Ocean of Trees
The dry rasp of the leather and the feel of it squeezed between my bare legs were the first things I became aware of as I regained myself. The piercing brightness of the day and the heat on my exposed skin and the ringing spitting my head, from ear to ear, washed over me next, alongside pain. My hands, lashed to the saddle horn, were numb and my wrists rubbed raw and bleeding sluggish runnels of icy-blue blood. More was dry and flaking around my ear and matted in my long, white hair.
The thought pulsed slow and low through the pain in my hanging head.
The Children of the Wolf had taken me prisoner. I had lost my fight, lost my battle, and this was the price I paid. Thrown to the dirt, humiliated, stripped, and bound to a beast of war, with a Wolf’s Son at my back, his armor cutting hard into my spine and his arms tight around me, constricting and holding me in place, as he gripped the reins.
I flexed my fingers around the saddle horn, or tried to, but they were swollen and nerveless, and the action only pulled a little whimper from me I hardly noticed. My eyes were slitted and half open, and the only things holding me up were the Wolf behind me and the ropes binding me.
Yet, as slight as my motions and exhalation had been, the Wolf’s Son realized my shift into consciousness. He chuckled a low, cruel sound in his throat, and he let go the reins with one hand, to slide it high up my thigh, almost under the loincloth they had left me with when they’d taken my armor.
“So, you’re awake again, Stage’s Son,” he said, gripping the meat of my thigh, pinching it hard with the blunt nails of his hand.
I winched at the attention to my person, as well as the sharp sting and the heat of blood on my thigh, but made no further noise, unwilling to show how my heart beat, fluttering in me, and disgust churned in my belly. They would disgrace me, I knew, but I need not give them the pleasure of crying out. My father’s army in ruins and tatters and scattered to the five winds around me, alone and powerless far from home, I was, still, son of an old line. I wouldn’t squeal for them.
I told myself so, but it was hard to resist aching my back in an attempt to pull away from his touch when the Wolf brought his hand further up my thigh, trialing blood over my snowy hide and making me wish to squirm in revulsion. If I could have struck out or otherwise fought, I would have, but secured in the saddle, as I was, I could do nothing but that. Nothing but arch my back and pull at the leather wrapping my lower legs and wrists.
The Wolf might have wrung a sound from me against my will, but a sharp click and the clatter of hooves on shale brought another of his clan up beside us, the red sun emblazoned on his shoulder marking him as a lieutenant captain. “Enough,” the man snarled, the flat of his sword slapping away the hand on me. “We have plans for this one; I won’t have him spoiled before his presentation to his gods.”
A flash of teeth, sharp and feral, under bright, angry, slitted eyes and he wheeled his animal around and returned to his place in line. The Wolf at my back only chuckled again, unfazed by the reprimand and perhaps amused by it. A hand knotted in the hair at the back of my head, twisting the long strands around brutal fingers, before the man used it as leverage to jerk my head back and whisper in my ear.
“We’re going to have some fun with you, Stage’s Son. You want to know what is going to happen to you? It’s right in front of us.”
A hot tongue flicked out to lathe over the exposed skin at the back of my ear and I struggled to pull away from it, but that was as impossible as avoiding the sight before me. The one my captures wanted me to see.
If I had not known what it was, I would have thought I’d gone blind. A wall of white blocked out my sun and pain-dazzled view of the horizon. It might as well have been a cloud come to earth, but it was neither wall, nor cloud, and it was alive. A breeze ruffled and rustled through that seeming-solid surface, making it wave and toss like the far-off sea.
The Aokigakara. The forest of the gods.
Though, my people had long ago given it another name, simply Jukai, the Ocean of Trees. When the Children of the Stage had first wandered into this part of the world, there had been Jukai and the spirits of the Pale Trees that formed it. The Children of the Stage revered the Seishin, those who lived thousands of years and stretched between earth and heaven. Once, Jukai had even been the way the kings were chosen. The spawn of the kings were released into the forest and, any who survived, could claim the twisted-thorn crowns of their sires.
But all of that was long ago, far away. A fading matter of the past, like the magic ebbing slowly from our veins, a little more each passing year. The Children of the Stage no longer came to Jukai to offer prayers or commune with the Seishin. Now my tribe feared the Yūrei, the ghosts of the restless dead, which haunted the Ocean’s shadowed glens, those specters our kings once summoned to our beck and call and cared for in their loneliness. Now the Children of the Wolf brought captives here to die. Many in my father’s army said the Wolves fed those they took to the Yūrei and listened to their sheiks from the edge of the Ocean, as the angry, sleepless dead devoured their souls.
This was my fate. My punishment for failure, and perhaps it was poetic. The Wolf was laughing at me again, the force of his hold a pain along my scalp, but I fell limp, slumping in my bounds and breathing. I may not offer my captures the sound of my voice, but the fact of my death was not an easy one. Half unknown, unrealized prayers scattered through my mind, and I partly wondered if the Seishin might hear me, here on the boundaries of their ancient habitation.
Childish. Childish and foolish to think it, but I was hardly a man yet, still a gangle-limbed fawn, not yet grown into my antlers. Velvet-covered nubs barely rose above my hair, at the top of my head, marking where the horns would now not grow, with the oncoming advent of my demise.
Young and afraid or not, I held myself to my resolve as the Wolves’ battalion reached the edge of Jukai and split. The larger group turned off to pitch camp on the open, rocky ground, while a smaller contingent, containing the Wolf’s Son, who rode with me, and the lieutenant captain, breached the interior of the Ocean of Trees.
The going was slow over uneven ground. Tangled vine and moss, the color of frosted gauze, overlaid volcanic rock. Slopes and ridges, unseen hollows and dips, all of them turned the pace to a crawl through the new-growth Pale Trees. Further in the heart of Jukai, the Pale Trees soared over ninety meters into the sky, their trunks spanning nearly ten meters in diameter, but here, at the outer rim of the Seishin’s domain, their adolescents were hardly half that height and girth. Some barely seemed different than ordinary trees.
Yet, the further from the sun of the outside world the war beasts trod, the more it was impressed on me the old magic still lingered in Jukai. Sounds fell dead, and despite the teaming life I sensed around me, the birds did not sing, the insects gave no noise, and the air itself hung still. It was said compasses did not point straight here, and turning my head up to the ghostly leaves above my head, I believed it true.
Old. The Ocean of Trees was old as time, and it did not welcome intrusion. The Wolves’ war animals felt it, and the march came to a point they would go no further forward. There was some low, murmured cursing, but not even the Children of the Wolf dared speak too loud and break Jukai’s buzzing silence. They cut my bounds, forced me to my knees before the largest Pale Tree in this portion of the Ocean, and lashed my wrists together behind my back.
Kneeling there, splayed-legged in the fern covered dirt, with a blade laid along my collar from behind, to ensure I did not move, all I could do was take in the Pale Tree in front of me. It was not one of the oldest, the giants of the inner Ocean, but by no means was it an adolescent, either. At a glance, I measured it close to seventy-five meters tall. An adult, if one that had been so for only what would be called a short time in the reckoning of those who did not die by natural causes.
The Pale Tree overshadowed a glade, barren of much other growth. Ferns and moss blanketed the small trees and rounded stones rumpling the ground. Vines hung and tumbled from its overarching branches, and the light was muted under its wide, overlapping leaves.
This would be the place I died.
In the next moment the Wolf’s Son holding a blade to my neck confirmed it. “Praying, Stag’s Son?” the man above me asked, voice rough and low in the unnatural hush. “You should plead with your deities in the time you have left before you meet them.”
I let my eyes drift to the man standing over me a moment, but did not turn my head to him, instead letting my attention return to the Pale Tree above me. Prayers… Why was it… everything… wanted me to offer supplications in this place? And yet, was it not appropriate? Here, in the place of death and magic, where the spirits of the in-between grew tall.
Settling back more on my hunches, despite the blade that dug into my hide at the movement, drawing blood, I let myself go slack and raised my head to the air, so all I could see before my eyes were the dancing snow-colored leaves.
“Seishin, you who stand in the doorway, lord of equilibrium, you who hold the opposites apart, you in whom earth and heaven unite, my plea goes to you. Open for me the pathway, clear the threshold, and make my way apparent.”
The old words fell from my lips easily. A fawn’s prayer, taught the yearlings in their nests, and just as useful. Above me, the papery-pale leaves rustled, but did they hear? It was true the old magic lingered strong in Jukai, but did the Seishin and Yūrei truly walk the hidden, forest paths? Once, they had been real to my tribe, but now they were creatures of myth, as much myth as the time when kings were chosen in the ways of Jukai, by fate and chance and force of will.
“Pretty,” the Wolf sneered, at last. “Let’s hope your gods heard you, Stage’s Son.”
When finally I was pulled to my feet and propelled up a mound of rock and root, to the base of the Pale Tree, I was sure nothing had heard. The Wolves had prepared an unkind death for me. They had strung a long coil of rope over one of the Pale Tree’s limbs and secured one end to a squirming root, lifting above the dirt. The other end was looped into a noose, which was hung at a height above my head. A rounded stone, which rocked on the uneven mass of ground, stone, and root, was held still, while I was forced to stand on it and the noose was secured around my neck. Then the Wolf holding the stone released it, and I needed to balance there, precariously, with my hands tied behind me and the certain knowledge I could not stand so forever. Sooner or later, I would grow tired and the stone would slide out from below my feet and I would choke slowly. I had no delusion the short drop would break my neck. No. I would choke to death.
I swayed lightly from side to side, as the Wolves led their war beasts aside, mounted, and left me. Head down and hair hanging over my shoulders and in my face, I knew evening was coming on and the Children of the Wolf would not dare remain in the forest to watch my end. They would go back to their encampment and listen to the silence of my death, find my body come morning, and spread the word I screamed as the Yūrei devoured me.
Unhurried moments slipped by and my swaying became frantic, near drifts to one side or another, followed by panting recoveries. Sweat slicked my palms, where they were held behind my back, and left a sheen on my face, and my muscles trembled, my legs shaking. It would be soon, I knew, that I fell, and my only comfort was the Wolves were not there. I could die alone and unwatched.
I was not even aware of when I slipped. One moment, I was concentrating on balance, tired, unfocused, the forest around me seeming to haze and blur, as the image of a young man wavered out of the air, like a heat wave, the next the world was tipping and I had no fear and no sensation of falling, but there was no longer anything solid beneath my feet. The rope jerking me up short was what assured me I had fallen. My face twisted and my hands clenched, but all I could do was sway back and forth, my toes too far from the ground to even brush it.
It was reasonable the hallucination of the young man should remain, as my world darkened and black crept outward from the corners of my eyes, to claim my vision. Or, so I thought. And yet…
The specter stepped across the grass and moss toward me, its feet bare and lips splitting to reveal a vicious smile, lit with sharp teeth. My heart thudded hard in my chest, as though my blood had turned to lead, and the last I saw was this vision’s narrowed eyes of decision and pleasure. And I vulgarly wondered if this was a Yūrei, indeed come to devour my soul.
† † †
Moss whispered passed my face, like lace. It dangled from a low hanging branch of the Pale Tree and waved above me through a shaft of evening, near-twilight radiance that dazzled me. I frowned at it and the feeling of soft plant material under my back. I was laying folded in the roots of the Pale Tree, as if it were cradling me, and I felt…
My eyes fluttered shut, images of my fawn nest and my hart enveloping me. It was like being born. Like the first memory of opening my eyes on the golden world.
A low, gruntle laugh rippled around me, seeming to emanate from the ground and the Pale Tree and the air itself, ripping me away from my daydream, as my eyes flew open. A hand went out to grip a thick, rounded root at my side, and I jerked, unable to move from that spot I should not have even been in.
The young man I had seen, as I hung, stood above me on a mound of root clutter, and as I watched him, he crouched down to balance on his fingers and toes and meet my eyes. His hide was the same pale color as the soft bark of the Pale Tree, and I thought it would be the same silken texture if I were to run my fingers over it. Hair like moss cascaded down over his chest and colorless eyes, veined with cracks of blue, stared into me. As he took in the pulse of my heart in my throat and the hitch in my breathing, his lips peeled back to show his sharp teeth.
A Yūrei was my first thought, but it vanished almost instantly. No… No, not a Yūrei. He moved to straddle my waist, his hands digging into my shoulders, and his words whispered through the whole grove and into my skin.
Little Stag. So young.
The last was low and intent and the being bent to press his lips to mine, his teeth nicking my lower lip.
I jerked again, seeing lights before my eyes. Then he was pulling back, and quirking a smile at me. I panted. He was utterly naked, apart from his hair, but I felt none of this was an attempt to incite me. This was simply how this creature was.
This was a Seishin. Perhaps and probably, the spirit of the Pale Tree the Wolves had hung me from, and—
Fawn, the grove seemed to breathe the word and the spirit above me got up with a smirk and a narrowing of his eyes. Live.
It was quieter along my skin, this admonishment, and then he was turning away and walking into the trunk of the Pale Tree, melding with it as a waver of heat in the desert melded with the horizon. Leaving me laying, panting and staring. Dazed.
Yet, that last ray of colored evening light faded and, with a shiver, I came back to myself and the realization of my state. I was alone in Jukai, it was night, I was in pain, my throat bruised and throbbing, and if a Seishin had come to me, saving me from the noose of the Children of the Wolf, then might not the Yūrei be more than myth? Where one creature of old stories walked, others were sure to be. I could not stay where I was.
And the Wolves still crouched at the edge of the Ocean. Waiting. Waiting for daylight and the chance to claim my body as a prize.
I was half on my feet, swaying and dizzy, but the thought pulled me up short. The Wolves outside Jukai, the Yūrei within…
My teeth ground together and I snarled into the night. If I could summon and gather the Yūrei, as the ancient kings of my tribe had, I could bring them down on the Wolves’ battalion and destroy them. Maybe even lead the Yūrei out against the larger army besieging my father and what remained of his men.
If I could.
And if I couldn’t…
I would die. But wasn’t that what I had expected of this night? I could die, afraid and scrambling for nothing but my life, or I could risk death, searching for something of value.
Snarling once again, I turned drunkenly to the Pale Tree and bowed before it, bent at the waist. “My soul to you, Seishin, whether in life or in death.” Saying it, I straightened, my eyes distant and lips half parted, features soft. The Seishin had saved my life and told me to live, did it hear me now?
There was a rustling and that was all. A sound like laughter on a sigh of wind. I took it for blessing, offered another half bow, and prowled off into Jukai.
The Ocean was dim and near-formless in the washed-out light of the far-off moon. I could see little, but pulled enough waning magic from my bones to turn my skin to a silver luminescence. The action left me cold and worn to the core, despite the limited nature of the magic, and I wondered, sliding off the smooth, rounded side of a boulder into a depression, if such a small thing wearied me, how was I to harness the Yūrei?
This feat, this act of bending the Yūrei to my will, felt so far above me, but I would not turn back. Let the restless, angry spirits of the lonely dead devour me if I failed and they so wished. Was it not fair? They had been so long left abandoned without anyone to care for them.
Yet, this resolve in mind or not, I soon became frustrated with my slow crawl through tangled Jukai. Branch and stone tore at me, spilling ice-blue blood and turning my snowy hide bruised and tattered and smeared with powder-blue blotches. My already taxed body became weary and I found myself panting and gasping, the sounds of my struggle to resperate as I made my way loud and rough and discontented.
I was making no secret of my passage through the Ocean and yet I encountered nothing. Not beast or sleepless soul of the dead. Were there none to be found? Was I to die in this place uselessly, after all that had happened, after even a Seishin had come to me?
“Where are you?!” I shrieked into the night, my fists clenched and the thin luminescence of my skin reflecting ghostly on the Pale Trees.
There was no answer at first. The light rustle of the Ocean and the sounds of the night. Then, soft, there was a heavy grunt of breath and the barely-there pad of weighted footfalls. My air caught in my lungs, and I turned slow on my heel, heart beating so hard in my chest it was painful and leaden.
Approaching, moving its bulk through the close confinement of Jukai, was a mass of white. Grumbling low in its throat, the unexpected form shouldered aside a young Pale Tree, an infant, no more than a year or two old, as if it were nothing. In all my imaginings of what Yūrei looked like this was not it. This was not even of those which spoke with words. This was beast. A creature like a tiger prowled toward me, descending into the small depression where I stood, its icy eyes fixed on me. Like a tiger… but unlike. The bulk of it was twice that of any beast I had seen and its coat, though smooth, soft, and pliable in appearance, rose and fell along its hide, like the gills of some fish in the sea, as if this Yūrei were breathing with its pelt.
A Yūrei. I was as sure of it as I was of the Seishin. Whatever soul this had once been, this was the form of their body after their death. And this was the soul with which I had to contend.
Baring my teeth, I fell into a crouch, my fingers curling into claws. I meant it as a display of challenge, and the Yūrei took it as such. The beast falling in a crouch of its own, muscles taunt to spring, and gill-like fur pulled flat against its hide.
“Come then!” I hurled at it, throwing out a hand, palm and curled fingers toward my impending doom. “Come claim me, if you can!” The luminescence along my skin coalesced into a sputtering, struggling glow around that out-flung hand, as I drew the last dregs of my magic from my bones. “I am Phesus, son of the Stag King, lord of the forest! The magic is mine!”
There was a grunt of some feeling in the Yūrei’s chest, as it sprang and a rush of claws and fangs and sharp pelt balled me over. We tumbled together on the ground and my head spun, but there was no blood and no pain and suddenly I was rolling to my hands and knees, teeth still bared, eyes darting around to find the Yūrei.
A huff of breath ruffling my long, loose hair told me it was behind me, and I half rolled, once more, to face it. The beast stood over me, but as I watched, it crept forward with head lowered and, making a grumbling sound, it brought its head and upper body to the ground. Blinking, I mimicked its movements, creeping toward it, hand reached out, reaching… reaching… until I laid my palm flush to the side of the Yūrei’s massive muzzle. It nuzzled into my hand and I caressed it, offering a comfort I didn’t know how to understand, beyond that I needed to deliver it to this lost soul. It deserved care and I gave it.
“Please,” I begged, “let us be kind to one another.”
The words left my mouth and I swayed, blinking again, as I looked down at my arm and watched the last of my magic-induced light trickling out of me and into the Yūrei. I had asked the Yūrei to befriend me, to accept me, and I had failed in my attempt, I realized with a dizzy understanding, taking in the magic leaving me. With the flow of it, the ebb of my internal power and life force into the wandering spirit before me, went the hopeless thought of the Children of the Wolf outside the Jukai and the desperation of my father.
I… wanted… to save… him. To… save… the Children of the Stage…
The thoughts drifted away with my consciousness and I felt myself falling.
† † †
Darkness cradled me and was soft around me, like the arms of my hart in my fawn nest, and I floated there in dreamless repose. Weightless. Content.
What first began to draw me back I wasn’t sure, but in time, it was the calling of my name which roused me. “Phesus. Phesus. My lord. Come back to us, my lord. It is not time for you to cross the gate, yet.”
My eyes opened and I felt myself frowning at Caplin, my father’s chief bodyguard. “Caplin,” I said around a dry mouth. Then I was moaning and swallowing, blinking like a fawn having his first view of sunlight. “What has happened, Caplin? Where… am I? Where is my father?”
The man who had cared for my father and stood at his side as long as I could remember, eased his arm under my back and helped me to sit up. To my surprise, I was outside Jukai, laying on bloodied shale. The Pale Trees were at my back and bodies littered the ground around me. Bodies of the Wolf tribe.
I looked at them, confusion and other, fluttering, uncertain feelings going on in my chest. “They’re… how?”
“I was going to ask you this question, my lord,” Caplin said, his arm going to my waist and aiding me in finding my feet. “But if you do not know how those who captured you died, then I cannot tell you. I am only pleased to see you alive. I expected to find you dead in the midst of this massacre.”
“The Yūrei…” This trialed away from my lips and I shook my head, as if to clear it. It occurred to me all of what I had seen and done in the Ocean of Trees could have been a dream, and yet…
Finding my balance and standing up straight, I looked back toward the wall-like bulk of Jukai. At its edge, hardly to be seen, was a small figure outlined against the trunks of countless trees. A young man with smirking lips and narrowed eyes. He raised his chin in an arrogant tilt and turned his back on me, to disappear into the forest of his ancient domain, and I cast a quick, expectant glance up at Caplin, to see his reaction, but he scanned the horizon of trees contemplatively.
“My lord?” He asked at last, when I looked between him and Aokigakara.
I considered him, his antlers angled in the sun, as he examined me, and I let my attention draw back to the Ocean of Trees. “My father… he is safe?”
“Yes, lord Phesus. The army as well. In the night, much of the force the Children of the Wolf brought against us was eliminated. If only we knew by what or whom, we might feel more at ease.”
Nodding, I did not look up, cocking my head and letting the length of my hair fall over my arm. The Yūrei had accepted me, even as the Seishin. But, how was I to explain to Caplin or any other how the creatures of myth had come to me. I held little hope I would be believed.
“Let us join my father, Caplin. There is still work to be done.” Standing in the sun, Jukai before me and myths come to life playing through my mind, the words came soft from my lips.
I had survived the Ocean of Trees.