The weather had worsened over night. The light mist gave way to heavy rain. Fat drops tapped on their hoods and wind tugged at their cloaks as they made their way up the rain-slicked path. Before, the path had been a gentle slope, but now they trudged up steep switchbacks that traced along the ridge. The hiss of rain falling through the forest canopy played tricks with Leela’s hearing. If she let her mind wander, she could imagine voices or footsteps through the underbrush. But each time she looked down the side of the ridge she saw nothing but trees and shrubs.
The path crested the ridge and now they were on the switchbacks on the opposite side. A wide creek raced through the valley below. Fat with rainwater, its own hissing was nearly indistinguishable from that of the rain.
A howl echoed through the valley. The pair stopped in their tracks, each snapped their hoods down to unobstruct their senses and swiveled in all directions.
“Did you hear where it came from?” said Raizo.
“It sounded like it came from behind us.”
“I thought it came from ahead. Damn this forest!”
Leela brushed her dark hair from her eyes. The rain had soaked it instantly. “We should keep moving. As heavy as this rain is, we can still see better than in the fog.”
“True,” said Raizo. “Though we certainly won’t hear the wolf coming.”
Leela patted her injured arm, tucked under her cloak to stay dry. “I’ve paid the toll. It should leave us alone now, right?”
Raizo did not reply. He was distracted, looking around.
Leela spoke louder. “Right, Raizo?”
“Oh! Sure, sure. You’re right, let’s get moving.”
The creek below drew closer as they pushed further down the switchbacks. But halfway down the ridge the rain began crashing down harder than before. The wind threatened to throw them down into the ravine. Despite the trees, the rain blew down in sheets so solid they could no longer see the creek below or the ridgeline above.
A sudden burst of wind knocked Leela off balance. She would have fallen down the ravine if not for a tree on the edge of the path. Raizo grabbed her by the shoulder and drew her away to the ravine wall.
Leela yelled over the crashing wind. “Raizo, how far until the next shelter?”
“Too far! But there might be an outcropping by the creek we can use!”
“At the bottom of the ravine?” Leela gave a humorless laugh. “We’re in luck! The wind wants to send us there anyway!”
“Look, we can crouch in the mud here all day or—”
Close by, a howl pierced the rushing wind. Both darted to their feet and looked around. Leela could see nothing through the driving rain. She furrowed her brows trying to listen. Was that rain or footsteps? Was that Raizo breathing or—
Raizo yelled. Leela felt a hand on her shoulder pull her to the edge of the path.
“Slide down!” Raizo shouted. He jumped and started sliding down the muddy ravine. Leela jumped after him. The mud was slick under her boots, and caked heavily on her pant legs. Her descent would have been wild and uncontrolled if not for the rocks and gnarled bushes that she grabbed to slow herself. Eventually her feet met level ground. Before she could shake the mud off her pants, Raizo emerged from the rain and pulled her along by the strap of her pack.
“Run along the creek!” he yelled.
Scrambling along the boulders on the creek’s edge, they headed upstream. Not daring to look back for the wolf, Leela focused on the rocks in front of her. She felt reckless running so fast over the moss-slicked rocks. One misstep could land her with a broken leg or a snapped neck. Several times her foot slipped and she landed painfully on her hands. But still she kept after Raizo.
At last, Raizo cried out, “Look! Shelter!”
Leela stopped a moment to look up. Raizo was pointing at an outcropping of rock over which flowed the waterfall that fed the creek. Frantically, Raizo clambered towards the outcropping. Leela paused for a breath to look around. Seeing nothing, she followed Raizo.
The outcropping provided welcome shelter from the rain. As soon as she reached the dry ground, Leela dumped her pack, drew her knife, and made ready to fight. Her ragged breaths pounded in her ears, her soaked hair felt cold on her neck, and the heels of her hands tingled from when she broke her fall. Still, she pressed her senses for any sign of the wolf. But she could only hear the roar of the waterfall.
Gradually, Leela’s breathing evened. Giving in to her exhaustion, she lowered her knife and slumped to the ground next to her pack. She looked over and saw Raizo, pack still on, sitting against the outcropping wall. The shadow of panic slowly faded from his face.
“Raizo…” said Leela. “Raizo, did you see the wolf?”
“I—I thought I did.”
Leela groaned and sheathed her knife. “You thought?”
“I saw something big move on the ridge. What else could it have been? Better safe than sorry. Besides,” he gestured to the stone niche around them, “you wanted to find shelter.”
That night, they huddled around the fire wrapped in their cloaks as their clothes dried. Raizo had managed to keep the firewood he was carrying dry with sheepskin. The wind had calmed and the rain fell lightly. Now the only sound was the crash of the nearby waterfall. Silently, they ate their dinner.
Leela noticed Raizo had been staring into the fire, eyes unfocused, smoking his pipe, for minutes now. She set aside her empty plate and gently cleared her throat. “So, Raizo, um, how did you become a guide for the mountain god?”
Raizo shook his head and looked up. He shifted a bit and tugged at his mustache. “Well, it’s a bit of a complicated story. But suffice to say I left my village a few years ago and came here.”
“Why’d you leave?”
“There was nothing there for me. Not after my wife passed.”
“I’m so sorry. What was her name?”
“Yasuko.” He smiled as he said it. “The sweetest soul to ever grace this world. But she got sick and I…I didn’t know what to do without her, so I came here.”
“Have you spoken to her? Through Motakke, I mean.”
“No, not yet.”
By way of hesitation, Raizo drew on his pipe. “I haven’t had the courage, to be honest. Speaking to the dead is…well, you have no idea what you’ll find.”
“Think you’ll find the courage this time?”
Leela stood near the edge of a cliff. A young boy stood before her, eyes filled with tears. Leela’s voice sounded cruel in her own ears. “Come on, jump!”
The boy shook his head. “Father said the rains haven’t come yet, we shouldn’t jump in the river!”
“You big baby! I’ve done it a hundred times!”
“But I don’t want to!”
“You’ll never be a man if you don’t! You want to be a man, don’t you?”
“Please don’t make me!”
“You’ll thank me when you’re older.” Leela tried to stop herself, but hard as she tried, she ran forward and pushed the little boy. He tumbled backwards and disappeared over the cliff. His screams mingled with her own as Leela awoke, weeping.