As it turned out, the return trip was a bit more complicated than our path to Milan. Less dangerous, but more complicated.
I’m not sure why, but I had somehow thought that we would simply retrace our steps, at least a little. We didn’t. Instead Aiko led us through the park to what would have been a pleasantly shady nook near a fountain in the daytime. After dark, it was a little spooky, the trees blocking out any light the crescent moon overhead might otherwise have cast.
“Okay,” she said, rolling her neck. “Let’s do this.”
This time the portal formed in the space bracketed by two trees, their twisted interlocking branches forming the lintel. We stepped through into darkness.
It sucked. It felt like it was getting worse every time I did it. Agony and nausea and pure overwhelming sensation, all packed into an instant that seemed to last forever. This time I only became aware of myself again while I was on all fours staring at the ground from six inches away. A few seconds later I actually did puke, hard and painfully. We all know how that feels, though, so I won’t bother detailing it.
“Sorry about that,” Aiko said, leaning heavily on a tree. “You see why I try to use intermediate stops instead of jumping straight to a very separated domain?”
“Yeah,” I said. Well, moaned, but that’s beside the point. “I think I just threw up my toenails.”
“Give it a minute,” the kitsune advised. “This should be the worst of it. There’s a few more crossings, but nothing that bad.”
I cracked an eye, and instantly regretted it. It didn’t hurt, but it immediately made my head swim so bad I thought for a second I was about to throw up again. “Where is this?” I asked, squeezing my eyes tightly shut again. I thought I could hear Snowflake whimpering in the background.
“Inari’s Wood,” Aiko said.
“Wait, you mean the Inari?”
“Yep. The god of rice and foxes, and if you ever figure out how those are connected be sure and tell me, would you?”
“Wow. You move in high circles, don’t you?”
She snorted. “Hardly. This is just…our place, you know? The álfar have Álfheim, kitsune have the Wood.”
“Oh.” I risked opening my eyes again, and turned out to actually be capable of looking around. Score one for the away team.
It was a strange sort of forest we were in. It seemed uncommonly open, lots of open space and tall grasses between the trees, but high overhead they all joined together to form a canopy so dense it left us in twilight. I couldn’t even have said what time of day it was. All manner of trees were represented. Evergreens seemed to predominate, especially cedars and spruces, but I also saw a number of oaks and maples. I wasn’t entirely sure all those trees could even grow in the same forest, but when you’re dealing with the Otherside that kind of thing isn’t nearly as important.
Next to me Snowflake was dunking her head in a dark, slow-moving river. It made surprisingly little noise as it passed us, just the barest whisper of moving water. That was horrible, she said, pulling her head out of the water and shaking vigorously.
“What next?” I asked.
“Give me a minute. I hate doing two gates right on top of each other.”
“Can’t say I blame you.”
After about fifteen minutes, we were all feeling quite a lot better, which obviously meant that it was time to make ourselves miserable again. Aiko tore another hole in the fabric of reality, not even bothering to leave the clearing we’d appeared in first, and we stepped through it.
It was, as she’d promised, not nearly as intolerable as the last one. This is, of course, not the same as saying it was pleasant, but at least it didn’t reduce me to vomiting. We were in—surprise!—a forest. In fact, aside from the absence of the Otherside’s magical field, it could almost have been the same forest we’d just left. It was more homogenous, mostly just conifers, but the twilight and deep silence were just the same. There was even a stream.
“Aokigahara,” Aiko said without being prompted. “Welcome to Japan.”
I blinked. Fifteen minutes, some hard work, and a somewhat horrific traveling experience, and we’d gone from Italy to Japan? It was incredible, almost unbelievable. It seemed way, way too easy, and I kept wondering when the price would make itself known.
A moment later I remembered something, and frowned. “Aokigahara? Doesn’t this place have a…pretty sketchy reputation?”
She grinned. “Yep. Don’t worry too much, though. Most of the suicides don’t make it this far in.” She paused. “Of course, I guess the body hunt might not either, so it’s probably a wash overall.”
“Great,” I said sourly. It just figured that the famously beautiful forest we got to visit would also be one of the suicide capitals of the world. “Isn’t the forest supposed to be haunted, too?”
Aiko grinned a little wider, and I was briefly reminded of the terribly cruel face she sometimes presented during a serious fight. “Oh, it is. But they won’t bother me. This is our place.”
The walk was a little longer this time, maybe three or four miles uphill. As we walked the world went from the predawn twilight to early morning, though the dense canopy overhead ensured that it was still pretty dark much of the time. There was a breeze, though, and even a little birdsong, and as a result it didn’t feel nearly as oppressive as before.
It was a beautiful forest, too. It felt secluded, cut off from the modern world. Mt. Fuji towered over us, with its iconic perfect snowcap almost unreal against the backdrop of an achingly blue sky. For the record, the mountain really is as beautiful as they say.
Aokigahara was interesting for another reason. Every place has a vibe of sorts, the product of its interactions with the spiritual world. But this forest felt much more specific and definite than most, so strong that it nearly had a personality all its own. It was aware of us, and it made me twitchy, like having a dozen people stare at me from behind. It didn’t feel malevolent, exactly, which was something of a surprise considering how disturbing its rep was, but it wasn’t friendly either. Instead it felt aloof, uncaring. It looked at me the way I looked at an ant that hadn’t yet begun to bother me, and I was pretty sure that if it decided to do something about me I would have about as much chance of stopping it as an ant has of stopping a man from stepping on it.
So this is what a genius loci feels like, Snowflake commented.
Aiko seemed to take no notice of it, which made a certain amount of sense. This was, as she’d said, her people’s place. She wasn’t an outsider here, as we were. She belonged here, was a part of the forest as deeply and as surely as the trees themselves. I didn’t, and I wasn’t.
We weren’t in any particular rush, so it took us a while walking. After about forty minutes we found a skeleton resting at the base of a tree, scraps of rope still present on the branch above it to show how this particular person had elected to end it all. It was a sobering sight, not least because I could easily have wound up like that myself if things had gone slightly different. Aiko and even Snowflake seemed to feel it as well, and we skirted well around the bones. Otherwise we didn’t see any signs of life the whole time.
“All right,” Aiko said, maybe half an hour after we passed the suicide. “This should do.” I had to admit a certain amount of relief at her words. Aokigahara was a lovely place, but I wasn’t welcome here.
We were standing in a small, deeply shaded glen. It was chilly, down out of the sun, and there were maybe two inches of snow on the ground. We’d climbed quite a distance from the glade we’d entered in, and we were now high enough up the slope that the forest was just beginning to turn to mountain.
Another portal, another mind-wrenching episode of infinite blackness followed by brief but total sensory dislocation and amnesia. It was almost funny how fast I was getting used to it. Disturbing, too, even to me.
As before, we were in a forest on a mountainous slope. The trees were, if anything, more dense and oppressive than before. Huge pines and oaks, more like redwoods in scale than the mundane trees they resembled, soared hundreds of feet over our heads before spreading, their limbs of such monumental size as to dwarf most full-grown trees themselves. Snow lay thick on the ground, a pristine blanket a foot deep, more than three feet where drifts had formed under the trees.
The glade was perfectly silent, but it somehow felt different to me than Aokigahara had, or Inari’s Wood for that matter. Those forests had been quiet, but this place had a hushed air to it that made me think of a cathedral. The air was cold, shockingly cold even to me, and I gloried in the feeling. Everything was perfectly still, not a whisper of wind to rustle the trees, not a bird or squirrel or insect stirring.
“Wow,” I said, my breath forming a frosty plume when it hit the air. “Nice place.”
“Easy for you to say,” Aiko muttered. “It’s bloody freezing. It’s always bloody freezing here.”
I pulled off my coat and tossed it to her, manipulating the shadow midair so that it would reflect heat a little better. It wasn’t great as far as insulation goes, but it would work for the short term. “So where are we now? Jotunheim?”
She glanced at me, surprised. “Yeah, actually. How’d you know?”
I shrugged. “Lucky guess. Frost giants were the only ones I could think of with that much of a kick for cold. Isn’t this a little off your turf?”
“It’s best to know a variety of layovers,” she said, stretching a little. “That way, in an emergency, you can get somewhere from practically any entry point.”
“Huh,” I said, intrigued. It was an interesting concept—escaping like that would be nearly untraceable, once the portal was closed. Anyone trying to chase you would not only have to be able to track you, which the shifting nature of the Otherside made functionally impossible; they would also need to know the exact same destination point, and be able to make the same associations between the two points. And, once you’d made two or three quick transfers, the odds of any individual being able to follow all of those paths would be negligible.
“How many stages are left in this one?” It was a fascinating idea and one I really had to learn more about, but I was really starting to get tired of the portals themselves. Did a lot to explain why Alexander had said magical travel wasn’t worthwhile most of the time, even discounting the dangers I was sure would turn out to be involved at some point. In my circles it’s pretty much inevitable that dangers turn out to be involved at some point, and I was pretty sure it went further than the occasional gorillathing.
“This is the last,” Aiko said. “Good bloody thing, too. It’s been years since I did this. I’d forgotten how hard it is.”
“You all right?”
She shrugged. “Better be,” she said wryly. “We sure don’t want to stick around here. I’m pretty sure even you can freeze to death in Jotunheim.” Snowflake gave herself one more shake to clear her head, and then the three of us walked out of the trees into heaven.
Granted, most people might not have seen it quite like that. It was cold, so bitterly cold I think the average human would need arctic gear to survive there for any significant length of time. The sky overhead was lead gray, a solid bank of clouds that started dropping big, fluffy flakes of snow as we walked. Out from under the shelter of the trees, the wind was moving at a pretty good clip, and it too was ice-cold. Before me the mountain seemed to tower impossibly high, huge enough to make Pikes Peak look like a veritable molehill. The slopes were blanketed in snow, just as perfect and pristine as that beneath the trees. I wasn’t at all sure how deep it might go; I sank in above the knee before hitting a solid surface, but some of the drifts had to be ten or twenty feet deep at the very least.
“Wow,” I said, looking around in awe. The mountain we were on was just one in a range, and not the biggest by a long shot. All of them were harsh, rocky, stark and cruel. “I have gotta learn this trick.”
“Yeah, then you can do the heavy lifting while I kick back,” the kitsune grumbled.
“Actually, I was thinking more about the recreational value. I mean, wow. If people ever find out about this, Aspen would look like chump change.”
Yeah, Snowflake said excitedly. We’re still working on adapting a snowboard to a quadrupedal frame, but she loves tobogganing like Jacques loves his bottle. And no, the irony isn’t lost on anyone.Hell, even I’m named Winter, for crying out loud. It’s like the universe is playing one long, drawn-out joke on me, and it’s sense of humor is about as sophisticated as a middle-schooler in the presence of a Three Stooges marathon. Just look at that drift. I bet I could get twenty feet of air off that thing.
Oh, definitely, I said. I felt okay about excluding Aiko from this particular conversation, because she has as much interest in snowboarding as I have in crochet. And that cliff? Make a quick jump, maybe put a little lift on with magic, and I could definitely clear it. Two hundred feet vertical drop easy, and a beautiful landing. We’ve gotta come back here.
“If you two are quite done ogling,” Aiko said acerbically, “we should get going.” She took off jogging uphill.
I shook myself out of my brief reverie and followed after her. It was wearying trekking through the snow, but nothing I wasn’t accustomed to. Snowflake, of course, ran literal circles around us, her paws not even breaking the crust of the snow. This was, after all, her natural environment, far more than the city. She even darted up to the top of a nearby drift and slid down it, getting snow all over her face and laughing like a loon.
I wasn’t too far away from that state myself, honestly. I love winter—depressingly predictable, I know, but there it is. Aiko could complain, but this place felt like home.
It felt so natural, in fact, that it took me several minutes to figure out just how impossibly homelike it was. I wasn’t slipping around. I knew, without even having to think, where the snow was stable and where it would collapse from my weight. I sprinted up a cornice, somehow knowing where I should place my feet and exactly how far I could go before the snow would be unstable, and leapt off.
It was delight. I closed my eyes to more fully enjoy the wind rushing against my face, the sensation of floating in midair. Even without sight I knew when I would land, and I easily turned my momentum into a slide. I came to my feet, laughing, exuberant, feeling on top of the world, feeling like I was somehow more than I’d ever been before. It was strange, felt both mad and utterly natural.
It took me that long to realize what was wrong. I would have expected Snowflake to be laughing as hard as I was, and likely trying to duplicate the maneuver herself. Even Aiko should have been making some sort of sarcastic comment. Instead, there was nothing but a shocked silence, both physically and mentally.
I glanced back and saw Aiko, more than thirty yards away, standing on top of the cornice and looking at me with something that wasn’t quite fear in her posture.
Wait. Thirty yards? I couldn’t jump that far.
Evidence suggested otherwise.
I looked away and realized what she was seeing. It had taken me a bit longer than usual to notice, thanks to the environment, but I was covered in frost. Crystals of the stuff coated my skin, head to toe, dozens and dozens of layers all piled up on each other. My fingers had gone blue at the tips, but I didn’t feel the slightest bit cold. The wind had stirred into a sort of mini-whirlwind centered on me, filling the air around me with a veil of glittering snowflakes, which I could somehow see through without any difficulty whatsoever.
Ten thousand years of winter. Doesn’t it feel good? Ten thousand years of winter in your blood.
The voice in my head was, just barely, recognizable as my own. That’s not the same as saying it was me, though. It was vast and deep and frozen, with the hint of a growl underneath and about as much resemblance to humanity as this place had to earth. It was also a voice I’d heard exactly once before, when I’d been using my nature as a what-the-hell-is-that? to produce a icicle for use as an improvised weapon.
I closed my eyes, shaking a little. Unfortunately, I couldn’t pass it off as being due to cold even to myself, because I still wasn’t even chilly.
A couple minutes later I knew—not heard, not became aware, knew—that the others had caught up to me. “Maybe,” I said quietly, “coming back here isn’t such a good idea after all.”
“You think?” Aiko was good at faking. If I hadn’t known her as well as I did I wouldn’t have recognized the concern under her caustic tone.
And, of course, I did nothing to show that recognition. It wouldn’t have been polite. “Maybe. Where now?”
She grumbled a bit and then continued up the mountain. Snowflake paused to lick the frost off my fingers, whining gently in two spectra, and then we followed.
It felt…very different from that point on. It was, if anything, more disturbing, simply because it wasn’t nearly disturbing enough. I still felt more like I’d lived here for years than that this was my first visit. With every step, every heartbeat it felt like I was growing, expanding, becoming more. I found myself having to struggle to keep to a pace they could keep, although under ordinary circumstances Snowflake is significantly faster than me.
About thirty yards further up the slope we dropped onto an actual path. I do mean dropped, too; it was cut into the snowpack, a claustrophobic trench less than three feet wide. On either side rose walls of snow more than fifteen feet tall, and there was more under our feet. Strangely, there didn’t seem to be any difference in lighting down in the trench.
It was a lot faster going, with a real trail to follow, and we were all motivated to keep moving. When we scrambled back out half an hour later, we’d traveled more than two miles. Snowflake was all right, of course, having been designed for even colder environments than this, but I was feeling pretty sorry for Aiko.
A quick jaunt back downhill brought us to a small, windswept grove of pines, nestled in against the base of a steep, jagged granite cliff. Although they would have been quite respectable anywhere else, compared to the trees I’d seen earlier they seemed almost scrawny.
“Okay,” Aiko said, flexing her fingers. “Last one.”
She formed the portal framed by the rocks this time. It took her almost twice as long as the first had, I noticed; clearly she wasn’t exaggerating the difficulty of the trick. Eventually, though, she got it, and we stepped through.