Inu smiled and held out his hand. “Come,” he said softly, “you don’t have to hide from me. I have no intention of harming you.”
The surface of the altar rippled. Most people would have taken it as a trick of the light, it was so subtle, but Inu was not most people. The weakness of it worried him.
The rippling extended from the altar and gathered before him. After a few seconds, the rippling compacted into the figure of a young boy. It looked a little like Cyril, actually.
The ghost boy stood in the grass, the illusion of shredded robes flowing around him. He stared Inu down, though the figure was not detailed enough to include eyes.
“It seems you’ve lost quite a bit of yourself,” noted Inu, looking around to make sure Cyril wasn’t watching. His heart ached; could he really handle another spirit?
Inu sat cross-legged in the grass, pulled the top of his robe open and moved his sash so that the ghost could see the tattoo on his chest that had burnt around the edges.
“You see, I’ve done this before,” he explained with a sad smile. “I’m offering you sanctuary until you regain the strength you need to cross over.” He rolled up his sleeves to show where his wrists were pierced with copper rods. “I won’t use your energy, see? Not even accidentally. These will stop our energies from merging permanently.”
Inu held out his hands. “What do you say?”
The ghost deliberated. It looked at Inu’s hands, at Inu’s face. Then it stepped slowly forward and put its hands in Inu’s. The figure of the boy dissolved into white smoke and travelled up Inu’s arms, towards the tattoo.
Inu took a deep breath and closed his eyes, focusing away his fear.
Then he felt it: the pain, the pressure, pushing into his ribcage. He fell onto his back, spasming as the spirit filled him. They seemed uncontainable when they first entered, but then they diffused, like salt in water. He breathed deeply, politely waiting for it to be over.
The other spirits shifted in alarm when the new resident began to enter, but when the last trails of the boy’s smoke disappeared through the tattoo, the spirits relaxed. The gratitude of the new spirit was like a sigh of relief. The feeling that everything would be all right. The feeling of safety.
Inu smiled and closed his eyes, listening to the wind, feeling the first raindrops of a coming storm hit his face. That is what made it worth it.
“What on earth are you doing, Inu?”
Inu opened his eyes and saw Cyril standing twenty or so feet off. Hadn’t he learned yet that yelling in the wilds wasn’t the best idea? Oh well. They were safe here, at least. And he would reteach it to him later.
“I’m just enjoying the wind,” Inu replied. “Care to join me?”
“Um, I think I’ll pass,” said Cyril a little embarrassed. “Anyway, the soup is done. And a storm is coming, so…”
“Did you find any mint?” Inu asked, closing his eyes again.
“Yes,” replied Cyril.
Inu smiled and sat up slowly, in case his systems were still off balance. Everything seemed fine. He eased to his feet. “Well done, apprentice.” He shuffled until his legs worked properly. “You are doing well in your training.”
“About that,” said Cyril as they headed back towards camp. “Am I going to learn how to actually control demons some day, or am I just going to keep cooking for you and gathering firewood?”
“No, you’re not going to learn how to control demons,” said Inu.
Cyril was frustrated, Inu could tell. Well, good. Growing up in a palace, he probably hadn’t learned how to deal with frustration.
“Demons can’t be controlled and those who think they can get consumed,” he clarified with a mischievous smile. “That is your lesson for today. Please think on it.”