“So, Hoshi, what’s so interesting about this screaming skull of yours?”
It sort of says everything about my friend Yumi that I had to convince her there was something interesting about a screaming skull. She stood in front of me, one hand on her hip, one eyebrow cocked, her thick black hair pushed back behind her shoulders. Since I’m not very big, and she’s a few years older than me, I had to crank my head a bit to look up at her. I tried not to be intimidated, but Yumi was easily the scariest kid in school.
We all knew Yumi’s mother was the crazy witch Yukako Sasori, who’d done all sorts of terrible things. In the Ghost Shadow Clan we count all sorts of necromancers and sorcerers among our kin, but Arch-Witch Yukako Sasori was a legend. Everyone feared her.
But some folks around the school whispered that the daughter was even more fearsome a sorceress than her mother. I didn’t know if that was true, but Yumi had always been nice to me. At any rate, when that skull started screaming at me, I hadn’t even thought about what to do; I’d just run straight to the shrine where Yumi was working. Screaming undead spirits are always Yumi’s thing.
Or so I’d thought.
“Okay, so I’m cleaning up a shrine to the Bone Tower Clan.”
“Oh yes, they were powerful sorcerers, I recall. They were wiped out about thirty years ago, during the Bureaucrat’s Rebellion.”
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. I guess until last year, the shrine was looked after by some old guy named Ryutaro, but he died and so nobody’s tending it now. Not that he’d tended it much; I don’t think he’d cleaned the place once in thirty years. Apparently he used to chase everyone away who ever came by. Everything’s all covered in dust. I bet Master Kamenosuke assigned me it on purpose. It’s a hole. Nothing like this place.”
Yumi had been assigned to clean up a shrine dedicated to a clan that must have been pretty wealthy to earn such a memorial shrine here in Kimurachi Temple. Heavy rafters arched through the darkness overhead, and the gleaming floor of lustrous mahogany showed Yumi’d already finished her cleaning duties.
“But just as I’m about to start tidying it up, something starts twitching and shuffling around in the back. I can hear it.
“I go over into the corner, where the roof comes down way low so I have to bend over, and everything’s covered in thick dust so I don’t want to touch anything, but I can see this skull sitting back there, all shiny and white.”
Yumi’s eyes lit up just a little.
“No dust on the skull?”
“I… No. I didn’t think of that. No, there’s no dust on it. It must be–”
“Go on, go on.”
“Well, that’s pretty much it. I reached out and picked up the skull, and that’s when it screamed at me. I dropped it and ran right here.”
“You just ran away? Afraid of a little skull?”
“Hey! Who stuck by you when the Soulless Brigade tried to burn down the Malachite Palace*, huh? I’m no chicken.”
“Well, I guess that’s fair. Alright, Hoshi, let’s go talk to this skull of yours. This does sound like fun.”
In case I haven’t been clear, Yumi had pretty funny ideas about “fun”. But I was going to get in big trouble if I didn’t clean up the Bone Tower Clan shrine, and besides, there’s nobody I’d rather have with me when facing screaming undead monsters than Yumi-sempai. I followed her long-legged strides out of the shrine and into the beautiful garden outside.
Like I said, the shrine Yumi had been cleaning was a pretty big one. We walked out of its gates into a wide avenue in the nice part of Kimurachi Temple, where the shrines wind up the skirts of Mount Tana, overlooking the rest of the city and the docks far below. From where we stood, we could see the descending rooftops of the thousands of shrines that make up our city: Kimurachi Temple.
Each shrine is dedicated to a lost clan. When the last member of a ninja clan is slain, there is no longer anyone to propitiate and offer sacrifice to their ancestors. Our clan, the Ghost Shadow Clan, the inhabitants of Kimurachi Temple, tend to those forgotten dead, giving them the respect and attention they deserve.
So it’s a city full of ghosts. And not all those ghosts rest easy in their sepulchres. Like for example this skull that had been so rude to me. I’d spent enough time around ghosts to know just how dangerous they can be.
Yumi feared no dead spirits, of course. She grinned at me and led us down the cobblestone avenue into the heart of Kimurachi Temple.
As we descended from the fancy heights, the streets grew tighter and bumpier, and the shrines on either side became smaller and less impressive. Big stone archways and gleaming roof tiles gave way to humbler wooden gates and split-plank roofs, as we moved into neighbourhoods where the lesser clans had their ancestors housed.
The streets thronged with chanting, mumbling priests and joyous ranks of dancers. We cut through a crowd surrounding a fire-breather, roaring flame into the air, and had to wait to allow a solemn procession of white-robed sorcerers moaning and swaying as they made their way up the avenue, their incense thick and aromatic.
Every day is somebody’s holy day in Kimurachi Temple.
At the tail end of the sorcerers I saw a bunch of kids from our school, including Kaohisa, a big kid Yumi’s age who I’d had a few run-ins with already. I tried to duck back into the crowd, but he saw me and before I knew it, he and his little cronies had me surrounded.
“Hey, you little twerp. Slacking off, huh? What if I tell Kamenosuke you’re out here running around when you’re supposed to be cleaning your shrine?”
I knew I should just keep quiet and move away, but my mouth sometimes makes plans without me.
“What if I ask him to ask you to spell your own name, fathead?”
As I spoke, I planted myself as firmly on the street as I could. If this was going to be a fight, at least I’d give a good account of myself. I hoped they wouldn’t all jump on me at the same time.
They didn’t. They didn’t need to. I didn’t even seen Kaohisa come at me; I just felt a sudden sharp smack on the side of my head and I was on the cobblestones with the bigger kid standing over me, laughing.
Then his laugh broke off, and suddenly Kaohisa was coughing and stepping back from me. His buddies drew back as well, gathering near their ringleader.
“Sasori. What. What are you doing here?”
I got to my feet as Yumi came beside me. Embarrassed and angry, I was ready to go at Kaohisa again, even though I knew he’d just knock me down again.
“Let me go! I’ll get you! I’ll get you!”
I twisted and pulled, but I was too frantic to get free of Yumi’s grip. Kaohisa got his composure back and laughed again.
“Yeah, you better stick with your girlfriend, Hoshi. You might get hurt, otherwise.”
“I’ll get you! You just wait, Kaohisa, I’ll get you.”
“Don’t listen to them, Hoshi. Let’s go.”
He scowled, watching as Yumi dragged me off into the crowd. By the time we were a few blocks away, I’d gone from thrashing and raging to sniffling and sobbing.
I always get wound up when I’m in a fight. I’m not a baby; I just get so worked up I sometimes bawl my eyes out even though I’m angry. I get weepy even if I’m the one doing the hitting. Yumi didn’t say anything or even look away while I calmed down, and once the tears were pretty much done with I looked up and she was smiling at me.
“Have you been telling the other kids I’m your girlfriend, Hoshi?”
“What? No, no, I never–”
She giggled and I realised she was just teasing me. I had to laugh as well.
“I’ll get him someday.”
“Revenge is important, Hoshi. After we get this skull sorted out maybe I can help you.”
We left the crowds behind and now I took the lead as we picked our careful way up through narrow, potholed alleyways that wound and twisted around tiny ramshackle shrines, some of them no more than rough lean-tos sheltering a couple of faceless statuettes or a faded nameplate. Skulls, dust-covered and silent, grinned from every alcove, and from around every corner we were watched by glow-eyed rats, creeping furry beasts that knew just enough caution to stay out of reach.
Even though it was mid-afternoon, the leaning walls and overhanging roofs blocked out much of the sunlight, and we passed through dark shadows and the warm summer air grew chilly. I crossed my arms over my chest and shivered.
The chill deepened as we rounded the last corner and drew in sight of the Bone Tower clan shrine. Bigger than most of the surrounding structures, it seemed to muscle against its neighbors, pressing outwards with a sneering disregard. The thatch roof hung slack with holes, and the dark interior only revealed hints of the masses of bone within.
I could just make out the skull in the back of the shrine, its white gleam visible in the shadows. I pointed and Yumi strode fearlessly into the shrine to pick it up. She reached out to brush some dust aside from the altar, ready to set the skull down, but she was interrupted. By screaming.
The grinning thing rattled in her hand and again that terrible shriek came out, setting ghostly echoes rippling up and down the alleyway. The scream went on and on, agony and terror mixed together and I had to clap my hands over my ears just to try and keep all that horror out of my head.
“Well, it sure screams. What fun!”