The Eeko Ai by Rob Hayes
Once they were all settled Cho said, "Have you ever heard of the Eeko'Ai?"
Zhihao snorted. "There's no such thing as ghosts."
Roi Astara laughed, a wet rasping cackle. They all looked at him, but his back was turned, his shoulders hunched.
"Not ghosts," Cho said. "Spirits. The Century Blade once told me they dwell in the forest of bamboo. He described them as miniature dragons. Five of them, each no longer than I am tall and sinuous as a serpent. Eel like bodies with two front paws, padded like a dog's. Their tails don't end, but simply fade away. They found the Century Blade on a night much like this one. He was lost, wandering the forest with no direction or purpose." She recalled his words. "For you cannot find yourself, if you do not first lose your way."
Zhihao let out a loud yawn and rolled backwards onto his sleeping mat. "Please, continue your thrilling tale of a dead man and his journey of self-discovery. Wake me when it's my watch."
"I shall," Ein said, fixing Zhihao with a stare. The Emerald Wind glanced at the boy, and then rolled over to face away from him.
Chen Lu grunted. "I'm interested," said he said. "Finish your story." He was chewing on a stick of bamboo and washing it down from his keg. Judging by the sloshing sound, Cho judged it as almost empty.
"I, too, would like to hear it," said Roi Astara. He had turned back to face them, and his bandages were back in place, but he still sat apart from them.
"Osai was the first spirit to come to the Century Blade, streaking through the forest, yellow and orange like the purest flame. It had a face much like a chicken, all wide eyes and beak. And it danced across the tree tops, setting the trees whispering its name. It was a joyful sound, one the forest sang with cheer. But even as Osai greeted the Century Blade, cavorting around him in its glee, the forest fell silent once more.
"Urai was next to appear, but there was no joy or dance in the way the spirit moved. It slipped through the bamboo silently and with severe intent, like a hunter on the tail of its prey. Urai was as deep a green as the bamboo and had the face of a hound, ears flapping and tongue lolling. The spirit's name reached the Century Blade, muttered by its own lips over and over again, as it cut through the trees, eyes fixed on a prey none other could see.
"In the green spirit's wake came Tsai, purple as only flowers can be, with a head like a river cat, all sharp teeth and flashing eyes. It followed in Urai's wake, but flowed along as though it had not a care in the world. Tsai's name was spoken by the shifting of its body, scale against scale, and the word was as clear as a bright dawn. The forest barely noticed its passing.
"Then the forest began to seethe. Leaves shook and the bamboo seemed to grow closer, as though trying to bar the spirit’s passage. Noai, the fourth spirit, erupted through the bamboo like a clap of thunder, its wings flapping furiously. It held no regard for the trees and slammed against each one as it passed, causing the forest to boom its name all around. It was deep, ruby red, like flowing gore, and had the face of a shark, teeth gnashing with every undulation of its body.
"Last of all came Ryai. Blue as a bright summer sky, with the face of an owl, all puffed out feathers and wise eyes. It skimmed the forest floor so closely it almost slithered across the ground. But it wound its way around the trees, circling the Century Blade. The fallen leaves spoke its name as it passed, leaving a trail even the most inexperienced of hunters could track. And the forest seemed to come alive with its passing. Flowers opened up and insects scurried in its wake.
"When all five spirits had passed, the Century Blade thought himself lucky. To have seen just one of the Eeko'Ai was thought to be good luck, but to see all five and together was unheard of. That night the Century Blade thanked the stars for his good fortune, and built a small shrine to the forest, to give thanks for showing him the spirits' passing. The very next day, when he woke, the Century Blade found himself on the edge of the tree line, staring out towards Sun Valley and the Cliffs Unbreakable beyond. At first he thought it a boon, the forest having showed him the way. But as soon as he cleared the forest and set his feet once more on the beaten path, he felt a sorrow unlike any other he had felt before. The forest wasn't showing him the way free, it was banishing him from its borders."
Cho stared into the flames of their little fire. She wriggled to find a more comfortable position, then pulled her saya across her lap, making certain her blades were within easy reach.
"I don't think I understand," Chen Lu said. "The forest showed him the Eeko'Ai, then kicked the Century Blade out?"
"No." Roi Astara's voice was muffled and thick, as though he were on the edge of sleep. "The forest ejected the Century Blade because he saw the Eeko'Ai. It was no blessing. Spirits do not haunt places. They haunt people. It is said the Eeko’Ai come only as portents of events that will shape the world. Whatever event they came before, the forest did not wish to witness it."