Chapter 1: Near death experience on the dancefloor
IMPORTANT (09.10.2018 Edit)
I've changed the rating of this fanfic, because;
It's too dark for teenagers, and I realized it too late, thanks to a deeply shook grown adult's feedback.
I believed I'd be able to adapt the theme of the underworld for a teenage public through humor, but themes like grief and fear of death popped up. The contents I was careful about weren't the right ones. Even though the characters move on and will have a happy ending, some scenes could be harmful for sensitive people, or those who don't have enough hindsight on those themes, used in a work of pure fiction. I don't have a beta-reader, so I could only follow my own judgement, which was flawed. Therefore, I apologize if this has ended in the wrong hands.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was the day after a boat left a considerable hole in Tsurumaru’s heart, that he had his first near-death experience slipping on the dancefloor.
On usual days, Tsurumaru woke up with a new prank idea. That morning he had a pasty mouth, a headache, a sore stomach, his eyelids were sticky, and the cushion under his face was humid from drool and tears.
He squinted with disgust at the spring scenery on the other side of the glass window. Within his few years in that Citadel, the season hadn’t changed once, not even for the New Year. His roommate’s futon was neatly folded, his place tidy, unlike the mess around Tsurumaru’s – bags of chips, magazines and a phone with a cracked screen which was turned off. Turning it on, it showed six in the morning on his day off, and he groaned.
He saw Higekiri standing asleep in the corridor as if he were on the subway commute to work. He had to shake his hand several times in front of the blonde’s sleepy face before getting a reaction from him – a small jump of the shoulders and a hum as if he had flipped the dishwasher’s switch on.
“What a surprise, you’re already up,” Tsurumaru said, ignoring that it applied to himself. Higekiri nodded and scratched the bare stomach his untied yukata displayed. Hizamaru swung the door to their room open as if he had heard a shriek, hissed and pulled Higekiri in like a snake snatching a mouse. Tsurumaru heard sheets rustle.
“Ten more minuuuutes, Bakumaru…”
On his way to the kitchen, he passed next to the Saniwa’s bedroom. He jumped out of the way when something white and with long black hair flashed by. A Yuurei, he first thought, holding his chest; that was more probable than his master leaping out of the room, barely dressed and without an Ofuda on the face that morning, with Heshikiri Hasebe as the chief attendant.
Wherever the Saniwa was, he was sure to find Hasebe within a radius of fewer than two hundred meters. As Tsurumaru expected, he came a few seconds later with the Saniwa’s breakfast tray in his hands and froze in place as he saw Tsurumaru.
There must be some prank nearby, like a little black animal with red eyes drooling hungrily while looking at him from a dark corner somewhere in a blind spot. He searched for The Prank and the emergency exit.
“Later,” Tsurumaru promised with a grin, inhaling deeply as the sweet scent of a maple syrup tickled his nose and made his stomach growl. The cook had organized the tray in perfect rounds, the pancake, square butter melting on them and a steaming coffee in a mug written – Monday Again – on it. It was Sunday.
“Did you order this?” Tsurumaru asked.
“Mitsutada made it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Aruji’s waiting for breakfast,” he said.
“Aruji ran out.”
Hasebe inclined his head and closed his eyes, someone standing behind Tsurumaru. The Saniwa was back, covering the face with a sleeve, the yukata tidily and tightly tied up to the neck, the knot of the sash bound same as tight. Tsurumaru closed his own eyes and bowed down.
“Oh, Tsurumaru, up so early?” the Saniwa said. The tone was gentle, sounding like the chime of the breakfast bell’s promise for something comforting and a better day than the last. Just hearing it said so softly made him want to hug his master and cry over that shoulder, spilling out all that had happened last night.
“Aruji, you’ll catch a cold!” Hasebe said, pushing the door to the room open, carrying in the tray. The Saniwa cleared the throat, following him and sneezed, entering the office. “Did you catch a cold? Are you alright? Need tea with honey?” Tsurumaru heard Hasebe ask anxiously through the door.
Tsurumaru continued his way to the kitchen. As the cafeteria hadn’t opened yet, he decided to entertain himself watching the new chef work. His roommate stood next to the chef, religiously listening to him. Tsurumaru grinned seeing Mitsutada holding something close to a monologue, seasoning the fish while the other just grunted whenever he finished a sentence.
“Yo!” he said, tapping Ookurikara’s shoulder. Ookurikara nodded at him, his arms not uncrossing and his eyes setting back onto the coolest cook in the world.
Even that early, Shokudaikiri Mitsutada’s hairstyle was perfect. Being on breakfast duty didn’t stop him from taking an hour to prepare himself. Ookurikara couldn’t stop looking at the ebony strands of hair, the locks out of place actually in place, studied not to make the hairstyle seem too stiff.
Hasebe came in with his furrowed brow, which he carried every day and probably woke up with every morning. He scanned the room as if he was expecting something to lash out at him suddenly. “Oi, later,” Tsurumaru repeated. Hasebe rubbed his temples and sighed.
“It’s not about your pranks,” he said, taking his place to help the chef.
“How’s Aruji?” Ookurikara asked. They all stared at him; that might have been his first sentence since he stood up.
“A bit better than yesterday,” Hasebe said.
Ookurikara puffed out through his nose as if smoke could come out of it.
“Oya… You worried?” Mitsutada asked, adding oil to the pan, a flame blowing up.
“Not really,” he lied.
“Mama Kuri-chan’s worried about his baby Sani-chan too,” Tsurumaru laughed, earning himself a middle finger.
An hour later, Tsurumaru found the Genji brothers sitting at a table in the cafeteria. Higekiri would have put the orange juice into his rice if his brother hadn’t deviated his hand. Then he drank out of the glass his brother had already started. Hizamaru blushed, stuttering at his brother to get a grip on himself. As they were the first group up that day, they all sat together at the same table.
Unlike everyone else’s, Mitsutada’s plate was an American style breakfast. He seemed deep in thought, silent for the first time since he started cooking.
The scent of maple syrup wafting out of the pancakes and getting to his nose, Higekiri breathed in deeply, his eyes opening as if he were blooming and taking in every ray of sunshine in the room.
“Pancakes!” he said, leaning towards Mitsutada.
“Hasebe-kun, why did I have to give you three buckets of ice last night?” Mitsutada asked.
Hasebe waved a hand dismissively. Mitsutada squinted, thinking through in what case a Saniwa might need that much ice.
Higekiri begged Mitsutada for pancakes with hungry puppy eyes. He couldn’t help but start sweating at the insistent stare which assured him that a cute lion cub version of Higekiri would die of starvation and sadness if he couldn’t get a bite from it.
“How did it go yesterday?” Mitsutada asked Hasebe, shoving one of his pancakes into the plate Higekiri was stretching out at him with the sweetest happiest smile to shine upon that sleepy table. Hizamaru stood up to get his brother a fork and knife, seeing him struggle to pick and cut a piece with his chopsticks.
Hasebe rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed. “The Healer didn’t know what to do about it either,” he said. Mitsutada hummed, still trying to sort out what they could have done with that many ice buckets.
“It got under control, temporarily,” Higekiri said, his brother’s giving him a sideways glance.
“I owe you,” Hasebe said to Higekiri. Mitsutada stopped chewing his food; he had understood. He didn’t dare insist on asking how well their master was.
“I have an idea –“ Before Tsurumaru could finish his phrase, they all turned their heads to the person standing at the end of the table. The Saniwa had appeared out of nowhere. Higekiri suddenly stood up, hitting his knee against the counter and hissed. The plates clattered, and his brother flinched.
“I’m fine,” the Saniwa said. Higekiri seemed to deflate and be close to falling asleep again.
Tsurumaru observed the man he sometimes had trouble understanding, even as a fellow Heian era sword; Higekiri’s relationship with his brother was so exclusive and fusional, he’d almost never hang out with any of them. Lovers, hobbies, friends, Tsurumaru didn’t know if he had any. All he knew was that Higekiri was the Saniwa’s first summon and attendant before Hasebe, never seemed worried about anything and would slack off at nearly every chore except gardening.
Hizamaru used to take everything in hand at his brother’s place. While more reserved than Higekiri, he was easy to read, easily flustered, easy to talk with but hardly ever took anything easy when his brother was involved. There was an unspoken tension between the two, never arguing, always sharing everything without a complaint, to the point they seemed to be the same person.
“Go on, what’s your idea?” the Saniwa asked.
“Hase-bou’s stressed out,” he started, and Hasebe glared at him. What great – idea – did he get this time? The Saniwa leaned in, all ears. “So why not go party? He needs a change of pace.” Tsurumaru tried to forget the fact he had spent the last night at a bar, drinking alone, trying to forget what had happened.
“Is your woman coming too?” Ookurikara asked Tsurumaru, his face showing a visible emotion for once, and it was as if he had bitten into a sour plum. He had nothing against women and wasn’t interested in them, but that noisy couple tended to give him a headache. Tsurumaru’s pale face became snow-white.
“Um, not anymore... Never again…”
“You’re going,” Saniwa said.
“B-but…” Hasebe protested. The Saniwa pat his head, and his voice died in his throat. They all could swear Hasebe’s health stats suddenly shot through the ceiling and dug a hole through the moon.
“I’ll be fine.”
He remembered the number of times he had seen the Saniwa collapse in the last few days and had been unable to do anything; in the worst case, his master could suddenly fall to the floor and break like a vase, bits scattered in the office.
“I want head-patting too!” Higekiri said, setting his cheek on his fist. Saniwa giggled. Giggled. Ookurikara’s nose scrunched and the chopsticks slipped out of Hizamaru’s hands. Hasebe’s health stats pierced through Pluto.
“I must insist Heshikiri-san stay by your side,” Hizamaru said, his tone blunt. That’s it, Tsurumaru thought; all the missed arguments with his brother were with the Saniwa. The brothers never agreed on the Saniwa. Higekiri’s eyebrows rose as he stuffed a massive piece of his pancake into his mouth.
“Aw, my cute wittle bwother’s wowied for Awuji and the attendant!”
Hizamaru blushed dark red and turned his face away.
“Heshikiri Hasebe, my name is Heshikiri Hasebe, Higekiri,” he sighed.
“You’re going too, Hizamaru,” Saniwa said, going next to Tsurumaru and whispered in his ear “He’s a virgin to the dancefloor and Higekiri will kill me if anything happens, so please be gentle with him.”
Tsurumaru almost spat his food, laughing. Hizamaru protested until Higekiri said he should be a good boy and he seemed charmed like a cobra by a flute.
“Good, good! I’ll take care of Aruji, so don’t worry, Hachiko-san. Pikamaru, have fun with your friends,” Higekiri said, his plate already empty, Hizamaru repeating his name with praiseworthy patience.
In the evening, the group reunited in front of the portal to the present time Tokyo. Higekiri stood next to his brother like a mother leaving her baby at daycare, Hizamaru sniffling but trying to act strong and failing at it. Higekiri whispered something into his ear and then his expression became resigned as if he were leaving for war.
“Those two really can’t be apart, huh?” Hasebe leaned to the side, addressing Ookurikara who rolled his eyeballs.
“He’s with us for you, Hase-bou,” Tsurumaru said as a joke, but Hasebe took it seriously. He set his hand onto his chest, feeling his heart squeeze.
Ookurikara looked at Mitsutada’s shiny leather shoes, Jazz and class, his style inspiring a crystal glass of Dom Perignon champagne on an exclusive luxury night cruise. Tsurumaru had told him it was just a casual party, jeans, and stuff. Casual.
The Saniwa stood next to Higekiri and waved them goodbye on the exit platform. “Take good care of Aruji!” Hasebe said.
“I wiiiill! Take good care of Nakimaru!” Higekiri chimed.
“It’s Hizamaru, Anija, Hi-za-ma-ru!”
Hizamaru was a virgin when it came to party life and this being his first time, he was nervous, somewhat excited, sweaty and uncomfortable. He had been to a few places with his brother, but none of them were this noisy and dark and smelled of smoke and sweat. After the second glass of beer, he was already tipsy.
Hizamaru was a silent drunk, the one just staring and nodding at whoever talked to him. Everything made even less sense to him than before. After a while, a drunk Hasebe pulled him onto the dancefloor. They both became noisy, screaming their complaints at each-other. Now everything made sense; join the jiggle and complain about your boss, because your brother is too perfect for criticism.
Tsurumaru was the happy drunk who didn’t care about limits enough for his good – the one who ended up pole-dancing if nobody pulled him off an eventual pole. There was no pole to latch onto that night, so he latched onto the person next to him; Ookurikara. Ookurikara, arms set along the couch, cocked his head in the opposite direction from Tsurumaru’s teary face and beer breath.
“Nobody wants a bisexuahahahaaaal!” Tsurumaru whined.
Ookurikara frowned and clicked his tongue.
“She was a bitch,” Ookurikara said.
“A boat, a boat!” Tsurumaru softly dabbed his teary eyes with the sleeve of Ookurikara’s t-shirt.
“I know, a destroyer with a huge rack,” Ookurikara said and pulled his sleeve away. “What about asking Ichigo out? He’s tolerable.”
“You don’t want me either!” Tsurumaru started hiccupping in between sobs. Ookurikara grimaced, unsure of what to answer, so he settled for saying nothing, his silence interpreted as a confirmation.
Speaking of one-sided attraction, Ookurikara believed Mitsutada to be straight. He glanced at the eye-patched man and his shiny shoes, flashy girls all around him, their dresses moving like the colorful wings of a flock of male paradise birds in a mating dance. A man so popular who didn’t openly reject female’s advances couldn’t possibly be gay, right?
Not noticing the women trying to hit on him, Mitsutada waved at a stubby bearded man he recognized from his favorite gay bar, and the man winked and wriggled his hairy fingers at him in return.
Hasebe and Hizamaru seemed. Ookurikara squinted. They were both crying in a corner for some reason, looking at something on Hizamaru’s phone. Hasebe used to react that way to kitten videos when he was drunk. “Old stuff from Higekiri,” he had sobbed, not willing to show them to anyone else than Hizamaru.
Tsurumaru got a familiar uncomfortable tingle just below his diaphragm, spreading through his stomach like a wildfire. Maybe he had a bit too much alcohol this time, or it was the Kentucky Fried Chicken he had eaten on the way to the nightclub making him nauseous. He ran to the toilets.
He didn’t see the bright spot where a drink had poured on a piece of rubber flooring and sprinted over it. His right foot decided to kick his left, and his upper body continued its race to the toilet. He saw a stair step in front of his eyes. The lights went out.
When he looked up, he first thought he was seeing the disco ball shining over him. Once his vision adapted to the darkness, he noticed the light was coming from much further than he had first thought. There was a yellow crescent in the sky, but everything around was dark as if its light couldn’t dissipate the shadows.
He sat up. Alrighty, I’m dead, he thought and shrugged at it. He decided to go towards the light, hoping it wasn’t hell’s fire flickering at the end of the tunnel. He reached out to the crescent, and he felt a piece of fabric against his hand.
Squinting, he could see blue. It’s as if the shadow dissipated between him and what he was touching, the only sensation in that dimension the contact of his palm with the thick kimono fabric. He could see two more shining crescents, and they were inside dark blue irises. A hand touched his own, and he gasped, unable to move, the contact sending electricity up his arm.
There was a man in front of him. Suddenly, the man hugged him tightly. “Oh my, what a blessing! Kuninaga! Help!” he said.
Tsurumaru gasped. “Um… Do I know you?”
The man flinched and let him go. His face now clear while everything around them remained dark, he took Tsurumaru by the shoulders and got close to his face. “Tell Saniwa that Jiji and the mirror are in big trouble.” Mikazuki showed him a bronze mirror with small cracks.
Before Tsurumaru could say a word, Jiji drew his sword and glared over his shoulder. Tsurumaru heard a second sword unsheath. Jiji put the mirror back into his hakama pocket and pushed him out of the way. He started falling and heard swords clash.
He fell and fell, darkness all around him. Sure, he’d hit the ground at one moment or another, but it was taking annoyingly long. Done with screaming, he crossed his arms.
Tsurumaru sat up in one swing. “Oi, Tsuru, take it easy!” Ookurikara was holding him by the shoulders, a concerned expression on his face. The entire group was around him, including a few bystanders. He could taste blood in his mouth and nose. His whole face throbbed, his head the most. He felt anything but sober, everything still spinning and hilarious for no rational reason.
“You alright?” Mitsutada asked, helping him up. Tsurumaru could barely nod. “T’huuurts,” he said, and he burst into wet gurgling laughter. He saw Hasebe’s shocked expression and laughed harder.
They arrived at the Citadel at five thirty in the morning. Higekiri was standing asleep next to the Saniwa. As if he were a mother activated by his baby’s cry, he put an arm around his sobbing drunk brother’s shoulder and took him back to their room. Seeing how beat up Tsurumaru was from the accident, the Saniwa brought him to the infirmary.
He lied down on one of the beds while the Saniwa took care of the injury, dabbing a fist-sized dab on his head. “Might you know anything about a crescent-moon grandpa and a mirror?” he asked, out of the blue once his head injury was gone.
The Saniwa stopped dabbing the colossal magic dab on his head. He couldn’t tell which expression his master had with the Ofuda covering it. All he noticed was that the Saniwa was like frozen.
“W-what about him?”
“He said he’s in big trouble and the mirror too.”
Saniwa jumped up and made several steps around in the room. The door suddenly slid open, and Hasebe rushed in, catching the Saniwa who collapsed over him – his instincts had saved his master again.
“That Jiji probably was Mikazuki Munechika, and he’s supposed to be dead! If he’s really in danger, he needs our help,” the Saniwa said.
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter. In Japan, it's Kaidan (ghost story) season, so I thought it would be appropriate to publish this story now. A lot of my references on Buddhism and Shinto religion come from Lafcadio Hearn's ghost stories. He was an Irish man married to the daughter of a Samurai who spent a significant portion of his life studying those stories and Japanese culture/religion in the early 20th Century. He's known better there as Yakumo Koizumi.
Most of this story will keep a comedic tone, but there's a dark background to it. I'll come back on that in a few chapters.
I haven't finished writing it yet, and my mom stomped my laptop half-asleep in the hotel, making it unusable during my vacation travels so that the publishing might drag out for some time. As soon as I've completed it, it will be, as I usually do, one chapter a week. Expect about 15 chapters.
Chapter 2: The Demigod Father
Tsurumaru ran on dark water, trying to reach someone, his legs feeling as heavy as boulders, inching forward like a snail hoping to catch up with a hare. He was following Mikazuki through a torii gate alley which seemed endless, moving forward exhausting. Tsurumaru called and called to no avail. A butterfly went onto Mikazuki’s shoulder, and he turned around and suddenly started shouting Kurenai ni somatta kono oooree wa!
Tsurumaru woke up moaning with a drilling headache. Drums were roaring, and guitars were screeching in his ears, a depressed vocalist singing about being dyed in red and that nobody can comfort him in his shrill voice. Metal music was playing loud from the corridor. He sat up in his bed, everything still swinging.
“Oi! Quit the racket! Gramp’s suffering here!” he shouted, clenching his jaw as his scream hammered his temples at the speed of the drums.
It continued the same as loud. Mumbling curses, he stood up to grab a glass of water in the kitchen.
Tsurumaru looked at the clock; 2 PM on his working day and nobody had called him. The loud music came from the Saniwa’s office, and the door was ajar. Not something out of the ordinary but usually, it wasn’t that loud. There must be something surprising going on, a sound whoever was there must muffle. Feeling sneaky, Tsurumaru peeped in and was shocked;
The Saniwa was lying on the floor, Hasebe sitting on one side, Higekiri on the other. Higekiri was holding a large loudspeaker next to the Saniwa’s Ofuda-covered face, the fabric shivering with the pounding drums, Hasebe holding a wrist, looking at a watch.
“It isn’t working,” Hasebe said.
Higekiri was tapping his foot in the rhythm with the music and humming along with the vocals.
They didn’t notice Tsurumaru was standing in the door frame, gaping at the scene, too concentrated on their problem. Hasebe glared at Higekiri as his head slightly bobbed with the music. He wasn’t headbanging yet, but the bobbing button had been switched onto moderate, the Genji sword seeming not to have any worry in the world while new white hair was popping out of Hasebe’s scalp.
“Isn’t… Reanimating, like, pushing on the chest or something?” Hasebe mumbled.
Higekiri seemed to consider but then shook his head.
“Ah, I have another method!” Higekiri said.
He laid down on his stomach next to the Saniwa’s ear “Rei… Reeeiii…” He said in his most melodic and soft voice, poking the Saniwa’s cheek.
“That’s the silliest –” Hasebe started.
The Saniwa stirred and grabbed his vest’s sleeve like a baby.
“Five more minutes, dear.”
Tsurumaru took a step in. Hasebe suddenly set his hand onto Higekiri’s shoulder and tipped his head into Tsurumaru’s direction. Higekiri seemed to snap back to his senses and his position, taking some distance with the Saniwa.
“Forgive me for intervening, Aruji; he isn’t your late husband, but one of your soldiers!” Hasebe said.
The Saniwa sat up as if electricity had gone through the body. The hands went up close to the face, and the entire body started shaking. They saw tears run down from below the Ofuda.
“O-oh, I’m a worthless master! It’s too hard!” the Saniwa cried.
“Ariyaya… Bringing back Aruji by mentioning Tsukiyomi; that's just great!” Higekiri said with a sharp edge Tsurumaru wasn’t used to hear from him, rubbing the sobbing Saniwa’s back.
Tsurumaru had to wrestle Hasebe out of committing hara-kiri for the “shock and embarrassment” he caused his master.
By the time the Saniwa was seated with a glass of iced tea in the hands and the roaring music still playing in the background, Hizamaru and Hasebe had joined them, and Ookurikara had brought back a report from an expedition.
The Saniwa could barely sit upright, Tsurumaru was still holding his head and cringing, Higekiri had an orange fatigue icon, and Hizamaru’s pale face looked scaly. Ookurikara rubbed the bridge of his nose, having trouble reading his report. Hasebe seemed to be the only seasoned salaryman able to keep a façade of control, while his train of thoughts drifted into oblivion.
The Saniwa explained what had happened last night to Tsurumaru.
“… and therefore, we have a chance at finding Mikazuki Munechika. We face two challenges; we don’t know if he’s dead and the only sword who could reply that is Kogitsunemaru. My father owns him.”
Higekiri, who had kept his smile as good as he could until then, seemed to deflate. Tsurumaru whistled, putting his hands behind his head.
“You mean the guy who called you a murderer and disowned you just after your ex-husband destroyed your Citadel?”
“Why you little…!” Hasebe gasped, knocking Tsurumaru on the head and Tsurumaru moaned.
“Yes, that guy,” The Saniwa sighed and bucked over as if taken over by a stomach cramp.
“I’m aware he might be the only one able to tell us but Aruji, you can’t summon such a powerful sword in your condition – “ Hasebe started, knowing his master hated hearing the words – in your condition, and whatever argument he might have would be a lost cause.
“Ookurikara, show them the way and give them whatever access or personal information they might need about him. Hasebe, I’m counting on your negotiation skills; he’s a Tengu and won’t be easy to convince. Tsurumaru, do whatever you feel is necessary, even if it’s crazy.”
Tsurumaru grinned. “Gotcha.”
The Genji brothers tipped their heads to the side at the same time.
He perked up but then started swaying from side to side, as if feeling sick.
“Please, take a nap.”
“I wanna sleep too!” Higekiri whined.
“Mkay, go to bed together,” the Saniwa replied, too tired to think how to phrase it correctly.
Higekiri’s sharp fangs showed as he grinned.
“Ariyaaa, Aruji…” The Saniwa swallowed the own spit.
Hizamaru stuttered and squeaked that wasn’t necessary, that he’ll do fine, but his brother dragged him back to their room. The Saniwa coughed, not sure where to place the own hands or the mind, or if it was even necessary to overthink it.
“Higekiri sure loooves napping with his little brother,” Tsurumaru said.
The Saniwa slapped him on the head with a paper fan.
Tsurumaru hadn’t ever met Izanagi Ryo before, only seen him on television. He was a retired advisor to Japan’s department of self-defense and a specialist on ancient swords in the human world. In the realm of the gods and spirits, he was a well-known Tengu. Having such a creature’s blood in him and the education of one, he was a seasoned swordsman and somewhat of an imperialist.
From the highway their taxi was driving through, they could see the sky-scraper called the “NEST”; the knotted glass and iron tree trunk shone blue in the night landscape, a garden on top of it.
Hasebe imagined his first encounter with the Saniwa’s father over and over again. In his fantasy, the man’s face contorted, became red and a long nose grew at the mention of Rei Izanagi. He snatched him off the ground, and they flew over the Tokyo nightscape, Hasebe shrieking. His eyes were wide and fists balled as he pictured it. The taxi was silent, not even Tsurumaru talking.
They arrived in front of the building. The metal detector went off several times, and they had to explain the security guards they were Tsukumogami. To their surprise, the security personnel accepted their excuse without question. A woman with raven-black hair and same as dark uniform greeted them at the reception. Hasebe said they wanted to take an appointment with Ryo Izanagi. The receptionist checked the system.
“I’m very sorry, but he can’t receive you before a month,” she said.
“Hasn’t Izanagi Rei made a call before?” he asked calmly, knowing full well that name might be on the building’s blacklist and the receptionist was making an excuse to reject them.
She politely asked them to book an appointment or leave.
Outside, Ookurikara dialed the Saniwa’s number. They discussed for a while, and he hung up.
“It can’t wait for a month. Father has an important official meeting this evening. We’ll have to try and catch him when he comes out through the back door,” Ookurikara said.
He led them through a garage, to a square at the back of the building through which cars drove in and out.
They spotted a group of journalists and paparazzi assembling around the back exit, several security guards at the door. A black car drove in, crawling as low as a panther on the prowl, as shiny and sleek as a gemstone. Tsurumaru went onto his tiptoes to see and made his way through the pack of journalists, too preoccupied to get their shots even to notice the Tsukumogami.
A tall man with long white hair, an imposing figure and an elegant black kimono, accompanied by two bodyguards, approached the car. He held his head high, his white beard and mustache covering a rather long and pointy nose. A small fox Youkai followed him and spotted the group. Its tail wagged, and it jumped to Ookurikara.
“It’s hi –“ Ookurikara started. He didn’t quite understand what happened next.
Ryo entered the car, helped by a bodyguard. White flashed by, knocked out the first bodyguard, jumped over the car, knocked out the second before he could react. Cameras flashed, clacked; there were a few shouts and screams. The chauffeur rolled to the ground, thrown out of the car. The car drove off in a deafening roar with Ryo Izanagi inside, Tsurumaru driving.
A policeman on a scooter turned on the red lights, drones went out of the “NEST” and flew after the fleeing sportscar in a flickering wail, reporters shouting the scene into their microphones. Ookurikara’s phone went off a few seconds later, the Saniwa screaming on the other side.
Hasebe was shaking from head to toe, pulling out his hair. “We’re in trouble, aren’t we?”
Ookurikara shrugged. “Aruji’s screaming because he doesn’t have a driver’s license.”
The small fox spirit yawned, sitting beneath them.
Ryo’s first reflex was to put his seatbelt on, whoever the man who just carjacked him was. Looking in the front mirror, he realized he was dealing with a completely white Tsukumogami. He recognized the “Tsurumaru” emblem which decorated his cape, and he almost laughed; it was as if his kidnapper had taken his identification badge with him while committing a crime.
Tsurumaru watched Ryo sitting stiffly behind him through the head mirror. He found a small computer on board. In between tight turns which swung the old man from side to side, he gave in a code. He smiled wide when it worked, Ryo became stiffer, the tracker on the car shut down.
A light turned red. Tsurumaru’s foot went to the floor. Ryo gasped.
“Is Rei behind this?!” he asked, sunken into the seat.
Cars crashed behind them. Tsurumaru noticed a signboard indicating all the cars should stop – police were about to jam the highway. He turned at the first exit, snaked through the traffic. Tsurumaru laughed hysterically as the motor roared fiercely.
“Will you hear me out?” Tsurumaru asked, realizing he may have frightened his hostage.
Ryo scoffed “Rei isn’t getting a dime from me!”
Tsurumaru scrunched his nose. “Why did you put Aruji’s real name as the security code? It isn’t Rei, eh?” he asked.
Ryo frowned, holding tight to his seat as the brakes screeched at a tight turn. The car almost toppled over, he gripped the driver’s seat, gasping.
“I’ve had the honor of being invited into Aruji’s home once,” Tsurumaru said, honking at a motorcycle driver who barely avoided him.
“In one, Aruji was wearing a bride’s kimono with Tsukiyomi, and you were with them, smiling more than any of the two. You ask me, even in the Heian era and as a weapon, I’ve always thought to marry between cousins was fucked-up!”
He set the reverse gear; Police barrier in front. Ryo’s back knocked against the seat, he gasped. They could hear a helicopter’s flapping, a light pointed at them, almost blinding Tsurumaru.
“I doubt someone who’d have wanted their abusive husband dead…” he was looking over the seat, police sirens howling, the brakes screeched again, “…would have kept such a painful memory exposed in the living room and still cherish it,” Tsurumaru said.
The car spun. One of the drones crashed against a side-mirror and ripped it off.
“What the hell do you know?!” Ryo shouted.
“I saw Tsukiyomi before he died and what killed him but what’s the weight of a Tsukumogami’s defense for the Saniwa Order?! Mother, dead, husband, dead. You’re the last parent left! All Aruji needs is talk with you, once!”
The man fell silent, a knot tied in his throat. Having survived the sixth red light and a honking truck “Give me that damn device,” he said, pointing what Tsurumaru had unlocked.
“I’ll talk with you for the moment, not Rei.”
Hasebe gave Tsurumaru an earful, worse than the Saniwa ever gave any of them. He was Oda Nobunaga, towering over a servant he was about to decapitate. Images of the car pursuit were showing on a screen at the reception. The receptionist was staring at them like a crow, black eyes round and her head tilted from side to side in disbelief.
Hasebe bowed down to the ground to Ryo, who grunted.
“Tsurumaru, come in. You…” he glared at Ookurikara “get out of this building.”
Ookurikara gave one nod. Hasebe was utterly ignored, left drained of all vitality kneeling in the lobby next to Ookurikara.
It was a large apartment and looked more like a hotel in which someone stays temporarily than a cozy home meant for and used by a family. The design was cold and monochrome, the single bed in one of the many rooms freshly made.
“Does Rei still like spaghetti?” Ryo asked.
Tsurumaru looked at the furniture and found a few pictures. In all of them, the Saniwa was wearing dresses and was a young adult or little child. He never saw the Saniwa wear a dress or identify as a woman; just like the wedding picture, this represented what Ryo had hoped for and dreamt for his child, not Tsurumaru’s master’s real gender, which that one described as Neutrois.
“Pancakes, for all I know,” he said, shrugging. “Why ask me and not the attendant or Ookurikara?”
“Ookurikara used to pick up Rei for my ex-wife and take my baby away from me. I’ve hated him ever since. Also, you’re the maniac who car-jacked me, talked to me about my estranged child and dared to ask me for help having done all of that.”
Tsurumaru tittered. They sat down at a table, Ryo offered him some sake, which he refused, still feeling a bit of the strain on his temples from last night. Ryo listened to him talk about how the Citadel had become, what new swords dropped and about Rei’s mysterious illness.
“Do I have any grandchildren now?” he asked.
“Aruji can have children?” Tsurumaru asked, crossing his legs and leaning back into the sofa.
Was that another one of the old man’s delusions? Their master was open about having been born without any private parts. Ryo became pensive as if he weren’t sure or that the truth was so complicated he wouldn't have known where to begin.
He glanced at the childhood picture of the Saniwa.
“It may have been because I knew everything about what my child was going through and why, that when someone murdered Tsukiyomi, I had all the reasons to believe Rei had done it. The clan's interest outweighs the well-being of the individual to the point a father may allow a man to abuse his child. I don't know how I can do right now.”
Tsurumaru shrugged. He didn’t know anything about family life and that family of demigods which married between cousins was anything but ordinary. He said the first thing that came to his mind.
“Listen to Aruji.”
When Tsurumaru’s team came back to the Citadel, they didn’t expect to receive a standing ovation from all the units assembled and to see a big screen in front of the Citadel’s temple, showing the action movie that had been the car-chase. A few monks were cheering with the Tsukumogami. Mitsutada had opened a popcorn stand, and a few of the Tantou were imitating the scene with small toy racing cars.
“A-Aruji’s sense of humor is…” Hasebe face-palmed.
The Saniwa arrived holding a box of popcorn, the bottom of the Ofuda stained with butter and salt. The Genji brothers were eating their own while standing on the opposite sides of their master.
Hasebe’s hands were shaking; while he was panicking, those three were sitting in front of a giant screen looking at it happen as if it were just the 31st Fast and Furious movie.
“Nh, he refused?” The Saniwa asked, not seeing Kogitsunemaru. Tsurumaru stretched out a phone Ryo had given him. It took a few seconds for the Saniwa to understand, looking at the phone. The box fell from his master’s hands, popcorn scattering on the ground.
“S-seriously?” Rei’s voice wavered. “Seriously?!” It became high-pitched.
With shaking hands, the Saniwa took the phone and collapsed with it pressed against the chest, caught by the Genji brothers.
“Thank… Yooooooou…” the Saniwa cried.
Suddenly, Hizamaru started weeping as the Saniwa couldn’t stop shaking.
“Ariya, you’re crying,” Higekiri said, wiping his sobbing brother’s face.
“Y-you’re crying too!”
Tsurumaru jumped, noticing that what Hizamaru had said was true; Higekiri was smiling wide, but tears were trickling down his cheeks. He was flushed with glee, as if he had received a beautiful love confession.
“Tsuru, how could I thank you for this? You can’t imagine what you convinced my father of doing!”
What was so special about the Saniwa talking with the own father? Why did that make the Genji brothers cry? Tsurumaru wished he could understand what so extraordinary he had just done.
The next morning, a delivery box came with Kogitsunemaru inside, followed by the unsummoned Tsukumogami, who jumped onto Ookurikara and licked his face.
“Kuri-chan!” the small fox said, in front of a stunned Mitsutada.
“How cute, Kuri-chan!” Mitsutada said, deciding that from now, that’s how he’d call him.
“Don’t call me that!” Ookurikara barked, hugging the fluffy fox and stuffing his face into its fur.
The door to the Saniwa’s office opened behind him. A man came out, holding a file in his gloved hand.
“Ichi-bou, good morning!” Tsurumaru said. Ichigo greeted him politely.
“Kuuuri-chaaan!” the Saniwa chimed from inside the office and giggled.
Ookurikara sighed with the shadow of a smile and went in, followed by the little fox.
“Ask him out!” he said to Tsurumaru before closing the door behind him.
“What are you doing here?” Ichigo asked, not understanding Ookurikara meant for Tsurumaru to take him out, nor imagining what Tsurumaru's intentions were.
Suddenly, an argument started inside. While there wasn’t any shouting, because Saniwa was terrified of yelling, the voices had become low-pitched and fast, like two ferrets snarling at each other. The door swung open, and Saniwa pushed Hasebe out.
“Your magic is going to collapse on you if you use it in your condition! Does that mean you accept the refinery procedure?!” he asked, knocking the door which the Saniwa had slammed shut in front of him.
“No! I’d rather endure the burn ten days!”
Hizamaru passed by, a stack of towels from the common baths in his arms.
“Aruji, listen to Hasebe! Think of who your rejections are affecting most!” he hissed, stomping away.
Hasebe thought he was taking his defense.
“Should I ask him out?” he mumbled to himself.
A shiver went up his spine when Tsurumaru’s arm folded around his shoulder, and the crane smiled at him, wriggling his eyebrows. Ichigo pat Hasebe’s back and said
“Aruji’s being considerate,” he said.
Hasebe nodded, collecting himself. “It’s going to take four hours,” he said, swatting Tsurumaru’s arm off, deciding to help Hizamaru clean the shared baths.
Higekiri was probably slacking off, drinking a glass of milk while Hizamaru was stacking the fresh towels in the onsen.
“Ichi-bou, time for a coffee?” Tsurumaru asked.
Ichigo accepted, and they left the Citadel. The two men weren’t friends anymore after that disastrous break.
The things most important to Ichigo were his brothers and the missions Saniwa gave him. He always set the well-being of the people he was responsible for before his own and followed his principles with the with the rigor of a monk. A loyal, honest and competent soldier, unlike what Tsurumaru thought of himself.
Ichigo waited at a table while Tsurumaru ordered for them. Queueing, he questioned his decision to come out to Ichigo as bisexual. Ichigo had shown some interest in men, but as discreet and private as he was about those matters, Tsurumaru wasn’t even sure he had a chance, or how the man would react.
There was that, and another concern; the Saniwa’s late husband’s swords and those who had to deal with him for years were said to be scratched. They acted more like weapons than like human beings, not believing romance or socialization to be part of their natural needs, fighting was the only natural urge they recognized. They were the Citadel’s highest-level swords, most often in command of the units.
Tsurumaru handed him his soy-milk matcha-latte and had taken a black coffee for himself. Within their conversation, Ichigo asked him how it was going with his girlfriend. To Ichigo, that term was strange, an eccentricity from the new generation swords, but Tsurumaru was always fun to listen to.
“She dumped me for her Admiral. Can you believe that?” Tsurumaru said with a bitter grimace, remembering how she had given him the news in the middle of the street and left him standing there. Maybe she had hoped that for once, he be more Western about his feelings, demonstrative. He just wasn’t what she had expected him to be or become.
He was unsettled to see a shadow go over Ichigo’s face. It seemed angry, rather than shocked or sorry for him. Ichigo took a sip of his glass, deep in thought. As he didn’t seem to be about to respond, Tsurumaru opened his mouth to talk, but his reply came with delay.
“Kind of,” he said.
Tsurumaru laughed. “Oi, that’s harsh!”
Ichigo seemed to snap out of his thoughts and realize what he just said and blushed.
“Pardon me Tsurumaru-dono, I’m not in a position to judge.”
He seemed to have made his personal judgment already, and Tsurumaru sighed.
“Not only that, she is expecting a Gondola,” he mumbled. That was the part which had left him petrified and so hurt, no words had come.
“A-ah!” The cup slipped out of Ichigo’s grip. Some of the matcha spilled onto the table, and he grabbed a tissue, stuttering apologies as if someone would scold him and call him clumsy.
Tsurumaru felt a bit of sweat on his forehead. There was much he didn’t know about Ichigo’s triggers and felt like he was walking on eggshells. Scratched, even the Saniwa said – Ichigo was that man’s attendant and sometimes like now, the consequences were visible.
“What are you going to do now?”
Trying to act confident, even though he was starting to feel sick thinking of his ex-girlfriend and worrying about Ichigo, Tsurumaru answered:
“Ask you on a date.”
Just after having said that, he bit his tongue and wished to disappear.
Ichigo’s eyes widened before a strained smile appeared.
“Ahahah, Tsuru, you surprised me. Are you joking?” He put his hands under the table, hiding them. Tsurumaru was tempted to make it pass as a joke, but then, Ichigo might never believe him again.
“I’d really like to go on a date with you.” Tsurumaru leaned forward, more because of a growing stomach ache than to get close to Ichigo – he was doing it wrong, so wrong.
Ichigo leaned back into his seat.
“But… You’re straight. Aren’t you?”
“I’m as bi as a bi-rd like me can bi,” Tsurumaru said, tittering.
“See, you’re joking,” Ichigo said, his smile crooked.
Ichigo’s cup thumped against the wooden table as he set it down.
“I’m not going to fill the hole that boat left in your heart!”
“Destroyer, she was a destroyer!” Tsurumaru said with humor to calm him down, and it had the opposite effect.
Ichigo huffed. People from the neighboring tables glanced at them. Ichigo stood up, the stranger’s eyes on them as unsettling as bees buzzing at his ears.
“Where you to?” Tsurumaru asked, touching his arm. Ichigo jerked back, and Tsurumaru winced.
“Quit making a fool out of me!” Ichigo snapped.
Tsurumaru slammed a palm against the table. Ichigo jumped with the slam. “I’m not! Why won’t you believe me?”
“I believe you! What I find unbelievable is that as soon as she dumps you, you come running to me. What does that make me for you?!”
There was a clank from the counter. Several people were staring at them.
Tsurumaru blushed. “I didn't dare to tell you before.”
“That’s promiscuous to me!”
“Are you saying that because I’m bi?! That’s an old one!” Tsurumaru sneered.
Ichigo scowled, took his tray and left.
Ookurikara’s phone rang while he was listening to music in his room. He could barely hear his friend’s voice over the loud thumping, but it was a crying one.
“Kara-bou, help, I feel sick!”
Ookurikara wouldn’t ever have left Tsurumaru alone when he was this depressed, but that time, looking down into his glass, he regretted not having taken Tsurumaru back to the Citadel immediately, rather than followed him and ended up as drunk and as depressed as his friend. It seemed Tsurumaru was having a growing alcohol problem.
Mitsutada had crossed Ookurikara’s path while he was running to the time platform, and worried, he went to the same coordinates. He observed them from a table far enough to not be noticed. The two men had been drinking for quite a while, having a conversation he couldn’t hear. No, he convinced himself, he wasn’t stalking Ookurikara, absolutely not – It wasn’t any of his business but just to be sure those two weren’t doing anything stupid and they were the types to do silly stuff.
“He called me promiscuous!” Tsurumaru said, downing his glass.
He had already said it about five times and the five of them, Ookurikara had just grunted.
“Because I’m bi!” he insisted again, setting his head on Ookurikara’s shoulder, trying to ignore the fact he had realized, late, that he had crossed all the physical and psychological boundaries of a person who had been abused.
“S’not thaaat! Guess you were pushy, you yelled, didn’t listen to him!”
Whatever he said, would Tsurumaru remember it the next day? The guy was smashed when he arrived already, and now, he was as well.
“M’not pushy. Saaay, what’s your type?” Tsurumaru asked, latching onto him.
Ookurikara rolled his eyeballs. The first person Ookurikara thought about was Mitsutada but then, alcohol and recent events helping, someone else came to his mind.
“You a teenage girl or what?” he grunted, downing a cup.
No, he didn’t want to think of that now. His tone didn’t have its usual bite, and Tsurumaru picked that up.
“I’m too old to care about acting grown-up and manly!” Tsurumaru said.
The alcohol went down the wrong way for Ookurikara. He got into a fit of coughs and started laughing louder than Tsurumaru had ever heard him laugh, head thrown back.
“What?!” Tsurumaru spat.
“Another Heian sword told me the same thing! Blondes… I like blondes,” he said, still coughing, “Aruji spoils you, t’pisses Ichigo off and maybe you scared him.”
Tsurumaru grimaced, recognizing his fault but still not ready to admit it.
“Higekiri type? Blonde, kinda like a dandelion; fluffy, floaty, smells like a big cat after fightin’…”
Ookurikara spat his alcohol again, and tears of laughter started running down his face.
“Let me tell you why that sorta shit scares us; the last and first time I had a lover, just because I kissed a guy, Tsuki went batshit and, snap!... the guy was dead,” Ookurikara said, rolling his head back. “I’m also scratched, y’know – oldest in the house…”
“Woah!” Tsurumaru pat Ookurikara’s back as he suddenly started crying, drunk to the point he didn’t care about keeping face anymore.
“I’m so sorry! Kisses won’t kill anyone ever again!”
The Saniwa had told him many times to live, laugh and love. Now Tsurumaru said something similar, but he still didn’t feel that way. Probably it was the case for Ichigo too.
“Really?” Ookurikara asked.
He had opened up a deep scar and bled all over Tsurumaru, so there was no use trying to act tough anymore.
“Lemme show you! Please?”
Ookurikara shrugged and let him do. Tsurumaru pecked him on the mouth. It tasted like Budweiser and felt like doom.
“Better?” Tsurumaru asked, hoping it was the case because he felt very guilty, drunk and somewhat horny.
“Oi, don’t insult me,” Tsurumaru said, pulling him into another kiss.
It didn’t make them any happier. Their kissing became aggressive, and it turned into a struggle for dominance and Ookurikara was winning, Tsurumaru upset that he didn’t mind losing. He couldn’t think straight, bi, or gay.
Ookurikara was horrified when Mitsutada suddenly popped out of nowhere and punched Tsurumaru. He didn’t even remember how he got there. All he knew was that he couldn’t stop thinking of his lost lover’s face and felt like crying all the tears he hadn’t allowed himself to shed. He was probably doing so but preferred to ignore it.
The entire room spun. Mitsutada caught him. Tsurumaru had already passed out, head dangling back and drooling. Mitsutada put Ookurikara’s arm around his shoulders, hoisted him up and took Tsurumaru under the other under surprised stares and a few phone cameras.
All Ookurikara could think at that moment was how cool that guy was for being able to carry them both home and that he had seen him kiss Tsurumaru. He felt uncool for having kissed a drunken and vulnerable friend in a moment of apparent fragility, not thinking he wasn’t in complete control of his own actions either.
Waves were breaking on the shore, their sound like applause, a standing ovation for the young Saniwa’s feat. As hundreds of cherry blossom petals whirled around Tsurumaru and his foot set on the floor of a Motel room in a foreign country, there was a moment of silence. His ears rang, and his head felt uncomfortably light. He came to with a touch of melancholy which unsettled him, but when he opened his eyes and saw the blue of what he believed to be the ocean, he was drawn in and forgot whatever nightmare had made him sad.
The young person in front of him covered the face with a sheet from the bed, before rummaging inside of a bag and taking an Oni mask into the hands and covering the face with it. He had been so mesmerized he hadn’t realized he was looking at his master’s eyes and the ocean was outside. He could see it through a small window of the modest room. There was a truck’s registration plate decorating the room with numbers and OCEAN STATE RHODE ISLAND written on it.
“He really made it… He brought you back!” the Saniwa said, standing up and touching his kimono as if to make sure he was real.
“You’re a miracle!”
He didn’t know what his master meant by that, but he bowed down to the red Oni and introduced himself.
“Ready to surprise someone else?” the Saniwa asked.
He grinned; always.
Tsurumaru woke up and squeaked when he saw Ookurikara laying on his left and the Saniwa, Ofuda on the face, on his right. His heart started racing, and he held tight to his sheets, afraid of what he might discover. Understanding what was happening, he sunk his head back into his pillow.
“Kara-bou, I think we’re going to spend the entire mission hungover,” Tsurumaru said.
They were in the infirmary and in separate beds pushed next to another. Ookurikara groan-grunted in reply. There was a furry sitting next to the Saniwa. Squinting and his vision less blurred, it was a man with big and long white hair of which a part looked like spiky fox ears.
“Didn’t stop you from car-jacking my father earlier,” the Saniwa said and laughed, then whined from the ache the laughter caused.
“By gods, Kogi, you’re gorgeous,” the Saniwa said, turning the head slowly towards the Sanjou sword. “I wouldn’t have believed my childhood pet fox would turn into a prince!”
“Aruji, don’t strain yourself please,” Hasebe said, and Tsurumaru could swear he saw the fox ears wiggle and Kogitsunemaru was grinning.
“Aruji, call us all gorgeous,” Higekiri said.
“Anija!” Hizamaru nudged him.
“I will if you remember my name,” the Saniwa said.
“That’s your brother’s name!”
Hizamaru let out a shaky sigh.
The light was so strong and his head so heavy he needed a moment to understand the entire unit was there. They had waited for him to wake up to start the briefing, a part of the unit and the Saniwa laying shattered in the infirmary before they had even begun their search for Mikazuki.
The Saniwa explained to Kogitsunemaru why he had been summoned. Everyone leaned or turned towards him, and he shrunk back.
“My memories are fuzzy... Ani-ue disappeared, and Saniwa Tenko passed away a few months later. The symptoms were the white hair, typical of a broken sword backlash. If he were alive, I’m sure he’d have stayed at Tenko’s side until the end.”
“So, you believe he’s dead, not hidden somewhere?”
“We’ll have to find a way to die without staying dead then.” Saniwa chuckled.
As nobody replied, the Saniwa said: “I know who could help us find us how to do it.”
Hizamaru's furrow deepened, and Higekiri’s smile became cold.
“Men, we’re going to the Izanagi clan’s headquarters to visit my cousin!”
I cringed for Tsurumaru while writing this part. There will be many more cringes to come, some might be unintentional xD
In these footnotes, I'd like to talk about people I've met thanks to my fanfictions and the Touken Ranbu fandom. We met before the Touken Ranbu Musical in Paris but I coincidentally had already met them both during other events, not knowing them at all yet. Social media and shared communities brought us together. The world is incredibly small and I feel blessed that thanks to one story, I got to make two new friends. I won't name their pseudonyms for privacy but it was a pleasure meeting you.
For other people reading or writing fanfictions; don't feel shy about commenting, it could lead to discussion and maybe, by chance, even meeting other fans (still, be careful).
Thank you always for reading.
Tsurumaru had been warned that there were a few strange people in the Saniwa’s family, his master included, but he hadn’t imagined he’d get into contact with a demigod he’d describe as the kami of pink and fluffy boas. Hasebe gasped when their Saniwa, against all protocol, squealed and jumped into the other Saniwa’s arms, the cousins as loud as two blue whales.
Tsurumaru noticed the Genji brothers were keeping their distance from the group and Hizamaru stood behind his brother, hands in his back. Hasebe bowed down about ten times to the other Saniwa, the Saniwa giggling and calling him too stiff in front of “family.” Ookurikara had refused to come before the mission went underway, not willing to meet any family members or fake getting along with anyone, he said. His master had agreed, saying it was the same for oneself, except when it came to their host.
The pink Saniwa went to Tsurumaru, studied him up and down, turned several times around him as if he were some fantastic specimen.
“My sensei worked like mad to get you back,” they said, “for decades…”
He didn’t listen much to their babble, and their talk was a bit too fast for him to follow. His memory started from the moment he first met the Saniwa in a Motel abroad at the seashore, and he had prepared his first prank within the five first minutes of his existence. Tsurumaru had a complete blank as he tried remembering if anything had happened before that; before, he was only a Tsukumogami.
Higekiri bowed low to them as they stood in front of him, arms crossed. They had fallen silent, not acting as excited about him or Hizamaru, or more reserved than with the others.
“My condolences for Hattori-sensei. Please forgive his former sword’s absence,” he said in the most formal and stiff Japanese Tsurumaru had ever heard him speak. They set their hands onto their hips and cocked their head to the side.
“Gimme what I want, and I’ll forgive you,” Ukemochi said.
“Ariya… I wish Hattori-sensei had taught me his illusion tricks,” he said. Ukemochi hummed and shrugged and greeted Hizamaru with a nod, to which he replied.
“What’s that about?” Tsurumaru whispered to his master.
“Our uncle was Higekiri’s guardian for a few years when I was still a teenager and an incompetent master. Higekiri couldn’t attend his funeral because of my bad relationship with our clan, and he never got along with Ukemochi well, for private reasons.”
Tsurumaru flinched when he noticed a very tall man was standing just a few steps away from him in the shadows. He held a Naginata, a thick red feather boa twisted around him like some weird creature from outer space and seemed to be shivering in anticipation, looking at the Saniwa.
When the Saniwa went to greet him, his smile with greyish lipstick was so crooked and twitchy, he seemed about to faint. “Ah, Aruji... it's better if you don't get too close to me,” he said. The Saniwa stayed two steps away from him.
“Long time no see, Shizukagata. Where’s Hyuuga?”
His smile relaxed, and he chuckled. “Preparing dinner,” he said, leaning down carefully and slowly to allow the Saniwa to pat his head. He seemed afraid he might hurt the Saniwa, not the opposite.
Ukemochi led the group to their private quarters. The Citadel was more like a fortified town; patches of houses were gathered together, and several Saniwa lived there with their own Tsukumogami. Areas were separated by either high walls or rivers. A long curved red bridge led over a river through a pink Torii gate into Ukemochi’s domain.
The Saniwa excused oneself and left with Ukemochi for research the time dinner was ready. The Genji brothers swiftly disappeared into their own room, Hasebe followed his master, leaving Tsurumaru alone.
Tsurumaru went to the kitchen. “Hyuuga-bou!” The red-clad Masamune sword set his cooking knife down ran to hug Tsurumaru. Oodenta greeted him, cutting onions and sniffling. They talked during work until dinner was ready.
“Woah, this is a surprise!” Tsurumaru said, getting into the reception room, recognizing several swords he had known for only a few days. They were former swords of his Citadel, who had left during the reconstruction and decided to stay with Ukemochi.
The two Saniwa came in, followed by Shizukagata and Hasebe. “They’re all here for you,” Ukemochi said to Rei. Hyuuga ran to and bowed down in one energetic swing to the Saniwa.
“Forgive this inappropriate display of emotion, Izanagi-sama, but I’ve missed you so very much,” he said, a few tears running down his cheeks over a broad smile. The Saniwa opened the arms, and he jumped into them.
“His directives seem to still be haunting you, my poor dear. Even so, are you happy here?”
He nodded with enthusiasm.
When the Genji brothers came in, he jumped into Higekiri’s arms, and Higekiri swung him from side to side. Hasebe glanced at them without telling them to behave, unlike what Tsurumaru expected from him. The two sat next to each other and talked through the dinner. They looked like an older and a younger brother more than Higekiri and Hizamaru did, or like father and son. None of the Saniwa’s real family members, except Ukemochi, were there but the cheerful and informal atmosphere felt like a family reunion.
Once the dinner finished, the Saniwa was barely able to keep sitting in seiza, just nodding at whatever Ukemochi said. Hasebe, unlike his usual worrywart character, wasn’t the first to insist his master take a rest. He seemed to be focused on the Genji brothers as if he feared them to commit a social blunder.
“Forgive me, Toraya-sama, but I don’t fare well with alcohol, my comrades could testify,” Hizamaru said. Tsurumaru nodded to that. “If you allow, I will take my leave.” The Saniwa stood up and lurched to the side, Hasebe jumping up to hold his master.
“I must take a rest as well. Hasebe, Ukemochi asked for a few reports from the Citadel’s forge and our recent activities, for medical use. Tsuru, no more drinking!” the Saniwa said. Ukemochi agreed, and the brothers stood up, following their master. Hasebe went to sit next to the pink Saniwa.
“You’re free to walk around my domain but don’t go beyond the gate of the bridge tonight. It’s the Hyakki Yagyoo season; Youkai and demons parade. This dimension is unstable,” Ukemochi warned. Before Higekiri got out of the room, Ukemochi called him.
“If you need a lantern to light your way, let me know,” they said. His glance at Ukemochi was slow and pensive, almost as if surprised. He left without accepting or refusing the lantern there wasn’t in the room, and there was plenty of light outside. Tsurumaru was too busy chatting with Masamune to pay attention to what they were saying.
More than a decade ago…
“Hattori-sensei?” Higekiri called, knocking on the door of the forge.
“Oh Higekiri, please come in,” an old man said on the other side.
Higekiri was carrying a tray of dango they had received from Rei’s Citadel. It was the old man’s seventieth birthday and a good excuse for Rei to send gifts that Higekiri might enjoy as well.
“Well lookie here, what goodies we got!” Hattori said, moving away from his work tapping on his side as if to invite a cat to sit down next to him.
Hattori had said he couldn’t call himself a master blacksmith and it was nothing more than a hobby to a Healer, the doctor of Saniwas, to restore a blade.
They took tea and Hattori smiled at Higekiri. “It seems it’s both our birthdays,” he said.
Higekiri blushed, his tray already empty. Willing to change the subject to not get teased, he looked at Hattori’s working table.
“Ariya, isn’t that Misasagi?” he asked, seeing the partially restored sheath. It was nostalgic, an old acquaintance from when he was owned by the Hojo clan but he was unsure that sword would reciprocate his nostalgia.
The handle was still in the works, the tsuka’s tied thread not perfect yet but the blade seemed close to repaired. He stood up to look at it closer; it still had a bit of damage. In the normal process of repairs, it would have been unrepairable without melting the blade and molding it over before, but the Saniwa didn’t work the same way as humans in a workshop. It was as if it had to heal like a human’s injury, the musubi’s fibers tying together again like skin cells.
“Yes, but this Tsurumaru Kuninaga is incomplete,” he said, taking a sip from his tea. Seeing Higekiri didn’t understand and was searching for noticeable damage on it, he said “The Tsukumogami is missing… It seems he died.”
“I’m so sorry!” Tsurumaru shouted. He was sitting on his futon. The adrenaline of a nightmare he couldn’t remember was still shooting through his veins, he was thirsty and wanted to get the memory of the taste of blood out of his mouth. It was the hour of the Ox, approximatively two in the morning and it was hot that summer night.
He got to a private veranda, part of the house the Saniwa were staying in. Someone’s hum attracted him. Hoping for a little company, he followed the sound. There were three people from what he heard. When he saw them, he decided to hide behind a wall and peep.
Higekiri was laying with his head on the Saniwa’s lap and Hizamaru leaning against his master’s side. The one humming was Higekiri, a large empty red cup the circumference of three human heads next to him. Ukemochi wasn’t with them, probably in bed and Hasebe didn’t seem to be around either.
“You’re my sun and my stars, my moon, and my sea, my dango and green tea…” Higekiri hummed.
His brother slightly stirred but didn’t move from his spot, the furrow of his brow not disappearing even as he was relaxed and his eyes were closed.
“I’ll be fine,” the Saniwa said to Hizamaru while caressing Higekiri’s head. Higekiri imitated the meow of a cat and laughed, face flushed from what Tsurumaru thought was drinking.
“No, you won’t, you’ll soon be shattered beyond repair,” Hizamaru grumbled.
“You’re stubborn,” the Saniwa said.
“You both are,” Higekiri chimed.
Hizamaru clicked his tongue and leaned off the Saniwa.
“You really need it! If you don’t, you’ll –”
His brother turned around, facing him, his hand lying on the Saniwa’s knee in front of his face.
“Could you shoulder that burden? Do you believe that what’s temporary outweighs what’s permanent?” Higekiri’s sounded sober and even a bit scolding, for what Tsurumaru believed to be a drunk man.
From the place he was standing, Tsurumaru could feel the atmosphere had become tense between the Brothers. Head low and muttering something Tsurumaru couldn’t hear, Hizamaru shuffled away and closed the door to their room behind him.
“I’m sorry,” the Saniwa said, “if only we knew what would make it happen, I’d know what method to use to avoid –”
“Because Aruji already thought about the methods? Ariyaaa, does it include my help?” Higekiri said and giggled as the Saniwa pinched his nose.
The Saniwa and Higekiri continued to talk about the subject Tsurumaru didn’t understand. For all he picked up, it sounded like an ice-bucket challenge dancing naked on burning embers, something he’d be interested in watching but not to experience.
“What do you think you’re doing?” someone growled at Tsurumaru.
Tsurumaru jumped. Hasebe was looming behind him, he wasn’t away after all. Higekiri hummed and sat up, reaching for his sword. The Saniwa flinched, noticing his presence. Had he heard something he wasn’t supposed to? Whatever the case, Tsurumaru decided it was time to run.
“Behind you, a little blue man!” Tsurumaru exclaimed, pointing behind Hasebe.
“What, where?!” Hasebe looked.
Hizamaru had opened a window and was staring at them with wide eyes, holding the frame.
When Hasebe turned around to say that was Hizamaru and he wasn’t little nor blue but a nuance of green, Tsurumaru had already run out of sight.
Tsurumaru was bent down panting, hands on his thighs. To escape a screaming Hasebe, he had gone beyond the bridge’s gate. The area seemed completely empty, only a few lights were on inside of the buildings around him. Shadows moved and disappeared behind the large shutters, their conversations a whisper, no louder than the breeze.
He searched around him for the pink gate of Ukemochi’s house, but the moon was covered and, in the darkness, he concluded it didn’t stand out as much as during the day. Most lights were shut off, the once illuminated paths shrouded in eerie darkness. He walked around, not crossing anyone’s way, nor hearing the river flow.
He passed a bridge, but it wasn’t the right one. The Citadel was two times bigger than he had first estimated. A huge building, he hadn’t seen when they arrived, towered at the end of the town. Maybe that was the library or the main headquarters, he tried to rationalize. There was no way he could not have seen that place which looked like Osaka’s castle before.
Someone moved nearby. Tsurumaru saw a woman in a white yukata, slowly walking by a small side street, long black hair waving behind her.
“Excuse me, Oneesan!” he called.
The woman turned at a corner, not seeming to hear him. He followed the clopping of her geta, heard a door creak shut and found himself standing in front of a door in a narrow side street, between two high Walls.
He tried to knock on it, but it opened with the push of his hand. Humidity wafted out. He peeked in and didn’t find the woman. There was a long dark corridor with a fusama screen at the end. Another screen clacked, closing behind it. The screens seemed old, and some even had holes. Tsurumaru swallowed his own spit and went in.
He followed the sound of the steps behind another fusama screen. Every run-down space he went into, he didn’t see the person he was following, nor indication anyone lived there. He arrived at a stone stairway and went down. Opening a heavy iron door, he froze in place; empty cells with wooden barriers were aligned in a long corridor. The place smelled of rat piss and only one dim red lantern lit the entire area. The cells were dark and without windows, walls looking red from the light.
He put a hand to his mouth as he gagged, the familiarity of the place making him nauseous and confused, as he couldn't recall where or when he had first seen it. Something moved in one of the cells, and a wheezing breath came from it. His eyes widened as the thing inside crawled to him and held onto a barrier to stay upright. Its fingers were emaciated, almost skeletal, the skin grey and ill.
“…tsuki?” a raspy voice called.
Tsurumaru was shaking from head to toe, looking at the dark shape on the other side. It didn’t seem to be able to see him, yellow glassy empty eyes staring into nothingness. Shadows started moving all around Tsurumaru, from inside the cells, as if awakened by the weak, desperate cry of the agonizing thing.
His nerves snapped awake, and he ran up the flights of stairs, tripping in them, falling down one before crawling back up and sprinting for the door out. A young woman with a fox mask was standing in front of him, immobile, her presence as imposing as it felt unreal. He drew his sword, hands shaking more than they would in front of any monster.
The fox kept staring at him without saying anything, her fingers crooked and close to her chest. He looked into every direction with wide eyes, his face contorted by fear. She stepped out of the way. He ran out, passing next to her. Out of place, he fell to his knees, hands pressed on his chest as his heart seemed to want to jump out of it. Looking back, the door wasn’t there anymore, neither the narrow street.
He found the gate to Ukemochi’s house, so close to him he couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it. Looking back, the buildings were well illuminated and animated. A few windows were open, and he could hear voices clearly. It seemed nothing like the place he had run through. He had to giggle hysterically, digging his nails into his arms, making sure he was really there. Getting over his emotions, he went to the bridge.
Hizamaru and the Saniwa were standing on the illuminated bridge, turning their backs at him. The Saniwa started shaking and fell to the knees, holding the own head and let out a low shaking cry. Hizamaru kneeled down grabbed the Saniwa by the shoulders.
“I won’t let him touch you! Don’t go to him!” he said, his tone threatening.
The Saniwa seemed to think a few seconds, whispered something into his ear and Hizamaru started swaying from side to side at the rhythm of a mantra the Saniwa recited.
“Please, Aruji! Stay away from him, don’t lay a finger on him!”
His voice was pleading, but he kept on swaying from side to side like a charmed cobra. Tsurumaru stopped in his tracks, his fright from earlier still seeming to paralyze him as soon as his heart accelerated. Hizamaru’s head cocked back a few seconds. He straightened up and blinked, touched his own face. The Saniwa took a step back, but he swooped the Saniwa with an arm against him. Hizamaru lifted the Saniwa’s Ofuda.
“Oi!” Tsurumaru shouted.
Hizamaru’s eyes had the dead coldness of a snake, the Saniwa shrinking under his gaze. Hizamaru kissed the Saniwa, who bent back like a twig about to snap. Hizamaru let the Saniwa go, his master tumbling and falling on the back. Tsurumaru sprinted. Hizamaru unsheathed his sword, the blade glinting under the moonlight, his master’s head low and shaking like a leaf.
His amber eyes glowed like fireflies and his mouth contorted in an effort, his fangs showing. In one swift movement, he cut the Saniwa’s head off. It flipped in the air and fell into the river. Tsurumaru was petrified as Hizamaru lifted the headless corpse up and threw it into the river as if dumping a bag of trash, their master’s long strands of black hair scattered on the floor.
Someone roared in agony. Higekiri was on the other end of the bridge, coming out of the residence. He had drawn his sword and charged against his brother. Their blades crashed together. Higekiri glared at Hizamaru as if he was a Kebiishi.
As he saw the Saniwa’s body drift away with the current, Higekiri ran towards the rail and jumped into the river.
“Anijaaa!” Hizamaru yelled. He’d have gone over the rail and followed his brother if Tsurumaru hadn’t jumped and roundhouse-kicked him in the face.
Tsurumaru looked down, Hizamaru unconscious; Higekiri and the Saniwa’s corpse had disappeared.
Currently in vacation with a broken computer screen and a lot of hiking to do but still updating. Hyakki Yagyoo is the Parade of a Hundred demons supposed to happen between end of June and August, until the period of the O-bon, the celebrations of the dead. We might have just met the villain here.
Chapter 5: Three
Warning: Some angry Hasebe with hefty language in this chapter >:3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The Saniwa’s head was somewhere in the river, Hizamaru was screaming for his brother as if possessed and Tsurumaru was shocked Hasebe had immediately believed his description of what had happened – Hizamaru killing the Saniwa and Higekiri leaping after his master into certain death.
Hearing the racket, a few family members had come out of their houses and stood there, keeping their distance with the group. Ukemochi had joined them in a rush and were looking down into the water. Something was missing in the picture of the murder scene.
“Where’s the blood?” Hasebe asked. Tsurumaru looked down, and indeed, there wasn’t any blood, neither on Hizamaru he and Hasebe were holding down to prevent from jumping into the river, nor on the bridge’s rail or in the water.
“Was it really coming from here?” Ukemochi mumbled to themselves. Hasebe gasped when Ukemochi took out their prayer beads and started reciting sutras for the dead. As he tried to approach them to ask what was going on, Shizukagata put his naginata in the way.
A shadow appeared from below the water, and blonde hair shot up. Higekiri gasped for air, struggling to keep his head out of the water. Shizukagata ran to the shore and stretched his sheathed spear out, and Higekiri grabbed it. With him, surfaced something black with horns and tusks.
“I need… Help…” Shizukagata said between his teeth, pulling as firmly as he could. Hasebe tried to help him, but it wasn’t enough, whatever Higekiri had fished the weight of a whale. At four with Ukemochi and Tsurumaru pulling them out, the pair slowly emerged.
“What’s so heavyyy?” Hasebe groaned. They saw the person Higekiri was holding was dressed in a thick black kimono and wore a white Hannya mask, a type of Oni.
“The weight of karma?” Ukemochi guessed as the hair on the back of their neck rose when they saw something dark nobody else could see ooze out of the kimono and recognized the negative Energy.
The Tsukumogami got the pair out of the river, onto the shore. When everyone could see the kimono, there was an uproar, followed by whispers. The few bystanders moved backward, some of them even running away.
The black kimono had the Izanagi, and Izanami clan’s crest embroidered on it, representing a spear and an island. Shizukagata stood with a scowl, his fists white around the handle of his naginata, looking at the mask.
“That’s what you get inviting the last member of the cursed Oh family!” an old man said. Ukemochi sneered at him, he scoffed and hurried away.
The Saniwa’s hands were shaking as they lifted up to Higekiri’s face. They set on his cheeks, the blue eyes behind the Hannya mask round, the breaths of his master short.
As if that single word had been a trigger, he shot up, leaving the Saniwa on the ground behind him. He staggered to his brother, who had stopped moving and seemed paralyzed by fear. He looked down a lion about to pounce on his brother and sink his teeth into his throat.
“H-Higekiri!” the Saniwa called, voice still weak, trying to crawl to him.
Hizamaru lowered his head, as if ready to get beheaded at his turn. Hasebe interposed himself between the Brothers.
“Stop that now! Can’t you see Aruji’s terrified?!” he barked.
Higekiri glanced at his master, seeming to snap out of the silent fit of rage. His lower lip kept shivering, brow furrowed, still unable to say a word. He stretched out a hand and helped his brother stand up.
Ukemochi hugged their cousin and rubbed the back until the shaking stopped. They took a piece of the drenched kimono’s fabric into their hand, “It’s from him, isn’t it? You must have been scared…”
The Saniwa nodded. Some strength regained, Rei went to Hizamaru on the knees and bowed to the ground to him. Higekiri clicked his tongue, his face still red, and walked away, his brother following him without a glance at his master. The Saniwa sat, head dangling between the shoulders.
Once the brothers were out of sight, the Saniwa pointed at the kimono. “This will allow Tsurumaru to go to the other side and come back without being infected by the filth of the Yomi. We demigods call this a privilege and only receive it once dead.”
Ukemochi sat down next to their cousin, too weak to stand up. “What were you thinking?! Tsukiyomi could have killed you!”
“It was in exchange of this privilege and a guarantee to not attack us if we have to pass through the Yomi; a few breaths of life and a kiss. If I had kissed him in the Yomi, I’d have stayed stuck there.”
“None would have made sense if he had killed you before we could even get there!”
The Saniwa tried to stand up. Tsurumaru helped his master lean over his shoulder for much-needed support. Suddenly, Rei collapsed and glowed like a firefly.
Ukemochi groaned. “Carry Rei to the infirmary, quick.”
The small group was reunited in the infirmary, their master glowing in bed, unconscious and in pain, teeth grinding together and fists balled. The white glowering Hannya mask hung on a wall with several purification seals stuck onto it, Higekiri unable to resist scowling back at it.
“Toraya-dono, Aruji won’t wake up with a creepy voice, white eyes and a twirling head, I hope?” Tsurumaru asked the pink Saniwa. Hasebe made a cross with his hand and started reciting Catholic prayers, thinking of that horrible old movie Tsurumaru had pushed him to watch last Halloween.
“That, I can’t guarantee,” they said with a wry smile at Hasebe. “It will take time for me to convince my ancestors to advance me my own privilege without taking my own life, so you’ll be on your own for a moment. Only Rei can take the whole unit along and is not in a state to do so right now. The priority of this mission is retrieving the mirror!”
Tsurumaru considered for a few seconds. Ukemochi saw his hesitation but didn’t make a remark about it. They couldn’t shake off a gut feeling they’d better remain cautious with him, even more, when sending him to hell.
“How do I get to him?”
“First, you die. I’m not your master, so I have to find a way to kill you without damaging your body. That means poison or throwing you down a pit or cutting your head or strangling you or make you choke on a mochi or burning you on a stake…”
“Thank goodness no poison or fire!” he snorted.
“You’ll see worse in hell. Any allergies? Nuts, oysters?”
“Damn… Give me a few hours to think a plan through.”
“A-anija!” Hizamaru called as his brother strode out of the infirmary. Higekiri turned around and pushed him against a wall, slamming a hand next to his head. Hizamaru tried to shrink into the wall as his brother’s face got close to his. He was looking at him with the same frightening eyes as before as if they could pierce through his head like daggers.
“He’s not inside of you anymore, right?” he drawled.
Hizamaru nodded and swallowed his own spit. Higekiri wouldn't let him go. He flinched as his brother put a thumb onto his lower lip.
“He used those…” Higekiri mumbled, as if to himself, “Aruji sold them off…”
“Anija! Snap out of it!” Hizamaru tried to push him out of the way.
“I’m not done with you!” Higekiri roared, taking both his wrists and sticking them against the wall. He cocked his head to the side, Hizamaru’s knees starting to jitter.
“Say, did you agree to it, or should I cut both of that Oni’s arms? Ariya!”
Someone had packed Higekiri and thrown him out of the way. It was Hasebe standing between them.
“You'll cut those arms over my dead body!” Hasebe growled. Higekiri hissed.
“Get out of the way, Hasebe. This one is between us,” he said, his right hand sliding to his sword’s belt.
“I begged Rei to not use anybody else than me for him!” Hizamaru said, pushing Hasebe out of the way. “I wasn't going to let that monster get anywhere near to you!”
“Don’t you dare use Aruji’s first name right now,” Higekiri growled, grabbing the handle of his sword, “not with that mouth.”
Hizamaru scoffed. “Hooh, so that’s the reason? Goodness, for a moment, I thought it was me you were jealous about!”
“Enough, you fucking morons!” Hasebe roared, punching them both by surprise.
“Can’t you idiots understand this is exactly what Tsukiyomi wanted?! Aruji’s mortified, guilty, in pain and alone to deal with everything that’s happened while you pricks have a cockfight over a goddamn kiss!”
The brothers let go of their swords, both of them blushing. They stepped back, seeing a storm coming, Hasebe’s face now as red as an Oni’s.
“I’m not done with you either! Augh, god, I’m sick and tired of having you two acting like hormonal teenagers as soon as the sun is down and the children are sleeping! Aruji’s taken a difficult decision to protect the Citadel again, facing that guy and all you see is wrong in it!”
“But…” Higekiri tried.
“Shut the fuck up! Act like a grown-ass man and instead of listening to your lover and imperial dick for once, listen to your master as the damn soldier you're supposed to be!”
By the end of Hasebe’s hefty scolding, both brothers were on their knees begging him for forgiveness.
Tsurumaru stood leaning against the rail at the place he had seen his master’s head fly. He looked down into the water, where the moon reflected. Imagining methods that he'd be okay dying with, he found only a few and even more reasons to live.
He lived in a loving Citadel, with a kind master, Ookurikara and Mitsutada his best buddies. He had hope Taikogane Sadamune would show up someday, and he was grateful for the comfortable life he was leading, yet, something felt strange, out of place, as if he didn’t deserve that life. What if he had been summoned in Tsukiyomi’s Citadel, or another even worse position, alone to deal with his newly acquired emotions and human shape? What if he had no friends and were severely punished for any of his pranks?
A cold sensation took over him, numbing him, so it was almost painful – a heaviness on his chest that seemed to have always been there, never to leave. A world without the Date swords, with an unkind master, without love or hope… It was all untrue, but it was as if his body believed whatever was going through his mind and was entirely out of his control – it was intolerable.
He went over the rail and jumped into the river. When struck by the cold water, he realized with horror and confusion what he was doing. He thrashed about, not knowing how to swim, trying to get to the shore but there was nowhere to hang onto, and his battle gear got too heavy with all of the water seeping into the fabric, pulling him down. He sank into the deep river, unable to get any air into his lungs and looked up to the starry sky with only the dim light of the moon over him and unattainable like the shore he was fighting to reach and nobody nearby who might hear him drowning or save his life. He saw a pole come down and tried to catch it, but the current was pulling him away from it, and the pole attempted followed him as his lungs were screaming for oxygen the lack of air tightening and pushing down onto his chest his head throbbing until he was able to grab a blurred sheathed naginata.
He gasped for air. The man pulling him out was Shizukagata. “Are you alright?” he asked, Tsurumaru coughing.
“Did you want to die?”
Tsurumaru couldn’t explain what he just did. It was as if he had been spellbound or invaded by thoughts he didn’t recognize as his own – he refused to see himself as someone suicidal. Shizuka invited him to join Ukemochi’s sword’s quarters for a change of clothes and tea.
“Something… Strange happened,” he said.
Shizukagata rolled his eyeballs.
“Nothing is as inexplicable as it seems,” he said, “and I won’t ask for your reasons but know you have friends here and Aruji would be heartbroken if you killed yourself.”
He didn’t have to say all that, Tsurumaru knew it, but he was grateful someone was trying to remind him the reasons he had for an instant believed to be in an alternate reality he wasn’t part of.
Shizukagata was less shy than Tsurumaru had first thought. He manipulated every object he touched with such care, it made him slow in his movements as if his arms were a pair an of long swings he might lose the control of and send everything toppling around him. He had taken Tsurumaru’s wet clothes, shown him the shared baths, and once Tsurumaru had cleaned up, the sun had already risen.
“Any appetite?” Shizuka asked, leading him to the kitchen. Tsurumaru wasn’t hungry. If anything, the warm water had made him realize how exhausted he was. He hadn’t ever felt that tired and it seemed like it was going to last as long as he was alive – that inexplicable anxiety was creeping up on him again, and he rejected it with all of his mental strength.
Shizuka sat in front of him at the table, holding a teacup in his big hand, lifting the tea-pot with the tips of his fingers, as if he would crush it if he carried it with the whole fist. Tsurumaru was impressed those fingers didn’t even shake when he poured the tea into his cup, not a drop spilling out.
“I heard you might confront Tsukiyomi,” he said, as Tsurumaru served him his cup. He took a sip.
“I only saw him when he became… Well, you know. Was he really that horrible before?”
Shizuka replied without a second of hesitation. “I can’t talk for my comrades because he treated us unequally, just to create competition between us, but to Hyuuga and me, he was the most frightening man on earth. I don’t understand why he’s offered Aruji his help.”
The mess hall’s shoji screen slid open. It was Higekiri in his bedwear, dragging his feet behind himself. He had the red fatigue icon over his head, dark circles under the eyes and glared at nothing as if he was about to shoot a hole into the wall.
“Because that bedswerver of a plague-sore has been burning in the Avicii's cauldron long enough to seek for redemption,” Higekiri said, taking milk out of the refrigerator. His tone was venomous as he poured the liquid into a large cup.
“What didst that gent doth to thee?” Tsurumaru asked, echoing the ancient Japanese exhausted Higekiri was using. Higekiri set the glass bottle back into the refrigerator with a bang which made Shizukagata flinch. He stomped away and slammed the screen shut behind him with such force it almost cracked the wooden frame.
“Don’t… Ever ask any of us that… It’s triggering,” Shizukagata warned, remembering all the reasons he had to hate the man.
Tsurumaru tittered in front of a grave exactly his size and same as white as his hair. The pink Saniwa stood next to it, shuffling from foot to foot and rubbing their hands nervously.
“No,” he said.
“Aw, c’mon, it’s custom, pure marble! Look, I even added your crest on it!”
Yes, he could see it was white marble, his crest on it, and it made him want to shriek. He hated his ancient name Misasagi, which meant mausoleum and he hated graves over everything else.
“Mokay. Plan B,” they said, clapping their hands together.
They led him into a room beyond the office, down into their basement. In front of them was a door with Strictly reserved to authorized personnel written on it and a skull with a radioactive symbol. He swallowed his own spit. The Saniwa entered a code and pushed the massive armored door open.
They were somewhere below Ukemochi’s Citadel’s time portal, and he could see all the mechanics and computers of the time machine.
They stopped in front of a glass and iron pod he could see through. It was empty. Strands of tubes went inside and out, hanging up the wall like a spider web.
“This will allow us to save Rei and Mikazuki,” they said.
Tsurumaru flinched. “Oioioi, what do you mean by save Aruji?”
Ukemochi sighed. “I guess you ought to know what you’re going to look for…”
Tsurumaru sat on the closed glass pod and Ukemochi on a desk chair, telling him the history of the mirror he was supposed to retrieve.
“A founding myth of Japan went as followed;
Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, sent one of her sons, Ninigi, down on earth to pacify Japan. She bestowed him with a jewel, a sword, and a mirror. Those three regalia were inherited by the first Emperor Jimmu, the great-grandson of Ninigi and head of the Heike clan.
They were named the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan; Kusanagi the sword, Yata-no-Kagami the mirror and Yasakani-no-Magatama, the jewel. Those objects contained the three first Tsukumogami.
The Heike were cornered by the Genji clan in the Daimotsu bay in 1185 during the battle of Dan-no-Ura. Legend says Emperor Antoku’s grandmother threw herself with her grandson and the three regalia into the sea, followed by all of their courtesans and soldiers. The Genji managed to retrieve the jewels and the mirror.”
“Does that mean the Genji brothers might have killed the regalia’s masters?” Tsurumaru asked.
“That would explain a certain number of tensions,” they mumbled to themselves, shrugging.
Tsurumaru tried to understand what they meant but the conclusion he came to seemed so far-fetched he decided to dismiss it.
“The Saniwa Order fears that breaking the three regalia might destroy all Tsukumogami and make us lose the war against the Time Retrograde Army. Kusanagi broke, and we don’t know what happened to the jewel, but Mikazuki holds the mirror.”
“So, if the mirror breaks, we might all die and history change if the jewel is already broken?” Tsurumaru asked, picking his nose.
“Yes. You don’t seem alarmed,” Ukemochi said, and Tsurumaru shrugged, unsure of what to answer or what he felt about it.
They scratched their head and scrunched their nose, trying to find an explanation to his nonchalant attitude.
“All I know about you is that you’ve already been brought back from the dead by my uncle. He found your sword in the rubble of a burnt-down Citadel in which he worked as an apprentice and, uh… Stole you.”
Tsurumaru burst into laughter.
“Start your search in the Yomi. If Mikazuki has left back an energetic trail, I’ll be able to direct you. Follow your gut feeling.”
Tsurumaru stood next to the pod, ready to depart. Ukemochi sat in front of a computer while he changed into Tsukiyomi’s kimono. The hatch opened, and he laid down inside of the machine.
“Lemme seee…” they mumbled.
The pink Saniwa scratched their head while sticking their tongue out. If this failed, he’d never be able to apologize to Ichigo and sort their argument out or find the ultimate prank. He’d miss Hasebe’s shrieks of horror, going out with Ookurikara…
“Don’t consume or kiss anything from the Yomi, even if it’s tempting, or you’ll stay stuck and turn into a rotting corpse for thousands of billions of years. Don’t get killed a second time there, because it would send your soul into limbo.”
“Anything more to give me a panic attack?” he asked with a wry smile.
“You shan’t under any circumstance upset or prank Tsukiyomi,” they said.
Before Tsurumaru could reply anything, the hatch closed, he saw flashes before his eyes, his muscles spasmed, his vision went white and then, he was frozen and dead, a crooked smile on his face.
Ukemochi shivered from looking at his meddlesome grin.
I can feel Hasebe's cranky in me. Next chapter will be in hell.
Chapter 6: The weight of responsibility
This chapter contains a certain dose of angst, Mikazuki/Yamanbagiri and Ookurikara/Yamanbagiri. From here, it slowly goes downstream (in the sense downhill)...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was just a kiss, how could it end up like this, Yamanbagiri wondered as he sailed over the Sanzu river on his way to the Takama-ga-hara, where the late Saniwa awaited him to perform the purification of his soul. Setting foot on the golden shore of the holy lake, he saw a man standing below the shining white stairway leading to the heavens.
His clothing and gait were as refined as a noble’s, his expression the meditative one of a man who had all the time in the world for introspection, undisturbed by the hardships of a commoner’s life. He smiled at Yamanbagiri who he caught staring. Blushing as their eyes locked, Yamanbagiri pulled down his hood and hurried up the stairs.
Once on top, he turned around to contemplate the lower plain of heaven and noticed the stranger was struggling to go up the stairs. His feet were on fire, but he kept on, step after step, stoic, even as his geta chipped off, his feet became bare, the skin started tearing, the bones became apparent. Close to the portal at the top of the stairs, just two steps from Yamanbagiri, his legs gave in. He fell, flight after flight, rolling down, tumbling, crashing, gasping, stretching out as if to keep going up.
Yamanbagiri ran after him and helped him sit up. His smile was still plastered on his face, as if none of it had hurt and said:
“These old knees can’t make it up there, ah ah ah!”
At that instant, Yamanbagiri decided to spend some time with him, to understand why a man in heaven was putting himself through hell, for what he thought to just be an “upgrade.”
Against his early expectations, he ended up keeping company to Mikazuki for years. Mikazuki wouldn’t tell him for how long he had been there alone, nor why was trying so hard to climb those stairs, while the plain just below it was also part of heaven. The gods wouldn’t talk to him, and it seemed that most people who had the privilege to join the gods couldn’t even see him. It must have been lonely.
Mikazuki lived in the garden of the Horai, close to the stairway and had a place he called home. His only possession was a bronze mirror. Sometimes, he’d talk to his reflection, as if to a child. He’d treat it with care and store it into a set of large golden boxes, closed one after another as he would a precious treasure. It was a gift from his former master. He forbade Yamanbagiri to ever look at his reflection inside of it or to talk to anybody about it, which he never did.
When at the stairway, they’d watch Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto, the god of the moon, hurry down the stairs, covering his face, his path crossed by Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. They’d listen to the gods who shaped the lake, sky, stars, and clouds and acted as if they were alive, eating, drinking, sleeping at the shore, pain impossible when it wasn’t self-inflicted like Mikazuki relentlessly did.
Mikazuki left the stairway only when it closed, but Yamanbagiri was a wanderer; He traveled through the upper worlds of the dead, where there was no danger, but always came back to check if Mikazuki’s trial had ended. His return was greeted with a warm smile and with time, a hug and a “Welcome home.”
Yamanbagiri believed the old man was just indulging him because he was the only one who had ever stayed waiting with him. Why would one of the five heavenly swords like a duplicate like him? He’d not always understand Mikazuki’s outdated quirks and manner of speech, nor why he’d seem so happy when he’d come back and how hard the struggle was to hide his sadness when he left. It upset him because he was also excited when they reunited, would get caught in a daze just watching him and knew every one of his quirks by heart. The last time he had wanted to kiss someone that much, it cost him his life. The stronger his feelings, the longer his travels became but Mikazuki continued to welcome him with open arms at each return.
After the most extended absence yet, on the way “home,” he crossed the path of a kami who told him there had been an attack on the Takama-ga-hara’s stairway. He hastened back.
Mikazuki was nowhere to be found, on neither end of the gigantic lake and the stairway had disappeared. The Horai, a place of laughter, faeries, and beauty, had fallen silent. At the foot of the stairway, Yamanbagiri found the treasure chests which once contained the precious mirror; they were scattered, broken and empty.
Yamanbagiri searched for him all over the Horai and heard rumors which lead him to believe Mikazuki was on the way to hell. Which of the hells and why, he didn’t know and that were places he had no reason to visit and didn’t know. He took his rowboat and sailed towards hell.
Mikazuki was holding the mirror against his chest, breath short, his entire body painful, but it was nothing compared to the pain of ascending the stairway to the heavens. There had been times where he felt like stopping to fight, throwing it away. The child he held in his arms was too much of a weight, but all of that was his own fault.
His master had put it into his care as a trial to avoid him hell. During his life, he hadn’t ever been able to protect anyone else than himself and broken promises, hearts, lives. His last promise had been to the mother of his own child and even that, he had been unable to keep. By caring for the mirror, he could protect Japan from destruction and earn his place in Heaven.
He looked at the cracked bits, and it stung deep in his heart. Like the coward he had been all of his life, he had used those who loved him for privilege he didn’t deserve. So, every day, relentlessly, he reminded himself he had no place in heaven yet by marching up the stairs which were the only thing that rejected him without mercy.
And now, he was running away again from responsibility. He was unable to face it, to fight it back, to beg for an apology and at each attack, the mirror was more damaged. He searched everywhere for someone or something able to repair or hold it together, but everyone fled what was pursuing him.
When the deepest crack appeared, and he was almost sure the mirror would be broken beyond repair if he didn’t take drastic action, he became desperate. He tried to hide like a rat in the darkness of the Yomi, but it was no use; his past always caught up with him.
Tsurumaru’s passage had attracted something, or preferably someone else. A god from the underworld seemed to take pity in him. He didn’t seem scared by his assailant and helped him to hide. Mikazuki wouldn’t have trusted any of Susanoo’s relatives if he weren’t that desperate and he wasn’t familiar with his situation. He believed the kami had reasons to protect the mirror as well.
The kami came up with this idea; in the deepest depths of the Great Crimson Lotus Hell, nothing ever remained broken. The ice of that world was powerful enough to resist a god’s power, and even if his assailant were to break him a thousand times, he would always return to his original state. That way he’d take responsibility for his sins and protect the mirror.
Mikazuki thanked his savior and was left on his own to flee his real responsibility, that evil kami knowing well he had other possibilities for redemption.
Tsurumaru was dead, and the prospects of death seemed quite limited, from the grey and foggy dunes he sat in, surrounded by hundreds of naked, crying babies and children.
Below the dunes, the white shore was lined with child-made towers of piled-up black stones. The white Sanzu river was shrouded in a thick mist. Suddenly, a baby flew over his head as if it was a golf ball. It fell on the ground, sat up and started wailing. Tsurumaru looked in the direction it had come from; a colossal Oni was standing holding a massive iron club, squinting in the direction the baby had flown and cheered as if it had made a hole-in-one.
The ground started shaking to the point Tsurumaru fell to his knees. The monster appeared from beneath the sand like the great white whale from the bottom of the sea, rising a grey wave of dunes, a bald scalp glimmering from the underworld’s iron sun, dangling earlobes as big as full cows. “Ommm!” rumbled through the wasteland.
Tsurumaru shrieked “Titan!”
The babies didn’t flee but greeted the monster with cheers and giggles. Tsurumaru took to his heels while the Buddha Titan kept digging itself out of the ground. Running while looking behind himself, he bumped into someone, and they both rolled downhill.
During their tumble, he packed the dirty white cloak and the man in it. When they stopped rolling, he tried to crawl out of the way and apologize. He saw blonde hair and big blue eyes staring at him.
“Are you an angel?” Tsurumaru asked, dazed.
“Don’t call me beautiful!” the man shouted and pulled his white cap down to hide his face.
The earth shook again, and Tsurumaru looked up. A humongous hand was coming down on them. He packed the other man by the arm, and they ran.
They arrived at the shore, and the children looked at the titan. They squealed in delight, raising their arms to it, calling “O-Jizo-sama! O-Jizo-sama!”
“Heeyyy, duuude, waiiit…” the titan called, and the blonde drew his sword.
He pricked the tip of it into a finger of the hand that came down for them. “Do we look like babies to you, O-Jizo-sama?!”
The Jizo frowned like an upset child, sucking the pricked thumb. “Dude, that hurt.”
The gigantic Oni arrived, his iron club in his hand, angry to have his victims taken away from him. Jizo punched him far off into the sky and held his hand out. The babies and children climbed onto it. He cradled them and calmed down those crying. A bridge crossing the river appeared, and Jizo walked over it with the children in his hands. They disappeared on the other side, the laughter of the relieved children fading away as they went to Heaven.
“Yamanbagiri Kunihiro,” the man introduced himself, wiping the sand off his clothes.
He talked low, avoiding eye contact with Tsurumaru and covered as much of his face as he could with the hood of his dirty and torn white cloak.
They heard the creaking of a wooden boat on the river. The empty rowboat had stopped near to the shore, unmoved by the current. Yamanbagiri caught the rope pulled the boat ashore. He went into it and glanced at Tsurumaru.
“You staying, Kami-sama?” he asked, rolling his sleeves up and taking a pair of paddles.
“Oioi, no way! And, uh, Tsurumaru Kuninaga, I’m not a god.”
Tsurumaru climbed into the rowboat. “This yours?”
“No. Got stripped of mine by the Jigoku-no-baba, stranded here,” Yamanbagiri said. Tsurumaru grimaced, thankful his privilege would protect him from such a dilemma.
“Where you headed?”
“Shinto corner. You?”
Yamanbagiri considered if they should stay together or not. The road down to the Sai-no-Kawara had been so full of corrupt spirits, even though the man had the name of a sword, he could be lying. He noticed the Izanagi’s crest on Tsurumaru’s kimono and believed him at once. His grip on the rows tightened, but he started rowing without making a remark.
The Sai-no-Kawara seemed endless, the piles of stones in a row passing by one after another, unchanging. The Sanzu river forked into three directions, and Yamanbagiri took the middle path.
Yamanbagiri had come to know the sword better than he did himself but he hadn’t told him anything about why he had that privilege on him. In the Buddhist belief of the Samsara, one had to endure suffering through hell for purification and join the cycle of reincarnation. Was his endless chatter one of the trials he must pass, Yamanbagiri wondered?
Yamanbagiri tapped him in the back, and Tsurumaru turned around. He made a sign behind him, and there was the opening to a cave. “We’re entering the Yomi,” he said, hoping he’d be able to drop Tsurumaru off as soon as possible.
The further they went, the darker it became. Tsurumaru looked around, searching for a light, a sign there was a way out of the Yomi, and there seemed to be none. Even though he knew it was vast beyond conception, he became claustrophobic. He kept moving his feet, tapping the side of the boat to feel it was still there. He breathed in, opening his mouth to talk –
“Shhh!” something hissed.
Was that sound coming from Yamanbagiri? Tsurumaru reached out and touched what seemed to be the fabric of Yamanbagiri’s cape. He heard him gasp, not knowing if it was because he had suddenly touched him, or if it was even him he was touching.
“How can you see where we’re going?” he whispered.
“Unlike you, the soul of the living, the inki don’t need light,” someone else than Yamanbagiri replied.
Tsurumaru reached for his sword, his belt was empty.
“You dare draw your sword at me?” the man seethed when Yamanbagiri’s blade hissed as he pulled it out of its sheath.
Tsurumaru felt something with rigid prickly fur tickle the back of his neck and heard that “Sssshhhh” again. He slapped his hand against the end of his neck, thinking there was some insect there. That was one humongous spider leg.
“W-what a surprise! T-t-tsuki-bou, you have a light?” Tsurumaru asked, teeth chattering and Yamanbagiri gasped, probably tickled the same way by another furry leg. The boat swayed violently.
“Address me as Izanagi-sama, you big-mouthed heirloom!”
“If you want to objectify me, Tsuki-bou, address me like the piece of fine art I am.”
Yamanbagiri wished he could slap some sense into that reckless crane, but against his expectation, Tsukiyomi didn’t stab anyone.
Candles turned alight over the water. Tiny boats over which lanterns were alight appeared all around them, following the stream. Yamanbagiri was searching in every direction in apparent panic. If there had been a spider over them before, it was hiding somewhere.
“You know him?!”
“Tsuki-bou’s Aruji’s late husband.”
Yamanbagiri groaned between his teeth and the boat swayed violently again.
Tsurumaru shrugged his tantrum off while Yamanbagiri held tight to the boat, feeling sick to the stomach for the first time since he’d been dead.
“How’s Ookurikara?” Yamanbagiri asked.
“Alive,” Tsurumaru said, too surprised to give him an adequate reply. “You know him?”
“W-we were acquainted! S-same master,” Yamanbagiri said, pointing at the water.
Tsurumaru entertained himself looking at the small lantern floats which had assembled around them, lighting their path. One of them passed over Tsukiyomi – a ghastly pale version of him, transparent and dressed in a white funeral kimono, skin on the bones and the bloated, empty stomach of a gaki, a famished spirit.
“Dude, you looked better alive,” Tsurumaru dared. Yamanbagiri was gaping, ready to throw him off the boat.
“I still did, until Rei borrowed my privilege you’re wearing, asshole,” Tsukiyomi scoffed.
The boat suddenly stopped, Tsukiyomi flinched and disappeared deep into the river.
A few lanterns were passing close to the shore; there stood someone with long white hair and held a round object in hand. A fire crackled, the object flew to them.
Tsurumaru jumped into the water. He saw the boat above him blow up. Yamanbagiri was immobile, floating, stretching his hand out, pursued by a few demons. Unlike Tsurumaru, he wasn’t protected by any privilege and couldn’t resist the Sanzu river’s current. Tsurumaru tried to catch him, but their hands passed through another.
As Tsurumaru let himself float to the shore, something packed him on the back of his neck. It pulled him out of the water in one swing and threw him far away from the lanterns. As he fell onto the ground, it tried to sink a sword into his head. He rolled to the side and escaped a second swing of the blade.
He couldn’t take the time to evaluate it and, in the darkness without a sword, his only hope for salvation was getting back to the lanterns, where the thing couldn’t hide. As he ran, he caught his foot into something, and he fell onto his stomach.
He heard two swords clash, a low, infuriated growl coming from the thing which had attacked him. Tsukiyomi grinned, his western-like sword pushing back against the demon’s sword. It seemed to be an ancient ornamental sword, precious stones encrusted in the guard.
It was faster and nimbler than him, but Tsukiyomi was more resistant, and every one of his attacks could have broken the thinner sword. As the duel raged between the two monsters in the darkness, Tsurumaru ran away as fast as he could. He jumped back into the water, hoping to find Yamanbagiri somewhere downstream.
After floating for what felt like an eternity, he concluded he was lost and alone. He crawled up the shore and shivered; it was so silent, dark. It felt like he was stuck in a tomb. The smell of death, of the filth of the underworld, was getting to his throat. It smelled like earth and rotting flesh.
He sat down at the shore and stared at the lanterns. It was a familiar scene, one he saw in his nightmares. This was definitely hell. One stopped in front of him, and it had an inscription; @Nitroplus. Having no idea what it was, he picked it up.
He directed the lantern into the direction he hadn’t tried until then; away from the shore. He glanced behind him. A few steps further and he looked at his feet, bug-eyed and mouth contorted in disgust.
There was a corpse, holed by worms, skin blue, brown and white. The head suddenly turned with a crack, and the moist rotting hag looked at him with hollow orbital cavities, chewed by maggots. It had no tongue, and its teeth lacked pieces of gum.
He screamed. The hag shrieked. His lantern shrieked. He screamed even louder staring at the shrieking lantern. The corpse stood up and reached out for him, the three of them shrieking.
In the midst of their shrieking, the zombie’s stretched-out arms were cut off. Someone packed Tsurumaru from behind, grabbed the lantern and blew the fire out. The corpse fell to the ground and went to sleep again.
Tsurumaru expected to see Higekiri from the arm-cutting, but there was Ookurikara, glowing pink like a kitschy disco-ball in the dark. He had a kimono different from Tsurumaru’s; it was a candy pink, with sparkles and a sparkly sash.
“Is this Ukemochi’s privilege?”
Ookurikara sighed deeply.
“What happened?” Tsurumaru pointed at his sword.
“I don’t remember,” he said, “We’ll forget what happened here when we go back, so it doesn’t matter,” Ookurikara concluded.
“We’re dead, our brain isn’t registering information.”
Ookurikara immediately regretted having given Tsurumaru that information, seeing the grin on his face grow like the consequences of a terrible prank on Tsukiyomi – he’d sacrifice some of his good karma for that.
They saw someone holding a blue lantern walking towards them. From afar, it looked like a glowing European ghost. Ookurikara drew his sword and turned off like a lamp. Tsurumaru heard Ookurikara’s feet slide on the ground and stop.
“Oi, wait! It’s Ya…”
It was too late. He heard two swords clash, a muffled oomph.
None of the two moved, and Tsurumaru cringed from the ominous silence. Maybe one had cut through the other. He needed a light, any light to be sure everyone was okay, no matter if it awakened an underworld hag again.
Silence again. Shuffling. Then, a pained weep, as if one of them had been stabbed in the heart. Tsurumaru heard Yamanbagiri’s cape rustle and Ookurikara’s sword fall to the ground. There was a prolonged silence.
He more sweeping, as if they were crawling on the floor. The Nitroplus lantern was a few feet away from them, its flame extinguished before, suddenly took fire and combusted in what sounded like a young girl’s squeal.
Ookurikara took the blue one and lit his face with it and then Yamanbagiri’s. They both sighed. Yamanbagiri saw Ookurikara’s clothes and squinted at them, Ookurikara blushing.
“We’re going,” Ookurikara said. He stretched out the lantern to Tsurumaru. “Light the path – we’re going upstream. Ukemochi sensed something in someplace Ashihara-I-Don’t-Know-What,” he said.
“Hey, you can shine, we don’t need –”
Tsurumaru couldn’t finish his phrase that the lantern was shoved into his hands and the two men were out of sight. Tsurumaru mumbled curses, going back to the shore, unable to see whatever the two were up to in the obscurity.
“Kara-bou, you making out or something?” Tsurumaru called over his shoulder.
“Thank goodness he’s wearing his privilege, or that would have killed him for good without my help,” Tsukiyomi laughed.
The lanterns approached him like a private fleet. His head was peeking out of the river like a crocodile’s, something below him pushing him up, the dark long-legged shadow almost as large as the river itself. Tsurumaru got goosebumps.
“Whose fault do you think this is?!” Ookurikara growled, pointing at Yamanbagiri, ignored by Tsukiyomi who had brought them another boat.
“The Reiki from before had something personal against you, Tsurumaru,” he said, floating on his back, his yukata making him look like a giant moth soaring behind them.
Tsurumaru tried to remember if one of his pranks had ever gone wrong enough to create a Reiki, a superior malevolent entity of pure hatred above the Oni – he didn’t remember having killed Hasebe with one of his pranks. They floated for some time, following the stream towards the exit of the Yomi. Having heard of Tsukiyomi’s manipulative streak, he dismissed it as a lie.
Ookurikara, on the other hand, was alarmed. Like the devil, Tsukiyomi never lied but didn’t ever say the full truth either. He understood there was indeed something powerful that was after Tsurumaru.
Notes for understanding the places mentioned;
The Takama-ga-hara is the Shinto plain of gods, where the gods of origin like Isanami and Izanagi dwelled before it all became a greek melodrama and everyone started doing stupid stuff in the myths of origin.
The Horai is something of an obscure belief I dug out from Lafcaido Hearn's books about Japanese culture. I couldn't find any clear description of it, except that it's a beautiful and peaceful place.
The Sai-no-Kawara is the Children's Limbo part of the Pure Land sect's beliefs, popular in the Heian Era. People who lost their children were afraid their children would stay stuck in limbo for the "pain" their deaths caused and the negative karma resulting of it. The sect asked for money so they pray the Jizoo Bosatsu to deliver their souls from the torment of piling up stones eternally, beaten up by demons and hags. Yeah, horrible. Those are the little bald stone guys with red aprons you see in most temples in Japan.
The Yomi is the only Shinto underworld. I have no knowledge of a true "Heaven" in the Buddhist or Christian sense for Shinto religion. It seems that like for the greek, 99.9% of the population ends up in the Yomi. The upper worlds are reserved to the gods, unlike in the Buddhist belief, where the karma determines in which strata above or below you'll be sent. Tsukumogami are minor kami given human bodies, so I figured they could go there given special conditions. Just for the story's sake…
EDIT: Karma indeed has a link with in which next life you'll be sent to (there are also several worlds, including that of the gods, humans, hell, animals etc.) in the Buddhist belief but there's a nuance: even Heaven is unperfect.
The "Great Crimson Lotus Hell" or Mahapadma is the deepest of the 8 Buddhist hells of ice, a world in which people are frozen in ice and broken by Oni. Only those who made a major blasphematory action (heresy?) or killed their own parents are sent there. There are also 8 hells of fire, I don't think I'll cover in this story.
EDIT: Heresy is a Christian concept which means to deviate from the set doctrine, not a crime in itself. In Buddhism, you're free to go against your religion's doctrine or leave it. I didn't find a clear reason why certain people end up in the Mahapadma, but one of the worst offenses in Buddhist religion is violence upon others. I read *somewhere* that killing your own parents or benefactors would (surprisingly like the last circle in Dante's inferno which is Catholic) send you there, but there's not really a "worst" place, just different types of torments and hell is a temporary punishment, not an eternal damnation.
Tsukiyomi is an antagonist OC I created in "Memoir of the Incomplete". It's a long story and in a style very different from this one, but I hope I'll be able to bring out his character in the few paragraphs he'll be. Don't mix up with Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto, who is the god of the moon.
Chapter 7: Taboo
Thank you Gorgeousname for doing the proofreading.
Jingushi: Head priest of a major shrine which receives imperial support.
Gonkannushi: Assistant head priest of a shrine.
There are other rank names and titles but I simplified it here by just using those two terms. I guessed that for swords like Tsurumaru who are part of the Imperial collection, if they were in a shrine, it would be one supported by the Emperor.
Pt. 1: Between Hell and Earth
As light pierced through the darkness, Tsurumaru noticed the beast of his worst nightmares was just under their rowboat – a huge spider, or Tsuchigumo, which followed Tsukiyomi like his shadow. The arachnid crawling below gave him such creeps he decided to not look into the water anymore.
On their way, following an energetic trail Ukemochi had picked up and made Tsurumaru sense, Ookurikara explained everything about their mission to Yamanbagiri, and he told them he was looking for the same man. They decided to team up.
“You’re about to enter the Ashihara no Nakatsukuni. In short, back to the living, but as ghosts,” Tsukiyomi said as the light became stronger and they started to see their surroundings.
Tsukiyomi’s ghost emerged from the water and walked onto the shore. Ookurikara and Yamanbagiri observed his every movement, holding the handles of their swords. He followed the rowboat on foot.
“I can’t go there, so you’ll be on your own,” Tsukiyomi said.
“Aren’t you a Yuurei able to haunt the living?” Tsurumaru asked.
Tsukiyomi smiled, and his shoulders slumped as if the accusation had no foundation and any responsibility could slip down them.
“I’m not the one haunting your Citadel, and I don’t have the profile to be a Yuurei.”
Tsurumaru was about to ask him who was haunting the Citadel, when Ookurikara snapped “Haunting the Citadel or not, because of what you once said, Rei’s still refusing refi –”
Ookurikara bit his tongue as the two other Tsukumogami glanced at him quizzically.
Tsukiyomi crossed his scrawny arms, and his purple eyes drifted to the side, debating if he hadn’t already done enough to alleviate a bit of his bad karma. He dived into the water and came back with the cutout of a red lantern’s paper with a written message and the Izanagi crest on it. He handed it to Ookurikara.
Tsurumaru only caught the word “Refinery” because of the rare hiragana lettering as it passed in front of him.
“I don’t want to be held responsible for the consequences of the Saniwa Order’s past war crimes against our kind! They could have told Rei by themselves! I’m dead, what am I supposed to do if Rei refuses to contact me unless I’m deemed useful?!”
Ookurikara seemed to understand what he meant, which annoyed Tsurumaru. He felt like he was always the last one to know about the corrupt history of the Saniwa Order. Ookurikara had been summoned around eighty years ago and been in another Citadel before being in Rei's, but he never talked about it. Tsurumaru thought of Ichigo, and his heart squeezed.
“What do you mean by war crimes against our kind? Aren’t you the criminal here?” Tsurumaru asked.
“Us Regalia,” Tsukiyomi sighed. “The Saniwa Order turned our descendants into slaves to fight their war, misused and abused you for centuries. They even tried to make me, Susanoo’s treasured sword, into their servant.
They gave me a fake life, trapped me in a vessel too weak to support my true power and erased my memories. Rei’s mother revealed everything was fake to me only once she was crippled and felt her time was near. She believed I would forgive them.”
Ookurikara seemed in a daze, staring at the writings on the piece of paper. For long, he had believed Tsukiyomi had killed his master. While he hadn’t ever denied killing her, at least now he knew his motive. Rei hadn’t ever told him any of that, and he wasn’t even sure his master knew. If so, the burden of being aware of it and still protecting Japan must have been terrible.
“Was Rei’s love for you fake?” Yamanbagiri mumbled, his balled fists white from the pressure.
“No, and I hated it,” Tsukiyomi said, remaining stoic.
They were a few meters away from the exit. They drifted further away from Tsukiyomi's soul.
“Tsuru!” he called, “If your world were to suddenly turn upside-down like mine did, I wonder if you’d do any better.”
“There’s no way I’d use my self-pity as an excuse to abuse anyone!” Tsurumaru scoffed.
“Only the mirrors in hell are able to reflect a man’s darkness, so take a good look at yourself when you find it!” Tsukiyomi laughed, and swam back towards the depths of the Yomi.
Tsurumaru disliked him; he wasn’t sure if it was what he had said which unsettled him, or how it echoed in the deepest, murkiest waters of his heart.
“Throw it away – we can’t trust him,” Yamanbagiri whispered as they walked through the Ashihara no Nakatsukuni, followed by Tsurumaru through an endless-looking plain of high reeds.
Tsurumaru rolled his eyeballs and stretched out a hand.
“Give it,” he said.
Ookurikara hesitated. Tsurumaru waved his hand and clicked his fingers impatiently, frowning at him. There was that Refinery word written on it, everything else technical instructions on a procedure he couldn’t understand. It seemed to be very painful and dangerous, for all he could tell.
They stopped walking as they heard something move close to them. The two swords couldn’t see beyond the reeds if anything was on the prowl. While humans and animals posed no threat to them, Youkai were fond of ghosts as a snack. The view was barred by swaying gold and green leaves, rustling with every blow of wind under the cloudy sky. They were close to the trail Ukemochi had detected.
Tsurumaru saw a small patch of reeds slightly bend. He reached for his belt and again, remembered he was unarmed. He clicked his tongue, slapping his hand on his hip. The rustling stopped.
“Ottoto!” Tsurumaru exclaimed, jumping back.
A black bunny scurried past them, something clattering at its neck. Tsurumaru sighed in relief, but Yamanbagiri suddenly started sprinting after it. They tried to follow him, but within a minute, he was out of sight. Ookurikara grumbled between his teeth. He looked behind him and swore; he had lost Tsurumaru.
“Oooi, Kara-bou, Manba?” Tsurumaru called far and wide.
He had somehow found his way out of the reeds and was standing on a grass plain next to it, hoping to see his comrades come out. He called and called, only to hear the bird’s chirps and the wind.
His attention was caught by a kaleidoscope of black and purple butterflies, swarming around something by what seemed to be hundreds. They rose and fell as if they were one breathing mass. Admiring the display, he went closer to see what was attracting them.
They were flying around the black bunny, which hopped from side to side as if fighting with them. The animal was injured, a part of an ear torn as if bitten off by a fox. Tsurumaru passed through the barrier of butterflies picked it up. He shooed the butterflies away, which angrily slapped his face with their delicate wings.
Tsurumaru ran back into the reeds when the insects began to attack his eyes. He jumped to his stomach, the bunny wriggling between his arms, tapping a foot against his side. Once the insects seemed to have gone away, Tsurumaru set the bunny back onto the ground.
It looked at him with round dark-blue eyes, going onto its hind legs to stand upright, setting a paw onto his leg. Tsurumaru didn’t pay attention to its strange behavior; there was something attached to its neck. It looked like a bronze ornament, the size of a pocket mirror. The bunny's eyes had golden crescents.
“Yooooouuu!” a woman roared.
He heard branches crack. The bunny quickly hopped out of his arms. Tsurumaru had the reflex to throw himself back before a blade ripped through the reeds and a strand of his hair. His assailant was so close to him, he saw big icy clear blue eyes glaring at him from behind a white fox mask as her long wild white hair swiped against it. She seemed to be a heavenly fox; a Tenko.
“P-pardon me O-Tenko-sama, I didn’t mean to steal your dinner, wow!”
She slit a Tantou through the air an inch away from his neck. Suddenly, an Uchigatana appeared in her other hand and nearly stabbed into his stomach. She seemed to be ambidextrous in sword fighting.
He couldn’t argue in his defense with a variety of swords soaring that near to his vital organs. The technique was familiar to him, but he couldn’t place who he had trained with who had that aggressive whirling-blade-shifting style.
“Enough!” a man shouted from a location Tsurumaru couldn’t determine.
She ignored him jumped onto Tsurumaru, ready to rip through his neck. His throat was held tight between two muscular thighs, neck crushed from the front.
“Would you harm an unarmed man?!”
Tsurumaru took advantage of a second of hesitation on her side to punch himself free and grab hold of the woman. He gasped for air. She blasted into a thousand butterflies, and one went into his mouth, down his throat.
“You may hide in a bunny, run to the deepest depths of hell, you won’t ever find peace if you don’t listen to me!” her voice cried out of nowhere.
Tsurumaru jumped up and searched all around him, his eyes looking for the crescent moon as if for a part of his own soul. He heard the jingling of the ornament on the bunny’s neck. It was hopping away from him.
“Mikazuki Munechika!” he called.
The jingling stopped as if he was considering if he should reply or not. Tsurumaru tried to approach him, but he kept on hopping away. He had possessed the body of a bunny, maybe to protect himself or be fast enough to flee the woman who was pursuing him.
“W-why are you still running away? Didn’t you call me for help?”
Something tickled from inside of his throat and Tsurumaru started feeling strange. He looked at his hand; it had become transparent.
Ookurikara and Yamanbagiri had found Tsurumaru by hearing him shout. Tsurumaru had tried to tell them something, but he was already transparent, and they couldn’t hear his voice. Within a few seconds, he had disappeared.
The Sanjou sword appeared before them as if he had waited for Tsurumaru to disappear to show himself. While he had put himself into their reach, for a reason they couldn’t understand, Mikazuki refused to cooperate or tell them where Tsurumaru’s soul had gone.
“Why won’t you let us help you?” Yamanbagiri cried. He had found Mikazuki at last, but he was even more cryptic than usual.
“It isn’t your help I need,” Mikazuki said, his hand put on the mirror against his chest.
“Not my problem. My master’s dying and needs the mirror. Hand it, now,” Ookurikara said.
Mikazuki shook his head as a negative reply.
Ookurikara clicked his tongue and drew his sword.
Yamanbagiri stepped between them, ready to retaliate against Ookurikara if he must to protect Mikazuki. He was concerned for the Saniwa, but he wouldn’t fight to obtain the mirror until he’d lost all hope in Mikazuki.
“All Tsukumogami might die and history change if we don’t get it,” Ookurikara growled.
“I’m a stubborn old man,” Mikazuki smiled.
Ookurikara launched against him. Yamanbagiri blocked his attack. Their swords clashed several times, but each swing was hesitant. They screeched as they slipped over another and finally, Ookurikara stepped back head low. He was unable to harm Yamanbagiri, even knowing he was already dead, even knowing all his friends might die.
Already being dead but still standing and fighting as the person he had always been made death feel a bit less dramatic. It was; every life lost was lost for good because reincarnation wasn’t resurrection. The only reason they could return was that their master, a demigod, was still alive and could summon them anew.
Yamanbagiri sheathed his sword, unable to face Ookurikara anymore. He was about to try to convince Mikazuki again when the Sanjou sword flinched. He took the mirror out of his kimono. Ookurikara thought he had decided to give it to them.
Instead, he directed it at them, and a powerful light came shining out of it and struck the two Tsukumogami. They saw bits of Mikazuki's life projected.
“He’s trying to turn into a flower again,” the five-year-old daughter of the Gonkannushi* had said, tugging on Mikazuki’s kimono sleeve.
Mikazuki ran straight to the shrine’s backyard with a shovel in his hand and a knot in his stomach.
He leaned over a fresh mound of earth. A bamboo shoot stood out of the heap, a slow, steady breath whistling out of it. Tsurumaru was sleeping. Hating that breath just for those few seconds, he put a finger into the hole. First, there was no reaction. The bamboo started shaking. Then, it was pounding against his finger.
He pulled it out. The bamboo gasped and coughed. It settled and seemed to desperately search the finger which had left its orifice.
“Muur,” he heard come out of it, meaning more. Mikazuki sighed, too tired to even try to imagine how Tsurumaru had been able to bury himself. At his call, three children with fox masks arrived. They unearthed a dirt-blackened Tsurumaru.
“Did that surprise you? Huh, I definitely surprised you! Gyahahahaha!”
Mikazuki’s master was the Jingushi, the Head of the Saniwa Order and head priest of the Citadel’s shrine. Tsurumaru’s master was the Gonkannushi, the second in rank to the Jingushi, a mellow and well-spoken man who collected ornamental swords and followed the Jingushi like a hyena hoping to pick up the bits the lion left behind.
As ornamental swords, Mikazuki and Tsurumaru weren’t expected to fight but were allowed to. They had other uses, including being displayed during formal events and important meetings. The first time they met, Mikazuki was shocked by his comrade’s attitude, anything but suitable for an ornament.
Tsurumaru yawned every now and then, and his bored expressions changed like a screensaver of ultimate boredom throughout the reunion, not even trying to sit correctly. The Gonkannushi blushed, and the Jingushi scoffed while Mikazuki did his best to keep as stoic as possible.
When the Jingushi asked his colleague to correct his heirloom’s attitude, Tsurumaru looked at him straight in the eye with a smirk. The rebellious attitude Mikazuki couldn’t even dream to have sent as many chills through his spine as it did butterflies in his stomach – at last something surprising in those bland meetings.
“Surprised to see a sword like me in a place like this?” Tsurumaru had asked.
“What surprises me most is that you’re still alive.”
“I think the Jingushi gets his kicks out of my attitude too,” Tsurumaru said with a naughty grin.
From then, during every meeting, Mikazuki would entertain himself by watching Tsurumaru humiliate his master and get away with it. He dreamed of embarrassing Tenjin Oh, the Jingushi, like that without risking his life. The Jingushi never intervened and laughed about it when he was drunk, sometimes even in the face of the Gonkannushi.
The first time Tsurumaru frightened Mikazuki was an evening Mikazuki was sent to the family grave to honor his master’s ancestors in his stead. He was burning incense at the altar when he heard slow dragging steps. He believed he saw a ghost; a few grave rows away, there was a man with his white kimono smeared in blood, large dark drops trickling down his white hair. The incense stick fell from his hand.
Tsurumaru pushed the door of a large mausoleum open and slipped into it. Mikazuki let go of everything and ran to him. Tsurumaru was laying rolled in a ball in the deepest chamber, mumbling something incomprehensible lying over a grave, not seeming to hear Mikazuki calling his name.
The next day, Tsurumaru was acting as usual. He didn’t seem to remember what he had done, or so he responded. Mikazuki was a bit disappointed he didn’t remember Mikazuki had personally carried him home, washed him and held his hand as if he were a child until he fell asleep. It had been the first time he had ever taken care of someone.
Days turned to weeks, weeks to months and a few years passed in the blink of an eye. Tsurumaru and Mikazuki spent their days between the shrine, meetings and occasional sorties on the battlefield. As the Gonkannushi’s daughter grew, she became an apprentice Saniwa at the young age of eight and would play with them on her time off.
One evening, she made a tantrum, screaming, crying and rolling on the floor. Tsurumaru tried to calm her down, but she didn’t want to leave them to go to bed. She latched onto his leg, her face wet and red. He insisted she should go and he’d be in the room next door if she had a nightmare.
“You liar! You never come; you follow his orders like a robot!”
Tsurumaru flinched and seemed to shrink into himself. For the first time, Mikazuki saw him close to tears, rather than unresponsive and dissociated. He kneeled down in front of her and hugged her, repeating everything will be alright.
The next day, Tsurumaru buried himself again.
Mikazuki looked up from the scrap of paper on which he was writing a haiku, observing the long pouring branches of the willow in the center of a castle’s inner court. It was covered in snow, as white as Tsurumaru’s already pale skin had become, their alignment like the barriers of his cell.
“Miiiika-chan!” a young woman called, skipping to him.
She wore the sailor uniform with a short red skirt, and kimono-like top young women were pictured with, in old image books when a difference between male and female apprentices was still made. In Rei's era, that gender identification wasn't as striking anymore.
She kneeled next to him and read the poem aloud;
There stands a Willow
Its frosted branches bending
White, the heavy snow
She hummed, biting the nail of her thumb. She sat back to back with Mikazuki. He smiled as the light frame set against him, seeming comforted by her presence.
“I think it’s a bit too literal. You’re thinking of Tsurumaru, right?”
She lingered a while more, opening and closing her mouth without being able to say something she wanted to say. She seemed conflicted between telling Mikazuki something or not, frowning and puffing her cheeks in his back, while he continued to think what he should write next, unaware of her fidgeting.
“Tenko-chan,” he crooned, took her hand and set a scrap of paper into it. “it may be a bit too literal…” he warned, opening his fan to cover his grin.
She read it and blushed, rolled it into a ball and stuffed it into her Pocket.
“That’s not a poem!” she said, and he laughed.
She took a scrap of paper from the small heap, unceremoniously snapped the brush out of his hand and wrote down something on it and gave it to him.
Mikazuki read it through the poem several times. His smile fell off his lips like the snow off the bending branches.
“How? We can’t… Was it refinery? But, we’ve already done it so many…” His face was as stoic as ever, but the jumbled speech was unlike him.
She put her face between her knees and curled up.
“I don’t know! What should we do, Mika? We can’t just run away! I… Promised to free him…” Tears started running down Tenko’s cheeks.
When Ookurikara and Yamanbagiri came back to their senses, they were lying in the reedbeds. Mikazuki was gone. Yamanbagiri sat up and tried to understand what had just happened to them and the scenes they had witnessed. He jerked up.
“I remembered something…” he mumbled. “Mikazuki forbade me to look into the mirror, because of what it reflects; the darkness of the one holding it. That’s what Tsukiyomi meant before leaving us! That bastard knew, he knows what’s going on!”
Chapter 8: Reaching for the moon
Trigger warning: mentions of child abuse (nothing graphic or explicit) in the last part.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was lunchtime, and the dead were coming back to life.
Ukemochi had seen many things in their career as a Healer; possessed humans, Youkai with dementia, gods having babies with mortals and ending up in lawsuits and many illnesses only supernatural creatures had. Yet, they hadn’t ever seen a dead person come back to life without some external help. All the alarms rang and the pod activated by itself.
The latches of the pod opened, and steam wafted out. Tsurumaru sat up in a stiff swing.
“He’s alive!” Ukemochi shouted in disbelief.
They checked all of his vitals while he was still stunned by his prolonged out of body experience. His brain functions were still a bit slow, but his heartbeat was normal, and his pupils reacted to light.
Then, as if someone had turned the crane switch on, he jumped.
“Oi! Oi! Oi!”
He looked at his hands, rubbed and pinched his face and his arm. He pulled something which itched his chest out of his kimono and set it to his side. It was the red washi paper Tsukiyomi had given to Ookurikara. Ukemochi threw a cleansing charm onto it, picked it up and studied the message.
Tsurumaru was about to ask why he hadn’t forgotten anything of what he had done in the Yomi, but Ukemochi seemed too busy with Tsukiyomi’s message. His throat was still a bit frozen, and he had a craving for hot tea.
Ookurikara was in another pod, dead and wearing a flashy pink kimono which Tsurumaru found suited his skin tone under the light of the living world before he snapped back into the urgency of the situation.
“Haaah?” they exclaimed, once they had read the message over maybe ten times.
“Haaaaaaaaaa!” they screamed.
Ukemochi's hands started shaking as they unfolded it, sticking their bulging eyes against the message written on it.
“Hhhhhah?” Tsurumaru echoed, weakly.
“Heehee!” Ukemochi started dancing.
Tsurumaru believed they had been possessed by the ghost of Michael Jackson because even he knew that guy. Something fluttered inside of his stomach and tickled up his throat. He hiccupped several times until he spat butterflies. The glowing swarm spurt out of his mouth and most of them burst like soap bubbles, others setting all around the laboratory.
“No…” Ukemochi mumbled. “No way!” They said excitedly, taking Tsurumaru’s face into their hands.
Their manic laughter got him into another fit of hiccups. After both their fits calmed down, Ukemochi’s body slumped down and puffed like a pierced birthday balloon.
Someone knocked at the office’s door. “Toraya-sama, are you alright?” Hasebe asked.
“Meh, got two big surprises. How’s Rei?”
“Awake and blue. Literally. I think you should check…”
Ukemochi opened the door, and Hasebe saw Tsurumaru standing in the room, still wearing Tsukiyomi’s kimono, looking fresh and alive but somewhat Dizzy.
“Thank goodness you’re back! Have you found the mirror?” he asked in a strained voice, his hands set on Tsurumaru’s shoulders.
“The legendary Tenko no Oou intervened, no biggie,” Ukemochi said, smile crooked and a few extra white hairs growing out from their scalp. Hasebe’s jaw dropped.
“Aruji’s… Grandmother? Isn’t she dead?”
“Precisely,” Ukemochi said enthusiastically.
Tsurumaru felt a knot shape in his throat. Maybe, because of him, everyone was going to die prematurely and permanently. He was a few steps from getting into contact with Mikazuki, but he had run away. What had he done wrong?
“W-what about him?” Hasebe asked, looking at Ookurikara.
“Can’t bring him back unless he wants to. Something’s keeping him there.”
Tsurumaru snapped and grabbed Ukemochi by the kimono’s collar.
“Why haven’t you warned us that could happen earlier?! What if I had met…” he bit his tongue.
Yes, what if? So, what if? How many people could he have met there?
He thought about Yamanbagiri. Ookurikara was going to have a lot of trouble coming back if he still hadn’t gotten over his death. All of his neurons were connecting anew from having resuscitated, a discharge of memories running before his eyes after his death rather than seconds before.
He remembered what Tsukiyomi had told them about the Saniwa Order. A governmental organization, which would stuff a god into a human body to come to their ends, wouldn’t mind sacrificing all of their Tsukumogami to get that mirror. Maybe they didn’t even plan to leave it to Rei. Questions jumbled in his head as his fists whitened, holding the pink Saniwa by the collar with trembling hands.
Hasebe cut between them.
“Don’t you dare!” He snarled, packing Tsurumaru at his turn.
Tsurumaru broke down into tears. Hasebe let him go, stuttering apologies, unused to intimidate him. He was crying his lungs out, as powerless as a mouse in a den of snakes. His master was hiding things from him, and he might lose all of his friends.
“I-I-I’m so sorry!”
He bowed down low and ran out of the office, weeping.
Ukemochi rolled their head back and groaned “There’s a heartbroken undead teenage mother inside of him!”
Hasebe didn’t seem surprised.
Rei and Ukemochi were together in the guest bedroom, Rei set upright in a hospital bed pinching the bridge of one’s nose, Ukemochi fanning themselves with a paper fan sitting on a stool next to the Saniwa’s bed. A tiny bit of Rei’s face cracked, and some of the wound’s dust fell onto the bed. There was a zapping sound, and they both flinched but didn’t find the source of the noise.
“Honestly, I’m not sure about this,” Ukemochi said, fanning themselves stronger. “That’s a big army to take over. I understand you don’t want them to break if you die but –”
“I won’t let anybody else than you touch my boys or my Citadel,” the Saniwa said. “Not like I could have legitimate children with Higekiri, now, could I?”
“I wish you could… Dude, don’t distract me!”
“I have Azuki Nagamitsu, and he’s a very good boy.”
Another piece of Rei fell onto the bed. Something zapped again, and there was a small lightning bolt.
“Oh well, you got me there… Deal! Now, where the heck are those cartoon noises coming from?”
Tsurumaru was seated on the veranda, empty that afternoon. He held his forehead against his knees, eyes closed, trying to relax. Something bumped into his foot. It was some small rodent, green and black, the shape of a mochi and was trying to crawl up his leg.
Tsurumaru picked it up, and it started wriggling in his hand. It had Hizamaru’s face.
Tsurumaru threw it away from him. It rolled onto its back, flipped over and galloped away. Seconds later, Hizamaru came running. Tsurumaru was aghast, staring into the direction of the bush the thing had jumped into.
“Is it… There?” Hizamaru whispered, pointing a finger in the direction it had gone.
Tsurumaru nodded. On all fours, Hizamaru crawled to the bush. Like a snake, he crept to his hamster-sized double between the tree stems. His shadow loomed over the tiny round butt with the tiny black pants.
“Nii?” It squeaked.
Hizamaru plunged onto it and missed it. The thing jumped high over his head. It bounced against his own tight butt and scurried away. They heard a thump and a gasp.
“C-careful little guy, you might hurt yourself!”
Hizamaru jumped up, face and chest covered in mud and ran to Shizukagata, who held his mini-me in his hand, eyes sparkling and blushing in glee at his strange yet adorable Discovery.
“Hiih!” Shizukagata gasped when Hizamaru’s dirt-smeared face popped up below him, panting and scowling because he had been running over an hour after the little shit.
Hizamaru looked like a furious lemming from Shizukagata’s high-perched perspective.
“What a surprise, I haven’t seen a Mochi in years!” Tsurumaru said, studying the now purring creature, taking it from Shizuka’s hands.
It wriggled, hissed chaah and tried biting his hand, but it didn’t have teeth. If anything, it was sucking his finger, which felt very odd. How could that thing survive in the wild? It needed to be protected.
“You know what this is?! Oh please, tell me what it is! I don’t dare ask Aruji.”
Tsurumaru held back a shark’s toothy smirk. How innocent and sweet, innocent and naïve that boy was, just a bit like Hasebe. Hizamaru took the creature back into his hands and seemed conflicted between rubbing its belly smiling like an idiot, crying, or killing and burying it somewhere nobody would ever find it.
“The Mochi is the embodiment of a Tsukumogami’s sexual frustration. It’s saying – Anija, anija,” Tsurumaru replied, taking its squeaky voice and wriggling his eyebrows.
Hizamaru blushed to the ears.
“I guess I could call you twins, so that kind of brother complex is… hum… Frequent?” Tsurumaru mumbled, acting concerned.
It was too late to back down now, he thought.
“Piiiihiiiiii! AaaNiiiShaaA!” it wailed, tears spurting like fountains out of his eyes.
Did it understand him, or was it connected to the big one? Nobody knew.
“I’m not frustrateeeheeed!” Hizamaru cried, both the big and the tiny versions of the same person wailing.
Now Tsurumaru and Shizukagata knew the two were connected and that Tsurumaru had probably hit a sensitive spot. If it weren't the case, Hizamaru could have just shrugged it off and called Tsurumaru an idiot.
“Better have a good long talk with your big bro,” Tsurumaru advised, tapping his back sympathetically.
Maybe he did go a bit too far this time… Hizamaru ran away with the creature in his hand, dabbing a handkerchief on the creature’s tiny teary face.
“That was so mean!” Shizukagata said, “Do you even know what they are?”
“No, but I want one. Those things are so cute with their widdle stubby fweet!”
Shizukagata sat next to him and studied his face, trying to find signs of death on it. He wasn’t rotting in any place, but he was a bit paler than usual. Tsurumaru blinked at him until Shizukagata realized he must be staring at him awkwardly and turned his head away.
“Something’s been bugging me… Does anyone alive know how Mikazuki broke?” Tsurumaru asked.
Shizukagata shook his head.
“We have only the Jingushi’s journal as records from his former Citadel… Everything else is rumors. The diary only makes mention of Mikazuki as Tenko no Oou’s attendant.”
“Him, an attendant?!”
Hizamaru rang at the door of Ukemochi’s house. Hasebe opened to him and stuttered when he saw his tear-drenched face and rubbed his eyes when he saw the mochi Hizamaru in Hizamaru’s hand. The surprises just wouldn’t stop that day it seemed, so he let go on questioning him.
Ukemochi was seated working on a sofa in the living room, reading documents, piles of paper all around the room in organized chaos. There was a red washi paper next to the computer, and it was set on a medical databank. Ukemochi saw the little critter in Hizamaru’s hands. They sighed, waving a hand into the direction of Rei’s room. That thing was just extra work for them.
“Don’t get a heart attack when you see Rei. I’ll need you dead later,” they mumbled, returning to the computer and picking up the message before studying the screen, proofreading the technical content of the text message.
Hizamaru got into the room, and his jaw dropped when he saw Rei; the Saniwa’s skin was entirely blue. He had the impression that he was dealing with a human-sized Smurf.
“A-A-Aruji…” he completely forgot why he had come, until the Mochi squeaked in glee.
Rei tilted the head to the side, before setting a hand against the forehead. The Mochi wiggled out of his hand and bounced towards the pillows in Rei’s back and started digging there as if it had picked up a scent.
The sheets rustled. Something came out from below the pillow; a Mochi Higekiri and it was five times longer than Hizamaru's. Rei slightly jumped, seeing it for the first time. The two Mochi stared at each other and blushed. Hizamaru held back screaming, afraid his master might crack and crumble like a sand castle, but couldn’t stop himself from pointing at them with a trembling hand, letting out a low-pitched moan.
“Aniiiishaaa!” Hizamochi squeaked.
“Otoootoooo!” Higemochi mewled.
Rei squinted at the super-long Higekiri, resisting an urge to grab it.
Hizamaru, remembering what Tsurumaru had said, started sobbing again. Rei pinched oneself’s cheek and then focused on Hizamaru. Rei was used to comfort the big manbaby he was and knew that sometimes he exaggerated, just to have some extra attention. This time, he seemed severely distressed.
“Izanagi-san, I must confess something terrible!” he said, taking his master’s blue hands into his own.
They were icy cold, so he rubbed them, imagining it might not have much effect. Rei tried hard to focus on what he was saying, rather than on the cold. He was talking to Rei as a family member, not as his master, which was a warning he was about to say something intimate.
“I-I-I have a huge brother-complex!” he cried.
There was the sound of someone, probably Hasebe, choking on his own spit in the living-room. Ukemochi lifted the eyebrows and the tea mug to the face. The Hizamochi crawled onto long-Higemochi's back, the real Hizamaru unable to hold back screaming in horror this time.
“Keep it down!” Hasebe barked, even louder than him.
“I’m so sorry my sexual frustration took this shape,” he whispered close to Rei’s ear, with a loud snort, his nose snotty.
Rei reeled, unsure if this was all just some kind of weird nightmare.
“What? What did I do?!” Rei quipped, feeling attacked.
Hizamaru explained what Tsurumaru had told him. The Saniwa face-palmed and got into a fit of giggles. He blushed, realizing he had been pranked by the crane, feeling new tears welling up in his eyes while long-Anija had curled-up on the Saniwa’s lap with mochi-Otouto in his center.
He stuttered and spat when Rei suddenly hugged him laughing, calling him cute and ruffling his hair. He didn’t mind his master's body against his felt like an ice block. Rei explained what those creatures really were. It didn’t reassure him at all. He pushed Rei’s Yukata’s sleeve up to check the arm.
“You’re going to fall apart if you don’t do Refinery now,” he insisted, softly running a finger on a long crack in the skin.
The Saniwa smiled at him a smile that made the knot in his throat tighter. He’d do anything to make his master feel better, but he couldn’t do as much or the same as his brother.
“By the way!” Ukemochi opened the door in one strong swing.
Hizamaru, realizing he had started nestling against the Saniwa, nearly jumped through the roof. He liked being petted and being called a good boy so much, he’d sometimes wind up around the subject of his affection and almost choke that person, his instincts those of a starving snake expected to cuddle with a mouse.
“Refining might not help you much, but this is how you could do it without risking a leak.”
They gave Rei the paper cutout from the underworld’s lantern Tsukiyomi had given Ookurikara. The Saniwa squinted at it and needed a small time of reflection. Toraya Ukemochi, the renowned Healer, had approved of his message, so it must have been correct.
Hizamaru’s gaze was heavy, coaxing Rei into accepting. While Higekiri was the type to try and comfort Rei by acting cheerful and lighthearted, Hizamaru was straightforward, severe and a bit impulsive.
“In my current state, I’m afraid it might be too painful for a first-timer.”
Higekiri was eating dango and drinking green tea with Oodenta, unaware a sausage version of him was giving a mochi-Hizamaru a piggyback ride. Hizamaru hated to argue with his brother, but this time, he’d throw him into the Refinery room if he had to.
Tsurumaru stood on the long red bridge to Ukemochi’s residence. It was dinner time, and all the Tsukumogami were in the Citadel’s mess hall, but he didn’t have any appetite. He had gone into the laboratory without Ukemochi’s permission and looked at Ookurikara’s corpse still frozen and in his ridiculous sparkly disco-getup, giggling at first before bursting into tears.
The sun had already set, and the night was without stars, as dark as night he had seen ghosts in that run-down phantom prison. He sat down, closed his eyes thinking it would be for just a minute but as soon as he had started relaxing a bit, he heard a piece of nightingale flooring creak, and something thumped nearby.
He saw the silhouette of someone jump over Ukemochi’s residence’s wall and disappear into the small side-streets of the town. Tsurumaru ran after him. He surprised the man creeping down a tight alley in a deserted area.
He was dressed in black from head to toe, cornered between two walls at a dead-end. His face was wrapped in a cloth, and he held his head low, crouching and hiding his sword behind his back. Tsurumaru took a few steps into his direction, but he suddenly pushed himself with the strength of his legs from one wall to the other, over them onto an adjacent roof.
He ran so fast, he was hard to follow. Speeding at a corner, Tsurumaru crashed into Hasebe. A lantern flew into the air and rolled on the ground, light extinguishing.
“What are you doing?!” Hasebe seethed, both men spread on the ground.
“Ninja! Have you seen the ninja?!” Tsurumaru asked, panting.
“Anija… I mean a ninja? Are you kidding me?!” Hasebe spouted.
He took Tsurumaru by the back of the collar and pulled him out of the street.
“Oi, oi! Ow! And what are you doing here at such a time?! Aren’t you having dinner?” Tsurumaru asked, unable to free himself from the iron grip of the Oda sword.
“Aruji’s state worsened and required an emergency transfer into a specialized medical unit.”
Tsurumaru flinched. Hasebe glanced over Tsurumaru’s shoulder and saw the black silhouette nod at him and slip through an open window. If only Tsukiyomi hadn’t accused Rei of eloping with Higekiri before dying, having them alone together in a refinery room wouldn’t have been such a hassle.
A hand ran through Higekiri’s hair, his eyes closed to revel in each soft, loving stroke. The black costume had been left locked in the storage of the refinery room, where it would not take fire. His lover’s frame was breakable between his arms, nothing like the athletic body he had last felt over a year ago.
They couldn’t show any affection in public, couldn’t receive anyone’s blessing, couldn’t marry, couldn’t have children and had only little privacy. Living under the same roof would start the flame anew for a few months, then the weight of all those impossibilities became crushing. Their love was a tide, rising with the moon, receding with the sun.
Rei was scalding hot, and each touch would make Higekiri glow. Higekiri hummed as Rei scratched him behind an ear. He stretched into the contact and wound a leg around Rei’s. The material composing his artificial human body slowly trickled into the crevices, filling and mending them with iron and magic. He ran a hand along Rei’s chipped shoulder, and it glowed as red as his hand.
“Why did… Mmmh…” he started, unable to think straight, brain a melting mess.
The first time he did it, more than a decade ago, had been beyond any description of pleasure or pain. The refinery room was barely able to avoid the Citadel’s destruction because they were passionate and crazy enough to have sex while refining – the heat had caused a nuclear explosion in the refining room.
“Can you bear it some more?”
Rei set an ice-cube into his mouth. It immediately evaporated in a hiss. He took the hand, placed it against his cheek and smiled. He held tight to Rei, feeling all of Rei’s affection flow into him through the soft strokes on his head.
Tsukumogami were connected to their masters in more ways than most Saniwas knew or had experienced. That night, the air was heavy with the longing for something unattainable. The cricket’s chirp, faraway laughter, the bells of sheep or the distant honking of a car, would either draw them deeper into the contemplation of that melancholy or back to earth, far from the cloud-veiled moon. Maybe because death was near, that sensation struck them harder than it ever had.
Hasebe and Hizamaru ate Udon noodles together and gossiped like two grumpy old women. Hizamaru was relieved to have a friend who he could confide in as the brother of the Saniwa’s lover. Hasebe was happy that there was a man he didn’t have to lie to or act dumb with to cover for them. Together, they weren’t affected much by the longing the air carried.
Ookurikara was still laying in the cryogenic pod in the laboratory, Ukemochi close to him, tracking his spirit by communicating with the gods through transcendental meditation. He seemed lonely in his ice grave but his soul was with someone he loved, and even on the other side, he might have been able to feel that weight.
Tsurumaru was deep asleep in his room. He had gone earlier than anyone, feeling crushed by the exhaustion which had followed him since he had come back to life. There was a moment before falling asleep he wondered if he wasn’t sick, what illness could make his body so heavy. He didn’t know he wasn’t alone, purple butterflies waiting for the right time to fly, the insect’s spores carrying dreams and memories.
“He’s hurting her,” Tsurumaru said, face pressed against Mikazuki’s chest.
Tsukumogami weren’t taught anything about romantic love, but since Mikazuki seemed to understand what it was, he had convinced Tsurumaru they were in love. Sex was one thing they all knew about and did like any other animal, but the concept of love was something most of them were either denied or didn’t recognize the existence of.
Mikazuki was an oddball, and so was the young lady he tended to. She had stuffed all of her teenage hopes and dreams into his head. She made him stupid, Tenjin’s top fighter sword would say, laughing at him. He, who always was on the battlefield, saw ornamental swords as a bunch of eccentric noblemen who had time to be idle and act like a bunch of monkeys mimicking humans.
Tsurumaru had thought the same at the beginning, laughed at Mikazuki’s awkward attempts at acting like a human being to make his master happy. An attendant’s top priority was to satisfy his master, so he first thought Mikazuki was only passionate about his duty and the privileges it brought him.
Lovestruck him like a bullet with only one gesture that night. He became a dimwit, a birdbrain, jelly in Mikazuki’s arms, for reasons different than before he had acknowledged those feelings.
“Anaya… I thought so,” Mikazuki sighed, a chin on Tsurumaru’s head.
His hair was as light and soft a feather down. He set a noisy tremulous smooch on the top of Tsurumaru’s head.
“Oiii. I told you I get prickly all over when you do that!” Tsurumaru said, his head shrinking into his shoulders. Mikazuki grinned.
“I… Well, uh, I’m there, hear everything, and can’t do anything…” he tried expressing in a strangled voice.
Mikazuki hummed, finding it painful to visualize. He'd linger on the warmth of Tsurumaru’s body against his, but Tenko had also told him empathy. His heart squeezed for both Tsurumaru and the Gonkannushi’s daughter.
“… you bury yourself the next day because you’re dying of shame and guilt,” Mikazuki concluded.
Tsurumaru nodded in silence. Mikazuki took his hand like Tenko had to make him feel better. It seemed to work on Tsurumaru, who squeezed back. Mikazuki expected a deflective joke, not a sincere, raw emotion, just from holding a hand. Nobody had ever held Tsurumaru’s hand like that.
“That monster… Huh… I could kill that monster…”
Tsurumaru hissed between sobs. That warm hand holding his seemed able to squeeze out the anguish he had contained, sealed deep inside himself for years. He couldn’t hold back anymore and leaned against Mikazuki, who cradled him and slowly rocked him like a small child.
How could he have believed Tsurumaru was free, that he could go beyond the bind linking them to their master’s orders? That master allowed him to act rebellious to clear his own mind, to have someone who acted as if he were able to oppose him, like a tyrannical king and his jester. He only served his master’s twisted, perverted logic, as if being humiliated every now and then by his sword would be the rightful payback for what he did to his daughter.
“I’ll… Kill him…”
A few days later, Tsurumaru murdered the Gonkannushi. When he heard Tsurumaru was imprisoned, Mikazuki’s first reaction was to look at his hand.
I wrote the final part thinking of a friend I promised MikaTsuru fluff.
In the end, it served the plot perfectly rather than was pure fanservice and it turned into hurt/comfort.
I'm crazy about MochiMochi Mascots. I could have set their appearance in hell for comedy effect but they were a good excuse for extra cuddles.
Chapter 9: Karma's a bitch with eight legs
“Please, Aruji, take at least some of the ice-cream!” Hasebe insisted.
He had poured all of his heart into making a display-worthy delicious watermelon parfait, not knowing what he could do more to help his master. Ukemochi told him that in normal times, what a Saniwa needed during and after refinery was a lot of ice, cold food and a cold room to not overheat and have feverish symptoms.
Refinery didn’t help more than to mend the cracks but the symptoms of the unknown illness remained. Rei and Higekiri were trembling, sharing the same body and condition. They stared blankly at the ice-cream through the same eyes.
“I’d… Miss it for nothing in the world, but… It’s so cold…” Rei replied, jaw chattering.
While the temperature close to them was burning, whatever was freezing them became worse every hour. It didn’t make sense to Ukemochi either. First the cracks and the pain, then a growing sensation of cold without any fever or virus.
“Should I make some Udon then? You need to take some strength…”
They smiled at him. “I’m afraid I can’t eat anything now but I love your Udon,” Rei said.
Rei had never told him that before, only shown his efforts were appreciated by never leaving a crumb in the plate whenever he cooked. A glint of Higekiri’s jealousy passed through Rei’s blue eyes; He couldn’t do as much as a bowl of soup and remembered the only time he tried and almost poisoned his master.
It was as if Rei were playing a traditional Japanese comedic sketch, passing from one character to the other with a tilt of the head, the two of them bickering while in the same body. All that was missing was the bowl, the handkerchief, and the chopsticks to make their conversation into the only Rakugo act which would make Hasebe feel like crying.
“Don’t say silly things,” Hasebe grunted, blushing.
The door opened and Ukemochi peeked in. They bowed, excusing their intrusion and asked Hasebe to follow them. They brought him to the garden and sat on the edge of the veranda as if they had time to take a break.
“If there’s no emergency, I’d rather stay on Aruji’s side,” he said.
“Shut up. You need some air.”
Hasebe was the type to forget if it was sunny or raining outside and what day of the week it was when he was working. His neck was stiff, and he only realized it once he wasn’t concentrated on Rei anymore. He groaned and stretched out.
“I need some air too. Tsukiyomi’s making trouble…”
Hasebe hadn’t ever met Tsukiyomi. The day he arrived at the Citadel, the Saniwa was swimming in piles of documents, in a horrible mess of bills for reconstruction, unfinished administrative work, reports without dates and was splayed out half-asleep against the office desk.
“From… From what Aruji told me about Tsukiyomi, I think I could handle him,” he said, sitting next to them.
They weren’t wearing an Ofuda either, bags and dark circles under the eyes, red from too much caffeine and time staring at a screen.
“Sure? I don’t have an extra privilege to protect you from the effects of hell… Do you need Rei’s?”
Hasebe seemed shocked by that idea.
“What kind of soldier would I be if I took my general’s armor?”
“You might never be able to come back if you go on your own without one.”
Hasebe shrugged and crossed his arms, remaining stoic. Ukemochi giggled, blushed slightly and patted his back. They told him about the unexpected return of Ookurikara and another soul into the Yomi and why they thought Tsukiyomi might be involved and gave him a few recommendations.
He agreed on spending a moment more with them, chatting about this and that until he had relaxed enough, before following them to the laboratory, where another cryogenic pod awaited him. His soul left as if in a hurry, charging to the battlefield with a white flag.
“Arujii?” Shizukagata peeked in. Ukemochi were holding their cheeks and giggling like a woman with a crush on a brave samurai.
A blade darted close to Tsukiyomi’s throat. It wouldn’t have been the first time he had been stabbed, and the sensation of Hizamaru’s blade going through his legs had stuck to him even after death, and he never wanted to feel that ever again. He held his own sword down, head cocked to the side as if he were a delinquent about to break a baseball bat on someone’s head.
“For the last time, where’s Mikazuki?” Ookurikara hissed between his teeth.
Tsukiyomi blocked Yamanbagiri’s attack with a lightning-fast jerk of his blade. Even as a starving ghost, he still was able to hold both of them off with a moderate amount of effort. He analyzed his surroundings each second that he had free. His gigantic spider familiar was hanging somewhere in the darkness, so close they could hear its uncanny cluck, but it didn’t seem in a hurry to protect its master.
“What do you mean?” Tsukiyomi said in between huffs.
“You knew about the mirror’s power!” Yamanbagiri barked.
Yamanbagiri was at his nerve’s end, ready to kill that man ten times over, send him to the Aviici to be baked in an oven for an eternity. Wasn’t he satisfied, even dead, knowing Rei was suffering hell and about to die? Destroying the Saniwa Order was one of his primary goals alive. Did he see a way to get his revenge on humanity and Rei by breaking the mirror?
“Yes, Yata-no-Kagami is my sibling and I know her powers, so what?” His tone was so calm and icy it irked them only more.
He spoke almost in a drawl as if he were holding back an unbearable pressure in the bottom of his stomach. Were it to blow out, he'd be able to destroy the Yomi itself.
With the two men launched against him, his scrawny arms and legs tired quickly. Ookurikara cut one of his arms, and he fell to the ground. He stared at it as if he couldn’t believe what Ookurikara had done and the shock had taken away all the pain. Turning onto his back, two swords were hovering close to his neck and stomach. He giggled madly.
Ookurikara knew that reaction; first, he’d laugh, then he would seem to calm down, then he’d snap. He was ready for it, waited, but it didn’t come. Tsukiyomi didn’t calm down, kept fidgeting and laughing like a madman. He could feel the electricity in the air rising the hair in the back of his neck, but Tsukiyomi seemed too hungry to fight back more.
“My soul was cleansed of evil. I’ve passed my trials, and I offered Rei my help, and this is what I get? Are you roughing me up because you don't have any better lead?”
Tsukiyomi sounded honest, and his tone was still as soft as if trying to calm down a frightened dog. He wasn’t trying to negotiate his way out and braced as if he was sure they were going to make him suffer, no matter what he said, as if they were savages. He was responsible for Yamanbagiri’s death and a lot of grief on Ookurikara’s side, they hated his guts, so why wouldn’t they take advantage of the situation to torture him?
Ookurikara lowered his blade and Yamanbagiri took a step back.
“Please, help us,” Ookurikara said, unable to find words he’d believe more effective with Tsukiyomi. Would that man ever listen?
Tsukiyomi bugged for a few seconds, staring blankly at them and let his head drop to the ground and got into an even stronger fit of laughter.
“Kuri-chan, you’re so cute!” Tsukiyomi said, wiping the tears of laughter off his cheeks.
Ookurikara’s blade stuck into the ground next to his face, and he slightly flinched. He rolled his eyeballs and seemed to search in his memory of a time he would have met Mikazuki. He sat up, dusted off his clothes, taking his time, appearing unaffected he was still missing an arm.
“Let’s go ask around if anyone saw the bloke. My eyes aren't everywhere!”
In the middle of the night, the Saniwa woke up to the sound of rattling in the room. Someone was sitting next to the futon, energy negative, unmoving and not breathing. A chill went up Rei’s spine as the shadow leaned down and got close.
“Izanagi Rei,” a woman said.
Something clattered as if she was wearing a heavy belt with a sword hanging on it. The Saniwa tried to move but was unable to, held down by crushing magic power. Rei's heart started racing, and Rei found it impossible to breathe.
She shifted next to the Saniwa and set ice-cold hand onto the back of the Saniwa’s burning hot neck. Her fingers were bones, the woman in the room, dead. Rei opened the mouth to scream, but no sound would come out.
Higekiri tried to calm Rei down. Being stuck in a lying position in the darkness was one of the rare things that triggered Rei. Maybe that woman didn’t know it, perhaps she was doing it on purpose.
Ghastly blue eyes glowed in the dark. “Shh! I just have a few words to say.” The ghost released the back of Rei’s neck. “Keep Tsurumaru away from Mikazuki, or your Citadel will burn down like my father’s.”
Tsukiyomi was standing on top of his giant spider, seven legs cut off, Ookurikara questioning the head while Yamanbagiri kept an eye on its twitching legs. It didn’t seem able to talk, just cluck, shriek, bite and hiss.
“Are you sure it can talk?” Yamanbagiri asked Tsukiyomi, as Ookurikara hadn’t succeeded to get a word out of it.
Tsukiyomi stuck a sword into its abdomen to help himself sit down.
“Aïeeeee!” It shrieked.
“You see my boy when you want to, you can,” he said in a mellow tone, tapping the spider’s furry black abdomen.
What seemed to be a tear rolled down one of the spider’s eight red eyes, but it could have been condensation, so none of the three swords paid attention to it.
“Are you sure you’ve been cleansed of your evil?” Yamanbagiri mumbled.
“I’ve been cleansed of this evil,” he said, pointing down to the creature with a wide grin. “I thought asking myself first would be the best lead, but as you can’t see, I’m not very cooperative.”
“You’re still fucking with us!” Ookurikara fumed.
“I’m the sword of the Shinto version of the devil and you cut my arm. What the hell do you expect from me?” he scoffed.
Ookurikara drew his sword again. Tsukiyomi clicked his tongue and decided to take his privilege back. It was time to show them the hell he had been through to even consider helping that ungrateful ex of his.
He was about to call upon his full power when his spider reacted to a man standing beneath them all. He was offering the spider a handkerchief. Tsukiyomi squinted at the eccentric. The Tsuchigumo took it with a regrown leg and sneezed into it.
“Izanagi-sama, with all due respect, I think you should stop torturing yourself,” Hasebe said.
Ookurikara and Yamanbagiri were staring at him, mute and bewildered. Tsukiyomi cocked his head to the side in disbelief.
“Should I call you Madam or Sir?” he asked the spider.
It opened a large razor-sharp toothy mouth, the sound coming out of it an otherworldly spine-chilling shriek.
“This idiotic thing is Tsuchi-kun,” Tsukiyomi said. "It's a male."
The two swords glanced at each other. Hasebe was talking to Tsukiyomi as if to approach a child and it seemed to work.
“Now, General, I understand you’re angry at my two comrades for attacking you but why did you harm Tsuchi-kun rather than them?”
Tsukiyomi seemed to be seriously thinking through the question and sat down again as if struck by a realization.
“To… Not kill them, because they got me really angry?”
Hasebe put his hands onto his hips and scowled at the two men.
“What the fuck did you think you are doing you morons?! What’s going through your birdbrains to attack a kami-sama who has gone through so much trouble to help us? Do you know what it even feels like to be a Gaki?! Come down here!”
They followed his orders, noticing Tsukiyomi’s attitude had shifted. Hasebe first punched Ookurikara, then Yamanbagiri when he let out a sound of protest. Both of them didn’t understand what was happening, but strikes fell down like a waterfall on them. They were moaning lying on the ground by the end of the hailstorm.
Tsukiyomi watched from the top of his spider’s abdomen. Hasebe’s face was red, and he was panting, both his fists bruised once he was done. He went onto all fours on the ground, his face almost touching the filth of the Yomi. He shouted a heartfelt apology, taking responsibility for everything that had happened.
Tsukiyomi whistled. This was the first time someone thought like him and seemed to appreciate his efforts. There was no accusation and that Tsukumogami had no resentment against him because they had never met before. Hasebe believed his intentions were good and insisted on it. Not even Rei had acted so trustingly.
“We won’t be bothering you much longer, but would you allow me to ask Tsuchi-kun a question if it’s able to talk?”
He nodded and ordered the beast to reply. Ookurikara couldn’t help but feel annoyed he hadn’t done the same for them, but it wasn’t surprising in the end; they had acted like beasts and were both ashamed they let their emotions and resentment take over their reasoning.
“Tsuchi-kun, might Izanagi-sama have forgotten to tell us something significant about you?”
Tsukiyomi flinched, but as he had already given his permission. Ukemochi had told Hasebe that, like the devil, Tsukiyomi kept his word no matter what.
“Yes…” it sighed. “I’m the one enduring hell right now, not him…”
Tsukiyomi opened his mouth, face red with anger but unable to protest. Hasebe played dumb a bit more, acting incredulous.
“Oh my… What’s it like?”
“I endure myself and am treated like an animal by myself, the same way I treated you when I was alive, hating my appearance like I made Rei feel by rape and regular humiliation. I got a taste of my own medicine.”
“Enough of the bullshit!” Tsukiyomi shouted. “I did my duty as a husband, forced to have children with my own cousin, to fit in a society that didn’t give a shit for us! Do you think Rei was being raped? It felt like shit doing refinery because that’s the only way we could get any children with that incomplete body! And the sex? I stopped satisfying my urges with prostitutes because Rei asked me to!
And don’t make me laugh; treated my swords like insects? They are objects, things! Of course, useless objects are a loss of space and resources, but Rei clung onto them as if they were that one’s own children! And then, all the thanks I get for my tolerance is Rei cheating on me! It broke my heart!”
Hasebe let the storm pass, nodding as Tsukiyomi went on. The air around them was buzzing with killing intent, Ookurikara, and Yamanbagiri barely able to lift their heads to see what was happening, crushed by the power flowing out of Tsukiyomi. By the end of his tantrum, he was panting, and his sword was glowing.
“It must have been horrible,” Hasebe said.
Tsukiyomi froze, his eyes wide, seconds from unleashing hell onto them.
“D-did Rei tell you to act empathically to get my sympathy?!”
Hasebe didn’t bat an eyelid, as composed as Tsukiyomi had been up to then.
“Aruji doesn’t know I’m here. I wanted to meet my master's husband, to make my own idea of you. To Aruji, you were a complex and conflicted human being, not a monster.”
That was the killing blow to Tsukiyomi, who seemed to crumble. Within seconds, he vanished. The spider was clucking, and they realized it was sobbing, holding four partially cut legs in front of its face, as if ashamed of itself.
Hasebe approached it a bit more, kneeled at its eye’s height.
“There, there, Izanagi-sama, calm down. I believe you’ve recognized your faults, and it’s distressing to continue facing your past self, but that means it will be over soon. We really need your help and can’t do much without a bit more of it. Would you please tell us if that evil Tsukiyomi gave Mikazuki any bad advice?”
The spider seemed to regain its composure, sneezing into the handkerchief again. Ookurikara managed to sit and couldn’t help but squint at what he saw. That pitiful thing was nothing like he remembered Tsukiyomi to be. He helped Yamanbagiri sit.
“Yes… He told Mikazuki that the ice of the Great Crimson Lotus Hell is powerful enough to hold the mirror together. It’s true, but he didn’t say that Rei would feel the cold of every hell goes through if the body is indeed linked to the mirror.
Please, go there, fast and save Rei. Ookurikara, Yamanbagiri, I don’t think apologies would be enough,” he said.
They weren’t able to give an immediate answer, but hearing him apologize took a weight off their shoulders.
Hasebe bowed down low and thanked the real Kusanagi profusely. He told them the fastest way to the hells of ice, and they left for it, Ookurikara and Yamanbagiri’s bruises quickly disappearing. As they hurried to the exit of the Yomi, Ookurikara couldn’t hold back asking;
“What the hell was that about?”
Hasebe couldn’t hold back a satisfied grin. “Karma and narcissism.”
Tsurumaru snapped back to consciousness. He blinked several times, trying to understand where he was and why. The Saniwa was seated in front of him, with the Ofuda covering the face as if they had been in the middle of a conversation.
“Oi… Where am I?”
“In my room. Can’t you remember?” The Saniwa said in a husky voice, caressing his cheek with the back of the hand.
He flinched and slipped back. That hand was so hot it almost bit.
“Ariya? Look, you laid this.”
A small white creature crawled up Tsurumaru’s leg.
“Uuuurrryyyy!” Tsurumaru’s mochi howled. Tsurumaru gasped.
“You bad, bad boy!”
Tsurumaru hiccupped, and a big purple butterfly came out of his mouth. The Saniwa pulled an Ofuda out and slapped it onto the giant insect. It disappeared, and the paper fell to the floor.
“Sike!” the Saniwa laughed.
Tsurumaru opened and closed his mouth without being able to say a word. The manner his master moved was languid, and the energy was different. Rei spoke in a slightly effeminate language, much more articulate than usual. He was used to someone stiff, who always sat in seiza. It was as if the Saniwa weren’t even the one in the room with him.
The Saniwa took his mochi. It was laughing, pointing a tiny finger at him. It disappeared in a pop. Rei rolled a sleeve up and showed him an arm. It looked like the skin was chipping off clay, small pieces were missing, and deep cracks ran through it like arteries. The injuries were partially filled with what seemed to be iron.
“Those mochi are pieces which chipped off of me and touched a sample of your DNA. Don’t bully… Higekiri’s little brother ever again about that.”
“Haven’t you done refinery?” Tsurumaru asked.
For some reason, he was confident his master had because of Tsukiyomi’s message and the iron which filled the injuries.
There was a moment of silence, his master straightening back into seiza.
“I did. I had to.”
Higekiri didn’t know where Tsurumaru had heard about refinery and suspected Tsukiyomi to have told him about Rei’s condition. Whatever he might have accused Rei of, it was natural Tsurumaru would be worried about it. Higekiri didn’t know what he could answer or not, and Rei was still severely dissociating from the recent panic attack.
“Who did you do it with?” Tsurumaru asked.
“None of your business.”
The answer was dry as if he had hit a sensitive spot.
“Higekiri? Hizamaru? Both? I guess if they can share cuddles with you, they could take that burden together, heh?” Tsurumaru said with crossed arms, and leaning forward, unknowingly invading his master’s personal space.
The Saniwa’s fists balled and seemed at a loss for words.
“Haah? Oioi, Aruji, what are you hiding from me?”
“Hold your tongue in front of me, brat!”
“You’re not answering,” he said, setting his sword against his shoulder on a defensive reflex.
Higekiri took it as a provocation. Not even… Well, Rei did talk to him like that as a teenager before having any title or status, not the other way around, but he couldn’t tolerate anyone talking like that to the Saniwa. His own pride wasn’t on the line here.
“I owe you none! Get out, now.”
Tsurumaru didn’t stand up or move. He didn’t feel any bind to his master’s commands, maybe because the Saniwa was extremely weak. He wasn’t even sure he had ever felt like his master was controlling him. The Saniwa waited a few seconds as if expecting him to leave but he wasn’t going to, not until he got some answers about refinery.
“You owe me plenty! Why did Mikazuki run away from me?”
“Ariya… He did?”
“Don’t play dumb!”
The Saniwa staggered, standing up. Tsurumaru thought the Saniwa was about to call Hasebe, or whoever wasn’t fused with his master. He caught the Saniwa’s wrist.
“Be a good boy and behave! Don’t make me put you back into your place!” the Saniwa snapped.
“How?” he grinned, not letting go.
“Tsurumaru Kuninaga, BIND!"
It was as if a giant had picked him up and thrown him to the ground. He was stuck, an invisible foot pushing him down like an insect. He hated that sensation, and it even felt familiar. The Saniwa crouched next to him and lifted his face off the ground to allow him to breathe. He read it as an act of domination. Higekiri couldn’t control the strength of the magic he was using and Rei remained unresponsive.
He thought over ten times if Rei were there, how would Rei have reacted? Not once had that Saniwa used that power over them and obstinately refused to. Tsurumaru scowled at him.
It’s at that moment that Rei chose to come back and saw the situation. The Saniwa let go of his face by surprise. It crashed against the floor. Something cracked. Tsurumaru moaned.
Within seconds, Rei knew everything which had happened and pinched the bridge of the own nose.
“Sit,” Rei sighed. He sat up in one swing, his nose bleeding and somewhat flat.
The Saniwa softly tapped a finger on his nose, and it was back.
“Sorry, I took your nose,” the Saniwa said, not sure what else to say to break the ice.
Why was his master laughing at him and blushing as if embarrassed to death at the same time? Higekiri was the one laughing his pants off at the sentence, Rei was the one embarrassed by the own words.
The phone rang with a message. The Saniwa read it and sighed, seeming upset at the entire world. Rei phoned back and argued for a while on it with Ukemochi, Tsurumaru unable to move or to open his mouth.
“How could you send him to that maniac without asking me first?!”
Rei hung up and the phone melted in the Saniwa’s trembling hand.
“Tsuru, you could have simply asked me what refinery was. I don’t know why the subject makes you so uncomfortable. Did Tsukiyomi tell you something disturbing?”
Tsurumaru breathed in deeply, able to move his mouth again. Oh, what a pleasure it was to be even just partially released.
“No. I… Don’t know why I feel so… Uncomfortable about it.”
The Saniwa considered a while.
“There were times it was something to be ashamed of and the subject did make Tsukumogami uncomfortable.
Refinery is the only relief possible for an imbalance in magical power which causes a lot of pain to certain Saniwa. In the past, only the weakest and most common swords were used to avoid losing successful warriors in case of an accident. Sadly, that meant Tantou were the most commonly used for that painful procedure.
Now, the law is that the Saniwa must choose one resistant sword who can endure it repeatedly if necessary. Who I do it with is secret, because it’s embarrassing for a high-level sword or Kiwame to admit he’s used for that.
The bright side of refinery is that if it’s done well and there’s high mutual trust, it can become delightful. Whatever they do to relieve the burn is up to the sword and the master, but there must be an intimate physical contact, which is another reason for a Saniwa to not talk about it.
As for the cuddling with the two brothers, uh… I love cuddles, needed a big hug that night, and the Genji Brothers only come in pairs.”
The Saniwa coughed, rubbing a finger under the nose under the Ofuda. Tsurumaru entirely relaxed. It wasn’t power-abuse or non-consensual after all. Things had changed… He noticed that strange thought. What had changed?
“Now that you know, I have to kill you,” the Saniwa said.
There was the sound of cracking bones and flesh. The Saniwa’s jaw dislocated, mouth opening like a rubber elastic, lips the circumference of a human head. The Saniwa reached the full arm down the mouth and throat in a wet gurgling sound, eyes white. Tsurumaru tried to move, to run away, horrified by what he saw but his body wouldn’t budge an inch. The sensation was about as horrible as what he saw next.
An entire sheathed sword came out through the Saniwa’s throat, dribbling in stomach fluids. The stomach acid hit the floor in large drops, smelling of vomit. Tsurumaru felt nauseous. It was Higekiri alright, and that was the last thing he’d see alive, he thought.
Before he could blink, his head was off his shoulders.
Chapter 10: Arbuda, not Aruba
Ookurikara/Yamanbagiri shippers, rejoice, or cry... That's up to you.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“We’re weapons, Munechika, tools!” Tsurumaru quipped from the other side of his cell’s barriers, a hand hanging out to hold Mikazuki’s.
“If even plants enjoy music, Tsukumogami might as well enjoy poetry,” Mikazuki said, an open book in his free hand.
Tsurumaru’s brow furrowed, and his white form the most visible in the obscurity of the storage’s cell, a few dim lanterns the only lighting in the long cell-lined corridor. Other shapes moved, leaning against their barriers to observe what they could of what was happening. “Tch, parrot!”
A wide gap had dug between them, like an ocean between continents. Each day, Tsurumaru retreated a bit further into darkness, while Mikazuki seemed to glow a bit brighter at each return. Tsurumaru was the only criminal amongst swords deemed cursed, uncontrollable, or going through a temporary punishment for notable failures.
Mikazuki came to read poetry, disconnected from the storage’s reality. Even though Tsurumaru didn’t have the knowledge or culture to fully enjoy their meaning, he leaned against the barrier to listen to him, eyes closed, lulled by the regular rhythms of the haiku and tanka poems trickling down Mikazuki’s lips, refreshing like morning dew. His recitation was abruptly interrupted by a Muramasa sword calling him to the Jingushi.
“When will you come back?” Tsurumaru asked, scraping a nail against a wooden barrier.
He asked it every time, and Mikazuki always kept his promise, even if it took weeks until he was allowed in again. It wasn’t common for Tsukumogami to visit even their brothers there. Yet another privilege Mikazuki had, on the pretext of accompanying the Jingushi, who was a regular due to the massive amount of magical power which often crushed him.
His daughter, Tenko, preferred doing it at home in a private Refinery room if absolutely necessary and used only one sword for it. She was trying to make her exception into the law to protect the swords from abuse. Tsurumaru suspected it was Mikazuki and it made him sick to think so. What a waste, use a Tenka Goken for such a lowly and degrading task. He couldn’t imagine Refinery any different from what he experienced daily.
Mikazuki’s visits had become Tsurumaru’s way of estimating the number of weeks and look forward to the next, enduring Refinery several times a day with people who disgusted him and didn’t care one bit for his comfort. It wouldn’t kill him in one blow; he was still a precious and rare sword, so the patients were careful enough to not accidentally break him. Instead, they were sucking the lifeforce out of him, making the magic which shaped him into their own.
“It might take a while,” Mikazuki warned.
While usually cryptical, he had always given a rather clear answer to that question. In a week, in a month, in two…
Mikazuki continued reading, as unreachable as the moon. All the storage’s swords were listening in a religious silence from the neighboring cells. Tsurumaru wasn’t sure who started sobbing first but it wasn’t him, and he blamed it on his neighbor, rather than on the gut feeling this was the last time he’d see Mikazuki in his life.
He didn’t ever see him again.
Yamanbagiri’s teeth were chattering. He was hiding with Ookurikara in an ice cavern from a Blue Oni which had attacked them and separated them from Hasebe. He mustn’t be far, but he couldn’t call them out loud yet, the gigantic monster’s shadow still lurking nearby. Ookurikara was neither tired, neither cold or hungry, as unfeeling as a dead man can be.
“Are you sure you want to keep following me, all the way to the Mahapadma?” Ookurikara asked.
Yamanbagiri tried hard not to shiver and stood up to prove he could, but his feet had frostbite, and the toes almost chipped off. He slipped and tried to push himself up with his red, blistered hands, the tears of strain running down his cheeks immediately freezing. Ookurikara lifted him up. Yamanbagiri suddenly hugged him.
“Your clothes are… Warm…” he said. It radiated light and warmth, and it seeped into him.
“Take it,” Ookurikara said, undoing the sash from his privilege. Against all of Yamanbagiri’s protests and insistence they weren’t made of the same energy, he wrapped him into it. Ookurikara’s teeth chattered as he felt the claws of freezing air dig their way through his thin black jacket and t-shirt into his bones.
“Why didn’t you or Hasebe tell me it was this cold?! We have to find him qui… O-oi, Manba!”
Ookurikara’s entire body started jittering. The skin was painfully tight on his blue face, and the cold was the cold of one of the deepest hells, the Blue Lotus. Yamanbagiri had opened the privilege and pulled him into it, face beet-red.
“Oi, what do you think you’re doing?” Ookurikara mumbled.
“Sharing,” he said, hiding his face in the crook of Ookurikara’s neck. Ookurikara felt heat go up to his ears and it was rather agreeable compared to the searing cold.
“I-Idiot!” Ookurikara groaned, hugged him, and let him go as if he were burning hot.
He gasped as Yamanbagiri put his head against his chest and hugged him even tighter. Ookurikara wouldn’t say it out loud, but he had often dreamed of talking with Yamanbagiri again, telling him the Citadel had been rebuilt, the Flower Garden was in full bloom. There were no tombs for Tsukumogami to grieve on, the lost ones most often quickly replaced by their copies. Yamanbagiri didn’t have a copy yet, neither did Tonbokiri they lost decades ago.
“Citadel’s fine now,” he mumbled, trying to distract himself from his pounding heart.
“Y-you made some friends?” Yamanbagiri stuttered.
Ookurikara put his face into the blonde hair and breathed in; it didn’t smell like him, there was no odor at all and so, he knew his lover was dead but didn’t mind, his warmth feeling as alive as he was. Wherever hell they might be, it was tolerable like this.
“Got noisier, that’s all.”
He couldn’t see the man he was holding was a skeleton, the beautiful blue eyes, empty orbits, blonde hair long gone, the hands set on his back, bones. It was the good-hearted Yamanbagiri he knew, but Yamanbagiri, unlike him, had turned into negative energy.
He couldn’t bring himself to talk about it as he felt the warmth of the yôki, the living spirit, press against his, the inki, the dead. He wanted to tell Ookurikara to move on but feeling the warmth of the living was irresistible for his kind. A privilege could resurrect him, but he chased the idea away with horror. If their karma was linked, they were bound to meet again in another life.
They hadn’t kissed in the Yomi, because a kiss with a dead soul would trap Ookurikara in the underworld forever, but right now, this close, feeling their breaths, their lips brushed against each other. A kiss won’t kill you now, Ookurikara remembered Tsurumaru saying. He was still wrapped in his privilege, so there shouldn’t be any problem. He leaned in.
In the laboratory, Ukemochi was in a panic; the connection with Ookurikara had cut.
“Aruji, I don’t mean to be impolite, but what in the flying fuck?!” Tsurumaru shouted over the howling wind, half-covered in snow.
His master seemed unfazed by the hellish blizzard they were in. In front of them, endless snowy mountains and a few freezing naked humans. A gigantic blue Oni stomped by, holding a colossal iron club in one hand and a frozen head which was screeching in the other.
The Saniwa prodded at the Oni’s hairy leg, and he stared at the scrawny being beneath him with his bulging evil red eyes. He leaned down and roared, saw the privilege the Saniwa was wearing, grunted, and let his club fall to his side in a snow-muffled thump.
“Forgive us vile demon for disturbing you doing your atrocious duty, but in which of the hells are we?”
The Oni puffed through his nose. “Arrrrbudaaa!” he roared, before stomping back to his job of tormenting sinners. The Saniwa nodded to oneself.
“Aruba? Where are the flamingoes?” Tsurumaru grumbled.
“Arbuda,” the Saniwa corrected, “Hell of blistering skin.”
“Mmh! So warm!” someone sighed.
Tsurumaru jumped, too distracted by the demon before to take a close look at his master.
Higekiri was with them and nuzzling his face against the Saniwa’s kimono, kneeling to be at Rei’s chest’s height. It was dark blue with a golden moon embroidered on it, the landscape represented on the print the Sanzu river running through the Yomi. He had his belt and his sword around his bed attire. Tsurumaru felt his own hanging at his side. Were they going to go through hell in pajamas?
“Can’t believe you showed him that ugly trick…” the Saniwa whispered with a grimace, rubbing Higekiri’s shoulders vigorously. He hummed, Tsurumaru staring. Did they think he’d forget that? Oooh, so he was the one… Tsurumaru grinned.
The Saniwa called “Heshikiri Hasebe! Ookurikara! Genji’s Hizamaru, come forth!”
Something flashed. Hizamaru and Hasebe appeared. A strand of hair was sticking up Hasebe’s head who was looking at the sky as if something were about to fall on him, his skin blue. Ookurikara appeared, still holding Yamanbagiri cradled inside of his privilege.
“H-holy shit…” the Saniwa wheezed, and Higekiri slipped onto his butt seeing Yamanbagiri.
Ookurikara jumped out of the privilege, Yamanbagiri flushed. The Saniwa staggered to the blonde and fell on the knees in front of him. “M-manba, what are you doing here?”
The Saniwa’s voice was trembling, and suddenly, a squeal of joy and the Saniwa was ruffling his hair. “R-rei-kun, calm down!” he said, looking at his master’s child’s face. It had only changed a bit, and he wondered how many years had gone by.
The Saniwa noticed he was inside of the pink sparkly privilege. “Kuri-chan, you didn’t kiss him inside of that, did you?”
Ookurikara covered his mouth with a hand. Tsurumaru observed the scene with amusement, until his master suddenly calmed down and even became a bit pale, then stood up and put the own hands onto the hips. The Saniwa glanced at Tsurumaru and bit the lower lip, not saying more.
Hizamaru sneezed, setting his vest on Higekiri’s shoulders while he was the one shaking from head to toe. His brother clung to the Saniwa again, as if they could never be glued to each other like a pair of lovesick octopuses once they had resurrected. Hasebe kept his arms crossed, seeming a bit upset for a reason Tsurumaru ignored. Maybe he might also need a big hug.
Tsurumaru skipped to him and hugged him tight, the Oda sword shouted and wriggled out of his death-grip, almost punching him. Yamanbagiri gave Ookurikara his privilege back, the two talking together in a hushed tone Tsurumaru couldn’t hear over the howling wind.
“Yo, you his boyfriend?” Tsurumaru asked Yamanbagiri with a wide grin.
Both of them stuttered and spat. Tsurumaru was satisfied with that reaction.
The Saniwa took Higekiri’s sword, undressed the own privilege and, ignoring the Genji brother’s protests, cut it into pieces with his sword. Higekiri received a part of it which shone and wrapped around his body. His battle gear and clothing were complete. The Saniwa repeated it with Hizamaru and Hasebe. Yamanbagiri kept the pink privilege, only Ookurikara left without any.
Icicles shaping at the tip of the ears and under the nose, the Saniwa picked the sash up, tied it around Higekiri’s waist and made Hizamaru a sign to approach. The had a small secret reunion. Their master suddenly gasped, the whole body shaking. Rei’s arms flailed as if to catch something, the skin turning into ice. Higekiri grabbed the limb, lips trembling and shaking his head as if to refuse something.
“See you in the Maha… Padma!” the Saniwa groaned before even the head turned to ice.
The body slipped to the side, out of Higekiri’s arms and shattered like crystal as it hit the stones below. A gust of wind blew the red shards away. Higekiri fell to his knees. “Ariya…”
Hizamaru held him tight as he seemed to melt down within the following seconds. Hasebe dug in the snow as if to find his master was buried somewhere in it. Tsurumaru blinked a few times and jerked back, looking all around him.
“It’s alright, calm down, everything is going to be alright,” Hizamaru repeated to his brother who seemed to only have his brother’s words left to hold onto, looking with wide eyes into nothing, not making a sound. Hasebe’s back hunched and he covered his mouth, eyes squeezed shut. Tsurumaru also felt weak in the legs.
“We have to go to the Mahapadma, quick,” Ookurikara said. He had recognized his master’s last words. He explained what they had learned from Tsukiyomi.
A switch seemed to have flipped in Higekiri once Yamanbagiri and Ookurikara said Tsukiyomi’s name and explained what his situation was. He stood up stiff and started walking, his brother hurrying after him, asking him what had gotten over him.
“The mirror’s this way,” he called.
“How do you know?” Hizamaru whispered, the others seeming to internally debate if they should follow him.
“You should be the one seeing it best! Hah, the irony!” he laughed, throwing both his arms in the air. He seemed strangely excited.
Maybe Higekiri had lost his mind due to shock, Hizamaru thought, unable to see or feel anything which could prove his brother right. Yamanbagiri had started running after them, and the others followed.
“Oi, where are you going?” Tsurumaru called.
“You should know this is the right way!” Higekiri shouted, still in his apparent secondary state.
Tsurumaru was confused when he realized it was true he would have insisted on going that way, up the mountain, even if the group had decided that going lower meant going downwards. It was as if he could hear someone calling him over the howling wind.
Tsurumaru was holding to a rock, dangling on the ridge of a cliff. Hizamaru was below him, Tsurumaru’s thick sole close to his face, and he knew from experience how much it would hurt if it kicked him.
“I see only a bottomless pit!” he shouted to the man sitting as calm as a Zen monk on another thin ridge nearby, swaying like a yellow dandelion blown by the howling wind.
Ookurikara and Yamanbagiri were looking down from the top of the cliff, arguing about what they could do to save their comrades, Yamanbagiri’s privilege soiled and the piece of fabric which was his cape, not resistant enough to pull someone up without tearing. Ookurikara’s sash was a bit thicker, but he feared it would tear.
“Ariya, how do I explain this… Hasebe, do you know how karma works?” Higekiri asked.
“Why ask me?!” Hasebe groaned, set the highest of them all and stones falling off below his feet, Hizamaru barely avoiding them.
“I don’t want to die!” Tsurumaru whined.
“We’re already dead!” Hasebe barked, and squeaked when Shizukagata’s twitchy awkward face suddenly appeared a few meters away from him. The tall man stretched out his long arms and reached out his Naginata to Hasebe, held by the feet by both Ookurikara and Yamanbagiri.
Hasebe was safe and, forming a human chain, they managed to bring back one after another, Hizamaru, Higekiri, Ookurikara, Yamanbagiri, Hasebe, and Shizukagata panting and their backs painful after having pulled Tsurumaru up last.
“Shizukagata, you’re so light!” Yamanbagiri said.
“It’s the weight of my karma,” he replied with a crooked and awkward but kind smile. He was an angel, it seemed.
They all glanced at Tsurumaru, who felt offended to be looked at as if he were an elephant they had to drag up the mountain’s side. Was it the pranks he put Hasebe through which had added like lead in his pockets?
They heard a roar so loud the mountain above shook, and they listened to the rumbling of an avalanche. “Not again!” Hasebe shouted and slapped his palm against his mouth as he started a second smaller avalanche.
“This way!” Hizamaru said, pointing at an opening in the mountain’s rock.
They all ran and quickly jumped into a small opening. The earth shook, and the avalanche fell. The exit from the cave was blocked by the snow. It was almost as dark as the Yomi, but there was a weak source of light coming out from somewhere.
“Watch out where you put your feet,” Hasebe warned.
Higekiri seemed attracted by something. Crack.
“Anayaaaa!” Higekiri fell into a chasm.
“Anija! Ooooaaaah!” His brother slipped with him. Both the Genji brothers had disappeared, and Tsurumaru was holding tight to Shizukagata’s waist; that man made an excellent security pole and…
“Aren’t you cold, dressed like this and without a privilege?” Tsurumaru asked, unable to hold back on poking his bare abs. Shizukagata giggled, ticklish.
“I got a privilege. Can’t you see my butt is completely covered?”
“Is it the moment to talk about sacred underpants?!” Hasebe barked, making Shizukagata flinch.
They lost their main guides through hell. They were too worried by that question to ask who Shizukagata had received that privilege from.
Shizukagata walked around the chasm, measuring the hole’s circumference. “I’m too big to get in there,” he said.
Ookurikara and Tsurumaru would fit. Tsurumaru shrunk back, seeing the dark, bottomless hole they were about to push him into.
“See you later. Not like you can die, right?” Hasebe said as they lifted him up.
“Whhhhyyyyy!” Tsurumaru slipped down, down, down.
I'd like to leave a note, but I don't know what to say in my defense without spoiling the story. Hang in there, the writer isn't a monster! Only 4 chapters left (I think).
Chapter 11: Yata-no-Kagami
Please read this before starting the chapter for a better understanding.
Shōmakyō; a mirror Tsukumogami, or haunted mirror. It is said to reflect demon's true form, for example a fox spirit could be seen as a fox inside. Source; http://yokai.com/ungaikyou/
I wanted to make the distinction between Yata and the Ungaikyou, which I interepreted as something evil. In this context, it's a personal joke between the two characters, as that mirror doesn't reflect such things in normal times (though capable to). She's asking if he's afraid to see a demonic reflection of himself, while all she meant was for him to face his responsibilities.
Kagami means mirror, so to such a Tsukumogami, it's a title like one would call a shop-owner "Shop-owner" in Japanese. It's anonymous and therefore means those who call her like that believe her to be a mirror like any other. Someone calling her "Yata" means that person knows her true identity.
Chapter contains slight Higekiri/Hizamaru. Warning, the last part is rough (for me at least).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tenko’s stomach was becoming round. No matter the baggy clothing or large obi to hide the growing bump, the due date was nearing like a slicing pendulum over Mikazuki’s head.
They were in her large room, Tenko seated on a chair at her dressing table, a bronze mirror in her hand. She looked at herself as if she were scolding her reflection, combing her, Mikazuki seated at a low table in the center of it, ordered to sit. He couldn’t move an inch.
Mikazuki wasn’t supposed to be in her room unannounced and without surveillance, but she couldn’t care less. They had shared a tent on the battlefield, she had bathed in the wilderness at the same place as her soldiers, eaten with them, fought alongside them, been injured and treated in an emergency.
Legs, breast, arms, shoulders, the enemy’s blades sliced whatever they could, and her soldiers saw whatever was exposed. Her father didn’t want to face the fact if it weren’t for him sending her off to fight, she’d have kept a bit more of her innocence. His house rules and education were as contradictory as him, and he only applied half of them himself.
She and Mikazuki argued over her stubbornness at keeping the baby. Having a child with a Tsukumogami was supposed to be impossible, and therefore, that birth was a miracle… Or a curse. She kept insisting she was still a virgin; something must have happened during Refinery. Wasn’t fusing comparable to sex?
Mikazuki chuckled; the two things involved skinship, but weren’t comparable. She was indeed a virgin to imagine intercourse as something as transcendental as Refinery. She shrugged to that, not born yesterday either.
If she asked for an abortion to a Healer, who knows what they would find out and do with the baby? What else could she do? Without an answer in mind, he asked to leave and, also at her nerve’s end, she freed him. He walked out of the Jingushi’s home, hoping to calm down upon a cup of tea.
As he was going through one of the dusty pathways of the shrine towards the shared use kitchen, he stumbled upon a female Tsukumogami, no taller than the height of his hip.
The single horn in the middle of her forehead pointed at him like a child’s mocking finger. A cheeky grin curled at the side of her full lips. She skipped playfully from foot to foot as she followed him, perched on high geta sandals. She wore a kanzashi brooch with white flowers and golden needles, a few unruly strands refusing to comply with the elaborate hairdo.
Too many of the swords, she was either a pest, a tease, or an entertainer. Humans couldn’t see or hear her, so she had grown the bad habit of making fun of people in their faces and was rather shameless. To sleep in an empty bathtub, or steal some random sweets in whatever random house she decided to spend her day was ordinary. She was smart and her words pricked or tickled more often than they stung. That day, she didn’t hold back.
“Hooh, you’re in deeeep shiiiiiit…” she said in a husky smoker’s voice that sounded nothing as soft and young as she looked. “Tenko’s got one hell of a tight body, but come on, she’s sixteen, a kid! She may think she’s figured everything out, but you ought to know better! I know this place’s a mess, but come on, are you a pedo atop of a…”
She went on as he walked, unflinching, while she massacred him. He wouldn’t sugar-coat the nature of a few of his desires, but he did mind her age. All of the other flaws she pointed out went over him like a breeze – she was completely right, so there was nothing to get mad about.
“What if it has your beautiful eyes or face?” she asked, poking his hip.
She sounded genuinely worried and looked up at him with her big warm eyes.
“What would you do, O-Kagami-san? Run away?” he asked.
She sighed and tilted her horn from side to side as if it were a radar. “Arara, the venerable Mikazuki is asking little old me for advice?”
Mikazuki hummed positively.
“Take a good look at yourself in Tenko’s shōmakyō* before you decide anything.”
“Isn’t it what I’m doing now, Miss Haunted Mirror?”
Kagami grinned. “Scaredy-cat, what are you afraid to see in the full picture? This salty old woman is only a fragment of it!”
Tsurumaru crashed through and rolled down layers of ice and snow. Once he had come to a halt, his dislocated limbs cracking back into place, he found himself sitting in what seemed to be an underground forest of ice. There was no sign of the Genji brothers. He waited, but nobody came.
Strange snow formations lay about, sometimes branching up like plants the length of an arm. Even as it was underground, unlike any other place Tsurumaru had visited, it was as clear as day. Ice shone like crystal, pathways forking in various directions.
Losing patience and worried after sitting for a good hour, he decided to follow the string of energy he thought to be Mikazuki’s. He could see his reflection in the ice blocks he passed next to, hundreds of Tsurumarus with the same surprised expression as him. It was slippery, but with his privilege on, he couldn’t tell how cold it was. At first, he found the landscape rather pretty, if not slightly depressing.
“Ooi, Genji-bros, where are you?” he called.
His voice echoed into what seemed to be infinity. There wasn’t a sound, except for the cracking and groaning of large moving ice blocks on a lake nearby. He decided to search what was beyond that lake.
The ground cracked beneath his feet, a rift slowly shaping. An iceberg sunk nearby, and it was crushed by the thicker layers, the grinding sound shrill and deafening. It was strange, a continuous crystalline shriek that sent shivers down Tsurumaru’s spine.
As he had passed the lake and arrived at another corridor, he bumped into a small block of ice in a tight curve. It smashed to the ground, and the shards turned into shades of red. Looking closer, they seemed to contain something. Slightly disturbed, Tsurumaru decided he better not find out what.
One of the corridors seemed larger and to lead further downwards. The path turned out to be very steep. Tsurumaru slipped down a long way. At the end of the slope, he hit his foot against another small ice block. Several fell like dominoes, that shrill continuous crystalline lament buzzing in his ears. The entire path before him turned red.
He turned to the side, the corner of his eye had caught something. He realized the horror; there were frozen people in the ice. They were looking at him with wide eyes, incapable of moving from their prisons. Those blocks were meant to fall over with the people in them.
Shocked, he crawled back, bumped his head against another row. He covered his ears, shivering from head to toe. This was the Mahapadma, the Great Crimson Lotus Hell, where people were frozen and shattered by demons, their organs pooling out of them. The lament became louder as one block after another toppled down.
“Mikazuki Munechika!” he called from the top of his lungs to not scream in horror.
His voice echoed into nothing for a moment.
“Here! Help! It hurts, it hurts so!”
It seemed to be close. Tsurumaru couldn’t tell exactly where it came from. Was it Mikazuki, begging for help? He wasn’t sure, but he followed the pleas for help until he got to another tight corridor. The screams came from a hole in the ground at the end of it.
“Kuninaga! Heaven’s, make it stop!”
Without any hesitation left, Tsurumaru jumped into the hole.
He landed in a gigantic chamber of ice, shaped like a beehive’s alcove. A crack in the wall seemed to lead out of it. Thousands of his own transparent reflections were looking back at him as if he were in a fair’s mirror hall. He giggled at his own frightened face. The cries had stopped, so he searched the wall for Mikazuki’s silhouette stuck somewhere in it. There seemed to be nobody inside.
He walked in circles several times. Something didn’t follow his movements, unlike his transparent reflections. It was a human shape, stuck deep in the ice. It looked like it had long kimono sleeves in a dark color, but the ice and his own reflection blurred it.
His face was just a few inches away from the wall, trying to distinguish what exactly was there, but he could only see his own reflection staring back. He gasped, a hand broke through, grabbed him. Tsurumaru was sucked into the ice.
Higekiri was unstoppable. “Let’s wait for the others!” Hizamaru had said, “Splitting up is dangerous!” he had insisted. Higekiri ignored him, running as if possessed.
“Anija!” he shouted, as Higekiri jumped from floating block to block on the ice lake.
Something stung deep in Hizamaru’s chest. He remembered the sweet smell of temple incense mixed with cypress wood and felt a draft. An emotion surfaced like one of those icebergs around them, its tip sharp. It groaned and cracked within him. The further his brother went, the more the cold of the Mahapadma seemed able to seep through his clothing.
He ran and managed to catch his brother’s arm. Higekiri gasped as they both slipped.
He forced his brother to turn around while they were still sitting on the unstable swaying block.
“Anija, say my name.”
The memory of the smell of the storage room of a temple was making his heart beat like a drum. It felt like unless his brother would say his name, whatever was missing was going to overwhelm him. Higekiri’s eyebrows knitted. He didn’t answer.
“You often remember Rei’s name, so why never mine?!”
Higekiri’s forehead twitched. “Otouto…”
Hizamaru’s expression became dark. “Do you even care about me?” he muttered.
Higekiri took his face between his hands and brought their faces near. Those eyes held the glint of a warning. Hizamaru felt his ankles tingle. He could see a blade going through his as he lay on the Emperor’s pillow. It smelled of the sparks the impact caused, of a burnt tatami mat.
“Don’t you ever doubt how much you mean to me,” Higekiri growled.
His attention only lasted a few seconds, the drums in Hizamaru’s chest just beating faster. He reached out for Higekiri when he turned away from him again to stand up. His hand kept stretched out, but touched nothing and closed upon itself.
“We’re getting close,” Higekiri said.
“You haven’t made sense in hours! What are you talking about?!” Hizamaru stomped a foot to the ground, the thump muffled by the snow.
“Aren’t your memories coming back?” Higekiri asked. “Of Yata, for example?”
Hizamaru scowled, tears welling up his eyes. He took Higekiri’s hand like an attention-seeking child would. Higekiri pursed his lips and grunted. He covered Hizamaru’s eyes and leaned in, next to his ear.
“Hizamaru…” Higekiri said in a soft tone.
Hizamaru swallowed his spit, the hand holding Higekiri’s trembling. Higekiri pulled his hand off as if he hadn’t wanted his brother to see him saying his name. Hizamaru breathed in deeply, the tears away but then, he seemed to be frozen in anticipation. His ears had turned slightly red, but his mouth twisted as if he had tasted something sour.
“I can see only you, Hizamaru,” Higekiri said, eyes fixed and steady on him.
Hizamaru swooned and shook his head, slapping his own cheeks. Then, his eyes opened wide, as well as his mouth and his head perked up. He let out a cry of realization.
“Why do I only remember such important things now?!”
“You’re such a demanding child…” Higekiri sighed.
Hizamaru had remembered that he had been worried about several things on a night in another Citadel. His biggest worry was that he had heard Mikazuki had died in battle. If the backlash killed his brother’s master, it might break his brother. Another concern was in what a mental state Yata must be; she had lost her best friend and was about to lose her beloved owner.
Yata hated to be called by anything else than “Kagami,” but he couldn’t bring himself to call her so. As Tenko’s mirror, it was probable she knew everything of what had happened. Tenko’s pregnancy had come as a surprise to everyone; she hadn’t missed a single battle, and her muscular abdomen hadn’t grown a lot. Yata, while the gossiper, hadn’t said a word about it.
He knew where the little Kagami got her alcohol from, but not where she’d go to drink it. She was loud when drunk, so it shouldn’t be hard to find her, he had thought. He had slipped out of the dormitories once sure everyone, even his brother, was asleep. Jumping from roof to roof, he found her within a few minutes.
Kanzashi hanging, hair untidy, Yata stumbled from side to side, a white ceramic gourd of sake tied to her broad hips. She crooned “This is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end, my only friend, the end…” She stopped a few seconds, sobbed loudly, then continued walking.
She was on her way back to the Jingushi’s shrine, lurching between the old wooden houses of the Citadel’s staff. Nobody would mind her; the humans couldn’t hear or see her, and the Tsukumogami were used to her noisy antics. At worst, Souza would throw a sandal at her through the window of his private room in his master’s house.
A group of humans passed running by, one of them holding a stack of towels, another, two buckets of water and ice on his back. The sky was opening, thunder rumbling from afar like a lion’s roar, the hiss of rain approaching.
Kagami’s ankle twisted. She fell, and her gourd rolled a few meters away. Hizamaru moved to help her but pulled himself back. If he had jumped out of the dark, it would have made her shriek, and a sandal would have slammed into his face before her gourd would have crashed into his skull or balls.
“No safety or surprise, the end…” she drawled as the Citadel’s sirens activated.
Lights in the dormitory rooms switched on. She peeked up, slightly dazed.
“… I’ll never look into your… Crescenty eyes, againnn…” she croaked and stood up, her steps comically large for the tiny being.
Hizamaru, given he was called into the same direction as her, slowly walked to the Jingushi’s temple gate. He was careful to arrive at the same time as his other comrades. His brother gave him a sideways glance as he came. Hizamaru blushed, scratching his cheek.
Tenko’s swords were standing at the gate nearby, at a respectful distance from the servants, also called in by the alarm. They were all grim or petrified. A brown-haired Tantou sobbed against his older-looking brother’s legs. Other groups reunited in the inner court.
“And all the children, aaare insaaane…” Yata arrived theatrically.
The sky burst in tears at the canto, drenched the short kami, who zigzagged to the single open, bright door of the Jingushi’s home. A few of the Tsukumogami couldn’t hold back giggling and sighed in momentary relief. Several women of the clan had gathered in front of the door, the view inside, blocked. They could hear Tenko’s screams of labor pain. Kagami leaned against the wooden wall next to the door, facing the entry gate of the Jingushi’s Citadel where the brothers stood.
“Come on baby, take a chance with us, come on baby, take a chance with us!” she cried as a shriek froze her to the bone.
Comely when sober, she was anything but gracious when drunk. She took large gulps of sake which dribbled down her double-chin, slumped against the wall legs wide apart in wet clothes, her round belly jolting with every loud gulp.
She noticed the Genji brothers were staring, but she was too drunk to evaluate their expressions. She ran a finger around the damp rim of her now empty gourd and fluttered her lashes. Higekiri humorously winked at her, Hizamaru kept his brows knitted and let out a deep, shaking sigh. It wasn’t a time to be fooling around, he thought, but those two coped that way.
They realized the downpour had ended and Tenko’s screaming had suddenly stopped. An unbearable minute of total silence followed.
A baby’s shrill cry echoed through the Citadel.
Mikazuki will come back, Tsurumaru repeated to himself like a mantra in a whisper nobody could hear. He didn’t join most battles, but when he did, his unit always came back victorious and without casualties. An exception was impossible. If he died, Tenko would die, the Jingushi would hate the Tsukumogami even more than he already did, and the Citadel slowly go under.
He had lost count of the days. No matter what rumors circulated in the cells, Mikazuki couldn’t have died. No matter how tight he held his ears shut, it was as if his doubts and hopes relentlessly echoed in his head. His head buzzed from inside, his ears got a continuous tinning.
In the obscurity after Refinery, he’d sometimes see human silhouettes which sat close to him. Often, it would take the shape of a child, and he couldn’t hold back screaming until the banging of the neighboring cells or someone’s shouts pulled him out of his nightmare.
The worst of all was when he’d hear poems which meant nothing recited. He’d search for who was reading them, certain Mikazuki was just hiding somewhere close, or couldn’t get near to his cell. Yet, it wasn’t his voice; it wasn’t anyone’s voice. Cellmates were allowed to talk together, but he, as a criminal, was isolated from everyone else.
The end was nearing, the magic which held him together fragmented within dozens of Saniwa. Yet, he wanted to live, to see the sun, to hear Mikazuki’s voice again. His love for him had become unhealthy, the subject of his single obsession, the next time he’d come.
Tenko. It must be that bitch’s fault; she stole Mikazuki from him or found a way to prevent him from coming back. She must have made that single sword for Refinery a law and the Jingushi do not have any reasons to go anymore. The fact that the place he was stored in hadn’t shut and the number of inmates only grew proved his theory wrong, but Tsurumaru had become irrational.
As months passed, his hatred towards her grew. He could hear her giggle stupidly, could see her in the garden square she often sat with Mikazuki, begging him to not leave her alone.
Never, sane, would he have pranked that girl with ill intent. While sturdy and sometimes too blunt to be famous, she was one of the humans kindest to the Tsukumogami and was loved by her swords. Only a few Saniwa treated Tsukumogami as their equals.
As he floated in that zone void of time and meaning, a group of new inmates arrived. One of them was tittering madly from terror. He shouted that Tenko had had a child and the end was near for all of them. Tsurumaru snapped.
That dirty little slut had tied Mikazuki down with an illegitimate child. Probably, Mikazuki had given up hope Tsurumaru would ever be freed. Tenko had many reasons to leave the one who killed her godfather and best friend’s father in that prison, so counting on her help was useless. He was bound to die, so why would the great Mikazuki lose his time in such a disgusting, dark and depressing place with a suicidal idiot?
Tsurumaru threw himself several times against the barriers, with the hope it would shatter his bones and break his neck. He was pushed to the ground and pacified. Shackles were put to his legs and arms, anything he could hang himself with, taken away.
He didn’t know how many days had passed after he completely lost his mind and heard a metallic clanking, a jingle. His throat was parched from refusing to drink, for he knew not how long. He listened to the swishing fabric of long kimono sleeves. It was all a dream, he thought. Geta sandals clopped against the wooden floor steps short and rather slow. They dragged like those of a ghost.
A tall shadow stood in front of him, hair down to the shoulders with a light shining from behind.
“Here, Aruji ordered to keep it short,” a man said dryly.
Whoever he was talking to didn’t reply. The man scoffed and went a few steps further.
Tsurumaru thought a patient was coming to check on him before choosing him. One or two more times and he’d die, so maybe they wanted to see how defect he was before taking their decision. The one standing back turned to him at the right side of the cell wore a typical warring states style dark blue kimono which bore a crescent moon inked on one shoulder and a sun on the other.
It was the Muramasa sword who always accompanied the Jingushi, the Sunset or Higure. He had taken the place of Mikazuki after Mikazuki became Tenko’s attendant. The Jingushi’s favorite fighter had the reputation of terrorizing his comrades. Usually, he was the one came with Mikazuki to keep a watch on them. That could only mean one thing; Mikazuki was there!
Tsurumaru crawled to the barrier, close to tears but face illuminated with joy. “Don’t put your hopes up,” the Muramasa sword sighed, not without some sympathy.
Tsurumaru turned his head to the lithe form which was kneeling at his height. He was too weak to stand up, too weak to sit, so he was almost laying down, pulling himself up with the barriers. White… Hair. Strange, was there a new Tsurumaru in the house?
He looked closer and saw a fox mask. Immediately, his blood turned. She was holding out a cup of water to him. He took the cup, snatched her wrist.
Higure drew his sword, she shouted “No!” and he froze.
He pulled her arm in. It was extremely skinny and pale. He wanted to bash that fox mask which sneered at him against those barriers which stopped him from running to Mikazuki. Tsurumaru’s blood was boiling to the top of his head.
“Are you surprised?!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. “Are you entertained?!”
She seemed too shocked to react and didn’t resist when he sank his teeth into her weak arm. He drew the blood from it, and it tasted like iron. Mikazuki’s iron! Her neck was so close, he could strangle her. The fox mask’s nose was bent, a corner dented, and blood ran down her elbow.
His energy didn’t last; he could only weakly shake her, tears running down his eyes as he called her names and drabbled crazy nonsense.
“I’d give you the moon if I could reach it…” she said in a tired voice, once he had calmed down a bit.
Tsurumaru pushed her away, and she fell onto her back. Muramasa tried to tie a handkerchief around her wrist to stop the bleeding. She slapped his hand away. To Tsurumaru, that was only a proof that her kindness and gentleness towards Tsukumogami was all fake.
Tsurumaru looked at the long white hair to which a few droplets of her blood hung. She sat, trembling and coughing. Last time he saw her, they had another color, so why had they turned white? Was that some lousy joke, trying to look like him?
“Is asking to see Mikazuki asking for the moon to you, princess?!” he sobbed.
“He’s not part of this world anymore! I…”
The world fell down on Tsurumaru. He froze, his breathing stopped.
From behind her mask, she glared at the Muramasa sword, whose red eyes glowed in the obscurity like a demon’s, the bleeding at her arm worsening as her fists balled. All Tsurumaru saw was a grinning fox mask.
“I-I’m so sorry! I… I couldn’t do anything! I…” The usually solid warrior lady shattered into a teary mess and Higure had to carry her out.
Tsurumaru believed she was responsible for Mikazuki’s death.
It will only go better from here on.
Even though I'm very careful while editing, because english isn't my first language, each time I publish, I find small mistakes a day or two later that I then correct. I apologize to the early readers who find those little mistakes like pebbles on their path. To those who subscribed; I appreciate your support very much, even though I only see you as little numbers. Every comment, even on a minor element, is most welcome.
From now on, the publishing will slow down. You'll have more time to anticipate with joy what will come next, because it will only go uphill from here and as stated in the tags, the ending is happy. If you want a "true ending", go take a look at Dance Under the Frost Moon, from which all the other stories of this series started.
This chapter contains elements of the last story of this series I'm currently outlining, which is, in fact, the first in the timeline. I don't know how much smut it will contain in the end, but I'm preparing an explicit and a bit less plot-oriented story than the others of this series. There will be MikaTsuru of course...
Chapter 12: Zombie
Poem by Hôjô Ujimasa.
This chapter contains a little bit of Mikazuki/Yamanbagiri (I'm starting to seriously ship this coupling.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was a bright, white underwater world. For a moment, Tsurumaru observed the strange dimension. A soft, pallid light shone round above, while the liquid he was floating in shimmered feebly in blue as if he were below a frozen lake.
One of his fingers was loose, cracked. First, that part chipped off, followed by the hand, the wrist, his arm. His entire body disintegrated like broken glass. It didn’t hurt with the privilege on him, but the sight was disturbing. He couldn’t move much, so he looked at what he believed to be up, or wherever his eyeballs drifted.
His pieces gathered again, until the next time his body fell to pieces. None of that scared him. He had a sense of calm. The pain must have been atrocious to those who weren't protected by a privilege. He could observe it with detachment.
His mind drifted towards memories of his life. It had been fun. He could still hear the heartbeat of nightlife, taste the sweetness of a bit too many cocktails, see the flicker of strobe lights which made him dizzy. Strange, that death had started while he was having fun, rather than there where he expected it. The battles had their fun too, to surprise the enemy and terrify them, cheers of victory on the battlefield.
His body came together within a deep breath. The living spirit kept on breathing, unlike the dead nearby who seemed to hold theirs, as if in expectation of their next first cry of life after reincarnation. He felt a sense of familiarity with the liquid-like dimension.
There was a dark shape nearby – the entity which had pulled him into this dimension. It was free in that ice and glided around him like a gigantic black vulture. Above it, he recognized what was shining – It was a faint, yellow, round light, like the moon which reflected on a frozen lake.
Tsurumaru wasn’t ever someone for poetry, neither were his friends. For all he remembered, he hadn’t as much as opened such a book. Whatever was over him, was aligning Jisei poems; those old men wrote before they died.
Autumn wind of eve,
blow away the clouds that mass
over the moon's pure light
and the mists that cloud our mind,
do thou sweep away as well.
Now we disappear,
well, what must we think of it?
From the sky we came.
Now we may go back again.
That's at least one point of view.
Tsurumaru remembered he had read it over the dead Jingushi’s body. The dark shape plunged onto him.
Tsurumaru didn’t lift his head to look through the barriers anymore. Often, when a new Tsukumogami was “stored,” he’d make a racket, either begging his master for forgiveness and crying, either lively enough to try and fight back, only to realize a Tsukumogami can’t oppose the chains which were put on them and lose all hope.
This time, the transfer was silent, except for the jingling of the chains. It took Tsurumaru a moment to realize he had a cell-mate for the first time in the decade he had spent in there.
Tsurumaru was only the shadow of himself, drained of all substance and life force. Nobody asked to use him anymore, his empty shell left to rot. In the darkness, he first thought Mikazuki had been sent to the Refinery, and a small spark of energy let him twist and turn and crawl to the man.
From close up, it wasn’t Mikazuki; it was the Muramasa sword he had known long ago, a brother of Sengo’s. Vampires, soul-eaters, indiscriminate murderers – Sengo Muramasa wasn’t any of those, but that one was, the captain of the Jingushi’s first unit. Everyone hated the Last Sunset. Tsurumaru sighed and decided to not move ever again.
The Muramasa sat as immobile as Tsurumaru, eyes fixed on an empty spot far in the darkness. Tsurumaru didn’t care dark miasma was spilled out of the man, crawled up the walls, over him. He heard screams in neighboring cells, some of them hitting against the barriers to escape whatever was submerging the place.
“Give him back… Give him back to me!” the shadows cried.
The miasma got into Tsurumaru’s lungs and up his head. He felt the Muramasa’s heartbreak, and it was close to his own, only Higure hadn’t been abandoned by the one he loved. He seemed to be calling the spirits of a thousand dead soldiers back for war. In the bottom of that darkness, he could feel something else they had in common he had tried to ignore since the day he was summoned;
Fire. Women, children screaming. Massacre. Lost chance to save him – Burial. Death, my fault my master couldn’t defend himself. The world is cruel, ugly, people, self-centered self-entitled greedy, ignorant bunch, always the same, never to change, no hope. Humans deserve hell, they should all go to hell. Why do I always lose the people I love? Those Saniwa, they should all die!
Tsurumaru wheezed, clenching his teeth, boiling. He could hear arrows whistle, smell fire, earth, rot, blood, see heaps of corpses. The more he saw those, the hotter his head became, the more his fury grew. The hatred he had kept inside for over a millennium surfaced and broke through.
The Muramasa sword’s face twitched, something like a shattered man’s smile appearing on it.
“Kill those responsible for our misery. This Citadel must burn. Please, kill me too so I can haunt and exact my vengeance on this accursed clan,” he said.
Tsurumaru’s sword shook, the protective charms burned and it fell in front of the cell. Tsurumaru reached out for it. Higure filled him with the power of the thousands of soldiers he had drawn the blood from and his own.
Tsurumaru cut Higure’s head, and thus, the Izanagi clan was cursed, and Higure Muramasa became a demon.
“No,” Ookurikara growled as soon as Hasebe approached Yamanbagiri.
Yamanbagiri took a step back. Ookurikara went between them and scowled so hard, lasers could come out of his eyes.
“So how are we supposed to go down there, if not jump?! Slip down with Shizukagakta-san’s pole?!” Hasebe hissed, his hands set on his hips.
Shizukagata was searching against the walls if there was an opening they might have missed but found none.
“Tsuru’s waiting,” Yamanbagiri mumbled after they concluded there was no other way to get out than to jump through the hole.
“But who’s staying with Shizukagata then? Aruji said to always act alone,” Hasebe reminded them.
“I would have,” Ookurikara said. “I think… I can’t go lower. I’m at my limit.”
“Shh. You hear that?” Shizukagata said.
They could hear a digging and scratching sound. It came from the blocked opening through which they had gotten in. All of them set a hand on their sword’s handles. Whatever was strong enough to dig through the thick layer of snow was getting close.
The sound lasted for a few minutes, and they could see a sliver of light come through the ice. Whatever it was seemed to take breaks as if exhausted. None of them were sure if they should dig into the opposite direction.
Hasebe was about to do so. A spear stabbed through the ice, almost through his face. They all drew their swords. It didn’t seem to have been on purpose, because it came out again. They remained silent and unmoving. Again, and back, it thrust through.
Finally, a pair of reddened hands came through a hole. Hasebe was close enough to see it was a rather thin hand, pale, but with callouses from swordsmanship. It looked a lot like his master’s hands.
The hands stopped digging and, in slow motion, withdrew. Someone coughed on the other side. It was a man.
“I have presently hastened to join you. You may call me Tonbokiri. I am prepared for battle at any time!” A thundering voice announced.
That wasn’t the voice of whoever had first tried to dig through, and whoever that was wasn’t in their Citadel. The name rang a bell for Hasebe, from a story Rei rarely talked about. He was about to make a sign to the others to keep their swords drawn, but Ookurikara and Yamanbagiri were already next to him, digging frenetically.
“Tonbokiri!” Ookurikara shouted.
Within a few minutes, they could see the tall Yari’s legs. There was someone else with him, and she wore pointy red high-heels in hell on top of a snowy mountain.
They dug a bit more. A fox mask came down, and a woman squeezed through the small opening. She was almost as tall as Ookurikara. She wiped the snow off her privilege, which looked like anything but combat-ready clothing.
“Hi. Granny Tenko. You my daughters first summon?” she asked.
Ookurikara grunted, as a yes.
“You’ve seen shit over the generations,” she sighed and knelt to take away more snow. Ookurikara made a face which confirmed what she said and added much more to it, in silence. She glanced over her shoulder, at the men who stood behind her, unsure of what to do.
“Are you guys gonna let me do all the work? Dig.”
Once they had finished, she slipped out. “Come on,” she said, making a hand sign to come towards her.
They all reluctantly followed her.
“What do you want from us?” Ookurikara asked.
“Out of the way, or to follow me,” she said.
“Either you follow me, or you’ll get killed,” she said, arms crossed.
They all drew their swords. Tenko staggered back. “Hey! I’m not the one who’d kill you if you don’t follow me!”
Tonbokiri sighed “Forgive Tenko-dono; her wording tends to be confusing.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, Oh-sama, but why should we trust you?” Shizukagata set his Naginata next to him, standing side to side with Tonbokiri.
Tenko seemed at a loss for a moment but then burst in laughter.
“Because you’d fucking better.”
Ookurikara noticed Yamanbagiri had kept his distance and had pulled his hood down, the expression he tried to hide, sour.
Tenko went to him and took off her mask.
“I know this thing puts people off.”
He stuttered, saying a Saniwa shouldn’t show her face like that to a Tsukumogami, and still wouldn’t meet her eye.
“I get your attitude,” she said. “Is this the goddess who wouldn’t stop Mika-chan from hurting himself? This brat?”
Yamanbagiri seemed surprised. “T-that’s not it!”
“It is, totally,” she hummed, seeming to score a point as Yamanbagiri made a defeated face.
“Did JiiJii ever tell you that he could come up to see me once in a lunar eclipse, but often wouldn’t because he’d rather stay with you? He wasn’t trying to join me!”
Yamanbagiri’s jaw dropped, and she snorted.
Yamanbagiri watched Mikazuki walk up the stairs; why wouldn’t he listen to him, give up, stop the punishment he had created for himself? He had no obligation to burn his feet to the bones every day. Mikazuki loved someone else, someone he could endure hell for, and she didn’t even deign come down to him from her comfortable place in the highest sphere of heaven.
Mikazuki fell and rolled down the stairway. Yamanbagiri lifted him up, and seated him at a more comfortable place, the time his feet regenerated. The process seemed to repeat indefinitely. Yamanbagiri said nothing to make him stop.
Mikazuki and Yamanbagiri returned to the place at the shore of the lake where they’d usually take dinner. They had something like home there, but the dead didn’t need rest. They spent most of the nights walking on that lake when it was frozen.
“I’ll be off tomorrow morning,” Yamanbagiri said.
“Oh, this old man is going to be lonely again.”
It was his usual reply with his usual somewhat fake smile. Yamanbagiri didn’t believe him. Why would a Sanjou sword miss a guy like him, who’d respect such an irrational, harmful routine?
Yamanbagiri packed up and left as Amaterasu went up the stairs in the morning. Mikazuki watched him leave, his smile not fading, as he told him to come back soon as if he were his husband. Yamanbagiri covered his blush as he strutted away, jaw clenched.
Before Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto went up and the stairway closed for the night, Mikazuki fell one last time. He sat in place, head low and fingers scraping the ground until they bled. He slammed a fist against it.
As he thought nobody was listening, he cried, “Kuninaga! Is this even comparable? Will you ever forgive this coward of a man who didn’t follow you to hell?”
Stars shot passed him and went up the skies. A cortege of nightly kami passed by, drums announcing the arrival of Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto. Amaterasu-no-Mikoto stepped down, her eyes covered with her long blinding fire-red sleeves. All of the daily kami imitated her, as well as Tsukuyomi’s court of shadows, his kimono glowing a soft, pale silver and his own eyes blindfolded. They couldn’t bare see each-other. Their respective servants and following imitated their masters.
“Will you join us this evening, Mikazuki?” Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto asked as he began his ascent into the skies.
Mikazuki hummed, still on his knees and his fingers were burning from scratching the floor. He was relieved none could see what pitiful state he was in.
“Hm. Blood moon in Japan, is it?”
“Jiijii, don’t watch depressing stuff!” Tenko groaned, tugging at his sleeve.
Mikazuki was leaning down, looking into Amaterasu’s sacred well. It showed the image of a beach on which his grandchild stood. He hadn’t seen such a place in Japan before, and Rei didn’t seem to be in high spirits. To his surprise, Higekiri appeared as well and hugged Rei from behind.
“Ha ha ha! Tenko-chan, do you perhaps want more of this old man’s time?”
She puffed her cheeks. Mikazuki poked both sides and pushed the air out. Tenko frowned and sat on the edge of the well, next to him.
Inside of the well, they could observe the world of the living. Tenko had seen many things happen. She had seen her daughter, Susan, grow up under the negative influence of the tyrannical Jingushi. She saw the consequences his abuse had on the way she treated her own child and how much it influenced Rei. The curse her father was responsible for, as well as his abusive legacy, weighed on both generations.
She had seen Rei fall in love, as a teenager her own age, with Higekiri. He had left the Citadel in search of his brother under the guidance of a family member – It was an excellent excuse to put a distance between each other. They met by coincidence again years later during a battle against the Kebishii.
“How’s Rei?” he asked.
“Now, somewhere in the United States in the 1970’s with Higekiri, running from Tsukiyomi who tried to kill them because they did Refinery.”
Mikazuki’s eyebrows almost went over his head. “Anayaaa? For something like that?”
“Rei, Tsukiyomi and I were summoned the same way, unlike our daughter, who was born from our fused iron. At least, Higekiri’s a bit more reliable than you,” she said, poking into his side.
Mikazuki hadn’t come back to the well in two years. He had seen a bit of Tsukiyomi’s evil deeds, and even though the situation mustn’t have been favorable to Rei, he felt a slight relief at the knowledge Rei wasn’t alone.
Thinking of his grandchild, he reached into the pockets of his hakama and touched Tenko’s bronze mirror. Suddenly, Tenko froze, and her eyes opened wide.
Mikazuki looked down. Rei was in what seemed to be a hotel room, kneeling in front of a long wooden box. Inside the box, there was a sword which looked a lot like Tsurumaru’s. There was a slight burn mark left near the Tsuba.
“I-Impossible! Is it that our Tsurumaru?!” Mikazuki gasped, his hands gripping the edge of the well as if he feared to fall into it.
Rei summoned the Tsukumogami. For the first time in nearly a century, Mikazuki saw a living, smiling, joking Tsurumaru again. He didn’t seem to remember anything. Tenko tried to cover Mikazuki’s eyes, pull him away from the well, screaming it wasn’t natural, wasn’t supposed to happen.
Tsurumaru had died burned, his soul hadn’t been adequately cleansed from its negative karma yet. He hadn’t completed the trials of Samsara. Something was wrong, sinful about that summoning; it was a resurrection, not a reincarnation.
Yamanbagiri had noticed a change in Mikazuki’s attitude. He had become aggressive over the years, compared to the reserved person he was before one of Yamanbagiri’s trips. Mikazuki’s true intentions were still hard to guess, his hints subtle and teasing. What had changed was that he initiated physical contact. If it continued that way, Yamanbagiri thought he’d lose his mind and let the Sanjou sword do whatever he wanted to him.
Something had happened, and Mikazuki wouldn’t tell him what. He ascended the stairs with even more fervor than before. He seemed in a hurry, or as if he didn’t do that, someone would pay for it. He’d nervously check the bronze mirror every day, swiping it with a finger, as if to find scratches. When he thought Yamanbagiri wasn’t watching, a shadow would go over his eyes.
After having fallen for the last time one evening, Mikazuki asked him a strange question.
“Manba… Is there anything about your past life you’d never want to forget?”
It was the first time he asked him upfront about his life. Until then, his motto had been to be in the present. He hadn’t ever talked about his own, and when Yamanbagiri would show some curiosity, he’d shake it off as not being relevant anymore, now that they were dead.
“I’d not want to forget anything, even the bad parts, because they made me who I am. Are you going to reincarnate soon?”
Before reincarnation, the soul was cleansed and lost its former ego. While karma determined the next trials the soul must pass, it wasn’t supposed to hang onto its owner anymore once he reincarnated. According to certain religions, those who could remember their past lives had unfinished business in the underworld, or their karma was so heavy, a part of it kept sticking to them like filth.
Mikazuki denied it, and they went home as if he hadn’t asked anything. As usual, Mikazuki checked every nook and cranny of the mirror. Yamanbagiri knew it was Tenko’s and to him, it seemed to be a growing obsession. If Mikazuki could without risking to break it, he’d have taken it to the stairway.
In a surge of jealousy, Yamanbagiri tried to take it out of Mikazuki’s hands. Surprised, the Sanjou sword let it slip. It clanked loudly as it fell to the ground. Mikazuki didn’t move, frozen in place. Yamanbagiri apologized, but it seemed Mikazuki couldn’t hear him.
Yamanbagiri picked it up. “Oi, Mikazuki, it’s okay, there’s just a tiny scratch,” he said.
As if those words had flipped a switch, Mikazuki snatched it and looked at the scratch. Tears welled up in his eyes. “How… Could you…”
Yamanbagiri didn’t see the drama in a tiny scratch. “Mikazuki, you’re going too far!” he said.
Mikazuki put the mirror into his kimono, against his chest. He suddenly picked Yamanbagiri’s chin.
“You have no idea of the vow and how dangerous breaking…” he started.
Tenko, Tenko, Tenko again! Yamanbagiri’s surge of jealousy worsened.
“Move on!” he said. “Stop living in your past vows! It’s over! We’re dead, there’s nothing we can do anymore about what we lost or did! We’ll reincarnate and forget everything, so what’s the use –”
“It’s not over,” Mikazuki suddenly snapped. “You know nothing!”
The coldest smile Mikazuki had ever made appeared on his face. “If you think everything’s over, then why are you staying with this old man, watching him go through hell?”
“I-I… I lo…”
Yamanbagiri tried to lower his head, but Mikazuki wouldn’t let him, so he looked away. He bit his lower lip and fidgeted. Mikazuki waited for an honest answer to no avail.
“Indeed, I know nothing! You never told me anything!”
Mikazuki clicked his tongue and let go.
“I’m off to repair this,” he said in a monotonous tone.
The next day, Yamanbagiri left for his most extended travel ever. Just to test Mikazuki, he said he decided to ask King Enma for the permission to reincarnate. Mikazuki didn’t seem to mind, and gave him a kiss on the cheek as a goodbye forever, saying he was happy Yamanbagiri had found the courage to do so.
A few hours after he left, Mikazuki threw the mirror to the ground, and it cracked.
Tenko saw Rei fall down in the office, screaming in pain.
Final plot twists.
Surprised ? >:3
Three more chapters for the final showdown and resolution.
Chapter 13: Sealed Hearts
Last chapter before the final confrontation. It's shorter than the previous chapters.
I've changed the rating of this fanfic, because;
1. It's too dark for teenagers, and I realized it too late, thanks to a deeply shook grown adult's feedback.
I believed I'd be able to adapt the theme of the underworld for a teenage public through humor, but themes like grief and fear of death popped up. The contents I was careful about weren't the right ones. Even though the characters move on and will have a happy ending, some scenes could be harmful for sensitive people, or those who don't have enough hindsight on those themes, used in a work of pure fiction. I don't have a beta-reader, so I could only follow my own judgement, which was flawed. Therefore, I apologize if this has ended in the wrong hands.
2. There's slightly NSFW content in this chapter.
3. Changing the rating frees me from the wrong restraints I put upon my writing, but that doesn't mean there will suddenly be unbridled smut. It means the ending will confront those themes and give a more mature resolution than if I had tried to express it for a younger audience.
Thank you for reading all the way to here. There won't be any notes in the next chapter, only the last.
On the way down the path to the Mahapadma, Ookurikara collapsed. Yamanbagiri took off the privilege he was wearing and wrapped it around the Date sword. Only a few minutes later, as they kept on running, Yamanbagiri collapsed at his turn. His teeth were chattering, and the ends of his limbs seemed about to chip off, most of the skin on his face, blistered.
They knew that every minute counted. What was threatening Mikazuki and Tsurumaru might already have attacked them. Tenko had remained cryptic when describing what it was; something disembodied, which was part of Tsurumaru before he resurrected. It was the result of black magic a cursed Muramasa sword had performed and Yata-no-Kagami had sealed inside of her mirror.
Every minute, it became harder for those without a privilege to advance. Tonbokiri was about to give up, as he feared to become an unmovable block of ice stuck in hell forever. A few blisters weren't going to hold him back, but with frozen muscles, even he couldn't do anything. Meanwhile, Shizukagata, not more dressed than usual, seemed perfectly fine and his long strides put him at the head of the group.
“We can’t keep up like this… I need Yamanbagiri to follow us to reason Mikazuki, so please Ookurikara, return to the Takama-ga-hara with Tonbokiri. We have to hurry!” Tenko said.
Yamanbagiri took the privilege off his shoulders again. “It’s my fault he got soiled, so he should go!” he said.
Tenko shook her head. She put it back into his hands. “Go,” she ordered Tonbokiri.
Ookurikara feebly pushed his outstretched hand away.
“Tsuru… Needs me…” Ookurikara said.
Tenko kneeled next to him and helped him to sit.
“Tsurumaru needs you at his side, alive. We need to find a way to cleanse you and send you back. You're his best friend; you can’t imagine what a positive influence you have on him.”
All Ookurikara thought about at that moment, was when they kissed dead drunk in the nightclub and felt unworthy of that praise.
Ookurikara couldn’t oppose any strength when Tonbokiri picked him up and flung him over his shoulder like a potato bag. Yamanbagiri stumbled to them and tried to pull Ookurikara out of Tonbokiri’s hold. He ignored Tonbokiri’s protests, groaned and hissed as the Yari attempted to shake him off. Ookurikara used the last bit of his stamina to hold back onto Yamanbagiri wrists.
Tenko swallowed her spit and felt tears well up her eyes. She opened and closed her mouth, fists balled and turned her head away. Hasebe was fidgeting. What could a sixteen-year-old say to calm them down? Was she even able to manage her own emotions? She was too young to deal with this kind of situation, no matter how mature she might be for her age. He decided it was time for diplomacy.
“Ookurikara! Didn’t you accept to come to Karaoke with us? Higekiri roaring is really something to see,” Hasebe said.
Ookurikara mumbled it was Tsurumaru who insisted, and Hasebe meant growling. A flip seemed to switch within him; he thought of how many other things they had promised to do together. Within a few words, Hasebe had reminded him of what he valued in life. He’d never say it aloud, of course.
“Yamanbagiri, if you’ve come all this way, you must have a serious reason to search Mikazuki. Is there something important you have to tell him?” Hasebe asked.
Ookurikara thought he wanted to help them save Rei, but Tsurumaru hadn’t told Yamanbagiri anything about their mission before Ookurikara met them in the Yomi. Yamanbagiri had told them he was looking for Mikazuki too, but not why. Ookurikara had only ever asked if he was sure he was going to keep following him, not why he was running after the same person. If it was so, Ookurikara felt he had been selfish, or too emotional to open his eyes.
“T-there is…” Yamanbagiri mumbled.
“Then, go!” Ookurikara said.
Yamanbagiri slightly jumped.
“Tell Mikazuki whatever you need to, and bring Tsuru and Rei-kun back! I want to party with my friends, and see if Rei ever has kids. No future if we don’t move on!”
Yamanbagiri let go. After what seemed to be a shock, he chuckled and suddenly burst into such laughter, the hood of his cape uncovered his head. He grinned, eyes teary with laughter. A smile curled on the ends of Ookurikara’s lips.
“You’re so… Cute! Good to know you have such friends and want to become the Citadel’s babysitter again.”
Ookurikara grumbled he wasn't cute while still smiling, scratched his head and muttered something else under his breath. Tonbokiri set him back onto his feet. He leaned against Yamanbagiri, who held him upright. Tenko said they’d be waiting a bit further, so they could say goodbye in private.
“Thank you, Hasebe. You’re my hero,” Tenko whispered, winking at him.
She was only an adolescent after all. Hasebe’s chest swelled up, filled with pride as they walked out of the way of the separating couple. It would be nice if Rei told it to him the same way, but his master wasn’t a teenage girl and would find it embarrassing.
They stayed a minute in silence. Ookurikara thought he’d have plenty of things he’d want to say, but the time to separate forever come, silence and actions fitted them better.
They kissed one last time and moved on, Yamanbagiri decided to reincarnate once Rei safe.
“Me, become your master? I’d rather expect you to propose to me after putting me through this!” Yata almost yelled at Higekiri, in bed. Hizamaru flinched, half-asleep and exhausted.
Tenko was on her deathbed, and nobody was sure if she had a day or only hours left. The Genji brothers were going to return to their blades or, in the worst case, break. Her death wasn’t going to affect Yata, but she feared what the Jingushi would do to her, once he inherited the mirror from his daughter. He had a financial interest in an ongoing experiment on sacred relics and had renounced on using Yata because she was the mirror Tenko had inherited from her mother.
In the spur of the moment, and tipsy enough to not overthink it, Yata accepted to do something with the Brothers she thought she’d regret. Until Higekiri had made that request though, she had felt dazed and delighted.
“I don’t want anyone in this rotten Citadel to become my next master,” Higekiri said.
“Life without Anija here would be hell!” Hizamaru said.
Yata didn’t want them to be separated again either. Higekiri had just started to recognize Hizamaru as his brother, stopped bullying him and remembered his name, most of the time. Hizamaru wasn’t dependent and servile anymore, his fear of being abandoned by his brother, almost gone. Yata had resolved most of her own issues with them and wanted their relationship to continue growing positively.
“No way! I’m not becoming your master!” she quipped.
“Arrruuujiiii…” Higekiri purred.
She squeaked and covered her left ear.
“Mommy?” Hizamaru tried.
“You call me Mommy one, more, freaking, time, Hizamaru, and I’ll spank your anaconda buns to melted iron!”
Hizamaru tickled her free ear, and she wriggled, only to be reminded she was comfortably trapped. She loved them, and the teasing made it worse. As a goddess, she shouldn’t have given favors to anyone, but that Citadel was such a terrible place to live in for Tsukumogami, maybe the gods would forgive her for having intervened, she thought.
“There is something I can do,” she said, “but I can’t guarantee what future we’ll have, or how our relationship will be.”
“I’d take any future, except become Tenjin’s sword,” Higekiri insisted.
Yata grimaced and set her cheek against his chest.
“Promise me something,” she said.
They both hugged her and acquiesced. She bit her lower lip, feeling too hot between them to think straight. How was she supposed to stay serious in this position?
“I won’t look the same, and I maybe won’t have the same personality or gender, and our futures might not be brighter than now. I will probably be born handicapped or malformed because I’m going to do something that is against the laws of the Samsara, the natural loop of reincarnation.
From the moment I’ll be reborn, all your memories of this Citadel and the war will be sealed in my mirror. Until then, please wait for me, whatever happens in between.”
The Genji brothers vowed to wait for Yata-no-Kagami to reincarnate as a Saniwa, and, if destiny didn’t make them lovers again, they’d be loyal soldiers.
In the morning, Yata woke up alone, the Genji brothers returned into swords on her opposite sides. It wasn’t time for her to possess a body yet; she had to wait for Tenjin to take her mirror to the Saniwa Order’s laboratories, and find a vessel resistant enough to take in the entire goddess, not just this modest little fragment she was. Higekiri and Hizamaru stayed at her side in their Tsukumogami forms – as a lion and a serpent spirit.
Nothing went as planned. Yata didn’t expect Tenjin to hold to her as a keepsake of his wife and daughter, and to cherish her for years. Even that man, who valued profit and glory over any moral, was heartbroken when he lost his daughter. He had been mean before – he became cruel.
Almost a century later, on the way to save Rei, the Genji brothers arrived at the place Mikazuki was concealed. He was so deep in the ice, they weren’t equipped to dig him out. He held the mirror against his chest, one long crack threatening the mirror would break in half anytime soon. His eyes were open, and he seemed meditative. None of that hell's pain seemed to affect him, as if he were just lying there, thinking over his actions, neither regretful nor satisfied. He was waiting for someone, and they were just uninvited people.
“Watch out!” Higekiri exclaimed as he saw the mirror turn black.
He pushed Hizamaru out of the way. A ray of darkness shot out of it and struck him. Higekiri fell unconscious, covered in what seemed to be negative miasma. Hizamaru held and tried to shake his brother back to consciousness.
In the ice, Hizamaru saw the reflection of Tsurumaru standing behind them, his sword drawn.
“She’s been dead for thirteen years, Tsurumaru!” Yata cried, “You’re dead too!”
Tsurumaru held his sword over his shoulders, his kimono splattered in blood, and he showed her no interest as if she were invisible to him. An evil black miasma oozed from his transparent body. They were in a large hall on fire, the corpse of the Jingushi laying over the mirror. A third figure, with the same type of energy, was there and holding the soul he had caught.
“Take a good look at your last sunset,” Higure Muramasa said to Tenjin, his victorious grin gleeful as he pointed towards the raging fire which was consuming the decadent luxury in which the Jingushi had lived for years.
A burning panel fell to the floor. Tenjin’s soul quivered, a pitiful white blob, a children’s book ghost in the claws of the grinning Reiki.
Someone pounded and pushed against the entrance gate.
“Grandfather! Grandfather, are you there?!” a young girl yelled.
Yata gasped. The Muramasa sword caught Tsurumaru’s shoulder, as he lurched towards the gate.
“Leave her alone,” Higure said.
Tsurumaru burst into mad laughter as a pillar crumbled.
“Oioi, Higure-bou, weren’t we on a killing spree?”
“She’ll be more useful to me alive,” Higure said.
Tsurumaru rolled his head back and groaned. He held his sword in his right hand, ready to swing it against Higure as well.
“She called Tenjin grandfather,” Tsurumaru said, continuing his way to the gate, “that makes her Tenko’s daughter.”
Higure stepped in front of him.
A disgusted grimace contorted Tsurumaru’s enraged face.
“Mikazuki would be alive she hadn’t ever existed! Weren’t it for Tenko falling pregnant of a Tsukumogami, Tenjin wouldn’t have meddled to murder him!”
The young girl made an incantation, and the gate burst open. If she hadn’t called Tenjin her grandfather, Tsurumaru wouldn’t have guessed she was Mikazuki’s daughter; Her body seemed to hold the weight of her origins and the anxious aftereffects of the Jingushi’s spiteful raising. Maybe she saw Tenjin’s corpse, but her brain didn’t register it. She stumbled towards Higure.
“You’re alive! Where’s Onikiri?!”
“Stay away from me, Susan,” he warned, but she didn’t seem intimidated, even relieved by his presence.
Higure took a step back, his face showing a mixed emotion. The soul in his hand cried for help. She glanced at it and squinted at it as she would a weird frog. Tsurumaru clicked his tongue and charged against her.
“Stop!” Yata cried.
Something roared, but it could have been the noise of the crumbling ceiling. Something hissed, but it could have been the fire licking the walls. Tsurumaru felt an invisible force bind around his legs, another, like a gigantic jaw, clamp down on his risen arm to immobilize it before he could harm the curled-up girl.
Yata directed her mirror at him. A ray of light struck Tsurumaru, and the mirror absorbed the dark miasma around him. He disappeared, his cleansed spirit returned to its vessel. Before Higure could react, the little kami’s shapeshifted, the air around them buzzing, a blinding ring of fire forming around her.
The Muramasa sword and Susan saw the goddess’s true appearance; Amaterasu’s reflection, blinding, shining, radiant and burning like a sun above them. They could hear the laughter of kami, bells chiming and taiko drumming, as if the gods were celebrating her return. Susan fainted. Higure screamed, most of the magic which allowed him to materialize, disintegrated.
The demon escaped the hall, and, once outside, next to the gardenia bush of a flower patch, possessed the first thing he encountered; a huntsman spider. The arachnid scurried away, the purpose of his actions and curse, yet to be fulfilled.
Yata-no-Kagami picked up Tsurumaru’s burnt sword and carried Susan out of the hall.
“That wasn’t you… That demon wasn’t you,” she said, tears welling up in her silver eyes, which reflected his blade like mirrors.
She directed her mirror at the blade. More dark miasma came out of it and entered the glass. For an instant, the image of a black-clad Tsurumaru appeared. He seemed to be lying, asleep.
“Rest, my child, and may this bad karma not destroy your chances for a happy next life.”
Yata set Susan far enough from the fire to remain unharmed and asked the winds to turn so that she didn’t suffocate from the smoke.
Ookurikara found his young master next to the gardenia bushes. Once awakened, Susan repeated Higure was still alive and the curse he put on her family was real. Nobody believed the thirteen-year-old, except Ookurikara. Most of the shrine and Saniwa Order’s Headquarters had been destroyed. One of the survivors, then a teenager, unearthed Tsurumaru. He stole it, and it took him almost a lifetime to repair the sword.
The Saniwa Order found the sacred bronze mirror during the excavations on the Citadel’s site. Yata was reborn as Rei. None of those memories remained.
Hizamaru, kneeling next to his unconscious brother, stared as Tsurumaru pushed his grinning face against the transparent wall and licked the ice. His tongue almost stayed glued to it. Tsurumaru scraped the wall with a fingernail, like he would a wooden barrier between them, evaluating if he could break through.
A ray of blinding light shot through and almost struck Tsurumaru. It happened several more times, even as Tsurumaru didn’t stand right in front of Mikazuki anymore, and the mirror seemed to target him. Hizamaru kept his brother at a safe distance. Tsurumaru pranced and jumped around, avoided the inaccurate shots.
“You won’t get me! Huhu! You won’t get me!”
He twirled as ice burst around him, dancing like a madman in a snowstorm.
“Tsurumaru-dono, the others are here,” Hizamaru said.
Tsurumaru hurried towards Shizukagata, seeming excited to see him.
“Oi, Shizu-bou, you know Healer stuff, don’t you? Do you know how to take Mikazuki out?”
Shizukagata slightly reeled from the sudden approach. Take him out, in what sense? He wondered. Either way, Mikazuki was already dead, and only a Saniwa could bring him back.
“B-better not get too close to me,” he said, “Priority comes to the injured.”
It didn’t sound like he was worried he might hurt Tsurumaru. Hizamaru held his breath, not moving an inch from his brother’s side. Shizukagata kneeled next to Higekiri and examined him. Hizamaru explained what had happened with the mirror.
Tsurumaru put his hands behind his head and slightly pursed his lips. Yamanbagiri usually wore a severe expression, but this time, it became hard as he watched Tsurumaru walk in circles, not even wondering where Ookurikara was, too obsessed with Mikazuki. Hasebe glanced at Yamanbagiri and slightly nodded.
“I wouldn’t worry, because the mirror’s light only affects negative energy. Right now, Higekiri-dono must be having a nice dream of the old days. You were privileged, then…” Shizukagata said.
Hizamaru and sighed in relief. Someone seemed to have told Shizukagata a few things he remembered. Tsurumaru was standing near to them, observing and listening to their conversation carefully. His eyes drifted to the side a few seconds, but came back, and he tapped his foot against the ground.
“Maybe if we get Rei out, we’ll be able to help him faster,” Tsurumaru insisted.
Yamanbagiri was in front of the wall, facing Mikazuki. The mirror didn’t shoot anything at him, and his furrow relaxed. He set a hand on the wall and swiped as if he would caress Mikazuki’s face. Its features were unclear, deep in the ice. Meanwhile, Tsurumaru kept on pressing Shizukagata, who tried to keep him distracted from Yamanbagiri.
“I’m here,” he whispered, “and so are all the people who love you.”
Mikazuki’s eyelids quivered.
Yamanbagiri couldn’t see it, but he took off the hood of his cape, golden-blonde hair exposed to the weak light of the underworld, his face entirely unveiled.
“I love you, like... Someone special. You said you’d feel lonely, but I couldn’t believe you’d miss me, because I’m... Me. And you’re… You.”
Yamanbagiri scratched his head, hating the fact he felt no good with words either.
He felt the ice slightly warm up below his palm. Slowly, he could see Mikazuki better, as if light were radiating from the man. Yamanbagiri decided to continue, hopeful his words were reaching him.
“You must have had a serious reason to break that mirror, and I want to hear why. The Mikazuki I knew wouldn’t have done that meaning to hurt Rei, or to bring back the angry Tsurumaru.”
The mirror slightly glowed, as if to attract his attention. Yamanbagiri noticed it was reflecting him, which was improbable. The clarity of the image was the work of magic. The reflection was accurate; his face, while relaxed, was rather expressionless.
Yamanbagiri remembered how many times Mikazuki had tried to make him smile, but embarrassed him instead. He was just too intellectual and sophisticated for the boorish man he was.
“Your jokes were from another age and social rank than mine… But I’d find you cute when you tried.”
A soft smile curved the ends of Yamanbagiri’s lips.
“I won’t go anywhere anymore without you. Please, reincarnate with me, and let’s move on together.”
He could see Mikazuki as if he were looking through a window. One of Mikazuki’s hands trembled almost imperceptibly. His face gained a bit of color. It seemed as if he were blushing and Yamanbagiri almost stuck his face against the ice like Tsurumaru did, to be sure he wasn’t hallucinating.
He slightly jumped when something grazed his arm. It was Higekiri’s vest. He glanced at Tsurumaru, who was visibly getting annoyed, and Shizukagata struggling to find a way to keep his attention.
Higekiri seemed slightly dizzy, or dazed. Hizamaru was helping him to keep upright. He knocked against the ice, as if against a door and said;
“Rei! Let’s have strawberry shortcake with a mountain of whipped cream once you’ve recovered. Then, let’s go back to Rhode Islands and marry there!”
Hizamaru slightly reeled. That sounded like even more secrets to keep until the appropriate circumstances come, but it wouldn’t technically change anything; they already lived together.
“Aruji… I’ll do my best to help you recover,” Hizamaru said, the tip of his ears turning red, but his face dead-serious and determined.
Two pink dots appeared on the mirror as if it were blushing. Yamanbagiri was perplexed.
“Help Jiijii out! Ganbatte, Rei!” Higekiri cheered.
Tsurumaru’s attention was attracted by the cheering.
The ice around and in front of Mikazuki started melting, the mirror’s magic digging a path out for the Sanjou sword. He moved, his eyes opened, and his feet set to the ground.
A circle of light shone above their heads. Lightning struck the ground, and Tenko landed.
Black miasma oozed out of Tsurumaru, and he scowled, drawing his sword.
“Yooou biiiitch!” he roared.
It will take about two weeks for me to publish the last chapter.
“What are you waiting for?” Tenko asked as Tsurumaru fidgeted from foot to foot.
She looked at the block; Mikazuki was watching them, unable to move. The ground had become slippery below her feet, and would soon turn into ice. Fighting on it in their shoes would undoubtedly make for an exciting duel, she thought with gritted teeth.
Yamanbagiri stood between Tsurumaru and Mikazuki, but the way to Tenko was wide open. He seemed to hesitate in which direction to run first. None of his comrades had drawn their swords.
“Tsurumaru, can’t we just talk this out?!” Hasebe called, “what’s happening to you?”
Tsurumaru took his battle stance.
“Could you beat all of us?” Yamanbagiri asked, not showing any animosity.
“Would you interfere?” Tsurumaru asked.
Yamanbagiri smiled “Of course we would, to protect you. That’s what friends are for!”
Tsurumaru seemed perplexed. Suddenly, a woman screamed, “That’s the same stuff as what took over Tsukiyomi!”
Yamanbagiri jumped; a short woman with a horn on her forehead was behind him. Hizamaru had picked her up, and she was leaning against his shoulder. She flickered like an old unstable holographic projection.
“Tenko, I know you want to satisfy Tsurumaru with a duel, but that won’t save him. He died without knowing why nobody saved him!”
Tenko took a few steps forward, and Tsurumaru pointed his sword at her as a warning. To his surprise, she sheathed her own and bowed down. In her living, she had never bowed once to a Tsukumogami, because her father would scold her for it.
“I tried everything to close the Storages down and became influent as an activist for Tsukumogami’s rights. I’m not sure who murdered Mikazuki to get rid of me – I made many enemies, but it’s the Saniwa Order who took my baby to blackmail me until I died from the backlash.”
Yata’s expression was grave. From the life she had as Rei, she could remember some of her lesser friendly contacts with the Saniwa Order. Tsukumogami still depended on their masters, but a lot of progress had come from what Tenko had done.
“Yata, could you reply as Rei?” Tsurumaru asked.
She shrugged “I guess so.”
“How could you stay loyal to such a dirty organization? Don’t you have any pride?” he shot.
“You are your master’s only pride. Rei is loyal to Tsukumogami and considers you family. Tenko fought for social justice – Rei for home. Didn’t you want the same two things as them?”
Tsurumaru reeled and lowered his sword. It seemed it was still possible to reason him. The miasma was pulsating as if Tsurumaru were the center of a heart about to explode. Seeing it as an opening, Hasebe said;
“Tsuru, think of your friends and home! There’s a dark thing all over you, that’s covering your eyes and ears. Think of Ookurikara, Mitsutada, the grass prank in my room that took me a weak to clean!”
The miasma grew bigger as if to push him down, and Tsurumaru held his head.
There was a yellow circle in the sky and lightning stroke. Ookurikara appeared in a whirlwind of cherry blossoms. An awkward silence fell, even Tsurumaru squinting to be sure he wasn’t dreaming. Once he was sure he wasn’t, he burst into laughter, pointing at his friend.
He looked as if he had run out of a shower and grabbed the first thing he found. Ookurikara wore a lady’s green privilege, too short and small for him. His feet, calves, and forearms were bare in the coldest hell. Yata stared at it with wide eyes.
“Bless my mother, she saved you!” Yata cried.
The miasma suddenly ripped out of Tsurumaru, and he collapsed. It grew all over the place, and they heard ice blocks crack. Hands came out from below the snow and tried to grab their feet. Tsurumaru’s shadow took shape and charged against Tenko.
“W-what Toku is that thing?!” Higekiri panted, a gash on his side, “Kiwame?”
He was at his third Toku, but he couldn’t as much as touch the “black” Tsurumaru. He tried to assist Tenko, only to find out her skill was above his, and that shadow equaled her. His support was welcome, but he felt like he couldn’t do much.
Hizamaru was busy fighting back an army of ice Oni and evil spirits which were under the control of the miasma, to protect the mirror and Yata. Yamanbagiri and Ookurikara were trying to push away hordes of demons from the ice wall.
“How in hell did you bring sake here?!” Hasebe spat.
Hasebe couldn’t believe his eyes, as Shizukagata pulled a glass bottle out of a pocket of his privilege. Hasebe was fighting like a wild animal, while Shizukagata seemed resigned to enjoy his last drink.
“Whisky. Warms up,” Shizukagata said as if it were a simple thing.
“What are you, a Saint-Bernard?! Are we in the Swiss Alps?! God freaking top of the Matterhorn?!” Hasebe raged, as Shizukagata put some into Tsurumaru’s mouth.
Tenko was able to cross swords with the shadow but had trouble keeping pace. The block continued melting. Mikazuki was trying to tell her something, but she couldn’t hear him, no matter how hard he shouted. It was as if his time was counted and he couldn’t come out to tell her. He seemed desperate and sorry.
“You can kill me ten times over; I’m already dead,” she hissed at the shadow between her teeth.
His kick was so powerful she crashed into a block of ice. He charged against her, as she was cornered. She guessed what he was about to do, but it was too late; he tried to pull her into the ice. A pale gloved hand grabbed her other arm and pulled her into the opposite direction.
She slipped out of her shoes and stumbled against a white kimono. Two identical swords clashed as the pair whirled and Tsurumaru threw Tenko out of the way.
The ground shook, and a gigantic beast appeared; a blue Oni of the likes which had pursued Ookurikara rose from behind a boulder. Black miasma was over it, and the titan came forth, brandishing its club.
“We’re fighting that! Go after Mikazuki!” Higekiri shouted to Tsurumaru, followed by Hizamaru.
“Tsuru, he’s leaving!”
Yamanbagiri was pounding against the boulder. Light was shining out of it. A wave of infernal beings was about to strike them. The shadow undid himself from Tsurumaru’s lock and sprinted towards the wall. Tsurumaru and Tenko ran after him.
The black Tsurumaru was able to enter it, dissolving as if he were liquid.
“Tsuru! I can’t follow you; Mikazuki’s reincarnating!”
Tenko stopped a few feet from the light. She threw a talisman against the ice. A portal-shaped. Tsurumaru jumped in, closely followed by his dark double.
“Ookurikara, Hasebe, Shizukagata, Higekiri, Hizamaru, protect the mirror with me! Yamanbagiri, go!” Tenko ordered.
“See you in another life,” Ookurikara said.
“Live, love, laugh!” Yamanbagiri said to Ookurikara and jumped in.
“Mika! Take care of Rei!” Tenko shouted.
Tsurumaru and Yamanbagiri faced a seemingly endless tunnel of red Torii gates, through which Mikazuki had started walking, holding his sword against his chest. The black Tsurumaru was nowhere in sight and the mirror, still in the heat of the battle on the other side of the portal.
Thousands of onibi flew about, the flame ghosts like stars in the ink black sky. The butterflies which had appeared with Tenko were fluttering around Mikazuki, accompanying him. They stood over what seemed to be black water or a bottomless pit of darkness. Lanterns lit the way along the gate tunnel.
No matter how fast they ran, it felt like a bad dream; they couldn’t catch up with him, who seemed to only be walking. Suddenly, Yamanbagiri drew his sword and deflected something that had dived on them.
“A Tantou?! What are Revisionists doing here?!”
Tsurumaru slashed a few out of the way. They appeared at what seemed dozens, slowing down their progress and exhausting them. Mikazuki glanced back with what seemed to be a knowing smile but then continued walking. Tsurumaru noticed that as he fought them, it seemed something was leaking out of his sword.
A song suddenly came to his mind, with heavy, fast drumming. He could remember he had already been through this place, alone, pulled in by an irresistible force. The same matter was leaking from him, and his memories had started disappearing. They were in a cleansing process.
“Manba, run! I have to finish something here!”
Tsurumaru stopped running, and the water beneath them seemed to be creeping up his knees. It was as if hands from the underworld were trying to pull him into the void.
Yamanbagiri turned around; half of Tsurumaru’s face seemed soiled by black ink. There were cracks all around it, and Tsurumaru was sinking.
“Don’t let it take over you! That’s your past karma!” Yamanbagiri shouted.
He tried to run to save his friend, but the Tantou were hindering him at joining Tsurumaru. Mikazuki kept on walking towards the growing light, unperturbed.
“If I don’t get rid of it now, that resentment will come back to life with me,” Tsurumaru said.
He sank completely. Yamanbagiri dove after him.
They fell down what seemed to be an endless pit, scenes of their past lives projected all around them. They could see the Great Citadel’s hall, Mikazuki and Tsurumaru flirting in a shrine, battles, arguments, Tenko. There were happy and painful moments for both, and when they got to Tsurumaru’s worst part, the darkness started taking over him.
“Think of your friends! Think of the next prank you’ll do! Think of how kind your present master is!” Yamanbagiri said, trying to catch his hand.
“I’ll bring misfortune to Aruji!” Tsurumaru cried, regressing, his privilege slowly ripping as the darkness covered his skin like a plague.
“Whatever you did in your past lives is passed, whatever bad things happened weren’t your fault. You won’t ever lose everything again; times have changed. Mikazuki never wanted to betray you. He’s waiting for you at the right place!
Tsurumaru started sobbing, his tears black. Tantou dived down and attacked them. Yamanbagiri tried to stay over Tsurumaru to protect him, but Tsurumaru suddenly grabbed him from behind and switched their positions, facing them.
In a loud splash, they hit what seemed to be water. The darkness stayed at the surface. Tsurumaru tried to keep holding Yamanbagiri’s hand, but it went through as he became transparent. He waved Tsurumaru goodbye with a smile on his face. His cape and the soiled privilege slipped off of him, and he turned into light.
He noticed the Sanjou sword was in the same place as him Mikazuki grinned, glowing as gently as the moon, his blue eyes the night sky. Tsurumaru found the sight breathtaking.
And then, everything faded.
Someone was calling Tsurumaru. The voice sounded insistent, somewhat worried. His ears were buzzing, and he couldn’t see or feel anything. Yet, the voice seemed to approach, reaching out to him. He knew that voice, and wanted to join it; his master’s. He saw a familiar thread, and grabbed it, holding it as firmly as he could.
Cherry blossoms twirled by hundreds in front of his eyes, light blinding. His master was sitting on the knees, still somewhat pale and thin. He was back in his master’s Citadel. Ukemochi was steadying Rei who they seemed to have assisted in the summoning. Ookurikara was with them as well and sighed in relief as he saw Tsurumaru.
Tsurumaru noticed there was a weight in his hands, added to his hip; he was holding a magnificent Tachi with a moon-engraved scabbard. Ookurikara set his hands on his shoulders and patted them.
“Good to have you back,” Ookurikara said, a smile on the corner of his lips.
“Have I succeeded?” Tsurumaru asked, not recognizing the sword in his hands.
Rei nodded. “Don’t you remember anything?”
He frowned and seemed to be digging in his memory. “I went into the pod and… Ookurikara wore a flashy pink Kimono.”
Ookurikara groaned “Why of all the – “
“Is it bad I don’t?”
Rei shrugged “It’s the present that matters, and what you’ll do of it.”
Tsurumaru giggled “What does that even mean?!”
“How do you feel?” Ukemochi asked him.
He felt light as if relieved. He couldn’t tell why, but he was excited to have that sword in his hands. It was as if the weight that had been pressing down on him before were entirely gone.
With a wide grin, he said;
“Grateful to be alive.”
It was a celebration night; Rei had recovered enough to throw a party in the Citadel, before departing on that one’s first extended vacation in eight years.
The Saniwa seemed to be overexcited about going to some random place in the United States Tsurumaru couldn’t quite understand the charm of. Sure, Las Vegas must be cool, but why the Rhode Islands before? He didn’t even know on which island of that state exactly.
Ukemochi’s Citadel had joined them for the celebration so they could account for about eighty Tsukumogami. Shizukagata was chatting happily with Iwatooshi, Tomoegata sitting on his other side, seeming meditative over his cup of sake.
Ookurikara was seated with Mitsutada, listening to him talk about himself over a drink. Ookurikara’s expression was as stoic as usual, but he didn’t seem to mind Mitsutada was obviously flirting with him and didn’t reject him either. Tsurumaru felt he’d better give those two some space, so he went to nag Hasebe.
Hasebe was going to follow Rei through those travels, as an attendant, he said. Other than him, the Genji brothers, Ukemochi and Ookurikara would come. Even as he secretly wanted to go with them, seeing an opportunity to party with Ookurikara in Las Vegas, a gut feeling held Tsurumaru back. Also, Rei had warned him he’d receive an important assignment during his master’s absence.
The happy chatter quieted as the Saniwa came in, about to make an announcement. Tsurumaru’s jaw dropped as he saw who followed behind his master; Mikazuki Munechika.
He was the assignment.
The waves broke on the grey-sanded beach. They held each other's hand, warmth in the cool morning breeze. Rei set the head on Higekiri’s shoulder, as they watched the ocean in silence. It was just them, on the simple no-strass honeymoon Rei had wished for over a decade ago. Hizamaru, Ookurikara, and Hasebe were having a good time in Las Vegas and had sent them pictures.
Higekiri and Izanagi Ryo had drunken sake together last night before Higekiri slipped into Rei’s room. They consumed the tradition in the manner of ordinary folk, without the ceremony of tanka poems or golden sake. Two more night-incursions and their marriage will be complete.
He locked an arm around his fiancé’s waist. They didn’t know when they’d be able to make their status public but believed it would be possible, someday.
“Rei, do you want… Pancakes?” Higekiri asked.
“I want ten of them,” Rei giggled.
He smiled and kissed Rei’s cheek. A seagull’s scream interrupted their laughter, and they fell silent again, listening to the waves break. Their fingers laced as they looked at the pink horizon.
Tsurumaru wondered why the Saniwa assigned him at chores and sorties with Mikazuki so often. He wasn’t against it, but he did ask about the strategical reason his master thought up. None of the two were enthusiastic about chores. Rei insisted Mikazuki enjoyed being with him, but how could he guess, as the man smiled the same at everyone?
That afternoon, he had a big surprise during the cleaning chore. He heard something he first thought to be one of the Citadel’s animals’ soft paws tapping the wooden floor. Something the size of a large pillow and round was just next to him, looking at him with big blue eyes.
Tsurumaru melted when he realized it was a giant mochi version of Mikazuki. He hugged and rolled through the shrine’s hall with the imitation of the Sanjou sword which made funny “gye” sounds.
“Anayaa… What are you doing, Tsurumaru?”
The real Mikazuki had caught him while he was rubbing his face against the creature’s soft cheek, squealing in delight. His jaw dropped, and he stuttered something incomprehensible. Tsurumaru pressed his completely red face against the mochi’s stomach, it’s ridiculous four stubby legs wriggling in distress.
By reflex, Mikazuki tried to cover his face with his kimono sleeve, but he was in his working clothes. His face turned beet-red as well.
“Ha, ha, ha! Wonderful, wonderful!” he laughed.
That's it folks. Thank you for reading.
I'm going to write a comment on this series (History of the Flower Garden) as a whole, as this one is the last of the "Rei" timeline.
Each story I've written up to now had a theme I tried to explore.
This one's theme was Yellow Camelia; longing. It was the longing between Mikazuki and Tsurumaru in a past life, and their reunion in the new one. It has been one hell of a ride, for me as a writer. I hope the ending was satisfying to those who have made it up to here. I told you it would be happy!
The one before (Memoir of the Incomplete) was "Gardenia"; the secret and forbidden love between a Tsukumogami and his master.
I explored sensible topics, such as gender identity, tradition and consent through it. If you think this one was dark...
The next, which is actually the first I wrote (Dance under the Frost Moon), is "Forget-me-not"; true love. It's also the true ending of the entire series.
I just wanted to find a way to bring Tsurumaru at peace with the whole Shimotsuki incident and many massacres he's been through.
I am writing one last story, which is the only of the "Tenko" timeline with the theme "Cactus flower"; lust. So yeah, basically, a lot of smut. I can't say more about it for the moment, but it's much lighter than you'd expect after reading this story (I have no interest or reason to put Tsurumaru through hell again. He's just gonna get it on quite often with Mikazuki, and there will be other pairings.)
Thank you Gorgeousname for your support and comments <3 I'm not sure I'd have made it through without you.