To get to Lake Chuuzenji
in inner Nikkou from Nikkou City
, one must take the famous Iroha Hill Road
, comprised of Iroha Hill Number One and Number Two, both one-way roads. The downhill was Number One, the uphill Number Two; the uphill had twenty hairpin curves and the downhill twenty-eight, and together they formed the Forty-eight Characters of Iroha.
Asaoka Shinya’s accident had taken place on the downhill road, Iroha Hill Number One. The narrow curves of Number One, combined with the poor condition of the road surface, meant that it had certainly seen its share of accidents.
What merited concern was the fact that the number of accidents resulting in deaths at Iroha Hill
had increased in the last month. It had the locals wondering if something was going on, and the same question turned over and over in Naoe’s mind.
Since the roads were one-way, they had to first take the hill climb in order to reach Shinya’s accident site. Naoe headed for Lake Chuuzenji
on Iroha Hill Number Two.
Naoe had been frowning all the while as if he sensed something amiss around him. He hadn’t enlightened Maiko as to the cause of his wariness. She resolutely posed the question: “Is something the matter?”
Snapping out of his thoughts, Naoe, responded “no”, and stepped lightly on the accelerator.
“Could I ask you something?” Making a sharp left easily with a measured turn of the steering wheel, Naoe asked. “About your dream?”
“The one where my brother appears?”
“Yes. I think that perhaps your dream offers us a place to start in our search for Shinya-kun’s soul. Wherever your brother is in your dream may be a very important clue. You said that half of his body had been merged with a tree, correct?”
“Yes. And then he says, ‘I can’t get out of this tree. Help me.’”
“That tree…” Naoe’s brows knitted slightly. … “I wonder if it’s a real tree—one that actually exists. Can you remember anything about the surroundings? Picture what sort of place it was…?”
Maiko concentrated on the thread of her memories. It took her a few minutes to bring the scene from her memory of the dream into focus.
“I think…there were trees all around—a cryptomeria forest. The one my brother is in is especially big… No, there are three. The one in the center seems really, really old, and my brother’s tree is to its right. But… I can’t really…” Maiko pressed a hand against her forehead. She had reached the limit of her recall.
“Is it somewhere familiar to you?”
“I’m not sure…” Maiko shook her head. “I have the feeling I’ve seen it before, but… I couldn’t tell you where. I’m sorry.”
Naoe scowled grimly at the road ahead. They twisted around a curve marked with a sign bearing the Japanese hiragana ‘chi’ (ち) with a number 8. ‘I can’t get out of this tree…’ Shinya’s plea prickled at his thoughts. But what did that have to do with his reflection in the mirror?
Deep in thought, he paid no notice at all to Iroha Hill
’s passing scenery as he drove carefully on.
“Ah! Stop the car, please!”
Naoe stepped on the brake in response to Maiko’s request as they reached the top of Iroha Hill
, near Chuuzenji Hot Springs’ bus terminal
. Maiko had apparently caught sight of an acquaintance on the main street along the line of souvenir shops and Japanese inns.
“Eri-chan!” Maiko shouted from the car window. “It is Eri-chan, right?”
The young woman who turned toward them at the sound of her name was petite with short hair, around senior high school age. She seemed to have just stepped out of a bus. Startled by the sight of Maiko, she stopped still for a second before sprinting over.
“Maiko-san! Aaah, I’m so glad to see you!”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you! I wanted to speak to you right away!”
Naoe understood why Maiko had called her over as soon as she introduced Eri as her brother’s girlfriend; she had been in the car at the time of the accident. The words spilled out of Eri as Maiko climbed out of the car.
“I called your family this morning, but they said that you had gone out and didn’t know when you would be back. I couldn’t bear just standing around, so I thought I’d wait at your house and took the bus here.”
“There’s something you wanted to talk to me about?”
Eri nodded earnestly, her voice pleading. “I had this dream. And in the dream! In the dream I saw Shinya!”
Startled, Naoe and Maiko looked at each other. Eri continued, “Shinya-san came, and he spoke so clearly to me, but I couldn’t understand him! I don’t know…I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to tell me! What is going on?!”
“You were telling me that you’ve been having these dreams about Shinya-san, so when I dreamed about him, I thought maybe that’s what you meant. But…I don’t know, so I thought, I have to come and talk to you about them…!”
Maiko looked at Naoe as she tried to soothe the excited Eri as if pleading for his help. Naoe asked calmly, “What did Shinya-kun tell you in your dream? What did he say?”
Eri appeared to notice this unfamiliar man for the first time. She gestured warily as if to ask Maiko who this stranger was.
“Tachibana-san is an acquaintance of mine. I have been consulting with him about Shinya. It’s okay to tell him,” she coaxed, and Eri turned her pleading expression on him as well.
“I remember it really clearly even though it was a dream, because it was so vivid. This is what Shinya-san said: ‘Break the mirror.’ ‘Kill the Crimson Beast.’”
“Break the mirror…?” Naoe quickly repeated. “That’s what he said? Break the mirror?”
Eri nodded furiously. “I don’t understand what it means. What mirror is he talking about?”
Both Maiko and Naoe immediately thought of Shinya’s reflection in the mirror. But break the mirror? What was he trying to tell them? And that didn’t explain—
“Crimson Beast?” Naoe’s frown deepened. “The mirror and the Crimson Beast… it doesn’t make sense. I wonder what they have to do with each other…”
As they stood puzzling over the cryptic message, they heard the distant wail of sirens approaching from the opposite direction before a line of patrol cars crested Iroha Hill
, passed next to them, and headed for Iroha Hill Number One.
“…I wonder if there’s been an accident…?”
“Well, Mai-chan! Are you visiting with your boyfriend today?”
She looked across the street in the direction of the voice to see her friend from the souvenir shop passing the patrol cars toward them. Being a poster girl for Asaoka Inn, she had something of a reputation as a local beauty. Naturally, she knew a lot of people in the area, and was often greeted with familiarity when she was out and about.
“Oji-san! What was with all these patrol cars? Has there been an accident on Iroha?”
“Aah, just now? No accident, I’m afraid! What a terrible business! They say someone’s jumped into Kegon Falls
Naoe’s head jerked up in surprise. Though Kegon Falls
was certainly a well-known tourist spot, it was also known for being a suicide spot. Not to say that it happened all that often, of course (though that it happened at all was bad enough), but this was the first time this season that a suicide had been witnessed.
“I guess he dove off from the viewing platform. Sounds like there were a lot of tourists, but no one even had the time to call out or try to stop him. —If you were planning to visit the falls, you’ll want to wait a bit! They’ll be sealing the place off, and nobody but the police will be able to get in! You don’t want to be at a suicide scene on your date!”
After dispensing his kindly(?) advice, the owner of Takamatsu Souvenir Shop invited them to visit him for all their souvenir needs on their return trip before departing. Though the shopkeeper’s assumptions regarding their relationship had Maiko in mortified knots, Naoe seemed not at all bothered. Instead, he stood in deep thought, one hand on his chin.
“I-I’m sorry, Tachibana-san. …He’s always like that…”
“… Why don’t we go take a look?”
Naoe turned to Maiko. “I feel like something doesn’t add up, and it’s bothering me… I guess you could call it a sixth sense, this nagging feeling of wrongness. It’s been worrying me for a while now…but maybe taking a look at the scene will help me figure out what’s causing it.”
“I can’t explain it very clearly, but…” Naoe said, tapping his temple, “it’s the sense of a place. Or maybe I should say the ‘energy’ of a place. The keen spiritual energy I felt around Mt. Nantai
when I came before…” He lifted sharp eyes. “It has been disrupted by an evil sort of worldliness…of vulgarity. This is not a place that should feel like that.”
The hint of fear on Maiko’s face was probably a feeling of awe towards one who commanded senses she could not understand.
They decided to find a place to park the car and proceed to Kegon Falls
It was about a five-minute walk from Chuuzenji Hot Springs Bus Terminal
to Kegon Falls
, formed by the abundant waters of Lake Chuuzenji
rushing over a 99-meter 1 rock cliff and renowned as one of Japan’s three great waterfalls. A few years ago, a rock slide had dumped a large rock into the middle of the wide current, choking the flow and dimming the glory of that unique vista, but over the years the obstacle had shifted away to allow the waterfall to regain its former majesty.
Visitors could view the waterfall from a platform above or take an elevator down for a more up-close experience.
Most of the gawkers appeared to be tourists. Naoe took the elevator to the lower platform alone while Maiko, who evidently didn’t have the stomach to join him, remained on the upper level.
The body had been pulled from the water and lay beneath a vinyl sheet. According to the witnesses, the man appeared to have ‘fallen’ rather than ‘jumped.’ He had struck the cliff face several times on the way down.
Naoe considered the waterfall again. Yes, there was something different about the force of it, now that he was standing this close. The majesty of the falls’ thunderous roar and sheeting spray was as it had ever been, and yet…
Here the sense of wrongness was stronger than ever, and the source of it was the earth-energy of the waterfall and the land around it. It had once been charged with both Kegon Falls
’ own solemn ‘energy’ and the gathering of the countless unpurified spirits of those who had leapt to their deaths here, creating a uniquely turbid earth-energy that was both wrong and right. In fact, waterfalls by their nature tended to attract spirits. One might even say that that eerie, chaotic energy was in itself the aura of holiness.
This waterfall had none of that ‘eeriness’ now. No, its own sense of vast splendor was unchanged. But something was missing. Wholly absent.
(It’s the ‘turbidity’ that’s missing…)
“The spiritual majesty of the falls has been completely shattered, hasn’t it?” a voice he recognized abruptly addressed him, and he turned to see its owner, a young man wearing sunglasses, standing behind him. He had come up to Naoe undetected and now regarded the waterfall with similar thoughtfulness.
“You again…” Naoe groaned. “You’re about the last person I want to see, Kousaka.”
“Hah.” Smiling faintly, Kousaka Danjou removed his sunglasses and approached. “I keep running into you in the oddest places, Naoe. Guess you could call it providence?”
Naoe eyed him warily, waiting. Kousaka drew abreast of him, still gazing at the famed waterfall.
isn’t much to behold with its spiritual majesty so low.”
“What are you doing here? What is Takeda plotting now?” Naoe demanded coldly, and Kousaka glanced at him.
“I have no obligation to give information like that to an enemy. Why don’t you tell me why you’re here? Do the Uesugi have so much time on their hands that they are now touring waterfalls?”
Naoe’s mouth tightened. His only response was a cold, stony glare. Kousaka’s smile vanished at Naoe’s unusual antagonism, and his gaze shifted back to the waterfall.
“This is the first time I‘ve seen Kegon Falls
’ splendor so dimmed. You would think that without its impure ‘energies,’ the aura of holiness would increase and add to its impact, but… Maybe it’s just not interesting without them.”
“The loss of the unpurified spirits has lessened the spiritual majesty of the waterfall, it seems.”
“Exactly. The swarms of unpurified spirits that once amassed here have completely disappeared. …Well, I suppose you could say that a spiritual majesty sustained by unpurified spirits is in itself an aberration.”
“…What is the cause?” Naoe asked guardedly, eyes flashing. “Do you know where these spirits have gone? They couldn’t all have passed on.”
It was not an easy matter to purify the spirits of those who committed suicide due to the unnatural manner of their deaths. To have done so for so many in such a short time was nigh impossible.
Kousaka glanced up at Naoe. “…I guess you haven’t noticed, then.”
“—The Crimson Beast…”
Naoe glared at Kousaka, eyes narrowing. “Crimson…Beast…?”
“That corpse over there. The man didn’t throw himself into the waterfall—his soul was devoured by the Crimson Beast. Judging by where he collapsed, I’d say it probably dragged his soul into the waterfall basin.”
“His soul was…eaten?” Naoe regarded Kousaka dubiously. “What do you mean? Just what is this Crimson Beast?”
“You would’ve seen it too, if you’d been here.” Kousaka crossed his arms, turning his gaze to the waterfall basin. “It’s a malignant spirit-beast that’s been wandering this area. Ordinary people can’t see it. The ones that do…become its dinner—as the man who died probably did. When I saw it earlier, it looked like a long-tailed lion surrounded by a red aura. A crimson beast which looks like a lion and eats human souls. Which means it’s most likely—”
“…The tsutsuga.” Naoe muttered, suddenly recalling that Shinya had spoken of a ‘crimson beast’ in Eri’s dream. Is this what he had meant?”
The tsutsuga, like the kirin and the dragon, was a type of spirit-beast. Though most spirit beasts—holy beasts with spiritual powers—were not actually animals, the enigmatic tsutsuga was; it was said to be a ferocious and malevolent animal which existed in spirit form and devoured the souls of people, tigers, and leopards. (Incidentally, this beast appears to be at the root of the phrase ‘tsutsuganashi’—‘in good health,’ or literally ‘without tsutsuga.’)
If what Kousaka had told him was true, then the ‘crimson beast’ Shinya had spoken of must be the tsutsuga. Which meant that it must also have been what pulled Shinya’s soul out of his body?
“Then the missing unpurified spirits of Kegon Falls
must have been devoured by the tsutsuga as well?”
“Hmm. The Falls must be a rich feeding ground. I’ve heard that there have been a lot of accidents around here; the victims must also have become the tsutsuga’s prey. The police wouldn’t even know where to start. Add Toushou Shrine
to the equation, and the local police are probably running around going out of their minds.”
? You’re referring to the theft of the sacred mirror?”
Kousaka’s eyes widened in evident surprise. “Huh, so you knew that much.”
“I had heard that a sacred mirror called the ‘secret treasure of Ieyasu’ was at Toushou Shrine
. I guessed that it was the mirror that was stolen. Is that why you’re in Nikkou? Was it the Takeda who stole the sacred mirror?”
“Are you going to lay the blame on innocent people now, Naoe? Don’t be ridiculous. We would never stoop to theft.” Kousaka’s expression turned serious. “It was the soul-sealing mirror called the ‘Tsutsuga Mirror’ that was stolen.”
“What?” Naoe demanded. Kousaka turned his back to the waterfall and leaned against the railing.
“Legend has it that it’s a demon mirror which sucks in the soul of anyone reflected within, trapping and sealing it as if it were devouring it. That’s why it was named the ‘Tsutsuga Mirror.’ The mirror is actually made up of a male and female pair, and one of them was the secret treasure of Toushou Shrine
, enshrined within its inner sanctuary and kept under strict guard.”
“So you’re saying it was stolen from the inner sanctuary? Where only the priesthood would normally be able to enter?”
“Indeed. My guess is it was at the request of the shrine that the police announcement was so vague. If the shameful violation of its most sacred sanctum were widely known, even the holy power of the shrine avatars would be affected. It was no ordinary mirror that was taken after all, but the ‘secret treasure of the holy avatars.’ It is a grave dishonor towards Lord Ieyasu.”
“Is it not odd that the ‘Tsutsuga Mirror’ was the only object taken? No one outside the shrine should have known of its existence—or even inside, unless it was the head priest. So how…?”
“True. But if anyone on the outside did know, it would be—” Kousaka’s eyes glinted sharply. “…someone who knew of the ‘Tsutsuga Mirror’ becoming ‘Ieyasu’s secret treasure’ firsthand…”
Naoe’s head lifted sharply. “What do you mean?”
“Did you think the theft of the Tsutsuga Mirror and the activity of the spirit-beast were coincidental, Naoe?”
“…Are you saying the onshou of the «Yami-Sengoku» instigated this?”
“I can’t say for certain—only that the possibility is high,” Kousaka stated, and headed for the elevator. “If you want to get to the bottom of this, I’d suggest making Toushou Shrine
your first stop, Naoe. I bet you’ll see something interesting there.”
“And what would that be?”
Ignoring him, Kousaka got into the elevator. Naoe followed on his heels. The door of the large 30-person elevator closed, and it began to climb.
Maiko was waiting on the upper platform.
“Tachibana-san! Have you learned anything?” she asked, running up to him before noticing the handsome young at his side.
Kousaka looked at her and remarked to Naoe maliciously, “Well, well. So you’re with a woman today. How unusual. And how is the master you’re always dragging along by your leash?”
“What?” Maiko asked, looking at them oddly. Naoe displayed no reaction. He gave Kousaka a single cold glance, his expression chill rather than calm. Kousaka smirked and said in a low voice, “So you didn’t bring Kagetora with you.”
“Kagetora left Toyama by himself didn’t he? What happened? Did you scare him off with your filthy desires?”
Even those words, which would normally have left Naoe pale and agitated, made no dent in his steely expressionless mask. He merely returned Kousaka’s gaze with stony disdain. If that glare had been aimed at the innocent Maiko, it would have left her frozen and rooted to the spot.
Kousaka, too, seemed to perceive the difference in him. All trace of frivolity disappeared from his manner, and his expression turned serious.
“What happened, Naoe?”
Naoe turned his back on Kousaka and walked toward Maiko.
“Shall we go, Asaoka-san?”
“Is he…an acquaintance of yours?”
“An old friend.” Naoe responded, heading for the parking lot. Kousaka took another look at Maiko’s bewildered features, and recognition dawned on his face.
“Tachibana-san!” As Maiko moved to catch up to Naoe, Kousaka grabbed her arm from behind. She turned, startled, and he stared down at her with an impregnable expression.
“E-excuse me, what…”
“… Heh… So that’s what this is about,” Kousaka muttered to himself, before calling in a louder voice to Naoe’s back: “Know where you’re heading to next, Naoe?”
Naoe turned. Kousaka told him, “You should take this young woman to Futarasan Shrine
. You’ll see something interesting there as well. So interesting you’ll fall right over.”
“I’ll even guide you,” Kousaka said, leading the way unerringly to Naoe’s Windom. He stopped next to the passenger-side door. “Let’s go, Uesugi, we don’t have all day.”
In the end, Kousaka’s ‘suggestion’ meant postponing the spirit-sensing at the accident side, and they returned to the city district before the gates.
The place Kousaka had brought them to was Futarasan Shrine
, located within the Nikkou mountains next to Toushou Shrine
. The highest peak of the Nikkou Mountain Range, Mount Nantai
(also called Mount Futara) was worshiped as a holy mountain. A rear shrine had been erected on its summit, a middle shrine on the banks of Lake Chuuzenji
, and this shrine, the main shrine, within the mountain itself. Due to its fame, Toushou Shrine
was now thought of as the heart of the mountain, but in reality that honor belonged to Futarasan Shrine
And it was to Futarasan Shrine
that Kousaka had brought them. Naoe didn’t know what that ‘something interesting’ Kousaka wanted to show him was, but arriving at the shrine, he was forced to acknowledge that Kousaka had good reason for the visit.
A crowd had gathered at the shrine around its sacred cedar trees. A pair of the ancient, luxuriant giants had grown from a single root, and were lovingly named the husband-and-wife or parent-and-child trees. Next to them was a somewhat younger cedar, and fences encircling the roots of all three kept visitors at a distance. On a normal day, tourists heard about the trees but didn’t get to see them. That was not the case today.
Everyone was gazing at the rightmost tree.
The sight of it stunned Maiko. Naoe took in a quick breath.
In the trunk of the tree, at a height of about 3 meters 2, was a human face. Though it seemed merely a deformation of the trunk, the face was too distinct, too vivid.
And it was Shinya’s.
It didn’t just look like Shinya. It hadn’t been carved into the trunk’s surface; more accurately, it seemed to be jutting out from the trunk, and its features, its shadows, the texture of the skin were all too realistically portrayed.
No one there believed that it could be a naturally-occurring miracle or some kind of coincidence. Everyone was babbling about the wondrous sight, and no-one wanted to leave.
Horror paralyzed Maiko. She remembered this place.
She was standing in the scene from her dreams, and those images were exactly what she gazed upon now. The forest of giant cedars, the three enormous trees. And Shinya with his lower half merged with the rightmost tree.
“It appeared about three days ago, and it’s been getting clearer day by day.”
“What is going on here?” No miracle, this: it was sacrilege. Naoe fixed a sharp glare at Kousaka. “Why is this happening?”
“How would I know? I only brought you here because I thought this face and the young woman’s looked similar. They must be brother and sister or something, right? Guess it has something to do with the tsutsuga, hmm?”
Naoe looked up at Shinya’s face in the tree once more. It looked sad somehow.
“Kill the crimson beast.”
“Break the mirror.”
And the final plea: “Release me from this tree—…”
Naoe and Kousaka understood.
This was not just the bas relief of a face in a tree.
This was Shinya himself. Shinya’s missing soul was here in this tree.
Maiko staggered to the cedar, reaching out to touch the trunk. Tears overflowed, and she began to sob. The crowded murmured in puzzled surprise, looking at her in askance.
(Why is his soul in this tree?) Naoe glared grimly into midair. (What is happening here?)
The crimson beast. The mirror—the ‘Tsutsuga Mirror’? If they did kill the one and break the other, what then? At the least, it seemed that Shinya’s current state had something to do with both.
Yet how were they all connected…?
“It’s here, Naoe.”
Naoe followed Kousaka’s gaze toward the husband-and-wife cedar. An extremely bizarre ‘energy’ emanated from that spot.
A beast with a long curled tail crouched in the cedar’s shadow: a spirit beast invisible to the ordinary eye, glowing with red fire. It was perhaps as long as a person was tall and looked like an artist’s portrayal of a lion.
Kousaka checked Naoe’s sudden movement. The tsutsuga seemed to examine them from the shadows of the tree for a long moment before turning in a graceful movement and bounding smoothly away. An instant later, it had melted back into the forest.
(… That was…)
He had just come face-to-face with the tsutsuga. He stared after it for a little while, until—
“Is it… Is it mayhap…Naoe-dono…?” a soft male voice asked from one side. Surprised, he turned toward the shrine gate to see a man in his thirties dressed in a business shirt. Naoe recognized the man as he approached. His eyes widened.
The newcomer bowed towards him in greeting, eyes bright with uncommon wisdom as he smiled.
The man that Naoe had thus named was vassal to Oushuu commander Date Masamune and chief retainer of the former Sendai-han—
Katakura Kojuurou Kagetsuna.
~324.7 feet ~9.84 feet