The two rushed down the stairwell to the floor below, where faint screaming finally reached You’s ears. The shinigami was impressed that Kazuki had heard the cries from so far away. Such acute senses must be part of the skills Yoko had mentioned to him. As soon as Kazuki opened the door, they found the victim grasped around her neck from behind by a black oni. Her gaping obsidian eyes rolled back into her skull as the lack of oxygen ended her struggle.
“Stop!” Kazuki yelled, running straight toward the beast without hesitation.
The yokai looked up, startled by the authoritative voice. He had just lifted his prey to sink his teeth into the young woman’s neck. Punching the oni between the eyes, Kazuki grabbed the victim as the assailant stumbled backward. The youth held the woman close, hoping he had stunned it long enough to think up a plan.
The shinigami blinked in awe at the ambitious rescue a moment before shaking his head to refocus. They still had a powerful enemy in front of them. Waving his right hand, an ofuda talisman appeared between his fingers. Pointing it straight ahead, his eyes hardened in the oni’s direction.
“Spirits of Wind,” he called, “engulf my foe!”
Kazuki carried the unconscious woman back toward the stairwell, staring at the oni as a whirlwind encircled him. He could only assume the shinigami was trying not to damage the building with more destructive elements. Having failed to pick up his seeds and bokken, he had to hope You could hold the beast long enough to get the woman to safety.
“By order of the Shinigami Charter,” You spoke in a serious voice as he approached slowly, “I release you to the court’s judgment.”
“You think... a little wind... can stop... me...?!” The oni struggled to breathe, stumbling toward the shinigami against the gusts. While strong, the wind did little to hinder the yokai’s brute strength. “Pathetic... magic...!”
The guardian ground his teeth as he tried to stand firm. He didn’t want to cause a scene, attracting potential victims for the beast. What other choice did he have though? Kazuki had the woman a good distance away, but it wasn’t safe enough to do much more than elemental attacks. As the yokai reared back for a bite, You threw up his arm reflexively to shield himself. The teeth sunk into his forearm, but the shinigami didn’t cry out as blood seeped through his sleeve.
You glanced up at the oni. His shadow vanished beneath his feet. Kazuki gaped, recalling Yoko had done the same thing to him earlier that day. The oni squealed like a frightened pig as his own shadow shot up like blades, impaling him upright just off his feet in the air.
Black blood swirled about on the gusts a moment, as if trying to keep the hall clean of the taint. Flipping the talisman around his fingers, wind drew the black ribbon into the paper. The white paper turned black, absorbing the oni’s excessive bleeding before bursting into black flames. You released it before it could burn him though.
“Now then,” the shinigami said with a relieved grin, pulling his arm out of the spiky teeth, “before I let you die, you will tell me the purpose of these murders. I can make this hurt a lot worse before you stand before the judge.”
Kazuki stared back at the beast, wondering how much more pain he could stand. The oni looked anxious, trying to free himself from the snare. The blade-like shadows pushed further into the body with his struggle. You frowned at the silence.
“Tell me what bride you’re after!” You growled, glaring into the black orbs.
“Oh...” The oni grinned at the statement. “You know that much...? My brothers are still looking... We’ll find her... soon enough...”
“What bride?” Kazuki asked in a commanding voice.
A chill breathed on You’s neck, sprouting goosebumps all over his skin. It was a fight-or-flight sensation when one felt danger. He was afraid to turn around, but the oni’s drained expression told him that was probably for the best. Having just met Kazuki, he did not want to assume anything, but there was no way a normal human could give off such a presence, not in his experience...
“The unpaired bird...” The oni spoke in a small voice. He almost sounded as if he were under some kind of suggestion.
“The Karyoubinga?” Kazuki pressed for clarification.
“Who sent you? Who wants the Karyoubinga dead?”
“Not dead...” The beast muttered as he started to fade. “Captured...”
“Why are you killing these women then?” You asked in a stunned voice. The honey-brown irises gaped into the empty red ones, searching for purpose or reason. If they weren’t supposed to kill their target, why the slaughter?
“To... call... the... bride...”
The oni slumped dead on the shadowed blades. You gawked in anger at the revelation. These poor souls were just to stir up the tennyo girl? As the shadow shifted to engulf the oni, the shinigami trembled with rage. He had to squeeze his eyes shut to hold in hot tears. So much loss of life for no purpose boiled his blood.
“Mr. Ono,” Kazuki spoke in a relieved tone, “she’s alive.”
You gaped, spinning around to see for himself. Though bruised around the back of her neck, the woman was breathing normally in her sleep. The shinigami slumped to the ground, crying tears of relief.
“Thank goodness...” He whimpered softly into his palms. “We finally saved one...”
Kazuki and You knelt on either side of the woman as her eyes fluttered open. The black pools glanced between the two of them a moment. They looked concerned, but she was beginning to worry about her own well-being. This was not her apartment.
“Thank goodness you’re coming around.” You smiled down at her place on the floor of Kazuki’s apartment. “When I was interviewing Mr. Suzuki here, we heard a scream and came to help. I’m just grateful we made it in time to scare that guy off.”
“Scream?” She paused as her memory started to clear up. A sharp gasp escaped her as she covered her lips in fright. She sat up quickly with a grunt. Tears welled up in her eyes, recalling what had almost happened to her. “I thought... I thought I was...”
“Everything will be all right,” Kazuki said in a soft voice. He touched her shoulder softly, holding up a warm cup of tea. “You’re safe now.”
She glanced back at the youth. His smile was warm and comforting. Nodding in thanks for the drink, she held it in both hands, staring back at him anxiously.
“Is this still my building? I’m sorry, but I’m not familiar with your face. Have we met?”
“Oh, that’s fine,” he replied with a light laugh. “I just moved in today. I’m Suzuki Takashi. I’m starting the early admission for the Summer semester at the university. I’m pleased to meet you, miss.”
“I’m Yukiko,” she said with relief in her voice, “Sato Yukiko. I’m in my third year at the university myself. I hope I can be of help to you.”
“Well, that’s one way to get to know your neighbors,” You said, cheerfully. His honey eyes grew sad as before redirecting the conversation. “My name is Ono You. I’m a private investigator looking into a case that seems to involve you, Miss Sato. If you think you can, could you tell us what happened tonight? I understand if you still need time to process everything, but time is of the essence.”
Yukiko turned back at the question. As much as she didn’t really want to discuss her attack with strangers, the thought that she was one of many victims focused her resolve. Gripping her cup to sip the fruit-infused green tea, she nodded her head slightly.
“I was on my way back to my apartment from the library,” she said, thinking back on her evening. “I’m working on a paper over break for a scholarship. While I was walking home, I thought I heard someone behind me. I didn’t see anyone, but when I got to my building, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.”
“How did you manage to get up to the second floor?” You asked, curiously. The front entry was accessible only to residents, and visitors had to use a code or wait to be let inside. They had found Yukiko in the second floor hall near the stairwell. That was quite a distance to outrun a yokai as fast as an oni.
“I waited until... I knew he paused behind me. I swiped my electric key and rushed inside, pushing it closed to lock.” The young woman curled her legs up to her chest, trying to recall what happened. “I didn’t stop to see if he was stuck. I ran straight for the elevator and rode to my floor, but he smashed a window and got in before I could get to my door.”
“I see.” Kazuki mulled over the details a moment. “That must have been the scream I heard. I can only imagine how startling that must have been for you, Miss Sato. I’m glad we made it in time.”
“‘In time’?” Yukiko whimpered as she looked at Kazuki. “Do you have any idea what that thing was? I’ve never seen a monster in person, but I swear it was an ogre or something.”
Kazuki glanced up at You. The shinigami returned the gaze. He could help with this part. His shadow shifted toward Yukiko’s on the floor. As the two fused, her black eyes glazed over in a daze.
“That man in black was frightening,” You said in a soothing voice as he touched her shoulder, “but before he could harm you, Suzuki and I arrived. Suzuki carried you away while I chased him. He managed to escape, but he won’t return to harm you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ono.”
Kazuki watched the two a moment. This was memory augmentation, a form of suggestion the shinigami used to protect the living. He had seen it before in other lives, but You’s method was different. The shinigami was gentle, comforting even. Most guardians just changed memories, but he helped the soul accept the change. In Kazuki’s experience, this would help make the altered memories take root easier. Yukiko might even release the fear completely at some point.
“Please, you should thank Mr. Suzuki,” the shinigami replied. Grinning wickedly, he added, “He ran in fearlessly to punch the guy in the face!”
“Mr. Ono...” Kazuki sighed heavily. That part wasn’t really needed, was it?
“Thank you,” Yukiko said, looking back at Kazuki. Her eyes stared into his with pure innocence. “I owe you my life, Suzuki-kun.”
The youth flushed a bit, seeing how kind she was at her core. He was uncertain if he wanted to be the target of such purity. He loved humans, but his unique existence drew a wide gorge between him and other mortals. He had only been able to connect on a deeper level with a few over his lifetimes. Those outside of mortal limits understood a soul such as him best. Humans, especially the pure, struggled to reach him. That left him feeling dishonest. He did not care for lies.
“It was just the right thing to do, Miss Sato. Living your life to the fullest is the best repayment I could receive. Is there anything else I can get for you before I walk you home?”
“Perhaps one more cup of tea,” she answered, awestruck by his reply. “I think the company is helpful as well. Thank you.”
“I’ll go put my kettle back on then.”
As Kazuki stood to walk back to the kitchen, Yukiko turned to You. The man was dressed in a professional, three-piece suit without a tie. He had a youthfulness in his posture that made her smile. Despite the harrowing incident she had survived, these kind men had restored her peace for the night.
“Oh,” You blinked, reaching inside his jacket, “let me give you my card. If you think of anything or just feel anxious he might be back, give me a call. Like I said, I’m investigating similar incidents, and I want to restore peace to our town’s hearts and minds.”
“I’ll do that,” Yukiko said as she accepted the business card. She glanced over it a moment: Meifu Investigation Agency. “Thank you, Mr. Ono. Will you be leaving then?”
“I want to check on a few things, yeah.” He stood from his place next to the kotatsu. He glanced toward the balcony door for his shoes, but he noticed Kazuki had already moved them to the entry. Clever kid. “I’ll check back soon though. In the meantime, I’m sure Suzuki will be more than happy to look in on you from time to time. It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Sato.”
“Oh, thank you again!” she said, trying to get up to see the man to the door. A hiss passed her lips as her neck and upper back ached. “I guess I’ll have to take it easy. Forgive me for not walking you to the door.”
“It’s perfectly fine. You’re a guest here after all.” He leaned toward the kitchen. “I’m heading out, Suzuki! I’ll be in touch!”
“Oh! Sorry that took so long,” Kazuki called as he hurried out. Wiping his damp hands on a dishcloth, he shook You’s hand. “I’ll see Miss Sato home. Thank you for your help.”
“No, thank you for agreeing to help us. I’ll see you soon.”
Yukiko watched as Kazuki closed the door behind You. She mulled over what they had told her from their perspective. What had this investigator been interviewing the young student about? Did he have some connection to the case? The man had said he punched her attacker in the face, making her flush at the brazen action.
Her new neighbor seemed mature for just starting university. He had to be either eighteen or nineteen, but he seemed about the detective’s age in speech and behavior. If he was helping the detective, she felt some reassurance to have him so close to home.
“Suzuki-kun,” Yukiko said when he returned to the kotatsu, “I can’t thank you enough for helping me. I feel I should do something to repay you. You mentioned you just moved in. Can I make you something?”
“You don’t have to, Miss Sato,” Kazuki said as he set the tea pot on the table. “But I suppose if it would make you feel better, I would be grateful.”
“Wonderful.” She smiled warmly. “I hope I can redeem myself as a senpai after this. I’ll give you a tour of the campus, so you can find all the snack machines and the best places to relax between classes.”
“That sounds like fun. I look forward to it.”
After seeing Yukiko home safely, Kazuki headed for the window the oni had broken into. The window was smashed inward, and the scratch marks supported the theory that the oni had climbed inside. It was toward the other end of the hall, so he could understand how he had missed this noise, talking with the energetic You. He frowned though, for no one had come out to notice it yet.
Rolling the details of the incident with the kodama’s information around his thoughts, something bothered him. The fact that no one had come to help a woman’s screams for help seemed strange. It was one thing on a street where no one was close enough to hear. This was an apartment building. How had he been the only one to hear a whole floor away? It was as if no one was noticing these crimes.
Walking outside the entrance, he noted the claw marks in the metal door frame. The glass must have been bulletproof or something to not shatter under the impact of oni’s claws. His mother would be pleased to hear how strong the doors were here, keeping oni at bay. He sniffed at the scratches a moment, sighing heavily at his discovery.
“Ono and Takahashi should know about this.” He pulled out his cellphone, realizing he hadn’t received contact information from either You or Yoko. How had You even found his home? He shook his head with amusement, swiping his electric key to go back inside.
“Guess I’ll leave a message for maintenance first after calling the police then.”
You yawned, stretching as he walked toward the desks. Back in the home office, there were rows of writing desks in each branch’s room. Each shinigami had their own, and it reflected what best suited their soul. You hardly occupied his, but it reflected his simple needs. The desk he was looking for was possibly one of the most elaborate ones in the Japanese branch.
“Yoko...” One more yawn before he continued. “I’m back.”
“Well, will he be of any help to you, Ono?” She looked up from her dark wood desk, covered in organization stations and drawers. Her already serious expression soured further. “Why are you so tired? Were you wasting time again?”
“First,” You held up his left forefinger, alluding to a multi-part answer, “Mr. Kazuki is amazing! He has insane senses, and he helped me rescue a woman from an oni! I think he let me take the kill on purpose. He has an aura like Lord Eiji on a mass casualty day...”
“You managed to kill one?” Yoko gripped the back of her chair, but a second finger went up in her direction, making her pause.
“Second, it took a lot out of me to hold the oni before sending him in. He fought me, but I didn’t want to use water spirits in an occupied apartment complex.” He rubbed between his eyes as he put up a third finger on the same hand.
“Lastly,” he glanced back at Yoko to see her face when he broke the news, “we were right. There are two more oni in town, hunting an ‘unpaired bird’ as a bride. When they find someone that resembles the profile, they stalk her, killing her if she turns out to be the wrong prey. It’s a calling card to stir up the tennyo, the throat biting.”
Yoko stared hard at You. Everything in her wanted to pack them up and go now, but Akiko was determined to stay put. She would have to increase her watches. Hopefully, Kazuki could assist in some fashion or other.
You blinked as the fog encroached upon him. Had he really pushed himself that much, or was this something else? He suddenly noticed how wet his right hand was at his side, pulling it up for a look. Blood was seeping down his fingers.
“Oh... that’s why I’m tired.”
“What were you thinking?! An oni’s saliva is venomous!” She jumped up to pull his jacket off his right arm. Tearing the sleeve up, she exposed the bite wound. Pulling a pin from her hair bun, she set to work, digging deep into the muscle.
You watched her, blinking at the first aid. Some other shinigami looked toward them, wondering what was going on. He waved with a sluggish smile as she dug around in his arm. Finally, she pulled the pin back to stare at his wound.
“There’s no sign of infection or inflammation. How is that possible?”
“Like I said,” he said, patting her on the shoulder, “that’s why I’m tired. It’s part of my art. I’ll just have to sleep this one off.” He yawned once again. “Can you help Mr. Kazuki with the oni till I’m rested? This might take me a day or two to wake up.”
“It can hardly be helped,” she replied in an exhausted tone. “Any other leads you can give me before you lie down?”
“Well, I don’t know if it will help, but when I was scouting the area from the apartment back toward the library, I noticed that the crime scenes seem to be closing in on the tennin’s neighborhood. Focus on your case, and I’ll see if Mei can... get off rotation...”
“Thank you, Ono.” Yoko sat back down in her chair, considering her next move. Her side investigation into Kazuki would have to wait.
“Hey, we all work for the same thing,” You said, smiling at her. “You’ve been off duty for two centuries. That’s crazy. We’re here to help.”
“Go to bed, idiot.” Yoko smirked back at him.
“Okay!” He gave her a salute before turning around to leave. He looked drunk on his feet, but that was just a testament to how exhausted he was in reality. Yoko knew she owed him big for this.
“Miss Takahashi,” a red oni in a white yukata approached her after You left, “I didn’t find the files you inquired about. Is there any other method of searching for them?” He looked frustrated as oni were stubborn creatures. They never gave up, and they were eager to please their masters.
“Nothing?” Yoko turned to face the oni. It was unheard of for an oni to turn up no clues in the records. “Do we have any records for souls that vanish?”
“Ah! I could try that! Those are the lost records, as the souls have not been claimed by a shinigami for processing. That would make sense why I couldn’t find any of those names you submitted. Please excuse me.”
The oni bowed and hurried off with excitement. Neither Fujimoto Mamoru or Suzuki Takashi were on file? That seemed strange for someone that was still alive. She had never heard of the lost records before, but she did know the shinigami were created because of such souls. To think there were still some that were wandering after all this time, Yoko furrowed her brow. Lord Eiji had mentioned Kazuki might be one of them.
She had enough on her plate to think about, so she couldn’t shoulder these ideas right now. The tennin were entrusted to her by Prince Eiji and the king. She would not fail to protect them. It was best to leave her questions about Kazuki until the oni retrieved his files. Nothing she could do beforehand anyway.