Oni are fond of their sake.
That is how Hibiki is bribed, his cup filled to overflowing and his countenance made even more pleasant by the alcohol flowing through his blood.
“And what is it a human wants from me, to gift me with something so delicious?” he asks, holding his cup out so that it can be refilled again by the old man across from him. Humans were always so interesting, Hibiki thinks, so caught up in their own thoughts and worries. They call Oni destructive man eaters (and perhaps it’s true, for Hibiki has rained his own terror down when humans became too vicious, too laden with greed and malice) yet Hibiki has never known any other Oni as cruel as humans.
The old man looks pensive, yet sits back once sake starts dripping over Hibiki’s knuckles, “I have a favor--for now, at least, Lord Hibiki.”
“A favor? Do tell, do tell!”
Hibiki downs the sake in his cup in one go.
“I need you to take care of a human child.”
He has heard of this before. Ibuki, almost as soft hearted as Hibiki, is known for watching over kids in the forest. They would tail after him, hands clasping at the beautiful blue of his kimono and their fingers playing with the jewelry that adorned his horns. Ibuki always took care of the children left behind.
“Should you not have sought out Ibuki instead of me,” the jovial tone has left Hibiki’s voice. He lets the cup rest loosely in his hand, arm propped on his knee.
The man shakes his head, “Lord Ibuki is too kind, he will never teach this child what he needs to know.”
“And what is that?”
The cup shatters in Hibiki’s hand.
“You are to ask me to raise a child to fight?” Hibiki asks, his ire growing. “You would bribe me until I am sluggish from sake so that I may say yes to teach a child to fight the battles you do not want to face?”
The man bows, his forehead touching the ground.
“Forgive me, Lord Hibiki, but you are the strongest Oni of the mountains--this boy’s fate is tied with a curse that I cannot save him from.”
“And what is that curse?”
“He is to fight the Queen of Yomi, and he is to perish.”
The boy’s name is Takeru.
He is small, scared, staring up at Hibiki with tears in his eyes while his hands cling desperately to his father’s pants. Hibiki is almost reminded of Asumu in his youth, though the boy had grown up to be a wonderful young man who married one of Ibuki’s favorites--a girl named Akira.
“Father...it’s an Oni,” the boy says, timid. “Why is an Oni here?”
“It is okay, Takeru,” his father urges Takeru to step forward. “Lord Hibiki will let no harm come to you, that he has promised.”
Hibiki kneels, holding a clawed hand out to Takeru. There is hesitance, but Takeru reaches out and places his tiny hand into Hibiki’s palm. Gently, Hibiki clasps it, “It is nice to meet you, Takeru.”
“Why are you here?”
“I’m to protect you.”
“Is father coming with us?”
Hibiki looks at Takeru’s father with frigid eyes. The man at least looks guilty, as if he had not wanted to do this, but to give a boy an Oni’s protection is to insure that no harm will ever befall him. That is what Hibiki had promised over the sake brought to him, and it is a promise he will keep.
“I am leaving on a trip I cannot take you on, Takeru. Lord Hibiki will keep you safe until my return.”
Hibiki scoops Takeru up in his arms before the boy can reach out, lets him thrash in his arms and scream and yell and cry.
“Keep your word, Ryu,” Hibiki says.
“Makoto, Takeru is gone!” Kanon yells, her voice high pitched and hiccuping. Makoto startles from his concentration, almost dropping his blade. He doesn’t even think to scold Kanon for interrupting him. He’s too focused on what she’s said.
“Takeru is where?”
“Gone! I heard from the village aunties--he’s with the Oni!”
Makoto remembers them. They came down to the village once, geta leaving imprints in the dirt and their ornate robes almost out of place on their figures. Their horns were wicked sharp, their claws fit to shed blood, and the weapons they carried could kill any of them if they desired.
An Oni had taken Takeru.
“Why is he with them?” Makoto asks. “Did they kidnap him?”
“I don’t know, I don’t, the aunties think maybe he was kidnapped but Uncle Ryu would never let that happen.”
Makoto bites his lips, “Then we need to go ask him, too.”
They find an empty temple, instead.
“He’s so small for a human child,” Todoroki says, peering down at Takeru. “What made you say yes, Hibiki-san?”
“Sake,” Hibiki answers.
It earns him a disdained look from Ibuki.
“And a promise to keep him safe and teach him how to fight--the boy is cursed.”
“Cursed?” Zanki splutters. Shuki’s steady koto playing stops, the silence almost deafening.
Ibuki breaks the silence, “You took him to protect him...for being the strongest, you are certainly the softest.”
“It will get him killed one day,” Shuki says, starting up her playing once more. “We Oni may live long but we are not invincible.”
Hibiki laughs, thumb wiping away some crumbs off Takeru’s face from the small dinner that they had prepared for him when his tummy had growled. Takeru, asleep in Hibiki’s arms, makes a face, turning to bury closer to Hibiki’s side.
“Father,” the boy whispers, pained. “Father, why?”
The light hearted mood fades, but Hibiki speaks anyways, “I have made a promise to Ryu, to protect this boy from the Queen of Yomi and her warriors.”
But he will die anyways.
For that is the fate of those cursed to fight Yomi.
Takeru knows not of how Oni live, has never thought of them much past the rumors told in the village by the women to scare their children into behaving. They are bloodthirsty, they are vicious, they will eat you in a heartbeat--they are all things that he has heard in regards to these kimono-clad warrior.
Yet Hibiki does not seem like that.
His red lined eyes are soft, his horns curved yet adorned with simple bands of gold, and his robes a waterfall of deep purple that cascaded into a soft red. His hands, callused from use of weapons and with claws he’s seen easily carve wood, are gentle and firm as they pick Takeru up to carry him from place to place.
“You’re a weird oni,” Takeru, wide eyed and innocent, tells him.
“All Oni are, I’d like to think. It’s part of our natural charm.”
Hibiki carries him through the forest, mindful of the rocks and the roots of trees. He carries him past shrines, past curious spirits peering at them from their hiding spots, and Takeru holds on to him tightly. He misses his father, yes, but there is something to be said about an Oni as kind as Hibiki.
They stop further into the forest, near the peak of the mountain and at a large shrine. The floors are meticulously kept, the grounds clean, and the komainu statues polished to a near impeccable shine. Takeru spies two winged figures resting in the courtyard, their wings lazily spread as they shared a pipe between them. Further into the shrine, Takeru thinks he spies another figure, wings larger than the two up front, but he’s not sure.
Hibiki strides in lazily.
His presence seems to do something as the two figures in the courtyard snap to attention immediately. In a flurry of feathers they frantically bow, and one rushes inside. Seemingly moments later there’s more commotion and a man with even larger wings--head shaved and a red mask with a long nose resting on his hip--comes stumbling out.
“Lord Hibiki, what good tidings!” the man says, bowing. “For what reason have you come to our humble shrine today?”
“Raise your head, Onari,” Hibiki laughs. “You are the lord of this mountain, not I.”
“But it is you Oni who keep the peace,” this Onari responds. It’s here that he notices Takeru in Hibiki’s arm and he makes a curious noise. His wings lift slightly as he leans in close, and Takeru leans back in response. “A human child? Have you gotten in the same habits of Lord Ibuki?”
“No, this is more of a favor to a...friend,” Hibiki tells him. “Onari, I cannot rightfully keep him with me, not as long as we Oni roam. This boy needs a stable place, somewhere I can come back to when my duties are done.”
Onari raises a hand, nails just as sharp as Hibiki’s, “Say no more, Lord Hibiki! This human child is free to stay--”
“N-no!” Takeru gets out, holding on tighter to Hibiki. It startles the two, their gaze turning to him. “I...no, I don’t want to!”
He’s already lost his father.
What would he do if he were passed off to someone else?
“...boy,” Hibiki’s voice is gentle and Takeru looks at the Oni’s soft gaze. “This does not mean I will let you go--I will return, whenever my duties are done, I will return.”
Takeru’s lip quivers.
“We Oni fight, we defeat those spirits that wish to harm you,” Hibiki continues. “I cannot keep you safe like Ibuki can--my powers lie in destroying. I made a promise to your father and I will not break it.”
Hibiki smiles before letting Takeru down, ruffles his hair before pulling a bracelet off of his wrist. He places it in Takeru’s palms, closes his fingers over it and tells him, “This is a sign of our promise. I have put my magic in there, and if it ever breaks then you have every right to be mad at me.”
Onari shifts, but stops at one look from Hibiki.
“Promise?” Takeru asks.
Hibiki leaves after that, and Onari ushers Takeru inside.
“Hey...if that breaks doesn’t it mean the Oni’s died?” one of the two from before whispers as Takeru passes them by.
He tries to not think on it.