Questionable Days with Yokai
The next few days passed... well, not uneventfully. But perhaps with some semblance of a daily routine. Risako and Mizutani would have breakfast served by Eisuke, sometimes with Akemi there and sometimes not. Then they would explore the hidden world a bit, visiting various locales in town and seeing what was further out in the surrounding nature. Or rather, in the fabricated likeness of nature's forests, rivers, mountains, lakes, and meadows. There were even farms that the yokai of this underground prison maintained, not so different from those of the human world. Seeing the flooded grids and terraces of rice fields just made it feel more like summer to Risako.
She and Mizutani would meet up with various yokai in hopes of learning more about their world, and to perhaps get a clue as to where Risako's grandmother might be. At first they were reluctant to start conversations with such mystifying and intimidating creatures, but Risako felt a lot safer and a lot more confident now that she could instantly cast powerful magic spells. If a monster decided to attack them, Risako was prepared to roast it with a fire ofuda. Or at least, scare it away. She didn't want to actually hurt anyone if she didn't have to. She also carried a sword with her (whenever she remembered to), and that perhaps discouraged hostility among the yokai.
Whether that was a deterrent or not though, none of the tanuki (raccoon dogs), ningyo (fish people), ittan momen (living sheets of cloth), or any of the other yokai actually gave them trouble. Risako and Mizutani continued to act as if they were ghosts, and it didn't look like anyone was going to question it. Nobody down here expected to ever see humans again, it seemed. And apparently those who did know of this secret — Akemi, Eisuke, and the three wardens — had not spread it. They probably didn't want to, if it could cause a panic.
Unfortunately none of the yokai Risako and Mizutani met knew anything about Grandma, or how to break one of Ichijo no Shunzai's curses, or where the lost fourth magatama might be, or any particularly useful details regarding the three wardens. Still though, the yokai were generally pleasant to talk to, at least in comparison to the giant kappa, the yuki onna, and the wheel monk.
After returning to the inn and having lunch, Risako and Mizutani would meet up with said wheel monk, who become more of a pain to tutor with each passing day. After showing them the race course through the town, up and down a mountain trail, along a wide river's sandy beach, and back into the town, Risako did her best to give advice for how to approach each segment of the track. But the wheel monk dismissed every word she said as completely obvious, too simplistic, or just plain wrong.
She managed to come up with new things for him to train each day though, such as revving up in place, launching from the starting line the instant the race began, accelerating up hills more quickly, maintaining better control down hills, and handling turns more sharply. But Naoya was already extremely good at all of these things, so Risako wasn't sure if any of this training was actually helping. The wheel monk certainly didn't think so, and it seemed Mizutani didn't either (though he at least didn't say so outright).
After training, Risako and Mizutani would return to the inn for dinner. The food was always very good, and Risako always ended up eating a lot more of it than she planned to. It made sense though — she had a bigger stomach now, and she had the metabolism of a teenage boy. Risako had to admit, she didn't mind this. It was nice to not have to fret over calories for a change... But it also didn't hurt that the kitsune's food was probably healthier than a lot of the stuff Risako usually ate.
That said, she still found herself craving a yakisoba bun or a stick of fried karaage chicken from time to time. She considered asking the kitsune if he could try making those, but she didn't really like talking with the supercilious-seeming fox man. He got along swimmingly with Mizutani meanwhile, and Risako couldn't help but feel suspicious.
After dinner, Risako and Mizutani would deal with other miscellaneous things, or just spend some time away from each other. Akemi acquired a wooden sword for Mizutani to practice his kendo swings with, and he was nice enough to show Risako how to correctly hold a sword. If she ever needed to use the wakizashi, she felt it important to practice some basic strikes as well. Mizutani explained the differences between kendo and what swordsmanship for samurai actually entailed, but there was only so much Risako could follow.
They had other things to teach each other too. When rough stubble started to appear on Risako's face, she begrudgingly accepted reality and asked Mizutani to help her shave it off properly. She worried about cutting his face, so she followed Mizutani's instructions as closely as possible. Risako would have called it a traumatic experience, but then she remembered what time of the month it almost was...
She gave a detailed account of what Mizutani was going to have to prepare for in the upcoming days, and how to use pads properly. She had brought plenty with her, fortunately... There were tampons as well, but she wasn't going to subject Mizutani to that.
Regardless, Risako had never seen someone look so crestfallen.
Sorry Mizutani... but it comes with the territory.
* * *
It had been a week since Risako agreed to train Naoya for the big race. But as far as she could tell, the wheel monk had not gotten any faster, nor did he sound any more confident that he would be able to defeat his rival, the giant snail.
Risako and Mizutani had actually encountered said yokai in a small hot spring a while back. It was called a kijikui, a “pheasant eater” that was about the size of an adult person. It had a green spiral shell with splotchy black spots, but what protruded from the front opening of the shell was more like a snake's head than a snail's. Kind of a blue sea serpent, with beady yellow eyes and sharp crocodile teeth.
The kijikui's name was Hoshi, and she turned out to be an acquaintance of Akemi's. Or perhaps more accurately, everyone in this yokai realm just knew her, since she was always winning their yearly big race. Mizutani had kicked her in the head when she rose out of the water so unexpectedly... but when she came to, she was (just as unexpectedly) quite understanding about it. Apparently that hadn't been the first time she accidentally surprised someone like that in a hot spring.
Today Hoshi was kind enough to race some laps around the meadow for Risako and Mizutani, so they could see for themselves just how fast she was...
And indeed, the giant snail was faster than Naoya. It took the wheel monk about forty to fifty seconds for each lap, while Hoshi could speed-crawl her away around in thirty to forty seconds. It wasn't completely impossible for Naoya to win the race, if he had a very good day and Hoshi had a very bad one. But Hoshi said she intended to give her all, no matter what.
“It just wouldn't be right not to, you know?” she said in a surprisingly high-pitched and cheerful voice. “If Naoya wants to defeat me so badly, he would want to do so while I was doing my very best, is that not right?”
“You're right,” Risako said, giving a quick bow. “Thank you for coming here today! It was very impressive, seeing a snail go so fast.”
“My pleasure,” Hoshi said. “Be sure to keep training old Naoya for me, will you? I want him in peak condition for the race! And if you have any free time coming up, why don't I treat you to dinner somewhere? Just share me one of your best ghost stories. I love hearing them straight from the source!”
They agreed to meet up the next day, and so Hoshi left on the friendliest terms possible. Really, it seemed kind of odd for such an amiable snail to be the rival in this scenario. Risako probably would have felt much more resolved in getting Naoya to win if his rival were boastful, acting all high and mighty about her victories. But as far as Risako could tell, Hoshi won all her races fair and square, and it all just came down to her being faster than Naoya and the other yokai.
“I'm not going to say it's completely hopeless,” Mizutani said, “but the odds are definitely not in the fire wheel's favor.”
“I can see that,” Risako said, not really caring for Mizutani's continued pragmatism throughout all their training sessions. “If there's a chance he can win though, we have to do what we can to get him to try his very hardest.”
Mizutani folded his arms and didn't really emote one way or another. He was a difficult person to argue with, since he rarely gave the sorts of comments that Risako could snap back on. He wasn't much of an open book, like Risako's friends all were.
“You're on the school kendo team,” Risako said. “You worked hard for that, I assume?”
“Of course. I always gave it my very best.”
“Did you ever win, like a tournament or something?”
“No, I'm afraid not.”
Risako wasn't sure how to phrase her next question politely. She thought it over as best she could before asking. “Do you feel like... like maybe you could've won? If you just... I don't know.”
“I guess.” She regretted asking the question.
Thankfully Mizutani didn't get offended by it. Or at least, he didn't show it. “Of course. How could I not feel that? Maybe I could have become a champion, if I devoted more time and effort to it. But honestly, even if I had practiced twice as many hours, it wouldn't have made enough of a difference. A lot of guys out there are just way better than I am.”
“Did that ever depress you?”
It was a sadder yes than Risako anticipated. She thought that was all Mizutani was going to say, but just when she was about to speak he continued.
“But I got over it, you know? Because kendo isn't all I have in life. I can live without being the best at it. That's normal. Most people don't get to be the best at anything.”
“Right...” Risako thought over her training sessions with Naoya. In most stories, all this hard work would pay off in the end. But she wasn't noticing any kind of change in the disgruntled wheel monk. The problem might have been with her though, not Naoya. “I guess I don't have much room to talk about doing your best and never giving up. I'm not like you or Mister Naoya. I've never really had a passion for anything.”
Risako had bounced from one hobby to another over the years. There was a time in middle school when she got into drawing for some reason, and tried making her own manga. It was a lot more work than she anticipated though. Her artwork was pretty awful, and she never finished the story she had in mind. Eventually she wound up not even caring about manga much in general, turning instead to books and magazines for her entertainment.
“That's fine,” Mizutani said. “Nothing wrong with just enjoying life, and trying to be a nice person or whatever.”
Naoya was rolling up the field as Mizutani said this. It made Risako wonder what the wheel monk's story was exactly. Did he really not have anything more in life other than... rolling around fast? Perhaps it wasn't fair to compare the lives of people to those of yokai, and Risako also figured the wheel monk's magatama likely had an effect on his general temperament.
He stopped in front of Risako and Mizutani, his head pointing straight left.
“Welcome to another day of training!” Risako said, forcing herself to sound excited. “You ready to bring the heat?”
“Maybe,” Naoya said. “Depends how inspirin' your platitudes today are.”
“No more platitudes,” Risako said. “We're going to try something different for your training today.” She had only a vague semblance of a plan forming in her mind, but she decided to just go for it. If simply encouraging Naoya to work harder wasn't going to change anything, then maybe it was time to work differently. Perhaps Mizutani would complain that Risako was acting without thinking again, but she had to shake things up somehow.
She couldn't just change who she was.
Well, at least deep down, who she was.
* * *
Risako, Mizutani, and Naoya walked down the forest trail together, heading back to the yokai town. Naoya rolled along a little ways ahead, partly because the trail was thin and partly because Risako and Mizutani didn't want to roast. They were still able to talk with the rumbling wheel monk if they spoke loud enough.
“If we're going to train you more effectively,” Risako said, “I think we're going to need to understand you a bit better, Mister Naoya. What's your story?”
“Story? Don't have one.”
“There's got to be something.” Risako held her hands up a bit to let a slight breeze pass into her yukata's open sleeves. It was nice to be under the shade of the trees, so she took her time walking slowly. “They say that wanyudo were cruel people who died and became wheels of fire with the shaved head of a monk. They are servants of the underworld, roaming roads in search of victims to terrorize.”
“If ya say so,” Naoya said. “Maybe I was a super-cruel person at some point. Wouldn't surprise anyone, I guess.”
“You don't know why you became a wheel monk?”
“What, y'know why you became what you are?”
Risako understood what he was getting at. It was true she didn't know why she was the person she was born as, and perhaps there wasn't a satisfying answer to be found for that sort of thing. But she did know why she happened to be Mizutani at the moment... though this wasn't the time to get into that.
“What did you do before you came here to this hidden world?” she asked.
“Just raced. Didn't care 'bout eatin' the legs off of children or anything like that. Maybe that's why Ichijo no Shunzai trusted me with one o' his magatama.”
“You're a pretty nice guy for a wheel monk then, it sounds like.”
“Dunno about nice.”
Risako wasn't going to find anything out about why Naoya was a wheel monk, it seemed, but maybe she could at least pin down his motivation for wanting to race.
“You enjoy rolling as fast as you can? You don't get dizzy and sick from all that spinning around?”
“Yes I like to roll. No I don't get dizzy.”
“Right, right. Uh... Other than racing, what sorts of things do you like to do?”
“What?” Risako exclaimed. “You've got to have some other interests... What does a regular day look like for you?”
Naoya started zipping around in a figure eight. “I race through town, I race through the forest, I race up and down the mountain, I race along the river, I race—”
Risako sighed. “Okay, I get it. What is it about going fast that you love so much?”
Naoya stopped darting about and resumed rolling ahead of Risako and Mizutani at a drowsy pace. “Why does anyone like anything? Not seein' the point to all these damn questions.”
Risako wondered if she should hold off for a bit... but she really wanted to know what made Naoya tick. There had to be some reason for him to care so much about going fast and always being on the move.
Or... maybe there didn't need to be? She honestly wasn't sure.
“You want to win the big race, right?” she asked.
“Because. Then that confirms I'm the fastest.”
“But why does that matter?”
The wheel monk stopped and turned to face Risako directly. She and Mizutani both stopped too.
“Ya don't see the point in bein' the best at something?” Naoya bellowed. “Are ya tellin' me that you don't have anything you're strivin' for?”
Risako stepped forward and slammed her fist in her palm. “I'm striving to make you a winner, Wheel! Now tell me! Why do you want to be the best?”
Naoya's eyes widened in surprise. Without blinking, he grinded his teeth back and forth a few times before responding, “It just feels good to be the best! That's it! I need a reason to keep goin', and that's the best I can come up with.”
Risako nodded, maintaining her steely-tough expression and posture as best she could, never breaking eye contact.
“Perfect, that's all I needed to hear.”
Once again, Risako felt shockingly good about herself. She felt more confident, sure... but also more capable of actually acting on that confidence. She never would have guessed that she'd one day be able to get any stranger — much less a monstrous yokai — to listen to her, to take her seriously, and to even follow her lead. She wanted to use that power for good. She didn't want to just obtain Naoya's magatama — she wanted to help him. She wanted to change him for the better.