None too gently, Yumei forced Emi’s head one way then the other, examining her. Pushing her head back, he dipped his face down to her neck and inhaled through his nose.
“Is she human?” he asked Shiro, straightening. He didn’t release her chin. “She smells of human female and you. Did you bed her?”
She gasped, outrage and embarrassment flooding her face with heat. She tried to jerk back but his fingers tightened painfully, holding her in place.
“We rolled in the snow together some,” Shiro said, mouth quirking up in that sly grin of his as he met her furious stare, “but it was an act of survival, not passion. The ogres were something of a challenge.”
Yumei turned her face to one side and back again. “Are you certain it was she who removed the first binding?”
“There was no one else.”
The Tengu studied her a moment longer, then released her chin. She had time to take in a single relieved breath before he grabbed her wrist. He pulled her hand to his face, turned her palm up, and bit the side of her hand beneath her thumb.
She cried out and tried to yank her arm away from him. His strength was like the grip of a steel vise, unmovable. He held her hand in his mouth, his gaze distant. He let her go so suddenly that she lost her balance and fell on her rump in the snow.
“Human,” Yumei said decisively. “But I can taste divine power in her blood.”
Emi turned her hand up to see a small puncture wound in her palm from his canine. A single drop of blood ran down her wrist, tracing a crimson line on her pale skin.
A shadow blocked the moon above. Shiro reached down and touched his thumb to the trail of blood. He slid his thumb up her wrist to the wound, then brought it to his lips. He grinned at her as he licked her blood off his skin. She stared at him, too shocked and appalled to speak.
“Definitely human,” he said to Yumei without breaking eye contact with her, daring her to protest their treatment of her. “Do priestesses normally taste like gods?”
“I am not certain,” Yumei admitted. “I have never tasted a true servant of a shrine.”
She clutched her chest, her hand pressed against the hidden mark over her heart. Her pulse pounded in her ears, her fear almost too much to bear. She didn’t taste like divine power because she was a dedicated priestess, but because she was a goddess’s future host. If they realized the truth, they would kill her on the spot.
She cautiously approached the barrier and stretched out her hand. As her fingers neared the shimmering light, it glowed brighter and a strange chill emanated from it. A flare of red power as cold as liquid ice lashed at her. She snatched her hand back.
“Yumei?” she called. “Let me through.”
The crows watched her mutely. The barrier didn’t change.
She frowned. He’d known she was coming and had plenty of time to open his barrier to let her through. Was he taunting her? Her jaw clenched. Spinning on her heel, she stalked a dozen paces away and turned back. She pushed her hair off her shoulders, unslung her bow, and pulled an arrow out of her obi.
If he wouldn’t let her in, then she would take matters into her own hands.
She nocked the arrow and lifted the bow. Drawing the fletching back to her cheek, she summoned her concentration and focused on the barrier of yokai magic. A soft warmth spread through her chest.
“Shukusei no tama!”
She let the arrow fly. It raced through the air and struck the barrier in a blinding flash. Hot air blasted outward, blowing her hair back, and a rush of cold followed. The barrier crackled and spat, then dissolved, the Tengu’s magic eaten away by her purification spell.
Slinging the bow over her shoulder, she strode past the fallen barrier and into the forest beyond. Wings beat at the air as the crows glided after her, some following while others flew ahead, leading the way.
As she moved through the trees, her skin tingled. Strange, alien power thrummed along her nerves and spiked in her heels with every step. She shivered at the bizarre feeling of magic tasting her, the same sensation she’d felt from Yumei’s blood magic. The forest grew more silent and still but for her steps crunching in the snow and the beating wings of the crows. She glanced back. Tornado hadn’t followed her. She wrapped her arms around herself, feeling painfully alone.
The trees thinned, and ahead, a single huge oak stood in solitary glory, its great branches reaching for the sky and merging with the darkness. In a flurry of wings, all the crows soared upward, vanishing amongst the tangled boughs until she stood alone. Swallowing hard, she approached the massive oak and looked up.
High in the branches, a figure stood upon a thick bough, one shoulder leaned against the trunk. Yumei’s silver eyes gleamed.
All at once, the crows went silent. Her ears rang in the sudden quiet.
Magic coiled and eddied over the ground, sliding over her skin like frozen claws—colder, deeper, more potent than anything she’d ever felt. The air dragged at her lungs, uncomfortably thick.
Shiro stepped in front of her, tension radiating off him. “Stay behind me—and don’t move unless I tell you to.”
She opened her mouth to ask what was happening, when the magic in the air went from a quiet, icy sizzle to an electric blizzard. She grabbed the back of Shiro’s shirt and huddled behind him.
Red light flickered in the sky. In a surge of magic, a huge winged shadow plunged through the trees. Ebony wings that weren’t entirely solid and trailed ribbons of red magic flared wide, and the monstrous bird landed in the snow before them.
Emi pressed against Shiro, too petrified to move. The immense raven towered over them. It looked like Yumei … except much, much bigger.
The twining ribbons of red magic formed strange designs and runes as they rippled behind him, mixing with the living shadows that shivered across his form. His ki seethed all around them, scraping across Emi’s senses until she wanted to scream.
“What’s going on, Yumei?” Shiro asked, as calm as if he were inquiring about the weather.
The raven’s silver eyes flashed with bright rage.
“They are killing my crows.” Though his beak didn’t move, his growling voice echoed strangely through the trees. Ancient power and an arctic fury coated each word and she realized she had never appreciated, never even grasped, just how old—or how powerful—the Tengu was.
“Who’s killing them?”
How could Shiro sound so unruffled in the face of the massive raven’s primordial wrath?
“Gods. Gods who dare to invade my forest and kill my crows.”
Shiro inhaled sharply. “What are they doing here?”
“I care not. I will destroy them.” The raven’s silver eyes burned with power. “Take the priestess to her shrine and wait.”
The crows, who had been mute since their master’s arrival, erupted in a new chorus of furious screams. The Tengu’s wings snapped open, magic surging through the atmosphere like invisible lightning. The raven launched skyward, vast wings beating the air and sending snow flying in every direction. Hundreds of crows sprang from their perches, shadowy magic coating their wings as they rushed after the Tengu.