"In April, the sakura bloom, so we drink some booze!
We can drink booze, we can drink booze, we can drink all the booze!"
Madara raised his empty bottle in the air, blinked hard against the increasing blurriness, and then let the bottle slip from his small paw. It bounced off his round belly, hit the grass with a dull thud and a few gentle clinks, then settled against its brothers beside him. He licked his lips and hummed another bar of his song. The cool night air felt wonderful on his flushed face, and the soft grass just as nice on his tired rear. The lower youkai had all left the clearing earlier one-by-one, so he was now free to enjoy himself without any badgering.
Natsume had been studying in their room earlier this evening, and all the shushing he'd done had been annoying. What was a youkai of his distinction to do, waiting around a quiet bedroom while some human kid scribbled useless notes all night? If he hadn't napped all afternoon already, Madara might have considered curling up on a cushion and tucking in for a bit. As it were, he'd been wide awake and bored, and Natsume had made it near impossible to entertain himself at the house.
So, Madara had made his way out to the Yatsuhara forest to tap its sake stores once again.
"In July, the sun is burning, so we drink some booze!" he sang as he rolled to one side, scooping up another bottle of liquor.
He settled himself back against the base of the tree, propped up just enough to keep from choking, and starting downing his sake. It was cool and sweet. Delicious.
He was halfway through when he realized it was too cold.
He immediately dropped the bottle, spilling alcohol all down his chest - but the damage had been done. His belly felt like it was splitting open. The icy cold spread through the ocean of booze he'd already swallowed. He retched hard, but it was too late: he could feel the sake swelling and solidifying inside of him.
Someone had laced it - but his head was spinning and, at the moment, it didn't matter who might have done it. He was vulnerable like this, which meant the Book - and Natsume too - was vulnerable. He needed to get someplace safe before anyone learned that his power had been compromised.
He coughed, rolled to his side, and tried to stand. He managed a few wobbling steps before his legs buckled beneath him, all his power and strength sapped. The burning frost of the poisoned drink spread to his chest, constricted his breath, froze his limbs stiff.
He strained to lift his head, but the poison was too strong. The side of his face struck the ground hard. Damn. He lay still as the unnatural chill took him over completely, and his world went dark.
"All right, Natsume: Rina or Haruka? Who's prettier?"
Natsume stiffened. Kitamoto met his glance and rolled his eyes, smirking. Natsume chuckled mechanically and scrubbed his fingers through the back of his hair, not meeting either boy's face for a moment. "You're probably a better judge of that, Nishimura, right?"
"Probably, but that doesn't mean I don't like some outside opinions now and again. " Nishimura laughed, jabbing him lightly in the ribs with his elbow. He wrapped an arm around Natusme's shoulder and jiggled his eyebrows. "So, which one?"
"I don't think it's fair to rank people like that..." Natsume trailed off, glancing at the woods alongside the road.
Kitamoto peeled the other boy's arm off Natsume's shoulder from behind. "Just ignore him. Tomorrow it'll be some new crush he's developed. At least he gives us names so we can warn these poor girls ahead of time."
Natsume laughed genuinely as Nishimura cried in mock outrage, then started chasing the other boy down the road with threats of violence and spilled secrets. Natsume kept laughing. They were getting far enough ahead that Natsume would have to shout to be heard, so he steadied his bag and launched himself into a light jog.
He twisted mid-step to see who'd called out for him, and managed to trip himself over a rock in the dirt road. He landed flat on his face. Dust tickled his nostrils, and his nose was sore from the impact.
"Natsume! Are you all right?"
He looked up and saw his two friends racing back toward him, looking concerned.
"Natsume-sama!" someone called from behind him again. He propped himself up and glanced over his shoulder: there, at the side of the road, were two familiar youkai. Oh boy.
Kitamoto and Nishimura reached him first. One boy scooped Natsume up off the ground while the other steadied him and brushed dirt off his uniform. "Geez, Natsume, you went straight down!" Nishimura said. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I just tripped. I'm fine, thanks."
Kitamoto let him go, watching him as if he thought he might fall again at any second. Natsume glanced back at the two youkai as they huddled nervously at the edge of the road: a steer and a cyclops both dressed in dark robes. "I suddenly remembered I'd forgotten something back in town, and I lost my footing."
The two boys looked at him disbelievingly - Natsume's stomach began to tie itself in knots - but a moment later they seemed to shrug it off. "Do you want us to come with you?" Kitamoto asked.
"No! No, I'll be fine." The youkai had crept up the road and were now directly behind the other two boys. Natsume's human friends were oblivious to the youkai, who were ringing their sleeves and looking around the open road as if scared. "I'll see you tomorrow morning, okay?"
"Okay," Nishimura said. "But call us if you change your mind. My dad's working late tonight, so I can hang out later than usual."
"Thanks, Nishimura, but I'm not sure tonight is a good night for me to hang out," Natsume said. He felt awful for lying to them, but something was going on, and he had a really bad feeling about it. Sometimes there are bigger things to worry about than lying to your friends, right? He sighed.
"No worries, Natsume, just call me if you change your mind," Nishumra said, giving him a little wink.
"Thank you," Natsume replied, forcing a smile.
Kitamoto and Nishimura waved, turned away and continued down the road. He watched them go and willed them a safe walk home. He caught them glance back at him with confused looks as he stood in place on the road. Right.
"Follow me," he said to the youkai beside him. He turned and started walking back toward town, checking to make sure he was out of his friends' sight before he ducked into the shelter of the trees. The youkai pair followed him closely; the tiny moaning noises they made as they walked made Natsume think of puppies whimpering. When he finally turned to face them, he could see plainly they were bursting to tell him whatever it was they were wanting to say, which only served to add to the suspense. These two hardly ever held their tongue. As a rule, they barged into his life semi-regularly with a somewhat embarrassing level of exuberance.
"Natsume-sama!" the cyclops started.
"Natsume-sama!" the steer chorused.
"What is it?"
"Natsume-sama, you need to come with us, quickly!"
"What's wrong?" he asked cautiously.
"Please, Natsume-sama," the cyclops begged, "you must come. Madara-sama needs you!"
The steer added urgently, "Come, come!"
Natsume's stomach stopped tying itself into knots, and simply fell out the bottom of him.
Vaguely, he registered that they both were grabbing at his jacket and tugging him forward. What had happened to Nyanko-sensei? He stumbled into motion at their insistent pulling, automatically falling into a brisk walk with them. He tried to clear his head and think. Nyanko-sensei hadn't come home last night, had he? He definitely had been absent for breakfast, which was unusual, though it also wouldn't have been the first time he'd stayed out all night. If he was too hungover to come home this late in the day and had sent these two to fetch Natsume like some sort of taxi ... yeah, maybe he shouldn't be so worried after all. Where Nyanko-sensei was concerned, anything was possible.
Still, Natsume couldn't help but worry that something was wrong.
As Tanuma wandered deeper and deeper into the forest, he grew increasingly frustrated, and he wasn't entirely sure what he was even doing here. He hadn't had an exact destination in mind when he'd set out earlier, though now he felt like he was definitely heading somewhere, or maybe even following something. It wasn't something he could see or hear, but he was pretty sure it was there, guiding him. I hope it's not a trap. He didn't know what he would do if it was; he hadn't really planned this well at all, had he?
Last night, he'd felt very ill and he'd sensed a presence. Even though the feeling had been a bit vague, as those feelings usually were, he'd distinctly felt something strong, something hungry. Or at least he'd thought it felt hungry. He knew Natsume would be upset if he knew he was out here on his own, searching for youkai he couldn't quite see, but Natsume had enough of his own problems to deal with. Tanuma wasn't even sure there was a problem to report at this point; but he followed his gut and pressed on. He wanted to try to take care of this, whatever it was, to actually do something for once.
An unnatural gust of wind whipped through the undergrowth ahead. The rustling leaves brought Tanuma back to the present. Something heavy began burning deep in his belly: a familiar foreboding that struck him whenever he suspected youkai were around. He raced through the brush, barely able to question the sudden onset of dread when he came into a small clearing. Natsume lay sprawled on his stomach, seemingly unconscious.
He landed hard on his knees; he roughly turned Natsume onto his back, and, when his friend didn't stir, started shaking him by the shoulders. "Natsume!" Okay, okay. What were you supposed to do if someone was passed out? His vision blurred; he shut his eyes and tried to force himself to think. Natsume, please be okay. Tanuma bit his lip, hard enough to really hurt, and things seemed to come back into place a bit. Opening his eyes, he leaned over and pressed his ear firmly against Natsume's chest. He could hear him breathing, could hear his heart beating. Tanuma breathed a heavy sigh of relief. But now what?
Tanuma's heart raced, pounding in his ears. He felt sick to his stomach, and his head ached. He rubbed his hand over his face and blew out through his mouth, his other hand still clutching Natsume's shoulder. This, Natsume being alone when he needed help, this was something Tanuma had worried over a lot. He hadn't realized until this moment how much it had been weighing on him. Judging from the way he felt now, it had been an intense weight. Is this what Natsume felt each time Tanuma was drawn into the world of youkai? He'd had his guesses before, but now Tanuma felt he had more than guesses.
He exhaled deeply and tried to compose himself. He had to help Natsume somehow, get him someplace safe. He wiped his face again - and noticed for the first time the cat that was sitting next to Natsume.
No, this wasn't Natsume's cat. It was just a statue, one of those fortune cats people placed somewhere in their place of business. Something was different about this one, though. Besides the striking resemblance to Nyannyan-sensei ... he could feel this statue. It had to be related to youkai somehow And was it supposed to be holding a piece of wood? He thought fortune cats were supposed to hold a coin, but this one clutched a carved disc of wood, flat and oval. Is this what hurt Natsume?
As Tanuma reached out to touch the porcelain cat, Natsume began to stir beneath him. "Natsume! Natsume, are you all right?" Tanuma brushed Natsume's hair back off of his face as he slowly opened his eyes. Natsume felt overly warm and a bit clammy, as if he were sick. He looked a bit pale, too. "How do you feel?" Tanuma asked, placing the back of one hand carefully over Natsume's forehead and mirroring the action on his own forehead with the other. "You've got a fever. What happened?"
"Nyanko-sensei ..." Natsume tried to sit up, so Tanuma helped him, carefully supporting his upper back as Natsume found his balance. "I have to get Nyanko-sensei out of the forest," he said quickly.
Wait, that was Nyanyan-sensei? "What happened to-" Natsume grabbed Tanuma's arm and gave him a pleading look, which was about as close to asking for help as Tanuma might expect of him. "We're not that far from my house. Let's go there for now."
"Yes, thank you, Tanuma."
"Don't worry about it. It's what friends do."
Tanuma carefully helped Natsume stand, then looked at the fortune cat sitting in the grass, one paw frozen mid-wave and the other holding that mysterious piece of wood. "I think it'll be okay if you lift him," Natsume said, "so long as you don't touch the seal he's holding."
"Okay." To say Tanuma was nervous to lift Ponta when he was like this was an understatement, but Natsume needed help right now, needed him.
Tanuma blew out a deep breath to steady himself, carefully scooped up the fortune cat ... and nothing happened. Once again this afternoon, Tanuma was flooded with relief. He flashed a grin at Natsume, which was stupid, why did he need to smile like that just now? He was probably making Natsume feel awkward, which was the exact opposite of what he wanted to do, and he -
Natsume was smiling back, warm and golden, and the sight of it melted the tension in Tanuma's chest.
"Right, come on," Tamuma said. Natsume looked wobbly, so he placed his free hand on Natsume's upper arm to keep him from falling, and guided him home.
When Madara came to, his world was nothing but pure black, a lightless void.
Must be an effect of the poison, he thought idly. He tried to move, but found he was unable to do so: his body was still frozen stiff. Well, that couldn't be right. He tried to move again - but no, he was firmly stuck in place. He could faintly hear some voices, muffled as if he were buried underground. Weirder things had happened before, but then...
He was beginning to have his suspicions.
Angrily, Madara let go of the restraints on his youkai power. The flow of it raced out from his center, filling every part of him at once, a roar which drowned his thoughts and the empty quiet around him.
It didn't take long to realize he hadn't transformed. He hadn't even freed himself from the seal.
Whoever did this was going to pay dearly once he'd been released. Natsume would have to take care of himself until then. Madara repressed a mental wince. Apparently, he could still get headaches.
Natsume sat on the edge of Tanuma's bed, feeling shaky. Tanuma pressed a cool, wet cloth to his forehead and held it there. Natsume reached up and placed his hand over Tanuma's to take over the task. He wasn't so weak to not do this, at least. Tanuma had already helped him so much today. Tanuma looked searchingly at Natsume, still firmly pressing the cloth to Natsume's forehead. Natsume tried to find the right words to tell him he was okay, that he didn't want to trouble him any more, but each time he tried to form his thoughts, nothing felt right.
A few quiet moments passed before Tanuma finally slipped his hand out from Natsume's and asked, "So, what happened?"
"Well, I'm not really sure." He offered Tanuma an apologetic look. "Some youkai that I know came and brought me to Nyanko-sensei in the clearing. He was already like that when I got there," Natsume waved a hand over at the statue, which was currently sitting on a cushion on the floor of Tanuma's room. "I don't know why I couldn't release him exactly. I've broken seals before, so I thought I'd give it a try."
Natsume looked back at Tanuma, whose head was tilted slightly as he waited for Natsume to finish.
"The last thing I remember before I passed out was reaching for the seal. And being blasted by this energy. A dark energy." He still felt weak and nauseous, and a dull ache pounded against the front of his skull.
"Last night," Tanuma said, "I felt something like that."
Natsume's heart clenched: something powerful had been close enough to Tanuma's house for him to feel it? Was this thing, whatever it was, immune to his father's protective seals? Even though Tanuma's father wasn't particularly powerful, the youkai Natsume knew tended to avoid the purified shrine grounds. Then again, if it was the same youkai, it did go after Sensei; despite all his shortcomings, Sensei was fairly adept at keeping youkai in line when it mattered. This was not good. How could Natsume fix this?
"The youkai - it ... it felt hungry. Like it was hunting," Tanuma continued. "I don't know how I could tell that, but that's how it felt."
"It's like that sometimes," Natsume confirmed, forcing himself to smile. He couldn't panic Tanuma now. He didn't want him anymore involved in this danger than he already was; he didn't want to give him any more reason to go back out into the woods, out of the relative safety of the shrine grounds. What should he do, then?
Tanuma fidgeted and looked up at the ceiling, saying nothing. Natsume tried to think of someone who could help them now. Hinoe? Misuzu? He tried to remember the summoning circle he'd drawn that one time, but it had been complicated. The details felt fuzzy right now, and he wasn't sure it was safe to try using it if it wasn't exactly right - not to mention that Sensei's seal had drained him quite a bit. He didn't think he had the strength to activate the circle right now, even if he were able to remember it perfectly. Perhaps he could try finding them on his own, he supposed.
"Taki might know something about youkai seals," Tanuma proposed suddenly. "Her grandfather had all those journals and books. I bet there might be something in one of them that could help." He scratched the back of his neck, looking almost embarrassed.
Natsume was generally against involving his friends in potentially dangerous things, but this was a good idea, despite the risk. They needed answers, and Natsume needed Tanuma to stay safe. He would wager that word of Nyanko-sensei's current condition had already spread; if there was something out there hunting, chances are it would come looking for Natsume. Between the Book, his own supposed "deliciousness," and Nyanko-sensei's inability to protect either one of them at present, there was plenty of reason to assume something might come looking for him soon. If he could keep Tanuma safe by sending him to Taki's with the added chance they just might find an answer, well...
"You're right, Tanuma. I bet she does have some notes we could use."
Tanuma seemed surprised by the answer, but he recovered quickly. "Okay. So I'll go to Taki's, and you can stay here and rest up."
"No, I should go-"
"No, you should stay here. My dad has lots of different protections in place that should keep anything bad from coming close."
"But I don't want to lure anything here. I should go back-"
Tanuma cut him off again. "I bet tons of youkai know where you live, and Ponta can't help right now. They'll probably go looking there first, anyway."
Natsume didn't know what to say to that. He looked at the floor instead, slowly scrunching the once cool cloth in his hands.
"Lie down if you want, get some rest. I'll be right back," Tanuma said. Then he walked purposefully out of the room.
Natsume sighed. This afternoon was not going well at all, really. He looked over at Nyanko-sensei, still sealed and artificial-looking. He wondered what it felt like to be trapped like that. Sensei was probably furious. Natsume shook his head slightly and swung his feet up onto Tanuma's bed. He settled himself atop the bedding and looked over at his porcelain guardian. He looked so fragile - but then he probably was, wasn't he? He'd have to keep Sensei safe while they tried to figure out how to remove the seal. He yawned and curled into himself on his side. He could feel the weight of sleep crushing down on him, but he couldn't sleep just yet. There was too much to take care of first.
"Natsume, take these." Tanuma handed him a string of prayer beads. "They're supposed to provide strength and protection, according to my dad." He'd been so lost in his own thoughts that he hadn't even noticed Tanuma coming back into the room. Natsume took the beads carefully - they were cool and smooth to the touch - and Tanuma continued speaking before he could think to interrupt. "These ofuda are supposed to keep spirits from entering. I'm going to seal the doors and windows to this room with them. I'm not sure they'll work as well as when my dad does them, but they should do something, I think."
"I'll go see Taki and try to find some answers. You stay here and rest up. You'll need your strength later." He reached down and tentatively patted Natsume's elbow, offering a small smile. "I'll be back a little later. Don't be stupid and try to do anything on your own."
Natsume laughed. "Okay."
It seemed Tanuma wasn't going to give him a choice. Now that he was lying down, he was definitely feeling the need to rest. Tanuma gave him one last look, then left. Natsume could hear him applying the seals to the outside of the room, could hear him reciting the associated prayer. It was both comforting and strange to know that someone wanted to protect him. He'd have to make sure nothing happened to Tanuma or the shrine, somehow, but the physical drain from touching the seal still weighed on him, making it hard to stay awake.
Mere minutes later, the chanting stopped, his footsteps faded out, and Tanuma was gone.
Natsume examined the beads threaded between his fingers, made of carved red wood and onyx. It was sort of strange to think about, how such small things could protect him. Before, he wouldn't have believed it possible, but now, having witnessed in action the kind of powers that had been given to them, he found that he could. He sighed heavily. The struggle to stay awake was now taking more energy than he could give.
Squeezing the beads tightly, Natsume lay down his head and let sleep wash over him.
"I'm sorry to show up unannounced like this, but we could use your help." Tanuma kept glancing around like something might spring out at him at any moment, which Taki supposed might very well be the case.
She smiled and opened the gate wider. "It's fine, Tanuma! Please come in." She stepped back and gestured for him to enter. Once he did, she shut the gate and started heading for the main house, quietly waiting for Tanuma to speak. He usually did after a minute or two, after he'd found his bearings. Meanwhile, she was growing anxious to the reason behind this visit. "We" surely meant he and Natsume. Asking her for help instead of Kitamoto or one of the other boys must mean the problem had something to do with youkai - and Taki knew a thing or two about the dangers of youkai. When she reached the front door to the house and Tanuma still hadn't spoken, she asked gently, "So what can I help you with, Tanuma? Is it something to do with youkai? Of course you know I'll help!"
He relaxed noticeably, like a weight had been lifted from him. "Ponta's been turned into a statue," he said, "and Natsume's been ... drained? I think he said something about a seal."
"I see," she said, scratching her chin as she processed it all. "I think we need to check the storehouse, then, to see if my grandfather has any books that might help." She remembered reading about seals once, so there had to be a book or two that would be useful now. "Come on," she beckoned, heading for the old storehouse at the far side of the garden.
So Nyanko-sensei had been turned into a statue? She'd never read about a seal that worked like that, but what an adorable little statue he must be! Taki felt momentarily bad for wishing to see him like that. It probably wasn't very nice for him to be stuck that way, and she would definitely help set him free if she could. Still, the images in her head made her heart lift some despite the worry she had for her friends.
She pulled open the heavy door to the storehouse and stepped inside. Tanuma started to follow her in, then jumped at seeing the old scarecrow doll that stood inside, even though it wasn't the first time he'd seen it. She giggled and pulled him in by his wrist, leading him to the rows of shelves behind the doll filled top to bottom with books and relics.
"If there are any notes on sealing youkai, they'll probably be somewhere in here," she said, running her fingers over the spines and trying to recall some titles. "Where is Natsume now?" she asked as she slipped a book from the shelf, carefully opening it and flipping through the old pages. "Is he okay? You said he'd been drained?"
Tanuma looked even more worried than before. "I left him at my house to rest. Do you think he'll be okay there?"
"I think so. Shrines are usually pretty well protected against spirits and youkai, right?" Tanuma nodded, then looked down at the floor. "Plus, Natsume is strong, and we'll be there to help him soon." Tanuma smiled half-heartedly, and he didn't seem any less anxious when he flipped open a book.
"I wish," Tanuma started. "I wish he wouldn't try to do everything on his own all the time."
Taki sighed and said, "I wish that too, sometimes." They shared a commiserating look for a moment. Taki closed the book she was holding about kappa, slipped it back onto the shelf, and pulled out another candidate. "Do you remember what the seal looked like?"
"Actually, all I could see was a piece of carved wood. Natsume was the one who saw a seal."
"So a youkai made it?"
Tanuma seemed puzzled. "Maybe? I'm sorry, I should have asked him what it looked like!"
"It's fine, it's fine. We'll find an answer somewhere, I'm sure." At least she hoped they would. If the solution wasn't here, she wasn't sure where they would find it.
For the next few minutes, neither of them spoke. In silence they sifted through the shelves of notes and books, trying to find something that might help. A youkai seal that only Natsume could see ... did another youkai make it, or was it an effect of that particular seal? Taki had never seen a youkai outside of a circle, much less a sealed one, so she had no real way of knowing what any of this might mean. It was very troubling, and she hoped they could find an answer.
She grabbed another book and let it fall open in her hands. There, between the cover and the title page, lay a carefully inked paper seal. Quickly, she flipped through the rest of the book, where there were notes on when and how to use different types of seals, even listing out the kanji. Perfect!
"Here it is!" Taki snapped shut the book and held it up for Tanuma to see. "Let's go help Natsume!"
Where am I? He had been in Yatsuhara when he'd last been able to see, but now he was indoors somewhere. It wasn't Natsume's house, but it seemed oddly familiar. He'd been here before, he was pretty sure. Wait, that's right, he remembered now. This was where that weakling Tanuma lived - but what was he doing here? Had that human kid found him and brought him here? Hold on...
He could see. He could see. He could see ... Natsume sleeping in that kid's bed. What was going on?
Madara tested his body and found that, aggravatingly, he was still unable to move. However, he could now see the room around him, and could hear clearly the gentle lap of water against stone somewhere outside. The seal on him was weakening. It wouldn't be long now before he could break free - and as soon as he could figure out who was responsible, it wouldn't be long before Madara took care of that too.
He could see an unopened bag of chips next to the bed, and suddenly, it hit him: he was absolutely starving. Why, oh why, had someone left chips in plain sight like that, too far for him to reach? A voice that sounded suspiciously like Natsume's reminded him that he couldn't reach it anyway on account of being sealed, but Madara squashed that little voice and tried to think of something else. Judging by the light from the window, it was sometime late in the afternoon. That meant he'd missed more than one of Touko's home-cooked meals, and a few snacks, too. Natsume usually bought him something on his way home from school. Madara could really go for a steamed bun right about now.
So far, he wasn't doing a very good job at not thinking of food.
Taki had to bite the inside of her cheek when she entered Tanuma's room and saw Nyanko-sensei delicately propped on a cushion on the floor. He was so cute! Though he didn't look quite as huggable now, nor did his fur look soft and warm. Why would someone want to do this to him? A small part of her wanted to do nothing but marvel over his adorableness, but this was time for business. She forced herself to focus.
Natsume looked a bit worn as he sat across from her on the floor, the three of them forming a loose semi-circle facing poor Nyanko-sensei.
"So, Natsume, Tanuma told me you saw a seal?"
"Well yeah, it's right there," he said, pointing to the carved wood Nyanko-sensei held, which was completely smooth and free from any obvious sealing kanji.
"We don't see anything," Taki said.
"Just the wood," Tanuma confirmed.
"There's a paper seal on a piece of wood," he trailed off, looking closer at the space where the seal must have been.
"What do you think that means?" Tanuma asked them both.
Taki had no real idea, though she had come up with a few guesses on the way over. "My first guess is that a youkai made the seal. Have you ever heard of such a thing, Natsume?"
"I've heard of curses against other youkai, and there are youkai who aid exorcists in sealing, but the seals are human-made." He seemed to puzzle something for a moment. "Maybe?"
Taki nodded. "It's also possible that whatever seal this is works to keep humans from accidentally unsealing it. You know, like once it's activated, it's on the same wavelength as the youkai and people can't see it. Do you know anyone that would want to seal Nyanko-sensei?"
"Maybe," Natsume said cautiously.
She pulled the book she'd brought with her out of her bag. "Can you tell us what it looks like? Maybe we can find something about it in this book."
"Well, it looks like a regular seal, I guess. There's a piece of paper attached to a wooden disc. It says 'Shadows that obey, come forth and seal the light.'"
"I wonder if that means anything," Tanuma said. "Other than the obvious, I mean."
Natsume shrugged and said, "I don't know."
"Maybe we can find it in here," Taki said, sliding closer to Natsume so he could see the pages as she carefully flipped through her grandfather's book.
Tanuma moved closer on the other side to look as well. "If a youkai made it, would it be listed here?"
"It's possible. My grandfather spent many decades researching, so there's no telling what kinds of things he found along the way." The important thing here was to keep hope, to keep moving forward. They had to keep trying. "Let's keep looking," she said gently.
They continued sifting through the pages, hoping that Natsume would recognize the seal as one listed in there. The closer they got to the book's end, the more tensely the coil in Taki's chest tightened. Soon she felt as thought the tiniest discovery would set her off. Yet when they reached the final pages and Natsume looked up at her soberly, instead of exploding, she simply deflated. She had really been hoping to find the answer for her friends. It's not time to give up just yet, though.
Looking at Nyanko-sensei, not meeting their faces, Natsume suddenly said, "I think I need to ask a youkai about this, before whatever's hunting out there comes looking for Sensei."
"We're coming with you," Tanuma said.
"Where do we find the youkai?" Taki asked.
"Is it in the forest with that thing?" Tanuma asked. "We're not letting you wander off in the woods by yourself again today."
For a moment, Natsume looked like he was going to protest. Taki squared herself in front of him to rebuff, Tanuma doing the same - then Natsume just smiled gratefully and said, "Let's go find Hinoe."
They made their way from the shrine grounds to Yatsuhara in good time, but even so, Natsume now felt like they were wasting previous minutes wandering. He didn't know where to find Hinoe, as she was usually the one that found him. They'd resealed Nyanko-sensei in Tanuma's room with ofuda for the time being. Natsume didn't think it would be wise to advertise his condition to anyone that might be watching. Besides, Natsume wasn't feeling his best. That seal earlier had drained quite a bit of his power; he still felt light-headed even now.
"Should we keep going this way?" Tanuma asked.
Natsume wasn't sure where they'd find her, but they had to run into someone eventually. Until then, the three of them would have to keep walking. He hadn't been able to keep them from coming here with him, but there was a small part of him that was glad he wasn't alone right now. Still, a bigger part of him wished they had stayed back at the shrine. He desperately hoped they wouldn't run into any trouble, because he wasn't sure how he would keep his friends safe.
"Does it seem a little too quiet in here?" Taki asked.
Between the fear of his friends getting hurt and the biting need to find an answer soon, Natsume hadn't taken notice of the unusual atmosphere at all. Now that Taki had pointed it out, things did seem too quiet. He could hear no birds singing, no insects buzzing. Even the breeze had stilled, leaving the leaves unruffled. All of Yatsuhara was silent, as if everything there were holding its breath in a collective hush, and in hiding. It wasn't cold out, but Natsume still shivered.
Then, he felt it - and it was coming fast.
A branch snapped and crashed next to Tanuma, nearly crushing him, and then something was flying toward Tanuma's back, out of his sight - Natsume dove and tackled him to the dirt to stop it from getting him. He looked up, and saw the bone-white mask of a giant oni floating over them, its body nothing but a mass of black shadow. He could hear it sniffing out his scent, its loud breath rattling somewhere behind its mask in the indiscernible darkness that made up its body. The mask starting twisting: the small mouth opening stretched out and up at the corners, and it opened wide. He could see teeth pushing through and solidifying, deadly white like the mask, forming rows and rows of lethal fangs. Run, Natsume, you need to run. After sprouting all its teeth, the oni paused, almost seeming to laugh - then launched itself face first at them all.
Natsume balled his fist and threw a punch. He didn't even look where he was hitting, simply hoping that the oni would dive straight for him and that he'd land this blow. His fist connected, his whole body jarred by the impact. When had he even stood up, anyway?
Natsume opened his eyes and saw his fist in the center of the oni's mask where he'd made a dent. All around his hand the hard mask had splintered and caved, with dark lines running likes veins out from the center of the break. Natsume stood frozen for a moment, his fist still connected to the dazed oni's face.
After a moment, the oni seemed to come back to life. Natsume pulled his hand away and watched it carefully. It shook itself off, then roared, and his fist was flying again of its own accord. This time he managed to punch the oni hard enough to move it across the path, but it was focused now, and it squealed again as it dove at him.
Natsume took off running, and the oni gave chase. Branches and twigs snapped viciously behind him, and he could hear the rush of displaced air as the oni's large body flew after him. Natsume ran as hard as he could without looking back, hoping and praying that Tanuma and Taki wouldn't get caught up in this. He didn't know where he was going, other than far away from them.
Somewhere nearby, Tanuma heard a frog chirp, and it made him jump. The forest had been so quiet since they'd gotten here that every little noise now echoed unnaturally. He was itching to race after Natsume, to help him, but Taki had told him to wait. She was furiously scanning the pages of the book they'd read earlier, eyebrows drawn tight and eyes narrow. Tanuma didn't know how much longer he could stand idly by while Natsume was in danger, but he trusted Taki had a plan, or at least an idea.
He didn't have to wait long. Soon, Taki broke into a wide smile and looked up at Tanuma. "Take this." She slipped a piece of paper from the book and handed it to him; it was a paper seal, something like the ones his father put out, yet still foreign-looking. "I'm going to lure the youkai here, and you're going to seal it."
What? "Can I actually do that? I ... don't have much power." He looked off to the side. "I can only see shadows, remember?" His powers were so limited. Tanuma didn't know how to tell Taki that her confidence in his skills was unfounded.
"My grandfather could seal them, and he couldn't see youkai at all, remember?" Taki grabbed a large stick from the ground and began drawing in the dirt. Shortly afterwards, he could see that she was drawing a spell circle, apparently from memory. He guessed it had something to do with sealing youkai. "Plus, this circle enhances spiritual powers, and yours are already stronger than mine." She stopped tracing in the ground and looked up at him. "We have to try."
"Yes." Without a question, he would do what he could for Natsume. Still, he wondered how much he could actually do.
"Tanuma, could you please bring that rock over here?" He looked at Taki, then to the side of the clearing where she pointed. "That big one there."
"Sure," he said, tucking the seal into his shirt pocket. While she continued drawing the circle, Tanuma hoisted the rock over to where Taki stood while trying not to think about the details too much. He'd never tried anything like this before, and with Natsume's safety on the line, the pressure to succeed was enormous, crushing even. It would be so easy to fail...
"Place it at the center," she said, carefully stepping back from her work. "Mind the lines."
He stepped into the circle, avoiding touching any of the pattern she'd etched, and placed the heavy rock at the drawing's center. Now what? We don't even know where the youkai is. "Taki?"
She flipped the book open to a dog-eared page and handed it to him. "These are the notes we have on activating the seal. They're not very detailed, but I think they make sense? I've never done anything like this, so I'm not exactly sure how it works, really."
Tanuma swallowed dryly and tried to gather his wits. Laying her hand on his forearm, Taki added, "I know you can do this, Tanuma. We have to, for Natsume."
"...You're right. I'll do my best."
"I know you will."
She offered him one last smile before sprinting off into the forest in the direction they'd last heard signs of a chase. Tanuma tore his eyes from the forest line, then started reading as fast as he could. He'd likely only get one chance at this, if any.
When Madara woke again, he knew that this time, it would work. He summoned his strength, and with little effort found he could break free from the weakening hold of the seal he'd been under. How annoying that had been.
The room he was in was very cramped with him in it. Had Natsume been here, he probably would have crushed him. Where was Natsume, anyway? Madara transformed into his fortune cat form, and started wandering down the hallway outside. Natsume had to be around here somewhere. He'd been thinking about that Nanatsuji bun a lot while he'd been stuck under the seal. He could really go for Natsume buying him one, though Natsume would probably complain that he'd been sealed and should worry about other things than steamed buns. All right, so Madara probably should take care of that soon too - but he hadn't eaten anything since at least the night before!
Pushing all thoughts of salty, fried snacks from his mind, Madara growled, annoyed. Natsume was going to have to buy him two buns for finding him first.
Natsume ran blindly through the trees, trying and failing to come up with a way to end this mess. He'd punched this oni square in the face, but that had only managed to splinter its mask and make it angry. Nyanko-sensei couldn't help him, and he had no clue how to call for Misuzu or Hinoe, especially not while he was being chased. He risked a glance back - and confirmed the oni was closing in, barreling through the forest without slowing down. He turned forward and raced on. Another tree branch snapped close behind him. This oni was powerful to manifest physically.
"Natsume! This way!" Taki called, racing out from the brush and coming up to run alongside him. "We've set a circle!"
No, Taki, get away from here!
"Natsume, come on!"
He hesitated. He didn't want his friends to get hurt, not at all, but this oni was hungry for him, and he didn't know how else he was going to get away. Taki gave him a pleading look - another tree branch splintered behind them - and Natsume nodded. She tore off running back the direction she came, and he took off after her. If they'd set a circle, maybe he could use it against this thing.
"This way!" she called, and Natsume was sure she was trying to lure the oni more than she was trying to lead him. "Almost there!" she yelled back again.
Somewhere close behind them - too close, far too close - the oni chased after. He could feel its malice wash over him, like ice water trickling down his back, and - Natsume heard something new. Once to his left, a second time to his right, something was swooping in and out, bells chiming each time it switched direction. Bells?
Just then, Natsume and Taki careened into a large clearing, where Tanuma stood braced in the center of a spell circle with a large rock at his feet. He met Natsume's gaze for the briefest moment, and then he was looking over Natsume's shoulder, eyes gone wide.
Taki grabbed Natsume's arm and pulled him forward toward the circle. They needed the youkai to follow after them and get inside it if they had any chance of this working. Tanuma could see it behind them: a large youkai seemingly made of shadow wearing a solid-looking white mask full of cracks. It was as tall as the trees around them, and it was bearing down on his friends, on all of them. The mask was split into a gaping mouth impossibly full of fangs, and the shadow was shifting to make arms that reached for them, and it was coming closer and it would only be seconds before it got them -
Tanuma summoned what strength he had, and held the paper seal out over the rock. Something was happening, very definitely. Tanuma felt power surge inside of him, down his arm and into the seal. He could feel it stretch out like fingers, like a net, could feel it grab hold of the youkai, pulling it in. The youkai screamed and thrashed, and Tanuma could feel it resist, and it was powerful, so so powerful. He pushed himself harder; he had to seal it now. He was pissing it off. They'd be dead if this failed. He could feel the seal was working, but it was draining him fast. Tanuma ... Tanuma was getting tired and dizzy, and he was holding the seal in both hands now. He could hear himself yelling in the cacophony of the youkai's screams, but it didn't matter; he had to focus.
Tanuma reached deep within himself. He could hear Taki urging him on, and Natsume was calling out as well, but Tanuma could barely register their voices over the strain and the screeching of the trapped youkai.
He wobbled in place: he was going to pass out. It had only been moments since he'd activated the seal, but it felt like an eternity now, as if time had slowed down. He could feel his hold on the youkai slipping, could feel it working free. Come on, Tanuma, you can do this.
Blood was rushing in his head, the pulse of it pounding in his ears. Tanuma thought for a moment he heard something chime, like festival bells. This was no time to think of festivals. He opened his eyes and tried to focus, to keep his strength flowing - but found it hard once he saw where the chiming had come from. Something enormous loomed overhead, nearly blocking the afternoon sun completely. It circled the clearing lazily, its billowy violet robes whipping in a long trail behind it. It had to be a youkai, but it was so huge - and its aura was making him feel even weaker. If it was here to attack - Tanuma didn't even know how to begin defending against something like that. He tried to get control of himself, to stop the fear from taking over...
He landed hard on his back with Natsume on top of him. No, Tanuma was supposed to be saving him!
Natsume yelled to the open air, "Misuzu, help!"
Tanuma strained his neck to see what was happening, but all he could see now was the sunlit clearing with a blue sky above. The giant overhead had disappeared, or at least he couldn't see it anymore, and the youkai that had been chasing them had vanished too. But they're still there, aren't they? Natsume buried his face in Tanuma's shoulder and pressed him further to the ground, protecting Tanuma from something he couldn't see at all. If I can't see it, can it still kill me?
Now that he was out of the circle, Tanuma could no longer see the masked youkai, but he would swear that he heard it scream one last time.
Natsume waited for the oni's screeches to stop before he dared look up again, afraid of what he might see. Somehow, the unnatural silence of the forest didn't seem threatening now; it just felt quiet.
"I am glad that you called my name, Natsume," Misuzu said, grinning mysteriously like he always did. Misuzu had landed back in the clearing, his monstrous frame casually looming over them all.
Carefully, Natsume let himself up and checked over his friend. Just as Natsume had been earlier today, Tanuma now looked pale and wobbly as he lay on the forest floor beneath him. Taki stood crouched over the pair of them, looking ready to fight off anything that might show up for them, whether she could see it or not.
"Tanuma, are you all right?" Natsume asked as he sat up.
"Yeah, I think so. Is it gone? I couldn't seal it."
"If Tanuma couldn't seal it, where is it now?" Taki asked, looking a bit shaken up.
"Another youkai helped us," Natsume said, looking behind her. "He's sort of a friend, I guess. Thank you, Misuzu." Tanuma and Taki both looked to each other and then stared hard at the space in front of Natsume, trying to see Misuzu.
"Is this Misuzu..." Tanuma began.
"He's the youkai you saw above the clearing. I don't know who that oni was."
Tanuma touched his arm and looked at him very solemnly. "I couldn't stop it, Natsume. Even with Taki's powers."
"But you did stop it, even if just for a moment. You saved me, Tanuma." Natsume looked up at Taki, who still stood over them defensively. "And you too, Taki. Thank you, both of you."
They both helped Tanuma sit up, then all took a moment to hold onto each other, to make sure they were all intact. Natsume didn't know quite what to say to them now. They'd put themselves in such danger for him - but he had a feeling they already knew what he'd want to say, or at least he hoped so. They were safe for now. They still needed to find a way to free Nyanko-sensei, though. Thankfully, they had just been found by one of the youkai who might be able to help them.
"Misuzu, what do you know about that oni? Has it been causing trouble lately?"
"It came from a mountain in the east, and has been hunting the low-level youkai of Yatsuhara. I've been tracking it for days, but it was quick to hide. I am glad to be rid of it now."
During the chase, it had seemed a bit mindless, seeming to follow instinct more than it used intellect. Natsume wasn't sure it would have been capable of using magic. Also, if it was quick to hide, it seemed increasingly unlikely that this oni was the one who placed the seal on Nyanko-sensei - who was quite powerful, and whom the oni would have seen as a threat. So who had done it? And how would they set him free?
"Misuzu, have you ever heard of youkai placing seals on other youkai?"
Misuzu laughed deeply - and then looked past Natsume, his grin taking on a more mischievous tone.
In his beast form, Nyanko-sensei landed hard in the clearing next to Natsume. He looked furious.
"Sensei!" Natsume cheered. "You're free!" Taki's face lit up, and she and Tanuma continued to search the clearing for those they couldn't see. "How did that happen?"
"Misuzu!" Sensei roared, his great back arched, fur standing on end and tail swishing stiffly. "Just what were you planning? To take the Book?"
"I have told Natsume he may hold my name for the time being, and I intend to honor that." Misuzu flicked his ear, setting off the bells that dangled from it.
"Wait, you're the one that sealed Sensei?" Natsume asked. How could that be? Nyanko-sensei eyed Misuzu for a moment, then growled, nostrils flaring. "Why, Misuzu?"
"Natsume, you could use someone powerful to protect you," Misuzu said. "I needed to make sure you didn't waste time calling on that one."
"Watch it," Nyanko-sensei bristled. He turned his head to Natsume and asked, "I sensed trouble. Is everything all right?"
"I have taken care of it for you, Madara," Misuzu said smoothly. He seemed to grin wider. "Your vices are too easily exploited. Natsume will soon have no need of you, and my forest's sake will once again be safe."
Nyanko-sensei's growl rumbled loud and deep, reverberating the very ground he stood on. "Are you trying to say you're more powerful than me?"
Misuzu said, "I see no need in saying that."
So was it a joke? Or some sort of game? "He did seal you, Sensei." Natsume hardly ever felt like he understood the minds of youkai.
Sensei growled softly, then disappeared in a cloud of smoke. In a moment, he reappeared in his fortune cat form. Tanuma and Taki both jumped at his apparently sudden appearance. "That was only because he tricked me," he said.
Misuzu's eyes gleamed ominously. "You were so drunk you couldn't even smell the mitsuba."
Nyanko-sensei harrumphed and turned his back to Misuzu, sitting down and beginning to wash his face.
Natsume asked, "Isn't mitsuba a garnish?"
Misuzu reared his head, chuckling deep in his throat. "For youkai, it is a poison, though there are few unwise enough to consume it."
He put poison in Sensei's drink? "But why would you poison him?" Natsume clenched his fist. Taki jumped.
Misuzu said casually, "I needed a way to get the seal on him." He lowered his chin to the ground, grinning harder. "I didn't expect my first attempt to work. It was all very amusing."
"As if something like mitsuba would stop me from coming for you!" Nyanko-sensei spat.
"But why would you do this at all?" Natsume asked.
Misuzu laughed again, pawing at the earth with his hoof. "I knew he would break it. I simply wanted to see what would happen if Madara was out of the running."
Natsume cringed - although he supposed for someone like Misuzu, it was important to know who he was up against for the Book. The world of youkai was far more dangerous than Natsume would like to think about. "And the oni?"
"That was not my doing, though the timing was rather fortunate. I am glad to serve my master."
"I'm not your master!" Natsume snapped. "But thank you for your help, Misuzu."
Nyanko-sensei bristled all over. "Help? You call that help?"
"Maybe if you actually tried guarding me for once, Sensei..."
Nyanko-sensei huffed and began pointedly ignoring him. Tanuma and Taki both watched Natsume closely, as if waiting for some sort of cue. He'd have to fill them in on the details afterwards. Suddenly, Misuzu and Nyanko-sensei both swiveled their ears to focus on something Natsume couldn't hear. Nyanko-sensei grunted under his breath and resumed grooming himself.
Misuzu said, "You have more allies than you know, Natsume." He pushed off from the ground and flew off above the trees, his long robes trailing behind him and the gentle chimes of his bells floating in the air.
Nyanko-sensei made an annoyed noise, seemingly bored. Natsume strained to hear what the two youkai had heard, but could hear nothing himself at first. Then, he could make out the rustling of leaves and snapping of twigs, and he found himself tensing up once more, preparing to protect his friends.
"Natsume!" Nishimura called. "There you are. And Tanuma!" Nishimura and Kitamoto both emerged from the brush, looking relieved - or rather, Kitamoto looked relieved, and Nishimura looked very much surprised, having just zeroed in on Taki.
"What are you guys doing here?" Natsume asked, genuinely curious why these two would be so deep into these woods.
"Well, to be honest, we were a bit worried about you." Kitamoto said. "The way you ran off earlier ... we thought you might have been in some sort of trouble. So we went looking for you. You weren't in town, and no one was at Tanuma's when we checked, so we thought we'd try following the path back to your house from there. We got a bit turned around, though."
"Looks like we found you anyway!" Nishimura gently picked a crumpled leaf off of Taki's sleeve. "Are you all right? Do you need any help? You didn't get hurt trying to help these two idiots, did you?"
"I'm fine," she said, looking at Tanuma and blushing.
Tanuma barked out a laugh, and tried to stand up. Natsume instantly went to help him, as did Kitamoto.
"So now that we've found you guys, do you want to go into town together? Maybe hit the arcade?" Nishimura asked the group. "It looks like you could all use some fun. What the hell happened, anyway?"
All three blurted "nothing!" at once, and then broke into nervous laughter.
"Fun sounds good," Tanuma said, "What do you think, Natsume?"
"Yes, fun does sound good," Natsume said.
"I'd love to come," Taki added.
"Great!" Nishimura said.
As the group gathered themselves, Nyanko-sensei hitching a ride on Natsume's shoulder, Natsume heard something crash into the clearing from the other direction. He whipped around, ready to defend, only to find that, once again, there was no need.
"Natsume-sama! Are you all right?"
I have more allies than I know... Natsume looked around at his friends, and found it hard to disagree.