Sunlight struck him across the eyes, hot and painfully bright. He groaned, and pulled the sheets over his head. It was too late, though: he knew he wouldn’t get back to sleep. He ran through all the events of last night. Mr. Kikuchi, the fight at the shrine, that stone lion…no. No way. That just had to be a dream. How could it be real? The only thing that made sense last night was how exhausted he was. Yes, that was it, he’d been hallucinating.
He threw back the covers, shielded his eyes from the light streaming through the window, and looked around the room. His bag lay in one corner, and nothing else. No stone lion. Yep. Just a dream. Hayato chuckled to himself. Well, of course it had been a dream. For a moment there he’d started to believe it had been for real.
He dragged his bag closer and pulled out the map, spreading it across the floor. The next town along was Ogawa. It was a big town, bigger than Arashiyama or Namerikawa, but it was further away. No doubt, he’d have to camp out this time. And most likely more than once. He shivered in spite of the warm sunshine.
A bird perched on the window ledge outside. It hopped back and forth and flicked it’s tail with a nervous energy. Hayato leaned against a wall and watched it idly for a while, wondering where the post office in Arashiyama was…
That was until the bird slid the window open with it’s beak and hopped inside.
“Good, you’re awake.”
“AAH!” Hayato scrambled to his feet. The bird screeched and fluttered into the high beams.
“What? What is it?” the bird spun back and forth, “Is it that Raiden again? I swear, this time, I’ll…”
The bird swivelled it’s head and peered at Hayato. It had a piercing look, it’s eyes deeper and more intelligent than a bird’s eyes had a right to be. “What’s with you, boy?”
Hayato slid down the wall, lowering himself onto the futon and wrapping the bed sheets around him like a flimsy armour. “You…wh-who are you?”
“Err…I’m Fujin?” the bird said it as if Hayato had asked what two-plus-two was. “Were you expecting someone else?”
“I wasn’t expecting a talking bird,” Hayato admitted. His heartbeat slowed. So, it hadn’t been a dream. The bash against the wall had felt pretty painful, and his legs ached from yesterday’s walking.
“I changed form,” Fujin said, spreading out his wings their full impressive span of whole two hand-widths, “I’m a being of air, and a stone lion just wasn’t working for me. This is more like it. Besides, lions were so 9th century. And that stone lion had moss in unusual places, so wisdom tells me they haven’t made a comeback.”
“How can you know what’s fashionable if you’ve been asleep all this time?”
“I’m a God,” Fujin admired his sharp claws, “I just know.”
“Oh.” Hayato could think of nothing else to say. Numbly, he folded up his map. “So…all that stuff that happened last night…that really happened?”
“You mean my epic victory over Raiden? I should think so,” the bird puffed out it’s feathery chest, “And you’re welcome, by the way.”
“For saving you!” the bird rolled it’s eyes, “Holy Izanagi, are you still asleep?”
“Probably,” Hayato shrugged, “This can’t be real, can it?”
“I could toss a little tornado in your direction,” Fujin snapped, “That will wake you up.”
“No thanks,” Hayato smirked, picking up his bag, “You’re giving off enough hot air already.”
Fujin looked ready to explode, and he did – with laughter. It boomed louder than was natural for a bird of that size.
“You’ve got a lot of guts, Hayato Takei,” Fujin twittered, “I like you. Well, not really; you did destroy my house. But I think this journey is going to be a lot of fun.”
Fun. Having a loudmouth God along for the ride who wasn’t going to lift a finger (or wingtip) to help wasn’t Hayato’s idea of fun. As he packed the cracked Kami Box into his bag and left the room, he wondered idly how much a bird cage would cost.
Bird cage prices flew from his mind, however, when he descended the stairs and saw Mr. Kikuchi working behind the desk. He gave an involuntary squeak, and was about to scramble back up the stairs, when he tripped and crashed down them instead.
“Oh, my!” Mr. Kikuchi’s familiar hearty boom sent chills down Hayato’s spine, “Are you okay, my boy?”
Hayato launched to his feet, brandishing his dented frying pan. “Get back, you!”
Mr. Kikuchi raised his hands, eyebrows arched quizzically. “Whatever’s the matter?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, I know who you are!”
“Err…okay?” Mr. Kikuchi scratched his head, and nodded at the frying pan. “You planning on making an omelette with that? We do serve breakfast, you know.”
Hayato hesitated, but held his stance. This was a trick, surely! But it wouldn’t work, not this time.
Tiny claws clung onto his shoulder, and a little voice whispered in his ear.
“What are you doing?” it hissed.
“That…that’s Raiden, isn’t it?” Hayato frowned, not taking his eyes off the rotund man behind the counter.
“I told you, I defeated him,” Fujin huffed, “Whoever that is, that’s the real human, the guy Raiden possessed.”
“Believe me, if that was another Kami I’d know about it!”
Slowly, Hayato lowered his frying pan. “Mr. Kikuchi?”
“Yes?” he said slowly, wondering what this barmy boy with a bird on his shoulder would do next.
“Do…do you remember me?”
Mr. Kikuchi laughed. Well, of course I remember you! You’re…err…hang on…”
“I never told you my name,” Hayato reminded him, “But do you remember talking to me yesterday?”
Mr. Kikuchi’s face squeezed and stretched, as though his brain were telling him two very different things at once. “Darn it, I never forget a face…you’re definitely checked in though, it’s all here, I remember doing it, but…wait, no I don’t…”
“Never mind,” Hayato waved his hands before he got confused too, “So, you were saying about breakfast?”
A spaced-out Mr. Kikuchi served up rice and miso-soup for him in the empty canteen, and even gave the bird a little bowl of mixed nuts to peck at. But Fujin turned his beak up at it and pushed it to Hayato with a claw. “I can’t consume this kind of heavy substance. I’m a being of air.”
Hayato shrugged and shovelled more rice into his mouth. Fujin’s bird-form, too, had a thin scar running from temple to chin. The feathers along it were pale and stumpy. “So,” he said through a mouthful, “Raiden is a Kami like you, too?”
“That hothead is nothing like me,” Fujin whistled, “But yes, he is a Kami too.”
“Well, was,” Hayato added, “You defeated him, right?”
“Alas, we Kami aren’t disposed of that easily,” Fujin sighed, “He merely conceded and turned to rest in his shrine.”
“Oh really? Where’s that?”
“Right here,” Fujin nodded, “That shrine we were at last night? That’s his.”
Hayato dropped his chopsticks. “You mean…Raiden is the Kami of Arashiyama?”
“But…he’s evil, isn’t he? I mean, he did try to kill me.”
Fujin rubbed his beak with a wingtip. “That’s what I’ve been puzzling over all night. Raiden and I have never seen eye-to-eye, but evil? Not really. But there was something…different about him last night. Just look at all the effort he went to just to destroy little old me,” he indicated the inn around them with a wave of a wing, “It’s very unlike him.”
“Well, why don’t we just go to the shrine right now and destroy him? He’s back in his Box now: he’d be powerless to stop us.”
Fujin winced, “That’s not possible. Not only is it disgracefully underhanded, and you’ll be paying off the karma for thousands of years, but a Kami in pure, intangible form cannot be destroyed, only dissipated. And believe me, the pieces find their way back together very quickly.”
“Okay then, so why can’t we just move his Kami Box out of that Shrine and use it to restore you?”
Fujin tapped an agitated claw on the wooden table. “To restore me to the box, the Shrine must be truly vacant. Just kicking out the current Kami and telling him to go on holiday for a while does not a vacant shrine make. Raiden’s Shrine isn’t his simply because he just resides there; he is literally enshrined there.”
Hayato slumped in his chair and sipped morosely on his miso soup.
“There’s no way around this, is there?”
“Nope!” Fujin tweeted brightly, “It’s destination Kasayama for us.”
Hayato stepped out into the cold morning sunshine. His breath steamed in front of him, and he zipped up his jacket. “First things first, I have to find a post office.”
“A what?” Fujin said somewhere overhead.
“A post office,” Hayato repeated, consulting the inset map of Arashiyama, “It’s where you can write letters to someone and they’ll send it to them for you.”
“Nifty,” said Fujin, “Though I think sending a personal messenger is far classier.”
“Are you offering?”
“In your dreams,” Fujin snapped.
“Easy, easy!” Hayato grinned, “It was just a joke. Ah, here we are: Arashiyama Post Office.”
It was a rickety old building with walls that leaned inwards so much it looked like it wanted to be a pyramid someday, but Hayato spotted the familiar Post Office symbol hanging above the door. Inside, the interior was dark and cool, and the smell of paper both fresh and old tickled his nostrils. He bought a couple of sheets and an envelope from the counter, and sat at a wooden bench. He picked up the pen, and hovered over the blank sheet. What to write? How much should he tell his parents?
In fact, why not tell them everything: about Raiden and Fujin? He could just imagine the words:
Dear Mum and Dad,
I’m being followed by a talking shapeshifting God who rescued me from a crazy innkeeper last night. And I dented the frying pan. Sorry.
He cringed at the thought. Of course they wouldn’t believe it. He wasn’t sure he believed it himself. Worse still, they might think he’d cracked, that the pressure of the whole mission had sent him mad, and they’d come and pluck him out of here and take him home. Hayato wanted nothing more than to go home, but the bottom line of that towering debt still hung there, and even having the Kami itself by his side wouldn’t erase that. Fujin agreed with his punishment, after all.
In the end, he decided to keep it simple, to just tell them he’d made it to Arashiyama safely, and he was leaving for Ogawa right now. It wasn’t a lie: it was just the selective truths.
“Excuse me sir,” a postman stood over him, “But no pets are allowed in here.”
Hayato could almost feel Fujin erupt with fury, and he stifled a laugh.
“That’s okay, we’re leaving now,” Hayato stood up, and handed the stamped envelope to him. “Sorry to bother you. But he is very well trained, I promise.”
Hayato waited until he was out of earshot of the post office before he doubled over with laughter.
“It’s not funny!” Fujin fumed, literally spitting feathers, “Me? A common pet? The mere suggestion is a disgrace! As a Kami of air I demand respect!”
“Well, look on the bright side,” Hayato offered, “It means your disguise is pretty convincing.”
Fujin didn’t reply, but he muttered and cursed silently under his breath. Hayato kept his smile all the way through town, as the houses thinned out and the roads faded from tarmac to dirt. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad after all.