That last summer, no fireflies gathered at Kifune.
They say that if you visit the Seimei Jinja in Kyoto on a certain night, near the end of spring, there is a ghost that walks the grounds. From sunset to sunrise again on this one particular night, a man paces the perimeter. And if you’re unlucky enough to catch his attention, his burning eyes will haunt your nightmares for the rest of your life. During the rest of the year, if the sun is just right and you happen to be lucky looking in the right direction, you might see the sweep of a plumed white tail disappearing around the corner.
Over the years, a number of specialists have been called in to try and exorcise the ghost. None so far have been successful.
“Raikou-sama,” Watanabe says. Despite the rain pouring down in sheets, he remains stiffly at attention, face deadpan, and in the darkness, he doesn’t look terribly different from stone lions that flank the torii gate. The shrine grounds stand empty before them, cloaked in a thick haze of rain; flickers of oni-fire dot the grounds. Ibaragi has chosen to hide herself for this, but from somewhere indeterminable nearby is the sound of a shamisen being played.
Watanabe takes all of this in solid dependable Watanabe, with water dripping off his craggy nose. His eyes are dark. “Are you sure this is a wise decision?”
“Hmm?” Raikou flicks the brim of his hat up, smirking. “Are you afraid, Watanabe?”
“I don’t believe this is the best of our options,” Watanabe says, staring straight ahead. Rain blows in his eyes, but he continues to blink in slow, measured beats, like it means nothing. “There are other options we haven’t yet followed.”
“Of course there are,” Raikou says. He reaches up and pats Watanabe’s cheek. “But you see, Watanabe, in this modern day and age, there are very few opportunities to prove oneself. My ancestors defeated the Tsuchigumo, sealed Shuten Douji, convinced Soujoubou himself to train us in the arts of war. Yet, as time goes on …” His hand slides down, and he tips the brim of his hat again, to shield his eyes from the rain. “I will prove myself with the defeat of the Oni-Eater. But if I gain other victories along the way …” He smiles, all his teeth showing. “That’s not so bad, is it?”
Watanabe tilts his head just a little to look at Raikou. His expression is still opaque. “… No, Raikou-sama.”
“Splendid!” Raikou turns again, his eyes narrow as he studies the shrine before them. The oni-fire flares up high and solidifies against the driving rain; the shamisen’s song picks up to a sudden fevered pitch. He sets his hand on Doujikiriyasuna’s hilt and he smiles. “Well, then. Watanabe! Let’s go god-hunting.”
“Aaaahh,” Youko sighs. She stands in the living room, arms crossed, and stares at the weather like it’s a personal insult. “And I was going to do laundry today, too …”
“There isn’t much helping it, though,” Kantarou says, with a cup of tea cradled in his hands. “If it’s raining, it’s raining, so Youko-chan should take today off!”
She slants a glance back at him, then rolls her eyes. “You’re just saying that so I’ll cut you some slack,” she accuses. “Kan-chan, honestly, just because I can’t do the laundry doesn’t mean you’ve got an excuse not to work!”
“Ehh, Youko-chan, stingy,” he pouts. “I do work hard, you know that! And maybe since you’re not doing housework, we could spend time together! You know, as a family!”
“Kan-chan, Haruka-chan’s not even awake yet!” She sighs, scrubbing both hands through her hair. The tips of her ears peek out, flat against her skull. “I work and work, and you two ungrateful louts are always just taking advantage of my good nature!” Now her shoulders slump dramatically as she staggers to the wall, leaning against it. “Ahhh, what kind of life is this, anyway …”
“Youko-chan,” Kantarou protests. “We’re not that bad!” He puts the cup down and starts to rise. “Maybe Haruka’s lazy, but I’m good–”
The edge of his sleeve catches the cup and knocks it over. Though it’s only a short distance, it shatters the moment it hits the ground.
Tea spatters in a wide pattern across the tatami, and Youko yelps, saying something about a towel as she hurries from the room. Kantarou sighs — one less cup to use in case clients or other guests come — before he shakes his sleeves out of the way and begins gathering up the broken pieces, then stops and shifts a little, tilting his head to get a better look.
At the right angle, the spilled tea looks like rising flames.
“They say you were a contemporary of my ancestor,” Raikou says, chin in hand. He taps Doujikiriyasuna lightly against his thigh in measured rhythm. “Is that true?”
The captured god just glares sullenly. The chains that bind him are an heirloom of the Minamoto family, originally forged to hold vengeful spirits and now reinforced with the spells of an oni, and they glow faintly in lines across his throat, his chest, all four limbs. Spells have been painted onto his bare flesh, each line stark and precise; they ripple with every movement the god makes. As an extra precaution, candles gutter at each point of a pentagram, forming a barrier that only the creator could cross.
It’s been a week, and the god hasn’t said a thing. At Raikou’s question, his eyes narrow and he hunches his shoulders, like he’s gathering himself for an attack, making the chains rattle.
“Oh, don’t be like that,” Raikou chides. He gets to his feet, and stretches his arm, uses the end of Doujikiriyasuna’s sheath to tip the god’s chin up. There’s something close to madness in those gold eyes, but they’re still inhumanly intelligent, and angry enough to char a man’s flesh from his bones.
Or, at least, he would, if he could move, if the barriers and spells restricting his powers somehow failed. Raikou smiles pleasantly at him.
“I wonder,” he says idly. “A youkai is compelled to obey the human who names it, but a god, now …” He slides the sheath away, but the god remains with his head up, staring at Raikou with burning eyes. “That’s something that’s more of a contract, isn’t it?” He steps closer, halfway into the kekkai, and hears Watanabe shift uneasily; he’s very much in reach of those wickedly-sharp claws now, if something goes wrong. “How about it? Would you like to help me?”
The god spits in his face. Raikou’s smile doesn’t falter.
“Don’t be like that,” he chides gently. “You don’t know what I could offer you.”
This gets him bared fangs, and sputters of flame unfurl and then dissipate around the god’s bound hands. Raikou watches these with interest; hellfire, it seems, looks no different from normal fire.
“Really,” he adds. “I’ve done my research, after all. Isn’t there someone in particular you’d like to see again?” He waits for two beats of silence, then goes on, “Like, perhaps, a beloved master?”
The god’s eyes widen. Then he scowls, so blackly that Raikou almost laughs. “Don’t fuck with me,” he says; his voice is rough and harsh, as though from longer disuse than a mere week; it sounds more like the hissing of snakes than human speech. “You couldn’t do anything like that. The gates of Yomi don’t open for mere humans–”
“Not humans, no.” Raikou opens his eyes wide and spreads his hands, the picture of innocence. “But perhaps you know the story of Minamoto no Yoritomo, who slew a nue that was tormenting the emperor?” He searches the god’s face, then goes on, “As it turns out, that’s not quite the case. He took her as his own, and even gave her a name, how sad. But also …” He smiles. “A nue, whose ability calls the souls of the dead back to this world. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“Shut up!” the god flares, and struggles so hard that he actually manages to scrape his chair forward a half-inch. Raikou moves smoothly back to maintain the same distance between them. “It’s impossible! You can’t — you couldn’t –”
“I don’t make promises I can’t keep,” Raikou says, smiling; this time, he reaches out with a hand instead of his sword, cupping the god’s chin in his hand; he can feel hot skin cleanly through his glove. He leans down and feels the god strain against him; those teeth are sharp and strong enough to take off a good portion of his face, if they could connect. “If I say I can, it means I can. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
The god stares at him without a word. Raikou can see an old, tired despair that the god himself is unaware of. He smiles, and risks pressing his thumb over slack lips, feeling the fangs beneath.
“Think about it,” he says, and leaves the room with Watanabe close behind.
Haruka comes down for lunch and finds the living room awash with youkai. Kantarou is hip-deep in them, with more perched on his shoulders and atop his head, looking wryly amused; Youko is sitting beside him, her mending on her lap, and looking distinctly annoyed. Everyone seems to be talking at once, and Haruka pauses to cover his ears briefly; it doesn’t do much good. A few youkai notice his presence and immediately make room, wide-eyed and whispering — the Oni-Eater, the Oni-Eater’s here! — but most are focused on Kantarou, babbling at him nonstop, and from Kantarou’s smile, it’s hard to tell whether he understands what they’re saying or not.
“Oi,” Haruka says, not uncovering his ears. “Oi. Kantarou.”
Kantarou looks up; a small mouselike youkai slips down the side of his head and clings to his hair, covering half his face till he lifts it gently out of the way. “Ah, Haruka!” he says brightly. “Good afternoon!”
“It’s not ‘good afternoon’ at a time like this,” Haruka says. “What’s going on here?”
The question sets off a new wave of chatter; each little youkai guest seems to be vying to be the one to explain to the Oni-Eating Tengu, and Haruka winces at the level of noise. Youko twitches as well, her ears out and laid flat to her skull. Kantarou, on the other hand, sips his tea and still seems more amused than anything else; he holds up a hand and — surprisingly enough — the youkai fall silent.
“One at a time,” he says, then picks up the little youkai who’d been sitting on his head before. “Why don’t you start?”
It squeaks, wide-eyed. “Um, um,” it says. “Um, a little while ago, something strange happened!” It spreads its little arms as wide as they can go. “Someone kidnapped the god that lives in the shrine!”
Another cacophony of noise begins, youkai chattering all at once again: “that’s right!” — “I saw it myself, they carried him off in chains!” — “it’s awful what humans will do these days!” — “it was a terrible terrible fight, really horrible!” — “he’s never hurt anyone else before, why would they do that?” — until their voices blend together into another dull roar, and Haruka pinches the bridge of his nose, wondering if it was too late for him to go back upstairs and pretend it was all just a bad dream.
But eventually they do stop, and Kantarou’s face is oddly serious.
“They’re talking about the Seimei Jinja in Kyoto,” he says. “I went there once, looking for you.”
“And?” Haruka swivels a pinky in his ear. “I wasn’t there.”
“Someone else was, though.” Kantarou glances down for a moment; even the gathered youkai don’t immediately fill his silence with their chatter. “… Haruka, aren’t you even a little bit curious? That wasn’t just your normal mountain god like Sugino-sama, it was–”
“You’ve sealed gods yourself,” Haruka points out. “What’s this concern for? If he was unlucky enough to be caught, you’re not in a position to interfere.”
“Haruka,” Kantarou protests. He half-rises, dislodging a pile of youkai, who continue to remain silent, and even Youko looks concerned now. “Someone who’s strong enough to bring down a god like that might come after you next — aren’t you the least bit curious?”
Haruka shrugs. “Should I be?”
“Haruka-chan,” Youko cuts in uncertainly. “Kan-chan does have a point — the god that lives at the Seimei Jinja is … I mean, if someone could take him down, that person would be really dangerous, right? Someone who could defeat a god is …” She glances sidelong at Kantarou, who’s face is turned aside, pale brows drawn together. He has a hand over his heart, like the old scars are paining him even without the presence of an oni.
“… You’re really worried,” Haruka notes, with some surprise. “You really think this’ll be a problem.”
“I don’t think we can afford to let this be ignored,” Kantarou says quietly. “Minamoto ate Tsugumi-chan’s heart, didn’t he? Which means he should be able to use her power, right? If someone ate the heart of a god — and particularly this god, then–”
Haruka tilts his head. “And what god was supposed to be living at the Seimei Jinja?” he asks.
Kantarou lifts his head and meets Haruka’s gaze evenly. “The strongest of Abe no Seimei’s twelve Shinshou,” he says. “Kashou Touda.”
“Still nothing?” Raikou asks.
Ibaragi doesn’t look up from her shamisen, her dark eyes hooded. “He’s very strong,” she says. “He doesn’t even remember all that’s in his heart, but he guards it jealously.”
“Hoh,” says Raikou. “But you’re good at that, aren’t you? Ferreting out the secrets a man might keep even from himself …”
Now she looks up, her red lips pursed into a smile. “I try,” she says sweetly. “There’s a second level of seals on top of the first, but if you pull free that one thread–”
A string of her shamisen snaps; inside the sealed room, the god cries out.
“–Then it all comes tumbling down.”
A dream — a memory:
“Ahh, is it you, Guren?” Seimei smiles and lifts a shaking hand.
He cannot remember when his master became so old. For so long, age had never bothered him, and then, just one day — it was as though every second of his life had begun weighing down on him, leaving him crushed under the weight. Guren hates it — he’s always known on some level that Seimei would age and die, but for so long, Seimei had ignored his own age like it meant nothing, and now his master looks like something that might blow away on the next strong wind.
“Seimei,” he says after long minutes. He drops to one knee beside Seimei’s futon. “You–”
“I’m dying, of course,” Seimei says, so matter-of-factly that Guren almost misunderstands. “I probably won’t survive till tomorrow.”
He shoots back to his feet, staring. “Seimei–!”
“Oh, don’t be like that, don’t make a face like that.” Seimei waves his hand, then begins to cough into it instead. Guren flounders, then finally kneels and helps his old master sit up, supporting Seimei until the fit passes.
“Seimei,” he says again, and hears his voice crack. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“Guren.” Seimei smiles, but there’s a gravity in his eyes that makes the breath in Guren’s throat seize. “Life and death aren’t things to laugh about.”
He swallows; it feels like knives in his throat. “But …” He hesitates. “You have no heir, Seimei — when you die, everything you know, everything you’ve learned … it’ll be lost.”
We’ll be lost, he doesn’t add; by immortal standards, sixty years is no big thing, but they’ve all changed under Seimei’s guiding hand, and now–
Seimei sighs. His eyes are dim when he looks in Guren’s face, and there is something so tired and sad in his expression that Guren cannot put name to it — not even in the dark months that followed Wakana’s death did Seimei look so defeated. He lifts a hand to touch Guren’s cheek, then up to touch the circlet on his brow. His fingers are already growing cold.
“I hoped … I hoped that maybe all you needed was the time to remember,” Seimei says. “Of all people, you …”
Guren hesitates, and covers Seimei’s hand with his own. “I what? Seimei? You should save your strength — I can call Yoshimasa and Yoshihira –”
“Guren,” Seimei cuts in. “Guren, listen to me. There’s something you’ve forgotten, something everyone’s forgotten, that you need to know.”
“Seimei, this isn’t the time for something like this–”
Abruptly, Seimei’s fingers clamp around his fist, and for a moment there is a strength like iron in his hold. “Listen to me,” he says. “Guren! Have you truly forgotten your light?”
“My … light?” Guren stares. “Seimei–”
“Twenty years ago,” Seimei rasps, “twenty years ago, Yoshimasa and Tsuyuki had a third son. Do you remember his name, Guren?”
Guren frowns, tries to shift his master to a more comfortable position, to ease the rough sound of his breathing. “I remember Tsuyuki being pregnant a third time,” he says slowly. “But the child was stillborn, wasn’t it? That was years ago, Seimei, why does it–”
“His name, Guren,” Seimei says, and for a moment, his eyes are bright as they have ever been. “Do you remember his name?”
“His name?” Guren echoes. His brow furrows. “Why would they name a stillborn child?”
“Of all people, I’d hoped you would remember, eventually,” Seimei whispers. He closes his eyes. “Ahh, I’m tired now …”
Panic reforms itself abruptly, like a slap across the face. “Seimei!” Guren says sharply, and gives him the strongest shake he dares. He looks around wildly, aware of how alone they are; not even Rikugou is nearby — he has taken to watching over the fostered princess more often as Seimei’s strength failed him. “Seimei, hang in there! Wait for your sons, at least, you can’t–”
A faint smile touches Seimei’s lips, though he doesn’t open his eyes. “You’ll have till nightfall,” he says. “That’s enough time, isn’t it?”
Guren draws in a sharp breath, but just eases Seimei back down and steps back. Looking down at his master now, he can see the bones outlined under paper-thin skin; the smell of decay has already become familiar. “Seimei …”
“Hurry, Guren,” Seimei says, still smiling. “I haven’t got that much time.”
Guren bites the inside of his cheek until he tastes blood, then spins on his heel and leaves the room.
A memory — a dream?
“Humans are fragile, aren’t they …”
“Did you know? The sun is very, very kind, and it loves the people of the earth. It turns the sky red in the evening so that everyone will know that it’ll soon be time to rest. Your eyes are that same color, aren’t they?”
“It’s all right. It’s over. You don’t have to remember the painful things … so please, come back …”
There was a name he wouldn’t forget, couldn’t forget, didn’t want to forget …
But no matter how hard he thought, there was nothing.
“Poor thing,” Ibaragi says with mock-sympathy, as the god’s screams taper into hoarse gasping. “He hadn’t even realized how much he’d forgotten. The old fox was clever in how he laid his memory-traps.” She lowers her shamisen at last. Her eyes are coy when she peers up at Raikou through the fall of her hair. “Perhaps he could use some comforting, boy.”
Raikou grins, all teeth. “Perhaps he does,” he says, and reaches for the door. “Why don’t I go see?”
As expected, the Seimei Jinja stinks of onmyoudou seals and spells. Haruka lands outside the grounds, letting Kantarou slide from his back, and looks distrustfully at the low open buildings. Kantarou, on the other hand, adjusts his clothes and walks straight up to the place, mingling easily with the thin crowd of sightseers. He makes it to the gate before he looks over his shoulder, and his expression is meaningful — he won’t use Haruka’s name for this, but he expects to be followed still. For just a moment he considers refusing — even from where he stands, his skin crawls with the residue of old, powerful spells that still linger after so many years, and a part of him wants to go no closer.
Kantarou looks at him expectantly, head tilted just so. He shifts his weight like he might lift a hand, but ultimately all he does is wait.
Haruka sighs once, and goes to follow.
An unpleasant chill goes through him as he crosses over the boundaries of the old barrier and grows into a faint sense of nausea. Long ago, the protections had been drawn to prevent even the most powerful youkai from crossing, and while they’d lost much of their strength and structure with the death of their master, the spell’s instinct could still recognize him as “other.” He walks closer to Kantarou than he normally would and keeps his head lowered, though he keeps an eye on their surroundings with narrow eyes. Most of the people here don’t even recognize the power here — to most of them, it’s nothing more than a piece of history, something they can take vague national pride in; the reality of it means nothing to them.
Kantarou, on the other hand, walks softly and on a very particular path. His red eyes are misty: he cannot see the shrine as the estate it once was, but he understands, he respects. His posture is unassuming and very different from his usual confidence — or even the false embarrassment he sometimes effects. After a moment he looks up at Haruka and blinks his eyes clear before he says, “It’s a sad place, isn’t it?”
Haruka grunts. He glances away until Kantarou catches his sleeve and tugs.
“Over there,” he adds, pointing. “That’s the tree where the god lived in.”
No one seems to notice as they make their way over — the tree stands over a deep pond, solid and unbending, solidly a piece of the landscape. It reminds Haruka of his mother, and he reaches out in spite of himself, laying his palm against the rough scaled bark. Kantarou, on the other hand, picks his way around the girth of the tree, prodding around the roots. Eventually he drops to his hands and knees, peering down.
“Hello?” he says. He keeps his voice low, though they’re away from the rest of the crowd, who seem preoccupied by examining the interior shrine. “Hello, would you mind answering a few questions for me?”
Haruka cranes his neck to look. He sees something round and bright pink, hiding in the shadows of the roots. Kantarou sits back on his heels. “Please,” he adds. “You were here when Touda-sama was taken, right? Some of your friends came by to ask for my help — ahh, I know I’m not an onmyouji, but I’m pretty good in a pinch …”
The pink thing quivers.
“Youkai-kun?” Kantarou’s voice gentles further. “I’d like to help.”
Another shiver, but the youkai turns — it’s a round little thing, with eyes set on its body and two stubby flipperlike arms, and it blinks its beady black eyes at Kantarou, as though trying to recognize his face.
“Ah,” it says. “You’re here with the Oni-Eater! The Oni-Eating Tengu!”
Kantarou smiles then, switching immediately to a brilliantly charming smile. “Ah, don’t worry about him. I promise he won’t hurt you.”
“He won’t,” Kantarou repeats. He glances up with another quick smile. “Right, Haruka?”
There’s no mistaking the stress he puts on the name. Haruka grits his teeth, but the youkai’s eyes go about as wide as they can, its mouth rounding as well. But it seems to be enough to win the thing’s trust for now, because it scrambles out of its little den, waddling out into the sunlight. “You’re really here to help?” it asks.
“In any way I can,” Kantarou promises. He puts a hand over his heart, looking entirely earnest and sincere — it’s the sort of look that has conned even those who know better into believing him. Haruka rolls his eyes, and then again when the little youkai squeaks appreciatively. It waddles up to Kantarou’s knee, and being too short to actually climb up, rocks back to look at him.
“The others left a long time ago,” it says. “Right after Seimei died. Only the one Shinshou stayed, but he never talked to anyone. It’s too bad, he used to be really friendly.”
“Friendly? Even with a reputation like that?” Kantarou leans down a little — there’s no way he can be completely on eye-level with it, but he moves closer.
“It’s ’cause he forgot the grandson!” another voice squawks, its voice gravelly. From a different part of the tree, a lizard-shaped youkai comes slithering out, rising up onto its hind legs. “They were always, always together and then one day the grandson was alone.”
“Right, right,” says pink-and-round. “And even when he was smiling, the grandson looked like he wanted to cry instead!”
“But then one day the Shinshou came back, and the grandson didn’t,” the lizard says. “And everyone acted like the grandson never existed! Even the princess!”
“Ahhhh,” pink-and-round sighs. “And I really thought they’d get married, too …”
“Seimei remembered, though!” says a third voice. Haruka sees Kantarou wince briefly, a moment before a very small oni drops down from the tree branches overhead. “Even when everyone else forgot, he remembered! And so did we!”
“Right, right,” says pink-and-round. “And then he’d sometimes talk to us about the grandson! But the Shinshou never listened, so I guess he never remembered.”
“It was a shame, a real shame,” the lizard says, crossing its stubby forelegs like arms and nodding its head. “He was very young and had a lot of promise, but …”
“In the end, a grandson’s always a grandson, isn’t he!”
“Er,” Kantarou cuts in, not quite hesitantly, and waits for all three youkai to look at him. “If you don’t mind — grandson? Abe no Seimei’s grandson?”
“He had three,” says the oni. “The third one was always together with the Shinshou — it traveled with him as a shikigami.”
“Seimei was always proud of that grandson,” says pink-and-round. “He would have been Seimei’s successor! He always worked really hard at it! But …”
All three turn their heads now, their chatter stilled; a faint breeze rustling in the branches overhead is the only noise. Even the voices of the other humans, wandering through the main part of the shrine, are very far away. Kantarou sits back, his hands folded on his lap, his eyes already dark with sympathy. Haruka feels less than pity; the death of one human isn’t more or less spectacular than any other — and in the end, Abe no Seimei and his would-be successor were both onmyouji. The thought makes his skin crawl.
“Seimei tried to explain, once,” the lizard says finally. “What the grandson did. He traded his life for the Shinshou, but he didn’t want to make anyone sad because he was gone, so …”
“Even the princess didn’t remember him,” says pink-and-round, subdued. “She was never happy after that, either.”
When they fall silent again, Haruka gives it a few minutes before he says, “Then what happened when the Shinshou got taken?”
“–Haruka!” Kantarou frowns at him. “Can’t you be a little more respectful, honestly–”
“Humans die all the time,” Haruka says. “From the sounds of it, this one did so willingly. In that case, it was his decision, and complaining about it makes it worth less.” He leans his shoulder against the tree trunk, looking down at the three youkai at his feet. “You three were here the night it happened, right? So tell us.”
Kantarou sighs loudly, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Ahh, Haruka’s so crude,” he mourns. “He can’t say anything delicately, can he …”
Haruka’s eyebrow twitches. “You’re the last person who can say that,” he says. “What happened?”
“Um, um, well,” says pink-and-round, spreading its flipper arms wide. “There was a fight! A human came with an oni–”
“No, no, she stayed outside,” the lizard corrects. “Remember? She stayed outside and played music.”
Kantarou chokes; his eyes go wide and his face goes paler than normal, and Haruka can already imagine the panic his master is working up to — but then Kantarou lets out his breath in a slow hiss, visibly calming himself. “An oni, you say. One who played music?”
“A shamisen!” the smaller oni agrees. “Ahh, it was nostalgic, really! We haven’t heard anything like that in years …”
“Did you see the oni?” Kantarou asks. “Or the human that came with her?”
“Not the oni,” says pink-and-round, “but we saw the human!”
“It would’ve been hard to miss him!”
“They had a really great battle, right here!” The lizard points. “The human who came here and the Shinshou! The oni did something that make it go away afterwards, so no one’s noticed yet, but–”
“So what did he look like?” Haruka cuts in, not quite irritated yet; he doesn’t like the growing uneasiness in Kantarou’s expression, though at this point, the person targeting a god seems pretty obvious. “We know they fought, and the Shinshou lost. What did the human look like?”
“… He wasn’t that old,” the small oni offers finally.
“Really young, actually!” says pink-and-round. “Not as young as the grandson was, but still very young! I was really surprised!”
“He wore a uniform like a soldier,” the lizard adds. White film blinks over its round eyes for a moment, a quick nervous gesture. “He used a sword that he was awfully proud of.” It looks to the others for confirmation, then nods again. “He called the Shinshou by name, and they fought. It was over really fast.”
“It’s been a long time since the Shinshou fought anything, though,” pink-and-round says. “He probably just lost his edge. If the grandson were around, then –”
Kantarou rocks back. He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a small wrapped package — Youko’s homemade mochi, from the batch bullied out of her before they left the house — and this he lays in front of the three youkai before getting to his feet. He smiles brightly, though Haruka can see the strain at the corners of his mouth and eyes. “Thank you,” he tells them, and inclines his head. “You’ve all been a lot of help. This person sounds familiar — we should be able to find him.”
The oni cocks its head at him, as though sizing him up now, finally. “Will you be able to help him, though?” it asks. “The Shinshou?”
Kantarou hesitates. Haruka can hear the half-formed obfuscation that hang to the tip of his tongue, just as he knows they won’t actually come; Kantarou’s inherent selfishness always wavers when someone asks. For being a sly cold-blooded man, he can be terribly weak sometimes.
He watches Kantarou make a show of tucking his hands into his sleeves, shift his weight, all like he might refuse, but when he speaks, his voice is quiet and firm: “I’d like very much to try.”
“So you remember now?” Raikou sits with one hip hitched up on the edge of the table, a box of chocolates balanced on his knee. He appears to be fascinated by his selection rather than the god’s bowed head, the slump of broad shoulders. “Ibaragi’s very good at that, isn’t she? She gave my ancestors quite a turn before they caught her — ah.” He picks a chocolate up between thumb and forefinger and pops it into his mouth.
Touda says nothing, but the sound of his breathing is very loud.
“So you forgot,” Raikou goes on, licking melted chocolate from his fingers. “You shouldn’t feel so guilty for that, you know. If your master tells you ‘forget,’ what can you do but obey?”
He’s answered by a sharp hiss of breath. He pauses with his fingers on his mouth, then slides off the table, walking forward, until he’s within arm’s reach of the bound god.
“It wasn’t just you,” he says. “Everyone forgot him. Even his own parents forgot their last child, how pitiful. Who would have believed that an actual heir to Abe no Seimei existed? Especially in this day and age, where everything’s been reduced to fairytales and tavern stories.” He reaches out and lays his palm gently against Touda’s cheek, turning it up for a better look. The god is flushed and sweat dots his brow, but his eyes are clear and bright, most of their cobwebs swept away.
“Poor thing,” Raikou adds. “This world hasn’t been very kind to your sort.”
Touda stares at him for a moment, mouth hanging open, his fangs just barely visible. “… Before,” he says, his voice rough, “before, when you made that … that offer of yours …”
“Hmm?” Raikou presses his thumb to the other’s chin; the skin there is smoothly textured, like fine-grained snake scales. “Ah, yes, about my nue and her abilities?”
“You weren’t talking about Seimei, were you.” Touda stares without blinking. “You said yourself, everyone forgot, so how did you –”
“Tch,” Raikou says. “And have you already forgotten who recovered those memories for you?” He waves his free hand towards the door; Ibaragi hasn’t started playing again, but her presence still remains close. “And Abe no Seimei himself certainly never forgot the grandson that would have been his heir.”
“You–” Touda’s eyes go wide. “Seimei was–”
“Ah, don’t make such a face,” Raikou drawls, and lets go, though he draws his fingers across Touda’s cheek in a caress as he moves back. Like a professor at lecture, he begins to pace back and forth across the width of the room. “Did you never think to read the old man’s diaries after he died? No, of course not, that would be overstepping your boundaries as his servant. But in the last years of his life, having outlived the most precious and beloved of his grandchildren, having erased all traces of that child’s existence from the world, who else could he turn to?” He turns and holds up a finger, smiling.
“Seimei … he …” Touda’s shoulders slump further.
Raikou wanders back to the table and selects another chocolate, which he eats in several small bites as he watches the god sink into silence. Eventually, he says, “My offer from before still stands.”
“The master you seek,” Raikou says. “Even now, you can’t remember his name, can you?”
Touda’s eyes go wide and his mouth falls open. Raikou begins to pace again, this time in a circle around the chair where the god is bound. “I can call his soul back without disrupting the balance between this world and the next. I can bring him back to you, and give you the time that was stolen. And …” He stops behind Touda and puts his hands on the head of the chair, close enough that his fingers are almost — but not quite — brushing bare skin. He leans forward, his cheek to tousled red hair. It smells of smoke and incense, and Raikou breathes deep, smiling.
“… I can tell you what his name was.”
As they fly back home, Kantarou keeps his cheek pressed to Haruka’s shoulder, eyes squinted against the rush of wind. Haruka seems content enough to remain silent, even more than usual — his body is still wire tense, and Kantarou knows that if they stopped, he would be able to feel trembling. He himself is impressed at how much power still lingers at the Seimei Jinja, and to a youkai old and powerful as Haruka, one who hated onmyoudou for reasons he no longer remembered …
Kantarou shifts a little, lifting his face to the wind.
Historically, Abe no Seimei had left family behind, though none that could match his power in its prime. The greatest shame of his otherwise impressive life had been that he’d never discovered someone to be his heir, whether of his own family or without.
As they pass over a set of tall mountains, however, Kantarou opens his eyes and catches at the back of Haruka’s shirt, tugging. “Haruka,” he says. “Haruka, let’s go down there.” He points.
Haruka glances back. “The mountains?”
Kantarou draws himself up and leans over, so far that Haruka swerves a little to adjust for the shift in weight. “Historically, Abe no Seimei worked a lot of his greater spells through prayers to the dragon-god of Kifune,” Kantarou says. “I just want to have a look.”
“It’s not our business,” Haruka says, though his wings flare, and they start heading down. “At this point, we’re going to get more involved in things that aren’t our concern.”
“It will be soon, though.” Kantarou’s fingers knot at Haruka’s shoulders. “Minamoto’s already gone this far, and if he’s going to try and turn Touda-sama against us, Haruka–”
Haruka snorts. “Gods aren’t as impressive as that,” he says. “Besides, he’ll probably be limited. That Minamoto brat is crazy, but he knows better than to not keep a leash on something powerful.” His wings snap out to catch the last draft and let them glide the rest of the way down; Kantarou remains holding on for a moment, his arms around Haruka’s neck, then lets go and slides to the ground. The air of Kifune is still and pure, and he takes a moment to close his eyes and breathe deep. Haruka says nothing, but some of the tension in him eases as well.
When Kantarou opens his eyes again, he fixes them on an overgrown path and squares his shoulders. “Let’s go,” he says, and as he starts making his way up, he hears Haruka fall into step behind him. They eventually pass the shrine itself, still in relatively good condition. Kantarou ignores it, wading through the underbrush — he has never been here before, but he knows the stories, and the holy places of Kifune glow bright as the sun, for those who can see.
Eventually they reach a clearing with a deep bubbling spring, where the grass grows knee-high and thick. He pauses at the entrance and takes a deep breath; the god has already noticed him, and its detached interest sweeps past him easily, fixing on Haruka and lingering. The wind rustles with the sound of a woman’s laughter.
Then, says the dragon-god of Kifune, what would bring the Oni-Eating Tengu to this place? So close to Mt. Kurama, and yet not quite the same. Surely your sense of direction hasn’t been ruined after you were sealed?
Haruka snorts rudely. “Hardly,” he says. “I’m here because of him.” He jerks a thumb at Kantarou, who perks up a little, though the god still has not chosen to show herself.
Oh? Another human, then. You have bad luck with those, don’t you?
“He unsealed me,” Haruka says. “I owe him for it.” Even as he says it, he moves closer to his master, so that his arm brushes a long white sleeve. Kantarou watches him look straight at the spring, where Takaokami no Kami is not visible but is coiled and curled, her bulk spilling out and yet still concentrated in that single place. Her presence feels like cool water, more an impression than actual touch, deep under his skin and straight into his heart. He holds still under that regard and breathes slowly.
Owe him, says the dragon-god. She doesn’t laugh, but there’s a definite impression of amusement. This from a tengu! And from you of all tengu, who would not bow your head even to your king!
Kantarou glances up; Haruka’s face is still impassive, but he moves closer and tilts his head up. “It was my own choice,” he says. “That’s the difference, isn’t it?”
There’s a ripple of movement and a brief impression of something lifting its head; for a moment, Kantarou can see her eyes, piercing bright blue, looking straight through him. He locks his knees to keep from falling, and feels the brush of a hand against his back.
Oh, I see, says the dragon-god. It’s like that, isn’t it? A loyalty given willingly to a human child. There’s a brief chiming noise, like distant bells, and then there is a woman standing in the water, arms folded under her breasts and an enigmatic smile. “I knew another like you, once. He never realized just how lucky a creature he was.”
Haruka snorts. “It’s hardly a ‘lucky’ thing,” he says, “to be bound to a human like this.”
“And there you are.” Takaokami no Kami steps out of her spring without disturbing any of the waters. Her bare feet are dry against the grass. “With a human by your side, your wings bound by a human’s name. Yet you’re not unhappy.”
He blinks again, mild, which means he’s warming up to being annoyed. “I’m used to it,” he says, the same thing he told Minamoto just a short while before. “It’s not a bad life, and I’m used to it. But it’s still not really a ‘lucky’ thing. I might have disliked it.”
“Haruka,” Kantarou says softly.
Haruka glances at him, then snorts at whatever look is on his face. “I told you that, didn’t I? Don’t look so worried, it’s irritating.”
In spite of himself he smiles. When he looks back, he finds that the dragon-god is looking straight at him, her blue eyes piercing. He lifts his chin a little and stares back — he’s dealt with gods before, he lives with a youkai legend; he’s used to the staggering weight.
Finally she blinks. One corner of her mouth quirks. “Human child,” she says, “I don’t think you came here to simply pay your respects.”
He smiles again, wryly, and spreads his hands in supplication. “I came to ask some questions,” he says. “I don’t have anything to offer in return.”
“Ask, then,” says Takaokami no Kami. “And I will decide whether they’re worth my time.”
Touda spreads his claws wide and looks at his hands.
Four new seals have been placed upon him: two for each wrist, made of silver that burns coldly to the touch. Minamoto’s seals are not as strong as the one Seimei gave him, but they are more elaborate to look at; writhing snakes and stylized flames are etched into the silver bands. There are spells written into their curves and twists, which he can see if he looks carefully, but makes his head hurt if he tries for too long.
He raises a palm and concentrates. The most he can summon is a brief sputtering flame that’s hardly more than a will o’ the wisp. He narrows his eyes and feels the inferno raging, trapped, unable to manifest in the real world. It’s a strange feeling: he’s not cut off from his flames, and it rises to his command when he summons it — but it gets stifled before it can manifest, doused before it comes into being.
“Ahh,” says a woman’s voice; Touda looks up and sees Minamoto’s pet oni closing the door behind her. “Testing your boundaries, are you?”
He bares his teeth at her. “I didn’t agree to this,” he says, and thrusts a hand out to her. Light sparks off the silver at his wrist. “I want these off.”
She smiles. “Those? You’ll have to blame me for them. The boy’s terribly overconfident in his skills sometimes — I, on the other hand, am not interested in this house burning down when I’m still inside.” Her eyes narrow as her smile stretches wider, red mouth and pale skin. “Besides, here we have the strongest of the Twelve Shinshou, Kyoushou Touda. It’s only common sense to have precautions.”
Touda glares for a moment and drops his arm. They stare at each other for long moments, the pretty red-eyed oni and the glowering fire-god, and finally he says, “So what the hell does he want, anyway?”
The oni lifts an elegant brow. “A loaded question,” she says. She presses a finger to her lips thoughtfully. “‘The rebirth of Japan,’ I believe he said? Something terribly human. He takes pride in that.”
He continues to stare. “… then what do you want?”
She laughs at that, bright and clear as a girl. “The same thing you do,” she says. “The revival of my master.”
“Heh!” He snorts. “As though an oni would really miss a master.”
The oni looks at him thoughtfully for a moment. She gets up and then she drops into a low curtsy before him, bowing her head. Through the fall of her long pale hair, her eyes glitter. “I haven’t introduced myself yet. Forgive my rudeness.”
“Why the hell should I care who you–”
“My name,” she says, pronouncing every syllable to exaggerated deliberation, “is Ibaragi Douji. I seek the revival of my master, Shuuten Douji.”
He falls back in shock. “Shuuten Douji,” he repeats. “The great oni of Mt. Ooe? That Shuuten Douji?”
Ibaragi smiles. “His bones are sealed within this estate,” she says. “The boy knows where they are, and he’s been very clever to hide them from me thus far. But that’s only a matter of time.” She gets to her feet and goes to him, starting to reach out; Touda grabs her wrist before she can touch his hair, holding onto her wrist so tightly that he can feel the bones grind together.
“Don’t,” he says. “Don’t –”
The fingers of her other hand press to his cheek. Her eyes glitter. “He has all of the information you want,” she says. “All you need to do is find it.”
Touda gapes at her for a moment, poleaxed, then jerks his head back though he does not let go of her wrist. “Why are you telling me this?” he demands. “Oni don’t do anything for a reason, even if they’re selfish.”
“Ah, perhaps it’s that,” Ibaragi says. “You wanted to know what the boy wants from you, but you have to also understand what we want, first.” She steps closer and touches his cheek again before fisting her fingers hard in his hair. “We need you as an example. Our figurehead, as it might be, to show what happens to those who are pitiful enough to willingly lower themselves below a human’s control.”
He snarls and twists and tightens his hand — it would be easy to snap the bird-fragile bones of her wrist with a little pressure — then gags as pain racks through him, starting from the seals at his own hands and moving outwards. He lets go of her, but she doesn’t do the same for him and he hangs, caught by his hair and shaking.
“The details were a little different,” she says softly, “but the outcome is the same. You don’t even remember that child’s name, and you’re still absolutely his, aren’t you? How sad, seeing creatures as great as you and the Oni-Eater fall like that.” Her lips twist, and then she shoves his head back, letting go as she does and stepping away. “Rather pathetic, in fact.”
Touda breathes slowly a few times and straightens. “What about you, then?” he asks. “You talk so big, but here you are, working for a human.”
She clucks her tongue. “Do you think?”
“Was never given to me by a human.” She draws herself and looks down at him, her eyes glittering, and for a moment he sees through the mask of the oni, through the thin veils of woman and into the creature underneath. “Of all those born in this world, only gods and oni are born with names. I will take no other.” She crosses her arms under her breasts and she looks at him closely, like one might examine a peculiar stain on the floor. “But it’s already too late for you.”
He tries to get to his feet, to lunge for her. He gets as far as standing before his knees buckle and he sinks back into the chair. Around his arms, the silver bands glow. “That’s not–”
“The boy’s already beaten you,” Ibaragi says. The pity in her eyes burns worse than the seals on his power. “The years have sapped your power, Shinshou. But that’s all right.” She draws her fingers through his hair again, a parody of kindness. “You’ll have what you wanted, soon enough.”
“I remember the human child,” Takaokami no Kami says. Her smile isn’t quite an actual smile, and her eyes are dark and piercing. “He was clever, but he was also noble, and therein was his downfall.”
Kantarou remains silent, watching shapes appear and vanish again within the water’s surface. His reflection is that of a boy, years younger, with dark hair and earnest eyes. It doesn’t move when he does, just staring out at the world over Kantarou’s shoulder with a regret that that is old, and tired, and bitter.
“He thought he could make things right by erasing his existence from memory with his death. He thought it would make things easier. Ah, but what a price his last request carried …” Without a sound, without even movement, Takaokami no Kami is by Kantarou’s side; Haruka tenses, but remains still when all she does is kneel by the water, peering down. “Human child,” she says, this time not to Kantarou but to the water, “human child, too small to see the larger picture of the world …”
The boy in the water frowns — slowly, in shifting degrees by each ripple of the water — and turned to look at her. His lips move without a sound.
She reaches in and slides her hand into the water, around where his heart should be. His eyes go wide, and then the image breaks up; a moment later, Kantarou is looking at just himself in the water.
“Keeping a ghost bound is bad luck, even for a god,” he says at last.
“Bound? Hardly.” Takaokami no Kami tosses her hair and looks at him; her eyes glitter in the weak light. “He hides here, and I tolerate it. Out of fondness for his grandfather, I suppose; Seimei was always charming when he wished to be.”
“Hiding?” Kantarou looked down again. “From what?”
She shrugs, trailing her fingers back and forth through the water. “What couldn’t he hide from?” she asks. “The consequences of his mistakes? The loneliness he left in his loved ones, even if they didn’t remember him properly? Knowing that everyone he held dear lived on without him, that the world didn’t just stop with his death? The realization his dream would never come true? There are so many things you humans run away from.”
Kantarou swallows against a sudden, unexpected sharpness in his throat. Before he can stop himself he turns his head to look at Haruka, and finds himself being watched in return. Instinctively he wants to turn away, but forces himself to meet Haruka’s eyes as he says, “But if you’re always running away, nothing will ever change. Leaving problems behind only lets them fester.”
Maybe he imagines it, but it seems Haruka smiles at that, just a little.
Takaokami no Kami sighs and runs a hand through her long hair. “That’s also a very human way of seeing things,” she says. “The older you get, the more you realize–”
“No,” Haruka says. It’s unexpected, and his voice is quiet; both Kantarou and Takaokami no Kami look to him. “It’s not always like that. Sometimes it’s a good thing to face things as a human might.”
Kantarou stares till his eyes ache. “Haruka …”
The dragon-god looks at the oni-eating tengu, and then tosses her head back and laughs. It’s a bright rippling sound, like the cascade of water over smooth stones. “Warrior’s wisdom,” she says. “And from you, of all beings in this world! How times have changed.” She crosses her arms and tilts her head at an angle, and her smile is all sharp teeth. Unwavering, she meets Haruka’s eyes, and says, “You’re truly …”
“I made the choice,” says Haruka. “I’ll stick with it.”
“Eh?” Kantarou asks. “‘Truly’? Truly what? Haruka?”
“My.” Takaokami no Kami covers her mouth. “You’d go even that far …”
“That far?” Kantarou echoes; they’re not as cryptic as they seem to think they are, but he’s almost afraid to jump to conclusions. He turns and looks up into Haruka’s serious face, angry without pale-eyed threat. “Eh, what, Haruka, what’s that mean–”
Haruka puts a hand on Kantarou’s shoulder. “I made the choice to follow,” he says. “I never had it before. Since it was given to me, I’ll take it, wherever it leads me.”
“Even to … ?” Her voice trails off suggestively. She rakes Kantarou up and down with a heavily considering gaze and Kantarou blushes at the gleam in her eyes. He rubs his cheeks and has to look down.
To his surprise, Haruka’s hand tightens further. “Even there,” he says.
Kantarou’s head snaps up so fast that his neck protests. His heart trips into a sudden fast rhythm, so hard and fast that it feels like it’s skipping beats, and his throat feels swollen and tight. All the things he meant to say if they ever got this far — the cute or clever or sentimental phrases he’d saved up if Haruka ever accepted that much of him — they dry up and crumble to dust. Only shock remains, shot through with sudden bitter fear. If the gap between humans and youkai was almost too wide to support just friendship, than this … this …
“… Haruka,” he says. The grip on his shoulder changes, and he feels Haruka’s thumb sweep in a half-circle on his shoulder, like a caress. He can’t look up — he’s pretty sure that eye-contact will make him lose his nerve — but he reaches out and covers Haruka’s wrist with his hand. His skin is cool to the touch, and the bones are oddly delicate, more like those of a bird than a man.
Takaokami no Kami watches them and shakes her head. “No matter how many like you came before, it’ll never be easy,” she says — still to Haruka, though she glances briefly at Kantarou as she speaks. “Disaster might still come.”
“When you live with this idiot human,” Haruka says, “you get used to it.”
“Hey,” Kantarou protests. “Haruka! Ehh, how mean, and right after making such a big confession like that–”
“If it’s the truth, it’s the truth,” Haruka says, though he doesn’t let go of Kantarou’s shoulder. “Confessions don’t change that.”
As they argue, Kantarou slowly becomes aware of another sound: under the babbling liquid voice of moving water, there’s something else, rough and quiet. He cuts himself off and turns towards the pond, and sees Takaokami no Kami raise an eyebrow at him. Gently he pulls away from Haruka, squeezing that wrist one last time, then approaches the water again. The closer he gets, the louder and more distinct the sound becomes.
It sounds like crying.
Kantarou kneels beside the water and sees the reflection of the boy — Seimei’s grandson and lost heir — covering his face with his hands, thin shoulders shaking. He looks small and miserable, and Kantarou wonders how old he must have been, when he died.
“Hey,” he says softly. “You miss someone, don’t you?”
The boy’s head jerks up; his face is tearstained and blotchy, and he looks so ridiculously young that something in Kantarou’s chest twists. His lips move without sound, but the words are obvious: how did you know?
“Recently,” he goes on, still soft, “there was a ghost haunting the Seimei Jinja in Kyoto. I spoke with some of the youkai there, and they said it was one of your grandfather’s Shinshou. According to them, it was the one you were close with.”
The ghost in the water recoils, then looks away. His image starts to grow fainter, broken up by the ripples in the water.
“He’s been taken,” Kantarou says. The ghost starts and looks at him again, suddenly more solid than before. “One of my — well, one of Haruka’s, the Oni-Eating Tengu’s — enemies came after him. They took him from the shrine. I don’t know why they want him, but I can guarantee they’re not going to be kind. He might be hurt.” Another flinch from the child. “Or even killed, I wouldn’t put it past Minamoto to do that …”
Horror fills the boy’s eyes. He shakes his head fiercely, pressing both hands flat against the surface of the water, like it’s a prison. His lips move, shaping the same word over and over: no, no, no, no.
“I heard about what you did,” Kantarou says gently. “But even if he forgot, there’s still a bond between the two of you, right? You remember him, and maybe you can make him remember you. If he can do this, he might come after Haruka next, and …” He glances over his shoulder, and sees Haruka standing beside Takaokami no Kami, both with identical unreadable expressions. “… and I don’t want that. I don’t want anything to happen to Haruka if I can do something.”
He takes a deep breath to steel himself; the scars on his chest ache dimly, as though in reminder of his own specific frailty. Ignoring that, he reaches down and places his hands on the water, palm-to-palm with the boy reflected inside. A shock goes through him, ice-cold and fierce, and he sees the ghost’s eyes widen as well.
“Will you help me?” he whispers. The best part about having false pride, he thinks, is that it’s so much easier to ask for things that will work in his favor. “Please.”
“My,” he hears Takaokami no Kami say, though her voice is somehow unfathomably distant. “That is one way to do it.”
Haruka says nothing. Kantarou doesn’t dare look to see what his expression is like, fixating only on the boy in the water.
“Will you?” he asks again.
The boy looks steadily at him, nods, and cold pours into him, scouring everything to darkness.
“Oh, Guren,” Seimei says. He smiles, and it makes the corners of his eyes crinkle. “Look, it’s Yoshimasa’s youngest son, my last grandson. They’ve decided on naming him–“
Without opening his eyes, Touda smashes his fist into the wall. The contact with the wards embedded in the cement make his skin smoke, but he holds it for long minutes, breathing hard. His head pounds in a heartbeat-steady rhythm, and he has to lock his knees in order to remain standing. He misses the shrine more than he believed possible, an additional ache to add to all the frustrations of this past week.
He wants that name back. He wants to remember how he lost it.
Touda hits the wall again, then looks up when he hears the door unlock. It swings open, and the oni is there, in a low-cut red dress and matching gloves, her long pale hair loose and curling around her shoulders. She carries her shamisen like one might a sword. That same mix of pity and amusement was in her eyes as before, and her red mouth is a wide smile.
“Such timing,” she says. “There’s someone we’d like you to meet.”
And she steps aside so that the doorway is open, though her eyes glitter and the wards on Touda’s wrists tighten in warning.
He wants to turn aside; he wants to defy her obvious expectations; he wants to catch her by her slim neck and squeeze until she’s forced to answer him.
Instead, with his head high, he strides out the door as she asked, and listens to her footsteps echoing behind him.
“Of all the things you might have done, Sensei,” Raikou says, “showing up like guests at the front door wasn’t one of them.”
Ichinomiya smiles at him, tightlipped and humorless. He looks paler than normal, even in the hot yellow light of day, and leans a little against the Oni-Eater’s arm for balance. The Oni-Eater, in turn, allows this, and something in the look of it makes Raikou study them both more closely.
“It’s because you’re a stupid brat,” Ichinomiya says. “You’re too obsessed with dramatic fiction, Minamoto.”
Raikou smiles himself. He presses his thumb to Doujikiriyasuna’s hilt, popping the blade just out of its sheath. He does not move away from the gate. “I’m young,” he says. “I’m allowed fancies that might be unseemly in an older man.” He looks pointedly at where Ichinomiya clutches the Oni-Eater’s sleeve — subtly, almost out of sight, but not careful enough. “Always dreaming, aren’t you, Sensei?”
Ichinomiya frowns. The Oni-Eater says, “Hey. You.”
“How cruel,” Raikou says. “I have a name, after all, and one I was born with. I’m human, Oni-Eater, it’s safe to call me by it.”
The Oni-Eater’s eyes narrow. “Hey you, I said.”
Raikou spreads his hands, as though to admit defeat. “Such rude language, and here on my own property–”
“We know it’s here,” says the Oni-Eater, ignoring his complaints. “The god you stole.”
“Stole!” Raikou affects insulted shock, pressing one hand to his heart and keeping the other firm on Doujikiriyasuna. “As though gods were just petty merchandise? Those are bold words, Oni-Eater.” He leans forward, letting his voice drop to a lower, intimate register when he adds: “And he was hardly bound to that place. If he came with me, what argument do you have?”
“Because he didn’t come of his own free will,” Ichinomiya says. He meets Raikou’s eyes evenly, somehow holding solid though he is palefaced and trembling from some internal strain. “That’s not how you work, is it, Minamoto?”
“Sensei,” he tsks. “I’m hurt. How can you think I forced anyone?”
Behind him, the front doors of the estate house open. He glances over his shoulder and smiles at Ibaragi, who smirks back at him and tosses her pale hair over one shoulder. The trapped god stands before her, squinting at the sun like it’s a stranger; on his wrists, the charmed manacles glow with their own inner life. Ichinomiya draws in a sharp breath. The Oni-Eater growls.
“Well,” Raikou admits, “other than the obvious.” He turns back to Ichinomiya and the Oni-Eater, still smiling. “How about a contest, then?” he asks. “The Oni-Eater, the strongest of all youkai, and the strongest of the twelve Shinshou, that would be–” He pauses, then, and frowns. “Sensei, are you all right?”
Ichinomiya has started outright panting. Sweat beads his forehead and his upper lip, and he leans obviously against the Oni-Eater. He clutches his chest, though Ibaragi is a good twenty feet from him. The Oni-Eater puts an arm around his thin shoulders, supporting him, and looks up at the god descending the stairs towards them. He ducks and whispers something that even Raikou, close as he is, cannot catch. Ichinomiya gasps a few times, eyes squeezed shut; it takes him a few tries before he can lift his head and peer blindly up. Raikou watches them both. In the bright sunlight, something is wrong. Ichimomiya’s figure flickers and wavers for a moment, like a heat mirage, or a bad reflection, or–
His eyes go wide. “You,” he gasps. “How did you–”
Slowly, Ichinomiya wets his lips. They move. His voice is thin and shaking. “–ren,” he whispers.
The god pauses. His gold eyes go wide as he looks hard at Ichinomiya, seeing the same odd flicker that surrounds the man.
Breathing heavily, Ichinomiya straightens and lets go of the Oni-Eater’s shoulder, and is released in turn. He takes a step forward and staggers, almost into Raikou, who reaches for him — to catch him or detain him, he can’t say which — and stops.
“Bastard,” he says softly. He doubts Ichinomiya can hear him. “You bastard.”
To surprise, Ichinomiya glances at him and grins, nasty and sharp. There are folklorists who mutter about Ichinomiya Kantarou’s flippancy, and they’ve never seen him smile like that. Raikou narrows his eyes in response, but instead of challenge him, Ichinomiya looks up at the god again. He squares his shoulders, and for a moment the sun off his hair picks up strange dark lines, as though his white hair could actually reflect shadows.
“… Guren,” he says, and holds up his arms. For a moment, there’s a boy in his place, clear and solid as though alive — a boy with long dark hair, dressed in the kariginu of a Heian noble family — and then the illusion is gone but Ichinomiya remains, trembling hard. He seems barely balanced on his feet, and yet he still holds steady as the god approaches. A smile turns his mouth, softer than the one he shot at Raikou a moment before: a smile more appropriate for a child and simultaneously far too old, and the god staggers as though struck.
“Guren,” Ichinomiya says again. There’s an echo in his voice. “Guren, I’m sorry.”
As though struck, the god reels back. Ibaragi steps neatly out of his path. On his brow, the silver circlet gleams.
“You,” he says, his voice rough. “You’re …”
“I made you suffer, didn’t I.” Ichinomiya doesn’t lower his arms, and takes another step forward. “I left you alone. I thought I was doing the right thing. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t …” The god glances aside, eyes wild. Ibaragi sets her shamisen on her hip, watching with narrowed eyes; Raikou himself abandons pretense and draws his sword. “Don’t …”
“Guren,” Ichinomiya says. “Guren, it’s me–”
“Ah,” Raikou says. He steps forward, turning Doujikiriyasuna’s blade to Ichinomiya’s neck. He sees the older man startle, and the ghost inside flinches away from the sword’s purification spells. He smiles and pushes almost gently; a bright thin line of blood appears on Ichinomiya’s pale skin before he steps back. “No interfering, Sensei, or you, oh wandering spirit. Today is for the Oni-Eater and Kashou Touda.”
The Oni-Eater snorts and cleans one ear with his pinky. “I’m not interested in that sort of thing,” he says. “If you’re going to go off and get me involved in these things, at least be polite enough to ask first.”
Raikou smiles, still pushing Ichinomiya back a step at a time. “I’ll ask, then,” he says, and Ibaragi runs her pick across the shamisen’s strings, picking out a long rippling stream of notes.
The god cries out. He lurches forward, muscles straining in his neck and teeth bared, and the Oni-Eater’s eyes narrow. Raikou stops and sidesteps, sword still to Ichinomiya’s neck, but no longer standing between him and the approaching god. “Here, Oni-Eater: just a contest. You’re both evenly matched, aren’t you? It shouldn’t be difficult for you.”
All the Oni-Eater does is blink. “Why should I?”
Raikou lifts an eyebrow. “Why shouldn’t you?” he asks. He catches hold of Ichinomiya’s wrist and squeezes hard until it earns him a noise of pain. “Unless you’re that heartless, in which case, perhaps Sensei is better off dissolving your name after all.”
Ichinomiya shifts a little, looking up at him. A pained smile lifts his mouth. “You’re always such a brat,” he says. “Aren’t you.”
Politely he inclines his head. “I’m the darling eldest son,” he says. “Of course I’ve been spoiled, Sensei. And I like for things to go my way.” He tugs Ichinomiya closer, back to his chest, then looks to the Oni-Eater. “Do we have an understanding?”
The Oni-Eater’s lip curls. “It’s in bad taste,” he mutters, but his wings unfurl from his back, and the shakujou materializes. He strikes it against the stone path once, the rings clashing loudly, and looks upon the face of an angry god without blinking. “Ah, this is a pain.”
Raikou steps back, pulling Ichinomiya with him. Ibaragi changes the rhythm of her playing, and the god lunges, flames roaring to life around his outstretched arm. He watches with interest as the Oni-Eater ducks out of the way, wings flattened to avoid the blast, and rushes forward. The god almost doesn’t manage to summon his own weapon in time, but the two clash with the sound of ringing steel, pressed tightly together for a heartbeat before they rip apart. The air smells of singed feathers.
Within the hook of his arm, Ichinomiya draws in a sharp breath — one that is less him, and more the ghost possessing him. Raikou looks down.
“How could you?” the boy asks, looking wide-eyed and unhappy through Ichinomiya’s own youthful face. “Guren’s not like that! How could you make him–”
“I didn’t make him do anything,” Raikou cuts off smoothly. “The only thing I did was bind him. Ibaragi’s only making suggestions.”
“Suggestions!” The boy’s voice cracked; he’s nearly trembling in his rage. “They’re not — you’re making him fight –”
“No,” says Raikou. “That’s just his nature. I never named him, after all. I can’t coerce him into anything.”
“That’s–” The boy draws in a sharp breath. For a moment he pulls away from Ichinomiya again. By Seimei’s writings, his last grandson had come of age officially before his death, but his face was still baby soft and rounded, all unfulfilled potential. He stares at where the Oni-Eater and the god come together and split again, fire and lightning meeting and crashing apart, then sinks back into his host.
“He never compelled Touda-sama, either,” Ichinomiya says softly. “The name ‘Guren’ came from Abe no Seimei. But Masa–”
Raikou covers his mouth. “Tsk, Sensei,” he says. “Don’t give away our ace just yet.”
Ichinomiya looks skeptical. He catches Raikou’s wrist and pulls it down. “Minamoto,” he says. “Getting involved with higher-level gods is always dangerous, you know.”
“No more dangerous than giving your heart and home to the Oni-Eating Tengu,” Raikou returns. “Besides, at this point, he hardly remembers any of his real strength. He’s been sealed twice over, didn’t you notice?”
“The circlet,” Ichinomiya says. “Your down?”
“Of course not.” Raikou feigns embarrassment. “Sensei, you flatter me. No, that one’s much older than either of us.” He turns and watches as the Oni-Eater ducks a wild blow and sweeps with the shakujou, catching the god across his bare stomach and flinging him backwards, into the wall hard enough to crack it. “It’s a fairly even fight, don’t you think?”
“It’s disgusting,” Ichinomiya says, anger warning his voice. “Pitting them against each other like this — for what? What do you want, Minamoto?”
“Ahhh.” Raikou sighs, and leans down, his cheek to Ichinomiya’s own. “You already know that, don’t you, Sensei? You’re a smart man.”
Ichinomiya closes his eyes. “… the Oni-Eater’s name.”
“The Oni-Eater’s defeat,” Minamoto corrects. “I have a … sponsor who’s very interested in meeting him again. They were close, a long time ago, and she misses him so much.”
Ichinomiya starts. “What?”
Raikou winks, one finger to his lips. “Shhh,” he says. “I’m telling you secrets, Sensei.”
There’s a loud crash, and the sound of living wood splintering and snapping. The Oni-Eater lies sprawled in the remains of a grandfather tree. Blood streaks half his face, which is twisted into an animalistic snarl. Over him the god rears up, trident poised over the Oni-Eater’s chest, and fire wreathes him like living armor.
“My,” Raikou says. “How unfortunate.”
Ibaragi plucks a single twanging note, and the god brings his trident down. In Raikou’s arms, Ichinomiya and his ride-along ghost both cry out.
The Oni-Eater bellows in pain, twisting towards his pinned wing and then rising up, pale eyes glittering. He grasps the shaft of the trident and wrenches it up and out, flinging it aside. It stabs into the earth at an angle, trembling with the force of the throw. The injured wing drags, but that doesn’t stop him from rearing up to an impressive and terrible height, and the god falls back, snarling in response. He trips over a torn branch and falls, and the Oni-Eater pounces, claws drawn back for the killing blow.
“Game over,” Raikou says. He smiles, eyes bright; he feels Doujikiriyasuna’s hunger like his own. “The Oni-Eater still is that strong …”
And then in his arms Ichinomiya lurches forward. “Haruka! No!”
For just a moment — a split second, but just enough — the Oni-Eater hesitates. The god kicks up, knocking him aside, and the trident rips itself from the ground, flying back to his hand. He staggers back to his feet, panting.
“Shut up,” Raikou snarls, tries to catch hold of Ichinomiya’s mouth again. “Shut up, shut up, shut up–”
“Touda-sama!” Ichinomiya cries, clawing at Raikou’s arms. “Touda-sama, listen to me! His name, I know his–” The rest of his words strangle as Raikou catches him by the throat. Desperation lends extra strength to him, but it’s not enough — Raikou holds him with difficulty, but still in place, and the more he struggles, the darker his face becomes as air deserts him.
“Ibaragi!” Raikou shouts. “Do it! Kill him!”
Under his hands, Ichinomiya begins to glow. Surprised, he pauses, and so is caught by surprise when the ghost tears away from the host, solid for the first heartbeat of separation, but rapidly dissolving.
“Stop him!” Ibaragi shouts back. Her fingers move rapidly across the shamisen, playing a song with a war beat that drives the god forward again and again, one lurching step at a time. “Boy, don’t let him–”
“Guren!” the ghost cries. “GUREN!”
And just like that, the god goes completely still. The flames around him flare blue-hot for a moment, then simply wink out. The Oni-Eater staggers back to his feet, clutching at his wounded wing; after a moment sanity returns to his face, and he limps away.
The god turns his head slowly, looking at the ghost. Upon his brow, the silver circlet is beginning to crack. “… you …”
“Ah,” the ghost whispers. His eyes fill. “Guren, do you remember me?”
The god shakes his head. “I don’t,” he starts, and cuts himself out. “How do you know that name? You’re not–”
“How? Because you told me, Guren.” The ghost smiles. “It’s me. You remember me, right? I’m–”
Raikou launches himself forward and swings Doujikiriyasuna down. The sword sings as it cuts through the air, and it slices through the ghost like it was true flesh.
All it has time for is a sharp jerk, eyes wide and mouth rounding.
Then it fades, leaving only a few sparkling fireflies of light, which quickly wink out in turn.
The god stares where the ghost stood, then looks up. Each movement creates fresh cracks in the circlet he wears. He drops the trident and staggers forward, lifting an arm like he could call the ghost back from the meikai. His lips move silently, and then, silently, the circlet simply dissolves to powder and vanishes.
And the god screams, clutching at his temples and falling to his knees. Fire explodes around him in a tight cocoon, and he’s lost to sight.
“They’ve decided on a name.
Kantarou looks up as Haruka drops beside him. Immediately he reaches up, and hesitates before his fingers can actually touch the injured wing. “Haruka,” he says, his voice hoarse, “Haruka, are you all right? I mean, other than the obvious, but …”
Haruka blinks at him, then shrugs with his good shoulder. “It’ll heal,” he says. “Sugino will have medicine for it.”
“Ah,” Kantarou says, and manages a weak smile. “He’ll yell at us both, won’t he, for getting you beaten up like this …”
Haruka snorts, but lets Kantarou draw his arm over his shoulders, letting his master drag them both away — the way Touda’s fire is so tightly contained, they might have a chance escaping before it sets fire to the Minamoto gardens. “Don’t take so much credit for these things,” he says. “It’s not all about you.”
Kantarou blinks at him. “But you still chose to fight because of me,” he says. “Ehh, Haruka, does this mean you really–”
“If you’re going to obsess over embarrassing things like that,” Haruka tells him, “I’ll take them all back.”
“Ehhh, no,” Kantarou protests. “Haruka!”
Haruka just rolls his eyes. He pauses then and looks up at the burning god. Minamoto stands nearly opposite of them, on the steps of his estate, and for all of his impulsive action before, he now stands stone-still, assessing the situation with narrow eyes. He holds himself with predatory care, but the fire is too hot for even him to approach. Somewhere within, Touda continues to scream.
Kantarou looks back and forth for a moment, then carefully disentangles himself from Haruka, who looks confused.
“Wait here,” he says, before Haruka can protest. He lifts a hand to shield himself as best as he can, skirting as far around Touda’s presence as the garden walls will allow, and still feels hair and cloth burning and blistering; it seems (he thinks with some wry self-deprecation) Haruka will not be the only one making use of Sugino’s healing salves. He closes his eyes and hopes, placing one foot before the other, until he feels a strong hand catch his shoulder, and Minamoto say, “Sensei, as funny as accepting your confession would be, I don’t think now is the time.”
Kantarou grins, all teeth. “Shut up, you pompous brat,” he says, but clutches at Minamoto’s sleeves for a moment, for balance. “Call Masahiro-kun back.”
“Hmm?” Minamoto gives him a perfectly bland expression. “What for?”
“Because.” Kantarou glances over his shoulder; the flames have grown higher now, and he can no longer see Haruka around them. “If you don’t, we’re all going to die here.”
“You might,” Raikou says. “If you weren’t smart enough to plan in case of emergencies like Ibaragi and I have, Sensei, that’s hardly my fault.”
“Ah,” Kantarou says, and looks up. “But I’m not going to release Haruka’s name before I die, if it happens this way.”
Minamoto freezes. His eyes narrow.
“And Haruka,” Kantarou goes on, still grinning with all his teeth bared, “don’t you think he’ll come after me? I’m his stupid master, after all. I hold his name. No matter what, wouldn’t he try to keep me safe? Even if it means that he’ll be burned up in the process …”
Minamoto growls faintly — it’s a low, almost animal sound, nearly as good as one of Haruka’s. “Sensei,” he says. “Unfair.”
“That’s why you should be more careful to think ahead,” Kantarou says. He fists his hands in Minamoto’s uniform and yanks until they’re eye to eye. “Call Masahiro-kun back.”
Touda has been here before, he knows: in this dark and cold place, where the heat has been sucked out of everything and channeled outwards. This is his rage, which destroys everything and leaves him standing alone. Bright patterns move across his eyelids, like the afterimages of staring into something too bright. He’s been here before, and that was–
“That was my fault too, wasn’t it?”
He opens his eyes.
Masahiro stands before him, looking up at him, still so young, still so small. He opens his mouth and nothing comes out.
“I’m sorry,” Masahiro says, and takes both of Touda’s hands in his own. “I’m sorry, Guren.”
He shakes his head, still unable to speak. He feels Masahiro squeeze his hands.
“I just wanted you to stop hurting,” Masahiro goes on. “I wanted you to forget all those painful things that made everyone hate you. I wanted you to let go of your guilt. I thought maybe it’d be worse if you remembered everything to do with me, so … I asked Grandfather …”
“Masahiro,” he breathes. “Masahiro …”
“I never forgot you,” Masahiro says, and though he’s shaking, he doesn’t look away. “I never forgot! Not ever, and that … that was hard. I regretted leaving you like that.”
Touda sinks to his knees, so that they’re on eye-level. “Why,” he says softly. “Why did you … Touda is a god, he lives on …”
“But, but–” Masahiro lets go of Touda’s hands and catches hold of his face instead. “It would just be ‘Touda’ then. ‘Guren’ would be dead.”
“I didn’t want that!” Masahiro catches hold tightly of him. “I never wanted — I couldn’t imagine a world without Guren! I still can’t! That’s why I did it — I didn’t want Guren to die, and I didn’t want Guren to be unhappy, so–!”
“Masahiro,” Touda says. “I’ve missed you.”
The boy freezes, and when he blinks, tears come trickling down. “Guren …”
“You can’t stay for long, can you?” he asks softly. “With so many regrets, your karma isn’t clean at all. You’ll have to be reborn.”
“And I’ll wait for that,” he says. “Seimei’s grandson.”
“Don’t call me–”
He pulls the boy into his arms and holds tightly. The ghost is warm and solid as a living being, and after a moment of shock, he hugs back. The crook of Touda’s neck grows wet with tears. It was lonely, one of them doesn’t say, and I’m sorry, I was lonely as well the other doesn’t reply, and around them, the flames quiet.
“Next time, Sensei,” Raikou says, as he straightens his uniform. Over his shoulder, Ibaragi Douji stares at the Oni-Eater without blinking, the pick of her shamisen loose against the strings. It’s still too early, and though he hates to give up the hunt as well, he knows the value of a graceful retreat — even if he’s staying and the others are leaving. “I’ll look forward to it.”
“You’ll forgive me,” Ichinomiya says dryly, “if I won’t.”
“In the end, we had to rely on Minamoto after all,” Kantarou sighs. “Ahh, that’s awful, now we owe him a favor! I’m worried, what would he ask for …”
Youko clucks her tongue and ignores his jump and whine as she begins rubbing salve into his burned fingers. “If you ask me, he owes you something too,” she said. “Otherwise, his entire fancy house would have burned down! And no matter how rich he is, that’s just expecting too much! Besides, Ayame-chan was home, wasn’t she? Even Minamoto’s not so heartless that he’d let his little sister die …”
Kantarou bites the inside of his cheek, cringing again as she begins to rub salve into the thin skin between his fingers. “I don’t know if the man himself would think so, ehhh …”
“What it means is that your debts cancel each other out,” she says firmly. She wraps a fresh bandage around his hand, then pushes the salve into his uninjured one. “There, now, you’re done. Make sure Haruka-chan gets his share, all right? He’s lucky it didn’t hit anything important, ahhh, you stupid men and your stupid posturing …” She picks herself up and dusts off her kimono.
“Eh, Youko-chan,” Kantarou says. “What makes you think Haruka will listen to me?”
She gives him a look, then flicks her forefinger against his forehead. “Kan-chan,” she says, long-suffering, “that might work on other people, but Youko-chan knows you better than that. Just … make sure he gets the medicine before you do anything perverted, okay?”
“P– perverted!” Kantarou squeaks. “Yo– Youko-chan!”
“Don’t even try playing innocent!” she declares. “I told you, I know better! So be good while I’m at work!” She ruffles his hair hard, and stomps off. She fusses in the genkan for a bit, and then the front door slams shut, like the exclamation point of a sentence.
He watches her go and puts down the salve jar to smooth his hair with his good hand. After a moment, though, he can’t help but duck his head and smile. He knows for a fact Haruka is napping in his room, rather than on the roof — as much a concession to Kantarou’s inability to use the ladder at the moment as his own injured wing — and it will be long hours before Youko comes back.
Whistling to himself, he picks up the jar again and heads for the stairs.
One day in late autumn, a young boy visits the Seimei Jinja with his parents. At some point he gets separated from them, and wanders under the corded-off areas, towards the large pond in the back. He stops under the tree and presses both hands to the trunk, looking up. Whatever he sees in the branches makes him smile, and he stands there beaming until his mother finds him and leads him away.
As he goes he looks over his shoulder, and for a moment his smile is years older.
I’m back, he doesn’t say.
Welcome home, the rustling branches don’t answer.