Mist twisted around his ankles.
The air was acrid and smoke-like.
The ground was soft underfoot.
He pushed a large palm leaf to one side and before him, towering and monumental, was the mountain island of Hōrai.
Rocks and debris fell from its jagged shoreline, dripping through a heavy cloud that seemed to hold the landmass in mid-air.
A branch snapped in the undergrowth. Smoke shifted in the trees. Low bushes rustled. Tadashi wasn’t alone.
It was circling.
He tried to find something to use as a weapon. The sound was moving closer. There was no time. He crawled on his hands and knees, trying to see what was causing the foliage to snap. The swirling mist was thicker the lower he got to the ground. His hands touched the soft soil, a mulch of leaves and twigs, then to his relief he felt something sharp. The root of a tree with a pointed end.
It would have to do.
The sound was now coming from behind as well as in front. He followed it with his eyes, barely breathing, listening for movement. He could hear heavy breathing. An animalistic snorting. There was more than one of them.
They were moving in synchronicity.
Tadashi held the tree root tighter in his hand. The sound was now directly behind him. He could feel hot breath on the back of his neck. He didn’t dare look. Leaves swayed in front as something was approaching, coming straight at him.
He was ready to lash out.
Nothing appeared through the foliage. He closed his eyes for a brief second and a deep growl echoed in his ear.
The animal was inches from his face.
He could smell it. In the corner of his eye he could see the shape of a strange dog-like creature.
It was looking directly at him.
Tadashi winced, preparing for the final attack of being pinned to the earth and sacrificed to slavering jaws. There was another hiss from behind and a rustle of leaves in front, but the advance didn’t come. The creatures had him surrounded, but seemed hesitant. A hissing came from beside and again from behind. Then, he realised what they wanted. They were trying to force him in a particular direction.
He was being herded.
He stood up and placed a foot forward. The rustling intensified and the hissing became fierce. He froze and stepped to the side. It stopped. He took another step and walked slowly in the direction that he thought it wanted him to go. He took a glance behind him and saw the arched back of a thin creature, black, without fur. It padded after him in the undergrowth.
He picked up his pace, trying to get a better lead. As he did so it moved faster. Leaves rustled. He looked behind to a wave of rippling foliage that was following in his tracks, moving in a curve that ushered him in a single direction. Either side of him now were wild animal growls. The creatures were coaxing each other.
They moved closer, pushing him to the left, only for him to be shrieked at from the right and moved back in line. They were quickening, forcing him to break into a jog, then a run, and then the shrieking increased as something began snapping tight at his ankles. He felt a scratch each time he set down a foot. He turned and threw the tree root behind him. The creature leapt out of the way.
He was breathless, running frantically. He pulled on a large leaf and was confronted by a high, brick wall.
There was nowhere to go.
The bushes rustled around him.
The snap of jaws.
The thuck of paws on mud.
“Get back!” shouted Tadashi, only to be screamed down by high-pitched squeals. He turned to the wall, his fingers clawing at the stone. He was cornered. The shrieks of the creatures pierced his ears. He spun back to face them, and expecting the worst, pushed himself up against the wall in submission.
The creature lunged.
He lashed out, his hand making contact with the animal. He was surprised that it was hot-blooded. There was another blow to his chest and this time the wall gave way behind him.
Tadashi tumbled into darkness.
There was no sound, just the unexpected calm of falling.
A spec of light where the wall had once been was now becoming smaller as he slid on his back down a stone shaft.
He choked on dust, spinning in uncontrollable circles, gravity sucking him deeper into the unknown until he landed on sand in a large chamber.
The shadow animals howled in the far distance.
There was the strange scent of sandalwood and roast meat.
Flames burned in tall, bamboo torches.
Tadashi felt bruised and gasped as he tried to sit up.
He blinked in the dim light.
Shadows licked the walls, casting long, pointed shapes that were otherworldly and obscene.
He heard rustles of movement in the shadows and could make out what looked like creatures with large dorsal spines, protruding beaks and fins.
The silence was broken by an inhuman voice. “Be you a Deus?”
Tadashi corrected his posture and dusted himself down. He looked in the direction of the speaker. “A what?” he asked. He was more curious than scared, wincing to see clearly in the darkness. “I was chased. I fell,” he explained. His voice reverberated against the sandstone walls, echoing throughout the chamber.
The creatures were surprised that he had the authority to talk back without first answering their question. From another angle, a second voice, this time soft and feminine, chirped up. “Be you magical?”
“Entertain the court with your wizardry,” commanded the croak of a third.
“Yes! Entertain us,” squeaked a fourth, to the sound of approving chirps and tweets. “If you displease us, you will be sent back to the shadow animals for their sport.”
The laughter of tiny voices squealed all around him.
Tadashi looked to where he thought the shaft had spat him out, and to where he presumed the dog-like animals were still waiting. He concluded that he had no option but to play along. “I shall entertain you!” he shouted, over-enthusiastically. “I am an all-powerful and dangerous magician.” His voice bounced along the chamber walls and echoed into silence.
A creature scrambled over his feet, then another. There was a sudden desperate scurrying of claws and paws. Tiny objects hid in the shadows, bombarding over each other to get out of the way, squeezing themselves into the smallest of cracks as they scattered into dark corners.
Tadashi had the sensation that he was alone until a black shadow reared up before him.
It hovered, twice his size, allowing him to observe its exotic and otherworldly silhouette.
It addressed him in a voice that was thin, sharp, and unused to speaking.
“You seek the sacred mushroom?”