Questionable Days with Yokai
“Did that otter... just talk?” Risako asked Mizutani, who had lifted his head (...Risako's head...) but remained lying on the ground otherwise. He didn't respond, either too shocked by this new development, or not yet fully aware of what was happening.
“My, my. I am no regular river otter.” The creature had the voice of a young woman, very calm-sounding, and with an air of maturity. “I am what humans call a yokai.”
Or in other words, a strange and mysterious creature from old folklore. Monsters such as kitsune, tanuki, kappa, and tengu, as well as various kinds of spirits. Risako had some vague awareness of river otters at times being depicted as magical creatures, generally as shapeshifting tricksters.
So. Yokai were real then. Not that Risako wanted that cleared up, but it was good to know.
“Did you do... this? To us?” Risako asked the first thing on her mind, pointing back and forth between herself and Mizutani.
The otter squeaked cutely and tilted her head to the side. “What do you mean?”
“Our bodies... or maybe our minds...” It was difficult for Risako to force the words out. Like admitting it to someone else (even if it was an otter) made it much more real. “They switched.”
“Oh, is that what happened now? I was curious what the garden's curse did to you two exactly...” The otter crawled about in a circle one way, and then the other. “It was not my doing. I was sealed within a statue by an onmyoji about fifty years ago, then tossed into this cursed garden... probably so that nobody would be able to free me. I am incredibly fortunate you two came here and were able to find me. I am indebted to you.”
It was absolutely wild to be holding a full-blown conversation with an animal like this, but it also (arguably) wasn't the strangest thing to have happened today. Risako had to just roll with it for now, maybe get therapy later.
Mizutani knelt down by the otter. “Can you explain all that a little more? Start with this garden's curse. What is it exactly?”
The fidgety otter wouldn't stop pacing about and looking around every which-way. “This garden is protected by a special kind of spiritual defense that was placed by another onmyoji, a powerful man named Ichijo no Shunzai. That would have been over a thousand years ago, when this mansion was first built. Essentially, any human who trespasses in here is afflicted with a random curse. One person who entered here was sent back in time ten thousand years. Another person lost all five of their senses. And another was turned into a single-cell organism. So it appears you two got off easy!”
Risako couldn't accept the otter saying that. “Got off easy? I've been turned into... into...” She motioned her hands up and down in front of her face and chest. “...this guy!”
The otter stared at Risako for about a half-minute, and then at Mizutani for another, wiggling her whiskers in concentration. “You two look almost exactly the same. Is it really so bad?”
“We absolutely do not look almost exactly the same!” Risako stomped her foot, and held out her arms down toward Mizutani. “We're 100% different. We're not even the same gender!”
The otter bowed her head low to the ground. “Oh, I can kind of see it now. I apologize, humans look very similar to me, just in general.” She looked back up at Risako, the otter somehow seeming more serious despite not having any noticeable change in expression. “How easily would you be able to tell a romp of otters apart, may I ask? You might even say female otters and male otters look the same.”
That was probably true. The otter had a point. But regardless, Risako was not in the mood for this.
Mizutani spoke up. “Miss Akemi, was it? Would you by chance be able to undo our curse? Since you're a yokai.”
“I am afraid I can not wield such magic,” the otter said. “The most I can do is shift between otter and human forms. I can not change the appearance of others, only myself.”
“Oh...” Risako lamented. “Well, what if we leave the mansion? Would that undo the spell?”
The otter twisted her body, as if trying to lick her back. “Quite the opposite! If you were to leave the premises, the effects of the curse would become permanent. That is a core feature of the magic here. If you wish to undo your curse so badly, you will need to do so before you depart.”
Risako thought, But if the otter can't do anything about it... Everything was starting to look a bit hopeless. Was she going to have to start shaving her face each day, for the rest of her life? Would her friends still hang out with her like this? Would her mother even recognize her?
Mizutani posed another question for the otter. “Why was a... spiritual defense placed on this garden specifically?”
“Ichijo no Shunzai likely did not want anyone entering the underground prison he created. The passageway from it leads to this garden.”
“Underground prison?” Risako repeated. “Who are the prisoners?”
“Lots and lots of yokai~” the otter said in a sing-song voice.
“Seriously? Can we see them?” Maybe Risako shouldn't have wanted to seek out a horde of monsters... but she couldn't help but feel a little excitement start to well up within her.
The otter nodded its little head. “Indeed you can. And who knows, perhaps one of them would be able to assist with your predicament? I have many connections down below, so please rely on me in return for your freeing me from my statue imprisonment.”
Mizutani gave a pensive hum. “I don't really get how we freed you in the first place.”
“Oh, did you not free me on purpose?” the otter asked. “I assumed at least one of you is capable of wielding onmyodo magic.”
Risako gestured toward Mizutani. “He's like a psychic; he can sense stuff.”
Mizutani looked over to Risako. “It was you who held the statue though.”
“But I didn't actually do anything...” Risako thought it over a bit, and remembered she had on Mizutani's necklace, which he said had a special jade magatama hanging from it. She lifted it up from her shirt to show the otter. “Is this thing magical? I'm wondering if this might've been what freed you, little otter.”
“Yes, oh yes! This is something special indeed. Is it yours?”
“It's his actually...”
“Ah, because you switched places.” Akemi nodded slowly toward Mizutani. “It is no accident you came here then. The magatama is very much tied to this mansion and its underground prison.”
“I came here hoping to find out more about it,” Mizutani said. “And to see if I could learn to control whatever onmyodo powers I might have.”
“There are other magatama like that one down below,” the otter said. “It may be worth your while to seek them out.”
Mizutani looked down at the ground, seemingly lost in thought. He probably didn't like the idea of entering an underworld full of potentially dangerous monsters... Which was very sensible of him. Risako wasn't going to argue that.
The otter scampered across the field and perched herself atop one of the larger rocks scattered about. “The passage leading down to our yokai realm is right here. If you two can lift this stone, we shall find a hidden door to a stairway underneath.” The otter hopped off the rock and began rolling about in the dirt and sniffing random dead plants here and there.
The rock in question though was dangerously close to boulder territory in Risako's mind. She didn't think there was any chance of her and Mizutani getting it to budge.
But to Risako's surprise, Mizutani walked right over to it.
He patted the rock and looked expectantly toward Risako. “I'll probably need your help.”
“You think I can lift that? That's got to weigh a ton!”
“It won't be that heavy, and I'll be helping.”
“I don't want to smash my fingers and toes,” Risako said. “...Your fingers and toes... But also, your, fingers and toes, too... Which are mine...”
“Weren't you asking me to break down a wall of the mansion earlier? You get to make use of my body's strength directly now, so have some confidence.”
This was certainly a weird conversation, but Risako complied and headed over to the rock. The two positioned themselves on either side of it and bent their knees, careful to keep their backs straight. Risako heard a sharp intake of breath through gritted teeth — Mizutani winced and stood back up, bending down to grip his leg.
“Ah...” he groaned. “That wound you got earlier...”
“Sorry, I guess you have to suffer with it now.”
One small perk of this body swap, I guess. But not like she could actually feel good about it, when it just transferred the pain to someone else.
Mizutani shut his eyes tight for a few seconds and shook his head. “Could call it karma, since it was my fault you got hurt.”
Risako didn't actually blame Mizutani for that. But he had every reason to blame her for this new mess they were in. If Risako hadn't insisted on checking out this inner garden...
“I'm... I'm sorry, Mizutani. It's my fault we switched places... and now we might be stuck like this...” Still crouched down, Risako rested her head against the hot stone, too ashamed to look Mizutani (or herself) in the eye. She was in a terrible mess, but it wasn't just her. Mizutani surely had to be feeling just as overwhelmed, just as uncomfortable, just as desperate.
Risako slowly looked up and found Mizutani was smiling. Just slightly. And it definitely didn't look natural... especially with it still being incredibly uncanny, seeing her own face separated from her like this — but still.
Mizutani spoke quietly. “It's fine. I'm pretty sure we would've ended up investigating this place eventually. And if the curse here is random, then maybe something a lot worse would've happened to us if we came at a later time. Switching places isn't as bad as turning into single-cell organisms, right?”
Risako couldn't help but be moved to tears. “Mizutani...” She wiped her eyes and shook her head a couple times. “You're right. Let's move this rock, and find ourselves a yokai that can switch us back.”
They got back in position and proceeded to lift the cumbersome rock up. It was definitely heavy, but it was actually much more manageable than Risako could have imagined. Once they had safely placed it back down, she was even more surprised to find she didn't feel all that tired from the effort. Mizutani meanwhile had collapsed, lying flat on his back once again, and this time breathing heavily. Still though, Risako wouldn't have been able to do it without his help.
“Wonderful!” the otter said, hopping over to where the rock had been. “Now let us find the trap door handle under this dirt.”
Risako repeatedly bashed the heel of her shoe (well, Mizutani's shoe) into the packed earth. After several kicks she felt what seemed to be a wooden board. Once she, Mizutani, and the otter cleared enough of the hard soil and pebbles from the area, Risako lifted the doorway up by its hefty metal handle.
And there it was, a pit with a dark stone stairway, leading straight down to literally hell knows where. It did not look inviting, to say the least.
“So if there are a bunch of yokai down there, and Miss Akemi isn't best friends with all of them...” Mizutani said, his voice trailing off at the end.
Risako finished for him. “We... might get killed.” Yokai weren't deadly in every monster tale ever told, but it was certainly a recurring theme.
“I dare not pretend there are no dangers below,” the otter said. “But the human world is not so perfectly safe now either, is it? Of course, you are under no obligation to enter our yokai realm, if you do not wish it. I would be happy to assist you in vacating the premises of this mansion.”
Risako wasn't going to be so dramatic as to say living the rest of her life as Mizutani was a fate worse than death, but she couldn't just give up before even trying anything. And the revelation that there was more to this mansion below the earth made her wonder if there was still a chance of finding her grandmother here after all. Maybe Grandma's letter was actually an SOS in disguise?
“I'm not ready to leave. How about you?” she asked Mizutani.
“There's a lot more I'd like to find out about this place. It seems my magatama reacted to the magic here, at least. And the onmyoji who bound all the yokai below... Ichijo no Shunzai? I have to wonder if he could have been my ancestor.” Mizutani placed his hands on his hips and smirked sheepishly. “And who knows, maybe I'll learn to wield some onmyodo spells myself? Then I can just switch us back on my own.”
Risako wondered how likely that would be the case though. If onmyodo magical power was passed down to Mizutani from his ancestor... Well, it was Risako who was physically Mizutani right now, wasn't it?
Suddenly there appeared to be a silver lining to this unpredictable thundercloud.