Chapter 9:

[Risako] — Please Don't Kill Me

Questionable Days with Yokai

For a moment Risako thought Mizutani might shove her away, if only as a knee-jerk reaction to something this unexpected. But he apparently worked things out because he relaxed enough to allow Risako to make the most of this impromptu kiss...

Honestly, she had no idea what she was doing.

But it was just a kiss, how hard could it be?

She had to bend pretty low to reach Mizutani's lips properly though, and she wasn't sure where was best to place her hands. Her palms hovered over his shoulders a second, but then she decided to lightly grasp the sides of Mizutani's arms instead. In return Mizutani held onto Risako's arms. It all felt extremely awkward... but hopefully it didn't look that way.

Risako had always found the general concept of kissing to be pretty strange to begin with. (Not something she'd call hygienic, at the very least.) But now that she got to experience it firsthand...

She still didn't get what all the fuss was about. Of course, this particular kiss was not exactly representative of most people's experiences...

Perhaps it's fitting that my first kiss is with my own self. It was probably the only kiss she'd ever have, so she tried to make it count.

When Risako finally lifted her lips off of Mizutani's, she was relieved that he didn't slap her. When he opened his eyes, he stared down at the floor, off to the side. He shook his head a bit, then looked up into Risako's eyes. He was blushing hard, clearly flustered. But he tried his best to smile naturally. Risako smiled softly too, hoping it looked like the sort of smile one gives a lover after a kiss. She pictured a scene from the last romance flick she saw with her friends, and tried to mimic the lead actor in that.

“There you have it!” Akemi said. “As you can see Fumi, they are clearly a couple treasuring their springtime of youth.”

“Hmmmm, something about it all feels off to me somehow.” The yuki onna held out a hand toward one of the few remaining pieces of sushi, and picked it up with a pair of icy chopsticks that formed from the ends of her thumb and index finger. “But that leaves me feeling curious. I will hold on to my magatama for the time being... But if these lost spirits can prove the strength of their love for each other to me, convincing me wholeheartedly of their devotion toward one another, then I'll gladly, so gladly, gift them my magatama. I believe it's what my beloved would want.” She flicked the entire sushi roll slice into her mouth, stuffing her cheeks.

“We will do just that!” Risako said, turning to face her. “Just... give us some time.”

Ah... Mizutani is going to kill me, isn't he?

She had to do something though. If retrieving the remaining four magatama was the only way to switch their bodies back, then she had to do whatever she could to make that happen. She imagined Mizutani could only agree.

“Very well. There will be a sum-mer fes-ti-val in a cou-ple of weeks,” the yuki onna said in her sing-song tone. “Let us meet then, and I shall grade your affection for one another. We can enjoy some sweets and tea, and then whatever amusements the festival will provide.”

“Sounds good! Let's plan on that.”

So it was possible they would obtain a third magatama about the same time as their second. That would leave only two others for her and Mizutani to obtain — one held by the third “warden” yokai that Akemi invited to come here, and another that was simply hidden somewhere in the underground prison.

The first two wardens were... eccentric. But they were still a lot more willing to give up their magatama than Akemi had first implied. Risako had to hope the third of these important yokai would be just as cooperative.

Akemi ordered some more food and saké, while the yuki onna started a conversation with the wheel monk. Risako used the opportunity to whisper a sorry to Mizutani.

“It's fine,” he whispered back, not looking at her. He didn't sound fine about it.

The kitsune soon brought another big plate of food to the table, but this time the offerings were more eclectic. Along with more sushi, there was also a small pyramid of hard-boiled eggs, a grilled salmon, and several whole raw cucumbers. It was the cucumbers that confused Risako the most — they weren't cut up or pickled or anything.

“Hey, ghost boy,” the wheel monk called out.

It took a couple seconds for Risako to realize he meant her.

Once he had her attention, the wheel monk asked, “Can ya toss me some of those eggs.”

Risako nodded and started to peel one of them.

“Just leave the peels on, I don't give a shit.”

While Risako tossed whole eggs into the wheel monk's mouth, the yuki onna helped herself to some sushi with her icicle fingers and Akemi started to noisily ravage the grilled fish. Mizutani just watched all this, probably thinking over all the life choices he made that led him to this point.

And that was when all the kappa arrived.

Twelve of the turtle-like imps entered the restaurant as a group, looking much like how Risako imagined them to be. The scaly green creatures were each about the size of a young human child, but with clawed webbed feet and hands, and a turtle shell on their backs. Their faces seemed reminiscent of a frog's, but with a turtle's beak. And atop their scraggly tufts of black hair, they each had a “dish.” This circular and concave bald spot was a bit larger than a saké saucer, but was filled with water. They say a kappa is greatly weakened if all its head water spills out.

They weren't cute like in most modern depictions of the yokai (for mascots and cartoons and whatnot), but there was still something endearing about these unseemly creatures. The kappa split into two groups, six of them sitting at a table to the left of where Risako sat, and six of them sitting at one to the right. They all reeked of fish, even more strongly than all the actual fish at Risako's table.

Following the twelve kappa into the restaurant was... another kappa. But this one was two, maybe three times bigger — and was ten, maybe a hundred times more intimidating. The lumbering beast's shell was uneven and spiky, his hair reminiscent of long strands of ragged seaweed, his arms and legs proportionally longer and more muscular, and his “dish” full of what Risako had to assume was crimson blood. The way this hunched kappa strode about made Risako feel nervous. Each step it took was long and ungainly, but it also felt deliberate. Like you could never be sure if it would shift to another direction with its next step. Blood repeatedly trickled out from the depression in its head, but it always looked full. Was it just refilling with the kappa's own blood then?

He did not join the other kappa at either of their tables, but walked straight to Risako's. The giant kappa bent his legs down low and placed his hands on his knees. The creature's bones crackled with the movement, and to Risako it looked impossible for him to actually hold such a position for long, especially with such a hefty-looking turtle shell weighing it back.

The kappa's head turned town toward Akemi, who was still preoccupied with devouring her fish. His yellow snakelike eyes stared her down, but neither she nor the kappa said anything.

It was the yuki onna who spoke up first, between bites of sushi. “Oh, didn't expect you to show up... Haven't seen you step foot out of your creek in ages. Started to wonder if you might have drooowwned.”

The kappa didn't respond, or even look at the yuki onna. He just kept his focus on Akemi.

“Otter. What is the meaning of this?” The kappa's voice was not what Risako expected. He spoke in an airy monotone, like he couldn't really use his throat to enunciate clearly.

Akemi finished tearing off a piece of the fish and gulped it down before answering. “Good day to you, poor Shuhei! I will be honest and admit I did not expect you to come here.”

“You disappear completely for over fifty years. Then I get word from one of my men that you want to meet. You say it's time the wardens pass on their magatama to Ichijo no Shunzai's progeny...” At the end of each sentence, a sort of high-pitched gurgling noise seemed to emit from his throat unconsciously. Everything about this yokai gave Risako the creeps. And unfortunately when he leaned across the table to intimidate Akemi more, he splattered blood all over most of the remaining sushi.

“Ugh!” the yuki onna groaned. She apparently wasn't too bothered by this though, because she didn't hesitate to eat the blood-soaked shrimp nigiri in front of her. Once again, Risako felt like throwing up.

“That is correct,” Akemi said. “Do you still remember your vow to Ichijo no Shunzai?”

“It doesn't matter. There will never be another human to match his power,” the kappa said. “You said yourself that humans have no need for magic anymore. They can predict the weather without it. They can build homes that survive the greatest of storms without it. They can heal deadly illnesses without it. They can create all the food, clothes, and trinkets they could ever want without it. They can instantly kill each other without it. They can destroy entire cities without it. They can go to the moon without it.”

“But still, you can not hold on to your magatama forever,” Akemi said. “Yours is a particularly tricky one to not lose yourself completely to, is it not? The magatama of hate.”

“I can handle it just fine. The question is, will you be able to? Once I pin down what it is you're after here...”

The kappa's squat head slowly swiveled in place so he could face Risako. For the third time at this floor table, she was hit by a wave of trepidation at the presence of an intimidating yokai. She couldn't let herself show fear though... so she gave a light bow, then maintained eye contact with the tall amphibian's threatening glare.

Without moving his body, the kappa's head turned further (much like an owl's), so he could stare down Mizutani next. The yokai then slowly stood up straight, shifting his head at just the right speed to always maintain eye contact with Mizutani, until he stood at his full height of... well, if Risako had to guess, the kappa was over 2.5 meters tall. When not hunched over, the kappa would tower over even her (with Mizutani's body), at least three heads taller than her.

To Mizutani's credit, he didn't flinch throughout the kappa's aggressive posturing. Risako could only imagine — or rather, she knew — that the beast had to look even larger to Mizutani (with Risako's body).

“Who are these two runts supposed to be, otter?” the kappa asked Akemi, his slitted pupils still looking down upon Mizutani.

“Yasuo Mizutani, and Risako Kitamura,” Akemi said. Risako thought she would expound at least a little, but no.

“They smell strange,” the kappa said. He took a deep sniff, which sounded bizarrely like the sound of twisting off the cap of a carbonated drink's plastic bottle. Risako worried that the yokai would bend down for a closer smell, and spill blood all over Mizutani. But the kappa remained standing tall. “They smell...”

The kappa grinned, revealing his countless thin slivers of squirming, scraping teeth. They were all misshapen; all corroded; all varying shades of blue, gray, and brown. They pulsated wildly, at times cutting into the kappa's gums and tongue. His widening eyes meanwhile shifted from a dark mustard yellow to a much lighter lemon yellow.

“Oh... This is a scent I haven't detected in a very, very long time,” the kappa said, still forcing his words out in that disquieting monotone of his. “These runts aren't ghosts. The otter here has snuck in a couple of living humans.”

“Humans?” the wheel monk roared, his ring of fire burning brighter. “Of the livin' variety? Here?”

“Ooohhh, how interesting!” the yuki onna added, a freezing foggy mist forming around her.

The kappa swiftly swung his arm down upon Mizutani, who wasn't fast enough to avoid the reach of the yokai's lanky arms. The kappa grabbed Mizutani by the front of his yukata and wrenched him up onto his feet. In the process of doing so, the top fold of Mizutani's yukata loosened enough to jostle out his necklace.

During the second or two this all transpired, Risako found herself standing up. And then during the next second or two, as everyone was reacting to the reveal of Mizutani's magatama, Risako found herself pulling her arm back, stepping toward the kappa, thrusting her arm forward with all her might, and slamming her fist up into the kappa's jaw.

The kappa lost his grasp on Mizutani and stumbled backward a few steps, nearly tipping over from the weight of his turtle shell.

Mizutani fell to his knees on the floor, while Risako stepped in front of him and readied herself for another punch. She had no idea if what she just did was the absolute right or the absolute wrong thing to do, but the damage was already done. (Literally.)

The yuki onna applauded, and wheel monk shouted a Yes! They apparently were partial to violence against the giant kappa.

But at the same time, all twelve of the regular kappa stood up and surrounded the table. Risako fretted over the possibility of having to fight off so many of the scrappy-looking creatures, but the giant kappa raised a fist up. Apparently it was a signal for the hench-kappa to hold their position and not interfere.

“Interesting indeed,” Akemi said, going off of the yuki onna's earlier comment.

Risako thought she'd start panicking, start feeling dizzy, start breathing heavily... But no. Instead she felt hot blood pulsating throughout her body, in her heart, in her head, from her fingertips to her toes. In that moment, she felt more alive than she ever had before.

She grinned.

But so did the giant kappa — and his teeth were now quavering madly. Some of the needle-like teeth literally dislodged from the kappa's gums, and dug into the opposite side of his mouth to attach there, burrowing like ivory worms. A lot more blood had also spilled over the kappa's face and torso, making for a sight all the more terrifying.

But Risako stood her ground. If she was going to get eaten alive by a kappa... well, she decided to just not think about that any further than she just did.

“I don't know what is more interesting,” the kappa said, not sounding angry at all... which probably should have made Risako feel more ill at ease. “The fact that there's finally a human down here with the fifth magatama, after all these years. Or the fact that I just got punched in the face by a human... which has literally never happened to me once, ever.”

Risako thought of saying something cool like, Hope you enjoyed it. If you'd ever like to experience it a second time, I'll be happy to oblige.

But she decided against it.

The giant kappa held its webbed hands out, and slowly his claws grew longer, grew brighter, grew sharper.

“I'm going to tear you limb from limb. And then I'll tear those limbs to shreds. And I'll keep going like that, with every last part of you. Until you're nothing but dust. Not even the gaki and jikininki will want to eat what's left. And I'm going to enjoy every minute of it. I'll see how long I can keep you alive for. Your little friend can watch. Or maybe I'll start on her while you're still alive. I can rotate. Torture one for a bit, then dissect the other for a while. It will be tremendous, hearing the screams of humans once again. It is always such a thrill to hear a human plead for mercy...”

Risako felt she had to say something. If she said nothing, that was admitting she was afraid. She was afraid, but she couldn't let the kappa know that.

“If it's a fight you want, then it's a fight you'll get!”

Something tugged at the back of her yukata. She glanced down and saw Mizutani looking up at her, frowning deeply and shaking his head.

“Sorry,” Risako whispered, not sure what else she could tell him. There was no backing down now, so she looked back up to the kappa and continued, “So what do you say? How about the day after the summer festival? We'll settle things with a fair fight, just you and me. If I win, I get your magatama... You do have one, right?” Seemed like a good thing to confirm.

The kappa slipped a claw into the blood-filled dip in his head and lifted a comma-shaped bead out of it. He held it up for everyone to see for a few seconds, then plunked it back in his dish.

“And if I win, you die. You and your little friend.”

Risako shouted, “This is just between you and me! You have no business with Risako.”

“She has the fifth magatama, so it stands to reason she's the descendant of Ichijo no Shunzai. Therefore I very much have business with her. If I can't kill Ichijo, then I'll kill his closest of kin.”

“Risako... Risako is not Ichijo no Shunzai's descendant. I am.” Risako was taking something of a gamble here, but she had a pretty good feeling about this. She hadn't had a strong premonition of anything, like the one Mizutani described in his incident with the café. But ever since entering the hidden yokai world, she had sensed a vague sort of “extra awareness” of things around her that she couldn't quite pin down. It wasn't something she had been able to focus on much yet, considering all the other distractions around her. Monsters being real, and her becoming a guy, and all that.

The giant kappa took another long sniff. “You do seem to have a bit of Ichijo no Shunzai's scent. It's been so long though...” He sniffed a couple more times, making that same loud and unnerving hissing noise each time. “Yes... I'm sure of it. You do have Ichijo's magical blood flowing within you. That's good! I look forward to our little duel then, heh heh. Throw at me every onmyodo spell you can muster.”

“I will. But no attacking each other until then, all right? And promise to leave Risako out of this.”

“Yes, yes. I vow on my honor as a yokai to only kill you at our appointed duel, and to never lay a claw on the girl. That satisfy you?”

“I guess.”

“Very well then. I will await you in front of this building then, on the morning following the summer festival.” The giant kappa hunched back down and turned around, the bones of his arms and legs crackling noisily. Before leaving with his fellow kappa though, he skewered each of the cucumbers on the table with his claws, taking them with him. A snack for the road, presumably. Kappa were known to like cucumbers, Risako now remembered.

Once all the kappa were gone, she fell to her knees and gave a deep sigh. “Two weeks.”

Two weeks to train a fire wheel to win a race and not blow itself up.

Two weeks to work out a way to convince the personification of a blizzard that Risako and Mizutani were madly in love with each other.

Two weeks to learn how to beat up a freaky swamp monster-looking wrestler.

Risako wasn't sure which task would be the most difficult.