“Sen, I mean, Chihiro, wake up!”
“Don’t have class today.” Chihiro muttered, still more asleep then awake.
Lin sighed. It was Chihiro’s first day back, not counting yesterday, and the girl was still exhausted from the previous night. She would have liked to let her sleep in, but Yubaba, even though she mellowed down, was still very strict.
Suddenly she got an idea. “Se-darn it-Chihiro, Haku is here.” she whispered.
Chihiro sat up, wide-awake. “Huh! What? Where? When’d he get here? Where is he?” she rambled.
Lin chuckled. “Calm down, girl. I just said that to get you up.”
This took a moment to sink in, once it did Chihiro’s face fell and became both tired and annoyed. “Don’t do that.” She muttered as sleep began to take hold of her again.
She laid back down and pulled the covers over her head. Lin sighed again and decided to try a more direct approach. She grabbed the covers and pulled completely off the bed.
“Hey!” Chihiro cried as the warmth left her.
Lin just smirked at her. “Come on, we’ve got customers.”
Chihiro pouted. “But Bôh kept me up late last night.” She complained.
Lin shrugged. “Tell that to Yubaba.”
Chihiro groaned. “Ok, I’m getting up.”
As it turned out, the bathhouse was already full of customers. How long had she slept for things to get this busy so fast? She made a mental note to ask Lin what time the bathhouse opened later.
Yubaba was talking to the foreman, who was greeting customers while listening to the witch talk, when she spotted Chihiro come in.
“Sen, so nice of you to join us.” She said sounding very grouchy.
Chihiro glared at her. “Well next time don’t let Bôh keep me up so late.” She fumed.
Yubaba snorted. “Well, do you need a review of how things work here, or do you still remember after 12 years?”
Chihiro continued to glare. She still remembered how things worked around here, having gotten the toughest jobs, but even if she didn’t, she wouldn’t give the old hag the satisfaction by asking for help.
“I’ll do fine.” She insisted. “I’ll ask Lin if I need any help.”
Yubaba returned the glare. “That will do just fine. Oh, and by the way, thank you for increasing Bôh’s curiosity last night. He had so many questions for me.”
Chihiro couldn’t help it, she burst out laughing. The foreman, having no idea what the two women were talking about, looked at them completely bewildered.
“I’m sorry.” She said. “He asked and I thought it would be best if you told him.”
“I wasn’t planning on telling him!” Yubaba bellowed. “Someone that wants to remain a baby forever does not need to know things like that!”
Chihiro shrugged. “He may decide to change into a teenager for a while. He would need to know then.”
“No, he won’t, because he tried the whole teenager thing and decided to stay a baby!”
“Calm down.” Said Chihiro. Neither of them noticed that people were staring at them. “Everyone needs ‘The Talk’ sooner or later.”
The foreman’s mouth dropped open. “Uh, ma’am, would you like me to leave?” he asked, or begged really.
Both Yubaba and Chihiro suddenly noticed that they were having this conversation in the middle of a crowded room and turned red with embarrassment.
“No, we’re done here.” the witch said. “Sen, you’re to clean the big bath.”
“The big bath!” Chihiro cried. The last time she had cleaned the big bath was 12 years ago, and it was dirtied up again a few minutes after it was cleaned. The big bath was not fun to clean. “You’re just giving me that because of my conversation with Bôh!”
Yubaba smirked. “Now why would I do something like that?” she chuckled. “You’re the one who wanted your job back so badly.”
Chihro growled in frustration as Yubaba turned to leave. “I’m gonna tell Bôh you’re harassing me!” she cried to the retreating witch.
Yubaba snickered. “You do that. But until then, start scrubbing. And since Lin insisted on being your partner, she can help.”
As it turned out, Lin wasn’t all that happy about their job.
“You’re becoming more trouble than you’re worth.” She growled.
Chihiro just grinned apologetically. “She’s just getting some revenge for having to talk to Bôh.” She said.
Lin growled in annoyance. “Well next time think before you annoy the old hag.”
Chihiro continued grinning. “Sorry, but it’s not so bad. It’s just like our first job.”
Lin rolled her eyes. “This day can’t get any worse.”
She was very wrong.
Two spirits made their way to the bathhouse. They both looked a lot like mountains. The first one was very tall and had a body made of rock. Its chest and hands were covered in green hair, which on closer inspection was grass. It had a long green beard and the top of its head was pointy and covered in snow.
This spirit was supporting the second spirit, who looked similar to the first only it was shorter and rounder. This spirit also looked like it was in a lot of pain and that it was very angry about something. It was huffing and puffing like it was exhausted and perhaps it was.
“We’re almost there.” The taller spirit told the shorter one. “You’ll feel much better after this.”
The shorter spirit glared at the taller one. “I can’t believe you dragged me all the way to this dump!” he snapped.
“This ‘dump’ is the best bathhouse around.” The taller one assured him.
The shorter one gasped in pain and clutched its stomach. “You have no idea how much pain I’m in.” he groaned.
“Hang in there. This place will do wonders for you.”
The two entered the bathhouse. The foreman greeted them like he did every guest. “Good day.”
The taller spirit nodded back but the shorter one wasn’t quite as friendly. “What’s so good about it?”
The foreman flinched. “Um, I’m sorry.”
The taller one gave his friend a dirty look. “Don’t mind him. He has been feeling a little under the weather.”
“Shut up!” The shorter spirit yelled.
“What’s with all the shouting?” Yubaba demanded, entering the room.
The shorter spirit glared at her. “No one’s shouting, you old hag!”
Yubaba took a step back. She knew right away not to mess with this spirit. “My mistake. I’ll just get my best employers to take care of you. Lin! Sen!”
The two hurried over soaking wet and covered in soapsuds.
“Yes, ma’am?” asked Lin, trying to keep the anger out of her voice. “We were cleaning the big bath like you requested.”
Yubaba ignored Lin’s smart mouth. “We have two mountain spirits in need of your assistance. Sen, you take the shorter one. And be careful, he’s in a very bad mood.”
Chihiro groaned. “Why are you picking on me? So you had to have an embarrassing conversation with your son, get over it.”
“Now!” Yubaba snapped.
Chihiro and Lin approached the two spirits. The shorter one glared at Chihiro. “A human! What is a human doing here?”
Chihiro gave a forced smile. “Follow me, sir, I’ll get your bath ready.”
“Whatever. Let go of me!” He pulled himself free from his friend’s supportive hold and followed Chihiro.
The whole way to the bath, the spirit kept grumbling, sounding both angry and in pain. Chihiro wondered what was wrong.
“Sir, is everything ok?” she asked.
“I’m fine!” the spirit snapped. “I just don’t feel so good. And I don’t need some stinking human worrying about me.”
“If you say so.”
Chihiro was getting frustrated with the spirit’s attitude. Why was he being such a jerk? Was it because he was sick? Could spirits even get sick?
“Here’s your bath, sir.”
“I see that! Get out of the way!” The spirit stormed past her and crawled into the bath. “Ah, that’s nice.”
Chihiro gave another forced smile. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
The spirit snorted. Chihiro saw a bunch of steam come out of his nose. “I don’t need anything from a human!”
Chihiro bowed to him. “Very well, sir. If you need anything just ask and I’ll be happy to get it for you.”
She turned to leave, but the spirit stopped her. “What are you even doing here anyway? Why don’t you go back where you belong?”
Chihiro was seriously losing her patience. She turned to the spirit, trying to keep a straight face. “This is where I belong.”
The spirit started laughing. Sparks flew from its mouth as it did so. “Humans don’t belong here. Why do you think they fade away? Your kind are nothing but trouble.”
“That’s not true!” Chihiro cried in spite of herself.
“Oh no? Well that shows me that you are no different from any other human I’ve seen. For years I have watched as humans destroyed the land around my mountain. Now I’m suffering.”
Chihiro felt her anger drop a bit. “What’s wrong? Maybe I can help.”
The spirit laid back. “You can’t help. No one can.”
Was it her imagination, or was it getting much hotter in here? “Why can’t I? Just tell me what’s wrong?”
The spirit eyed her suspiciously. He looked almost curious. “Why do you care?”
“Not all humans are cruel and destructive.” She said. “I just want to help. I don’t like seeing anyone suffer like this. Let me help you.”
The spirit seemed to consider her for a moment. “Fine. I don’t see what good it will do though.” He brought his massive hands to his head. “I’ve got the biggest headache ever, my whole body hurts, I feel like I’m going to be sick, and I’m burning up.” He began coughing, expelling smoke as he did so. “And it’s getting worse.”
Chihiro gulped. She had no idea what to do for the poor spirit. “Hang on, I’ll be right back.” She quickly exited the room and began running through the bathhouse. “Yubaba! Yubaba! Yubaba!”
It took about a minute to find the witch, who wasn’t at all happy about the commotion she was making. “What is it?” she demanded. “You’re disturbing the customers.”
Chihiro stopped to catch her breath. “Yubaba, something is really very wrong with that mountain spirit. I don’t know what it is, but he’s really suffering.”
Yubaba looked confused for a moment, but she shook it off and said, “Fine, where is he?”
Chihiro led her back to the spirit. He was in even worse shape now than he was two minutes ago. His whole body was trembling and the water he was soaking in was steaming.
“Oh my!” Yubaba exclaimed upon seeing the spirit.
“I told you.” Chihiro cried.
The spirit looked up at the sound of the two women talking. “Human! What did you do to me? I feel even worse!”
His body began trembling again. Chihiro ran over to the spirit to try and see if she could help. “Don’t worry, everything will be- OUCH!”
Upon touching the spirit’s rocky flesh, she burned her hand. She lost her balance and nearly fell in the water, which would have been bad since it was beginning to boil.
“It hurts!” the spirit cried. “I’m burning! I’m burning! Make it stop!”
Chihiro turned to Yubaba for instructions, but even the old witch wasn’t sure what to do. She quickly turned and yelled as loudly as possible. “Everyone who is not attending a customer, get over here now!” She turned back to Chihiro and the suffering spirit and floated over to them. “Sir, tell me what’s wrong. Perhaps I can cast a spell to-”
The spirit sneezed right in Yubaba’s wrinkly face. The witch flew backwards, covered in what looked like snow. She wiped her face and looked angrily up at the spirit. It was breathing heavily, fire emitting from its mouth witch each breath.
“Ma’am, we’re here.” said one of the bathhouse workers. “What happened?”
Yubaba didn’t answer. She reached up and wiped the ‘snot’ off her face. “Ashes?” she whispered, looking at the white flakey substance.
The mountain spirit looked like it was about to vomit. Its whole body was steaming. “It’s so hot.” He muttered, no longer having the strength to shout.
Yubaba continued to look back and forth between the spirit and the ashes in her hands. “Ashes?” she repeated. “Can it be?”
She looked back at the spirit and Chihiro who was still trying to help it. The spirit suddenly leaned forward and grasped the edge of the bath. The rim blackened and burned under his touch. Yubaba’s eyes suddenly widened with realization.
“Sen! Get away from there!” she cried in panic. “That’s not a mountain spirit, it’s an erupting volcano spirit!”
The spirit suddenly vomited all over the floor, only it wasn’t vomit that was coming out of its mouth, it was lava.
“Make it stop!” he begged.
“His volcano must be erupting for the first time.” Said Yubaba. “It’s top is going to blow!”
“My head!” the spirit cried. “My stomach!”
The spirit’s body was beginning to turn darker as if it was burning, which was actually what was happening. Large orange glowing cracks began appearing over his rocky skin. The pain was unimaginable. It was becoming an official volcano spirit.
Far away, back in the human world, towns folk ran around in panic as, what they thought used to be a mountain, shook the land. The volcano’s top was about to blow for the first time, and it would surly destroy the entire town.
The only one in the spirit world who knew of the destruction the volcano was about to cause was currently in too much pain too notice or care. His transformation was intense, and more painful than anyone human or spirit could stand.
“Hot! Hot! Hot!” he cried. “I can’t take it!”
“Hang on, I’ll get more water.” Chihiro cried, noticing that the bath was half empty. She quickly ran over to one of the workers cowering by Yubaba. “Does anyone have a bath token?”
“Huh? Oh, I have one.” Replied a spirit.
Chihiro grabbed it out of the spirit’s hand and ran back to the bath.
“Sen, get back here!” Yubaba cried. “It’s too dangerous for a human! He’s erupting for the first time! He can’t control himself!”
“Then one of you do it!” Chihiro yelled. Neither Yubaba nor any of the other spirits moved. “That’s what I thought!”
She quickly ran over to the spot the bath tokens went to and sent it down to Kamajii. The slot opened and dropped over the bath, ready to pour the water. Chihiro went to pull the string when the volcano spirit suddenly burst into flames.
“FIRE!” he cried. “IT BURNS!”
“Hang on!” Chihiro cried. “I’m almost there!”
She tried to reach the string, but she had to get to close the burning spirit.
“Get away from me!” he cried.
“You need help!” Chihiro shouted back.
“Foolish human, you’ll kill yourself! AHHHHH!”
The top of the spirit’s head was visibly pulsing and glowing bright orange with embers. Tears of acid ran down his cheeks.
Chihiro got as close to the burning spirit as she could get without burning herself. Her fingers closed around the string and she pulled. The water began flowing, pouring on the spirit and extinguishing the flames, reducing his pain considerably, but not entirely.
“I… can’t… take… it… any… more…” the spirit moaned.
Chihiro didn’t know what else you do. “Tell me how to help you!” she cried.
“GET AWAY FROM ME!” the spirit bellowed, viciously backhanding her with his giant stone hand, which, thankfully, was no longer on fire.
Chihiro flew backwards as the spirit gave one final cry of agony before the top of his head exploded. A blast of flames and lava erupted from the opening, going straight up through the bathhouse and bursting through the ceiling, burning through everything in its path. The spirit cried out as all the pain came out at once and he slowly sank under the water.
Back in the human world, the top of the volcano finally blew open. The river of lava ran down its side, heading straight for the town. There was nowhere for the villagers to go. They would surly be burned to death.
In the bathhouse, the jet of fire continued shooting upwards like an upside down rocket launching off. The water that the volcano spirit had been bathing in was all black and boiling. It looked like a tar pit unleashing a stream of fire, which Yubaba would later complain that it would cost a fortune to repair the damages. Slowly something began rising out of the thick black goo. The spirit rose covered from head to foot in the black muck. Glowing red eyes could be seen shining through the goo while fire continued to shoot up from its head.
The spirit raised its arms and reached out to its volcano, using its spiritual powers to make contact.
The lava was approaching the town. It was less than a mile a way when the flow suddenly stopped. It was as if an invisible barrier had been placed in front of the flow. Slowly, the lava split in half and began flowing to the left and right of the town. The two flowing streams moved around the village and reconnected on the other side, where it continued flowing until it poured into the harbor. The townsfolk watched in amazement as their homes and lives were spared by seemingly supernatural forces. Little did they know that that was exactly what had happened.
Back in the bathhouse, the erupting fire slowly lessened until it was no longer existing. The volcano spirit, still covered in the wet black ash, slowly lowered its arms and sank below the surface.
Everyone was quiet, not sure if the danger was over or not. Chihiro was the first one to move. She slowly approached the bath and looked in at the bubbling black goop.
“Sir, are you ok?” she asked cautiously.
The ashy water began to bubble again. Then something burst up from under the goo, splashing it everywhere. The volcano spirit hovered in the air, no longer in pain. The transformation it had gone through was amazing. Its body was now strong and muscular. It was still made of rock, but it was all blackened and burned, and it was covered in glowing orange cracks. Its head had a large hole in it that allowed fire to flow out, which acted as hair.
The spirit breathed deeply and turned to Chihiro, looking at her with eyes that resembled, or were, lava rocks. “The pain is gone.” He declared, in a voice much deeper and powerful than his original one. “As well as my anger. My transformation is complete. Human, I cannot thank you enough for your help. You lessened my pain greatly and gave me strength to get through my first eruption.”
Chihiro smiled nervously. “Uh, no problem.” She said. “Happy to help. Uh, you’re not going to have to go through that every time your volcano erupts, are you?”
The spirit shook its head. “No, it was just for the first eruption since my volcano needed to blow its top. And speaking of my volcano, it would have destroyed an entire town had I not interfered. Human, you have shown me that there is goodness in humans. Therefore I have spared the town.”
Chihiro bowed. “Thank you, sir. I’m glad you’re ok.”
The spirit nodded to her. “I have a gift for you. But first, I shall heal the damage I have caused you.”
The spirit raised its hand and placed it on Chihiro’s head. The burns that she had received from touching him while he was erupting healed completely, not even leaving the slightest scar.
“It is done.” Said the spirit. “And now for your reward.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“But it is.” The spirit insisted.
The flames on his head began burning more brightly. Something rose out of the hole in his head. It was a bright red gem that seemed to glow. It floated over to Chihiro. She looked at it hesitantly since it appeared to be on fire.
“It will not hurt you, young one.” He told her. “Take it.”
Chihiro did so. The gem was warm to the touch, and she didn’t think it would ever cool.
“Thank you, sir.” Chihiro whispered, completely mesmerized by the jewel’s beauty.
“You have earned it.” The spirit replied. “I shall now take my leave. Thank you all for your kindness.”
The spirit exited the room, bowing to Yubaba and the other spirits on his way out. The old witch wasn’t sure what to say, so she just said the first thing that came to mind. “Thank you, come again.”
“Chihiro!” Lin forced her way through the crowd and ran over to her friend. “You had me worried sick! Don’t ever, EVER, do something like that again!”
Chihiro smiled apologetically. “Ok, I won’t. I promise.”
Lin noticed the bright red gem in her hand. “What’s that?”
Chihiro looked at the gem. “Oh, it’s a…”
The gem was suddenly snatched out of her hand by Yubaba.
“AH!” the old witch cried, eyeing the gem in disbelief. “I don’t believe it! A fire ruby! Sen, do you have any idea how much these things are worth!”
Chihiro didn’t have a clue. “Uh… a lot?”
“A real fire ruby?” asked Lin, just as surprised as Yubaba.
Yubaba saw Lin and the other spirits eyeing the gem and she quickly stuffed it in her pocket. “I knew hiring you again was a good idea!” she declared. “But don’t you go putting yourself in danger like that again. Do you understand me?”
Chihiro smirked. “Nice to know that you care.” She said smugly.
Yubaba chose to ignore that comment. “For a job well done, you may have the rest of the day off. The rest of you, clean this mess up.”
There were groans from the other spirits. Lin nudged Chihiro and smiled at her. “Back one day and you’re already Yubaba’s favorite.”
Later that night, Chihiro sat on the balcony, staring out in the distance, thinking about a certain river spirit.
“Day dreaming about your dragon again?”
Chihiro didn’t even need to look at the one who spoke to know who it was. “You love getting on my nerves, don’t you?”
Lin laughed and sat down next to her. “You’re fun to tease. Don’t take it so personally though. Oh by the way, good job with that volcano spirit today.”
Chihiro snickered. “Why does it seem like I always get the troubling patients? First it was a river spirit who got all clogged by garbage, then I had Haku who was cursed by Zeniba, then there was No-Face who went crazy and began eating people, and today I got a volcano spirit that was erupting for the first time.”
Lin laughed. “I’d never stopped and counted.” She said. “But you came out on top each time. You’re a professional and you haven’t even worked here that long.”
Chihiro shrugged. “I just hope I don’t get a difficult customer like that every time.”
“With your luck, you’ll probably have to deal with the most difficult spirit in the whole spirit world.” Lin teased.
“With my luck, I’ll probably get that spirit as a customer.” Chihiro replied.
“Hmm? What customer?”
Chihiro pointed out in the distance. “That customer.”
Lin looked at the large moving object in the distance that Chihiro was pointing to and began laughing.
“Chihiro, that’s not a spirit.” She laughed. “That’s Howl’s moving castle. Haven’t you heard of Howl’s moving castle?”
“Human.” Chihiro pointed out, reminding Lin of her background.
“Oh right.” Said Lin, smacking her head at her stupidity. “Sorry.”
“It’s ok. I know there are a lot of things in this world I don’t know about.”
Lin snorted. “Girl, you have nothing to feel bad about. I’m 4,146 and I don’t know everything about this world.”
Chihiro looked at Lin in surprise. “Wow, you’re really over 4,000? You look like you’re only in your twenties.”
Lin chuckled. “That’s because I chose to be that age. That reminds me, how old are you now?”
“22.” Chihiro replied. “Kind of young compared to you.”
Lin just waved it off. “Na, age doesn’t matter in this world. I mean look at Bôh. He’s what 300, 320.”
“307.” Chihiro replied.
“Right, and he’s still a baby. Some spirits eventually forget how old they are. That’s just what happens when you live forever.”
“I guess.” Said Chihiro sadly.
Lin caught onto the sadness in her voice and immediately realized her mistake. “Oh Sen, I mean, grr, Chihiro, I didn’t mean anything by that.”
Chihiro managed a weak smile. “It’s ok.”
Lin shook her head. “No, it’s not. I forget how you humans constantly have the thought of death hanging over you.”
Chihiro didn’t want to talk about her mortality. “We try not to think about it and just live for the moment. If I don’t get myself killed, I could still have a good 60 maybe 70 years left.”
Lin frowned. “That’s it?” she asked without thinking. She immediately clamped her hand over her mouth.
“That’s the age most humans live to.” Chihiro replied. All this talk about death was getting depressing. “I’m going to bed. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Lin nodded. “Good night.”
A few hours after the two of them went to bed, a large white dragon arrived at the bathhouse, unaware of the new employee that was working there. And he wouldn’t find out tonight since it was late and he went to bed once he arrived, dreaming about a human girl that he had met 12 years ago.