It had happened three days after their failed attack on the gaki. They were wandering on mountain paths, following trails that seemed to twist and turn beneath them. Sayo was scared — she had always known how to find her way in the wilderness, but this place was strange. Even Masha, Akinari’s falcon, was no help — she would make a half-hearted attempt to fly, but before she had gotten more than a few feet into the air, she would utter a strange little cry, and return to Akinari’s shoulder, refusing the lure and hunching her shoulders against the cold. Now Akinari kept her hooded most of the time, which seemed to calm her a little. There was no hood for Sayo, however. She simply had to keep putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that their nightmarish flight would soon come to an end.
For flight it was. They were being herded, of that she was certain. No sooner would they come to a place where they might be able to head back down the mountain, than they would be attacked by a small swarm of mindless dead. These were not difficult to destroy individually, but in a group they were an effective deterrent. The one time Ujina Sora Ookami had insisted they stand their ground, they had managed to completely destroy the foul creatures after a long battle. Exhausted but feeling hopeful, they started down the slope only to see another group twice the size of the first stumbling uphill towards them. They had had to run then, and Sora Ookami, grim-faced and sweating, had fought a tense rearguard action so that they could put distance between them. They waited for him on a ledge and gathered boulders to roll down on the things, but after some minutes he appeared alone, with no one following him. The dead had simply wandered off. Whoever was controlling them seemed content to drive them onwards.
She knew they were all worried — supplies were low, the constant cold drained their strength, and they never got enough rest. Slowly but surely they were being worn down, at which point she supposed that whatever was following them would make its move.
They were taking a brief rest in a relatively sheltered spot, huddled against the side of the mountain. Mori had built a small fire, fed with stunted branches torn from the few resilient trees that clung to the rock. He was even able to boil water for weak tea. The sky was overcast, and a light snow was falling. Akinari prowled the edges of the camp, looking and listening for the things following them. She brought him a cup of tea, which he accepted politely, without ever taking his eyes off the landscape. Masha sat on his shoulder as usual, looking as miserable as she had ever seen her. As usual, Sayo tried to speak to her, tentatively whistling a few notes, but the falcon merely shifted from foot to foot and grumbled quietly to herself.
With a sigh, Sayo returned to the fire. It was time to do something about her satchel. It had been torn during their escape from the gaki, and she had to hold it carefully lest something drop out. She removed everything from it, placing it on a flat rock next to her. It was little enough – her tanto, spare clothes, a small sewing kit, and her bamboo scroll case. She fingered the tear, which had grown to about a shaku in length, and decided she would simply sew the edges together. It would look worse than if she used a patch, but it would take less time, and she thought it would hold until… she shied away from that thought, and began to sew.
The simple task soothed her, and though her fingers stung with the cold, she was almost disappointed when she finished. The seam was puckered, but the fabric was sturdy, if drab, like everything else she owned. She began to pack the satchel again, but when she reached for the scroll case, it rolled out from under her hand. Frowning, she reached for it again, and this time it positively jumped away from her at the last second. Sayo’s heart began to beat faster, and she sat motionless for a moment, watching the bamboo case until it came to a stop once more. Her mother had given her that case. It wasn’t fancy, or expensive, and her mother had simply handed it to her one day without saying anything about it other than “I thought you might need this.” In the years since she had attracted the attention of the inhabitants of Sakkaku, everyone in her family had learned that it was not safe to make a fuss over anything she owned, because chances were it would be destroyed by morning. But Sayo understood that her mother was proud of her, and had given her the scroll case as an affirmation of her talents as a shugenja. She did not want anything to happen to it.
The case was still now. She ignored it as she put the rest of her belongings back in the satchel, moving slowly and making a show of placing each item with great care. When everything was packed except for the case, she got up and turned away, then spun again quickly and lunged for it. She felt a thrill of triumph as her fingers brushed the cool surface but it twitched and twisted away from her, tumbling off the boulder and rolling away from the shelter of the rock wall. Sayo dropped her satchel and ran after it as it careered down the slope, gaining speed as it bounced merrily on. She was humming now, her eyes filling with tears of frustration. She would not, she could not, lose her scrolls! She would be no good to anyone then! She heard Akinari shout after her as she half ran, half slid down the mountain, but she didn’t stop. She had to catch that case.
A large outcropping of rock loomed just ahead of her. The scroll case, moving very quickly now, hit it and ricocheted into the air, back towards her, almost hitting her in the face. She instinctively slapped at it with one hand, which sent it crashing against the base of the rock. It caught in a hollow, and lay still for a moment, then began to twitch again. Without conscious thought, she stepped on it, wincing as she heard the wood crack. Breathing hard, she leaned over and grabbed it with both hands, heedless of the bamboo splinters that stuck out in several directions. It was ruined — one side was completely crushed. She could hear faint tittering on all sides, and a gust of wind blew snow into her face. As the laughter faded, she heard Akinari and Sora shouting her name as they plunged down the side of the mountain, weapons drawn. Masha was still on Akinari’s shoulder, flapping her wings for balance, protesting the jolting she was receiving in a shrill voice.
Sayo half-heartedly waved and climbed towards them. They skidded to a stop just in front of her, asking if she was alright, what had happened, did she see something? Mutely, she showed them the scroll case, and they fell silent. Akinari took it gently from her hands, and examined it carefully. “I believe the scrolls are still intact,” he said. “Perhaps we can get you another one after…” He was quiet again. “Come on,” said Sora, attempting to lighten the mood, “We should get back to camp before Naku-san finds a cave and decides to go looking for snakes.”
They didn’t speak as they made their way back up the slope. By the time they got there, Mori had doused the fire and gathered their belongings into one pile. Naku was tracing patterns on the rock, mumbling to himself. Sayo supposed he was talking to the earth spirits again. Mori shook Naku gently by the shoulder, and said to the others, “We must go. They’re coming.” Sayo grabbed her satchel, putting the remains of the scroll case inside. She could hear the groans of the dead on the wind that pushed them along the trail they were compelled to follow.