Prince of Meido
The gurgle of bubbling magma formed a rhythmic sound as Yoko walked toward a menacing pagoda surrounded by lava rivers and jagged mountain ranges. Impish oni sneered at her as she made her way passed them on the jagged, mountain road. Spiked teeth grinned up at the attractive woman. One was foolish enough to take a swipe at her leg, but a quick twitch of her shadow relieved the red beast of his hand. He rolled down the path, screeching in horror, but the shinigami paid him no mind. The pervert got his just deserts.
Once she reached a path of torii arches, the oni finally left her alone. Instead, there were other monsters wandering about the rocky grounds. Most were animal-human hybrids of some sort. Others were horrifically disfigured looking spirits. None of them dared to cross the path of the arches, for the thick, hemp, shimenawa rope marked the way of the shinigami to lead the newly dead. Reaching the pagoda entry, shadows pulled the doors open to allow her entry. With her head held high, Yoko made her way for the central staircase.
The main floor was littered with anxious souls, stern yokai, and exhausted shinigami. Here, souls awaited their turn before one of the 12 judges of the dead. Trials were brief, since shinigami presented the soul's record of death to the bailiff. Every so often, a soul would require additional review, forwarding them onto the supreme judge, the Great King of Meido and Jigoku, Enma. Yoko sighed with satisfaction in the tense atmosphere. Things seemed normal on the courthouse floor.
The second story was where she made a left toward the shinigami department. More civil oni busied themselves here, carrying scrolls, candles, and other supplies. They bowed in Yoko’s direction, and she returned the gesture in kind. Passing rows of office doors and conference rooms, she paused at a large door at the end of the hall. Her eyes smiled at the thought of being summoned here today.
“I have come as requested, Lord Prince.”
The doors parted, revealing an occupied, office space. Shelves and bins of scrolls and tomes lined the walls. A large, dark wood desk was blanketed in small piles of scrolls, flattened with paperweights, scattered about. An altar - venerating two, ancient statues - sat toward the back of the room. The youthful inhabitant glanced up from his work as Yoko walked in. Dressed in a white kimono, pale blue hakuma trousers, and a black, jinbaori vest gave him a high-ranking, religious impression. He offered the shinigami a tired smile.
“Welcome home, Yoko,” he said cheerfully. His voice was youthful, but his tone carried maturity. “You have been working diligently as of late. How are our tennin friends faring?”
“Thank you, Lord Eiji.” She bowed low at the waist, conveying her high regard for the other. “The tennin are well for now, but I am concerned with this movement of oni in their town. Ono informed me of his concerns, but Akiko refuses to leave.”
“Perhaps she has found something worth holding onto,” Eiji commented with a hint of hope. “Karura did say attachment could be of help to her in her journey of self-discovery, but I have sidetracked myself from your newest requests today. Would you mind explaining who these Suzuki Takashi and Kazuki are and how they relate to the tennin?”
“That is what I intend to investigate now that I have returned.” The shinigami rose to her proper posture before continuing. “Suzuki Takashi seems to be the current life of a mortal that claims his true name is Kazuki. I have never encountered nor heard of a mortal with perfect recollection of their past lives as he does. He wishes to help the tennin escape their life in hiding.”
“I presume you have tested his merit.” Eiji smiled with amusement. He could just imagine the ringer she had thrown the poor soul through.
“Yes.” Her eyes fell to the tiled floor. Recalling his reaction made the guilt spring up again. She felt even more ashamed in her lord’s presence, knowing his stance on souls.
“Yoko? Has something happened?” Eiji stared back at her humbled stance. She had only shown this level of meekness when she first came to this office to receive her charter as a shinigami. While he was impressed that this mortal could remind her of the weight on her shoulders, he had to wonder what kind of soul they possessed.
“My lord... have you ever encountered a soul that produced a light that overpowered a shinigami’s shadow?”
“That would be a potent light indeed,” the youthful director commented. Sitting back in his chair, he stared up at the ceiling of his office to consider his answer carefully. “Are you saying his inner light overpowered your mara then?”
“I see where this concerns you,” Eiji said in a sympathetic tone. Yoko was one of their strongest shinigami, and her instincts were rarely off. If she felt the need to test a soul, only to be overwhelmed, her confidence would take quite a toll. “Tell me why you felt the need to test him. If he possesses such dominating light, perhaps there was another reason you were drawn to investigate him.”
Yoko looked up at Eiji’s purple eyes. He was smiling back at her, waiting for her thoughts. She had been so caught up in the event that she had failed to look at the circumstances. What a rookie mistake.
“When I first encountered him,” Yoko started to retrace her steps for the director, “he was already inside the tennin’s residence. Karura said that he trusted the youth with their lives, but he did not divulge why. I sensed something was wrong with his energy, as if he were hiding something. I thought he was concealing his true form, so I asked some questions.
“He said that he had helped rescue Akiko from the oni that abducted her two decades ago. Both Karura and Akiko corroborated that he was the detective that had died that day, Fujimoto Mamoru. That was when he explained he was an old soul that recalled his past lives and skills. This concerned me further, but he was quite forthcoming with information. I did not know what to make of him, so I decided to test his soul. It did not go as I expected.”
“I see,” Eiji said once Yoko finished. “Perhaps it was not your investigative instincts at play but your shinigami ones.”
“How do you mean, my lord?”
“As a shinigami, it is your responsibility to shepherd souls here to be reborn. Your very nature seeks them out. You say that he is a long-lived soul, so it might very well be that you discovered a lost, wandering one.”
The smile on his face told Yoko that he was proud of her, but she hardly felt worthy of being praised after the reaction Kazuki had to her mara. If what he said was true though, could this soul be trapped somehow? He mentioned he had crossed the supernatural in numerous lifetimes. It was possible he had become ensnared or been changed in an encounter.
“His light was not the only thing that... moved me, Lord Prince.”
“Really? What else was there?”
“He saw my... mara within my shadow,” Yoko hugged herself just remembering his face. “He saw my death.”
Eiji gaped back at her. That was something very interesting. He stood from his desk to approach her. A shinigami’s demise was a very sensitive matter. Years of progress to move forward could be overturned with a revelation like this. He put his hands on her tremulous shoulders, smiling gently.
“I hope he did not insult your pain, Yoko.”
“No,” she said quickly, shaking her head to emphasize her answer, “he apologized! He said that he knew I wasn’t a bad person, and that my death spoke to my pride in my work. He wept for me, master. I feel horrible for doubting his motives. I don’t know how to digest his words.”
Eiji embraced her as a parent would a child. Petting her chestnut hair, he smiled. Hearing this frustration was a sign of growth to come. This Kazuki was truly something to induce healing in a shinigami’s mara.
“Accept them. He meant to encourage you, Yoko. You said he was moved by your devotion and will, correct? He holds no negativity toward you, so there is no need to burden yourself so.” He leaned back to look her in the eye. Her tremors had stilled. “Focus on how you can help him in return. That is my counsel on the matter.”
“Thank you, Lord Eiji.”
“I will see that these records are retrieved,” the director said as he walked back to his desk. The back of his noble vest revealed the emblem of the House of Meido. “For reference, I will request Fujimoto Mamoru as well for you as an err on the side of caution. I’m not certain it will be simple to trace back to Kazuki’s true name as he did not provide a family name, but the oni are quite skilled at locating records.”
“Thank you for indulging my concerns, Lord Eiji,” Yoko said as she bowed once more. Her master embraced all of his shinigami with love. It was a trait he had inherited from his mother. She was grateful to serve such a deity. “If Ono is still here, I would have a word with him before he sees Mr. Kazuki this evening.”
“That would be advantageous to you both. I will grant you permission to look into Mr. Kazuki at your leisure. He might give you time should he prove helpful with our celestial friends. Until next time, be well, Yoko.”
Yoko rose from her bow to leave. She paused as she turned to smile at him. The god had a way of warming their souls, and during incidents such as this, they were grateful for his compassion. His father was not the doting type, so they thanked Tendou daily that someone could love the Hell King.
The day went on without any further incidents. Considering he was back in the supernatural saddle, normal life was somewhat underwhelming for Kazuki. He was used to the college scene from his last life, and it hadn’t changed much in the past few decades. He had registered with the administrative office and checked in with his club president. All in all, it didn’t feel much different from high school to him. He hoped the shinigami coming tonight would bring some excitement.
As a host, he felt he should at least offer the guardian something. Based on Yoko’s uptight personality, he could just imagine how high strung others were these days. The world was getting more desperate with each generation, so shinigami had their hands full raking in the lost souls. Tea and buns sounded like a good idea.
Glancing around his apartment, he realized he hadn’t done any unpacking today. He had spent most of it with the tennin and shinigami, so his few boxes were just sitting on the floor of the one-bedroom. At least, they were in their respective spaces. His mother had the foresight to pick an apartment within his allowance with a private bathroom and kitchen.
Unpacking the kitchen, he washed some cups and plates. Without knowing when the shinigami would arrive, the old soul set the dishes aside to air dry, as he hadn’t washed the new towel set his sister picked out. That was one of the nice things about reincarnating. He got to make so many good memories with real families of his own. Though it hurt to part with them, he was happy with the time they gave him.
A knock at his balcony made him pause. Fortunately, he had amazing hearing, or he would never have noticed over the sound of crumpling, packing paper. He walked out to the main living space, seeing a man waving back at him with a silly grin. Oh, this should be good.
“You must be the shinigami Miss Takahashi mentioned,” Kazuki said, sliding the glass door open. “I’m Kazuki. Please come in.”
“Ono You! I’m happy to make your acquaintance, Mr. Kazuki!” The shinigami pulled his dress loafers off before crossing the threshold. His abundant excitement and brilliant smile were nothing Kazuki had envisioned in a shinigami, a pleasant disappointment. “I can’t tell you how excited I was to hear someone like you lives in town. These oni are a lot to handle, and my partner is on rotation right now. Talk about bad timing...”
Kazuki unwrapped his kotatsu as the man rambled for a moment, hoping he wouldn’t notice how unprepared the apartment was. It gave him a moment to size him up a bit. Something familiar struck him about him. Was it the personality? The name? He was probably just overthinking. Unfolding the legs, he set the table down quietly before the shinigami glanced over at him.
“Do you need some help? Yoko mentioned you just moved, so I hope I’m not holding you up.”
“It’s fine,” Kazuki answered with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I got the keys today, and after the boxes got put in, I headed over to the Tennin’ residence. That’s how I met Miss Takahashi. I have some iced tea and sweet buns to offer, so please take a seat. Sorry the floor futon isn’t unpacked yet.”
“Oh no,” You said with awe as he sat down, “you’ve already been more than a gracious host. For just moving, you seem pretty relaxed in a new town.”
“Well, I’m fairly used to moving. Let me get the snacks, so we can talk about this oni situation. I understand they showed up a little over a week ago with the last New Moon.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” You commented, impressed that Kazuki seemed knowledgeable about the situation already. “The first death was a young woman around that time. When we spoke with her back at the office, she said a monster had attacked her suddenly. She didn’t even have time to scream.”
Kazuki listened to the shinigami as he poured tea. The sweet buns had been warming in the oven, so the glaze glistened as steam wafted off them. He loaded up a tray to carry to the table, kneeling to set the place in front of his guest before himself.
“How many victims have there been since?” His tone was calm, but he was clearly saddened to even ask.
“Ten. I’ve tried reaching out to the local police precinct. I’m considered a private detective in town, but they’re at a loss themselves. I can’t exactly say it's a supernatural crime, but even the coroner says a big animal had to be responsible for these murders. The signature with the throat just seems primal, and the wounds are from teeth, big ones.”
“That sounds like oni.” Kazuki finally sat down, tapping his cheek as he rested his chin in his palm. “I assume your office spoke with all of the victims’ souls.”
“Mhm.” You said with his mouth full of a sweet bun. He swallowed before continuing. “Most of them claimed to have not seen their attacker, but it was the last victim yesterday that mentioned black skin and horns.”
“Black oni again?”
“Are you familiar with this type of oni, Mr. Kazuki?”
“Well, red, blue, and green are the most common, and they're either servants of King Enma or rogue mischief-makers,” the host explained, pausing to sip some tea. “The yellow ones are as clever as humans, which usually makes them smart enough to fend for themselves without drawing attention. The black ones reincarnated with the worst karma, so they’re natural lapdogs for bigger fish.”
“So,” You stared back at Kazuki in disbelief, “these oni were sent here to slaughter women? What being would order something like that in this age?”
“It’s not completely unheard of. Yokai still pop in and out of the Spirit Realm to get things from the Mortal Realm,” he replied casually. “Still, from what my kodama friend told me, they are on a mission to find a bride of some sort.”
“A kodama? There’s an active kodama here?” You gawked back at Kazuki. His honey orbs sparkled like a child at the news. “If I’d known we had one, I would have asked forever ago! Where’s the tree? I haven’t noticed any shimenawa marking kodama for a while. It’s got to be ancient, right?”
“I wouldn’t say ancient, but the little one is old. The tree is in the park near the Tennin' residence, the one with the hiking trails.”
“Oh, wow! I’ll have to introduce myself. I haven’t seen a kodama in so long,” the shinigami said with a smile. Shaking his head, he tried to refocus. “Anyway, back to the matter at hand. If they are looking for someone specifically, like Miss Akiko, that would make sense with my original theory.”
“What were you thinking, Mr. Ono?”
“The victims all had dark hair, dark enough to look black from a distance. Slender frames and fashion scarves were the other similarities, but those are the only common traits. That was why I reached out to Yoko, since she checks in with the stationed shinigami in the district the tennin live in.” Glancing into his cup, he frowned. “If it's a bride they want, why kill these women? It’s not right.”
Kazuki whipped his head around, gaping at the front door. You stared back at him a moment, wondering what he had done. The mortal bolted for the entrance, opening it as quickly as he could. The shinigami stood to follow after him into the hallway.
“Mr. Kazuki! What’s wrong?”
“Can’t you hear that?!” Kazuki looked stressed as he raced for the stairs.
“The screaming!” The mortal glared back at him as he pulled the door open. “Someone’s calling for help!”