A Vital Choice
In the trees of the park, Yoko perched herself in the shadow of the leaves, facing the clearing. This brought back fond memories from a time long ago. It felt so natural, lying in wait for an unsuspecting target. She didn't care how long it took either. The shinigami was proud of her work for the court of Meido, but back in an element of stealth, a sense of purpose returned to the woman.
On the other side of that coin, she felt lost in this world of spirits and yokai. In her years as a shinigami, her only real interaction with the supernatural had been with the oni around Meido and meeting the tennin. She had never even visited the immortal court floor. To her, these beings had been myth and lore, pieces of literature at best. Now, they were living beings with lives around her, and she had never noticed any of it.
You had always told her that the spirits were everywhere, watching. She had summed his words to superstition. He had mentioned growing up in a shrine, so the skeptic rationalized he was a product of his upbringing. Meeting the kodama today, she felt she had missed a vital resource in her mission to uncover the Karyoubinga’s murderer. Karura’s response to her proposal to relinquish the shrine and return to Tendou made a great deal of sense. She hadn’t realized how offensive it was till now.
What would her mentor think? Two centuries wasted due to neglect. They hadn’t exactly covered supernatural activity in her training, but she was to adapt to every situation as necessary. Know your enemy and his weaknesses. She had settled on too small a scope for reference, and her slim results confirmed it.
A buzzing on her hip made her look away from the clearing for a moment. It was her pager. While she understood the purpose of cellular technology, she preferred some of the older tech. This allowed her to receive messages outside if her communication paper without additional distractions. The sender was Karura, making her wonder what You and Mei were doing to make him call her. Waving her shadow around her hand, an ihai spirit tablet appeared in her grasp.
“I’m here, Karura,” she spoke to the tablet. “What’s happened?”
“The oni struck at Kazuki’s apartment building,” Karura’s rushed voice came from the tablet. “Akiko and I managed to thwart the attempt on his life, but the beast escaped me. Kazuki says to keep watch over the Veil. We cannot allow him to slip through.”
“Are you and Akiko all right?” Yoko realized the old soul had been the victim, but her responsibility was still to the tennin first. Kazuki had proven to her that he was capable on his own. Karura had always believed the tennyo needed to be protected until she found her birth song once again. That would be her primary objective moving forward.
“Yes.” The tennin paused a moment. “However, Kazuki seems to have injured his right wrist while evading the oni. He says we cannot rely on his strike to handle the enemy.”
“Then we will adapt,” Yoko said without hesitation. “If you can think of anything that might give us an advantage, act on it. I trust your insight, Karura.”
“I shall... Thank you, Yoko.”
The warmth in the tablet cooled as the connection died. The warrior sounded genuinely surprised by her words. The shinigami began to wonder if Akiko’s childish comments might hold some truth about her stoic personality.
Just as she was about to summon her portfolio, movement in the clearing caught her eye. Had the oni arrived already? She anticipated a dangerous fight on her hands, but rather than leap from her hiding place, her sapphire orbs gaped at the scene before her.
You was standing in the middle of the clearing. His hands rested in his trench coat pockets as if he were observing something. The whimsical expression he typically wore was vacant, showing a placid visage unlike the shinigami she knew.
What was he doing here? He was supposed to be watching the tennin's neighborhood for the oni. Grinding her teeth in irritation, she forced herself to watch in silence. The fool must have had a reason for deviating from their plan.
Slowly, he pulled his right hand from his coat, extending it ahead of himself. He seemed to be grasping air, but after a moment, sparks popped and fizzled around his hand. He drew back his whole arm. It looked difficult as if he were struggling. Finally, the light faded again to moonlight as You stood with his back to Yoko’s position. He walked into the trees further away from Yoko, disappearing in the dark.
If that display hadn’t stunned her enough, she almost forgot how to breathe. Try as she did, the shinigami had not heard footsteps from You in the grass. No wonder she hadn’t caught him until he stopped in the middle of the clearing. How was he able to do that? Was this the art he received in death? It still seemed impossible!
The shinigami moved through the tree branches as quietly as she could. Her associate's behavior was nagging her instincts. She needed to know what he was doing. There had been no message to her about coming to the clearing. If it was toward their benefit, why keep it secret? If it was not, what was he after?
When she finally caught up to the man, he was standing still again. This time his face looked blank, as if he were in a daze. Dropping from her hiding place, Yoko approached cautiously. He didn't seem to notice her, and once she reached his side, Yoko gaped at his void eyes.
"Ono? Are you all right?"
The ring of his cellphone made them both jump. You gasped sharply at his surroundings. Spinning his head around, he gasped at Yoko's face, taking a step back. She gaped at the reaction, even more concerned about the unknown circumstances. Finally, the shinigami pulled his flip phone from his jacket pocket.
"Ono speaking!" He said in an anxious voice, bowing to the caller as if they could see the apologetic gesture. "Mr. Kazuki? What do you mean the oni is heading for the park?"
The rapid, loud thud of oni feet announced the enemy's arrival. The shinigami gaped at one another as they heard animals scurrying for cover, crying out in fear of the predator's advance. Yoko ran for the clearing as You followed.
"Well, I think he's here," You said, flinching at the sound of snapping tree limbs. "I understand the importance of protecting the Veil, but we don't know the location of the rift!"
"You were just staring at it, Ono!" Yoko yelled, whipping her head around to see if he was serious. "I saw you do something to it!"
"You did?!" He gaped at her vicious gaze. "Where was I? We can't let him get close!"
"How do you not remember something you just did?!"
"I can't explain right now! Just tell me where you saw me! Mei's en route, so we have to buy some time!"
As her nostrils flared with rage at his denial, Yoko knew he was right. There wasn't time to fight amongst themselves. She could grill him for answers later. Turning to the place she had seen him, she took her shoes off to mark the place.
"Not one scuff on my pumps," she said darkly. "Do you hear, Ono?"
"Understood..." You gulped at her stabbing gaze.
They both looked up at the shaking tree canopy. The oni was moving fast. Karura must have startled him good to made him this desperate to get back to the Spirit Realm. As You looked around for an idea to stop the beast, Yoko dashed for her original hiding place. Grasping a cord, she channeled her shadow into it as she yanked it with all her strength.
Just as the oni broke through to the clearing, a web-like snare surrounded him. For a moment, the yokai was frozen at the shock of the trap. Yoko's shadow added some additional strength to the rope, but she knew a trap meant for humans couldn't hold an oni for long.
"Great work, Yoko!" You cheered from the clearing.
"Don't celebrate, half-wit! Come up with the next move!"
You closed his phone immediately. The oni roared in their direction. Throwing his weight around to break the snare, his red eyes locked on You. One arm tore free, pointing a clawed forefinger at the shinigami. The fight was about to begin.
You's shadow created an ofuda slip in his fingers. Holding the paper between his hands, he focused on a summons. The oni's struggle snapped through the rest of Yoko's rope, allowing him to charge straight toward him. You remained unmoved, glaring at the black beast.
"I call upon my forest friends to rise and defend!"
The clearing rumbled a moment before tree roots broke through the earth. The massive roots moved like snakes, swiping at the oni. Yoko managed to leap and roll around them, trying to get close to the distracted yokai. You held his slip tightly, rounding to keep the oni in sight.
It was no small task to grab hold of the fluid moving roots. Just when the yokai thought he caught one another two would strike him to release it. When he finally gripped onto one long enough, the beast roared victoriously as he yanked it upward. The root tore through the earth, leading back to the tree. It was only a few moments before a whole tree tilted backward as it came uprooted.
"NO!" You screamed in a blind rage, rushing toward the oni. The roots shifted to create a path for him as his shadow morphed around his hand again. This time a blade of solid black formed in his grasp. Sweeping upward to his left, his honey-brown eyes glared as the beast screeched in agony. Blood ruptured from the elbow joint as the root fell from the oni's grasp.
"Are you insane?!" Yoko cried out. "Now, he can cover the whole area in his taint!"
"Not if I can help it!" You grunted as he traded the blade for another ofuda. Gripping his free arm around the oni's injured limb, the shinigami called another summon. "Spirits of Flame, kindle my fury!"
Vibrant, orange tongues of flame burst from the slip of paper. Slapping the ofuda on the wound, he held it fast as the beast tried to shake him off. The smell of charred flesh along with miasma made him choke, but You knew he couldn't let the oni's blood poison the park further.
"Got your back, You!" Mei yelled as she came running through the clearing. Her small frame darted around the hysteria, making her way toward her partner. The swinging roots gave her a boost to get height above the action. Falling directly above the oni, her right hand summoned her bokken with her shadow for a downward strike.
"Do your thing, Mei!" You yelled as he struggled to stay attached to the beast.
"If you can keep him still, dumbass!" Mei growled as she brought her sword down on the large collarbone. Her small foot pushed off the monster's chest to dodge a clawed hand swinging around the roots. "He's flailing like a brat!"
"Do you normally work this well?" Yoko asked the newcomer in a disgruntled tone. She was leaping among the roots as well, trying to find a safe time to home in again.
"You's a textbook idiot!"
"I get the job done!"
"Tell that to the mess we have to pick up after you finish!" Mei didn't sound quite as irritated as her comment did, but her black eyes glared at him from where she held onto a flapping root. "Lord Eiji's too soft, covering for you to the boss!"
As the shinigami fussed at one another around the deranged yokai, Kazuki and Akiko watched from above. The tennyo's scarf drifted about her once again, enveloping the old soul beside her. All he had to do was hold her hand to keep him in the air. The tremulous grip drew her glance to the right.
Kazuki looked frustrated, watching the scene below. She realized how accustom he was to dealing with situations on his own now. This teamwork business must be new for him, at least to the real Kazuki. His right wrist had swollen quite a bit since they left his apartment building. She imagined how painful it must be, but he didn't seem to care.
She wished she could help him overcome his sense of uselessness. Making him swear not to use the resin anymore, he had to fight as he was now. Unfortunately, he couldn't even do that with an aggravated sprain. A proper tennyo should have no trouble remedying a scenario like this, but she was barely one right now, wasn't she?
"Kazuki," she said in a serious voice, "you might not have your sword, but your experience is just as sharp. What are our best options right now?"
He tore his black eyes away from the struggle to look her way. As frustrated as he was with himself, the tennyo made a good point. The old soul had faced beasts such as this countless times over the years. There was no need to sulk about not finishing this oni off himself when he had the opportunity. Taking a deep breath, he considered their options.
"Even with the bleeding clotted, there's no guarantee he won't try opening another wound with them so close. While the taint hasn't been spread too far, if it poisons a tree, the forest would start to suffer. They're equally disadvantaged with the roots moving about, enclosing them in that way."
Kazuki could understand You's passionate actions. He had nearly made that mistake moments ago, so he saw no reason to obsess over cutting the beast. He considered an attempt to contain or remove the oni, but with the circumstances staring them in the face, he wasn't sure how to come out on top.
"What's on your mind?" Akiko asked softly. The thoughtful expression was better than his earlier worry, but he needed to vocalize his ideas. Warriors still needed the guidance of their leader to advance. "You seem torn. Are things really that bleak?"
"Well..." Kazuki paused, considering how to best explain his instinctual sense. "We can't have the oni slipping through the Veil. He'd gather help and spring us when we let our guard down. However, there's no way to really hold him here that wouldn't threaten us or anyone else. We can't fight him indefinitely, and without a killing blow... You see how much three shinigami are struggling right now, and your father has his own disadvantages. It's not a bleak situation as much as an ultimatum. Do we fight with everything we have and risk more lives and the forest, or do we let him escape back to the Spirit Realm to attack with reinforcements?"
Akiko frowned as she listened. Any angle they looked at, there would be a heavy pill to swallow. She knew he was looking for the best possible outcome for everyone, but sometimes, unfavorable consequences had to be accepted. She knew one thing for sure. Kazuki would not be one of those loses again.
"Then we prepare for those reinforcements."
"What?!" Kazuki snapped his head about to gawk at the tennyo. "That's insane! If what he told me was true, the clan that sent him is powerful with incredible resources! Akiko, you can't let them know where you are!"
"Kaz," she said quietly. Her grip told him she wasn't taking things lightly. The urgency in his eyes ebbed as he gave her his attention. "I don't want more people to suffer and die to protect me. I have strong allies by my side now. Yes, they are struggling, but they refuse to quit. I wouldn't have them if you hadn't stepped forward. Your knowledge and experience have brought us this far, so let's focus on saving the kodama's forest and kicking this brute back where he came from."
"If you're sure..."
"Mr. Kazuki!" Yoko called from a nearby tree. She'd broken away for a moment when she noticed them in the air. "The Veil is here! We could try knocking the oni back through it, but would we be able to close it?"
The oni suddenly began to laugh, loud and proud. Everyone glanced at him, wondering what reason the beast would have to feel so confident right now. The roots were still whipping at him to limit his movement, and the other two shinigami were still slowly immobilizing him. You glanced up at the exposed rows of spiked teeth, grinning toward the sky. He gaped as the pieces started came together for him.
"You plan to send me home," the oni jeered to his attackers, "but I can barely sense the boundary's presence now. The artifact must have been removed to keep me here by someone. I doubt it was my employer, so which one of you scavenged it? Unless it was stolen as a fluke, would that not be ironic."
"Ono...!" Yoko snarled as her bare feet ran along a flying root. "What have you done?!"
"Artifact?" Kazuki gaped at the clearing a moment. His eyes shifted to see with his true eyes. Darting around the area, he saw a faint distortion wafting like a haze ahead of the struggle. The old soul gaped with awe.
"Of course! The Veil was never weak here," Kazuki exclaimed with a smile. "This must be one of the crossways, where humans used to accidentally pass into the Spirit Realm! That explains why it's clear just here! The passage gives off a presence! If an enchanted item were placed at the right point, it would open for easy access on either side!"
"But who would take it?" Akiko asked with concern. She lifted them a bit higher after seeing the oni glance their way.
"What did you do with it, Ono?!" Yoko yelled, flipping over a root to land behind him. "I saw you take something from the rift! Where is it?!"
"I seriously have no idea what you're talking about, Yoko," You grunted, trying to keep the oni still for Mei to attack.
"How could you possibly not remember something like that?!"
"He probably blacked out again," Mei groaned after landing a hit at the base of the oni's neck. "He does that every now and then."
"Mei-chan...! That's supposed to stay between us!"
"Well, if we don't find it, we can't access the Veil!" Yoko channeled her shadow into ropes again. "Try anchoring him until we can secure the item's location! I will beat it out of you, Ono!"
Just when the shinigami started to try their new course of action, the sound of wings flapping reached Akiko and Kazuki. The two glanced behind them to see Karura. He was holding something close to himself as he approached.
"Dad," Akiko asked softly, "what's that?"
"Forgive me for intruding," the tennin said with a hint of guilt, "but I could not help overhearing you humming in your room after dinner tonight. I also heard you playing this."
Karura extended his arms to reveal the biwa she had brought home. The tennyo gaped at the gift from Grandmother, worried it might get damaged in the struggle. As her amethyst orbs trembled at the instrument, Kazuki gave her hand a squeeze.
"Aki-chan," his voice radiated with joy, "is that true? Were you really singing?"
"Well... it wasn't my song, but I thought it might inspire me to reflect on it. Nothing reacted though, so it's no good."
"Any song of deep meaning can bring about miracles, Akiko. You must try though. Not just for this moment, you must not surrender your voice in defeat. Your song will not be silenced as long as you do not give in to your sorrow." Karura said with a sad smile. "I know of one song that neither one of us will ever forget slumbers in your heart now."
"Even if I could sing, what good would it do? I've never used it other than practicing with Mother."
"Your voice could stimulate the rift long enough to drive the oni inside. Once you stop, he should not be able to return."
Gawking back at her father, Akiko searched his face for what song he meant. She barely recalled any music from Tendou, and until today, she had never cared much for other songs. What hymn slept within her?
"Aki-chan," Kazuki took both her hands in his, "we never forget their lullabies, right?"
Tears welled up in the tennyo's eyes. How could she have forgotten that song? Every night it played in the gardens, whether her mother had company or not. Her father was right to say they couldn't forget it. It was beautiful.
"Mr. Ono! Miss Takahashi! Miss Yamamoto!" Kazuki called from above. Karura carried him above the struggle to reach them. All three glanced up from their infighting at the call of his voice. "When you hear the signal, get ready to throw the bastard back home!"
"What's the plan?" Mei yelled back.
"That's it!" Kazuki called back, flailing his hands in front of him. "Just get him through when the Veil opens! It'll be pretty obvious for you guys, but wait for the signal to start!"
"How will we know it?" Yoko asked, perplexed at the lack of detail to this plan.
"Don't worry," the old soul said with a grin. "You'll know it when it comes!"
The shinigami glanced at one another quickly before returning their attention to the oni. He seemed to be trying to see behind him. You ripped his ofuda slip off the wound, producing a vicious scream from the beast. The mystic grinned at the distraction.
"Just like a bandage, right? Ha!"
"Good thinking, You," Mei said as she gripped the oni's wild mane. "Make him hysterical while we wait!"
"At least, the wound is clotted," Yoko sighed from where she was securing her shadow ropes around the enemy's legs.
"Thank you, Yoko!"
Inside the cover of trees, Akiko sat next to their kodama friend. Sitting in a traditional pose, she took a deep breath. The biwa neck rested against her shoulder as the bowl sat in her lap. Kazuki and her father seemed confident that she could do this, but she couldn't help feeling doubtful. So much was at stake if she flopped. Butterflies were an understatement about this performance.
Just before her nerves got the better of her, a soft glow crawled up to her free shoulder. The kodama seemed to be glancing up at her face. Akiko bit her lip as she stared back at the little kami.
"I'm sorry," she said softly. "I promised to sing for you, but I haven't in so long. What if I can't?"
"Akiko wants to sing, yes?" The tiny voice whispered in her ear. "Akiko can do anything she wants. We know it."
Smiling as her friend hugged her earlobe, the tennyo was reminded of all the encouragement she had received. Grandmother, Tsune, the kodama, her father, and Kazuki all believed in her. Closing her eyes, Akiko thought about the last time she had felt music in her heart. A warm smile with sad eyes as a calloused hand reached out to her...
Little by little, you’ll find your footing. It just takes a first step to start that journey. Come on.
Fingers pressed the neck frets as the plectrum struck the strings of the biwa. A steady rhythm echoed for a moment, repeating over and over. The kodama sat on her shoulder when she inhaled to begin.
"Sleep, sleep in the darkness, where all may rest with care."
The voice reached the clearing. Everyone paused. Even the oni froze at the sound.
"Wake, wake in the morning to breathe the fresh, clean air."
Karura closed his eyes as tears welled up. Kazuki beamed with pride at the steady singing. The flailing roots calmed their swarm. The shinigami glanced at one another, realizing what was happening.
"Rise, rise with the dew, and bask in warm sunlight."
The oni gaped at the center of the clearing. He sensed energy growing from the Veil. No one had prepared him for this. How could a mere voice conjure up the power to open the way through the boundary?
"And when the sun does set for you, embrace a sweet goodnight."
The same light Yoko had seen before began to radiate from the rift. Instead of the sparks from before, this manifestation of energy levitated in place as it grew outward. She could almost make out faint specks drifting away into the night. As Akiko repeated her song, the point swelled larger and quicker, along with the tennyo's confidence which grew with each round.
"Mei-chan," You called through his awe, "get back!"
"Right!" The youth flipped backward.
"You're up, Yoko!"
The clearing gleamed bright as day when You released the stunned oni, ducking out of the way. The roots moved away as the last shinigami made a mad dash for the beast. Jumping for a power kick, Yoko ground her teeth as she channelled all of her strength into that one leg. Her bare left foot connected with the oni's lower back, sending him forward into the light. As the yokai was engulfed in the rift, Kazuki cupped his hands around his lips.
"Akiko! He's through!"
Silence fell instantly. Just as quickly, the Veil's glow faded away. Glancing around the clearing, everyone gaped in surprise. Aside from the upturned earth from the now retreating roots, there was no sign of the oni's tainted blood in the grass. The sound of late-night animals had returned, as if the altercation had never happened. Peace had returned with just a song.
"Akiko has very pretty voice," the kodama cheered from his perch.