, flashed her a charming, if sardonic smile, and left the hut, Akira in tow.
"Why did you need locks of my hair?" she asked him. "Are those for when you figure out how to put me back into my body?"
"Yeah," he replied. "That way, we won't need to carry your body with us."
"But two? Why two locks?" She concidered this, a hand on her chin. "Aha!"
Ginko started. This is not good. I wonder if she'll be mad.
"I get it! It's in case one gets lost! You're so thoughtful!"
He sighed in relief. "Yeah, that's right." He placed one lock inside a crystal pendant which he the placed around his neck, casually placing the other in his pack with the rest of the oddities for sale. "I'm just going to keep it here so it's safe."
The sun began to rise over the tall bamboo, illuminating the path they wandered on. Akira turned to Ginko and smiled.
"I'll see you tonight," she giggled, placing her incorporial hand near his cheek in a mock caress.
"Wait," replied Ginko, startled. But it was morning, and Akira was. . .gone.
Or was she? Ginko looked about him, searching for a sign. There! A tongue of flame circled him, floating above the ground, and he almost thought he heard it giggle.
The moon smiles on two shadow-driven travellers with fire lighting their path; each bears their unique curse, neither yet strong enough to bear the other's. The dreams of deep night are souls in communion; yet in the day, these sreams dry up like summer ponds.