Chapter 1: In Which Yama Is Very Angry As Usual
Yama, King of Hell, Judge of the Underworld, Prime Initiator of Fate and Senior Official of the Interplanetary Bureaucracy, was furious.
Yama was always furious - at the entire Universe in general and every single individual in the Universe - but today he was exceptionally furious and had been ever since moon retreated across the sky and the sun rose. The sun had been late to arrive and the moon had been left to pull overtime. Yama hated unpunctuality. To make his mood worse, his two least incompetent under-officials, Gozuki and Mezuki, were nowhere to be seen. They were usually prompt in arriving when he called them. When they did deign to arrive, their excuses were pathetic.
“A woman in a pink kimono?” replied Yama in a flat tone, drumming his clawed fingers on his desk (which was wobbling again because two of the souls he had used to prop up the wonky leg had finished their penance and departed to an unpleasant reincarnation as a toad).
“A *princess* in a pink kimono,” replied Gozuki in a voice that still sounded like a bestial growl when he was trying to be obsequious, “And I don't think she was a real mortal, Your Highness, she was wielding that katana of hers with greater skill than any master assassin.”
“The cursed blade,” said Yama, “The one you thought was probably possessing her.”
He nodded enthusiastically, “It must have been a really powerful demon!”
“A powerful demon of the sort I told you to specifically watch out for while you were guarding the gate so that they wouldn't break in and ruin EVERYTHING!” roared Yama, throwing a glass paperweight at him with a force that embedded it in the ferocious ox-headed beast's skull. He turned to Mezuki, “And what exactly did you say happened to you this morning when you should have been in my office?”
“I was summoned, Sir, through this mirror,” neighed Mezuki, “Well, a sort of mirror on top of another mirror with a hinge in the middle. And then I was in the future! You should have seen it, Lord Yama! There were so many people and... and a forest of tall buildings made of glass, and these metal things running faster than horses everywhere...”
“Have you been drinking on duty? At least invent an excuse that makes sense!” he said, retrieving his Big Stick of Divine Retribution from its stand next to his desk and smacking Mezuki over the head with it, “Both of you go and clear up whatever mess you've made. If you come back with any more excuses... you're coming through the CUSTOMER ENTRANCE! Understand?”
“Yes, Boss!” Gozuki gulped, pulling a mildly concussed Mezuki through the door while taking care not to get any more blood on the carpet.
Yama sighed and returned to his paperwork. He was checking his records of all the customers and their myriad sins (all of which they tried to hide from him and all of which he could see in painstaking detail, including many things he really wished he didn't know people were capable of doing) to make sure he had given them the correct sentences. The lists, which encompassed every individual with a soul who had ever died, were written in tiny handwriting on huge scrolls that were stacked high in the shelves all around his supernaturally spacious office. It made him even angrier and his head began to ache. This moment of weakness surprised him; he was used to dealing with days like this. Almost every day was a day like this. He imagined it as his penance for not being able to give himself any penance to do (otherwise there would be no-one around to hand out the penance).
The only person he was not furious with was his sister.
He was worried about her instead. She had been gone for a long time. It was only supposed to be a brief voyage into the mortal world. He really wished she would come back. His workload was twice as heavy with her around and he didn't understand how to process female souls because they were so darn complicated and devious and besides, some part of him that still clung onto humanity was kind of lonely without her.
His pen snapped under his vice-like grip, showering his best robes with ink. His rage rose like mercury in a thermometer, except that thermometers have upper limits, whereas his rage probably looped back on itself somewhere near the end of the Universe. He growled at it and threw it at one of his under-secretaries.
“Where is my sister?”
“Your Infernal Majesty, I am afraid the answer is the same as when you last asked,” replied the terrified official in a slightly shaky voice. He didn't dare comment that 'when you last asked' was five minutes ago, “No word has returned! All of our best runners were sent out to the four corners of the world but they could not find a single sign of your sister's presence!”
“Then send them again...”
“But, Great King, this is the fiftieth time today and our runners are exhausted!”
“She is alive. I would know if she were not. She has to be somewhere,” he growled, bearing his sharp teeth, “Bring her back this instant!”
Relieved to have an excuse to be somewhere other than sitting in a stuffy office within sharp object-throwing distance of an unusually angry Yama, the official ran out at a speed that implied he should really be going on the mission himself.
Yama was also relieved to have all his courtiers out of the room. They were power-hungry and untrustworthy and he didn't want to share his private thoughts with them. He needed time to sit and think.
It couldn't be a coincidence. His sister missing and the darkness rising. The moon was too intense. The sun was late this morning and its glory was faded. The night was too long and the day too short. He had spent all night counting off the hours to make sure.
Darkness hung heavily in the air in more than one way. Curses echoed like distorted prayers, the stench of rust and decay. The Oni weren't just rampaging to make his life worse. Neither were the barriers allowing malicious spirits through solely because his chief warder was incompetent. The evil in the world was being drawn to something. It tormented his finely tuned senses that could look into the eyes of a saint and dredge out his darkest secret. It gnawed at the back of his mind like a loose fang he couldn't stop worrying.
Suddenly, he stopped and sniffed the air. Over the oppressive heat and barren, dusty air of his realm, he smelled something foreign and unwelcome. An intruder. Here in his office.
Snarling a warning, he grabbed his Big Stick of Divine Retribution and whirled around, ready to bring it down on the skull of whoever had the gall to open a portal directly into his office. Such a feat in itself indicated that the threat was great; only the strongest of demons or a God would be able to gain direct access to his inner sanctum without his permission.
The stick swung through empty air and knocked over his 'In' tray, raising a cloud of paperwork. Whatever had just materialised inside his office was much smaller than he expected. The small white creature darted between his feet so fast that he failed to kick it and instead knocked his waste paper bin over, scattering more papers. Barking in excitement, the creature pounced on the flying documents, grabbing one and rolling across the floor before landing inside the overturned bin.
Yama's blazing red eyes narrowed as he peered inside the bin. After a couple of barks of complaint, the creature righted itself and put his paws on the scroll so he could chew it more efficiently. It was a small wolf cub, pure white except for the red streaks across its eyes, forehead and flanks that were marks of divinity. Like most animal-deities, it also had tiny wings. When Yama made a grab for it, the creature growled at him and tugged the paper from side to side.
How utterly cute and adorable, thought Yama, and then, right, its going in the furnace. It is only right and natural that all contents of the waste paper basket go in the furnace.
The moment he grabbed it by the scruff of its neck and yanked it out of the bin, it let out a loud yelp. He felt a sting on the back of his hand that made him lose his grip for long enough to allow the puppy to wriggle out of his grasp then jump onto the top of his hat. Bearing in mind he was wearing his special tallest and therefore best hat, the one that was roughly the same size of him when he sits down, it was a truly impressive feat of athletics.
“Leave my hat alone,” warned Yama in his lowest and most menacing voice, feeling a little silly at addressing in such a serious tone something that was small, fluffy and peering down at him from the top of his hat, “Or, so help, me, I shall visit upon thee all the myriad torments of every single one of the Hells, including the ones that are still in development, for the rest of the lifespan of the Universe and then, once I reset the Universe, I shall once again...”
In reply, the puppy barked in a positively urgent manner. A crumpled paper fell gently from the sky. Yama snatched it up. Its original contents were now unreadable due to being covered in puppy drool. On the reverse side was written one character, in rather shaky, childish calligraphy that looked as if it was written with a large and clumsy brush.
The word was 'Yami'.
Yama glanced up at the puppy. It had shifted its weight, almost falling off but managing to cling on with its teeth and claws, gouging deep gashes in the expensive fabric of his best hat. Now its tail hung down, splattering Yama's face with ink.
He sighed and placed his hat on the desk next to the Newton's Cradle toy he had made himself out of souls, so that he was eye to eye with the puppy.
“I'm listening,” he hissed.
Chapter 2: In which Issun arrives almost too late.
It took Yama an entire hour and several hundred sheets of paper to understand even the general idea of what the puppy was trying to communicate through his erratic, large-scale calligraphy. The hardest part was convincing him to stay still for five minutes at a time instead of chasing anything fast-moving or shiny enough to attract his attention. Since he kept accidentally knocking over soul containers, the supply of fast-moving shiny things steadily increased. The chaos inside the room was nothing compared to the steadily building commotion Yama could hear outside. Di Yu had an annoying habit of falling down around him if he wasn't personally there to glare at it (although not literally, which he heard was true of the realms of some less fortunate deities). It was worth it; he would be prepared to sit there talking to puppies all day if it meant he discovered the whereabouts of his sister.
“So, you're Amaterasu's son?” Yama double-checked. Chibiterasu, as the wolf seemed to be called, gave an excited bark that they had established meant 'yes'. Yama was a little curious as to how the revered Sun Goddess had managed to conceive a child who was a wolf cub when her true form wasn't a wolf, as well as the identity of the father, although he didn't ask. Avoiding unnecessary details was crucial when attempting to discuss a serious matter when the speaker had no attention span and was trying to communicate by using his tail as a calligraphy brush. At least it explained why Chibiterasu couldn't communicate in the Celestial tongue; if he had been born a wolf, he would have been taught only the language of divine animals.
“And my sister is with Amaterasu now?” The puppy gave him a confused sideways look and began to whine, “Okay... she was with your mother last time you saw her?”
He barked and pointed to the pile of drawings that represented the puppy's attempt to convey some kind of timescale to the events he was talking about. Either he was too young to have a sense of time yet or there was something very wrong with the passage of time in the mortal world.
“And they were fighting?” prompted Yama. This part of the story worried him a little. He had no desire to break up a fight between his sister and a deity who outranked him, one of whom he could never bring himself to harm, the other whom he probably couldn't harm by some kind of code written into his identity or at the very least would get into severe trouble if he tried. He also had no idea why his sister (who was more or less mortal the last time he saw her) would want to pick a fight with a senior deity in the first place. She had no quarrel with any of them, was too sensible to go looking for one and would have no way to even begin fighting Amaterasu if she had wanted to.
The third confusing thing about the story was that, try as he may, the puppy couldn't draw a picture of Yami that looked anything like her. His depiction of her looked like a shrimp in a goldfish bowl.. Yama would have been able to believe that Chibi just didn't know how to draw women, except that his sketches were full of women that were at least recognisable as human females.
“This might be a lot easier if you just show me. Now,” Yama prompted, motioning towards the door.
The puppy whined and gave him a forlorn look with those big wide eyes that would have melted the heart of a lesser being. It occurred to him that there was no way the puppy could have reached his realm without assistance, yet he didn't sense any other presence in the room.
“You... can leave, can't you?”
In answer, the puppy ran over to the stacks of paper and drew what looked like a human with an enormous hat from which ant-like feelers protruded. The creature was holding something that could have been a paintbrush or a sword, Yama couldn't quite tell. The puppy helpfully wrote the word 'ISSUN' next to it.
Shortly afterwards, Yama was mildly surprised (only mildly, considering everything else that had happened already) when the floor began talking to him.
“So sorry I'm late!” yelled the floor. Upon hearing its words, the puppy ran towards the door, barking excitedly. Something around the size of a worryingly large flea jumped out of the carpet to perch on Chibiterasu's nose, “You wouldn't believe the trouble I had at the door! I had to fill in the forms AND bribe all the officials with a unique signed picture of Amaterasu! And then I couldn't quite fit through the gap under the door, so I had to go in through the keyhole! Honestly, who builds doors like this?” the insect-thing paused for breath, “You haven't gotten into any trouble while I've been away, have you? I warned you to be polite! We have special dispensation to be here and we technically shouldn't have it. We're only allowed in because its a dire emergency!”
The confused whine that was the puppy's attempt at an answer was silenced when Yama picked him up by the scruff of the neck so he could more easily inspect the tiny intruder. A faint green aura surrounded him, marking him as other than a mundane mortal, although not a God by any means. Yama's blazing eyes bored into his soul as he wordlessly demanded an explanation!
“Um... greetings! I am Issun, the famous Celestial Envoy in personal service to Amaterasu! But of course you've heard of me! My renown has spread to the four corners of the Earth and beyond!” announced the tiny creature, “And THIS is...”
“Chibiterasu, son of Amaterasu?”
“Oh, so you've already introduced yourself, then? Well done, Chibi, you're getting better at this! You won't need an interpretor at all, soon! You're putting me out of a job in no time!”
“No, no, I think you should definitely stay and explain what is going on and how it concerns my sister and I,” said Yama, “Now. Without any more inane rambling or pictures drawn by puppies.”
“You know, I think it might be simplest if we just show you,” said Issun, “I can't really explain something in simple terms when it isn't simple at all, can I?”
“I agree entirely. However, I can't just up and leave my office at a moment's notice. Especially when my guards appear to be in the practice of just letting anyone in!” he snarled.
“Then I'll do the paperwork!”
“Are you serious?” he snarled, “All the paperwork? Do you have any idea how much paperwork I have to process in a day? And I don't even have a pen in your size!”
“I've got my own. And, believe me, it can't be any worse than being a Celestial Envoy!”
“And how are you going to deal with intruders?”
“With my trusty blade, Denkomaru, of course!” Issun brandished a sword that was smaller than a pine needle. Still, Yama had to grudgingly admit that his stroke showed some degree of skill, and that relative size wasn't the decisive factor in a battle by any means.
“If you stay here, who is going to translate for the puppy?” he glanced pointedly at Chibiterasu, who was sat in the middle of the now-discarded sketches, chewing on a picture of some kind of five-headed snake monster with an inebriated expression on its face.
“You have a point,” said Issun, “How about I go with you and explain what is happening first, then I go back and do the paperwork for you? It won't take long! Um, time being relative and all that! I'm sure that fine strapping horse-thing that tried to stand on me can guard the gate for just a bit longer!”
“Mezuki is WHERE? I told him to go and...” he sighed a long-suffering sigh, “What do you mean 'time being relative and all that'?”
“You'll see!” promised Issun, “Come on, Chibi, you're lucky that the portal's still open!”
The puppy wriggled out of Yama's grip, ran to the door and barked at it until the exasperated Death God opened it for him. Then they bolted down the crowded corridor, tripping up a lesser Infernal minister who had been carrying a large pile of scrolls and wasn't watching where he was going. Yama immediately saw the source of the chaos: a crackling portal had materialised at the far end of the corridor, where the front door used to be. Black as the raw essence of night, it was streaked with glowing veins of an angry red that hurt his brain to look at, it felt so wrong, like a badly crossed out error in the very fabric of reality.
It didn't look like something a Sun God and a minuscule bureaucrat would be able to make between them.
A whine of reluctance told him that Chibiterasu shared his displeasure but he jumped into the tempestuous void anyway. Never to be outdone by a puppy, Yama adjusted his hat and walked in after them.
Chapter 3: In Which Yama Terrifies a Security Guard and Chibiterasu Goes Ice Skating
Yama emerged from the portal to find himself suspended in mid air, forty feet above the ground. It was fortunate that he landed in a deep snow drift. As the portal shrank to nothingness above him, he grabbed his hat in one hand and the frantically barking puppy in the other before either could hit the ground.
“Where are we now?” he demanded, glancing around him. He had a fairly good sense of direction, what with the number of souls he had to go out and personally collect because the task was too important to leave to his subordinates, but he couldn't possibly be expected to distinguish an individual place that he was randomly transported to with no context from the countless realms he traversed on a daily basis. By the time he had narrowed it down to 'probably somewhere in the mortal realm', the puppy was whining at him and tugging at the hem of his robes. Chibiterasu had written the word 'Kamui' in the snow with his paws.
“Ah, excellent! I remember this place now!” he said, his rage ever so slightly alleviated, which was like saying that someone had taken a cup of water from the ocean, “That's assuming it hasn't changed too much since last time I went there. The mortal world is so fickle and fleeting...”
Chibiterasu's whine was oddly ominous. The passage of time seemed to be something he couldn't talk about, whether it was too difficult for him to understand or something was wrong that he couldn't quite explain. Puppies didn't have much of a sense of time and bureaucrats were even worse but it was growing too frequent to be a coincidence.
He allowed Chibiterasu to lead him down the treacherous frozen path and into a snow-covered forest, a task that the puppy didn't make easy for him. Finding a white puppy in a snowstorm was about as rewarding a task as could be imagined; finding a white puppy who randomly disappeared entirely inside a snowdrift taller than him, and who kept charring Yama's robes by summoning elemental powers of fire to clear his path at the precise moment that Yama reached down to fish him out and then shaking the remaining snow all over him, was an exercise in futility that Yama, being Yama, would wish on lots of people. He resolved to personally teach Chibiterasu the secret to a more accurate manipulation of divine fire as soon as he had some free time. More worrying to him than somebody else's ill-tutored apprentice was the fact that Kamui seemed to be far too cold, even for the legendary frozen North of Nippon. Summer should have arrived by now and the summers in Kamui were usually quite mild. It was another sign that the mortal world was unraveling at the seams, like the tapestry poorly put together by too many artisans with conflicting interests that it generally was. He resisted the urge to set the whole forest on fire as he plodded through the snow.
At the next fork in the road, Yama finally found a sign post. Chibiterasu barked and sped up, bounding towards the area marked as Lake Laochi as soon as he saw the junction. He became even more excited when he discovered that, if he took a good run-up and then pushed himself along the ice drifts, he slid across the glassy surface and could make himself spin around in circles. Running after the puppy and desperately hoping that he hadn't entirely forgotten what they were supposed to be doing, Yama stopped when he began to hear harsh voices speaking in strong Oina accents all around him. Warriors in fierce animal masks, tall and rangy, appeared from the trees and stood in front of the gate that lay between them and the Lake.
“Halt, who goes th...” began one of the guards, interrupted when Chibiterasu skated on the ice straight between his legs, barking manically. He shrugged and continued, “Halt, who goes there?”
Pausing for dramatic effect, Yama fixed them his most terrifying glare. He saw the first guard's eyes open wide in recognition under his mask, then he bolted in the other direction, screaming. His companion stood his ground, although his sword arm was shaking.
“I'm not afraid of Gods!” he yelled with too much volume and too little conviction to be believable.
“Are you sure? You don't seem so sure of yourself...” he said in a menacingly hushed voice, his eyes flaring with righteous indignation, “You're not lying, are you?”
“I... I've seen them fight and I know they can be defeated!”
“You're telling me Gods come up and down this road and have fights all the time?”
“W... well... there was only the one, and it looked a little flaky to me,” he admitted, “Come to think of it, it looked just like that puppy just now!”
“A God that looks like a puppy? Don't be ridiculous!” snapped Yama, “Begone with you, and no sleeping through the night shift again!”
“How did you know I was sleeping... I mean, the Elite Guards of the Yamato Ark would NEVER sleep on watch!”
“And they never cheat on their wives either, I'm sure...” said Yama.
“How in the...” Whatever he was about to invoke, the guard suddenly thought better of it. His face rapidly drained of colour, then he too disappeared back into the trees. So something really is happening to rile the Gods, thought Yama. He doubted it was the indiscretions of a lone Oina guard. Yama could tell without looking that the man hadn't done anything of interest one way or the other in his entire existence and could safely be left to repeat the same dull life until the annihilation of the Universe, so he dismissed his face from memory and carried on through the howling icy winds of Lake Laochi.
When he caught up with Chibiterasu in the middle of the frozen lake, the puppy was looking up at the immense, ancient structure of the Yamato Ark and snarling at it as though it was a rival wolf on his territory. Yama was rather perplexed by the existence of the ship. It had the feeling of something that should not belong in this world, an erroneous atmosphere that came too close to hostility. He didn't really notice it on this night, a night that had come far too early and was far too dark once again. When everything about the world felt wrong, it was difficult to pick out individual faults.
Chibiterasu walked up to the Ark's single exposed door and barked at it until it opened. Yama knew that door wasn't supposed to open for anyone except those who had business there. It had obviously recognised the young lupine deity. As Yama predicted, the door tried to close on him as soon as he sprang towards it. Chibiterasu helpfully kept jumping in and out of the doorway to keep the door open long enough for him to enter. It was difficult to persuade him to stop the game once Yama was inside.
The air was no longer quite as cold but it smelled stale as a sealed tomb. It had been artificial to start with and now the supply had run out. If either of them were mortal, they probably wouldn't have been able to breathe. Nothing natural was alive in here. It was all mechanical or long dead.
Yama could hear the spirits call out to him, their clamour almost deafening him. It was like being at the front reception desk. They had been in some disarray over something - they were all talking at him too fast for him to discern what - and now their panic was exacerbated by his sudden appearance. They had been kept here by some malign force for a long time. Some of the spirits were desperately trying to explain that it wasn't their fault. Others were apologising that it was. It sounded like a complicated situation.
“Yes, yes, I will deal with the matter later. Where is my sister?” he demanded. As if in reply, Chibiterasu howled and ran straight down the middle of the roughly circular chamber, through the door directly ahead of him.
That was when Yama saw his sister again, for the first time in what felt like an entire aeon. Were he limited to his physical senses, he would not have recognised her. He almost failed to spot her soul at first glance. It was obscured by a thick smog of cloying, choking malice. He could see why Chibiterasu would believe she had turned to evil; it pervaded her entire essence. It took an extremely perceptive eye to spot that it was not truly part of her, only something that was borrowing the same space as her; Yama knew that it would take an equal amount of skill to ever separate the two.
Especially when she was locked in mortal combat with Amaterasu.
The young wolf barked and yelped at his mother, trying every brush technique he knew to prevent her from fighting without leaving her open to attack, or at least get her attention. He tried calling strong gales to blow the two combatants away from each other, vines to grab them and fasten them to the ground, water spouts to slow their movement, a veil of mist to stop them from being able to see each other. All his efforts were deflected by Amaterasu or Yami.
Amaterasu lunged at Yami, teeth bared for the kill. The bizarre metal capsule that contained Yami emitted a series of beeps and Yama felt a powerful wave of twisted elemental energy building up around her. The Death God unsheathed his sword and sprang forward, bellowing his fury. He knew he was fast enough to get between them and that his essence was strong enough to endure a few seconds of whatever they could throw at him. If he could survive long enough to keep them apart, Chibiterasu would have the one chance he needed.
He heard the young wolf yelp loudly in distress, pain or maybe urgent warning. He didn't yet speak enough puppy to tell the difference. Amaterasu's expression briefly betrayed surprise and confusion at his appearance. Yami's mechanical sphere beeped ever louder and more high-pitched.
Then Yama was falling...
Chapter 4: In Which Our Intrepid Duo Fight a Mechanical Orochi
Yama was falling through a place outside space and time, somewhere that his essence told him in a scream of protest that he shouldn't be able to reach. Looming above him at the top of the dark tunnel that surged with raw malevolent elemental force like an avenue of storm clouds, he saw only a row of gnashing teeth that loomed above him inside a mouth large enough to swallow him in one gulp. Inside the maw, he saw that the darkness extended further, and that other sets of teeth waited further ahead. It was as though he was standing between two mirrors and glimpsing the reflection of himself reflected in the other mirror in endless recursion, except with more giant demonic teeth. If the teeth do manage to eat me, he wondered, would I be endlessly eaten by a sequence of teeth inside teeth, trapped in an infinite loop of torment? Inspiring an idea as it was, he felt glad that it was an untested hypothesis and that he was falling rapidly and uncontrollably away from the teeth rather than towards them. Assuming that the fate awaiting him didn't involve something worse than abyssal pointy teeth.
Then he emerged from the tunnel of darkness and landed unceremoniously in a fountain. Seconds later, Chibiterasu landed on top of him. Yama spluttered and pulled himself out of the fountain before emptying the water out of his hat, then finally lifting the ineffectually flailing puppy out. For a deity, the Son of Amaterasu didn't seem too brilliant at swimming. The puppy immediately shook himself dry all over Yama.
For a few seconds, Yama recognised nothing. It was as if he had stepped into the deranged nightmare realm of the mechanical creature that his sister currently took the form of. Then he remembered his discussion with Mezuki that morning. This realm fit the description exactly. The 'forest of tall buildings made of glass' was there. They were also made up of metal – a lot of metal – and substances Yama didn't even recognise, and they shone with all sorts of coloured lights even though they hardly contained any elemental spirits apart from lightning. He spotted the 'metal things running faster than horses', several of which almost careened straight into him as he stared up at the impossibly tall structures. The only part of the scenario that didn't quite match up was the lack of people. Mezuki said there were 'people everywhere'. Yama couldn't see anyone here at all. He could sense the souls of a great many people, too many of whom were dead, a lot more of whom were hidden around corners and inside buildings. Hiding from something. Afraid.
“Stay close,” he warned Chibiterasu as he drew his blade, “Don't draw attention to us!”
The puppy immediately ran on ahead, barking at the top of his voice. Yama rolled his eyes and followed at a safe distance, keeping the little wolf in sight but allowing himself a relaxed enough pace that he could cycle through the thoughts cropping up in the back of his mind. What had happened to his sister? What was the dark entity that chased him through the portal and why was he suddenly in the habit of falling through mysterious portals in any case? And why was he in a world that Mezuki made up only a few hours ago as part of an excuse for his lateness to work?
“Aww, cute, a puppy! Hey, it likes me!” cried out a voice. Yama heard several sets of footsteps approaching him rapidly along the hard surface that coated the roads, followed by an excited Chibiterasu. The puppy appeared from around a corner, leading a group of four humans wearing a bizarre style of clothes. One of them bent down to pat Chibiterasu, who jumped up and licked him on the face.
“You can't just trust total strangers like th...” began Yama, but he was interrupted when the young man pointed a finger at him and cried out.
“Cool, its really Yama! Look!” he demonstrated to his friends, another young man and two young women, one of whom wore a picture of Amaterasu in wolf form on her hat, “I told you we could do it!”
“I don't think this is such a good idea!” commented the girl with the Amaterasu hat. She was looking nervously at an object she held in both hands, “I think we called up something we can't put away!”
Yama narrowed his eyes, “You dare to imply that you summoned me? Against my will? A brief, insignificant mortal such as you?”
“He's out of control! Leg it!” said the girl. They followed her rather sensible order but the boy who had been petting Chibiterasu forgot that the puppy was still stood directly underfoot and tripped over him. Yama swooped down like a vulture. He grabbed the boy by the hair and held the blade of his sword to his throat.
“Good boy, Chibi,” he remarked, before clearing his throat theatrically and pulling the boy's face close to his so that he could see his blazing eyes and sharp teeth.
“I didn't mean to summon you!” he pleaded, “I can dismiss you! Honest!”
His eyes wandered to the mechanical device he had dropped on the floor beside him. It had two sections, each with mirrors in the middle of them, that were fastened together with a fragile-looking clasp. Chibiterasu whined at it and licked the topmost mirror.
“Please don't break that!” begged the boy, “We're all doomed without it! Completely helpless! And none of you will be able to get in or out!”
Chibiterasu stared blankly at the boy and judged from the distressed tone and the hand-waving that he wanted the puppy to pick the strange object up between his teeth and hand it to him. He was even more confused when neither the boy nor Yama looked pleased with him. Suddenly, the other three humans ran back around the corner.
“Its back!” screamed the Amaterasu hat girl. Chibiterasu tilted his head and whined at her. Then a blood-curdling roar of demonic bestiality that shook the very ground brought him abruptly to full alertness. He dropped the device in a puddle and ran in the direction the girl had come from, barking and focussing his spirit energy for an attack. Yama hurled the boy across the road with one hand, then ran after the puppy, also dropping into a combat stance.
“That's right! Go!” screamed the girl, waving her arms at the two deities, “Er... I choose you! You were right, Atsuro! They're doing what we want them to after all!”
The boy groaned in pain and curled up in a foetal position beside the lamp-post he had been hurled into, and that was now slightly dented. Yama memorised his name and stored it under 'cause for concern' in his legendary memory banks even as he ran to face the new enemy.
“Cease to exist, you aberration of life!” he screamed as he swung his sword at one of the beast's eight scaly necks the girth of tree trunks, each one plated in metal and covered in the same wires and flashing lights that everything in this realm seemed to be covered in. Yama had heard of Orochi before but never a mechanical version of him. It was difficult to tell how much of the demon was still living and how much had been eaten away by the machinery that covered its head, replacing one eye with a flashing red light that occasionally fired bolts of solid red energy at him. Yama learnt that the light was solid after a bolt of it destroyed the right sleeve of his robe and almost took off several of his fingers. He responded by driving his blade into the offending eye socket. It sparked and fizzled out, causing the head to thrash, scream and knock Yama backwards into the burning wreckage of a mechanical horse-substitute it had previously caused to explode. Completely unharmed by the fire but his essence a little shaken by the impact, Yama sprang back into the fray, aiming for its other eye. Chibiterasu ran underneath another head, swiping at it with a Power Slice and firing shards of elemental ice at it. He was mostly relying on his small size and agility making him difficult to hit.
“Here, use this!” The girl with the Amaterasu hat threw a metal can of some kind at him. Yama grabbed it and wrinkled his nose at the stench of cheap but strong Sake. The mechanical Orochi gave a loud beep of excitement and snatched it from his hand, almost biting off the entire hand in the process. Discordant beeps, clanking and grating noises echoed down the alleyway as the six remaining heads fought over the Sake. The combined efforts of Yama and Chibiterasu cut off two of the heads and set the entire body on fire before the middle head won the internal conflict, devouring the can as well as the contents. Four angry mechanical dragon heads, now on fire, snapped at the two deities.
“We're still outnumbered!” exclaimed the girl, “Have you seen the readings from that thing? We can't compete with that kind of power level!”
“I'm not sure I can summon any more... I think this thing's broken...”
“Try it anyway!”
Yama was trying to tug his arm free from the teeth of Orochi's third head when he heard more loud beeps coming from behind him. He ducked when the beeps started to grow louder and more frequent. A surge of blue energy and mysterious dots of light streamed over his head, then suddenly he heard a familiar voice, one that he had hoped he wouldn't hear again for a while.
“NOT AGAAAAAAAAAAIN!” Mezuki whinnied as he fell out of the sky flailing his arms. In one hand he held an executioner's axe, in the other, a cup of tea. The tea spilled out of the cup onto Mecha-Orochi's third head and the beast let out a static-tinged roar of frustration and grief as it sobered up under the sheer caffeine level of Jigoku's tea equivalent of Eight Purification Sake. Yama took the opportunity to free his arm from its jaws.
Mezuki fixed the now-four-headed snake a look of pure venom, “You ruined my tea break!” Hefting his axe in both hands, he ran towards Orochi and swung the weapon, lopping off another head in one blow. Despite himself, Yama was rather impressed by his underling's conduct. He made a mental note to possibly slightly forgive him. I'm being too nice, he thought as he buried his sword in the throat of a further giant mechanical dragon head, that puppy is a bad influence on me.
“We did it!” rejoiced the girl as the three supernatural beings made short work of the remaining heads and the body fell to the floor, thrashing its death throes. Then she added, “Uh-oh... ATSURO! DISMISS IT!”
“I'll get you this time!” roared Mezuki, charging at the nearest human and bringing his axe down in a massive arc aimed at her head. Just before it impacted, he began to dissolve into blue lights.
“Don't worry, you'll see them again when they come for a visit!” remarked Yama jovially to his equine chief warder before he could disappear entirely. Then he turned to the girl, “You really can summon Mezuki at will, can't you?”
She nodded, “He's not that strong a demon. We can summon better than that.”
“Well, could you refrain from assisting my employees in their eternal quest to skive off?” asked Yama, tapping his foot as he waited for Mecha-Orochi's soul to leave its body. Was it too mechanical to still have a soul? For that matter, couldn't some machines have souls if they were intelligent and capable of moral agency? It was a matter he would have to think upon if humanity would insist on creating ever more advanced machines, “I am in the future, yes?”
Remembering that the future was the present from the perspective of people in the future, he told them what time period he was from. They confirmed that the current date was several thousand years later. The soul came out of Orochi's body so he trapped it in the bottle of Sake it was trying to hide in, then cauterised the lid shut.
“I'm not sure where that thing came from, mind you,” said the girl, who introduced herself as Yuzu, “Things have been falling through the portals lately without our summoning them. We don't even leave the machines switched on but they still use them – they switch them on by themselves from the other end!”
“Would you mind explaining from the beginning what exactly is happening here?” asked Yama, “And you would do well to make it sound slightly less as though its all your fault.”
“Oh no, we weren't the first people doing all of this,” said Atsuro, “We just kind of jumped on the bandwagon once things started appearing. And we mostly borrowed someone else's idea.”
“Come on, we'll show you everything,” said Yuzu, gesturing at him to follow her, “Its the most we can do. You saved our lives back there. And you haven't eaten our souls, even though you kind of look like you want to. You're one of us now. You get to see our secret base!”
Chapter 5: In Which Yama Finds Out About Space-Time Teleportation Devices and Catgirl Maid Cafes
Now that the immediate threat was over, the streets of downtown Tokyo filled with life as though someone had drowned it in light, noise and movement with a high-pressure hose that left it unrecognisable as the ghost town it was seconds ago. They heard the sirens of the police called out to inspect the damage done to the parking lot and calm down the clearly delusional people who kept saying it had been done by a twenty foot tall mechanical eight-headed dragon. Unwilling to attract attention to themselves, Yuzu led her friends and the two deities down a series of back alleys. It was difficult to stay out of sight, no matter how circuitous a route they took. The alleys they were forced to use weren't exactly marked on the 'Scenic Tour of Beautiful Tokyo' map. Drunks tried to harass them, homeless people pestered them for loose change and one or two idiots tried to mug them. By the time they reached the 'secret base', Yama was running out of cans to put souls in, Yuzu was running out of 100 yen coins to put in vending machines to acquire more cans and Atsuro was a little drunk from the previous contents of the cans.
The base itself was in an abandoned warehouse labelled 'Dangerous: Unstable Floor. No Entry'. The reason that the floor was unstable was because it slid away when Yuzu put her foot on a secret hidden floor panel. They descended a winding set of stairs until they found themselves in a room full of machines that looked, in Yama's admittedly inexpert opinion, much more advanced than the ones he'd seen so far. Yuzu switched on one of the large panels that ringed the room, batting away a small imp who immediately leapt out of the leftmost of the two glass booths next to the panel. Words lit up on the screen. Atsuro typed rapidly, using unintelligible strings of words that Yama assumed were in Moon Tribe language. Finally, he hit the last key and gestured for Yama to take a look. Chibiterasu whined until Yama picked him up in one hand and held him so that he could see the screen as well.
Research Notes, said the screen, after giving him a date he recognised as the night after he last saw his sister, Today I have made a major breakthrough. I believe true apotheosis will be obtainable by next week. It will not be long before I am able to exist alongside my brother again.
The machine worked again today. I was able to send myself back 24 hours and teleport myself to Osaka. It didn't even explode this time! I realise this isn't exactly the Moon, or ten thousand years ago, but the principle works, that's the main thing. I can travel using this technology through time and space without putting my physical shell in danger. Of course, I can discard my mortal body once I have completed the process.
Celestial immortality is forever barred to me. This much has been made clear by the Gods. I do not know if it is logically impossible or prohibited, or if there is a difference when you are a God. The fact that I was given something like this as compensation – communication with and some control over the essence of Night is not something lightly given to a mortal - means that they are not going to make any further effort to reunite me with my brother. That is why I must make my own arrangements.
The machines I have created are based on the technology I rescued from the wrecked Moon Tribe ship. I have handsomely rewarded the nocturnal spirit who told me about the 'odd-looking unscheduled falling star'. There are other such shipwrecks, so I have been able to gather enough components to create a machine that allows travel across time and space. It is smaller than the devices I based it off, and will only hold one person. There are other problems I can't fully iron out - for instance, I have not been ageing at the correct rate since I started these experiments. Yesterday I aged backwards for the entire day. It would be enough of a concern for me to stop using the machine, if I were not so confident that I would soon leave this body behind. The technology developed by the Moon Tribe allowed immortality and superhuman powers. It is possible that the machines even developed a life of their own. I may end up becoming such a machine! If I cannot transcend this world through the stars, I shall do so by the Moon!
“Crazy, huh?” commented Atsuro, “It isn't all talk, though. That lady left technology lying around that really did all those things. We were able to work miracles with it. Summon demons. Teleport things backwards and forwards in space and time.”
“We don't dare send ourselves back in time, though,” said Yuzu, “When we put things in the portal, they sometimes don't come back, or they come back broken or changed. We don't know what's on the other side. And then there's all the demons. This thing isn't just wired to our own planet's space-time continuum.”
“The demons are useful,” said Atsuro, “We focussed on that because it was the machine's most reliable function. We're not going to Hell for summoning demons, are we?”
“It depends entirely on what you do with the demons,” Yama drummed his fingers on the surface of the screen, then pulled his hand away when Chibiterasu began licking his fingers.
“We mostly need them to protect us from other demons that come out of the portal. Ironic, huh?” commented Atsuro.
“To be honest, we would be happy if you could fix this whole thing. Its causing as many problems for us as it solves,” said Yuzu, “I know you're not the fixing-problems-for-humanity kind of God, but...”
“Oh, believe me, I perform a great service for you mortals and, although you'll never appreciate me for it in literally a million lifetimes, you'd regret it if I was gone,” said Yama. He spotted Chibiterasu licking the screen and quickly walked with him to the middle of the room. The puppy wriggled free of his grasp, then climbed up the front of his robes and licked him in the face, “Furthermore, I think it is in our collective best interests if I use your machine to send myself somewhere marginally less irritating than this filthy dystopia of a future.”
“Hey, its not bad! We've got video games and... and catgirl maid cafes!” said Atsuro enthusiastically, “And didn't I just explain that going through that portal is a really bad idea?”
“Because of demons,” he said, patting the hilt of his sword fondly, “Have I not demonstrated what I do to demons when they annoy me?”
“Atsuro, that's a real God. He'll be fine,” said Yuzu.
“Oh, okay. Where d'you want to go?”
“I need to reach the exact time and place that the woman in the text was trying to reach.”
“You're in luck. She left in the co-ordinates on auto-dial! She must have made lots of attempts before she succeeded,” said Atsuro.
“We think she succeeded, anyway. We can't find any record of her having ever existed. That's a difficult feat in this day and age,” explained Yuzu.
“You have to step in that booth,” Atsuro pointed to the booth opposite the one that the imp had jumped out of, “The original design had a little... Absolutely Safe Capsule?”
“I told you, we're NOT calling it that!” snapped Yuzu, shuddering.
“This sphere thing, but it teleported with the person inside it. Our machine is more like a proper teleport bay.”
Yama unsheathed his sword, then strode into the booth. The dramatic effect was ruined a little by the puppy half-falling off his shoulder and leaving claw marks down his robes. Once they were both completely inside, Atsuro pulled down a series of large levers. Crackling energy played between them, then Yama was blinded by an intense white light.
When he reappeared, he was in darkness again.
Chapter 6: In Which Two Siblings are Finally Reunited
He recognised this particular darkness. It was the same atmosphere as the Ark of Yamato, except magnified. There was no death here, only the emptiness of the void outside. Nothing living came here, only steel and darkness. The atmosphere did not support life, because it didn't need to, and it would have been expensive to maintain. Fortunately, Yama didn't need to breathe either. Chibiterasu was struggling a little to maintain his divine essence. He had not yet learnt to create a Godhood shield of his own, so he sheltered underneath Yama's by hiding under the hem of his robes. This was inconvenient, as the gravity was also rather low. The distractions did not bother Yama that much, however; he could feel the presence of his sister again. She hadn't yet been tainted, he knew; her soul was as clear and silver as the moon, not yet shrouded in the eclipse of dark energy he had seen around her last time. The machine had worked; he still had a chance to save her!
As he advanced down the spider's web of narrow, winding metal corridors, he navigated solely by his proximity to her. Chibiterasu tried to periodically illuminate the corridor using random elemental spells but his power was waning in this environment that was so inimical to his essence, so far away from the life-giving warmth of the sun. His accuracy was also getting worse and he kept accidentally setting fire to Yama's robes.
Finally he emerged in a much larger, spherical chamber full of segmented metal panels that fit together like rose petals. A metal column occupied the very centre of the chamber from top to bottom, covered in panels and wires. Attached to several of the panels by the other end of the wires was a smaller metal sphere that Yama recognised as the device he had last seen Yami inside. A metal claw extended from a panel that had opened in one facet of the sphere. It began manipulating the controls, causing different lights to blink on and off, several of the panels to revolve and rise or fall to slot into different parts of the column. Yama knew he couldn't afford to wait to see what happened once the mechanism was fully activated. His sister was about to do a terrible thing. He pushed off with his feet and floated through the low gravity like a bird soaring on a wind current.
He tried to call out to her but the air was too thin to speak and he doubted she could hear him behind that metal shell. He used his sword to cut the claw away from the machine. It retracted before the blade reached it and he hit the panel instead. Metal scraped along metal at a force that sent sparks flying but neither surface was damaged. The lights on the panel flashed red and several other panels opened up before firing a stream of lasers at him. He sprang backwards, avoiding the bulk of the attack, although several glancing blows caught him. He heard from the yelps of protest that Chibiterasu was having difficulty dodging them as well.
Then the claw shot out and grabbed him. He snarled and tried to pull himself free until he realised that its path was helping him avoid the attacks and that it was retracting into the sphere, where his sister was. He was flung into the cramped space inside the sphere, where Chibiterasu landed on his head.
“I'm sorry about the lack of space. This device was only made to hold one passenger,” whispered a familiar female voice. The moment he heard his sister speak for the first time in what felt like millennia (although, as Issun had remarked, the concept of time had gotten rather confusing) filled him with a mess of conflicting emotions: anger and revulsion at her unthinkable blasphemy, relief to see her alive and well, fondness for the only entity in existence to show him genuine fondness (as opposed to reluctant servitude, like Mezuki, or puppyish devotion, like Chibiterasu) in return, fear for the future that may have already been decided against his wishes, confusion at the situation that he still only half understood.
“Please stop this,” he whispered in return, “It is wrong, it isn't going to work and it isn't what either of us really wants. I won't be permitted to show you leniency if you commit evil.”
“How do you know it won't work?”
“The same way you found out its existence,” he said, “I have already witnessed the tragedy that will unfold. It was fortunate that the same method could be used to reverse the events. If you wish for proof that I have travelled in time, look no further than my companion. Amaterasu is a grown wolf. Which other wolf could be both divine and a child, except Amaterasu in the past... or a child of Amaterasu?”
Chibiterasu jumped up and licked her face, almost as delicate and pale as a porcelain doll with a striking contrast of raven-black hair, a beauty like that of Yama's before his features had grown fierce and bestial to reflect the kind of deity he had become, “I... suppose it all makes sense. Although, I am surprised at you, proving your point in such a manner! Since when did you bring people puppies?”
“I assure you, it was originally the puppy's idea, not mine,” a ghost of a smile touched his lips as he remembered her sense of humour, then he grew more serious and pointed at the panel displayed on the sphere's screen, “Yami, look closely at the device you were about to activate. Can you not sense it? It is corrupted. It will pass its corruption on to you, if you use its powers on yourself.”
“My spirit-senses are nothing like as strong as yours, brother,” she said, “It would explain why it had been abandoned. I thought it was merely a prototype that I could complete by myself.”
“This thing is half alive, half dead. It has a faulty soul. When it is used on a living thing, when it stops becoming potential and is given form, something will go wrong,” predicted Yama.
“It must be something that went wrong when the machines of the Moon Tribe stopped being inanimate and started becoming sentient,” said Yami, “And I was so sure it would work. I'm sorry, brother. I wanted so much to live alongside you.”
“I would not wish my world upon you, glorious though it is,” he said, “And, actions such as these will only lead you through the customer entrance.”
“I wished no evil. Is it wrong of me to use a tool to achieve a goal? Should I stop using a pan to cook food? Is a bridge across a river wrong as well?”
“Machines are not tools to become gods, or to shirk our duties, or to cheat on our life's quests,” said Yama, “And such a goal is not a sane one. We will be together when we both finish our purpose in the world. It will be a long time. Even by my standards. I miss you with every passing second of the day, Yami. I don't want you to have changed when we meet again.”
“But it is okay for your own spirit to be slowly twisted by malice,” she crossed her arms, ignoring the puppy who licked her on the nose, “The rules apply to you too, brother.”
“Then I had better go and work off my sins with some more of the interminable bureaucracy that is my penance in life,” he said, “Come on, Chibiterasu! Stop stealing my sister's affections!”
“How are you going to get home?” asked Yami, smiling when his face went a slightly different shade of red, “You don't always think things through, do you? Its a good job this thing can make return journeys.”
She tapped a few dials and the machine started shaking back and forth as though loosening itself from unseen bonds. After a few seconds, it shot out of the room and down the corridor at a speed that almost made Yama lose his hat, “You do know that this won't solve all the problems, right? Quite a lot of my experiments are temporally non-local. Their effects might still linger, even with their root severed.”
“I don't care about that. Amaterasu is already dealing with it,” he shrugged, “Soon, her son will return to helping her. Won't you?” Chibiterasu barked in agreement, “I'm mostly worried about you. You... transformed. Your notes said you weren't ageing properly.”
“As long as I didn't constantly use the device, it eventually wore off. I think the timeline mends itself from the damage done by paradox,” she said, “But if I was going to have ended up in worse trouble over it, I thank you for stopping me! Is that really Amaterasu's son?”
“So I have been assured – by Amaterasu's personal Celestial Envoy, no less! I should hope that he would know...” he stopped and frowned, “Is it possible to go any faster?”
“Is there some rush?”
“I left someone in charge of my office upon my absence,” he said, “I would like to find out whether it is still there.”
Epilogue (In Which Issun Has Taken Good Care of Yama's Office)
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” screamed Yama at the top of his voice. Chibiterasu barked excitedly and ran around him in circles. He was overjoyed to see Issun again. They had only just arrived and the puppy had already tried to eat him three times!
“I was bored, so I did a spot of redecoration,” said Issun, “It looks a lot more like home, now.”
“Bright green walls with red spots covered in pictures of Amaterasu reminds you of 'home'? What kind of offices do you have at 'home'?”
“Poncle offices,” said Issun, “They're very modern. Art deco, you know. I put some comfy chairs in the reception area and a bigger coffee machine in the staff canteen. Everyone seems to be a lot happier now. I'm getting a lot more peace and quiet.”
“How are you getting ANY peace and quiet? We're supposed to process ten billion souls per day! You shouldn't have this much free time!”
“Oh, I gave Gozuki some of the easier cases to handle. He's a bright fellow if you give him a chance. To be honest, I threw most of the cases in the bin with one glance. Some of the offences listed there are so minor, it'd make us look like a bunch of pedantic greyfaces if we charged anyone for them!”
“You've been pardoning people?” Yama took a deep breath to calm himself, then stared at his feet, “Chibiterasu?”
“Woof?” the puppy tilted its head.
“Could you escort the nice Celestial Envoy out of the building? And make sure he never comes back? On pain of death and immediate reincarnation as the worst thing he could possibly think of?”
“No, not a human!” begged Issun. Chibiterasu snatched him out of the air between his teeth and ran out of the door with the struggling Poncle screaming obscenities at him. Yama relaxed in his chair. It had been so long since he could sit down and do some paperwork. Maybe he could change into some clean robes, comb his hair and even take a bath for once. He glanced over at the picture of Amaterasu plastered over both doors of his robe cupboard.
“You and I need to have words about your child's behaviour,” he told the Sun Goddess. He idly wondered how she was getting on with her own duties in this bizarre trouble they had all found themselves in. Had she cleared out all the tainted copies of Yama that hadn't yet vanished from the timestream? Had she repaired the damage they had done? Was anyone going to take those future humans' demon-summoning device off them before Mezuki decided to give up and stay there so he could play video games? Did the portals still work, and if not, how were Chibiterasu and Issun going to get back to where they were supposed to be?
He snarled in irritation and ran down the corridor after them.