“I’m off, Dad!”
Akiko called behind her just before closing the front door. Having skipped school the day before, she didn’t want to be late today. She had some acquaintances in her class, but no one that would bring her make-up work. Her distant demeanor made her awkward to approach, and frankly, she wasn’t looking to befriend someone that would forget her after graduation anyway.
This was her life for the past two centuries. A few friendships had popped up, but between the memory augmenting and moving, no one stuck around for long. It had turned the tennyo into a hermit, having only her reclusive father for a confidant. The first to reach out to her and alleviate that isolation had been Kazuki.
As she walked toward her school, she smiled at the thought of her first love returning to her. He even wanted to save her from this redundant existence. She never would have thought something this miraculous could happen to her. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be any crushing disappointments like last time.
The tennyo paused her walk passed the small business strip on the way to her campus. An old antique shop stood out to her. Recalling her promise from the day before, she wondered if an old soul would like an antique mirror.
“I guess I could be a few minutes late...”
Akiko pushed the door in, glancing around the place a moment. There was a lot of stuff out on the counters and tables. The walls were practically covered in art and decorations. Some of the wares looked old enough to make her dad look young. After walking around for a bit, she realized she would never find a hand mirror on her own before the school bell rang.
“Excuse me?” She called as she approached the main counter. “Can someone help me?”
A light gasp escaped her as something soft and furry brushed passed her ankle. She hadn’t seen anything when she glanced down. Had she stepped on something? An animal maybe? Was a pet really a good idea in an antique shop to begin with?
“It’s rare to have a customer so early,” an elderly woman’s voice replied from behind a shoji sliding door. “I suppose it's a pleasant surprise to see a youthful caller in my store as well.”
Akiko blinked to see an older woman push the door aside to meet her at the counter. She had to hold her lips closed for a moment. The woman looked ancient, yet her posture was still perfectly poised. Her silvery grayed hair was silky and smooth as well. Though freckles littered her face and hands, the wrinkles did not overtake her features. She reminded Akiko of a well-preserved work of art.
“How can I help you, dear?”
“Oh, yes!” The tennyo shook her head to focus. She was on a time crunch right now. “I was wondering if you had any hand mirrors. I’m looking for something for my...”
Her voice died in her throat. Had she almost called Kazuki her boyfriend? Oh gods! Now, she really felt like high school was messing with her head. The pause made the shop owner tilt her head with a smile.
“Your boyfriend, perhaps? He must have interesting tastes if you came here for a mirror.”
“Well... He’s an old soul. I wanted to get him something with character.”
“I see,” the old woman said with amusement. “I happen to have some mirrors on necklaces in the back. Men do enjoy their chains. They feel their inner beasts are locked away when they wear them.”
Akiko blinked at the statement, wondering what she had meant. Before she could ask, the shopkeeper walked into the back to retrieve a tray of necklaces. The mirrors came in a variety of styles. Most of them were Western in origin, but she figured Kazuki wouldn’t mind the design.
A particular piece caught her eye. It was a pocket watch on a thick, woven chain. The copper color reminded her of amber in sunlight. A pair of angelic wings were carved into the front. Touching them a moment, she remembered her mother’s beautiful wings. Kazuki had called her the Karyoubinga. She wished she could live up to that assumption.
“The inside watch is in perfect working order,” the old woman said when Akiko homed in on the watch. “It was a gift from a foreigner to his lover during the years right after the borders closed. All you need to do is wind it to make it work. I have it in honor of the man who gave it to me. He died, saying he wanted it to stop when he did.”
“He?” Akiko blinked back at the detail. “Oh... I suppose they couldn’t be together back then.”
“No, but he loved this gift to the day he died.” The old woman showed Akiko how to open the hinge, revealing a mirror on the inside panel. “He said he always felt his lover’s warmth in his reflection.”
Akiko gaped. Had it already been used as a magic mirror? If the bond had long died, it should be usable again. Glancing for a price, she realized nothing had a price in the shop.
“Ma’am, how much for the piece?”
“This? I would have to see that it goes to a proper home first. Let me see your right palm.”
“My palm?” Akiko extended her hand, wondering what kind of shop she had walked into at this point. She was not in a position to sell her soul at the moment.
“Ah, what a long lifeline, my dear,” the old woman marveled at the lines in Akiko’s hand. “I see a magnificent love will walk by your side, but this is interesting. It seems your lines intersect. Perhaps your fates are in each other’s hands.”
“A love to walk by my side, huh? That must be him.”
“I would be more than happy to sell this watch to you, but it is expensive. I think a hundred yen a visit would suffice.”
“A hundred yen?!”
“I wish to hear more of this grand love, blooming in your heart. Come see this grandmother whenever something new happens with your next installment.”
Akiko smiled at the old woman warmly. Whether it was a ploy to get her to come back for business or socializing, the tennyo had to admit she liked the idea of coming back here. The shopkeeper was obviously special, and after meeting the kodama, she wanted to see more from these mysteries of the Mortal Realm. She pulled out the price requested, setting it on the counter.
“Give it a good home, dear.” The shopkeep said as she wrapped the watch.
“I’m Akiko, by the way. May I ask your name, ma’am?”
“Just call me Grandmother.”
“Grandmother it is! I’ll see you next time! Take care!”
As Akiko ran out the door, the old woman watched her rush down the sidewalk. A smile rested on her lips of satisfaction. A purring rose up from the floor at her feet, drawing her attention away.
“That was her, wasn’t it, Grandmother?” The little voice sounded excited as a child waiting on a surprise.
“Yes, Tsune,” she replied. “She has yet to awaken, it would seem.”
“I want to hear a tennyo's voice for once!”
A creature leaped up onto the counter beside the old woman. The sandy-colored fur with white underbelly and face led down to brown and black legs and paws. The red markings on the face looked like a theatrical mask. The triangular ears slumped to the sides in disappointment.
“You told me their voices were beautiful, but I want to hear one for myself.”
“Such an impatient kit,” Grandmother laughed as she pet the fox on the head. “Once her song is born, you will be glad she waited for it.”
“If you say so...” The fox purred at the touch.
Kazuki gasped, pulling off his chest armor. As one of the newest additions to the kendo club, he had to undergo an initiation from his senpai. He was mildly amused at their attempts to scare him on the dojo floor, for his skill was centuries ahead of them. They seemed impressed with his resolve, so he guessed he had passed the hazing for the remainder of his college years.
“Where did you learn that swing?”
“Just a trick I picked up practicing back home,” he confessed to the senior. Everyone asked about his technique, but he couldn’t exactly tell them he had picked them up from yokai over the years.
“Well, it just proves why you’re undefeated back in Tokyo," the captain mused as they collected the gear. "What made you come out here for school though? We’re nothing compared to the universities out there.”
“My late uncle lived here," Kazuki admitted with a shrug. "He was a distant relative, but I wanted to see what he liked about living here. You might have heard of him, Fujimoto Mamoru.”
Heads turned toward him at the name mentioned. Kazuki had not expected that reaction. He blinked, waiting for someone to speak up. Their coach finally approached him cautiously.
“You’re related to Fujimoto Mamoru, Suzuki?”
“Yes, sir,” Kazuki replied, innocently. “He was my grand-uncle on my mother’s side. She didn’t know much about him, but I found his name during a family heritage project. Everything I learned about him inspired me, so I thought I would try to get to know him through the path he walked.”
“I knew him years ago,” the coach said in a nostalgic voice. “He didn’t have family around here. His parents were older and passed before he graduated from the police academy. He was my high school senpai in kendo, so I’ll do my best to look after you for him.”
“Thank you, Mr. Narita.”
Kazuki bowed at the waist to hide his surprise. Was their coach really Narita Kenshirou?! He remembered his kouhai well, but he had aged quite a bit. The old soul hadn't even recognized him from the lines in his face and bangs covering his eyes. He hoped his death had not been a cause for that. Rising, he wore a smile on his face.
“That explains your swing!” Another club member roped an arm around his shoulders. “Fujimoto’s sword art was a legend around here, and if you’re related, I bet you’ll break all his old records! Right, coach?”
“Maybe a few will hold up.” Narita grinned tiredly. “Practice is concluded, so finish cleaning the dojo. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
The young men set to work, so they could leave. Classes weren't in session for another week, so they were just maintaining their training. The major tournaments had concluded already, but there were still plenty of offseason matches on the schedule coming up. Kazuki’s sensitive hearing picked up the whispers that he could put them on the map again.
The old soul realized the predicament he'd placed himself in now. He did not expect Narita to be the kendo instructor at the university. Admittedly, he had wanted to see Akiko and Karura more than anything, check on them from time to time, but it really had been a shock that his mother was a distant relation of his last life. It felt like fate to come back here, not that this was his first time returning to a past home.
“All the armor is put away, coach,” Kazuki approached after his shower. “Was there anything else you needed before I head out? Orientation isn’t for a few hours, so I have some free time to spend.”
“Nope,” Narita answered, surprised at how quickly he had finished his chores. “Though if you want to find more about Fujimoto, our library should have some newspaper articles about him. He was an impressive individual. The whole town took his death pretty hard, so you won't be in short supply of reading material.”
“He was the kind of soul that uplifted everyone he met,” Narita said with awe in his voice. Just thinking back brought a nostalgic smile to his face. “Honestly, we couldn’t fathom why he was single. Maybe he was too perfect.”
Kazuki stared blankly as he listened. It wasn’t his first time listening to someone talk about a past him, but the description was interesting. He hadn’t thought he touched everyone, but perhaps that was just his limited perspective. After so many lives across time, perhaps he was going numb to his own behavior. It was also strange to hear an old friend speaks so vaguely about him. Of all people, Kazuki would have thought Narita knew Mamoru better than how he described him.
“I’ll do that,” he spoke up after the coach finished. “I’d love to hear about your time with him. It was strange to find out my mom only knew his name. I guessed he was more of a recluse.”
“Fujimoto? A recluse? No way in hell!” Narita retorted with a grin. “He probably just didn’t know he had family out there.”
“That’s got to be it,” Kazuki replied with a smile, letting the subject drop. “I’ll see you tomorrow then, Mr. Narita.”
Leaving the dojo, Kazuki did exactly as his coach suggested, but he was looking for more recent news. He thought he might be able to pick up some clues from the papers about the recent serial killings. Time was of the essence if he wanted to make Akiko’s hope to see the light.
Scrolling through the online articles, Kazuki tried to look for anything interesting that could make some sense out of these deaths. Oni were huge beasts that normally hid in caves. How had no one noticed them in a town with only forests to hide in? He still recalled the unique scent from the apartment complex, but he wanted to verify his suspicions first.
“Amazing,” he muttered to himself. “Eleven women attacked at night with their throats slit. I guess the police department doesn’t want the town to panic over an unknown animal threat. Not a single witness. No wonder they’re stuck.”
Kazuki sat back in his seat with his notebook, tapping at his scribbles with his No. 2 pencil. Narrowing his eyes, he thought about where all these locations were. He opened a window on the monitor of a town map. The first woman had been near the kodama’s park, and only one victim had fallen that night. The following night had claimed two victims on opposite sides of town, and two more the night after that on the other two opposing sides. There had been no victims the fourth night, but one woman had been found on the fifth a few miles from the park.
“Are they circling the town?” Kazuki mused aloud. The oni had said they were hunting for the tennyo. Their information must have been limited to this town somewhere. The victims were mistaken identities turned to calling cards, which made this personal for whoever sent them. “Why such a grandiose display of dominance though?”
The clock bell rang from the main building, tearing him from his thoughts. He closed out of his windows before grabbing his backpack and heading for the auditorium. He sure had burned through two hours without much effort. Kazuki had taken all the notes he would get from the papers. After orientation, it was time to hit the pavement.
An hour later, Sato Yukiko sat down at the very computer Kazuki had left. She plugged in her external hard drive to start on her paper. Opening the browser, she clicked the web address bar before typing. A search history dropped, making her blink. The last user must not have cleared the browser history. Her breath caught in her throat at the keywords: recent unsolved women deaths.
“Is someone looking into that stalker from last night?”
Yukiko wondered if someone on campus was trying to play detective. While she had been helped, she remembered the detective said there were others that had not been so lucky. She stood to approach the librarian’s desk.
“Excuse me,” she asked the young man at the desk, “could you tell me who used the computer I checked out last?”
The youth nodded innocently. Pulling up the computer log on a tablet, he found the name without much trouble. Not many had come in today. Since students needed to log in with their student numbers, the log recorded everyone that used the computers. He handed the tablet over to the junior.
Yukiko gaped at the name. What was her new neighbor looking into? She returned the tablet and walked back to the computer. Plopping down, she wondered if her kouhai was in over his head. The detective had been interviewing him before they came to find her, right? What did a new tenant have to offer a private detective?
“Suzuki-kun, what are you up to?”