An Old Soul in Need of Saving
The walk home was blissful for the long-lived soul. Kazuki had thought this chance to live as himself had backfired. Instead, he seemed to have found a special bond with Akiko and Karura. Neither of them were intimidated by his presence. That alone was enough to send him over the Moon.
Swiping his electronic key at the apartment entrance, he smiled at the repaired frame. He was still debating telling his mom about how sturdy the building was. She would appreciate her choice more than ever. Having to tell her that their long lost relative’s hometown had serial stalkers did not seem all that smart after just moving away from home though.
“Ah, Suzuki-kun, are you just getting home?”
He turned to see who had called him, blinking at Yukiko. A smile crept up his lips, remembering he still had to be Takashi some of the time. The tennin weren’t completely out either, but that was just one more commonality between them.
“Yes, I was meeting a new friend I’ve made for dinner at their home. Were you leaving, Miss Sato?”
“Actually, I was just leaving the security office,” the senpai explained with a shrug. “They wanted a description from me, so they knew what to look for should the stalker come back. Apparently, the video feed for the attack is missing from their cameras. Isn’t that strange?”
“Missing?” He gaped, wondering how an oni managed that one. It occurred to him that Mei or You could have swiped it. Shinigami had a lot to keep under a tight lid in this digital era.
“That is odd. I hope they figure out what happened. It was probably a glitch after the beating the door took, you know?”
“You might be right,” Yukiko replied with a smile. “I feel better knowing the authorities and our complex are looking out for us though. Before I forget, are you ready for the coming semester?”
“I think so,” Kazuki said, calling the elevator down. “My sister goes to university back in Tokyo, so she helped me get all my paperwork straightened out before I left. Things aren’t nearly as hectic here, thankfully. I like this kind of pace better though.”
“I’m glad you appreciate it, but I didn’t realize you were from Tokyo, Suzuki-kun,” Yukiko said with awe. They were such a small town built around the institution. It seemed backward for a city person to seek out their setting for school. “What brought you out here for university?”
“Oh, I had a relative that lived here once, my great-uncle. Even though I never met him, he’s kind of my role model. I wanted to better understand how he lived, since my mother knew nothing about him, so I moved here to follow his footsteps.”
“Really?” Yukiko gawked in surprise as the elevator opened for them. Kazuki waved her inside ahead of him. “What was his name?”
Yukiko’s jaw dropped at the mentioned name. The Fujimoto Mamoru that raised the bar of the police department in their town was his distant relative? Thinking back on his notable achievements, it made sense that her kouhai was so willing to step forward and help others. The late detective was considered a hero to this day.
“Isn’t this your floor, Miss Sato?”
“What?” The doors opened on the second floor. He smiled at her, pressing the hold button, so she didn’t miss her stop. Shaking her head, the woman scurried off the elevator. “Thank you, Suzuki-kun!”
“You’re welcome, Miss Sato. Have a good evening.”
As the doors closed, Yukiko realized that she had failed to ask him about the Meifu Investigation Agency again. Running her fingers through her hair, the senpai wondered how he was able to make her completely forget something that had captivated her interest so greatly. Her kouhai certainly had a presence about him.
“Next time, Yuki...”
Shaking his head, Kazuki smiled at his neighbor’s curiosity. For a mortal, a curious mind led to opening doors to wondrous things in life, but all it would get her was stress if she kept after him like this. He didn’t need his eyes to see she was still trying to figure out what happened the night they met. He hoped it would pass once they dealt with this last oni. Yukiko seemed like a bright woman, so he had no doubt she had a brilliant path ahead of her.
The first thing Kazuki noticed as he opened his front door was a heavy presence. Glancing into the dark apartment, a pair of glowing, red orbs stared back from his balcony. He closed his door calmly, setting his backpack down on his shoe cabinet. Was that what he thought it was?
A tapping at the sliding door confirmed they were no reflection on the glass. The large, clawed hand did not break the panel, proving they just wanted his attention. Switching his main light on, he looked at the black oni, smiling back at him.
“Well, this is unexpected...” He approached the sliding door at a slow, steady pace, slipping his hands into his pants pockets. Letting his true gaze slip through, he sprouted a lopsided grin. The two stared at one another before Kazuki finally spoke up. “I see my protection holds up against oni. To what do I owe this visit though?”
“You are a knowledgeable mortal for one so young,” the oni’s guttural voice rumbled through the glass. He sounded just as clear of thought as a human, which made him dangerous. “Black tourmaline is one of the old ways of warding thresholds,” his tone seemed impressed to meet the youth as he spoke, “but you use it as a sorcerer, enchanting the crystal into a barrier. The bride has acquired quite the guardian.”
“They say older is better, but what brings you to my balcony?” Kazuki asked, casually. He couldn’t help grinning at the compliment though. “Surely, you have a contract to keep. After all, an oni would hardly have easy access to Demon oil. That’s enchantment yokai have to obtain from someone higher up the food chain.”
“That would be correct. I was sent on an errand to retrieve a runaway bride. Her groom has waited patiently - I understand - for over two hundred years.”
“Who would that be?”
“Bold questions from the one that led my brothers to their deaths,” the oni grinned wider. Turning his left palm upward, a forefinger curled toward him, beckoning the other outside. “I’m certain you have many questions, but I would be a fool to give them away without some incentive.”
“You want me to leave the safety of my barrier for you to finish me off? What fool do you take me for? I guarantee I’ve been crossing your kind long before you were reborn.”
“Then allow me to offer some incentive of my own.” The yokai said as he drew closer to the glass to whisper. The warm summer evening made the beast’s hot breath form a moist fog on the clear surface. “The name of the clan that employed me in the Spirit Realm to find the lost bride will be yours if you but open the glass.”
Kazuki gaped in surprise. Was he kidding? He had already given up information just offering that much. A third party was using a clan of the Spirit Realm to hunt Akiko, but were they involved from the beginning? This was a major opportunity to form a plan of attack and defend against future assaults.
Of course, the yokai was counting on his desire to save the tennyo for the chance to prey on his emotions. There were no pleasant dealings with oni. As condensation slipped down the glass pane, the old soul told himself not to get caught up in an enemy trap.
“Why would you offer up your employer so easily?”
“It isn’t as if you can do much against them,” the beast replied with a huff. Leaning back, the yokai appeared to be chuckling at the futility in the mortal’s struggle with his own curiosity. “They are the largest, most powerful faction in the Spirit Realm. No one stands against them, but that wouldn’t stop you from trying. Would it, boy?”
Damn, this beast was clever. Given the chance, the yokai could tear his mortal shell in half before he could breathe in. Crossing the threshold of the balcony would be stupid at best, but if he only opened the door, did that mean he could reach across? Demon oil or no, that seemed impossible. He had to test the theory somehow.
“Touch your palm to the glass,” Kazuki instructed with an authoritative tone, “then tell me you’ll give me my answers you promised if I just open the door.”
The yokai snarled quietly at the demand. The crystal ward would expose any lies if he was connected to it. Black tourmaline was also a purification crystal, and sensing the energy placed in them from this side of the barrier, the oni might very well be rendered defenseless from contact. It was clear he faced a terrifying opponent, one with experience against yokai and a prepared mystic. He had to play smart to keep his heart beating. This had become an intriguing game of wits.
“Very well,” the oni replied, pressing his large palm against the glass pane, “I shall tell you the answers I know, if you but open this door.”
Kazuki watched the beast shutter. That must have been a nice chill running through his nervous system. He knew this had to be some sort of trap, but seeing the yokai’s disorientated visage, the old soul opened his sliding door with a satisfied countenance.
“Now, the name of the clan that sent you here, if you don’t mind.”
“Those wolves never said anything about a sorcerer...” The oni growled as he tried to pull his thoughts back together.
“Did you say wolves?” Kazuki’s voice dropped into a growl of his own. His eyes morphed further into his dominance glare. “Answer me. What did you say about wolves?”
“They call themselves wolves...” A curled lip exposed the spiked teeth, seemingly disgusted at the topic. “More like kijin dogs...”
“Wolves!” Kazuki barked at the oni, reaching to grasp the matted mane of hair, “Tell me what wolves sent you!”
The oni gripped the fist suddenly, making Kazuki gape. How stupid could he be? The wicked excitement in the red eyes bore down on his black pools. The oni slowly lifted the lighter frame off the balcony to meet face to face.
“No friend of wolves, eh? I’m sure they don’t want you meddling in their work either. The unpaired bird will be mine as soon as I tear that pretty face off.”
Kazuki kicked the oni in the throat, bouncing himself over the beast's head. As the yokai gagged, he jerked the mortal away. Thrown free of the beast, Kazuki gaped as he went flying over the balustrade railing.
Akiko was sitting in her room with the biwa Grandmother had given her. The tennyo was plucking away to the song she had heard today, wondering if her inspiration could really come back. The thought of Kazuki’s smile tonight before dinner warmed her heart. If he could stir music in her mind, she had to believe he could do so in her spirit as well.
Suddenly, a cry came from her vanity table. She turned to look at the compact resting beside her brush. No glow radiated from the case, but she knew that shout had come from her hand mirror. A dreadful foreboding sank into her chest. Setting the instrument on her bed, she grabbed the compact before running down to her father’s office.
“Dad! Dad, grab your bow!”
“What happened, Akiko?” The guardian’s battle senses leaped into action. He grasped his bow and quiver by his desk, standing to join his daughter. She was putting shoes on. “Akiko? What are you doing?”
“It’s Kazuki! He’s in trouble!”
“How do you know?”
“I heard his voice from my mirror,” she replied with haste. Whipping her head around, she grabbed his free arm. “You enchanted his mirror, right? We don’t have time to wait! We have to go!”
“Akiko,” Karura hesitated a moment, despite her momentum dragging him closer to the door, “we do not know where he lives. How will we find him?”
“I brought my compact,” the tennyo said with confidence. “It connects me to him. Trust me, Dad.”
The tennin fled into the night, knowing the last oni still hid among the shadows. Akiko held the compact close to her heart with her right hand, pulling her father behind her with her left. She could feel a racing pulse coming from the small case. With any hope, it was Kazuki’s heartbeat. She hoped they would find him in time.
They ran along a sidewalk that led to a traffic street, heading toward the center of town. It was still a residential area, but the apartment complexes were coming into view. A particularly tall one caught Karura’s eye. Akiko was running straight toward it. Was it possible that their bond was already strong enough to guide her with just a mirror?
“Oh god, Dad!” Akiko let go of his hand to point toward the second floor of the complex. “That’s got to be Kazuki!”
Karura drew an arrow to take aim. Just as she said, Kazuki was dangling off the side of a balcony balustrade. A black oni hung by his feet from the floor above, swiping for his wrists. It seemed the beast’s hands were too big to fit between the shafts of the railing, and Kazuki was just beyond his reach.
Releasing the arrow, the oni looked up in just enough time to avoid getting struck. Akiko covered her mouth, realizing she had given them away. Instead of waiting for another attack, the beast pulled himself up to the floor above to escape the tennin.
Karura shifted his shoulders backward, allowing red and golden feathers to slip passed his yukata. As the garments slacked downward, he shot skyward in one swift flap of the majestic wings, chasing the beast up the side of the building. His amethysts bore down hard on the yokai, reminding the predator he was now prey.
“Kazuki!” Akiko cried as she floated upward to reach him. Her hagoromo robe drifted around her on an unseen breeze. “Are you all right?”
“Akiko?” He gasped as the tennyo appeared beside him in the air. The active, celestial garment was gleaming like a clear night sky. “What are you doing? The oni’s here!”
“I heard your voice through my mirror,” she said, sighing with relief. Reaching to embrace him, she buried her face in his back. “I was so scared you’d died again. I’m glad we made it in time.”
“I need to get back up to my apartment,” Kazuki said, gradually letting go of the baluster shafts in his tight grip. He wanted to make sure they wouldn’t drop from his weight. “My bokken and seeds are up there. I need to help your dad.”
Akiko nodded, ascending to the balcony he pointed to. As they landed, the feathered robes settled around her shoulders. Kazuki didn’t wait to marvel at the phenomenon, rushing inside to grab his seed bag by the front door. She followed him, curious to see what he had planned.
“What are you going to do?”
“Head for the roof.” His rushed reply made her chest feel tight. “They should be up there by now. Stay here.”
“Like hell I will!” The tennyo shouted after the old soul into the hallway. He didn’t have time to stop her, so she caught up to him without much effort. Kazuki pulled the door to the stairway open, grunting loudly. As he hurried upward, Akiko glanced at his right wrist.
“Kazuki, are you hurt?”
“Nevermind that! I have to get to your dad before that oni thinks up a way to close their distance! They are almost impossible to fight in close combat! You have to surprise them!”
“Is this one of those smart ones you talked about?” She asked nervously, recalling the one that caught her nineteen years ago.
“Yes,” he said with some venom in his voice, “and I think he was hoping you and Karura would come for me. Damn him! He must have been a clever bastard of a human!”
The two exited on the roof, seeing Karura soaring above. He was holding an arrow ready, but the oni had started jumping to grab onto him. The beast’s reach was pretty high already, but the strongest part of an oni was his legs. Karura had his hands full trying not to get caught and aim in the dark.
“Oi!” Kazuki called out to the oni, “You big oafs ever learn not to climb too high?”
The oni and tennin glanced down at the tennyo and mortal. The yokai’s attention immediately fell on his target, falling to the roof as quickly as possible. As Kazuki reached into the bag, Akiko stared at the rust-colored lump he pulled out. Flexing his fingers, she gaped in shock as he stabbed his palm.
“No!” She slapped his right hand suddenly.
“Akiko, what are you doing?!” Kazuki cried out, flinching with pain. The lump fell from his hand as blood dripped from his fingernails. Grabbing his collar, she flashed pearly white teeth, hissing with rage.
“That was Demon’s Blood resin, wasn’t it?! Wasn’t it?!”
“So what if it was?!”
“That was the toxin in your blood from when you died,” Akiko screamed as she shook him as hard as her slender arms could. “Dad told me Demon’s Blood was poisonous to humans, and here, you were trying to put it in your bloodstream like some dark sorcerer! What were you thinking?!”
Kazuki stared down at her tearful eyes. The anger was clear to him, but the pain in her gaze frozen him in place. He had never wanted to see her make such an expression, but as he listened to her voice, he realized the dreadful lengths he had been willing to go just to kill one oni. The silhouette of the beast reached his peripherals in time to pull himself in front of the wailing tennyo.
An arrow embedded in the roof between them and the oni, making the beast jump backward. Karura drew another, firing on the oni as quickly as his fingers could pull them. Snarling with frustration, the oni leaped over the side of the apartment complex, fleeing for cover on the ground.
“Akiko! Kazuki! Are you both all right?” Karura asked with concern. Descending to the rooftop, he walked up to see why his daughter was crying so loudly. He found her yanking on Kazuki’s jacket collar. The old soul stared down with a hollow gaze.
“Why?” Akiko muttered as she tried to speak around her own blubbering. “Why would you use something that could kill you? Answer me, Kazuki!”
“Demon’s Blood resin can amplify the spiritual power of Blood Magic,” he replied in a defeated voice. His eyes looked saddened again as Karura recalled the night before. “Humans have strong affinity toward Yin and Yang energies, but against beings of higher, concentrated energies, they require a booster of some kind to combat on equal terms.”
“So you would throw your life away just to get a knockout?! What kind of bullshit is that?!” Akiko screamed up into his face. “Don’t you give a damn if you live or die?!”
“Honestly...” Akiko froze as he paused to look her in the eye. There it was again. Those lonely eyes that captivated her seemed haunting now. “I guess I’ve gone numb to dying.”
The tennyo fell silent, gaping up at his face. It all made sense now. He had been so kind to her all those years ago, but it was the kindest of souls that carried the most darkness. He was an old soul, drifting from life to life. How many times had he died the way Mamori had? When was the last time he had smiled a real grin of bliss? Had he forgotten the anxiety of only having one life to live?
“Promise...” Akiko sniffled, rubbing her wet face in her shirt. “Promise me you will never use Demon’s Blood resin again... I don’t want to have to hold another corpse because you died to protect me, Kazuki. I want to you stand by my side. I want to find my voice, so I can sing for you. If you died again, I might lose it forever.”
After a pause, Kazuki reached his arms around her tremulous shoulders. Resting his lips on her dark blue crown, the old soul closed his weary eyes. These were her feelings, vulnerable and humble. He made a promise to make everything better, but it seemed he had to go against his instincts to keep that oath.
“I promise,” he whispered softly. “I promise I won’t use Demon’s Blood resin anymore. If it will bring peace back to your spirit, I will protect you as best I can without it.”
Karura smiled at the two of them, shaking his head. How foolish they were, throwing themselves about so recklessly. For an old soul, Kazuki seemed to have some immaturity left in him. His daughter was just a spitfire of impulse. What a devil-may-care pair they made...
“Kazuki,” Karura spoke up finally, “the oni escaped, but Yoko is still watching the Veil. Should we regroup and strike?”
“Yes,” Kazuki replied in a heavy voice, “but I’m afraid I might not be much help to you.”
“How do you mean?”
The old soul drew his right arm back toward himself. A bruise was forming beneath the skin on his wrist. Akiko gaped, recalling how he had flinched just opening a door.
“I don’t know how bad it is, but I won’t be able to use both hands to grip my bokken. That halves the strength of my swing.”
“Then we should at least reach out to the shinigami to come up with a plan,” the tennin said gravely.