PART THREE: REWARD
“Whoa! Whoa! Enough! Stop! Whoa!”
My protests did nothing to halt the screaming of the statue before me. Like the statue back in the Hall of Masters, it was seemingly carved of pure white stone, shot through with little whispers of pale pink, and it really shouldn’t have been able to move, much less scream. But scream it did, just like the eight-year-old boy it looked like.
“Please! Come on! Stop!”
Something tugged at my trouser leg and looking down I saw my new little buddy wriggling and making puppy snarls as he tried to rip the hem off my trousers.
“Hey, can you make him stop?”
I lifted the puppy in my arms. He yipped when I first picked him up and kept struggling in my hands. I realised he was trying to turn around and look at the screaming statue so I turned to give him a better view.
The screaming stopped.
The statue’s mouth hung open. It stared disbelieving at the puppy in my arms and would have raised an arm if it wasn’t shackled so tightly.
The puppy’s wriggling became impossible to control and I had to drop him to the ground. He immediately rushed over and leapt and gamboled around the shocked statue.
“I, uh, guess he belongs to you, huh?”
The kid nodded, blinking as he looked up at me.
I considered the hall I’d woken up in. Grey mist in all directions. Rows of statues heading off into the distance. Every statue seemingly wrapped up in big ugly chains, just like this kid in front of me.
Every one except the one just to my left, of Satozora Shinga, this kid’s uncle.
My head tilted. Yumi thinks it’s funny when I do that. She says it looks like a dog listening.
“I suppose your name is Satozora Shinaka, yeah?”
The kid nodded again. He tried to bend down and pick up the desperately wriggling puppy, but those chains kept him from moving. I came forward and lifted the wriggly little guy so he could lick Shinaka’s face, which cheered up the kid a lot.
“He’s pretty cute. He led us to you, I guess.”
“Is it your intention, sir, to free us from our bondage to Shinga-sama?”
That sounded like the sort of thing Yumi would be immediately on board with. But I had no idea where Yumi was. Or, more exactly, where I was.
“You and these others… You’re the former Grand Masters of the White Jade Clan, yeah?”
“That is correct, sir.”
He talked really old-fashioned and polite. It was cute in a little kid like him.
“You don’t have to call me ‘sir’. My name is Hoshi.”
“I was only Grand Master for a couple of years, Hoshi. The only thing I ever really did was make Ko-chan a member of the clan.”
“You made a puppy a member of your clan?”
Shinaka laughed and did his best to shrug.
“After my parents died, he was the only person who seemed to love me. My uncle, Shinga, wanted me dead, and he got his wish pretty quick. I suppose he must have murdered me, but I don’t recall.”
“Your uncle sounds like a jerk.”
“I hate him. But he became Grand Master and he was a powerful sorcerer as well, so he bound us all up like this.”
I reached out and grabbed hold of the chain, tugging experimentally. The metal slipped icy in my hand and couldn’t find a way to pull it off Shinaka’s shoulder. The other boy shook his head sadly.
“Only a sorcerer of our clan could possibly remove those chains. But our clan is now lost. There will never be another White Jade ninja, much less a sorcerer. We will be trapped like this forever.”
Shinaka’s serious face lit up in a happy grin as Ko-chan strained forward once again.
“But you have brought me my beloved Ko-chan. I never thought to see my little puppy again.”
The happiness on his face was pretty great to see. But I looked around this weird mystical place I’d found myself in, and realised I had no idea how to get home.
I sure hoped Yumi figured out how to find me.
“Where did you send Hoshi!? You tell me what’s happened”
The ghost laughed at Yumi’s angry questions.
“I fear no Ghost Shadow Clan whelp, not even the daughter of the Arch-Witch herself! I have your friend where only the White Jade can venture, and no matter how you rage or bluster, you cannot reach him, Yumi Sasori. You will do as I say.”
Yumi crossed her arms over her chest and glared.
“I am Yumi Sasori! I have commanded the dead of the Thousand Emperors* and all spirits bow to me! What do you want, Satozora Shinga?”
“You possess the power to destroy that filthy, ridiculous cur. Do so, and I will return your friend to you.”
“It is a ghost, Sasori! Destroy it as you have so many others. Show me this power I have heard so much of, child.”
Yumi pursed her lips, still glaring at the floating apparition.
“Why do you–”
“No questions! Bring the wretched little spirit forth, and destroy it at once! Its very existence shames our clan.”
The moment Yumi snapped her fingers, the little puppy appeared before her. She squatted down to pet it and it wriggled and leapt up, licking at her face and making her giggle despite herself. She gathered the eager little thing up in her arms and rose up to her full height.
“This puppy shames your clan?”
The girl’s eyes widened and she turned away, striding quickly across to the tomb of Satozora Shinaka, the one the puppy had been so eager to bring them to earlier. With a sweep of her hand she unleashed a wave of crashing sorcerous fury, shattering the statue and the tomb beneath it.
Bones, wretchedly tiny bones, tumbled to the flagstones at her feet. Yumi knelt and, clutching the frantically wriggling puppy in one hand, reached out with the other to turn over the sepulchral clutter.
A small skull, of a child. And next to it, even tinier, an animal skull.
A puppy’s skull.
Yumi felt both skulls carefully. The child’s flickered with sorcery, sparking out at her fingers, but the puppy’s lay dull and dead.
She stood, the anger on her face twisting into an ugly contempt as she turned back to the ghost of Satozora Shinga.
“You trapped them all! Just because you are ashamed of this loyal, loving friend!”
“Friend? That useless little runt of a–”
“SHAME ON YOU!”
Yumi held the puppy close to her chest, pointing out at the ghost with her free hand.
“He is a member of the clan, isn’t he? That’s why he’s buried here. And you bound all the other spirits, so they’d never speak of this, this beautiful gesture of a child’s love for his best friend.”
“So what if I did? It is my clan, you insolent–”
“But you didn’t bind HIM.”
The ghost reared back, its hazy face suddenly cloudy with suspicion.
“The dog? No, why would I–”
“So there is one member of the clan who is free.”
Yumi turned the puppy around and let it lick her face. She laughed.
“Show me the way, little one. Let us find our friends together.”
Yumi’s form glowed, and the girl seemed to impossibly roll up and glitter and blast right into the puppy, who fell to the floor, wriggled, yipped, and disappeared.
I kept trying to heave on the chains wrapped around Shinaka, but they remained as firm as ever.
“You must leave, my friend Hoshi. If Shinga finds you here, he will surely kill you.”
I heaved again.
“Well, if I knew how to get out of here, I guess I might consider it. But I hate to leave you here with him.”
“You are very brave, friend Hoshi.”
“Well, I don’t know how to get out of here, so I don’t really have any options right now.”
Then suddenly the puppy came leaping up again, yipping and bouncing around, even more energetic than usual.
The puppy bit into the chain and snarled, heaving with all its little strength.
“Hey little guy, I’ve tried tha–”
I shut up as the chain came clattering loose. The puppy charged in again and pulled at another part of the chain, and more and more loops came off.
I was just standing there, staring, when a huge scary voice boomed right behind me.
“Stop it! Stop this at once!”
It was Shinga and he lunged at the puppy.
And suddenly the puppy was no puppy. Suddenly an immense hound turned, snarling and snapping at the ghost who backpedalled faster than I’d ever seen any undead spirit. The hound turned back to Shinaka and with one more toss of its jaws, hurled the last of the chains aside.
I heard a thunderous crashing all around and I could see the chains falling from all the statues in the white white hall.
Shinga screamed and took off at a ghostly run as half those statues immediately charged for him.
Shinaka jumped down and the great big hound was somehow just a little puppy again, bouncing and wriggling and gamboling around its young owner. They were both so happy. Two little buddies playing together.
I wished I had a puppy.
Shinaka picked up his little friend and held him out to me.
“Say goodbye to Ko-chan, friend Hoshi.”
I took the puppy in my arms and grinned.
“Bye, Ko-chan. You have fun with your master now.”
Ko-chan yipped and lunged out, licking my face with all his puppy enthusiasm. I laughed and fell over backward and then he seemed to get a lot heavier.
“Yumi! Yumi, get off! Stop licking me!”
“You ARE tasty!”
My friend gave my face one more giggly lap of her tongue and then rolled off so I could breathe again. We sat up in the Hall of Masters surrounded by statues.
“So… you were… in the puppy?”
“Yup. Puppies are great! What fun!”
She lunged and started licking my face again.
“Yumi! Bad girl! Bad Yumi!”
We laughed, and I guess all the noise woke up Master Tainaka. She wasn’t sure what had happened, but you know, there’d been running in the tomb, and bones spilled on the floor, so Yumi and I had to clean everything up.
Yumi spent most of the “cleaning up” crawling around pretending to be a dog, trying to get me to scratch her behind the ears, so as usual I did most of the cleaning. But the shrine didn’t seem quite so stern and intimidating after that. I actually go up there sometimes by myself with a little ball. I throw it into the maze of sepulchres, but it always comes rolling back to my feet. Sometimes it’s a little slobbery.
It’s not quite like having my own puppy, but it’s something.
*See “Yumi Sasori and the Case of Too Many Emperors: A Yumi Sasori Mystery”