Chapter 7:

[Risako] — Not Supposed to Eat Food in the Underworld, But We're Hungry, So

Questionable Days with Yokai

It was a good thing Risako didn't make any promises last night.Bookmark here

She truly didn't intend to do anything weird. But when she woke up the next morning, the most male part of her new body started acting weird all on its own.Bookmark here

Risako had never “gotten to know” a boy before (indeed, she'd never had a boyfriend at all), but she at least had an education in anatomy and whatnot. So she felt she had a good idea of what was going on. She just wasn't sure how to... settle herself down. There was no going out with it acting up like this. How would she walk? Risako wasn't sure if this was something boys had to deal with every day, or if it was just, like, every once in a while.Bookmark here

So she spent the morning trying to calm herself down... and technically succeeding. Just not in the way she intended. I'm sorry, Mizutani.Bookmark here

Her efforts left her feeling strangely... clear-headed? Or maybe just relieved. But she also needed a change of underpants...Bookmark here

Forgive me, Mizutani. She had exchanged luggage with him last night, and fortunately he had packed a week's worth of boxer briefs.Bookmark here

So he goes with the best of both worlds, huh? For some reason this seemed fitting for Mizutani, though Risako wasn't sure if that was because she saw it as an indecisive choice, or as a sensible one.Bookmark here

By her room's sliding door, Risako noticed a bundle of clothes lying on the floor. She crawled over and found a note lying on top of it.Bookmark here

Good day, Miss Kitamura! Now that your cover story has been established, I have acquired some lighter summer clothes for you and Mister Mizutani, so wear this yukata if you so wish. I have paid the yokai who runs the restaurant enough to cover for your meals for the day. I should return later, perhaps in the afternoon.Bookmark here

AkemiBookmark here

Risako wasn't sure what the otter could be up to, but that was something she could ask once Akemi returned. For now she put on the yukata provided for her, which had a stylish blue and black design to it: wavy checkered patterns, scattered circles, and ripply lines — giving off an underwater sort of feel to it. It was a cool look, and it felt cool too. Risako walked about the room a few times, then tried a few yoga poses, and then — because she realized she could — did a hundred pushups and a hundred situps. It was kind of exhilarating, in all honesty.Bookmark here

I wonder if Mizutani is up yet...Bookmark here

Risako was starving, but she didn't want to go into the restaurant by herself. She also didn't want to wake Mizutani up if he was still sleeping though...Bookmark here

Hunger defeated consideration. She knocked on Mizutani's door a few times, and when he didn't answer she decided to go ahead and just let herself in.Bookmark here

“Pardon the intrusion,” she said, walking in and closing the door behind her.Bookmark here

Sprawled about a futon in the center of the room, Risako found Mizutani fast asleep, lying on his stomach, his blanket rumpled up at his feet. He was wearing nothing but panties. (Well, there was also that necklace of his, and the makeshift bandage around his thigh.)Bookmark here

“Time to wake up.” Risako placed her foot against Mizutani's shoulder, and firmly pushed until his head flopped off his pillow. Even after that though, she still had to turn him over and shake him awake.Bookmark here

“Huh... what...” It took a minute for Mizutani to sit up. He rubbed his eyes, then stretched his arms out dramatically. “Ugh... feel like a truck ran over me.” He kept trying to get long strands of hair from drooping over his face, and failing.Bookmark here

“Sorry to wake you up, but I'm too hungry; I can't wait any longer.”Bookmark here

“Okay, I'm...” Mizutani yawned. “...getting up.”Bookmark here

Risako sighed. She felt bad for barging in like this, but she also couldn't help but feel annoyed by Mizutani going all night... you know, naked, with her body.Bookmark here

I get it, he was just trying to sleep. But still...Bookmark here

“You could've worn my pajamas,” she said, tapping her luggage with her foot.Bookmark here

“It was too hot. And it felt weird to look through all your stuff...”Bookmark here

“Yeah, well. Everything feels weird now.” Risako picked her bra off the floor and put it in her luggage. “Akemi left us both a yukata to wear. Want me to help you put yours on?” Risako probably had a lot more experience with that than Mizutani. At all the summer festivals she went to with her friends, she would wear a light blue cloud-patterned one that was passed down from her mother.Bookmark here

“That would be nice. Thanks, Kitamura.”Bookmark here

He sure was amicable about all this. Risako figured most guys would've been a lot more belligerent, were they in Mizutani's place. This whole situation could have been much worse than it was, Risako recognized.Bookmark here

The yukata turned out to be a light yellow one with a pattern of white and red flowers, and a warm vermilion sash. Very sunshiney, very summery. Risako wished she could have worn it.Bookmark here

“There, you look perfect.”Bookmark here

That wasn't completely true. Mizutani's hair was a mess, and obviously he hadn't put on makeup. That could wait for another time though; right now Risako just wanted to eat, and she imagined Mizutani did too.Bookmark here

“Thanks... you too, I guess.” Mizutani yawned again. Maybe he was just too tired to complain or push back. “Is it all right for us to be eating food though? Since we're supposed to be spirits.”Bookmark here

“There are such things as hungry ghosts, so I think it's fine.” Of course, in folklore such spirits generally devoured corpses...Bookmark here

They went out together to the dining room. To Risako's relief there weren't any yokai at the tables to confront or gawk at them. But there was one behind a counter in the kitchen area: a man with white fox ears. Risako could only assume this was a kitsune, a magical fox. Many stories detailed them appearing as humans, though at times with particular vulpine features. Some kitsune were depicted as crafty shapeshifting tricksters, while others were depicted as wise servants of Inari, the godly kami of agriculture (among other things).Bookmark here

Risako and Mizutani walked over to him, and Risako could see the yokai had a white bushy fox tail as well, sticking out the back of his plain black yukata. His short wavy hair was just as snowy white as his furry ears and tail, and there was something soft about the expression in his dark brown eyes too. He was slightly shorter than Risako (with Mizutani's height) was, but he seemed slightly older. Well, he was probably over a thousand years old or something — but you could say time doesn't mean much for most yokai, at least compared to what it means for humans.Bookmark here

“Welcome. Would you two be the friends of Akemi? The wandering spirits...” The kitsune glanced down at a note on his counter. “Mizutani and Kitamura?”Bookmark here

Risako and Mizutani both nodded.Bookmark here

“Very good. Feel free to sit at any table you'd like, and I can get started on preparing a lunch for you. Do you have any requests?” He had a soothing voice that contrasted with the fangs Risako caught brief glimpses of when he spoke.Bookmark here

It's lunchtime, huh? Risako thought. Guess we slept in.Bookmark here

“Hmmmm...” Risako didn't get to eat out at restaurants very often, so she wasn't sure what would be best. And also, she wasn't sure what sort of food she should expect from a place that serves yokai.Bookmark here

“Anything is fine,” Mizutani said. “Whatever your specialty is.”Bookmark here

“Oh, how about sushi!” Risako said, clasping her hands together. She remembered Akemi talking about wanting to eat sushi yesterday evening.Bookmark here

“Very good. I'll have a meal made up for you shortly.”Bookmark here

“Thank you, Mister Kitsune,” Risako said.Bookmark here

“Please, Mister Kitsune was my father. Call me Eisuke.” The fox-man said this with a painfully self-congratulatory smirk. Suddenly he didn't seem so cool to Risako... But Mizutani meanwhile struggled to suppress a brief giggle fit.Bookmark here

Ugh, is that how I sound when I laugh?Bookmark here

Risako and Mizutani went to the nearest table, which happened to seat six. Risako thought there was a chance Akemi would show up, and she also felt that sitting at a two-seater table with Mizutani would give yokai the wrong idea. Not that it actually mattered...Bookmark here

Risako sat down on one of the flat cushions with her legs back to the side, while Mizutani attempted to sit cross-legged — the skirt of his yukata was simply too tight for that though.Bookmark here

“Oh... right.” Mizutani noticed how Risako was sitting and imitated her.Bookmark here

“Ah... I guess I should...” Risako switched to sitting cross-legged, which she found immediately preferable.Bookmark here

“I don't need to sit on my heels, do I?” Mizutani asked.Bookmark here

“You're fine like that,” Risako said. They would both kneel seiza-style if they were in a formal situation, but this was just a casual lunch between classmates.Bookmark here

The kitsune showed up to serve them some green tea, then returned a little later with small bowls of rice and miso soup for each of them.Bookmark here

“Thank you, Eisuke,” Mizutani said.Bookmark here

The kitsune bowed lightly. “Anything for the smile of a—”Bookmark here

Risako clapped her hands together loudly. “Time to eat!” She proceeded to make quick work of the rice.Bookmark here

The kitsune exhaled, defeated.Bookmark here

“Don't mind Mizutani,” Mizutani said. “He's just so hungry, after wandering the land for so many centuries, searching for just the right inn to protect.”Bookmark here

Risako downed her tea before responding. “Right! And Mi... Kitamura is probably starving too. That last house she brought good fortune to... the people there never fed her well! That's why she's still so small, even after all these years.”Bookmark here

“Yes... that must be it,” Mizutani said in a drawn-out monotone.Bookmark here

“I'll get to work on the sushi then,” the kitsune said, again with that annoyingly long smirk.Bookmark here

Risako couldn't help but stare at the fox-man's tail as he walked away though; it looked so fluffy.Bookmark here

“He's rather cute, huh?” Mizutani said.Bookmark here

“Eh? I don't know,” Risako responded. “If you say so.”Bookmark here

“You don't think he's good-looking? I figured most girls would be all over him.”Bookmark here

“Most, sure, I guess.” Honestly, Risako wasn't certain. “What do you think?”Bookmark here

“He's got the looks of an idol boy band member. But it's that voice of his that really stands out. Guess it makes sense, that a yokai could speak so... I don't know, otherworldly? Oh, and he can cook too. That's always nice.”Bookmark here

“You're starting to sound like my friends,” Risako said. “Are you into guys now? You had a girlfriend not too long ago.” Maybe it was too blunt of a question, but Mizutani didn't look bothered.Bookmark here

“Girls are nice. But there's a certain charm to guys too, you know? At least, that's how I've always felt.” Mizutani closed his eyes and took a sip of his tea.Bookmark here

“Huh, I never would've guessed. This will become a popular factoid among the girls at school.”Bookmark here

“Don't be weird about it.” Mizutani set his tea back down. “But now you have me wondering if you've ever had a significant other.”Bookmark here

Guess it's only fair he ask a blunt question in return...Bookmark here

Risako stirred her miso soup listlessly. “No.”Bookmark here

“Hm, that's surprising.”Bookmark here

“Why is that?”Bookmark here

Mizutani motioned to his face and forced a smile. “I mean... you're kind of cute, right?”Bookmark here

Risako gulped the rest of her soup and sighed. “I've attempted dating a few guys that my friends helped set me up with, but it never went well. I just don't care about that sort of thing. Have never felt interested in anyone at all. Weird, right?”Bookmark here

“I wouldn't say that.” Mizutani leaned his head to the side a ways. “It takes all sorts, as they say.”Bookmark here

The kitsune arrived and placed a massive plate full of sushi on the table, bringing with it the strong scent of vinegared rice and fresh fish. The sheer variety of what was on display took Risako by surprise. It also all looked a bit different from what she was used to when it came to sushi. The rice had a yellow tint to it, and each nigiri was about double the size of what Risako was used to. Along with the nigiri there were sliced makizushi rolls wrapped in nori seaweed, layered oshizushi pressed into block shapes, and fried tofu pouches of inarizushi.Bookmark here

“Just call for me if you'd like anything else,” the kitsune said.Bookmark here

“Thank you, Eisuke,” Mizutani said.Bookmark here

The kitsune bowed lightly. “Anything for the smile of a lovely young lady!”Bookmark here

So that was what he was going to say!Bookmark here

Risako's attention was more on the food though. There were no chopsticks, so she simply grabbed the nearest piece of sushi — a nigiri that looked to be topped with grilled eel — and took a bite. The soft meat and savory sauce just melted right in Risako's mouth.Bookmark here

“That's good!” she said before finishing it off.Bookmark here

Mizutani had an oshizushi that appeared to be pressed with salmon (or something like it... Risako couldn't be 100% sure in a yokai realm), and said that was good too.Bookmark here

They went on to try a little of everything, enjoying the tastes of all kinds of fish, squid, scallops, shrimp, and pickled vegetables. There was no need to dip anything in soy sauce, since it seemed most of the food had been prepared with it.Bookmark here

“How is everything?” the kitsune asked after serving more tea. “I appreciate feedback from wandering spirits. The techniques I've employed for this hayazushi were relayed to me by our otter friend Akemi. She insisted this was the food of the future.”Bookmark here

“It is,” Mizutani said. “At least, it's one of the foods.”Bookmark here

Risako and Mizutani talked at length with the kitsune about his cooking, and about some of the present-day foods the fox-man didn't know about: curry rice, omelette rice, and pizza. That last one was hard to explain. The kitsune returned to his kitchen to write some notes, so Risako and Mizutani resumed eating.Bookmark here

When they were down to the last few pieces, Risako noticed something climbing onto the table.Bookmark here

“Ah, it's Akemi.”Bookmark here

The otter was dressed in a little kimono, the same dark purple as the one she wore in her human form last night.Bookmark here

“Happy to see the two of you are still alive,” Akemi said. “This looks good...” She snatched a light blue fish piece and began gnawing at it, while struggling to lean back as if she were lying on a river. She twisted a bit one way, and then the other, half the time chewing on the fish and half the time biting nothing but air.Bookmark here

“What have you been up to?” Risako asked.Bookmark here

“Searching for and meeting with some important yokai. If we are fortunate, they shall arrive here soon!” Akemi dropped to all fours and started batting a nigiri's oblong ball of rice around like a toy.Bookmark here

“What yokai?”Bookmark here

Akemi knocked a chunk of clam meat onto the floor, so she dived down from the table to retrieve it. “They are called the three wardens. Each of them has a magatama very similar to yours, Mister Mizutani.”Bookmark here

“I see,” Mizutani said. “What does that mean exactly?”Bookmark here

“So Ichijo no Shunzai...” Akemi gnawed on the clam meat on the floor. “...created this underground prison about a thousand years ago. He then split his magical power up — the power that maintains this yokai realm's very existence — and sealed it within five separate magatama jewels...” Akemi pulled off a chunk of the clam meat and nibbled at it. “Three of those special beads were given to yokai that he formed a pact with. A fourth magatama was hidden somewhere in the underground prison. And the fifth one was given to his child, which was passed down from one generation to the next. But if one were to acquire all five of those magatama...” Akemi pounced back onto the table. “...That would provide them with an extraordinary amount of magical power, which they could utilize however they saw fit.”Bookmark here

“So if we had all five of them, we'd be able to switch back?” Risako asked.Bookmark here

“Most certainly! So long as you did so before leaving the underground prison and mansion.”Bookmark here

Mizutani asked, “How about just one magatama? Is it useless on its own?”Bookmark here

“A single one has its uses; you saw so for yourself when I was freed from my statue imprisonment. But you shall need all five of the magatama to do anything as significant as what you two are aiming for. Safely reversing an Ichijo-caliber curse will require an Ichijo-level of power.”Bookmark here

Risako thought this over a bit. “And you said three yokai that each have one of these special things are coming here right now?”Bookmark here

“Yes, hopefully.”Bookmark here

“Would they be willing to let us borrow their magatama?” Mizutani asked.Bookmark here

“I highly doubt it. They have been guarding those magatama for a millennium! But I invited them here for lunch, so we shall see if they bite.” Akemi then took a large bite of a shrimp. Risako was not sure if that wordplay synergy was intentional or not.Bookmark here

She turned to Mizutani. “Sounds like we've got to get those magatama.”Bookmark here

“I guess...” Mizutani looked back to Akemi. “You said the onmyoji Ichijo no Shunzai created this hidden world for a bunch of yokai... Why, exactly?”Bookmark here

“Why do you suppose?” Akemi asked. “Onmyoji are yokai hunters. He devised a way to imprison a multitude of them, and thus made the lands above a lot safer for humans. Then to ensure the yokai never escaped, he devised not one — but five fiendish locks for the prison. Most of the yokai down here have accepted their fate as eternal.”Bookmark here

“That's...” Risako wanted to say awful, but she wasn't so sure how bad it actually was for the yokai down here. “Well, at least it's a nice underground prison? Or so it seems.”Bookmark here

“Do not get the wrong idea, Miss Kitamura.” Akemi dropped her shrimp and stared directly into Risako's eyes. “Some prisons are nicer than others, but prisons they still are, all the same. And we yokai... we are embodiments of nature's forces. Manifestations of the environment. We are the soil, the sky, and the sea. Yokai don't belong in a cage, with its thin layer of soot, its star-painted ceiling, and its puddles of tears. We are swarms, we are snarls, we are spirits. We are Wild.”Bookmark here

An explosive thunderclap rocked the front of the restaurant.Bookmark here

Risako, Mizutani, and Akemi turned toward the front entry to find a creature wreathed in flames. It looked like a big wheel, but in its center was a large head, the spokes impaling it from all angles. Risako recognized it immediately as a wheel monk, a living wheel big enough for a giant cart pulled by an ox, so its diameter was greater than the height of a grown man. The yokai's head in turn was at least three times bigger than a regular human head... and it was perpetually on fire.Bookmark here

The wheel monk turned in place, then zipped across the dining area, spitting flames in its wake. Risako prepared to leap out of its way, but stopped when the yokai screeched to a fiery halt about a meter before the other side of the table. Fortunately it seemed the flurry of sparks it spread all dissipated quickly, so the building didn't catch on fire. But that didn't mean Risako felt safe... This creature was ungodly quick.Bookmark here

The wheel swiftly swiveled to position its face toward Risako, Mizutani, and Akemi. The wheel monk's head was tilted at about a 315 degree angle, pointing at the ground, leaning toward its right. Risako felt the strange urge to turn her own head as best she could so she faced the yokai properly — but her fear of the menacing creature kept her from doing anything at all. Its giant face was that of a bald middle-aged monk with ragged facial hair — but again, he was always on fire. It took Risako a bit to realize that the yokai's skin was continually regenerating, so parts of his face would only be covered in light burns while other parts were flayed entirely. Watching the contorted skin char, melt, and reform nearly made Risako wretch. The burnt smell certainly didn't help.
Bookmark here

“I'm here.” His unblinking eyes glared at Akemi. “Whaddya want from me, otter?” The wheel monk spoke in a deep whisper, but still his rough voice boomed loudly in a way that shook Risako from the inside. The entire circumference of his wheel burned brighter as he spoke, perhaps reflective of his mood.Bookmark here

“My, my. What is the rush, my poor Naoya?” Akemi raised a paw up toward the kitchen area and made a beckoning gesture, presumably to the kitsune. She glanced back to the wheel monk and squeaked lightly. “Let me pour you some saké, calm your nerves.”Bookmark here

The wheel monk's pained expression didn't change following this offer though. This yokai's mere presence really made Risako sweat, half in anxiety and half from the fact she was now sitting before a fireplace in the middle of summer.Bookmark here

The kitsune arrived with a couple white bottles of saké.Bookmark here

“Just toss one here,” the wheel monk ordered.Bookmark here

“Of course, Naoya.”Bookmark here

The wheel monk opened its mouth wide, revealing that the inside of his head was a rumbling white-hot inferno. The kitsune lightly cast one of the small bulbous saké bottles to the wheel monk, who caught it in his blocky onyx-black teeth. Risako could only watch in dismay as the wheel monk proceeded to chew the ceramic bottle, then gulp down all the pieces along with whatever saké didn't dribble down his chin. It was all fuel for the furnace.Bookmark here

Akemi gave a light sigh. “And here I was hoping you learned at least a little etiquette in the last fifty years.”Bookmark here

“Is that how long you've been gone?” the wheel monk asked. “Well, no matter. One day, one month, one billion years, it's all shit.”Bookmark here

“You have not changed in the slightest,” Akemi said. “How have your races gone this past half-century, dare I ask?”Bookmark here

“Lost every damn one of course,” the wheel monk said, still never blinking. “Doesn't matter how hard I train, it never makes a damn lick of difference. It's never even a close race. That damn pheasant-eatin' snail beats me every time! The magatama of ambition is lost on me.”Bookmark here

“You still have it then?” Akemi asked. “That is precisely what we wished to speak with you about today.”Bookmark here

“Of course I do,” the wheel monk muttered. “And of course ya do. I know ya want it. I know ya want all of Ichijo no Shunzai's power. Who wouldn't?” Though he said it under his breath, his words still reverberated throughout the spacious room, and the fires of his wheel shifted from red to blue for a few seconds. He suddenly spun in place a few times, then stopped just as suddenly. This time his head was upright, which curiously made Risako's neck feel a bit less strained.Bookmark here

The wheel monk shifted its demonic yellow and red eyes from Akemi to Mizutani, who lost all color to his face. The wheel monk then glared at Risako, who couldn't help but lean back a bit. She wondered if she should introduce herself, or wait for Akemi to do so.Bookmark here

“I don't give a shit anymore,” the wheel monk said. “So why don'tcha just take it.” The yokai coughed something out of its mouth, shooting it straight at Risako.Bookmark here

She thought it was a fireball and intended to duck, but it was all way too sudden for her to react in time. The projectile smacked her right in the chest, hard enough to make her wonder if a hole had been shot right through her. In rapid succession she grabbed the table, caught her breath, and clutched her heart beating at a hundred kilometers per hour.Bookmark here

Mizutani turned from Risako and looked up toward the high ceiling. Risako followed his gaze to find a pale yellow item falling from above. It must have been what the wheel monk spat out, and it must have ricocheted off her chest in a very impressive vertical arc.Bookmark here

The small jewel fell right into Mizutani's full tea cup with a loud clunk and small splash. Still gripping her chest, Risako leaned over to see that it was a comma-shaped magatama resting in Mizutani's tea.Bookmark here

Risako then looked up to find the fires of the wheel monk had all gone out. His face stopped regenerating, so it was all burnt to a crisp. But even still, his eyes remained wide open.Bookmark here

The wheel monk fell backward, wobbled in place a few times upon colliding with the floor, and then just lay there completely motionless.Bookmark here

After a few long seconds of silence, Mizutani raised a finger questioningly. “Uh... what?Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.