Chapter 11:

[Yasuo] — This is Just the New Normal, I Guess

Questionable Days with Yokai

It was rare for Yasuo to wake up remembering details of his dreams, but this one was strangely vivid. He and Kokone were spending the day at a big amusement park; they were still dating apparently. Kokone was dressed in her school uniform: a dark navy blue outfit with a long pleated skirt, and a white sailor-style scarf tied over her blouse.

They went to the ticket booth to buy admission passes, but the clerks were just people in giant mascot suits — some kind of otter character (of course) — and they couldn't speak. Yasuo tried to ask them for tickets, but they wouldn't do anything.

“Let's just go in,” Kokone said. “You already bought tickets, so it's fine.”

“Is that so.”

They walked about in the amusement park together, but didn't really talk much. There were only a few other people at the park. Each time they came across someone, Kokone would say, “Oh, that's So-and-So from Movie Name.” Yasuo couldn't remember the specifics.

Then each time they approached a ride, Kokone would say, “I heard someone died on that one.” And so they'd just keep walking. Eventually they went to a gift shop, but it turned out to be more like a convenience store. Yasuo bought an instant ramen noodle cup for each of them, but they couldn't find a hot water dispenser anywhere.

They ended up going to the amusement park's central pavilion, where an extremely long aluminum table was situated. There were holes along the outer edge of the table that were just the right size for instant ramen noodle cups to rest in, like cupholders. Probably about three-fourths of the holes held one. There were all sorts of flavors, including a few Yasuo had never heard of before, such as “dark lemon” and “horoscope emphasis.” Yasuo and Kokone placed their unopened cups in two of the available slots.

“This is one of those things you just have to do when you go here,” Yasuo said.

“I wonder why?” Kokone asked.

“I think it's just always been that way.”

“There's got to be a reason though.”

They left that conversation unfinished and went to the Ferris wheel. This was the only ride someone didn't die in, apparently. Yasuo and Kokone sat across from each other, and simply stared at each other. They didn't talk.

This isn't very romantic, is it? Yasuo thought. He almost said it aloud, but that would have ruined the mood in the off-chance that this actually was romantic.

The Ferris wheel stopped when it reached the top. The wind picked up outside, so the hanging booth they sat in started to rock creakily. It wasn't a particularly violent wind, so Yasuo didn't worry about the Ferris wheel tipping over or anything. But the creaking noise grew progressively louder.

Suddenly Kokone yelled at him, “So who are you supposed to be anyways?”

“What do you mean? I'm Yasuo.” He had never seen Kokone look so upset.

She held her hands up in exasperation. “No, you're not. You're not even a guy!”

Yasuo looked down and saw he had the smooth bare legs of a girl, his thighs pressed together, and that he was wearing his school's summer uniform for girls: a very short gray pleated skirt, and a simple white button-up blouse. He looked down at his hands, and saw they were indeed dainty girl hands.

“Oh, I forgot.” His voice was Kitamura's, he only now was noticing. “It's fine though, isn't it?”

“Of course it's not. You know I'm not into girls.”

“Right, sorry.” Yasuo decided to change the subject. “What do you want to do when this Ferris wheel goes back down?”

Kokone looked down at the floor sadly, her hands clasped on her lap. “I don't think it's ever going back down.”

And it never did, as far as Yasuo could tell.

He woke up eventually, feeling sweaty and sore. He sat up slowly, took a couple long slow breaths, and stretched out his arms and back. Everything about this simple action served as a stark and instant reminder of what his body now entailed. The curve of his back, the weight of his breasts, the slenderness of his stomach, the flimsiness of his arms, the narrowness of his shoulders, the effeminate sound his fragile throat emitted when he groaned. And all of that was just the top half of this body.

He looked down at his hands, and saw they were indeed dainty girl hands.

Going to be stuck with these hands for at least a couple more weeks...

The magatama resting against his chest reminded him of each insane thing he and Kitamura needed to do to get three of the other strange beads. And that somewhere there was a fourth one they didn't know anything about.

...Or maybe I'll be stuck with these hands forever.

* * *

Breakfast greeted Yasuo and Kitamura in the form of rice, a clear soup with tofu, dried strips of boiled daikon radish, and burdock root fried in soy sauce. It was a refreshing change of pace from the sorts of food Yasuo usually had in the morning — toast, eggs, sausage, maybe a fruit. Sometimes his mother would make him some miso soup or natto. But Eisuke's cooking was on another level... not that Yasuo was going to tell his mother that.

Mom wouldn't be able to recognize me now, Yasuo thought. Nor would Dad.

It's not like he would blame them. They were probably worried about him not calling or sending them any messages for three days. Perhaps they even got authorities searching for him already? Yasuo was not sure how long someone had to be missing for that.

Akemi hopped up onto the dining table unannounced. “Hm, no fish today? A pity!”

“Good morning, Miss Akemi,” Kitamura said. “I hope no large birds tried to swoop down and nab you. But now I wonder, are you safe here at this inn? It's run by a crow tengu...”

Akemi squeaked, sounding a bit put off. “Not one in this underground prison is foolish enough to attempt devouring me. I am much too valuable.”

For all the yokai locked in this realm, she was the one source of contact with the outside world, after all. If anyone had a question about what was going on with humans and whatever yokai still lurked in the real world, they would have to ask Akemi.

Yasuo had some questions of his own. “Akemi, I was wondering... if the police or anyone like that were to find the mansion above this place, would they get stuck inside the mansion like Mizutani and I were?” It was a bit of a pain to have to keep remembering to call Kitamura by his own name, but it was probably wise to keep their mind swap a secret. Granted there was nobody else in the restaurant right now, so it probably wasn't a big deal — but Eisuke at least was in his kitchen, and perhaps his fox ears could pick up their conversation.

“Chances are low they would ever find the mansion at all,” Akemi said. “The building is a magical construct designed by Ichijo no Shunzai. Only select humans such as onmyoji have much opportunity to come across it. I imagine you found it thanks to your magatama.” Akemi turned to Kitamura and added, “And I imagine you found it because you were invited here.”

Back when they were all going down the long stairway to the hidden world, Kitamura had told Akemi all about why she and Yasuo went to the mansion, and the events leading up to their finding the curious statue of an otter.

“That letter was from my grandma,” Kitamura said. “She wasn't in the mansion itself, so she has to be down here somewhere, right?”

“It is possible,” Akemi said.

Yasuo didn't see how though. “If your grandmother is down here, then she had to pass through that cursed garden. She would have received some random affliction, like get turned into a capybara or something. Then she would have needed to find the hidden passage, and somehow manage to move that giant rock out of its way. And then somehow move the rock back on top of the entry, after going down.”

“The garden magically restores its intended layout after a time, so that the passage stays hidden,” Akemi said. “All your other points are valid though.”

“Grandma could be a capybara?” Kitamura cried. “Would the five magatama be able to return her back to normal?”

“That should not pose a problem, since the garden's curses are tied to this underground prison,” Akemi said. “The power of Ichijo no Shunzai's five magatama is power over all that is magically tied to this realm.”

“Great!” Kitamura exclaimed. “We definitely need all those jewels then.”

“I hate to bring up this possibility,” Yasuo said, glancing over to Kitamura, “but if ghosts are real, and are liable to wander into this realm...”

“Oh, you're right. Grandma could be a ghost!” For a moment Kitamura looked strangely excited by such a possibility, but then just as suddenly she looked unsettled, her eyebrows raised and drawn together. “Then that'd mean Grandma's already dead... And she might have sent that letter because... she can't pass on without seeing me one last time, and she's stuck down here. We did kind of promise to meet up again.”

The three sat there silently for a bit, each of them presumably mulling over how plausible this was. Yasuo was not sure if it would be a good thing or not for Kitamura to reunite with the spirit of her grandmother. Again, Yasuo wasn't an expert on folklore, but he was at least aware of ghost stories generally not being being pleasant experiences for those involved.

It was also unclear how a ghost could send Kitamura a letter in the first place, but most information regarding spirits seemed rather vague to Yasuo. Not being able to explain everything was probably part of what gave ghost stories an ominous and cryptic feel to them though.

“We can keep an eye out for her, at the very least,” Akemi said. “But perhaps we can devise a means of locating her? Collecting more of the magatama may assist us in that endeavor too.”

“Yeah!” Kitamura said. “I really want to find Grandma while I'm down here, no matter what her current state may be. She might need my help.”

“Let's try searching for her then, just in case,” Yasuo said. “We're going to be here for a while anyways, it seems.”

Once they finished their breakfast, Eisuke walked over with a teapot to serve some more green tea.

Kitamura asked, “Hey, you wouldn't happen to have seen my grandmother lately? She'd be an old woman, or the ghost of an old woman.” Kitamura gave a description of how she would look, but then added, “She also might not look like that at all though. She could be a capybara.”

Eisuke held his teapot up and looked off to the side thoughtfully. “I don't know what a capybara is... but I'm afraid I haven't seen any humans. Well, other than yourselves, of course.”

So the kitsune knew. The giant kappa had made a scene upon sniffing Yasuo and Kitamura out as humans though, so no surprise there.

Eisuke continued, “As for ghosts, well... I see one from time to time, but they're generally from eras long before you were born. It's very rare for a present-day ghost to wander in here, I imagine because it's not the sort of place modern humans would want to linger in. Whenever spirits enter this hidden realm, you see, they can never leave. They become bound to this place, just like us yokai.”

“Ah, is that how it is,” Kitamura said. “Thanks for the information, Mister Kitsune.”

“It's Eisuke,” Yasuo said. “Try to remember the name of our remarkable chef.”

“Right, right. Eisuke.”

The kitsune gave a self-contented smile, turning to face Yasuo. “Oh, I'm remarkable, you say?”

Yasuo looked up at him and nodded. “Everything had this mild, mellow taste to it. But there's a kind of depth to it too; it's very satisfying. The softness of the tofu and the crispness of the burdock root, the sweetness of the daikon and the heartiness of the rice — everything just complements each other? There's a simple... harmony to it all.” He wasn't a food critic or anything, so he wasn't sure if he made perfect sense.

Eisuke opened his mouth to respond, but stopped short for a second. There was a softer look in his eyes, and his smile shifted into one that felt more genuine. “That's all-too kind of you, Risako.” He even blushed a little, Yasuo noticed.

“Yeah, the food's not bad,” Kitamura said.

Akemi chirped in, “And when shall you make my breakfast? But I seek not for harmony. Just your freshest fish — live if possible — and a morning saké. Make that two.” She held up two tiny otter fingers.

Eisuke gave a defeated shrug. “Very good, Akemi.” As he walked by Yasuo he whispered under his breath, “My talents are wasted on some otters...”

* * *

Later that day, Yasuo and Kitamura met up with Akemi a ways behind the inn. They walked through a grove of pine trees and found a wide grassy clearing. It was a hot summer day, but it wasn't particularly bright. Yasuo had come to realize that the sun of this hidden world was not as powerful as the real sun, which was all right with him. It almost felt like he was wearing sunglasses, without actually having to wear them.

Akemi was in her human form, looking dignified as usual, sitting on a fallen tree at the far end of the field. She had told Yasuo and Kitamura that she had something important to show them... and it looked like she indeed had something with her: a wooden box. It was just the right size for carrying in two hands, made of dark lacquered wood and etched with thin golden lines and diamonds.

Yasuo and Kitamura walked over to Akemi, who focused her sharp eyes on each of them, one at a time. “Good day to you two. Before we get too far into our magatama-retrieving endeavors, I felt it prudent to clearly determine if either of you are capable of wielding magic. It is possible that Mister Mizutani is a descendant of the esteemed Ichijo no Shunzai, creator of this underground prison for yokai. However, that does not guarantee onmyodo proficiency. And even if the potential is there, it is technically Miss Kitamura who currently possesses the body through which flows Ichijo no Shunzai's blood. There is no telling how that may affect matters.”

Akemi stood up, then gracefully bent down to pick up her wooden box and open its lid. She held it out for Yasuo and Kitamura to see it was full of paper. Many rectangular strips of paper, all piled up into four stacks. It looked a bit rougher, darker, and thicker than the paper Yasuo was used to, and each sheet was inked in fine black and red calligraphy. He felt he should recognize most of the characters, but the old script was too difficult for him to parse.

“Are these ofuda?” Kitamura asked.

“Yes, these are paper talismans left behind by various onmyoji over the centuries,” Akemi said. She handed one slip of paper to Kitamura, and one to Yasuo. “Go stand a safe distance from me and from each other. And then... try using the ofuda. This one is a water talisman.”

“How do we use it, exactly?” Yasuo asked.

“The process eludes me,” Akemi said. “I am a yokai, and thus can not wield onmyodo magic. I would assume it takes great concentration to mentally break the seal on the talisman and call upon its power. For the time being though, I primarily wish to see if the ofuda will react in some way while within your grasp. It may give off a faint glow, for example.”

“Cool, I'll give it a shot!” Kitamura said.

Yasuo felt his throat tighten and his shoulders grow heavy. Ever since Kitamura declared that she was the descendant of Ichijo no Shunzai, Yasuo had felt uneasy. His immediate reaction had been that it was just a bluff, that it was complete nonsense. He was the one with magical potential. The entire reason he came to the mansion above this hidden world in the first place was to learn how to unlock that potential. Just because he traded places with Kitamura didn't change who he was.

Or did it? He couldn't help but wonder, and he couldn't help but worry.

If Kitamura could use the ofuda and Yasuo couldn't, did that make Kitamura the descendant of Ichijo no Shunzai? Did that make her the “true” Yasuo?

The two stood a few meters apart, both facing toward the trees away from where Akemi watched. They each held their paper talisman forward. Yasuo felt like he needed to shout a spell name or something, but Akemi just said that all it took was the proper concentration.

So he concentrated on the power of the talisman, on his own inner energy, and on all the qualities of water he could think of. Water was the life force of the world, and for all living things.

It's malleable, it's viscous, it can be hard or soft, it can be stationary or mobile, it—

A thin geyser of water burst out of Kitamura's ofuda, rushing over the length of the field with all the turbulence of a vast waterfall. It was not a perfectly-controlled jet though; water sprayed off to the sides, drenching Yasuo and even getting faraway Akemi a bit wet.

Just as suddenly as the geyser erupted, it then ceased to exist. Water rained down on the clearing for a few noisy seconds, but somehow none of it seemed to land on Kitamura.

She slowly looked down at her paper talisman, wide-eyed in utter shock. “That... that...” She leaned back a ways. “Cooooool!” A huge stupid grin spread across her face. Yasuo's face.

Yasuo turned away from her and held out his ofuda again. He just needed to concentrate. Maybe Kitamura just had her own inherent magical talent, and maybe having Yasuo's body helped her out a bit. But Yasuo was still Yasuo. He knew he had some kind of power within him. He always had, and recently he had finally started to grasp it. He knew he could do this.

He maintained focus. He didn't let himself think about how Kitamura declared herself Yasuo's lover, or how she kissed him, or how she picked a fight with a giant monster, or how she agreed upon a battle to the death with it, or how she stole Yasuo's body, or how she probably stole Yasuo's magical potential too.

Nothing happened. Not a single drop of water leaked out of the ofuda. It didn't appear to glow or anything either. Yasuo couldn't feel any kind of energy within the ofuda, or feel anything special within his body. Kitamura's body.

Akemi, looking quite pleased with herself, walked over to Kitamura with the wooden box. “That was quite the spectacle, Miss Kitamura. I must admit, that was much more monumental a feat than I could have hoped for, let alone could have expected. Did not think I would require an umbrella! But now, let us confirm your power with a couple more tests.” She looked over to Yasuo and added, “You may continue trying as well, Mister Mizutani.”

Kitamura and Yasuo each received a fire talisman this time, and everyone made sure to stand much further apart.

Kitamura's ofuda released a massive burst of fire, as if she were wielding a flamethrower. The flames did not go nearly as far as her jet of water, but it felt much more intense.

Yasuo's ofuda did nothing, despite his best efforts.

Akemi then gave them each a lightning talisman. Yasuo had to hope Kitamura would keep it aimed away from him and Akemi...

As expected, Kitamura's ofuda shot off a bolt of lightning, completely blowing up a large tree across the field. Yasuo fell to the ground and had to cover his ears from the deafening boom, his heart beating wildly.

His ofuda hadn't emitted a single spark, of course. And it was clear to see now that there was no point in trying any further.

Without even needing to train, Kitamura proved herself capable of wielding all sorts of powerful magic. She didn't just have potential to become an expert. She already was an expert.

And Yasuo was just some nonentity who had nothing more to do but watch.