Izanami leaned against the boulder, panting and sobbing from the run and the rage. She had not been thinking when she had said those words to Izanagi. It had been said in anger. But so many of the words they shared with one another were said in anger. She hated that. And yet, they just seemed to come so easily when she was around him. Take what had just happened. She had died in childbirth, and watched her husband murder the child she had died for in a fit of pique.
She had been heartbroken from the loss of their child. So she had told him that she could not leave the underworld. She had talked with him for a while, and his determination had been enough to win her over. She had thought, maybe, he still loved her. Then she awoke, to find him screaming at the sight of her in the light of a burning comb. He had fled, and she had chased. He had placed a boulder in her way, sealing her in. Like she was a monster. She shivered at the injustice. She was not the child-killer.
The land was lightless. She had wandered through it for a while when she had died, knowing it through her divine nature. It had been mostly a great disappointment. It was much like the regular world, but utterly empty, and without light. It was, in point of fact, a rather lonely place.
There was a knock at the stone. She frowned, and waited a moment. Another knock cracked through the air. She knocked on the stone herself, lying there, her flesh ravaged by maggots, her bare white knuckles rattling against the stone. It rumbled, and rose very slightly There was the smallest crack visible. She held her eye to it, and looked at another god. She knew he was a god, because she knew gods when she saw them. The man smiled pleasantly. “I seek the Goddess Izanami.” His voice whispered through the crack, full of the scent of dry air and distant sand.
“You have found her,” she stated, voice dull and lifeless. She was exhausted. It had not been easy, seeing the horror in her husband’s eyes. He had been so eager for her, once. Even at the worst times, he’d found her desirable, at least. “What do you want from the queen of the dead lands?” she asked. It was a silly thing to claim, but there was nobody else in this land of the death. She was the single most powerful creature within the sunless realm. Who was really going to tell her that she couldn’t be queen? “And who are you, stranger?”
“I am Enlil, God of Gods, Lawfather, Peacemonger. I come seeking the power of a god or goddess of death. We seek to work a great artifice, a place of many, where humans and gods can live side by side, so as to make a place of rest. The humans die under the touch of monsters, and they do not grant us the belief that we demand of them. We would see them brought properly to heel, so that we may tame the heroes among them, and make them our things once again. We need one who holds the power of death, the power of borders, to create the proper seals. Will you join us?”
She hissed. Something about the man reminded her so much of her husband, aggravating the wounds in her heart. “I have no interest in preserving the lives of those pathetic things that my husband creates. I have sworn to destroy them, and I shall not accept them while they still live. Go, god, and leave me in peace. I have no interest in your artificity.” She grabbed the stone, and heaved it down, closing the gap. And so she went forwards into the underworld, and made it her realm.
The second outsider came an uncountable number of years later. In underworlds, time passed in strange ways. It could have been a handful of days or millenia. For Izanami, it felt like a year, enough time for passion to die down, but not enough to die off. The stranger was familiar, and something of him must have reminded Izanami of her husband, because she struck the stranger across his cheek when she found him in her court. He took the blow with aplomb, and gave his best smile as he stood up straight again. “Hello, mother. Father sends his warmest regards.” Her second blow was with a closed fist, and caught him in the nose.
He took a few seconds to wipe the blood away with a silk handkerchief before he continued, his voice somewhat more nasal. “I see that you are just like the stories he told.” He was dressed in a fine blue and white silk kimono. Despite his youth, he had a fierce, proud set of facial hair, a beard and mustache that gave him a dignified mien when they were not stained with his own blood. A large curved sword hung from his belt in a lacquered wood sheath.
“And what, precisely, are you here for?” she asked, watching him coldly. He reminded her so much of his father. She saw nothing of herself in him. “And who did that bastard father of yours shack up with once he locked me into this place? How on earth did you even arrive here?” She narrowed her eyes. The young man hadn’t moved the boulder. She would have felt it.
“I am the wind. And as I am given to understand, when father wiped the pollution of Yomi off of his face, I was created from his nose.” The young man self-consciously brushed his own nose. “And I have been sent because father wishes to see you. There are plans afoot, to create a great city.”
“What, is this Enlil’s fool invention again? It is a foolish thing, as I told- What?” The boy’s eyes had widened at the mention of Enlil.
“The desert god came to see you? He built his city, centuries ago. It was what inspired us. But we need someone, a border guardian. One who can sanctify its barriers, and so hold the forces of the Horsemen out. Father says that you were always the most brilliant crafter of seals. It took me a year and a day of journeying on the deepest, darkest currents of the ocean simply to find my way into this place; clearly, he was right.” The boy bowed deeply. “I beg of you, mother, to join us, and help-”
“I am not your mother, little god. I am a woman your father used to sleep with. You are not mine. You may be a product of him, and of this dark place, but I never carried you within my womb. Leave, now, before I decide to take offense.” She spoke in a hiss, her voice low, and harsh. And he bowed, and vanished, leaving her to brood in her court for a long time.
“Izanami.” They were there one day. A face that was split between healthy, fresh-faced, blonde hair; and blue, pallid, bald flesh. The intruding goddess wore a voluminous robe, and winter frost nipped around her as she smiled. “A fine realm you have here. Darkness suits you.” The goddess slowly stepped through the court, waving a hand, and the darkness shivered like a hound trying to decide which human was its master.
Izanami stood up from the place where she sat, a simple bench, and reasserted herself over the realm of darkness with a wave of her hand. At a certain point, others had appeared in the realm. Some were the dead who believed in her. Great or small, they all found themselves under Yomi’s hand, eventually. Izanami sighed softly, as she studied the newcomer.
“Let me guess. You seek a god of death to build a city. What makes this idea so compelling to my kind? Why do so many come to me in search of someone to forge these places?” She growled. “I have no interest in humanity, or seeing it survive. If I had the choice, I would see them all die.” She waved a hand. “Why do you not simply go?” The goddess nodded slowly, and in a flash, she was gone. And it seemed like Izanami had barely sat when another one appeared. “Oh, fantastic. You, too, come to offer me a chance to yoke myself for the sake of humans?”
The figure was skeletally thin. He wore a black silk hat, tall and broad. A fine black jacket was wrapped around his shoulders, and a pair of dark-lensed glasses sat on his nose. His skin was black, and he chuckled good-naturedly. “I’ve no interest in anyone enslaving themselves.” His voice was nasal, probably because of the two cotton plugs in his nostrils. A skull was painted across his face. “What fucking many-legged insect crawled up your ass and died, lady?”
He carried a massive cigar in one hand, and a glass of rum in his other hand. He tossed back the rum in a single swallow and threw the glass on the floor, filling silent Yomi with the sound of breaking glss. He held the cigar to his lips, and lit it, taking a deep breath. In a single massive inhalation, the cigar was ash, and he belched out a massive gout of smoke. “I’m here because you are the world’s most gigantic bitch, and we’re all getting just a little bit worried about it!” He spat on the floor, and grinned broadly at her.
“You incredibly unmannered-”
“You are wasting your existence!” the man roared, lighting another cigar, and waving it around in a broad circle around his head, until the smoke from it surrounded him like a halo. “Look at you! Ruler of death, and you are wasting eternity brooding away as though there is nothing worthwhile in your life anymore! What on earth could possibly be possessing you?!” He took out a small, white stick. He thrust it between her lips, a broad grin on his face, as he took out a small plastic lighter. She was too shocked by the complete lack of manners to spit out the foul little tube.
“I don’t need anyone else to help me build my city. I have no need for another god of death horning in on my racket.” He winked. “But you are allowing the world to pass you by. Do you even know what has been happening among the humans?”
He lit the cigarette, and she inhaled. The smoke made her cough, but she took a second puff anyway. The leaves within had been soaked in rum, and the smoke was sweet as she breathed in again. The man grinned broadly. “Now there is a more attractive look for you!” He gave a deep bow, and she narrowed her eyes. She didn’t care for flattery. She reached up, and plucked the cigarette from her lips, its tip lighting up the court spectacularly. In the utter absence of light within Yomi, even the slightest flicker burned like a supernova.
“I have heard small things from the people who die. But the realm of the living holds no interest for me,” she lied. “I am dead. I shall not be alive again. There is nothing more to it. Why should I give a damn about the things that happen there?” She lifted the cigarette back to her lips, and took another long, slow draw from it, letting it cast its merry light.
He laughed. “Well, all I know is, those humans are accomplishing some very interesting things. These cities started to keep them from all dying out. Nowadays, though? I’m thinking that maybe, they exist to give us a safe place. If we started a war with them… Things could go bad.” He reached up under his hat, and took out another large glass of rum.
“This much is certain, though. You’ve got a grudge against a man. I don’t know much about your family, but I’ve never met a dead woman without a grudge against a man. And from your expression, he was your man. He threw you over, or pissed you off somehow. And so you are stewing down here, full of rage, trying to show him what’s what, or to get over your feelings for him.”
He passed her the large glass of rum, the amber fluid glittering in the tumbler, a pair of ice-cubes chilling it. “But I’ll tell you a little secret. Living well isn’t just the best revenge. It’s the only kind of revenge worth having.” She drank the rum. It burned pleasantly going down. Then she threw the glass at his face, as hard as possible. He caught it, though it was a close thing, and he laughed wildly as he disappeared from her underworld, following some unseen path away from it.
She contemplated what he had said for the better part of what felt to her, subjectively, like a day. Then, there was a flash in the sky of Yomi, and just for a moment, it was brilliantly lit. Then, souls began to fall. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of them. Fifty thousand souls rained downwards into Yomi. They were flash-fried, flayed, pulverized, and they screamed in terror as they fell into the darkness. She stared wordlessly at the sight, and for the first time ever, she opened a path to the surface. It had always been something she was capable of. She simply had no desire to see anyone there before.
She wasn’t certain how much time had passed when she arrived on the surface, but it couldn’t be more than a few days. She took a deep breath of the salty sea air. The city had been nothing but an inconsequential fishing village, until the Portuguese had arrived. She had heard of the city many times, usually cursed on the lips of Japanese dead. It had brought so much chaos. Today, however, it was a thriving harbor town. It seemed calm. There was some sign of damage, partially burnt buildings, a few that had collapsed inwards. The streets were emptier than they should have been. But the city certainly didn’t look like a charnel house. Izanami frowned, and then her gaze was drawn upwards.
Three suns shone in the sky. One of them was natural, the same sun that she had not seen in millenia. The second was divine, a dark-haired woman in robes of red and white. The third was foreign. As Izanami watched, the divine sun flickered, and disappeared, and the woman was hurled towards the ground. She fell like a star, appropriately enough. And then the foreign sun flickered, and was brighter than the real thing for a while.
Radiation sluiced down, heat and a dozen other kinds, each more lethal than the last. It couldn’t do Izanami much harm from this distance- she was already dead. At most, it killed some of the maggots in her ravaged body, and sterilized her withered flesh. The shock-wave hit next, and she rocked on her heels, her feet pounded into the stone by the sheer force of the pressure wave. She grunted, and stood up straight, as the buildings around her crumbled. Then, she began to walk towards the crater as the city burned in the impossible heat of the terrible sun.
She found the divine sun, lying in a crater. The woman looked, unaccountably, a bit like Izanami had when she was young and beautiful. Her pale skin was stained with ash and soot, and she was sobbing. She didn’t look much like her father. Izanami reached out, and could feel the woman’s soul, straining. She was on the verge of death. It would have been well within Izanami’s rights to simply pluck her soul away, and bring the sun into the depths of the underworld.
Instead, she waved a hand, and green flame sigils of Yomi appeared on the woman’s body, binding her soul back into place. She waited a moment, as the binding took place. She would live until Izanami released the bond, by which time, she would be healthy and able to survive without it. “Who has done this? What god has scarred our land like this?”
“Not-” Amaterasu coughed. Blood flowed down her chin. Izanami wound the bindings a little bit tighter. The sun-goddess took a deep breath, and tried again. “Not gods. Men. Foreigners. They made something. Something horrible. Somethings.” She sobbed. “I couldn’t stop the first one. Didn’t see it coming. I was prepared for this one. I tried to stop it. But… My islands…” That beautiful, perfect voice was burnt and ragged as the goddess spoke. Izanami nodded unsympathetically, staring around.
Amaterasu had invited the disaster. She and her foolish line. Izanami knew that they were not innocent victims. They had wounded others, and had been wounded in turn. And yet, Amaterasu was not the one whose shadow was burnt across the walls. She was not the one who had died, if only because of Izanami’s timely intervention. Izanami stood up, and let her eyes travel across the cloud. It was still rising. A column of smoke ending in a colossal cap. It reminded her of one of the mushrooms of Yomi. She could feel the sickness on it. The poison. A poison that was more effective than any she had.
Izanami followed the invisible lines, to those who had brought this cataclysm. The vessel flew through the air, carrying those who had dropped the bomb. And Izanami saw evil. The Horsemen may not have pressed the button. They may not have flown the plane. They may not have been the one who signed the order or who prototyped the weapon. But they were in the hearts of those who had made it. The Horsemen ran rampant in the hearts of men, and now, those men could burn goddesses out of the sky. How long would it be until they could storm the gates of Yomi itself? She shuddered, and no longer felt safe ignoring humanity.
“I am going, Amaterasu. Learn from this. The humans have humbled you. Don’t forget the way it feels.” She sighed softly. “I remember how it felt, to be burned, to die in the flames. In that case, it was my own child. But you invited this upon yourself by dancing too close to them. They are things to be held at arms length.”
Izanami spent that day, treating wounds. There were many for whom there was no hope. She was a goddess of borders, and many were far past the line between life and death. But she tried with those who were close, and she saved a few lives. It felt strangely good, to keep them out of Yomi. At the end of it, she and a half-dozen yokai who had survived the bomb set off. They traveled through the underworld, between doors, to the place where the bomb had come from.
There, she traveled through the camps, and saw all the people who were suffering. For their skin color, for their ancestry, for the mistakes of others. She offered a few of them the chance to follow her. While they waited in Yomi, lit by the light of a cigarette packet that she had left them, she walked into the manor of the Crone of Zion. The woman was haughty, and age wore heavily upon her. Her hair was gray, and she seemed bent under her responsibilities.
“Goddess of death. We have no need for your services here. We have created a proper binding to keep the Horsemen out of this place. What do you seek?” Izanami studied the woman. They both knew what it was to birth monsters, and to love your children even when you knew they would die. The crone was bent heavily by her losses, while Izanami was beginning to grow strong again. The crone had truly loved her husband, and had seen him taken away. She had seen her children stolen from her. That made her dangerous. She assumed she had nothing left to lose.
“I am not here for power. I am here to seek shelter. The humans grow dangerous. I come to this place because you have created a place of safety, and my people are in need of safety. I will help you to maintain this place, if you will allow them here.”
“And if I refuse?”
There was a silence. It lasted for just long enough for the Crone to tense. Then Izanami replied with all the calm of the grave. “Then I shall be forced to search for another place. One more established. One which has confidence in its ability to resist humanity.”
“What makes you think I do not have it in me to destroy humans, still? I have spent the last two thousand years honing my craft.”
“And you look every day of it.”
“A fine sentiment coming from a corpse.” The woman was silent for a few moments. Then Echidna sighed, and waved a hand. “I suppose there is room enough here. Bring your people. Be welcome here. Do not interfere with my hunting. Do not attempt to usurp my authority. We shall get along splendidly,” the mother of monsters lied.
“I am sure we shall be friends in no time,” Izanami lied.
Years passed. The foolish Crone went on her hunts for the man who had wronged her. Izanami simply did not think of Izanagi. Time did not slip past like it did in Yomi. There was always something new to be done, some conflict to be solved, some plan to be made. And one day, she felt an urge she had not had for many years. She wanted to care for a child. And she decided to visit China.
It was a strange thing for her to do, but a part of her felt sick every time she visited her native land. Nightmares of burning children and scorched goddesses. So she traveled to the great continent, passing its walls with the ease only death possessed. She cut bureaucratic tape with her bare hands, and found a young girl whose parents had left her in the cold to be taken by death. Izanami appreciated a good ironic touch as much as anyone else. Besides, the girl was special. She would be a monster.
Izanami had been a mother many times. It came easily to her, and the simple action almost made her feel alive again. There was something about watching the young woman grow up, making the same mistakes and new ones to boot. Others had questioned what kind of monster she was, and Izanami did not share that. She did not think it was anyone’s business, in particular. But she left hints for her daughter.
“And so, Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing traveled to Mount Emei, and took the magical herb, and brought Xu Xian back to life. When he returned to life, he still loved his wife, and maintained his desire for her.”
“Weird.” The young girl snorted. She was eight years old, and mouthy. “Why would anyone want to be married to a big scary snake?”
“Ah, a good question. And I suppose the answer is that while looks will fade, certain things never do. Good cooking, for example. A warm and sympathetic ear. A tender heart. In fact, White Snake Maiden used to be a horror story, you know? Bai Suzhen was a terrible monster, like the Nogitsune, or the Kejourou. Fahai was the noble hero, attempting to save the foolish farmboy’s life from a demon.”
The girl mused for a while, toying with her white hair. She was made fun of by the other children. Izanami would have torn their souls into Yomi for it, but the PTA meetings would grow terribly awkward after that. So instead, she told this story. “Why did it change?” she asked frowning.
“I suppose that men may be strange. Attracted to that which is different, even though most wind up repelled when they realize how different it is. I would not count on any romance to complete you. But I promise you, you shall always be my daughter, and I shall always be your mother.” She smiled.
Susan was a stroke of luck. The two girls arrived home, both bruised and scraped. They explained the story, how Susan was bullied by a group of cruel children from a grade below Isabelle’s, mocking her for being Chinese, and for her strange green eyes, calling her a halfbreed. Children could be strikingly cruel, especially when raised by cruel parents. Nobody was foolish enough to raise the issue to Izanami’s face, where she could tear their souls out through their chests, but they spoke to their children. And their children honed the venom with great skill.
Susan’s own parents were much like Izanami, unable to conceive, and had taken the girl in out of the goodness of their hearts. She was lonely. Isabelle was, too, for that matter. So Isabelle had fought, and the two of them had been hurt, but hadn’t let the others push them around. Izanami cleaned the two up, told them that they had acquitted themselves well, and made them sandwiches, before making a few very threatening calls to the parents of the other children. She did not have to be fair or impartial. She was a goddess.
They were together like that for eight years. Then the boy arrived.
From the first time the Constantinou boy showed his face, Izanami knew he was trouble. It even overwhelmed the joy Izanami felt at the sight of the mother of monsters tamed by some human. Seeing the pathetic old snake head over heels in love was comical. But Dean… Isabelle was instantly enamored with him. She adored him, heart and soul. And Izanami knew that he would betray her. He wouldn’t intend to, but he was young, foolish, unaware of the power he held, or uncaring of the delicacy of Isabelle’s heart. Irayama knew, from the moment she saw him, that he would be her Xu Xian. Fate was not to be denied.
So she allowed things to continue, and waited for the day when she would be needed. Mount Emei was now a quarry gravel. The herbs that restored life had died when China had industrialized. It was a great loss, but hardly unique in its tragedy. Humans broke the beautiful things in the world and replaced them with ugliness. They were their father’s children. But no matter. When the phone rang, and Isabelle spoke on the other end about what had happened, her voice shaky, Izanami would be ready in a different way.
It was not easy telling Isabelle the truth when she turned 18. Izanami had to show her part of Yomi to help her believe it. Her shape, that of a beautiful maiden with the lower body of a white snake, was striking beyond words, but her lack of humanity weighed on the girl. Isabelle grew somewhat detached, and worried a great deal, as Izanami knew she would. She worried about what Dean would say. Izanami did not answer.
And on the night that the boy died, she comforted her daughter when it had happened, and promised to provide an alibi. The evidence in the shack would be a problem, but not an insurmountable one. There would be other, greater issues.
The diagnosis would never hold water. Botulism toxin, what a laugh. It wasn’t meant to, though. It was sufficient to keep the body in the morgue, until the night of the half moon. “I know you would like to believe there is something more significant here. But it is my professional opinion that his death was a simple accident, and a poisoning by wound. It is sad. But it is not a crime!” She took the cigarette out of her mouth, and ground it out in the ashtray on the chief’s desk. She knew how the woman hated the taste of smoke in the air.
She stamped out of the station, satisfied at the part she had played, and turned her head towards the outsider. Some FBI agent, sent here to assist thanks to Pearl’s meddling. She would have to move quickly. No doubt he would back up her suspicions, and have the body moved to where she could do no good. Amaterasu had taught her a lesson about the trouble humans could cause if not watched.
Her daughter was suffering, sobbing in her room, when Izanami returned home. She made the girl her favorite tea, and let her rest. Susan came by, and was very understanding when Izanami told her that she was not up for visitors. Then the doorbell rang again. Izanami met the two of them at the door, rum-soaked cigarettes caught between her lips. Pearl, and the agent. The chief of police spoke first. “Those things are going to kill you someday, Irayama. You mind if we talk with Isabelle?”
Izanami narrowed her eyes. She could make all of this go away, given just a little time. What she did not need was a pair of fools trying to enforce justice without thinking about the consequences. “My daughter is currently somewhat distraught over the death of her boyfriend, as you well know, officer. She was crying for three days straight, the last time you talked with her. I would rather she was not disturbed-”
“Mama?” Izanami turned. Her beloved daughter was standing in the stairwell, dressed in nothing but a blanket. Izanami’s mind drifted as she argued, and then relented. She did not want her daughter talking with the police. Not because she would give away the plan, her daughter was smarter than that. She just didn’t want the girl suffering any more than she already had.
It wasn’t her fault. It would never be her fault. This was the way the story was meant to go. Isabelle was simply a player in a great drama. And she would have her happy ending. Izanami’s story ended in tragedy; But Isabelle could have joy in her life. There would be great strain before she was done, but it would end. When the careless two inevitably left her daughter in tears, she ushered them out, and made her daughter tea.
That night, she entered the police station, dressed in a robe that hid her face. She stole the life from the video cameras with a wave of her hand. There were no others in the building. She tore the door off its hinges, ripping it open effortlessly. She could have moved subtly, but she had no need for that. In her slender frame was enough strength to tear a man in two. Enough to tear a mountain in two. She tore through the front desk, and carried the body out, wrapped in its body bag. She carried him all the way to the cemetery.
A delicate calligraphers brush laid the marks on him. He had not been dead long. His body was not decayed, thanks to her daughter’s quick actions. She sat as the half moon rose, continuing her work transcribing the ideograms of life and death. At last, the moon rose to the proper position, and she began the ritual.
Green flame surrounded her. The flames of Yomi, outside of its supernatural darkness, were a curious bright green, and glowed brilliantly to make up for their muted aspect in their home. The light glowed in the boy’s tattoos, filling him up, as he began to stand up, moving. She could feel his soul. Then, something in the darkness reached out, and seized his soul, yanking it into back out of his body. The sound of a tremendous howl filled the air, a scream of agony, as the soul was torn free of the bindings. The body dropped to the ground. She frowned. She had not expected that.
“Silas Nash, FBI.” She turned. The young man from earlier stood just outside of the ring of green light, pointing a gun at her. She sneered under her robe. “Put your hands up. You are under arrest for… For desecration of a body. And probably breaking into police property. And… And likely… quite a few things besides that. You have the right to re-”
“You fucking idiot.” She growled, her voice twisted by a touch of necromantic magic. No need to make herself too obvious to the trigger-happy idiot. He was terrified, his words cracking and unsteady. Confronted with something utterly beyond him.
“N-no need to curse-”
“I’m trying to bring the little prick back to life, you fool. You are distracting me at a critical juncture. Now-” The man fired his gun at a headstone, knocking out a small chip of granite. Izanami rolled her eyes under the hood at the show of machismo. “Pathetic.” She started walking towards him.
The pistol roared three times. Bullets smacked into her rotted flesh. She did not feel any pain or discomfort. It was no nuclear weapon. “Tools of men. Useless. You’re not even a hero.” Perhaps if he could wield some of the power of fate, he could have stood a chance. He still would have lost, but he would’ve had hope. She waved a hand, and brought forth the dead.
It was simple to fill the bones to their brim with the flame of Yomi. The walking bones were not powerful. They did not need to be. They would kill the human, or scare him off. She allowed the green flame to consume her and Dean’s body, taking her to Yomi, as she considered the ritual. Why hadn’t it worked? Had the incantation been off? She could feel something interfering with her. She shook her head. Simple enough to fix. She just needed time.
The world endeavored to make her life more difficult. The next day, the shack burned down before she could comb it for evidence. The day after that, there were riots in the street. The man had survived, somehow, and had gained the favor of Ariel. He was still nothing, though. She laughed as Megara beat him senseless.
Echidna, however, was a far greater danger. When the woman had struck, Izanami had been genuinely unsure if her preparations would be able to stop the blow. It had been a great relief to see that her plan had worked. That night, however, the shield was tested further. Clouds rose from around Echidna’s manor, and lightning bolts struck the dome. Izanami watched with increasing alarm as the houses cracked under the pressure, tiles shattering as the old Crone tried to break the defense that Izanami had spent decades preparing, with alarming success. It stopped, abruptly, and she was left waiting for the other shoe to drop.
It came in the next night. Intruders into Yomi. Yomi was not a simple afterlife, like most. Heroes did not enter it. Nobody used it as a shortcut. It was her place, and she guarded it jealously. She had allowed it to grow wild for seventy years, but that brief time did not matter to the land of shadows. She waited, in her city, in her court, and watched as the two arrived. One was that young lady, Cassandra. A good soul, if troublesome and prone to poor decisions. Her parents were hard-headed, but the girl herself was some evidence that relationships between the different cultures could work, one of the few reasons Izanami had allowed Dean and Isabelle to see each other. The other…
Izanami lit one of her cigarettes, and watched with some satisfaction as Nash’s eyes widened in response. “Aaah, Cassandra. Good to see you, dear.” She spoke sympathetically. The girl had been through a lot. Izanami would make it better for her. “I’m sorry about your mother. I hadn’t counted on intermarriage when I was preparing the barrier. I am sorry. I am trying to find out a way to fix things. You are free to go through the door. Agent Nash and I have something to discuss, first.”
Cassandra looked up at her. The girl had changed a lot in the last few days. Defiance was still there, but it was being tempered with wisdom and confidence of others. “… If it’s all the same, I’m going to wait for him.” Izanami laughed softly, a smile on her face. She could see the way the young girl looked at Nash. The need for his approval. He had believed in her, unlike everyone else. He had bound her to him with the thoughtless gift, driving a 14 year-old girl into the darkness of death just to please him. She’d seen it so many times before.
“Humans. What a bunch of pricks. And yet my daughters cannot help but make the same mistakes their mother did, and forget what superficial creatures they are. Just like their maker.”
“You were the one who stole Dean’s body.” Nash was not frightened. It had been three days since she had set the skeletons on him, and the man had been transformed. Before, he had a low stance, bent and embarrassed all the time. Terrified of his own so-limited strength. Now, he had confidence in himself. He had the arts in him. He had three spirits and their blessings. All in four days. It was ludicrous. An affront to Izanami. “What were you trying to do with it?”
“I don’t think that matters much to you, Mister Nash. Do you know what I am?” she asked, sarcasm dripping from her words, a sneer on her face.
“Izanami.” he answered, with maddening nonchalance.
“No, that is my name. Do you know WHAT I am?” He stared into her eyes. And so she told him. He did not wince or grow shame-faced. He simply said that he was different. And Izanami’s heart flickered back into life. It had been so long since she had felt a proper rage. She remembered the sound of disgust in Izanagi’s voice. And Nash insulted her, just as Izanagi had. She lunged, and caressed his chest, just over his heart, and he crumpled. Merely mortal, after all.
Cassandra let out a sob, tears running down her cheeks, her hands on her lips. Izanagi turned towards her, sympathetic. The poor girl would be traumatized. “I am sorry, dear. It had to be done. He was-”
“No, you stupid old woman.” Cassandra’s tears ran down her cheeks, and Izanami held back the urge to slap her. “You woke it up.”
Izanami turned. The human stood. Unsteady, but very alive. She recognized the look in Nash’s eyes. It was so familiar, the same glorious light that had burned in her nightmares for decades. The artificial sun, snuffing out a divine one. Her end, finally come into Yomi, as she had foreseen all those years back. “Impossible,” she whispered, fighting to keep the horror out of her voice. The fear of death. “You cannot be alive. I stopped your heart. Not even the Sisters could preserve your life in this place.” He didn’t answer. He simply took on a stance, as the wind picked up around him. The air of Yomi stirred for the first time, ever. Earth rumbled under him.
She struck, and he reversed her blow. He was strong, and fast, but he couldn’t do her any real harm throwing her against the floor. She bounced back to her feet, and charged him. He was filled with rage, but he was not so skilled. She would have him. She followed him around the circle, trading words with him thoughtlessly. He moved without grace or elegance, his movements breaking the ground. Making it unsteady and ruined. If he thought it was to his advantage, he was wrong. She knew this place perfectly.
“What good do you think this will do?!” she asked, mocking. “You haven’t got a chance-” She paused, and realized. Damn. She still hadn’t learned her lesson.
The world twisted around her as he lifted several tons of Yomi’s dark stone into the air, reversed his grip, and brought it down. Slamming it into her like Izanagi had slammed down his boulder, crushing her as Izanagi had crushed her heart. Again, and again, until the rock crumbled. Her bones didn’t break, her flesh didn’t bleed, but it hurt her deeply nonetheless.
She lay in the rubble. Remembering Amaterasu. Remembering what had happened when a god had touched the fury of man. Fighting him head to head was dangerous, foolish. She could not beat his fire with hers. She would have to cheat.
She stood up, and puffed on her bent cigarette. “Ahahaha. Such anger in you, human. Such rage. Where do you learn that? Is it from your mother? Or is it from the company you keep?” She didn’t know the man’s past. But every man had a mother, and she’d never found one who didn’t feel something about her.
He turned away from Cassandra, facing her once again, and spoke in that unbearably calm tone. “I trust that you are not going to die of your wounds in your own realm. So I will go, to find the truth out from your daughter, and you will allow me to go. I will not tolerate any more interference.”
“So arrogant. Well done, though, human. I had not expected you to give me pause. But I love my daughters. Foolish girls though they are, with soft hearts. And I would sooner let the sun burn out than let them come to harm.”
“You don’t seem like you pose much of a threat.”
She could feel the rain approaching, responding to her call. She had never needed to call it before. No threat had been foolish enough to come here. But it would win the fight for her. “There is a rain in this place.” It surged, a storm-system that was an extension of her own dark hate for this arrogant human. “It comes when I call it. It is a poison beyond any other. It will stop your heart, sear your nerves, rot your flesh. It kills only the living, and I shall enjoy watching as it consumes your flesh. Cassandra, if you don’t wish to share this human’s fate, I would recommend you use the door, now.”
The two intruders exchanged a look, and with his permission, Cassandra darted through the door. She was glad for that. Izanami could not bring herself to murder Cassandra to stop this man. Foolish though she was, she too was one of Izanami’s daughters.
Then, the rain fell. It put out the cigarette. And in the darkness, for the first time since she had left Yomi and felt the sun, Izanami fell back into her true monstrous shape. “You are arrogant, human. I will rip the life from your bones, tear the skin from your corpse, and offer it as a gift to your friends. Nobody threatens my children.” The rain fell. She watched the man’s head dip. He had given in. Finally. She reached out, and tore the tent aside. The words came to her from afar, carried on Yomi’s dark winds. “You will not kill again, human.”
The rain fell with a soft patter, striking the dark stone and filling the hollows. The man swayed, and she waited for him to die. For this nightmare to be over. For the city to be safe again. It was within reach. She would save Dean, she would save her daughters, and all would be right once again. Once this madman was dead. She laughed into the air, and felt her heart lighten. The man continued to sway, and her laughter died slowly.
The raindrops fell in thick torrents around him. They should have killed him at a touch. But he swayed gently out of the way. Each moment, it seemed as though a raindrop would snuff him out. And each time he dodged them by the barest of margins. Her hatred could not touch the man. She shrieked in rage, and lunged forward. Her hand swung, wreathed in blackness, and failed to make contact. He shouldn’t have been able to escape through the rain, but he did. A spray of maggots filled the air as her hand came down, missing him by a hairsbreadth.
“Why do they protect you?!” she shrieked. “You are nothing! You are no hero! You are nothing special! You are nothing but a human!”
He didn’t answer her. He was humming a lullaby, soft and gentle, his eyes closed. An expression of utter contentment was on his face. The fire that had burned in him before was gone, replaced with a perfect serenity. He took a single step towards her, and she stepped back involuntarily.
She tried to strike, but he was inside of her guard. His hands moved up, like a tango, taking her in his arms. One hand around her wrist, the other around her shoulder. She towered over him, but he held her as easily as a lover. His fingers dug into her waxy flesh, tight as iron. She let out a gasp as he dipped her low, as though he was preparing for a kiss. Her fingertips, glowing with darkness, rested inches away from her throat, bent in his arm, unable to move.
“Would this work on you, too?” he whispered, voice as soft and implacable as the rain should have been. It fell around him, refusing to touch him directly. The influence of that meddlesome Heather. She closed her eyes, and lit a fresh cigarette with her free hand.
“I suppose that I would rather not find out,” she growled. She had a terrible feeling that in his hands, it would. “Why? What are you trying to prove? Why do you want to take my children away?”
Nash released her gently, letting her settle to the ground. He watched as her body changed, becoming human once again, lying in the ragged clothes on the sodden ground. He didn’t flinch away from the sight of her true shape. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. I want to find who War is using. I want to save this city. And I want to help you bring back Dean.”
“… You could have saved a lot of time if you’d told me all of that before,” she noted accusingly.
“Would you have accepted my help?”
She didn’t respond. The man had a talent for saying the things that hurt that was nearly as effective as her own. She sighed, and sat up. “You’re right. It’s my daughters fault he’s dead. I thought I was strong enough to bring him back. I thought that the story was right for saving him. But he refused. The little prick.”
He offered her a hand. She stared at it for a moment, and doused the black energy of Yomi around her hands. “I think that if I talk to your daughters, if I figure out exactly what happened, I have a chance. I think I know why you can’t find his soul. And I think we can save him, if we work together.” He met her eye, and the inferno was gone. “Please. Trust me.”
“You’re the first human who’s seen me in my true form since I died,” she whispered softly. “But you didn’t flinch away.” She took a deep breath, making the cigarette flare. Then she took his hand, rising to her feet. What use was there in returning to the world if she didn’t enjoy making some of the same old mistakes again? There was a crunching noise, as the door was made whole again, a passage to her home. “Come on, then, boy. We’ve got a lot to talk about.” She opened the door. “What do you know about the Legend of the White Snake?”