"You have got to be kidding me."
The shakujo tinkled gently in the puffs of eldritch mists between the mortal plane and the netherworld. Kayura blew on her newly cut bangs, and the rings answered her annoyance.
Ryo scratched his head. "They're like really old."
They looked up.
Kayura narrowed her eyes. With one smooth motion she banished her designer jeans to switch to the linen wraps underneath, and gave the doors a swift kick. Light sprang from the ball of her foot, burbling out in waves on the lacquered wood. Luminous moths flew out in the ethereal side. On their side, Ryo stood unblinking through a spray of welding sparks.
And on the door itself, not a scratch.
A silk kimono settled easily over her blouse. The ancient staff kept its glow for a judgmental moment longer. Kayura took the hint, blowing out her annoyance with a breath that parted the mist. At least it wasn't heavy action. She'd thought for sure it was another break with the recent pact with the Kenbukyo clan, which was why she'd summoned Wildfire.
Who was making himself useful by poking his finger through the threshold.
Ryo seemed to sense her raised eyebrow. "How about we lift it out of its hinges? That worked when Rowen got stuck in that watercloset."
"That worked because Mia brought a screwdriver," pointed out Kayura. "These aren't IKEA hacks! These are giant. Mystical. Infinitely powerful gates to another dimension."
"How about we call–?"
"Have no fear!" Kayura was slapping her forehead before the earth even started shaking. "Hardrock is HERE!" Kento flexed his arms, attempted to headlock Ryo, and stamped up to the door. "So we're lifting it off its hinges?"
"Don't get a hernia," Kayura advised. The shakujo jingled again, and she rolled her eyes at it. Advice-giving was a part of her duty! It was valid advice, too, judging by the way Kento was groaning against the door.
"I liked you better before Rowen hooked you up with satellite TV," Ryo opined.
She liked Rowen better before he found out she was using his credit cards. It wasn't exactly un-virtuous. The ronin were supposed to be her auxiliary in the mortal world, and koku had been thrown out in favor of charge accounts. As much as she might secretly want a summer job as one of those white-gloved minions who stuffed people into train cars, she was stuck with this one: stuffing errant spirits back into the hell-moats where they belonged. Maybe she should have claimed the tithe of a pair of satin gloves.
For a moment she thought she was imagining the white threads between her fingers. Oh, right. She grabbed one, and put it to her ear. "Rajura! Tell me some good news."
"What is that groaning?"
"Hardrock is trying to open a pickle jar," said Kayura to cheer him up. Kento paused to squawk and flap his hands.
"Post it on my wall. Anyway, you were right. It is not a mechanical issue."
Ryo cupped his hands. "You got any idea what's wrong!?"
Like a gong, the sound illusion pushed through the boundary, and whapped into them in a hot gust of wind. "Do I look like a locksmith?!"
Kayura sighed. She sent a line of calm back through the thread. Rajura replied with a mental rendering of the mechanism. A true image from his armor. "Thank you, Rajura. Go back to helping Cale reroute the flow. I'll summon you if the ronin can't figure something out from this end." Behind her there was a slight change from evening mist to foggy gloaming. Sage was here. Kayura shook off the spider thread. "Door's stuck."
"What's happening?" asked Sage.
"Door's stuck, dude," said Ryo.
"I meant," said Sage after a beat, "Why aren't the spirits leaking out?"
"Because I'm standing here, and I said not to. Also, Naaza is on the other side with a poison dam," explained Kayura. "It might be easier if Torrent would show up."
A whoosh of cool air blew through the mist, touching only the skin on their shoulders. Rowen jumped into solidity; Kayura marked the afterimage of stardust as he walked past her. Of course, he still wasn't speaking to her. Whatever.
Sage crossed his arms. "Rowen. Are you still not speaking to Lady Kayura?"
"Whether she took my signed platinum collector's limited edition Blu-Ray of Summer Wars is immaterial," declared Rowen. He banged his elbow on the door experimentally. Beside him, Kento shrugged and also banged on it. Rowen nodded briskly. "What we need here is a diagnosis. Wait for it... wait for it... I got it! This is not a door."
Sage rolled his eyes.
"Say what!" said Kento.
Rowen presented a finger heavenwards. "It is ajar."
Kento looked proud. "You have not wasted my Christmas gift of Jokes and Puns of the World."
"I try, Sensei. Seriously, we should probably figure out why it's so ... ajar."
Kayura took another cleansing breath. "Rowen, I took your signed platinum collector's limited edition Blu-Ray because it was going to be movie night tonight. Mia texted me. We have to re-calibrate when it's in the netherworld, remember?"
A dozen emotions flickered on Rowen's face as she spoke. He'd always be her royal pain in the ass, but she appreciated how hopeless he was at concealing emotions. "Oh," he said at last. "Apology accepted."
"Now could you please fly up and see if there's anything on top of this door that's making it stick?"
"Couldn't do it without me, eh?" Rowen grinned.
"Nah, it was Strata we were missing." Lightly she swished the staff at his drooping hair. "Your armor still knows better than you!"
"That's why I trust it. Be back!"
They felt rather than saw Rowen's swooping arc to the top of the gate. Which was impressive in itself, given that the infinite gates didn't have tops.
Ryo and Kento went back to putting their shoulders to the door. Kayura gave them a pass; she really wanted to kick it again, too.
Sage cleared his throat. "Thank you for seeing to this, Lady Kayura."
Ah, always courteous. Or perhaps still slightly wary of young women who were technically his bosses. Kayura lifted a shoulder. "It's our sacred duty. We are the unsung handymen."
"Only because you banned karaoke in the netherworld," huffed Kento.
"That almost started a war!" What an interdimensional incident that would have been. Every faction said their singers could belt it better than everyone else. That wasn't counting the demons who wanted to possess the karaoke machine. "Eh, this is better than warring," admitted Kayura. "I was always hesitant about bringing the shakujo back into war. It was meant more for this work – to link our souls to be stronger than deterioration and decay."
"Aw, man," said Rowen, pricking everyone's ears. "We got a jam up here."
"Not another jar joke..."
"No, spirits. Their weight is pressing down on the doors. We gotta clear them out before the lateral vectors kick in, and the doors start to slip in either direction!"
Kayura brought the staff down, layers of kimono unfurling out into the flashing layers until she was clothed in full regalia. "I see it. We have to untangle them." She began to rise.
Sage dared to tug on her sleeve. "Don't we need shadows for that?"
As she hesitated, Ryo held up a hand. "Hang on! I got it. Everybody just sit tight, okay?" With that, he took off into the mortal world.
"Ryo–! Oh, why do I bother." Sage pinched the bridge of his nose. Already in the sub-armor, his heel dug into the ground, and then he'd gone after Ryo.
"Hullo, everyone... oh dear." Cye wiped the fog before him like it was a window pane. "Am I too late? What's going on?"
"Cye!" Kento slung an arm around him while still leaning on the gate. "Guess what! This isn't a door."
This time the ancient staff was silent as Kayura rolled her eyes.
* * *
Kayura understood from their auras that Ryo was going to show up with the cavalry, but she was still getting nervous. Spirits didn't have weight, at least not real weight as the mortals knew it. They did have great energy when they were agitated, though. The gap in the great doors was no more than a handsbreadth, yet to even crack them open was nearly impossible without all the netherworld behind you. Or the equivalent dark power, a possibility which she would have to investigate.
The metals rings began to gently glow. They clinked in an unusual rhythm. Like raindrops. Or the patter... of feet.
Kayura realized she was wrong: they would investigate. She was not all by herself anymore.
"Here we come! Everybody hold hands!" Ryo was at the head of the line, with Sage taking point with a blinding ball of light. Following them was a parade of children. Some of them were wearing their emergency helmets. One boy had on a pail. Quickly Kayura extended her protection to them. She trusted the warlords to hold the line, but there were plenty of entities who were in the business of child-snatching.
"Did you empty a daycare?" This from Kento.
"Oh!" said Cye. "These are your friends, Ryo?"
Ryo beamed. "Yup. Okay, guys, good job. Bunch up like we practiced, no, Taro, we're not eating boogers, okay dude?"
Kayura stifled a tiny twinge of fear. Of course Sage would shield them from the sight of the spirits. Ryo would protect them from any greedy claws – solid or ethereal. The staff of her ancestors, of her most loyal watcher, began to wrap her with a warming glow. There need not be shadows, today.
"–these are the little fellows who don't snitch on him about the tiger," Cye was explaining to Kento.
"We gotta get them back before recess ends," Ryo said hurriedly. "And, uh, we might need Cale, one of the monitors kind of–"
"Leave it to us, Wildfire," said Kayura. "Let them begin."
Ryo fished out a small object from his pocket. "One, two, a-one two three–" He blew into a plastic kazoo.
Haltingly at first, then with more vigor, the children began to sing.
It didn't matter that it was out of tune, or that the words weren't quite correct. There were still some things in the mortal world that were pure.
Rowen waited for a downbeat to take off again. Kayura followed his comet-trail, coaxing the whispy spirits from each other, and out of their knotted pile. The songs picked them up like a tide, cresting, bubbling, each voice never wavering.
* * *
Sage led the kids away after Ryo told them to follow the floating light ("The pretty man?" some chirped.)
All in all, not a bad fix-it job. Rowen had really worked some magic with the resonances, which Kayura would have to ask him about some time. Maybe after she'd stolen from his bowl of chili popcorn.
"Why'd they switch to English songs?" Kento was asking, cracking his knuckles.
"They are lovely carols," remarked Cye. His helmet flipped closed.
Ryo shrugged. "Mia was telling me about being careful with songs. Sometimes if the spirits understand a word, it's a word of power, and it can backfire. What? I listen to Mia sometimes!"
"That, and I think their ESL teacher is a Bing Crosby fan," said Cye. "All right fellows; Lady Kayura? Shall we?"
"Let's go!" Kayura cried. "Put your backs into it!" Ryo and Kento took either side of the door; this was just for control's sake, she'd assured Kento, they all knew he could slam it shut any time.
The taste of the mist changed as the gap between the doors began to close.
Several things happened at once. As the dam was released, the moat's contents came whistling back towards them. Cye raised his weapon to push back the flood.
And Kento raised a rock wall between himself and the deluge.
The infinitely powerful gates between dimensions closed with an audible sploosh.
Rowen nearly dropped himself laughing, before Strata yanked him up again. "Ryo! Oh man! You got slimed!"
"It's rude to laugh, Rowen," said Cye, with a giggle.
Ryo blinked. He banished his armor, but his hair was still dripping with moat contents.
"Geez, dude, I am so sorry," said Kento. He gestured at his little protective wall. The only wall. "I thought it would be all wind..." His mouth screwed up over a trapped guffaw.
"It turns into ectoplasm on this side," said Kayura. Behind her, Rowen snapped a photo and sent it to Sage.
Ryo shook slime out of his ear, and promptly leaped at Kento, putting him in a gooey headlock.
"Oh, honestly," said Cye, and aimed–
"No no wait!"
A cleansing spray of water jetted over both Ryo and Kento.
"All clean," said Cye. Rowen was trying not to drop his phone as he snorted laughing.
Kayura shook the staff just for the hell of it. It was movie night, after all.