Fiction – “When the Earth and Sea Swapped Placed” by Kaolin Fire
The human was moving away. Min-lai crept out of the tree as quietly as she could, her broken arm curled against her chest. The nails of her feet and good hand sunk gently into the tree’s bark, easing her descent.
The smell was intoxicating.
She broke into an off-kilter run, trying to ignore the pain in her arm. The human, a girl, turned back to face her. Min-lai opened her beak in a smile. The girl would be terrified of her, her sharp beak, her tangled hair and water-spirit well, her toad-like skin and blood-tinged claws. Humans always were, and it was when their pure terror came to the fore that it was the easiest to cleanse their souls, separate the earth and water.
But the girl didn’t run. She didn’t tremble, or simper, or cower. She bowed, polite as anything, and spoke in a calm voice. “I am pleased to meet you, honored Kappa.”
Kappa Min-lai stopped in her tracks, and bit back a howl. She wanted to drink its marrow, bathe in its blood; she wanted to heal, be whole again, and it was when she was at her weakest that this human managed to thwart her? But the souls she had cleansed would strike her dead if she did not pay the proper respect.
Min-lai bowed to the girl, spirit-water falling from her crowning well like the tears she couldn’t shed. Spirits raged in her head, a thousand voices competing with her one. With no well to swim in, they would soon destroy each other–and her. Min-lai forced the words out as politely as she could, “I am pleased to meet you, as well. I am called Min-lai.”
“I am called Fukamizu. Are you well?” Neither the girl’s voice nor face belied innocence.
Min-lai tried to find a calm within the storm. A broken arm. Skin shredded from the destruction of her home, earth turning to water and water to air. Coming to far from any lake or stream, drying out in the hollow of an old tree. And now this. Her voice shook. “I…am not contagious.”
“Honored Kappa, would it be possible for you to grant me a small boon?”
“If it is within my power,” she managed. “Perhaps we could help each other?”
Fukamizu frowned artfully. “I could help you, but I must have your word.”
“My word is yours. A treasure found, a bone set, a rival punished?”
“Nothing so difficult, but nothing so quick. If it please you to come with me, you will have your water.”
Min-lai almost couldn’t hear her for the voices, for the soft tones she used, for the world spinning round. Hands, arms, reaching, faces, smiling, water…water! And the fire was calmed, silence ringing through her flesh. She licked her lips and found them wet. Her well was full, and it tingled with the clarity of blessing.
“I take that as acceptance, Kappa Min-lai.” Fukamizu tucked a small canteen back into her trousers.
“Yes, lady. I accept, and thank you…though if you could further explain what you need…?”
Fukamizu smiled. “Come with me.”
They followed no path up the mountain, and it was an arduous climb, but Fukamizu’s stride was unwavering. Min-lai’s souls swam quietly through her, sipping from her well, revitalizing her. Sadly, her arm hurt all the more, but that was a small price to pay. Fukamizu had given her water from a blessed shrine. If there was more, she could heal herself properly after all.
As the sun climbed down past the ridge, Min-lai smelled the shrine. She could feel a reservoir, a lake, nestled in the fold of the mountain. Now it was all she could do to not outpace the human, to not simply run for the sweet depths of the water and disappear. The souls would never let her, though. They would not sanction such a lapse of honor. And so she followed the human to the shrine, aching for the moment of release.
Fukamizu turned to her as they approached the shrine. “The waters are within. The house of souls is built in natural caverns, and I understand you will be able to heal there.”
“Inside? But surely…” Only priests could enter the house of souls. Fukamizu seemed to know her spirits well, but not in the manner of priests.
The human smiled. “It’s all right. The priests and I have an agreement, and you are most welcome to join me. They only come a few times a year, for seasonal rituals…and to check up on my progress.”
Min-lai wondered what sort of agreement could allow a being such as this–or such as herself–in a human-holy place. But Fukamizu unlocked and opened the doors, and motioned for Min-lai to enter.
Then the smell hit her: suffering, of death and loss. It reminded her of the great serpent’s struggles, of the world turning upside-down. But stronger than that was her desire to swim in the living waters of the shrine. And the place had to be holy indeed to have survived the tumult of the past week.
Kappa Min-lai followed Fukamizu into the cavern; they passed by several smaller shrines and spirit-boxes; and twisted around through paths that followed gnarled veins of energy; until they were at last some levels under the original entrance.
The largest mirror Min-lai had ever seen was set there, with an assortment of strange boxes around it. And just past those was a beautiful pool, decorated with koi and water lilies. She walked towards the pond.
The mirror drew her, though. What spirits could it hold? Or had it held? She sniffed. There was blood, kappa blood. She turned to Fukamizu. “What–”
Fukamizu shrugged nonchalantly. “The shrine was not entirely unaffected by the earthquake. My old associate and I were in the process of a particularly delicate experiment when it hit. Her souls…dissipated.”
“Those she had–do you use the term, ‘cleansed’, as well, for those you have eaten? Yes, those she had cleansed, well, there really are so many experiments I am doing; and so few of you left, these days. I had emptied her spirit-well and was letting them get riled up so as to communicate with them, and…they dissipated into the air, or the machines, or somewhere. But I’ll see if you can’t help me find them–that’s a new experiment.” Fukamizu chuckled. “There’s always some new experiment to run.”
Min-lai shuddered as Fukamizu pressed cold discs to her chakras. Her souls were agitated, but didn’t understand why. She could kill the human at any point, but then she would have polluted the souls. They in turn would shred her mind to nothing. But at least she understood that; she had no context for what this human wanted. Ah, but she could heal: there was always the pond. Kappa Min-lai supposed she would have a very long time to contemplate her situation. Until, perhaps, the next time the guardian succumbed to sleep, the great serpent woke, and some experiment was disrupted.
About the Author
Kaolin Fire is a conglomeration of ideas, side projects, and experiments. By day he advances the state of the art of computer visualization of the “real” world, but he also makes time to develop computer games, edit Greatest Uncommon Denominator magazine, and occasionally teach computer science. He has had short fiction published in Strange Horizons, M-Brane SF, and Escape Velocity, among others.
Kaolin can be found online at http://erif.org/.