The whole idea of time travel is elusive on its own. There is a gap no one can figure out, simply because it's so out there: and that's whether or not a presence of the future distorts the past too much.
Make no mistake, Rikuo understands this contradicting idea enough to know not to ask questions. He has a deep, foreboding feeling just sitting in front of his parents grave. He has barely lived past the second decade of his life, and already he's lost a lot. Maybe too much, if he's honest. First, it's Rihan. And then it's Wakana. And now Nurarihyon himself is starting to fade. That process is incredibly slow. Rikuo doesn't see his grandfather dying at least for another two centuries, but he knows that they'll be painful because that's what old age does.
"Sandaime." He looks over his shoulder with piercing red eyes, seeing Kurotabō bowing deeply in respect and dismay at the fact that he's disturbing his master.
"What?" Rikuo doesn't bother to hide his short temper. "It better be important."
"Yes…" Kurotabō says. "Reports have come in. Tōno Village has been attacked. Itaku and his Tōno buddies have since implored our assistance, Sandaime."
To hear "Sandaime" is a sting therein itself for him sometimes, and this is one of those times. It's been well over three years since Rikuo has taken the mantle of Supreme Commander. He isn't unhappy with it, but he can barely be at school and at the ripe age of seventeen, he doesn't want his education crashing down around him just yet. One more year, he tells everyone. They're impatient still.
With a sigh, Rikuo stands. The arm he pushes himself up with cracks with damage and age. It never truly nor properly healed from that battle in Kyoto. "Take me to them," he says.
Kurotabō stands quickly, and obediantly guides Rikuo to the Tōno who implore help from the Naru Gimi. They're at the front entrance, uneasy and alert.
Rikuo steps up to them with a smile. Indeed, Itaku is there with Awashima. They're beaten up and tattered, but they're okay. Rikuo's expression stays steady. "Itaku-san, Awashima-san," he greets.
Itaku takes a breath and bows a little. "Sandaime-sama," he says back. "We've come—"
"To ask for help?" he finishes. Itaku nods. Rikuo's smile widens as he pulls the hand he's kept tucked in his kimono, waving towards the compound with amiable motion. "You've got the Nura Clan behind you, good friend. You need only ask."
Tension in Itaku and Awashima's shoulders relax.
"Thank you, Rikuo," Itaku says. "Tōno needs support more than ever."
"Come in and rest. We can talk about it more," he states, stepping aside to invite them in. They're reluctant to move at first, and Awashima looks like he's about ready to burst, but they get inside anyway. Rikuo looks to Kurotabō. "Round my Night Parade up, make sure they're mobile and sober within the next hour."
The demon assassin nods and bows, rushing away to carry out his orders. Rikuo follows Itaku and Awashima inside, making sure they get to a safe guest room where they can speak and heal in peace. The instant they sit, they start to talk.
"This is a waste of time," Awashima blurts. "Tōno needs help now. Talking about it won't."
Rikuo gives the yōkai a sharp look. "It's not wise to run on fumes in battle," he points out. "We'll be gone in an hour."
Awashima just huffs, obviously frustrated but compliant. Itaku's shoulders drop a little. "Rikuo, you should know…"
"There is a rare kind of yōkai out there that uses a jutsu similar to how an onmyōji would summon a shikigami," he says. "It's…kind of like necromancy. But it's not the real thing."
"…You guys were attacked by a witch or wizard of some sort?" Rikuo inquires. Itaku shrugs. "Because that sounds like the case."
"Whatever the case is," Itaku mutters, "it brought back the Nidaime."
Rikuo feels some sort of important emotional string in him fray. He says nothing. He stares, though, and his expression doesn't change.
"This new foe is masked, but it's obvious that they're aware of what's happened all those years ago," the kamaitachi continues awkwardly. "It's hard. I know. I'd be mortified if a bastard used a copy of my father, too."
At that, Rikuo looks down with a fairly darker expression. Who the hell would dare to use his father? His Rihan? It's an incredibly bold move to use him to attack Tōno, too. It's a well-known connection the Nura Clan has nowadays, revived only five years ago. "Is he the real deal?"
"No. Our magical user uses nothing but a copy, but they do have access to the Nurarihyon Fear," he says. "When I first encountered it, I honestly thought it was you, Rikuo."
Rikuo closes his eyes in thought. If Rihan is truly being used in such a disgraceful way, then Kubinashi should really stay here. Emotional break is the last thing he needs—and it's ironic, coming from Rihan's very own son, but Rikuo is the Supreme Commander now. He can't falter. "Do what you must to recuperate," he says. "I will have Kejōrō come over with tea."
The duo just nod, and that's that. Rikuo disappears in the blink of an eye, hidden by his Fear. He's shaking, though, and something in his jaw cracks as anger boils inside of him. When he composes himself five minutes later, he reappears in front of his Night Parade with a lighter aura to match his expression. He smiles cheekily as he pours new sake into Aotabō's cup. The beasty yōkai jumps a little.
"Sandaime-sama! You really need to stop popping out of nowhere like that…" he grumbles, the last part coming out in a sulky mutter. Rikuo just grins triumphantly. He sips the sake regardless. His mood changes dramatically when Rikuo stands and faces his comrades.
"Tōno has been attacked by magic," he announces. "Any casualty reports are unknown as of now, but it's a one-man crusade. No one knows their face, since they wear a mask, and they're powerful considering their choice of raid."
"Sandaime-sama, magic isn't usually this deadly," Yuki-Onna points out.
"…Unless it's the dark arts," Kubinashi concludes. "Is it dark magic, Rikuo-sama?"
The yōkai tucks his hand into his kimono. He nods. "Indeed it is," he says. "It's fairly worrisome, isn't it? But we're keeping our group tight-knit. I don't want heavy losses despite my love for Tōno."
"Understandable," Zen speaks up. He looks up at Rikuo. "We obviously have to practice caution."
Rikuo nods. "As such," he looks to Kubinashi, "Kubinashi, you are to stay here and protect the compound."
He blinks in confusion, obviously taken aback by the new role. But he dips his head. "Of course, Sandaime." He looks up. "Might I ask why, though?"
"No," the yōkai says. "It's an order."
Kubinashi only nods and doesn't speak up again.
At that, Rikuo looks to Kejōrō. "Be a dear, Kejōrō, and get our guests some soothing tea before we get going," he says. "I know they're restles and parched." She smiles sweetly, taking her leave for the kitchen to make her famous herbal tea. He turns his face to everyone else. "Get ready."
And that's that. Kubinashi is still in his thoughts, though.
Yuki-Onna finds Rikuo in that beautiful, pink tree. "Sandaime-sama?" she calls. He looks down at her with a loving expression, smoke blowing from his nose and mouth as he breathes out. The smoke pipe he has is the one passed down from Nurarihyon, to Rihan and then to himself. "May I ask you a question?"
"You just did," he pointed out sarcastically. "My answer is sure."
Her face flushes in embarrassment as he smirks, but she clears her throat of any fluster. "Um…I-I know you rejected Kubinashi when he tried…but why is he staying?" she asks. "I just thought he'd be coming since he's…somewhat of your idol."
In fact, Rikuo ordered him to stay behind because of his endearment for such a brotherly figure. It's better he stays. "I'll explain more in detail later," he says. "For now—are you ready?"
"A-almost, Sandaime-sama!" she exclaims, and Yuki-Onna rushes off to do whatever she needed to.
Rikuo just smiles and takes another puff. He looks up into the sky, blowing rings contently. But he gets an ominous feeling that makes him second guess his decision. Perhaps he should've withheld his assistance. Going up against an endeared deadman is a heavy weight for everyone. All Rikuo is doing is thinking of one person and holding him back.
But what else is he to do? He hasn't even faced this so-called copy of Rihan, and already he's having some sort of emotional crisis.
Once more, he looks down. This time, it's Kubinashi. Rikuo smiles down at him and blows some more rings. "May I help you, Kubinashi?"
"I only wish to apologize for my persistance," he says. "But why the hell can't I come? I want to go with you, Rikuo-sama."
He sighs through his nose, shifting uneasily. He's not telling Kubinashi the conditions of the fight until he gets back. That's his plan and that's not changing, honest. He hops down and faces Kubinashi, though, pinching his cheeks to make him smile. "Cheer up, Kubi-nii," he says happily. "Think of this as a professional home vacation, okay? You should enjoy it a little bit. All I ask is that you keep an eye on our home while everyone else is away. To leave this place unguarded doesn't feel right."
"But…there are plenty others who are capable…" he mutters.
"True! True. But capabilities mean nothing compared to trust. I believe in you more than most, you know," Rikuo points out. "I'll try to return within the week. If I don't, that's okay. I'll keep you in the loop best I can."
Kubinashi pulls Rikuo's hands off his cheeks. "Fine. Just return safe. Okay? I'll kick your ass in the afterlife if I have to."
Rikuo lets out a genuine laugh. "And if I die, you get to be the Supreme Commander!" he proclaims. He grins and flicks Kubinashi's nose, laughing as it washes away the alarm from his expression. "That's definitely not happening, though, so don't worry."
The string demon huffs at the Sandaime's attitude, but he dips respectfully and wishes a good journey for all whom depart in a swift leap to the night sky.
Keijōrō steps up next to him, waving with a motherly smile. "Rikuo-sama truly is an idiot," she says cryptically, and before Kubinashi can ask what she means, the woman stalks away.
Half a click out from Tōno is a refuge camp set up in less than ten hours. The Night Parade of Rikuo coops up into one fairly large tent to be debriefed.
"So. What's happening?" Kurotabō inquires.
"We're dealing with a rare form of necromancy," Rikuo starts bluntly. "My father is being used."
There's an obvious wave of shock that shakes Rikuo's morale. Brave Zen steps up and speaks boldly, though. "This guy is an asshole! How dare he use the dead like that!" he shouts.
Rikuo nods in his agreement. "It's been confirmed that it's not the real, deal, though," he says. "This version of dad is just a copy, even if it might not seem like it…"
"It'll still be hard to face him, Rikuo," Yuki-Onna points out. "Are you sure about this?"
Aotabō hums and crosses his arms. "No wonder you left Kubinashi behind."
Rikuo smiles knowingly, but it doesn't reach his eyes like it normally would. "I knew he'd take it too hard," he says. "I didn't really want to put him through it."
"But…Sandaime-sama! What about you?" Yuki-Onna asks. "Won't you be dismayed, too, sire?"
"Dismayed about what?" he shoots back. "He's my father, yes, but he's a man I haven't seen in well over twelve years. I'm not overly concerned about it. We'll back each other up if we all falter, though."
Zen sighs in frustration. "This bitch will pay…" he grounds out.
Jyami, who has been silent the whole time, only has her eyes on Rikuo. She's watching him carefully, and she knows that he is lying. She won't call him on his bluff, though. She'll just be there for him when it needs to count.
Itaku rushes in fairly suddenly. "Rikuo-sama!" he calls. "We need you. The eastern part of Tōno is being attacked. Not everyone is evacuated from there yet."
"Why are you evacuating?" Kurotabō asks. "Is it not more effective to stand your ground?"
"Us Tōno don't pride in being pushed out of our home," Itaku snaps, "but our bastard of a cowardly foe is driving us out with poison."
"Very well," Rikuo says. "Where would you like us to go?"
"Join me in stalling him, maybe even defeat him," Itaku says. "We're going to stay on the defensive until the eastern half is clear and safe."
They all nod in understanding, and following the weasel demon out into the open. Once more, an ominous feeling hits Rikuo. But he's not concerned about it. He shakes it off, knowing full well that it's probably because he's gonna face Rihan Nura, his dead father, any minute.
Oh, how he hates that idea so much…
The eastern part of Tōno Village is a bit more homely-looking, indefinitely a domestic part of the mountain town. There's a subtle mist hanging over the ground, and it already stings Rikuo's nose as he stands on the rooftop to avoid most of it. "What a nuisance," he mutters.
"Indeed," Zen says. "Kamaitachi, you should blow it away."
"I've tried already, more and more just rolls in," Itaku rebuts. "It's an irritant for the most part, but don't breathe too much in. That's how you'd want to get your lungs grilled alive."
"Sounds gruesome, as usual," Kurotabō says. "Now, where is this wizard? I'll gladly tear him apart."
Aotabō slams his fist against his palm. "As would I."
Yuki-Onna, icy and battle-ready, nods in brave agreement. Shōei and Jyami hang back on their own guards, and Zen keeps a sharp eye out. Rikuo draws his sword, stepping up shoulder-to-shoulder with Itaku and Awashima.
There's a gentle breeze that blows by. Everyone brushes it off, but Rikuo doesn't take it lightly. With the alert, well-trained reaction of a Supreme Commander, he slices through the air with Nenekirimaru and cuts through distorting Fear. The bubble of darkness breaks, and the wizard is revealed.
True to Itaku's word, the magic-wielder wears a hanyō mask, and a hood. The hood is connected to his kimono, which is black in color and tied by a white, silk cloth. He wears no shoes, but he has a black bodysuit underneath his clothing that gloves his hands and allows him to wear zori. But he does not. Rikuo isn't concerned by it. He's concerned by the fact that this dangerous man is alone.
"Where is Rihan?" he murmurs half to himself, and Rikuo quickly starts to search for unfamiliar Fear. But instead of finding Rihan, he finds slashes on his cheeks as only Itaku and Awashima are thrown back by a forceful push. Rikuo jumps in surprise, leaping out of the crossfire. But the wizard catches his leg, and slams him down to the rooftop.
The next thing the Supreme Commander knows, everyone else is being attacked by a single copy corpse of Rihan, and Rikuo is pinned by the arms with the wizard's knees pressing hard into his elbows.
Rikuo shouts for his allies—his friends—but his jaw is grabbed and his attention is pulled directly to the eyes of the red, terrifying hanyō mask. "What the hell do you want?" he hisses.
The wizard replies to nothing. He only uses his free hand to slightly move the mask out of the way, to speak, and red eyes the mirror his own pair. "You can't keep your heart in your chest," the wizard speaks. "It's costly, ojisan…"
Rikuo frowns at the way he's addressed. "What?"
An albino snake slithers out from the suit of the wizard, maw wide and ready to bite. Rikuo tries to use his Fear to elude the attack, but powerful talisman stops him. He's trapped—and he gets bitten. The snake's bite pierces right beneath his jaw, and it lingers for a few seconds before it pulls back into the safety of the wizard's suit.
"Sandaime-sama—" He hears voice's call for him, but Rihan keeps their help off the table.
Rikuo grits his teeth, resisting the want to scream. "Bastard!" he yells instead. His Fear explodes in that very moment with power that'll knock him out later for certain, and it throws the wizard away and breaks the talisman. Rikuo grabs ahold of Nenekirimaru once more, and he attacks.
His slashes land, cutting the tendons of the wizard as he dashes through his Fear. Shikigami coated in Fear chase after Rikuo, but he cuts them down easily. When Nenekirimaru is about to hit the left and final knee of the wizard, Rikuo feels incredibly weak. It'd been a horribly fatal idea to run around like that with unfamiliar snake venom coursing through his system—potent yōkai venom, because the powerful bloodline of Yō-hime heals powerfully.
"You will be fine," the wizard croaks. "I only grant you the deep, dark wish you've wanted to fulfill for a while, now…"
Rikuo has to take a knee. His Fear no longer feels natural. It feels like a heavy, poisonous atmosphere. He leans on Nenekirimaru. He pulls in any air he can, because with each second that passes, he feels less and less enter.
The wizard suddenly stops moving. When Rikuo looks at him, he finds that the enemy had died in that defeated, kneeling position. Already his corpse starts to turn to dust—and another gentle mountain breeze turns it into nothing. Rikuo glances over his shoulder. Rihan, glowing a peaceful color with a happy expression, smiles at his son and waves.
The Supreme Commander flinches and turns away quickly. That same emotional string from earlier frays a bit more, and if he visualizes it, he can only see a thin string keeping it all together. Rikuo clutches his hand to his chest in grief and pain, unable to find steady breath. His vision darkens and white spots slap his vision. Where is Zen? He needs Zen right now.
"Sandaime-sama! Your Fear! Please, control it!" Yuki-Onna calls.
What Fear? He released nothing. He just can't breathe. His face is hot, though, and those last words of the wizard are bothering him so much…because his deepest wish is to have a world where Rihan and Wakana are happy and together. In fact—he wishes nothing but happiness for Rihan, even if it means staying with Yamabuki Otome and never ever conceiving who is now the Third Supreme Commander. That's what he wants.
But he can't have it. Rihan died twelve years ago, stabbed by Hagoromo Gitsune. Yamabuki Otome has been dead for decades and her revived corpse became Hagoromo Gitsune's newest vessel. Wakana died to heart failure only six months ago, yet to Rikuo, it feels like it just happened last week.
"Rikuo!" Zen shouts. It's the last thing he hears before silence takes over.