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One Thousand Cranes

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Yoki saw things, she knew. But she also knew that those things weren't there. The four year old's eyes traveled across empty air, marveling over curious images that showed no form nor color; shapes that didn't breathe and float like he seemed to believe they did. Gen watched as her son shifted his gaze from side to side, following something, as if there was a dragonfly glinting in the sunlight, a shade of iridescent blue reflected by the shell of a bug that flitted about on another plane of existence. Yoki would forget that they were moving, and slow his pace. Gently, Gen would give a gentle tug on the small brown hand that she held between her fingers, reminding the boy that they were to be on their way. But soon enough, he stopped once more, refusing to move from the middle of the trodden dirt road.

"Come on, Yoki, it's nice and sunny out, don't you want to walk with mommy?" As much as she loved him, now was not the time for her son to be difficult. The journey was two days, the last two nights spent camping in the stables of houses they passed by. Warumachi was only an hour away now, but Yoki shook his head vigorously, gripping the hem of his clothing as he frowned up at his mother.

"You said we should stay put and find shelter." When did she say that? Yoki pointed at the wide, blue sky, and Gen tried to find what he was pointing at. He could've been pointing to the white clouds that drifted lazily in the sky, but she knew he wasn't. He never was. She shielded her eye from the bright, blazing sun, its light warm despite the dry, windy air of autumn.

"It's gonna rain." She was about to tell him to stop being silly, as it was a dry, dry day with only two small clouds sitting flat in the distance, and turned toward him with a parental smile, but her words hung heavy in her mouth. A drop of cold water hit the numb, chilled surface of her forehead, and slid down her skin

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“Mom,” Yoki whispered in her ear, his arms wrapped around her neck as she carried him. “What's that thing hovering behind old man Nagiwa's ear?” Was it one of those 'earwigs' that people talked about sometimes? A blue, shining square shifted just behind Old Man Nagiwa's left ear, morphing itself into different geometric forms. It went from a square to a three-sided pyramid, to a sphere made from hexagons and pentagons, to a cube, to all sorts of shapes that reminded Yoki of cat's cradle and the intricate designs that criss-crossed the underside of bridges.

“It's rude to stare, Yoki,” said his mother. She adjusted him in her arms, probably to get him to stop looking at the weird thing, but he felt that Old Man Nagiwa should at least know there was a weird bug on his ear – it might crawl inside if he didn't.

“Hey, Nagiwa!” Yoki called out, and his mother whipped her head around at her child. Old Man Nagiwa, confused, turned around to wave at Yoki. “No, don't just wave 'hello' at me! There's a weird bug on your ear!” His mother sped up now, walking briskly as she put Yoki down, making sure to have him facing away from Old Man Nagiwa.

Gen sank to her knees to speak to her son.

“Yoki. You need to stop. You can't tell anyone about the spirits.” Gen pleaded with him.

“Why? I'm just trying to help...”

“I know, I know... But the things you see are a secret, okay? Just between you and me.”

“But how come?” Yoki pouted, his brows furrowed with a frown.

“It's... complicated. Not a lot of people know about them, or can even see them, including myself. So you can't tell people about it.” He looked down, rolling his lower lips between his teeth in thought. It made sense, but he didn't like it.

“Isn't that like keeping secrets?” Yoki chewed on the inside of his mouth, his gaze cast in the corner of his eye. “You said I should always be honest.”

“Being honest doesn't mean telling people everything; it just means not hurting others with lies,” Gen explained gently, massaging her sons elbows at his sides. “Sometimes secrets, just little ones, can help people or make sure that things are safe and fair. Kind of like how mommy and Miss Aizue don't tell the fishmonger how much money we have on hand.” Yoki nodded, understanding the comparison. If they told the fishmonger how much they can pay, he wouldn't give them a good price. He still didn't understand why telling Old Man Nagiwa about a bug was a bad thing, but he supposed it was just something he hadn't thought of yet.

“What if it crawls in his ear?” Yoki whispered, looking back at Nagiwa, who had already continued on his way. “It could be an earwig spirit.”

“It's okay, the spirit is keeping things from crawling in his ear,” Yoki wasn't sure if he believed that, but his mother knew a lot about the world, didn't she? “It's an anti-earwig spirit.”

“...Alright.” His mother smiled, and his face warmed. He liked it when his mother smiled a real smile – her smiles were sometimes fake when she worked.

“I'm glad.” Gen stood, and took hold of Yoki's hand again before starting the walking to the market. “All we have to do is pick up some ginger root, and then we can go home.”

Yoki kept his eyes on Old Man Nagiwa as they made their way to the market, his figure shrinking as they moved away. He could barely see it, but the blue twinkle of the Cat's Cradle spirit winked out, and Old Man Nagiwa dug in his left ear with a pinky before continuing on his way.

“...That sounds good, mommy.”

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Don't look at it. Don't look at it. The glow isn't there. He cracked an eye open only to see a glowing jellyfish next to his face, and yelped, tripping over his own feet. It's not actually there. He knew that.

It was harder than he thought, pretending like the spirits weren't there. Usually, it was obvious, but it was a little difficult not to stare at something that glowed and moved unnaturally, but sometimes, he couldn't tell the difference between a spirit and something that was real, like a bug, or an animal, or even a plant.

He was looking for a trophy to take back to justify his time spent dirtying his knees outside (not that Mom minded, so long as he cleaned up before dinner). All he found were wriggling forms of morphing worms, glowing almost white as they crawled silently along the ground. He gave himself a little pinch when he caught himself staring at one burrow into the ground.

Don't look at it.

He ignored the glowing spirits in favor of a fat stag beetle latched onto the side of a nearby tree, gingerly maneuvering around the spirits, careful not to touch them. With a soft cry of pride, he grinned, wrapped small, brown fingers wrapping around the fat, black beetle. Cupped it in his hands, it tapped its feet and tried to turn around in the careful finger trap. The six year old's feet padded along the dirt of the road, and he walked on his knees on the wooden floors of the empty pub, not bothering to wash his feet despite how many times Mom told him to.

She paused, curiously looking down at her son's clasped hands.

“Mom, look!” Ginko uncovered the beetle, gently grasping it in one hand to show it to her without it flying off. “I caught a stag beetle.” Gen looked around his hands, then at her son, confused, before she frowned. His smile faded as she stared listlessly at the bug writing in his hands.

“There's nothing there, Yoki.” His grip slackened, and the beetle flew off.

 

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Gen was never sure whether she made the right choice, telling Yoki to keep his spirit sight under wraps. He was eight now, and boys his age were supposed to be rambunctious, wild, and loud. But her words left him quiet, at a loss for things to talk about, because it was half of the world he knew.

Of course it was the right decision; do you want Yoki to be hurt?

She shook her head, busying her hands with dish washing in their small home. It hasn't been long since they arrived in town, with the only real sign of time passing being the the light winds chilling the air and delivering snowflakes. Of course he didn't have friends. They hadn't been there long enough. And it wasn't like kids really went to school this far out in the country.

He wouldn't make friends even if he went.

Shake her head. Scrub a plate. Dry the dish. Repeat. Yoki would make friends in time. A clatter sounded in the yard. Was Yoki hurt? Did he try to climb the tree in the yard? Did he walk onto some upkeep equipment while making his snowmen? Outside, Yoki had indeed fallen over some equipment, courtesy to a boy perhaps the same age as Yoki a few meters away.

Although Yoki sniffled, tears chilling against his face as he tried to ignore the ache of being hit in the face with a snowball, he stood and steeled his features. The boy called himself Hidemaru, and Yoki called himself Yoki. Gen had to be thankful for the ease of which children could make friends, as Hidemaru quickly invited the boy over to play with him and his own friends in the frosty weather.

Her eyes met her sons, his gaze turned upon her own as he silently asked for approval. She nodded with a faint smile, silent, but kept her hard stare, almost cold, if it weren't done purely for the purpose of making sure her son's days were safe and well.

Don't forget the rules.

Yoki smiled, and ran off, saying he'd be back before dinner. He won't forget, was the silent assurance given in his quick pace. He was confident it would all be fine, because he won't forget. Her brows knitted ever so slightly, Gen leaned on the wooden post of her home, watching Yoki join a snowball fight with the other children, pretending that he was the same as the rest of them. She shivered as a cold wind blew through her, chasing her back into the warmth of her home.

It won't last.

Shake her head. Scrub a plate. Dry the dish. Repeat.

 

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Yoki and Hidemaru laid on the fresh spring grass, the tips of the leafy blades tickling their skin as they watched the clouds drift across the sky. They had just finished a rousing game of tag with the other children, which, to Yoki's dismay, soon ended when Tooru realized she had forgotten to do her chores. Yoki never complained, though. He only smiled and waved her off.

“Hey, that rainbow's pretty bright,” Hidemaru pointed to a striped arc in the sky, curved almost like a horseshoe. “Guess it was because of all that rain yesterday...” He wrinkled his nose, perhaps remembering all the laundry that had been ruined and he had to help wash again.

Yoki's black eyes stared appreciatively at the lines of color floating above the trees. Absentmindedly, he walked his fingers across the different stripes like they were stairs. Eight steps.

“Yeah, it really is bright...” He mumbled, his mind a little disconnected from reality with how enveloped in nature he had felt right then. “You can even see that color between green and yellow.” He pointed at a thin line separating the two regions, almost fading into the two of them, yet distinguishing itself as a shimmery band of bright hue.

“Don't you mean between the blue and the purple? Like, indigo?” Yoki faltered, drawing his hand back from the sky as he looked at his friend, taken off-guard by the question. “Yellow just goes into green, doesn't it?” Yoki frowned and turned on his side, picking at the grass below him, but Hidemaru didn't notice his quirked mouth or his fidgeting fingers.

“Yeah. I was mistaken,” He agreed. “A new color would be neat though, wouldn't it?” Hidemaru laughed.

“It definitely would! But Tooru would just whine about not having an obi in that color either!” Yoki chuckled, thinking about how Hidemaru's cousin would stare into the open front of the tailor's storefront in town. In the peace of the comfortable silence, he found himself looking into the sky once more, the tops of the trees sharpened by the bright blue above them. With a slight sense of trepidation, Yoki watched the rainbow in the sky shiver, waving like a flag in the wind before becoming stock still once more.

The only sign that he acknowledged the far away spirit were his rolled lips. Yoki didn't look at the rainbow again.

 

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It was a mistake. One that any child could make, she knew. Yoki just wanted to let his best friend in on his life. She knew that.

That boy is cursed, they whispered. They're just not ready for you, honey, Gen whispered to her son.

She tightened her hold on the seven year old's tiny hand, his wince nearly imperceptible, but she caught it. Her grip quickly loosened, but her eyes stayed on the road. Yoki told Hidemaru his biggest secret, taken the biggest risk, and burned for it. While there were no pitchforks, no torches, no swords, her heart still felt as if it were put on a bed of hot coals when she saw Yoki's downcast eyes water at the quiet, yet harsh words of the village leader.

We can't have him bringing bad luck on us. Take him and go. Murmurs of agreement blared in Gen's ears like shouts and screams. We don't need them, baby, it's okay. None of this is your fault. She wasn't sure if Yoki heard her.

The mud of the road seeped between the woven reeds of her sandals, forcing her to curl her toes as she walked lest she lose a shoe. Perhaps this will soon be forgotten. Perhaps the whispering wind will soon forget that a little boy can see spirits. Maybe they can forget about their own secret for a while, and just fit in.

Don't mind them, Yoki, they don't know you.

 

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The night was cold, and the mountains were dark. To Yoki's credit, it wasn't the darkness that he was afraid of, nor was it the animals, or the tree branches that stretched like claws when his mother's lamp illuminated them from beneath. It was the Lights. The wriggling, floaty Lights that swam and flew through the air like there was nowhere else for them to be. Sometimes he got them confused for the floaties that moved in his vision every so often – sometimes he wondered if that meant there were Lights living inside of him, and that always quickened his breath a little. It wasn't like he hated them – not at all. He thought they were really cool when he was younger, but he was eleven now, and found himself a little more susceptible to fear. He couldn't help but feel a little scared of the unknown, now that he realized nobody else could see them.

There were a lot of them in this forest – there were always a lot more in the deep crevasses of nature. Clusters of them writhed like snakes in trees, or just very large worms. Some criss-crossed the path or quickly scuttled by their feet, making Yoki yelp and dance away from their silent, glowing forms.

“Mom!”

“Don't yell, Yoki,” his mom told him. “You scared me.”

“Sorry mom,” he replied. “Oof!” Yoki got a face-full of the pack that hung from his mothers shoulders. Judging from the hardness that hit him in the nose, it was probably their one and only pot that hit him in the face. Lucky. “Mom?” Her face was impassive. Wide, but sparse brows much like Yokki's own furrowed ever so slightly, the woman's mouth curling in thought. “What's wrong? Mom?”

“I think I may have taken a wrong turn.” This wasn't the worst thing in the world. Every path lead somewhere, and it's not like they were looking for anywhere specific. “What's wrong Yoki, are you seeing those strange things again?” She leaned down to gently pet his hair, her smile full of grace. “It's okay, it's okay. They're just illusions.” A huge, bug-like being crawled above them, silent, but imposing. Yoki pushed his face into his mother's obi, scared that the giant spirit may hear him if he spoke. “You have to be strong.” With a small breath, he nervously looked up at the sky, watching the tail of the beast disappear past the treetops.

Soon enough, a heavy pour had started to fall, the raindrops beating at the dirt and rocks on the path they followed. The two had come to a fork in the road, where the path split into three. One went up the mountain, which was clearly out as it was easier to find townships downhill. Yoki was thankful for this, as that path seemed particularly taken with the Lights, which scuttled freely across the open ground there. The second seemed to be even worse, with the Lights hanging from every branch, drinking from puddles, and resting languidly in the chilly air. The third was mostly clear, taking a sharp right down the mountain down the steep mountainside.

“Let's go this way.” Yoki's mom pulled gently at his hand, taking a step towards the second path. He flinched as one of the Lights flew a little too close to his face for comfort.

“Can we take the other path?” He pleaded.

“That one's too steep Yoki; it would be dangerous to walk that one at night.” And she was right. It would be much safer to take the gentle curve of the second path.

“But...” Yoki glanced nervously between the black iris of his mom's eyes and the eyeless, transparent bodies that infested the path.

“But what?” She asked. “What's wrong?”

“...Nothing.” His mother sighed; lightly, so as to not make Yoki feel guilty for holding her up, but he still heard it. Nervously, the nine year-old walked closer to his mother for protection, and held his other hand over his eyes and turned his face in towards the woman's forearm. Every so often, he peeked between his fingers, worried that he might step on one of the Lights.

 

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Perhaps the Lights were a sign of danger. Or the cause of it. Yoki thought back to the path he and his mother walked, infested with the curling and impossible geometry that only the spirits could define. Surely, they were a sign. After he had woken up, and sat by his mother's body until it turned dark, he had made his way through the forest, covered in mud, and dirt, and his limbs rough and a little bloody from where they were scraped in the mudslide. The mushi, jelly-fish-like, glowing in shades of blue and purple, had guided him between the trees like a dead man walking.

It had been two days since he came here. His first day was spent crying, wide eyes directed to the ceiling as he focused on his memories of his mother's face with no company but the numerous scrolls and sealing pots that littered the shelves and walls of Nui's home. It was the third day now, and he wiped a tear from his eye, pushing his face into the crook of his elbow so Nui didn't hear him sniffle.

A warm scent wafted into his nose. It was savory and meaty, salty and nice. The door to the bedroom slid open, revealing Nui with a tray of food. Her long white hair slipped across her shoulders as she leaned forward to place the tray before him on a small table, but she was careful to keep it out of his rice and fish. Long, graceful hands plucked each bowl and plate from the tray so that she could tuck the tray under her arm, her kimono sleeve pushed back to keep it out of the way.

“I'll be back.” Her voice was soft, but low and mature. It spoke of mystery, and reminded him of the spirits that lighted the forests at night. He knew she was able to see the spirits too. Said as much on his first morning. (“Are you afraid of the mushi?” she had asked. “Or are you afraid of me?”) The weight of Nui's footsteps eked out deep, shifty sounds from the floor beneath them, as was common in houses with a wooden foundation. She placed her own bowl of rice on the table this time, with a teapot, cups, and a box of medical supplies to the side. Yoki wiped his teary eyes on a clean cloth she handed him, wordless as he blew his nose.

“How are you doing?” Her voice was even, nearly emotionless, and very serious, as it always seemed to be. Nui pulled apart the cooked fish for the two of them, carefully extracting the thin bones from the meat to give him the best pieces. She put them in his bowl since there were no extra plates.

“...I'm okay.” She looked at him – no real expression crossed her bright green eye, but he could see a hint of worry swirl within it. Tears sprung up in his eyes again, threatening to fall in streaks across his brown skin at any second.

Yoki wasn't sure what to think, how to feel, what to say, or what he was going to do next. He only ever had his mom. How could he keep her alive in his heart? He tried saying her name – Gen – to himself during the night between his sessions of night terrors and tossing and turning. He repeated it over and over, but any name other than 'mom' had always felt too strange to be spoken by his tongue.

A soft hand stroked his hair gently as he cried, running through the short, dark locks. Nui pulled her kimono sleeve over her hand and wiped at his tears.

“Now's not the time to cry” she said. “It's time for breakfast.” Still sniffling, Yoki looked at Nui – he really looked at Nui. She held a gentle smile, certainly kind, but also unreadable. He gave a sharp nod, and started shoveling the rice and fish furiously into his mouth, soon gulping down the small cup of barley tea she handed to him right after.

Soon enough, she cleared away the dishes and set them in the kitchen, returning immediately to change his dressings first. Nui motioned for Yoki to lift his arms, and he did, holding as still as he could while her nimble fingers unwound his bandages and replaced with with new ones. As she was checking the padding she put on his cheek and forehead, she spoke.

“I'm kicking you out as soon as you're better, you know.” Slightly affronted, Yoki let out a sound of surprise, only to find Nui's gentle smile still on her face. He could only gaze at her in wonder.

Nui wasn't his mom. He didn't eat his mother's breakfast, a little fact that killed him inside. But it was Nui's breakfast, and that was good too.

 

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The forest was dark and cold, much like the night his mother had passed. If it weren't for the ethereal light of the spirits, he would be reduced to feeling the edge of the path every few seconds with his feet. Turned around in the darkness, Yoki wasn't sure where he was going. He was supposed to be headed back to Nui's house after his walk and nap, but the sky had darkened much faster than he anticipated, trapping him in the forest with nigh-impenetrable walls of inky black air.

There were weren't as many Lights floating above the path now, for whatever reason why. Perhaps they didn't like the moonless night. Perhaps they were tired themselves, and wanted to go to sleep. Either way, Yoki was left alone with only a slight shiver to keep him alert. He was almost on the verge of crying. How was he supposed to get back like this? What if he took a step too far and tumbled down the mountain, or fell into a pond? Did he have to sleep outside tonight? What if he froze like ice?

Yoki curled up on the ground, wrapping his arms around his legs as he balanced himself on his straw-footed feet. He closed his eyes, and although he couldn't see anything with his eyes open, he could see the fuzzy shapes that always existed behind his eyelids, something that was confirmed by his mom that everyone could see. At least one part of him was normal. What if Nui realized he was out far later than was safe? Would Nui be glad to be rid of him? Wash her hands of him now that the orphaned freeloader was gone? He shook his head. That was too negative a line of thought for tonight. Either way, he had to make it home.

Focusing on the fuzzies behind his eyelids, as it was better to see that than absolute darkness in his opinion, Yoki opened his eyes once more, and gasped.

The world was different from before. All around him was darkness, but there was no ground. He longer felt like he food on any surface, but didn't feel like he was floating in midair. A long, winding trail of golden light cut across the landscape like a glowing river, flowing and shifting as if it were alive.

Suddenly, he quietly remembered that Nui liked to call these things 'mushi'.

 

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The golden line breathed, and this was literal, because as Yoki looked more closely, squinting his eyes and shaping his hands like binoculars, he saw that the organic bodies of the mushi congregated in the river, pushing past each other and flowing together like water.

Silently, a hand placed itself on his shoulder, tugging at Yoki's blue kimono. He jumped, nearly screaming at the appearance of a hand that wasn't supposed to be there. He turned to see who it was, and it was Nui, in a plain kimono that was pinker than her usual fare, smoking from one of the white papers that she rolled herself.

“I know it's pretty, but don't stare at it for too long,” she warned. “It'll hurt your eyes.”

“The mushi?” Yoki wondered out loud. “So they can even be something as mystical as this... What are they really like? I don't know anything about them.”

“Explaining them is...” She sighed. “Fine. I will tell you what my master told me many years ago.”

“They're... Simple yet mysterious. Distant ancestors unlike any plant or animal we’ve ever seen,” Nui held out a hand to let one drifting mushi curl around her thumb. She gently held it out for the boy to touch it, who, although cautious, did. Even if it's strange there but not-there texture make the hair on the back of his neck rise. “These groups of odd creatures have induced whispers of fear among man since ancient times. At some point, a name was applied, and they were called mushi. And that is how they have come to be.” Nui lifted the centipede-like mushi up into the air, and let it float away into the glowing, golden river. “It's time to go home, Yoki. Open your eyes.” She held out a hand, and he placed his in hers without hesitation. Gently, she grasped his smaller, darker tan in her white palm, and pulled him away from the river.

Yoki spared one last glance at the river, taking in it's shining beauty. And then he opened his eyes, and the river wasn't there anymore. Only the dark forest, with the path home illuminated by the yellow light of Nui's lantern.

 

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The edges of his vision scuttle like bugs. Flickery, black shapes move out of the corner of his eye, barely noticeable, and into the dark recesses of the pond. A dark blob, like a hole in the pond. Empty, shadow-like, and mysterious. All the fish in the pond where white, with a single green-eye, much like Nui. She had told him it was because of the mushi residing in the pond, and that he should stay away from the water at night and at daybreak.

Still a greenhorn in all things mushi, Yoki had nodded his assent. He was still wary of the mysterious creatures, but had not learned too much about them besides that they were not spirits, and nor were they simply Lights.

Yoki had no desire to become a one-eyed fish. It seemed like the sort of thing that came with a heavier price, and he was afraid of what that may entail. He wasn't as scared of the mushi as he was a week ago, but he wouldn't fault himself for being cautious. Leaning on his walking stick, he watched Nui from afar, to see if he could catch her off-guard.

And he did. She was threshing rice reeds, her white hair falling past her shoulders like a waterfall. Every few movements, Yoki could see the dark shadow that existed in place of Nui's other eye. The one she kept closed. It was a dark hole; empty, shadow-like, and mysterious.

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Yoki was no stranger to errands, chores, and to-do lists. When his mother was alive, he had often run from store to store, haggling and wheedling deals out of merchants who they knew well, so the boy was more than confident that he could get Nui a good deal when she asked him to go down to the village with a burlap sack to be filled halfway with rice, a knife, and a pocketful of money. Rice for dinner, new clothes for Yoki, who was growing quickly, and a knife to be sharpened, for it had dulled. She had come down with him, of course, as his foot still hurt from the mudslide, but she was busy speaking with another mushishi in the town, so he was left to complete the to-do list.

He had dropped off the knife for sharpening just fine, and picked out a kimono that was affordable, but also durable, for himself, but there was a bit of trouble when it came to getting the rice. There were mushi all over the man, floating around, trying to get a taste of the rice grains that they couldn't touch. If it weren't for the fact that the mushi were transparent, Yoki couldn't have guessed that there was a person there.

"Little boy, are you here to buy some rice?"

"Um... Yes." He nervously scooted forward and held out the bag.

"You're going to have to come a little closer for me to fill that up," the man chuckled. As if he were on a precarious ledge, Yoki scooted forward a little more with one foot in front of the other. He leaned back, trying to keep his face away from the glowing mushi. The little girl sitting next to the man, presumably his daughter, stood up, and waved off the mushi.

"What was that, dear?"

"The mushi were all over you, daddy," she said, as if it were nothing more than that squirrels ate nuts and the sky was blue. She leaned in closer to her father for a dramatic whisper, no quieter than her regular voice. "I think the mushi scare him."

"Oh, was that all?" he laughed. Was that all? Yoki blinked, surprised at the easy acceptance. 'Was it the mushi, boy?" Yoki's mouth twisted and his brows furrowed. It was so strange – he had only ever been to villages where no one but him could see the green organism floating in the air and crawling on the ground.

"...Yes." And the rice merchant laughed, scooping some rice into his bag with a bowl.

"I've never seen you around here before," he handed the bag back to Yoki. "Are you the one who's been staying with Nui, up on the mountain?" He knew Nui? He gave a small nod, a little shy, and nervous around this man who couldn't see what he did. "She's been up there for a while. Only comes down for supplies every so often. I guess with you there, we'll be seeing even less of her. Ha!"

"Can you see mushi too?" asked the little girl. "Nui can see mushi. Are you a mushishi?" He shook his head. Yoki chewed lightly on his lips, floored that it was so easy for them to talk about something like this, in the middle of the market.

"I can see mushi," he admitted. "You can see mushi?" The little girl nodded vigorously, launching into a long, excited ramble on how neat the mushi were, and how pretty they could be, and how funny it was when she tried to show one to her parents, only for them to say 'where is it? Where's the mushi?'

"Can most people here see mushi?" Yoki asked. The man shook his head, patting his daughter onto the ground to calm her down.

"Most people can't, but I guess we have more Seers than any other village. Almost everyone is related to at least one person who can See, and we've got quite a few people becoming mushi masters and traveling the country. Let me give you a little more rice, it's on the house. I know how Nui likes to stretch it farther than it should go." The merchant took back the bag, and shoveled another small bowl of grains into it. "Nui was one of them... She's a mushishi. Traveled and everything. But a few years ago she came back, and decided to live up in those mountains."

Why did she go up to live in the mountains? Did Nui have a family here? Why didn't Nui visit the village? Yoki wanted to ask, he really did. But all he could manage was a nod and a 'thank you for the rice,' before he paid his due. As he tried to leave, the man grabbed his arm for a final farewell.

"Get Nui to come down sometime," the merchant insisted. He let go of his wrist, seeing that he had Yoki's attention. "I'm sure the other mushishi would love to know how she's doing, and to get to know her little protege." He waved Ginko off, who gave him a small bow before making his way back to the blacksmith for the sharpened knife.

Idly, Yoki lifted his hand up to the sky, watching the floating mushi from between his fingers. A village of mushi, mushi masters, and Seers... There were all these people who could see the same things he did, and plenty who never experienced what he had. He was out of his element, yet strangely comfortable in this curious little village.

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“It's like magic,” he whispered, gazing at the lights that obeyed Nui's every movement. A ring of lights spun around her hand, growing and shrinking with each movement she made. “You can control the way they move?”

“They're mushi,” she said simply. Nui spun them around again, like a crown of spirits that danced n the air. “They do what they're meant to do. This mushi eats a little bit of the food that you pick up with your hands.” She flicked her wrist, sending the circle-like mushi off into the corner, where it floated gently. She brought up her cigarette, smoking out a thick, billowing cloud that wrapped up the smaller mushi and took them out an open door to the forest. “Don't think I'm going to let you try my cigarettes again. You couldn't handle it last time.”

“I could!” Yoki argued, but he failed to hide his smile. Nui laughed, and told him that she would bring in the firewood from that morning.

Nui might write these things off as natural phenomena, explainable and predictable, but Yoki still thought it amazing, her masterful manipulation of the mushi. As Nui went outside, Yoki turned his wrist and flicked it the same way that Nui did, making little whoosh sounds to imitate the movement of the mushi.

 

Chapter Text

His new life was simple. Avoid the pond at daybreak and night. Help chop firewood. Help clean the house. Pluck the weeds from around the foundation. And sometimes, accompany Nui on her trips to the mountain village that was nearby, and other towns where her services were requested.

It was peaceful. It felt nice and fulfilling, and Nui was an interesting person who taught him much about mushi, science, and history. When she ran out of ink, he was happy to bring out another ink stone and some water. When he fell and scraped his knee, Nui, without so much as a request, would bend down to help him clean and wrap it. But still, Nui maintained that once Yoki's foot was better, he must leave.

Yoki purposefully walked a little slower than he knew he could, and limped a little when he knew Nui was watching. He still wrapped his foot to keep his ankle in place, and purposefully winced whenever he rested most of his weight on it. He had finally found his place, by the side of a mushi master with one eye. Why did he have to leave?

 

Chapter Text

Yoki wasn't sure what to say to Nui. The night passed by quietly after what could only be their first and only argument that evening. Yoki had offered to help look for the villagers that Nui hoped to encounter – her husband, her child... It had to be so lonely up here, all by herself. But Nui had snapped at him, threatened to kick him out of he says anything more on the subject. And so he kept quiet for the rest of the night, unsettled and a little annoyed. His thoughts rushed through him, quick and emotional, swirling inside him within a single moment.

Why couldn't he stay and help? All he had to do was avoid the tokoyami. Nui managed to do it. Sure, she ended up looking like the pond fish in the process, but she still had all her memories. But there was something more. Something other than a single green eye, or white skin and hair. Something other than a loss of memory. What was it? Why did Nui want him to leave so badly?

Yoki curled up a little tighter on his futon and straw pallet. He decided. He would find out tomorrow. At daybreak. He would find what she was hiding from him, in that pond.

Chapter Text

"I smell dirt..." It was hard to see anything but the darkness. His hand roamed the scratchy bark of a nearby tree. His feet propelled him over leaves and the soft underbrush. Above him, a pale light glowed.

"The moon... How many times was this?" He counted on his fingers, trying to remember how many times he had seen this same moon, this same grouping of trees, but came up blank. What was his name? What was it that he was supposed to do, in times like this? He couldn't remember.

On the horizon, a pale light rose, pulling the moon down as it climbed in the sky. His single green eye looked toward the sunlight, gently shielded by a small, white hand silhouetted against the morning star. Hours passed before he ran across anything that could lead him out of the forest. A thin river, more of a deep stream than anything else, cut across the way, the trees making space for its path. The boy drank desperately from its waters, quenching his nightlong thirst and washing away the dirt that caked itself under his fingernails.

As the ripples in its smooth surface stopped, his reflection came into view, only slightly misaligned due to the slowly flowing water. Was that what he looked like? A boy with white skin and hair, his single eye greener than the trees and grass? Was that what he was supposed to look like? Most people didn't look like this, he knew, but he couldn't help but wonder how he knew that, if he couldn't remember any people in particular. His mother must have looked like this. Or his father. How did he lose his eye? Was he born without one? Was he in an accident? What was his name?

Who was he?

"Ginko..." he whispered. Where did that come from? That must be his name. He had answered his own question, he supposed. He tore his gaze away from the flowing stream, wiping his dirty face before continuing on his way.

Chapter Text

His first host was the man who found him. Ginko had collapsed at the side of the road as soon as he made it out of the forest, only letting himself fall when he saw the white of the travelers eyes. The man had taken him home, and told him that he could stay and live with him. They would go see the village elder the next day. But Ginko paid only minimal attention, turning his gaze to the reflection in the water barrel.

The hole of his left eye, even in the sunlight, was black as if it was seeped in darkness. And it attracted weird things, the likes of which his first host could not see. A writhing, colorful mass of things, twisting and turning over each other in the air above his head. If it continued like that, misfortune was sure to follow, the same way that these weird things seemed to follow him.

Wary of his own presence, Ginko had left without a word before the man finished cooking dinner. He had stoked the fires and chopped wood for the man, so his debt was paid, if not more, as Ginko's absence kept the strange spirits from nesting in the man's home.

His second host was a tailor who had found him passed out in the middle of town, and put him to work for his time there. Ginko brushed off the spirits, focusing on stacking the piles of fabric that he was assigned. But soon enough, the time came where he had to leave. The spirits started to infest some of the older rolls of fabric, gnawing tiny holes in the cloth and fraying the edges. Like with his first host, Ginko left without a word, unsure how to explain his predicament without making himself sound like a danger to everyone around him.

His third host was a small-time mushishi, a young woman who came across him sleeping on the path cutting across a rice field. A master of mushi, a doctor and spiritualist, she called herself. It was with her that Ginko stayed the longest, as they traveled from place to place. It was from her that he learned what mushi were, and their place in the world.

"So that eye of yours attracts the mushi, huh?" she said one day, pushing back his hair. "Can't say I've heard of anything quite like that, no." Without a word, he pulled his white hair over his empty socket again, hiding it from view. Once, he had asked her what she saw in mushi. Why she loved her job so much. If she was hired to drive the mushi away and to solve mushi problems, then weren't mushi just a pest?

"Well," she started, putting a finger to her lips. She adjusted the straps on her chin to pull her hat down a little. "Mushi are simply amazing. They're mysterious and magical. They're somewhere between spirits and bugs. You can classify them, study them, and find others like them. You can predict what they're going to do, and can figure out how they reproduce, and hold them like any other bug or animal. But you don't know why they're here, or why only certain people can see them. You don't know why some of them are able to possess what seem like magical powers, although they only have them due to biological imperative. It's how they live, how they survive. Mushi provide an explanation for things that other people leave up to the gods."

Ginko looked down at his hands. Somewhere between bugs and spirits, were they?

"What do you think of mushi?"

"What?"

"What do you think of mushi, Ginko?"

"...I don't know," he admitted. "I think they can be dangerous, but I'm not sure why. They don't seem to act with emotion. They exist, doing what they were born to do. But I guess that can be dangerous too." The woman smiled at him, ruffling his hair.

"It's good that you don't know," she said. "It means you'll always think things through, and act with reason." Her words were kind, and her smile kinder. But for some reason, it made his heart wrench, and tighten painfully.

That night, Ginko snuck off, leaving without a word to the mushishi. At the edge of a different road, he sank to his knees, exhausted.

Chapter Text

He could see the flesh behind the opening. The eye was gone, but it's absence caused no problems. It was not missed by the socket, the optic nerve, or even his brain. Ginko wasn't sure if he missed it either, for how could one long for something they don't remember having.

The dark space where his eye once was bore no tears, even if the other one watered and rained. His tear ducts were just fine, but the darkness still let nothing escape.

He teared up a bit the other day, for he had tripped on the mountain path he walked, and skinned his knee. With no one else around, he let a tear and a single sniffle escape, bracing himself against the superficial pains. But nothing came from the darkness.

Chapter Text

Daidoji had taken the boy in. His hair was white, and skin nearly as pale. No matter how Hibiki turned himself, he couldn't see the boy's othis eye past his hair. Was it just as green as his visible one? Did he have one?

The old mushishi, a seasoned veteran, had brought Ginko to sit by him around the bonfire that night, asking him of his travels, the mushi he encountered, and telling him tales in return. Hibiki and his little brother Kiku sat on the opposite side, chatting quietly, but he only had eyes for the stupid boy that Daidoji picked up.

Why did Ginko get all the special treatment? The boy had been allowed a peek at Daidoji's personal journal – a compendium and field guide to rare and powerful mushi – even though the boy had only been with them for a week. Hibiki was the first apprentice, and it wasn't like he was too young for it either – Ginko seemed to be around the same age! Kiku had told him that he was being stupid.

"Ginko can see mushi too, and he doesn't remember anything," the little boy pointed his finger in the air like it was academia. he was two years younger, but liked to act as if his nine years of life taught him far more than his big brother. "He doesn't have anything else. It would be better if you just tried being friends with him instead." The mushi apprentice only grumbled, rolling his eyes when he didn't want to admit that his sister was right.

"What's so special about you?" Hibiki asked him one day, the top of his shaggy mop of hair tied back into a tuft on his head. They were standing in the stream, spearing fish to smoke and cook until they came across the next town they would make their rounds in. "You're not even his apprentice."

The other was silent, only passing a cursory glance over Hibiki before returning to spear-fishing. OH, how infuriating it was! Stupid Ginko! Damn old man!

"You didn't even answer me!" He splashed a bit of water at the other eleven year-old.

"That's because I don't know the answer, stupid." Ginko scoffed, splashing water back.

"I'm not stupid, you're stupid!"

"I can't be that stupid," Ginko rolled his single eye at him. Hibiki had learned by now that his other one was missing, but had never commented on it. "Daidoji just made me his second apprentice, after all." He sputtered, taken aback. Ginko just became the man's second apprentice? He was here to stay? What if Daidoji decided to drop Hibiki and just teach Ginko? He couldn't do that, could he? "Careful there, Hibiki, or he'll leave you behind before dinner." Oh my god. He was being teased. He was being teased by some green-eyed weirdo with silly hair and a throwaway kimono.

"You – I – Ugh! Damn it!" The tanned boy threw his hands in the air, accidentally sending the fish on his spear flying onto the pebble-y river bank where it flopped and bled. Ginko snorted, snickering at his dumbstruck face. "Look what you made me do, jerk!"

"That's your own fault, stupid." A tongue was stuck out at him, taunting him like a little kid. Ginko was such a jerk – oh, what he wouldn't give to rip that tongue right outta his mouth.

"You're such a jerk!" Hibiki went over to pick up the speared fish, washing it in the river before adding it to his catch basket before pointing an accusatory finger at his peer. "You came in and ruined everything! I'm supposed to be Daidoji's apprentice, but it's been two weeks since he taught me much of anything!" Ginko quirked his mouth to the side, as if genuinely surprised at what the boy said. Could it really be so unexpected? The weirdo was Daidoji's favorite, after all.

"He was teaching you how to read last week, wasn't he?" the boy asked.

"Yeah... So?"

"So maybe you need to be able to read better before he teaches you more about mushi," finished Ginko. Hibiki huffed, puffing his chest out in annoyance.

"Yeah, well, I guess he's got you for that now. He already showed you the field guide and everything."

"And I couldn't read a word of it." Hibiki's brows shot up into his shaggy hair. He untied the strips that held back his dark red sleeves from the river, and shuffled the catch basket onto his back. "Daidoji was trying to help me remember if it was a mushi that took my memories. We were just looking at the pictures." All the hot air that was swirling in his chest rushed out of his mouth like a deflated ball. Just the pictures? Had he been angry and jealous over nothing?

"You can't read?" Ginko shook his head. "He wasn't teaching you?" Another shake of the head.

"He's just been helping me get to your level, so he can teach us at the same time," explained the white-haired child. Wow. Groaning in frustration, Hibiki smacked himself on the forehead.

"Aagh! I'm so stupid!" Hibiki whined, covering his face with his hands.

"I know," Ginko smirked. "That's why I called you stupid, stupid." Copying what Ginko did before, Hibiki stuck his tongue out, taunting him with silly sounds. If they were on the same playing field, maybe it wouldn't be as hard to get along with the jerk as he thought. Ginko was still a jerk though; no doubt about that.

Chapter Text

"You'll be interested in hearing this, Ginko," said Daidoji. The old man's voice crackled and played like a deep-cut flute, the tones rising like wizened tree branches. "I've gotten word about something called a Tokoyami."

Ginko didn't reply, only waiting for him to continue. He had learned early on that this was how Daidoji was – never quite getting to the point until later, adding pauses in his speech where you weren't supposed to talk. He only looked at Hibiki with a question in his expression, but the other boy and his little sister merely shrugged. Hibiki was certainly interested to hear what Daidoji had to say, but Kiku, who couldn't do much more than sense that a mushi was close by, focused on his bowl of rice.

"It's a large shadow mushi with a bright light inside of it. Eats an eye and turns the other green. Turns the skin white. Very dangerous," the man muttered. "It's probably what took your eye, and maybe even your memories." Ginko looked up, a silent inquiry in his eye. "No, I don't know much more than that. It's a little hard to get information on a mushi that eats likes to eat the memories of those that encounter it."

The campfire was silent then, each child wondering if Daidoji had more to say.

"Do you plan on hunting it, Ginko?" asked Daidoji, his thin eyes staring the boy down with a hard gaze. Ginko shook his head, opting to eat more fish.

"No. Killing the tokoyami wouldn't bring my memories back, and even if it did, I would have to find the exact one that I encountered," he murmured, his voice even. "All mushi live only as they are born to, eating what they eat, and doing what they do." Daidoji's stare was impassive, revealing nothing but an unreadable interest in Ginko's words.

"I heard another rumor too," the man turned back to his food, plucking another fish off the fire to break it for the children. "A mushishi with white hair and a single green eye was studying the tokoyami in the mountains, and a child was living with her. A boy. He might have been her son, or maybe an apprentice. Isn't that interesting, doing something as irresponsible as letting a child live near such a dangerous monster? Perhaps you've heard the story before."

Ginko wished he had some sort of epiphany at that moment, some sort of lightning strike that raveled down his spine, but there was nothing. No recognition. It seemed like the woman mushishi could be his mother. Maybe he hadn't lost his memories due to the tokoyami or the light it held within – maybe it was something else. An accident. Trauma. Things that meant memories could return. Maybe his eye and hair were from his mother. But a lingering ripple of doubt rested in his stomach, by the fish and rice.

"That is interesting," he replied. He could hear Hibiki shift uncomfortably. There was no doubt the other boy was going to interrogate him on this later, once Daidoji fell into a deep sleep. "If I've heard of it before, I must have forgotten. Where did you hear it?" Daidoji smirked, chuckling at Ginko's clear interest. The boy's voice may have been even and calm, but there was the shaky undulation of a child's rapt attention underneath it.

"Here, there. I'm not really sure," the old man replied, setting his bowl down by the empty rice box. Ginko ground his teeth together, shoveling the rest of his food into his mouth before roughly setting his bowl away as well.

"I'm gonna go to bed," Ginko added in a fake yawn and quick stretch of the shoulders. "I'm tired." Daidoji hummed, having already set up his own pallet for the night.

Chapter Text

“We're not friends. We're rivals,” Hibiki said seriously, keeping a stern pout on his young face to look tough.

“This is what friends do, isn't it?” Ginko said blandly, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. Hibiki took this whole 'rivalry' thing way too seriously. Daidoji taught them their lessons together, and made sure to test them whenever he saw fit. The boys were often kept on their toes, unsure of when the mushishi would spring a sudden question on one of them and demand an answer. It wasn't Ginko's fault that Hibiki would be too flustered and off-guard to answer. Giving in and rolling his eyes without any real displeasure, Ginko wrapped his pinky around Hibiki's own, pressing their cuts together.

“No, this is a symbol of our rivalry,” stated Hibiki, as if there were no other answer. “It's a blood pact! We're bonded together from now on!”

“This sounds exactly like what friends do, stupid.” Ginko smirked, pulling their bloodied pinkies up to shake them in the shaggy-haired boy's face. “Could it be that you like me, Hibiki?”

“Wh – Who could like a jerk like you?!” Hibiki violently pulled his hand out from the weak hold, flinging a droplet of blood onto the floor of their host's home. “I just don't want you backing out of the competition!” Ginko snorted, nearly falling as peals of light laughter floated from his mouth.

“So we're friends.”

Eternal rivals!” Hibiki corrected.

 

Chapter Text

“You know, Ginko,” Daidoji said to him one day, “you're really very fortunate.” Ginko asked how it could be so, trailing his green eyes over to his Master – his pupils held no pain, but his clenching heart felt strange and foreign in his chest.

“That empty socket of yours attracts mushi, and so, you will get more practice, more experience to test yourself by. Your connection to the tokoyami brings you closer to the mushi, so you may exert a greater influence on them than otherwise.” Daidoji puffed on his long, thin pipe, the tobacco in the little cup on the other end blazing orange as he dragged it. He blew the smoke across the stifled bonfire from the previous night towards Ginko, making it look like a flame still burned in the ashes and blackened logs. The acrid fog curled around the boy's face, latching onto small-fry mushi that rested peacefully on the tree behind his back. “Now, isn't that useful?”

“I think,” Ginko coughed, hacking spit onto the grass a foot away. “That I could do fine even without those... fortunes.”

“Hah? Ginko, ginko... This gives you an advantage!” Daidoji reasoned, laughing when he caught sight of the boy's pout. “Don't you want an edge over Hibiki? Last time I checked, you two were caught in a pretty serious rivalry.”

“Not really.”

“You'll have even more of an advantage once your memories come back.” The tobacco had burned out, leaving behind only pale gray ash in the smoking cup. With a sharp tap against a sooty log, Daidoji turned the ash out and into the damp fire pit. “Any mushishi would give an arm for information like that. How the tokoyami eats, how it reproduces... Why it's affected you the way you did. Those memories could make you a well-respected mushishi, Ginko. Could probably get you into the innermost sanctum of the Karibusa archives, too.”

“I'm not interested in all of that,” Ginko's lips drew tight, and he stared at the fire pit, loosing his gaze in a mass of wet ash and clumpy charcoal.

“What interests you then? Money?” No. Money wasn't something he needed. “Do you even miss your memories?” Ginko blanched, snapping his stare back up to the old man, who held a friendly smile and a pair of steel, unreadable eyes.

“I – My memories...” He sunk in on himself again, not out of despair, but deep thought. “You can't miss something you don't remember having.” The smile slipped off Daidoji's face, the same way it did when the man studied a mushi closely. A muted, straight face that gave nothing away. A weathered, calloused hand filled the smoking pipe with tobacco once more, first lighting a small pile of dried leaves in the fire pit before catching the flame with a reed to light the tobacco.

“Of course you miss your memories,” Daidoji waved him off, blowing the smoke to the side of the clearing this time. But he didn't take his dark eyes off the white-haired boy. “And they'll come back. Don't worry.”

“...If you say so.” He wasn't sure if he longed for the life that he had forgotten. He didn't know if he enjoyed his days on the mountain, living with some hermit he couldn't even recall. Was it possible to miss memories that would only cause him pain when he inevitably found that he could not return to his old life?

“....And so I eagerly await their return. Can't have you staying a mystery forever.” Daidoji turned the pipe to him, pushing the thin stick into his small child hands. Ginko had zoned out, the muffled words from Daidoji's mouth coming into focus as he tore himself from his thoughts. “Try some mushi tobacco. Might as well get used to it now – it's the most common tool, after all.” Curious, Ginko lifted the tip to his mouth, and sucked in as much air as he could – he held it, but then collapsed coughing, hacking dirt saliva out onto the ground as his Master laughed, smacking a hand onto his face. Thankfully, he managed to keep holding the pipe up so it didn't get slammed into the dirt. “I guess tobacco just doesn't agree with you, kid!”

“I – suppose not – “ Ginko hacked between his words, his eyelids clenched in the throaty pain that wafted through his throat wherever the smoke touched. “Do I really need to smoke this to be a mushishi?”

“Sure as sugar. I'm going to have Hibiki smoke it too; it's a mushishi's first layer of protection besides his wits.” The old man tapped the side of his head, as if able to poke the clever thoughts sitting in his cranium. “I thought that I would start with you; after all, you're going to need all the protection you can get when you face the tokoyami again.”

Gnko was silent, but his mouth inexplicably turned dry, and his mind slightly fuzzy, and confused. What was the point of getting his memories back when he wasn't sure if he was ready for them? Or if he even wanted them? Why couldn't he just move on and establish himself?

“We're going to get your memories back, Ginko,” said Daidoji. The boy furrowed his brows, casting his eyes into the dirt to avoid looking into the deep, black pits that were his master's irises. As valuable the lessons from Master Daidoji were, the man's battle-like consideration of the mushi world bothered him a great deal. A pale hand came up to his eye socket, covering the black hole and feeling the empty space with the palm. “You're going to get your real name back. You'll remember your family, your life... You'll remember whether you were actually staying with that hermit on the mountain or not, and if you did, what you learned from her. You'll remember how you came upon the tokoyami.”

“We'll take what rightly belongs to you right back from that damn monster, don't you worry.” Daidoji finished his tobacco, putting away his pipe in his pack.

And Ginko wasn't worried – not for his mind, that is. But he was uneasy, and unsure of how to feel about Daidoji's increasingly zealous remarks. Hibiki had noticed as all, slyly pulling Daidoji away from him and demanding for lessons whenever the white-haired boy needed some time alone, away from the man who refused to leave his past where it was. Kiyoshi would help as well, even if she didn't know much past that there was tension within the group. But she helped as much as a young child could, asking her new big brother for help when her pack was too heavy, or to go gather herbs and berries with her in the forest. But all that did was stave off the uncertain nature of Daidoji's intentions until later.

One day, when Ginko, Kiku, Hibiki, and Daidoji were sitting around the fire as Hibiki stirred the congee in the iron pot, two weathered, firm hands landed upon Ginko's shoulders. It was the Master, his black eyes wide and unblinking, and an excited smile on his face like he had his first victory in an eternal war.

“I think I might know where the tokoyami is,” said Daidoji, and all the air rushed out of Ginko's lungs, leaving him breathless and winded.