A sudden torrent of rain drums on the window, like the patter of many rushing footsteps, jerking me from a restless sleep.
In the mornings following Mother’s death, there’d always be a second or two upon waking when I would forget her passing, before the memories would reinstall in my brain and shatter the fleeting, blissful ignorance. This time, when my eyes crack open, my mind instantly snaps to Conrad, to what I’ve done to him, as if my brain very much continued to wrestle with this whilst my body slept.
That’s why I notice immediately he isn’t in my arms.
I sit bolt upright, no less awake than if a bucket of water had been splashed on my face. My eyes struggle to catch up and penetrate our starlit bedroom—
A shuffle. Something stalks towards me, along the shadowy path between the dusty boxes. A cold draft prickles against my face. A pair of glowing blue eyes open, white-less, pupil-less, splitting the dark.
“Kitsune!” I gasp.
Heart pounding, my vision finally adjusts, as if charged by the adrenaline surging through my veins. Yellow hair appears above the azure eyes, and a soft voice whispers beneath them.
“Hen. I don’t feel right.”
Conrad collapses into a heap of arms and legs, floorboards creaking under the sudden strain. Shaking off the moment of terror, I rush to his aid and hoist him back onto the mattress. His skin is fiery, hotter than a fever. His eyes are shut, lids tinted with blue—I gently lift one, allowing the magical light to pour back into the room and confirm that I saw exactly what I thought I did: the eyes of Kitsune in the place of my brother’s.
“I’m sorry,” I say, backing into the corner, hands trembling, hating every breath I take, hating that I don’t understand anything of the crisis I’ve caused. How am I ever going to get Conrad out of this?
It’s the hopeful voice, whispering in the back of my mind. But it doesn’t know what it’s talking about anymore. How can I possibly beat Kitsune? I’ve pitted myself against a power far beyond myself, and look where that’s already landed me—landed Conrad.
-But if you hadn’t challenged Kitsune, if you hadn’t chased after the impossible, you’d never have known . . .
What good is knowing? What good is it, knowing Kitsune owns Mother’s soul, if the cost of saving her is one I can’t ask Conrad to pay? He’ll never sacrifice the souls of three people, and even if he somehow does, he’ll never forgive himself—he’ll destroy his own soul in the process. And yet if he doesn’t fulfill the deal, Kitsune will take his soul anyway, and I’ll lose them both. He’s locked onto a path of self-destruction, and I did that to him.
-So then don’t play Kitsune’s game; play yours. Bring the fight to him.
Now I know the voice in the back of my mind is not one of hope, but of sheer insanity, because not for one second do I think that I am capable of bringing anything to Kitsune, much less a fight. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I’m in way over my head—
An eruption of blue light snatches my attention. I glance down, assuming Conrad must’ve opened his eyes again. I might’ve preferred that.
The light emanates from Conrad’s palms, which are by his sides, pointing up at the slanting thatch roof. His tiny fingers are curled into two cups of flesh, and held within them, blue light flashes like a bizarre combination of electric and flame. For a second I think that the flashing is shapeless, meaningless, but every so often it pauses for the briefest of moments, and I catch the contour of an intricate symbol suspended in midair above his hands, at his fingertips. The symbols perpetually flip from one to the next, sometimes too fast to distinguish, sometimes almost slowing long enough to memorise. As the magical pictograms continue to reel, the darkness repeatedly breaks along with it, so that the room blazes into focus again and again and again, until I feel so sick I have to close my eyes and cover my face with my quivering hands to shut it all out.
I should’ve seen this coming. I knew Mother had accepted Kitsune’s deal when she lived on Shinpi farm. I don’t know why, whether Kitsune tricked her, or if she was trying to save someone else’s soul, like how we now have the chance to save hers. I have no idea. What I do know, is that something about accepting Kitsune’s deal changed her. She was able to use magic.
Gazing into Conrad’s sleeping face, despair and unease rages within me. I fear that when he wakes up—if he wakes up—he might not be my little brother anymore.
With all hope of drifting back to sleep well and truly extinguished, I lean back into the corner, try to ignore the magic flickering in my brother’s hands, and wait for daybreak.
Conrad’s hands stop flashing shortly after sunrise, allowing a golden glow to claim the room instead.
His eyelids are also no longer tinged with blue. I reach over to gently lift one and confirm his eyes are definitely back to normal, when he stirs with a slight moan, and they open of their own accord. A rush of relief. I recognise the cheerful gaze pointing up at me.
“Good morning Hen!” he chirps, unperturbed by me leaning over him the second he wakes.
He groggily palms the sleep out of his eyes. After seeing magic dance in those palms for hours on end, I want to call out a warning of some sort. But how do I put that into words? I settle for guiding his hands away from his face—his skin has returned to a natural temperature.
“How are you . . . feeling?” I ask, probably for the first time in a long time. It’s hard to tell if that’s why he’s immediately excited, or if it’s just his default setting shining through.
“Well, obviously I feel great!” he says, beaming, exposing every one of his teeth. “Your idea worked, Hen! We found the lonely spirit! You did see him, right? He’s a huge fox, and he has lots of tails, and beautiful blue eyes, like me!”
“And I spoke to him! He can talk! Isn’t that great?”
“You won’t believe what he told me. It’s the best news ever. He said he knows where we can find Momma’s soul! We made a deal together! All I had to do was touch his tail and then . . . and then . . .”
His voice trails away as he realises this is as far as his memory will take him.
“Do you feel . . . different?” I ask, finally able to get a word in.
A small crease forms on his forehead. He stares back at me, as if waiting for me to rephrase my question.
“We had to carry you out of the forest. You sort of . . . fell asleep,” I finish lamely.
“Oh, yes . . . I was very tired, wasn’t I?”
I’m not sure how to answer. He seems very much his ordinary self and it feels wrong to disturb that. The huge grin stretches once more on his face, igniting his eyes. “We’re going to find Momma,” he says with awe.
“Conrad, listen to me. Did Kitsune—
“He said we can call him Kit!”
“Fine. Did Kit tell you how to—how we might go about . . . finding Momma’s soul.”
“Um,” he says, prolonging the sound as he stares up into his brain. “He said he told you how.”
My hands clench into shaking fists.
“Did he, Hen? Did he say how we’re going to find Momma?”
A clutter comes from downstairs, turning our heads.
“Daddy’s up!” Conrad says, wiggling out of bed. “We can tell him the good news!”
“No!” I shout, too loudly. He jumps, and stares back at me, mouth ajar. “Listen,” I continue, calmer, slower, making each word count. “You can’t under any circumstances tell Father about what happened last night. Not about the spirit, about Mother, about any of it.”
“But why?” he whines. “Won’t he be happy that we can find Momma’s soul?”
“Conrad, please. Think about the story he told us. About those children that disappeared. If Father knows this stuff is real, he’ll think we’re in danger. He’ll take us back to the city like that,” I say, clicking my fingers.
“No he won’t, not if we can see Momma again,” he pouts, defiant, tears welling in his eyes. Before I can stop him, he scurries between the mounds of boxes and out of our bedroom.
I bolt after him.
We join Father in the living quarters, where once again he’s busy lighting the hearth, likely to dispel the thick, dank scent of rotten wood that clings in the air following the heavy rainfall.
“Hey, kids,” he greets us. His growing cheeriness has not yet ceased to surprise me. He really does love being back here. I pray that isn’t about to come crashing down.
Conrad and I sit on opposite edges of the firepit; he continually looks like he’s about to tell Father something, but cannot decide the right words to do so. I shoot him pleading looks, which as my nerves grow, turn into harsher looks of warning. Whenever Conrad catches one of these glares, he simply answers back by sticking his tongue out at me.
“Daddy, guess what,” he finally says. I steel myself, waiting for the storm to break.
Father looks up, fumbling with a piece of flint.
“We went into the forest last night!”
I know immediately that this is the worst thing Conrad could have possibly said. If he’d started with something else, like the spirit or the magical tree, for example, then Father would’ve brushed him off, since he always comes up with stuff like that. The evidence of our journey into the forest, however, is painfully obvious; both of our legs are flecked with mud, our hair is tousled and riddled with scraps of foliage, our hands thick with grime.
Father rounds on me, eyes dangerously wide as they comb over my appearance. Conrad must catch his expression.
“Wait, Daddy, my story gets better!”
“Explain,” Father says to me, ignoring Conrad’s attempt to derail his anger.
My brain scrambles for a way out. I can’t deny that we went into the forest. But maybe I don’t have to. An idea sparks.
“I didn’t have a choice,” I say, shrugging slightly. “Conrad thought he saw something in the forest, so he climbed out the window. You know how he gets.”
Conrad gasps, flinching, as if physically struck by my lie.
“And you just let him?” Father asks me incredulously, glancing at Conrad.
“Well, he’s really fast and I was half asleep,” I say, letting the story tell itself. “I also thought about trying to wake you up first, but that might’ve taken too long.”
He’s already heard enough. He rounds on Conrad, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Conrad. How many times have I told you not to wander off whenever you please?”
“But I didn’t—“
“How many times?” he says more urgently. “Go to your room.”
“But Daddy, we saw a spirit, and it said—“
“Go to your room!” Father shouts. The words echo into a dreadful silence. This is exactly what I counted on, for Father to predictably dismiss the problem rather than face it head on. By sending Conrad away, I’ve bought myself more time. But how much?
Conrad stamps all the way up the stairs, across the balcony and back into the bedroom, lips pursed.
“That boy’s imagination will get him into trouble one day,” Father mutters to himself, striking the flint with a steel rod so that sparks shower into a nest of kindling.
“He went upstairs a little too easily,” I point out. “Aren’t you worried he’ll just climb back out the window again?”
Father swipes at the flint but misses completely. “Go and sit with him, please. I’ll bring up some breakfast.”
When I reach the balcony overlooking the living quarters, Father calls up to me.
“Henrik,” he says, stoking a young fire. “Thanks for looking out for him.”
I offer a small nod in response, and return to the bedroom.