In the sequel to Tree Fingers, scholar-magician Alan has planned a romantic trip to a Japanese hot spring to celebrate one year with his partner, Graham. They arrive in the rural village of Inaba in time to witness the Bon-Matsuri: the lantern festival to welcome back the spirits of the ancestors
Graham quickly realizes something isn't right in the little town, and that Alan may have had ulterior motives for visiting the area. Frustrated that Alan's curiosity about the supernatural has put them in danger again, Graham must decide whether to return to safety or stay face the creatures threatening the village.
Blindfolded, Graham took slow, halting steps with his hands extended in front of him. Warm, still air pressed down on him, and he thought he smelled a faint hint of sandalwood. Wood creaked softly as he picked his way carefully through the space, but otherwise nothing broke the silence but the faraway tinkle of water. Sweat broke from Graham’s brow beneath the dark scarf that obstructed his vision.
“Take off your slippers,” Alan tried to say calmly, though he failed to suppress his excitement.
Graham pressed his palm against the wall to balance himself as he toed off his footwear. He heard a papery swish before Alan’s hand closed around his wrist and urged him forth. His bare soles met a strange texture and, thankfully, a breeze cooled his skin and ruffled his hair.
“Ready?” Alan asked, the giddy delight strong in his voice.
“I’ve been ready since you tied this thing over my eyes half an hour ago, love. Why all the secrecy?”
Alan’s hand felt cool as it brushed up Graham’s cheek and pushed off the blindfold. Graham’s eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the early morning light, and he took in his surroundings. He stood in a spacious, wooden room carpeted with bamboo tatami mats. A low, wooden table surrounded by four embroidered cushions sat in the center. An alcove held an arrangement of late summer flowers, and another arrangement sat on a short night table. Directly opposite the door he’d entered, the rosy light filtered through a wall of rice-paper shoji screens.
“Come on,” Alan coaxed, hurrying across the room to push aside one of the screens. A shaft of light washed over the black-haired young man as he stepped out onto a small balcony.
Following, Graham inhaled at the breathtaking view of the Japanese garden with its curling bamboo, blood-leafed maples, wooden benches, graveled paths and weathered statuary. Beyond, he saw the quaint rooftops of houses stretching down a verdant slope. A tiny village nestled at the flat place at the bottom. In the distance, a snow-crowned trio of mountains reached toward the brightening sky. Graham’s first desire was to rifle through his luggage for his sketchbook, but he turned instead to the pale, slight man who stood grinning off to his left.
“Alan,” he said, turning and taking the hands of the other, “this is gorgeous. Not at all what I expected from a business trip. I can’t imagine the magazine is paying for this.”
Alan squeezed Graham’s knuckles, and his porcelain cheeks colored ever so slightly. “No,” he admitted. “Just something I wanted to do for you. I was coming here for the interview anyway, and since it’s kind of our anniversary—”
His dark eyes sparkling, Alan nodded. “It was around this time last year that we started getting serious. Then it only took me another two months before I finally seduced you!”
Graham chuckled. It had taken years, and Alan, to get him past his deceased former partner. He’d be forever grateful to Alan for his patience and understanding. “I’m glad you persisted,” he said.
“And I’m glad you never completely lost your British accent,” Alan said, stepping nearer so that his belly bumped against Graham’s. “So sexy.”
Graham reached up and stroked Alan’s silky, dark hair. Alan had an intense, almost tortured beauty: aquiline nose, prominent cheeks, and smoldering, black eyes perpetually underscored with dark. He was too pale, too thin, often looked exhausted and sometimes almost mad, but his overall effect equaled fascinating and overwhelming appeal. Graham thanked the heavens their paths had crossed.
“I always think of Halloween as our anniversary,” Graham told Alan. “I think of what you did for me, summoning that spirit to save my tree, and the way we worked together to cast that spell and protect our home—”
“You accepted me,” Alan said, winding his arms around Graham’s waist and resting his check on Graham’s collarbone. “Accepted the magic—”
“Almost lost you, as I recall,” Graham said, holding Alan tight as the memory of his motionless body returned, “to that secret wizard society you’re always chasing.”
Wriggling free of Graham’s embrace, Alan said, “Anyway, this place is called the Amagi Inn. It’s kind of a hidden gem. I have the interview with Dr. Harada later this morning, but then the next three days are ours. There’s a natural hot spring here. And down in the village they’ll have the O-Bon Matsuri. That’s their festival for their ancestors’ spirits. I’ve heard it’s really beautiful. So we can just relax and celebrate our—
“— just have a good time, you know?”
“Our anniversary,” Graham corrected, earning a relieved and appreciative smile from his partner. “I love it; this was a wonderful idea. Thank you. I love you.”
Smiling, looking more serene than Graham was accustomed to, Alan turned and walked back into the elegant, simple room. Graham watched his slim hips sway beneath his dark jeans as he followed. Coming up behind Alan, Graham insinuated his arms beneath Alan’s and dug his fingers into Alan’s tee shirt at his collar. Alan’s hard little nipples pushed against the insides of Graham’s wrists as Graham inhaled the clean scent of his shoulder-length hair. He burrowed his nose into Alan’s ebony locks as his hands skimmed down his torso to dip beneath the hem of his shirt. Alan purred with pleasure as Graham’s fingers found the bare skin of his belly. He closed his eyes and turned his face toward Graham. Their lips brushed together. Alan’s mouth parted, inviting Graham’s tongue. Graham licked across his teeth while his fingers moved up the pronounced muscles of Alan’s stomach. Inside his pinstriped navy trousers, Graham’s cock sprung to attention.
He’d been exhausted after the long flight from America to Japan, the three-hour bus ride from Kyoto, and the half hour blindfolded in a taxi. Now, feeling Alan’s body tremble at his touch, Graham felt not only restored but energized with lust. Alan curled his spine to press his ass against Graham’s erection. Graham’s hand yanked at Alan’s hair, positioning Alan’s face so that he could drill his tongue into Alan’s mouth. He could see Alan naked, sprawled out over the tatami mats. As he explored Alan’s hot, moist palate, he could imagine how it would feel to straddle Alan’s face and thrust his cock into Alan’s eager throat.
“Can we?” Graham panted.
“Gods, yes,” Alan replied, grinding his tailbone against Graham’s root. “I want you.”
Popping the buttons of Alan’s fly, Graham found his cock tip and began thumbing it just as a foreign voice announced itself. Frustrated and disappointed, Graham replaced his lover’s clothing. “Yes?” he called.
The shoji screen parted and a young woman entered the room with a tray. She spoke a few words Graham didn’t understand and began arranging some plates on the table.
“We’re just in time for breakfast,” Alan said.
The girl finished setting their meal, bowed, and departed. The savory smell triggered a hunger Graham hadn’t known had been so intense. His last real meal had been almost a day before; the airline food was completely unpalatable. He followed Alan’s example and sat with his hips on his heels in front of the low table. Alan poured tea from the kettle, and ladled some miso soup into their bowls. “Do you want to wait to eat?” he asked, winking.
Graham shook his head. “I’m starving all of a sudden.”
Alan served rice with strips of seaweed on top, pieces of thin omelet, and what Graham assumed was some sort of pickled plum. Graham lifted his plate close to his chin and began eating. Everything tasted delicious.
“We’ll have to get walking soon,” Alan said. “Dr. Harada lives down past the village, near the river.”
“Why does such a distinguished scholar live in this tiny little town?” Graham asked, helping himself to more soup.
“He’s retired,” Alan answered.
“Then why interview him?”
“He’s written a fascinating account of Japanese history during the Age of Warring States. His theories are revolutionary.”
“How so?” Graham asked, his eyes narrowing.
Predictably, Alan winced and stayed quiet for a minute, choosing his words. “Dr. Harada has provided some very compelling evidence of supernatural influence on the politics of the time.”
“Not that secret society—”
“No, no,” Alan hurried to say. “This is nothing to do with them. I haven’t been digging into their activities at all, since—”
“They tried to kill you?”
“Right,” Alan conceded, staring into his tea.
“But why not interview Dr. Harada via e-mail,” Graham wondered aloud, “or even over the phone? Why come so far?”
The corners of Alan’s mouth turned down, and Graham silently cursed himself, hurrying to say, “Though I’m glad we did. It’s lovely. So exotic.” Alan continued looking miserable, so Graham added, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.”
A few minutes later, the inn hostess announced herself, breaking the uncomfortable silence. She crouched to clear the plates away, smiling warmly at her patrons.
“The food was very good,” Graham said.
“Thank you,” she said in heavily-accented English. She placed their empty dishes on a tray and went to the hall. She returned with towels, brightly-printed yukata, a variety of soaps and lotions, and wooden geta sandals in a shallow crate. The daily paper lay curled beside, pictures of four high-school-aged youth on the front page. Graham couldn’t read the caption above them, so he turned his attention back to the innkeeper.
“Are there many guests at the inn?” Graham asked.
“No guests,” she answered. “Only you.”
“That’s unusual,” Alan said. “I’d understood that the Bon festival sees everyone returning to their family homes. I thought the inn would be packed!”
“People are probably just staying with their families,” Graham said. He couldn’t help fantasizing a little about the possibilities of empty baths and hot springs.
“Yes,” Their hostess said quickly. “Yes, thank you.” She set the things she’d brought on the floor, clasped her hands in front of her, bowed, and backed out of the room.
“Well,” Alan said, standing. “We’d better leave if we’re going to be on time to meet with Professor Harada.”
“It’ll be a beautiful walk,” Graham agreed, still hoping to make amends to Alan for his accidental ingratitude.
Alan said nothing, his back to Graham, as he loaded his laptop and some paper and supplies into his messenger bag. When he’d finished, he opened the screen door and stepped into the inn’s dark hall. Graham followed him, soon able to get his first view of the inn’s exterior. It was a fine traditional building of unadorned wood, single story and with a steep, gabled roof. The awning that stretched the building’s length had been decorated with paper lanterns to honor the upcoming holiday. Off to the left, Graham saw the maple trees from the garden near their room. A high fence blocked his view of the grounds to the right of the inn, but some rough, grey stone extended beyond it. The inn sat against a backdrop of mountain foliage dotted with rock. Some flowering bushes splashed color among the grey and green. It smelled pure and fresh.
“I wonder if there are any trails up there?” Graham asked, pointing.
“Probably,” Alan said. “We can ask. I think there’s a Buddhist temple further up the mountain, too. But, town should be interesting, and then on to the river and Dr. Harada.”
To Graham’s great relief, Alan reached out his hand. Graham clasped it, and they descended the long flight of rustic stone steps that led from the Amagi Inn to the little village of Inaba. Branches covered in thick, champagne colored blossoms brushed their arms and legs and showered their feet with petals as they passed.
It took them a little over an hour to reach the riverbank, mostly because interesting shops, architecture, and people in traditional dress distracted them. A few children splashed at the water’s edge, and speared twigs and sticks into the dark, wet soil. Further down, two old men fished. The boughs of the trees stretched out above the lazy, jade water, almost forming a tunnel over the river. It was shaded and pleasant; Graham would have loved to find a perch on one of the natural piers of rock, or on a fallen tree trunk, and do a bit of drawing. But, Alan continued purposefully on, finding a tiny trail that wound among the trees. Graham had to brush leaves and bracken out of his way to follow.
When Alan had told him that Professor Harada lived in a house by the river, Graham pictured something that at least vaguely resembled that statement. Instead his partner stopped at a dilapidated shack made from moldy, water-stained planks with moss growing on the roof. The rice paper covering the windows had been torn in many places and mended with masking tape, if at all. The forest reached right up to the porch, a section of which had collapsed and been propped up with a piece of a broken ladder. Around the muddy, fern-spotted patch that served as a lawn, a whole colony of tri-colored cats hid among shattered wooden buckets, rotting crates, pieces of pottery, and rusted bits of metal.
“Are you sure this is the place?” Graham asked.
“Definitely,” Alan said, going to a Western-style aluminum door that had been forced to fit where it shouldn’t. “Harada-sensei?” he called. Graham had already discerned that announcements like these replaced the door-knocking to which he was accustomed.
“Harada-san?” Alan continued. One of the many cats took a fancy to his ankle. “Alan Adale desu!”
An old man came to the threshold, wearing a faded blue yukata with lavender flowers over a pair of houndstooth dress slacks. His thin, ivory beard and moustache hung in wisps from his face. His hair, too, while full and shining, looked tangled and poorly kept.
“Ohayo,” he said, bowing. “Nihonsei wakarimasu-ka?”
“Skoshi,” Alan responded, “and not well.”
“Then it is good that I can speak English,” the man said, winking. “Welcome to my home.”
Graham followed Alan’s example and left his shoes in the little, mudded foyer before stepping into Professor Harada’s abode. No tatami mats covered his rough, wooden floor, and Graham felt dirt and grit on his soles as he followed his host to a table in the center of the home’s single room. The place smelled of old pipe smoke, cat, and stale air. Professor Harada indicated some threadbare mats and Graham sat on his haunches beside Alan. The elderly scholar sat opposite them and lifted an earthenware jug.
“Sake?” he offered.
Alan thanked him but Graham, noting the dusty cups set near the decanter, said, “A bit too early for me. Thanks just the same.”
Harada’s sharp, dark eyes flitted in Graham’s direction, and Graham had the feeling of being analyzed, assessed.
“Oh, forgive my rudeness!” Alan interjected. “Harada-sensei, this is my good friend and traveling companion, Graham Wise.”
Graham instinctively reached out his hand, and Harada humored him by jiggling his fingertips, though Graham felt sure he detected a condescending smile.
“Do you mind if we get right to work, Harada-san?” Alan asked, not waiting for permission to remove his computer, recorder, paper and pens from his bag.
“Of course not,” Harada said. “You honor me by coming all this way to speak about my work.”
As Harada and Alan began talking intently about the research involved in the book and the ancient manuscripts cited, Graham felt his attention waning, and he began to look around the small room. It contained little furniture aside from the table where they sat and a worn futon in the corner. Stacks of books reached almost to the ceiling in some places, and papers lay on every flat surface. Thumbtacks held still more notes to the wooden walls. Cats nested in rumpled piles of paper. At the opposite end of the room, a sink overflowed with dirty dishes, and an ancient rice cooker puffed steam. Next to it, kanji flashed across the screen of an outdated laptop.
Shuddering despite the cloying heat in the house, Graham was reminded of Alan’s apartment, on those occasions when he’d found his lover awake for days, surrounded in research notes. At least Alan would never be left alone to degenerate into this state. What had happened to this respected scholar that he ended up here?
“And so you truly believe that supernatural powers played a part in the outcome of these battles?” Alan asked, cutting Graham’s musings short. He understood now that Alan sought vindication. Alan’s research had led him to the belief that a shadow society of magic-users had been controlling most of the world’s affairs since the Dark Ages. From the way Alan clutched his pen in his fist, Graham could tell that he wanted confirmation of his theories.
“I do,” Harada said. “Take, for example, the Battle of Weeping Heaven, which happened near this very village.” He rifled through some papers on the floor and spread a map out before them. Pointing to a spot near the river, he said, “The Warlord known as Mitsurugi brought a force of two thousand warriors, leaving the local population outnumbered four to one. His victory seemed certain, but a monk who witnessed the fight wrote that a local man summoned a demon to aid the villagers in their struggle. He recounts the demon hovering over the warriors, calling up the dead from the ground. In spite of overwhelming odds, the Warlord was defeated on that night, and all of his men fell prey to the enchanted corpses. That man, with the demon still in thrall, went on to become a Warlord himself and win many battles. There are many other accounts of this creature summoning up corpses to fight for its master.”
Alan scribbled furiously, smiling. Graham, however, wasn’t convinced. “This is an old story,” he said to Harada. “People believed differently long ago. Isn’t it possible, probable even, that this account is tainted by superstition? That it belongs more to the realm of folklore than history?”
Holding up his finger, Harada said triumphantly, “There is proof! The battle site was excavated by a group of university students three years ago. Aside from the expected armor and weaponry, dozens of skeletons, hundreds of years older in some cases, were found among the remains of the warriors.”
“But couldn’t there be a more rational explanation?” Graham asked. Though he’d witnessed magic since meeting Alan, it made him uneasy; he didn’t want to believe forces beyond his understanding and control could influence his life.
Harada laughed, began coughing, and took a deep drink to ease his throat. He looked at Alan. “Some of us know,” he said. “Some of us have seen.”
The two men’s eyes met, leaving Graham feeling like he’d missed an inside joke, and he was not enjoying it. “Rubbish,” he said under his breath.
“Is it?” Harada replied. “Have you studied art?”
“Yes,” Graham said, even pricklier in the sweltering, filthy shack. “How did you know?”
“Tell me what you make of this.” The old man retrieved a poor copy of an ink drawing and handed it to Graham. “This is the monk’s depiction of the demon he saw on the battlefield.”
Graham looked at the picture. He’d taken art history courses as a student; he knew the usual Japanese depiction of their demons: fanged, cross-eyed monstrosities. This being, though, more closely resembled a beautiful samurai, a deity even. He had black hair that flowed to his ankles, white skin, and intricately-patterned robes. His black eyes slanted with mischievous knowledge, and his mouth turned up in what Graham could only call a seductive smile. Had it not been for his clawed hands and the two horns extending from the right side of his head, Graham would have said his portrait belonged in an Edo brothel rather than a monk’s battle memoirs.
“Perhaps this monk was simply lonely, and in possession of a good imagination,” Graham said, thrusting the copy back at Harada.
“Perhaps,” Harada said, shrugging and looking meaningfully at Alan again. “Perhaps not.”
“I must ask, Harada-sensei,” Alan said timorously, “what reaction your theories got from your colleagues?”
“You know that only too well, young man. My books are received as warmly as your own. It makes them no less true.”
“Why?” Alan asked. “Why can’t they accept it, no matter how much proof is provided?”
The old man hung his head. “People want to think they are the masters of their world. Woe to he who tells them otherwise. As you know.”
“But can we stop telling them?” Alan asked passionately. “If we know the truth, don’t we have an obligation at least to try?”
“Even if it gets you killed?” Graham asked, getting irritated.
“Yes!” Harada said, hitting the table with his fist, rattling the sake set and Alan’s machines. “I have sacrificed everything to know the truth! To see it with my own eyes, once, before I join my ancestors.”
“Alan has a lot to live for!” Graham interjected. He couldn’t help it; the idea of losing Alan the way he’d lost Luke weighed constantly on his mind. “He has people who depend on him.”
“I see,” Harada said, calmed. “I think you young men will be fine. There is much here in Inaba for you to enjoy during O-Bon. We have drumming and dancing in the town square, and all kinds of delicious food. You are young, and in love, if I’m not a fool. Go and be happy you are alive. There is beauty everywhere. I only warn you to be inside before dark. You are staying at the Amagi Inn, as I recommended?”
“Yes,” Graham said, a little ashamed of his outburst. “It’s quite lovely.”
“And safe,” Harada said. “Return to it by sundown. The hot spring baths are best then. Tell your American magazine this, in conclusion: I will continue to search for the truth as long as I am alive. And I will share what I know, and hope there are those who can see with clear eyes, unclouded by fear.”
“This demon exists,” Alan practically pleaded.
“Oh, yes,” Harada said. “Have no doubt.”