WoWaMSQ S1CH7Hello everyone! At last (at last!) Chapter 7 is complete! Thank you for joining me here again and thank you to those who gently let me know that you were waiting for the next chapter – it helped while I was struggling to balance writing and other aspects of my life and feeling a little guilty about wanting to prioritize writing. I have now done that – proudly – because this is my career as well as my dream (and compulsion!)

In chapter 7 of The War of Wind and Moon, we return to Nagoya, Japan where Ryosuke and Akiko Kazemoto, of Kazemoto Security Corp’s Supernatural Division, turn their attention to the strange Gossip at St. Kilda High and the seventeen-year-old girl who might just be a candidate for recruitment – if she’s not too old to train.

I hope it was worth the wait! Enjoy!

 

Chapter Seven

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A knock at his office door drew Ryosuke’s attention from his reading. Akiko was standing in the doorway, brandishing an email open on her tablet, “You’ve requested we unbind the Gossip from Tak-kun’s friend?’ Ryosuke nodded as he waved his sister inside. “Mhmm. Probably should have been done years ago but she seems to have missed assessment somehow.”

“Shouldn’t you do a proper assessment, then, before we unbind them?”

Ryosuke was taken aback. He couldn’t remember when Akiko had questioned a decision that was entirely his to make. “I don’t think that’s necessary, no,” he said. “My staff have marked every one of her Gossip’s Memories as ‘No Further Action’ for fourteen years. I’m fairly confident it’ll be fine.”

“Sorry,” Akiko said, waving a hand and taking a seat in one of the chairs in front of Ryosuke’s desk. “I didn’t mean to overstep. It’s just I’d like to leave the Gossip in place for a while longer.”

“Why? Oh.” Ryosuke chuckled. “Aki-chan I’m pretty sure spying on Tak-kun via his friends breaches at least the spirit of the promise Dad made Hiroko-san.”

Akiko shot him a withering look. “Of course it would. That’s not why I want to leave it.”

“Why then?”

She sat back in her chair and laced her fingers together, wringing them as she answered. “When we were Witnessing the Gossip’s Memory last night, did you notice anything… odd about the other Gossips in Tak-kun’s classroom?”

Ryosuke tried to replay the scene in his mind’s eye but he’d only been interested in Tak-kun and his friends, he hadn’t paid much attention to the Gossips. “I remember there were a lot of them – it took me a moment to adjust my eyes to see through all their bodies. Why?”

Akiko’s mouth twisted to one side and she looked down at her now-red fingers.

“Aki-chan?” he asked gently. “What is it?”

At last she looked him in the eye. “I need you to have an open mind.” “I hope I always do.”

“No. I mean more than usual.”

Teetering somewhere between fascination and concern, now, Ryosuke sat a little straighter in his chair, pushed his computer screen to the right side of his desk, and took the paperweight off the scroll he’d been reading so that it rolled itself closed. He clasped his hands on the space he’d just created between them and said, “You have my full, unbiased attention.”

Reassured, Akiko took a deep breath and began. “The incident Tak-kun’s school was buzzing about? Mia hitting the big kid – Julian?” She paused to be sure Ryosuke was following. He nodded and she continued. “We skipped past it last night because Tak-kun wasn’t involved but after you left I went back to watch it, and…” Another deep breath. “I think one of the Gossips was manipulating Julian.”

Ryosuke felt his jaw slacken and it took him a moment to work out how to close his mouth again. Her words barely made sense. Gossips were observers, they didn’t act upon the world. “You’re going to have to define ‘manipulating’ for me,” he said. “In what way?”

“It whispered to Julian and-”

“No. No. No,” Ryosuke stood, holding up his hands and pacing around his desk – fully aware that shouting ‘No. No. No.’ was precisely the opposite of having an open mind. He forced himself to sit in the other chair in front of his desk. “Aki-chan, Gossips don’t communicate with humans.”

“I’m not saying it was a full, two-way communication – I don’t think the boy was aware of it at all – but at least twice the Gossip whispered in his ear just before he acted. And he acted in ways I don’t think he intended to before the Gossip whispered to him.”

“If you’re right-” Ryosuke stopped, no idea how to finish the sentence.

“I know. It goes against everything we think we know about Gossips but-”

“Everything we think we know?”

“It’s not exactly hard science is it? I mean, sure, we do our best to observe and record and experiment but even adding up every one of us over the past five hundred years, there are still only a very small number of us who can even see them – we can’t pretend to have witnessed every type of behaviour.”

Ryosuke winced. He couldn’t argue with her logic.

“Besides,” she went on, “they’re living creatures – why shouldn’t they evolve like we do?”

“Because they don’t have physical bodies like we do. Evolution requires DNA and mutation…”

“Alright, maybe not ‘evolve’, then but what about ‘learn’? They live for centuries, right on top of us, feeding from us… most creatures learn to manipulate their food source in some fashion.”

“Have you spoken to Dad about this?”

Akiko shook her head. “Not yet. I haven’t told anyone. I want to watch it for a bit, make sure I’m not jumping to conclusions before I suggest any of this to anyone. This kind of thing makes people nervous, so keeping the binding on your books instead of mine – just for while – would help me keep it under control.”

Ryosuke sighed and leaned back in the chair. “Alright. Consider my request rescinded. Are we going full cloak and dagger? Do you want me to purge my sent box of the email?”

“No need for dramatics but thank you.”

“Of course. You’ll have to keep me in the loop now, though. You can’t present a mystery like that and leave me hanging.”

“I will.” She rose from the chair and was almost out the door when she turned back. “About the girl, though, I wasn’t just trying to manipulate you – isn’t it odd for every single report for fourteen years to warrant No Further Action?”

“Not really. You know how many children are bound and we recruit maybe ten a year. Most of their records look like that.”

“I suppose, but a Gossip that’s reporting in daily isn’t bound to a kid living a happy life, that says feast of misery to me.”

“Daily?” Ryosuke tapped his keyboard to wake his monitor and double clicked on the report he’d run on Mia the day before. Scanning the date rather than the action column this time, he shook his head, ashamed. “It is almost daily. I didn’t pick that up.”

“I know it’s not my department,” Akiko said, “and I know she’s seventeen so she might be too old to train but the incident with the bully was pure hyper-vigilance. His hand had barely touched her shoulder when she spun around and swiped it off.”

“Okay,” Ryosuke said, nodding, “you make a good argument. I’ll do a proper assessment. Can you organise a random selection of Memories for me to Witness?”

“Of course. I could have the first Vaults brought in by midday tomorrow if that’s not too soon – and the Vault the Gossip reported to yesterday is still in my office, if you’d like to take a look sometime today.”

Ryosuke looked at his watch but there was no need. He didn’t have any more meetings today and he felt bad that he hadn’t noticed how often Mia’s Gossip was reporting. What if his staff had been missing things, too?

Akiko’s office wasn’t in the Aviary at the top of the building but in the basement in what was officially called The Hall of Shadows but was known by the staff as simply B2. Like most modern high-rises in Japan, level B1 of Kazemoto Tower housed a vast food emporium which attracted not just the employees of the tower but thousands of people each day who walked through the underground pedestrian streets that connected Nagoya’s subway stations. Whenever Ryosuke stepped into the double-car elevator and smelled the sweet vanilla cake of the baumkuchen stall, he couldn’t help but wonder what all those hungry people would think if they discovered what was going on beneath their feet.

If one of those unsuspecting people somehow managed to get into the lower elevator car and be delivered to B2 instead of B1, they would likely think they had stepped into the entrance hall of an exclusive, traditional Japanese restaurant. The attendant that greeted Akiko and Ryosuke was dressed in traditional workers’ clothes – white cotton kosode robes with black silk hakama trousers tied high at her waist, and black cotton, leather-soled, split-toe jikatabi boots on her feet. She bowed low and stepped to one side as the siblings slipped off their shoes, then stepped up to the miniature chozubachi water basin, fed from a spring deep beneath the building, to purify their hands and mouth. B2 was a sacred place.

Beyond the entrance chamber, dark-stained, sakura-wood floors extended down corridors to the north, south and west, lined with exquisitely painted, over-sized fusuma panels which acted as both walls and doors to the many rooms. The length of each room was indicated by a single scene painted across multiple panels, each of which could slide aside on wooden rails to accommodate even the largest creature which might need to enter. Every element of this level was hand-crafted from materials grown in the earth and the floors, the panels, even the paper-screen light-covers shimmered with the residue of life. Down here, where Akiko and her staff spent their days straddling the physical and spiritual planes, these building materials weren’t a luxury or status symbol, they were the difference between health and insanity.

As Ryosuke and Akiko stepped from the entrance hall, a wrangler came down the north corridor, holding one end of a silver silken cord lassoed around an enormous, swollen Gossip – a Vault – which almost filled the corridor. Draped over the top of the creature was a white silk cloth, covering its eyes and half of its belly. All three bowed their heads in greeting but made no sound. The silk shrouding the Vault was imbued with herbs and embroidered with symbols which put the creature to sleep but not so deeply that speaking wouldn’t wake it.

Akiko followed the Vault as it turned down the west corridor, toward her office, leaving Ryosuke to head into the changing room which was both the first room on the left and the first stop for anyone entering the Hall of Shadows in modern clothing. Inside, he found a white and black uniform identical to the attendant’s laid out on the long wooden bench and on the t-shaped clothes horse at the side of the room was a garment that would turn this basic, workman’s outfit into formal ceremonial dress worthy of a Shadow Ritual: his black montsuki. A knee-length, black silk jacket with square, kimono-like, hanging sleeves the montsuki was decorated with five small embroidered circles bearing the Kazemoto family emblem, the mythical creature Yatagarasu, the three legged crow. Awarded to them by the first Tokugawa Shogun, in thanks for their supernatural assistance during the battle of Sekigahara, the emblem was always embroidered in black thread on black silk so that it was visible only to those allowed up close. The early Kazemotos had no need to announce their approach or to be flashy about their status, those who wield their power from the shadows never do.

“You do wear that well,” Akiko said, when Ryosuke arrived at her office, keeping her voice gentle so as not to wake the Vault in the next room. “You might be married by now if you wore it more often.”

Ryosuke rolled his eyes. Akiko knew he preferred not to speak in the last minutes before a Shadow Ritual. She smiled then nodded toward the panels that made up her north wall, painted with an historical scene of a theatre full of brightly clothed patrons enjoying a shadow puppet play. Ryosuke made his way across the tatami flooring, meeting her at the middle panel.

“Ready?” she asked.

He nodded.

“I’ve removed the shroud,” she said. “It’ll wake easily.”

With that final warning, in deference to the formality of all Shadow rituals, Akiko knelt on the floor, tucking her hakama neatly under her knees, and then slid the fusuma panel open, bowing as Ryosuke stepped inside.

With the sliding-door shut behind him, the room was dark but for the faint shimmer of the wood and grass from which the room was constructed, and the brighter, blueish glow of the Vault floating in the centre of the room, a circle of salt on floor keeping it in place.

Padding across the tatami matting to a large, flat cushion placed at the edge of the room, directly behind the Vault, Ryosuke sat cross-legged, laced his fingers loosely together then rested his forearms on his thighs. In this relaxed position, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, filling his lungs, letting his stomach expand and his shoulders rise then exhaled – long and slow, pressing every last morsel of air from his physical form. He repeated this breath three more times, each time feeling his body closer to the tatami matting, heavier, more solid.

Fully grounded, now, with his eyes still closed, he turned his thoughts to his own spirit, the life force that danced between the cells, animating what would be only flesh without it. A familiar tingling spread across his skin, not unlike the first hint of sunburn. He focused on the sensation, willing it into the palms of his hands until the tingling became burning. Ignoring the pain, he opened his eyes to watch the ball of spirit energy gathering between his palms. Spinning, slowly at first, then faster as he released more of his own spirit-force, the sphere grew with every turn until he had released as much as was safe.

With his eyes still open and focused on the basket-ball-sized sphere, in his mind’s eye Ryosuke conjured an image of the wild Gossip the Vault would once have been. Balancing his concentration between the real and imagined images, he willed the spinning ball of energy into the shape of the Gossip. The lidless eyes came first, the ball splitting into two spheres. Feet sprouted next, one from under each eye, dropping toward the floor, pulling after them a shimmering, skinny leg each, followed by a deflated, dangling torso. Finally, a mound sprouted under the eyes and a split opened in it, forming the false Gossip’s tiny mouth.

His mini act of creation complete, Ryosuke blinked away the image from his mind’s eye and focused on the shimmering Shadow Gossip floating before him. He waved his right hand. The Shadow waved back. Sure of his connection, once again Ryosuke closed his eyes and moved his awareness from his physical body into the part of his own soul that was now the Shadow Gossip. This time when he opened his eyes, he found himself looking at his own face. Eyes closed. Serene.

In his temporary body, Ryosuke took a couple of experimental swoops around the room – who could resist the chance to fly? In this form, he was several times smaller than the Vault and his first attempt to poke it awake with his flappy little hands failed. Only when he launched himself at it from afar, barreling into its belly and bouncing back did the giant, yellow irises contract, forming a pupil which took several moments, and seemingly a full body shimmy, to adjust to the dim light. In full light, the Vault would instantly recognize the Gossip as being too insubstantial to be real but in the dark, its vision was limited enough to be fooled.

Spotting Ryosuke’s Shadow Puppet, it attempted to move toward it but was stopped by the boundary created by the salt on the floor below. “SSSSShhh!” it hissed, frustrated. “SSSSSShhhhaaaaree!”

This was Ryosuke’s cue. Careful to mimic the subordinate body language of a real Gossip, sidling up to the Vault, never looking it in the eye, Ryosuke approached the edge of the circle and, not being a real Gossip, crossed the invisible barrier.

“Sssssshhhhaaare!” The Vault hissed again, its stubby hands waggling in an attempt to touch the Shadow creature.

Crossing the final distance to the Vault itself, Ryosuke extended his little Gossip’s hands, spread his fingers and placed them on the enormous belly.

A rush of experience assaulted Ryosuke’s sight, sound and smell as the Vault opened itself to the Shadow Gossip – scene after scene racing through his consciousness like a playlist of disconnected videos on high speed rewind. With an effort like walking against a hurricane he called the girl’s name to mind. Mia Delaney, he chanted it to himself. Mia Delaney. The images slowed… Mia Delaney… then stopped… Mia Delaney…then began again, in fast forward this time. He was beginning to feel a little sick. Mia Delaney…

Stop. There. That was her. Curled at the foot of a bed in a darkened room, a woman stood over her, fists raised in mid-attack. In full control of the Vault’s memories, now, Ryosuke rewound to the beginning of the Gossip’s report and set it to ‘play’.