Chapter 16:

[Risako] — So... We're All Mad Here? Seriously?

Questionable Days with Yokai

“What?” Risako yelled. “Why are there two of you?” She had a lot of questions to ask, but this seemed the most important one to get out of the way first.

“One of us is our good pal Eisuke,” the Risako on the left said, surprising the Risako on the right. “The clever kitsune deigned to assist your beloved sweetheart with her makeup in preparation for your important festival date.”

“Don't shapeshift as... as Risako! And wear her clothes... And put on her expensive makeup...” Risako threw her hands up in the air. “This is messed up! And also you're obviously Eisuke, since Risako wouldn't have said all that. And I'm not buying anything you just said! What were you doing here with Risako?”

“No need for raised voices,” the Eisuke Risako said. He stood up, sprouting fox ears and a fox tail. The fur was black though, matching Risako's (currently Mizutani's) hair.

Ugh, this is hurting my head.

“Don't worry,” the kitsune continued, perfectly emulating Risako's (currently Mizutani's) voice. He squinted his eyes a bit and smirked. “I'm not here to steal your beloved sweetheart from you. We just had some girl time together.”

The other Risako (Mizutani) gave a tired sigh. “Eisuke is just playing around. All that happened was... I went outside, then Eisuke found me, and so we went back inside. He was curious to see some things from the modern world above... And, well, your luggage didn't have much besides clothes and makeup. Really, he probably just wanted to cheer me up. Don't be too hard on him.”

Risako sighed herself, just as tired. She didn't like how she was the only Risako here who wasn't Risako. And she definitely didn't like the idea of Mizutani, with her body, getting this familiar with that kitsune. And she also most certainly didn't like said kitsune shapeshifting as her.

But at the same time all these frustrations were revving up in Risako's mind, she remembered she came here in the first place to apologize to Mizutani for making him run away in tears.

He seemed to be over it already though, having clearly been beguiled by the foxy fox.

So now Risako didn't feel like apologizing. She just felt angry now. She didn't want to be angry, but she was angry dammit! So she turned around in a huff, heading back to her room.

“Oh ho?” Eisuke said in Risako's voice behind her.

Suddenly a figure slipped past Risako's side and stood in front of her. It was Mizutani... Like, Mizutani Mizutani, not the Mizutani who was currently Risako. Because Risako was Mizutani. So this had to be Eisuke, transformed into an exact likeness of Risako (currently Mizutani). Even the clothing he wore had transformed, so he was wearing the same blue and black yukata Risako was.

“You know, I really do have to wonder...” this Mizutani said, grinning cruelly. “Do you actually love Risako? I can't help but notice how every display of affection of yours has felt awfully forced. Most of the time the two of you don't even seem all that close. Not exactly the world's greatest couple that Miss Fumi is looking for.”

“Couples can have struggles sometimes!” Risako said. “They can get in arguments, but still love each other. Isn't that normal? So long as you don't just abandon the one you love, like... like...”

Like my father did.

“Like you just did?” Eisuke said in Mizutani's (currently Risako's) voice. He folded his arms and leaned forward menacingly. “Here's what I think we should do. Why don't I just pretend to be you for the festival, hm? Risako and I will have a nice time together, enjoying each other's company. You can just focus on training for your brutish brawl with Mister Shuhei.”

“You can not take my place,” Risako said, a miserable and dark feeling welling up inside her chest. She already had one person take her place, dammit!

Without even intending to, she found herself balling her hands up into fists.

“I most certainly could,” Eisuke Mizutani said. “If I take Risako to the festival, she will feel at ease. If you take her to the festival, you'll just drive her to tears again.”

Mizutani walked over and raised his hands cautiously. “Hey now, let's all—”

“That was not my fault!” Risako shouted at Eisuke.

“Not going to take responsibility at all, hm?” the kitsune said. “Pathetic! You don't deserve Risako's love. Not that I believe she ever truly loved you in the first place...”

Risako punched him in the face.

Eisuke took the punch, transforming back into his regular fox-human form and crashing onto the floor. And then he just lay there — not actually unconscious, but apparently too weak to get back up.

Risako didn't expect things to play out this way. She figured Eisuke would dodge, since the kitsune seemed so quick and slippery. At the very least, Risako was sure Eisuke would fight back. But the fight was over in one hit.

“Eisuke!” Mizutani cried. For a half-moment Risako, discombobulated over everything going on, thought she had said it, since it was her voice.

Mizutani knelt down beside Eisuke and helped him sit up.

Risako didn't want to watch the kitsune put on a sad act, and she didn't want to hear whatever Mizutani had to say to her after everything she just did. She was mad at Eisuke, mad at Mizutani, and mad at herself. So she turned around and left, marching straight down the hall and out of the inn. She recognized running away was probably the wrong thing to do, but if Mizutani could do it then she could too.

* * *

Where was Risako going? Up the mountain, apparently. She didn't know why, or how far she intended to go, or how long she needed to be away from Mizutani and the fox, or what she was going to do later today or tomorrow or the next day or the day after that.

Today: feel mad.
Tomorrow: feel guilty.
The next day: face the wrath of a yuki onna who will probably see right through my hopeless ruse with Mizutani, should we even bother to attempt it.
The day after that: if I'm still alive, face the wrath of a giant kappa who really wants me dead.

Risako marched up the mountain path, her fists still clenched. The rain never let up, and the further up she went the harder it seemed to pour. She really should have brought an umbrella, but she was too heated up to think straight. Angry perhaps wasn't even the right word for what she was feeling... Frustrated? Irritated? Resentful? Risako felt a little of each, all mixed together to form something that felt more sulky than indignant. She felt lame for getting upset with Mizutani.

But he was being lame, wasn't he? He was totally being lame.

It wasn't entirely his fault though. The fox had caught him in a trap. Risako needed to do something about that fox...

Or maybe she just needed to keep focusing on getting all the magatama. As soon as she had them all, she would switch bodies with Mizutani. Then they could leave this place and never have to see each other again. Well, until school starts back up. But they wouldn't have to talk to each other, or anything.

Thinking of school reminded Risako of her friends, and how they were all off having a good time at their respective summer getaways. If only one of them had invited her to go along with them... She could've avoided this whole mess. But Risako's friends...

She clenched her fists tighter and groaned in frustration. Thinking about her friends only upset Risako more. They had become pretty lame recently too, Risako finally admitted to herself.

But maybe she was just the lame one, for thinking things like this.

Everyone was trying their best, weren't they?

Wasn't she trying her best too? Why was it that she could give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but nobody would do the same for her?

Where is Mom when I need her? Risako suddenly thought. Why is she never around when I need her? Why does she have to always, always work? Couldn't she just... Couldn't she just...

This wasn't the time to get upset about her mother. But the seed had sprouted, and with this much rain, the plant couldn't help but grow.

I shouldn't blame Mom. She was always trying her best. Mom always tried her very hardest, and that made me want to as well. Day in and day out.

So what if she couldn't be around much to raise me like a normal mom? That wasn't her fault. If anything, blame Dad. He left Mom, and he left me, and he never cared to see me ever again or say anything at all!

Not that I blame him!

“Because I probably deserve it!” Risako yelled at the fake sky, her not-Risako voice drowned out by the downpour. She had no idea how long she had been stomping up this muddy mountain. Maybe an hour? Maybe two?

She eventually reached a clearing with a dilapidated hut and a large steaming hot spring. It was a rocky area clear of trees for the most part, and Risako had to watch her step when crossing rushing streams of rainwater. Not that it mattered if she fell into the water at this point.

Perhaps it was a bad idea to approach the creepy mess of boards that constituted the lonely thatch-roofed hovel, but if there was a yokai inside and it was dangerous, Risako had the means to defend herself. The talismans Akemi gave her were waterproof, and could even be used underwater if necessary.

Just when Risako was about to knock, the door at the entryway opened. Lightning flashed in the sky, and a thunderous boom made Risako leap back the same time she witnessed the menacing yokai towering before her: a huge buff man with the head and wings of a shadowy bird, wearing nothing but black hakama trousers.

“Hey... is that you, Mister Inn-keeper?” Risako asked. She couldn't remember his name.

The bird-man nodded. “What are you doing all the way up here, kid?”

His gruff tone of voice seemed quite different from how it normally was, on the rare occasions Risako got to talk to him. The crow tengu generally kept to himself... In fact, Risako hadn't seen him at all the past few days. Had he been up here this whole time then?

Risako let out a long sigh. She had been holding in her breath for a while, apparently. “I don't know. Just felt like walking.”

The bird-man stood there motionless, only his beady eyes shifting the slightest bit. Finally, his sharp beak opened. “Got it.”

So he understood? Risako stood there silently, wondering if she should say something more, or let the crow tengu... welcome her in, to get out of the rain?

The inn-keeper stepped forward without warning, and Risako had to stumble back and off to the side to keep from getting bumped into. The inn-keeper walked forward like a bird-man possessed. He held out his arms and spread out his incredibly long wings, letting as much rain as possible pour down on him.

Risako watched him for a bit, not sure if she should say anything at all. She wasn't sure if the crow tengu had lost his mind, or was in some kind of trance, or was really depressed or something, or just... was having a moment here. There was something peaceful about the scene, but also otherworldly and foreboding. The crow tengu's large size was obvious from the first moment Risako saw him, but only now was she seeing just how ripped he was.

With Mizutani's body, Risako felt much stronger than she ever had been before. But she could tell right away she wouldn't last a second in a fight against the inn-keeper, even if he didn't have his wings and claws.

At the same time though, here with the brunt force of a great storm striking him relentlessly, he seemed illusory. Like an unsubstantial apparition from some forgotten dream or inscrutable hallucination. Risako felt like if she were to blink, the crow tengu would disappear outright. Perhaps this entire hidden world would disappear right along with him, followed by the rest of reality.

The crow tengu turned toward Risako, hunched forward, and pointed his unsettling eyes directly at unsettled hers.

“Glorious evening, isn't it?” he spoke in a grim monotone. Not at all the relaxed sort of vibe he usually gave off. “A glorious, final evening.”

Another crack of lightning startled Risako. She didn't like where any of this was going, wherever it was going.

“Are you... all right, Mister Inn-keeper?” Risako did her best to not let any fear into her words, but it was a struggle just to speak over the hard, unforgiving rain.

“This happens to yokai down here sometimes,” the crow tengu said, looking for all the world like a statue waiting for Risako to blink — just so he could take a few steps toward her during the half-second her eyes were closed. “Sometimes... we just lose it. I guess that happens to humans sometimes too though. Perhaps we're not so different after all.”

Risako struggled to swallow. She winced. She forced herself to breathe.

I have to keep talking to him. I can't let him... I can't let him lose it.

“What are you doing all the way up here?”

“I like high places.”

Guess that makes sense...

“How long have you been up here? I haven't seen you in... probably three or four days.”

“That sounds about right.”

“What about your inn? Don't you need to... keep it?”

“It'll survive without me for a few days. And if I die? Well, what does it matter then? It will cease to exist, as far as I'm concerned.”

“What are you bringing up dying for?” Risako yelled, holding out her arms. “What's going on?”

“We are all mortal, boy!” the crow tengu said, loud enough to be termed shouting, but without his voice sounding the least bit strained. “Humans die! Yokai die! Gods die!”

“That isn't deep,” Risako said under her breath.

“You could very well end in a few days yourself, you know? And what then? How do you intend to defeat Shuhei in a fight to the death? How will you survive a clash with the very embodiment of seething, unchecked hate?”

“I, I know magic!” Risako said.

“Then let's see it. Use all the powers you can summon with the intent to kill!”

The crow tengu sprinted for Risako. She realized too late what was going on, and was immediately tackled. The crow tengu slammed her into the rocky, muddy earth, then stood and wrenched her up by the arm while she was still winded. She knew she needed to fight back, but she couldn't keep up. She had never been physically attacked before. Everything she knew about brawls came from movies and such...

Risako was too dazed to resist, so the crow tengu proceeded to chuck her into the air. Just... launched her. The bird-man literally threw her like a kid throws a rock. Screaming, Risako flew through the air... straight for a cliff. She landed just before it, hard on her side — and rolled. As her body slipped off the edge, she reached out desperately for whatever her hands might grab onto. There were no convenient roots, so she had to just hold on to the slick rock edge, a stream gutter's worth of water continually spilling directly onto her face. That stopped her screaming, at least externally. There was no way she could hold on for long though, and she couldn't see any way to lift herself out of this.

“Don't worry, I got you boy,” the crow tengu said. He grabbed Risako by her wrists and pulled her up onto land. She was about to collapse on the safe ground and thank the inn-keeper for saving her life (already forgetting he was the one who threw her in the first place)... But without even a second to recover, she was flying again. The crow tengu flapped his wings with shockingly overwhelming force, shooting himself straight upward — with Risako in tow.

The crow tengu flapped his wings with ever-increasing intensity, and Risako screamed louder at the same rate. Heights terrified her, and she had never been brave enough to ride on any kind of fast roller coaster. This was a whole set of nightmares all rolled up into one, and Risako didn't even know what had instigated them in the first place.

“So much of life is a matter of luck,” the crow tengu said, staring fixedly at the sky he continued to fly up into. “Will lightning strike us? It might, it might not. And if it does strike us... well, I suppose I might survive. Can a human survive a lightning strike though, I wonder?”

Risako was pretty sure there were lots of people who were struck by lightning and lived. So perhaps she would live too... for however long it took for her to plummet to her death immediately afterward.

This thought process was just enough for Risako to snap out of it and focus on pulling an ofuda from her sleeve. She couldn't think of any to use except for a barrier talisman — any offensive magic would debilitate the crow tengu, who was all that kept her from falling over a hundred meters. After much effort struggling against the crow tengu's unyielding grasp on her strained arms, Risako managed to slip out an ofuda that provided an invisible shield of protection around her body. The thin strip of paper flapped violently in the tumultuous whirlwind, but Risako gripped it tight and focused all her inner energy on releasing the magic sealed within the talisman.

The crow tengu kept flying upward with the grim determination of a rocket aiming for the moon. He looked strained from the effort, fighting against the tempest, against the might of nature itself.

Risako wanted to yell at the inn-keeper, tell him that this was insane, that he had to stop this, that he had to fly back down... but she had no strength for it. The rain and thunder was so loud, so overpowering, so crushing. And even if she could speak, would the inn-keeper listen? Could anyone reach a man this far gone?

A flash of light so bright, Risako couldn't see — and a thunderclap so loud, she couldn't hear.

Risako felt as if a hundred earthquakes shook within her all at once, for one terrifying moment. But she wasn't hurt. She wasn't electrocuted, or burnt to a crisp, or split in two.

The crow tengu did release his grip on her though.

And after experiencing a moment of weightlessness, Risako began to fall once more.

She hadn't thought this through. The crow tengu was struck by the lightning as well, but didn't have the barrier to protect him. He was either dead, or he was unconscious... and about to die.

Risako's broken senses wearily returned to her as she fell. The sight of the distant earth quickly approaching and the sound of the screaming cyclone rushing by only filled her with the utmost terror, however.

I'm going to die. I'm going to die. I'm going to die! I'm going to die!

Every second was precious. She saw the crow tengu was still falling alongside her, plummeting headfirst the same as she was. She didn't want to die... and if the crow tengu was still alive, she didn't want him to die either.

Risako forced herself to abandon her panic-stricken stupor. She stretched her arm out to reach for the crow tengu... but he was just too far away.

Think, think, think of something, think of an ofuda, what ofuda, which one, think.

Though lightheaded from the terrible plunge she was still experiencing, Risako slipped out a lightning talisman, held it downward with both hands gripping it tight, and released a lightning strike of her own. She angled it right to jolt herself back a bit, knocking her into a freefall just behind the still-descending crow tengu. She grabbed his arm, and they spun through the air uncontrollably together.

Risako lost the lightning talisman in the process, and she quickly became extremely dizzy — but at least she had the inn-keeper... and his wings. She pulled herself down to the crow tengu's back and gripped the top of each of his wings tight.

There was no way she was going to be able to flap the crow tengu's wings, but if she could at least get them open properly, then maybe she could slow their fall enough to survive a crash landing. Still spinning, Risako pulled back on the crow tengu's wings. Strained from the effort, she nearly lost her grip of them — but then the crow tengu flopped upward, his body crashing against Risako's. She wrapped her arms around his neck as they flipped backward, end over end.

The ground. The ground, the ground, the ground!

Risako grabbed the crow tengu's wings again and spread them out as wide as she could. The wind caught in them again, but this time Risako was ready for the sudden pull that followed. When the wind spun them to the right, Risako wrenched the wings hard to the left.

They held steady... steady enough. Just steady enough to sort shakily, clumsily glide.


She could see the clearing below — the hut, the rocks, the shallow streams, the cliff, and—

Still locked in a dive she could only slow down so much, Risako tilted the crow tengu's wings to the right, slipped out a water talisman, and released a powerful jet of water, shooting it into the ground below. The pushback from the jet adjusted their trajectory... too far. Risako released one final blast of water, hoping to correct her mistake. She wouldn't get another shot. Mere meters above the ground, the two were redirected once more, spiraling recklessly to their left.

Risako and the inn-keeper plunged into the deep hot spring with a violent splash.

* * *

For the rest of the evening, Risako and the crow tengu did what any two dudes would after getting into a mad brawl, being struck by lightning, and plummeting a gazillion meters to the earth: take a nice long soak in the hot spring together. They were already in it, so might as well.

Fortunately for the crow tengu, he had only been knocked unconscious by the lightning strike, and his dive into the water woke him back up. Risako was worried for a moment that she'd have to attempt CPR or something on him. But as it turned out, the bird-man was indeed as tough as he looked, and was now treating that whole losing his damn mind incident as if it were nothing.

“You really showed your mettle today, boy!” the crow tengu said, wrapping a beefy arm around Risako's shoulders. He turned a bit and gave Risako a couple not-so-gentle punches against her pecs. “Or should I say, man! You've proven yourself to be a man among men, human or otherwise!”

Come on, give me some personal space... Risako thought.

“Wonderful. What a dream come true.” She had meant it sarcastically, but she had to admit the whole experience was nothing short of exhilarating. Maybe she was okay with being proclaimed a man among men, if that basically just meant she was a hero.

Did Mister Inn-keeper have to down so much saké right away though? What is it with all these drunk yokai...

The crow tengu leaned back and held out Risako's right arm, giving her biceps a squeeze. “Keep on training boy, and one day you may start to look a little more like me!”

Already back to just boy...

Risako pushed the crow tengu away, and the yokai drunkenly sunk into a deeper part of the water. When he struggled a lot more to swim back up than Risako expected him to, she grabbed his arm and pulled him back to the area he could sit in.

“Whew, thanks kid.” The crow tengu rapidly shook his bird head a few times. “You're really something, you know that? Thanks for putting up with me today, Yasuo. You're a swell fellow. I owe you my life!”

“Just don't do anything crazy like that again,” Risako said. “We don't want you to get hurt, or die.”

“Nobody would care if I kicked the bucket,” the crow tengu said. “I run the world's least-used inn. Nobody actually needs me.”

“That doesn't matter,” Risako said. “Risako and I have found your inn very accommodating. You do a great job running the place. You've even let us continue staying there, even though we lied about being ghosts. So you're a pretty swell fellow yourself, Mister Bird-man.”

The yokai leaned his head back and looked up to the sky of thunderclouds. “No need to cheer me up, boy. I'm fine now. I'll be fine.”

“I can't help but wonder.” Risako folded her arms and bit her lip. “Were you always an inn-keeper, Mister Inn-keeper?”

“You can call me Tsutomu, boy. We're brothers now! And no, I most certainly wasn't always an inn-keeper. I was once a warrior.”

“Before you ended up down here?”

“Right. I thought I'd be a warrior my whole life. Just felt like what I was meant for, you know?”

“Things didn't work out, I take it.”

“No. They didn't.” Tsutomu looked over to Risako, then looked away again. “There came a time I was distracted for a bit. Settled down, wife and kids, the quiet life. Living more like crows, than like tengu. It wasn't the happiness I planned to have in life, but it was a happiness. A fleeting happiness. Because one day, my fellow warriors needed me more than ever. Our territory was being destroyed by a gigantic snake, you see... I managed to defeat it in the end, but when I returned home... Well, the whole place had been destroyed in an unrelated landslide while I was away. Just... bad luck. I was never able to find my wife and kids beneath all that dirt.”

Risako had no idea what to say to all of that. It was no wonder Tsutomu was depressed. Even if it had been over a millennium, that wasn't something you could just forget about.

“No need to feel bad,” Tsutomu said. “These things happen. And unfortunately, things didn't fare much better for me in the years that followed. For most of history, yokai and humans were more or less on equal footing. But about a thousand years ago, the humans who called themselves onmyoji became much more powerful than they had ever been before. My clan of crow tengu was entirely eradicated, save for myself. And that was, ironically I suppose, thanks to an onmyoji. Ichijo no Shunzai saved me, and took me to a refuge for yokai hidden deep underground.”

“This place?” Risako asked.

“Right. This hidden world turned out to be a refuge none of us yokai could ever leave, so most of us would go on to call it the underground prison. To be honest, I'm not sure which is better: safety in prison, or danger in freedom. I guess as a yokai, I should prefer the latter. And I guess deep down... that is what I want. Some escape from this place. This life. I don't actually care about inn-keeping, you know?”

“Do you like it, at least?”

“I'm okay with it. I'm eager to move on to something else though, to do something new.”

“Risako and I will be collecting the five magatama,” Risako said. “I think Akemi is hoping all the yokai here will be able to leave this place, once we do.”

“I wouldn't be so certain that's what Akemi truly wants,” Tsutomu said. “And I wouldn't be so certain that collecting the five magatama would do anything for us yokai. None of the wardens have been able to use those jewel beads in any meaningful way. Just made them unstable. Naoya became too full of ambition, Fumi too full of love, and Shuhei too full of hate. It's fine to have a bit of these things, but not so much.”

“Well, hopefully the magatama will help us all out, one way or another...” Risako certainly didn't like the possibility that they wouldn't solve her dilemmas. “Guess I'll find out soon enough, assuming I don't get killed in the next few days.”

“Are you prepared for your fight with Shuhei?” Tsutomu asked.

“I used onmyodo magic to survive both you and a thunderstorm,” Risako said. “I can use it to survive a kappa.”

“You shouldn't underestimate Shuhei. He is quite possibly the strongest yokai down here. At the very least, he's the most tenacious. And his goons have likely been keeping an eye on your magic training from a safe distance, so Shuhei will know precisely what you're capable of and plan accordingly. You should let me help train you tomorrow, to make sure you have a proper strategy for defeating him.”

Risako felt like she had a lot of other things she needed to prepare for, but if the giant kappa was as serious a threat as Tsutomu made him out to be... Well, it was literally her life on the line.

“All right, I'm counting on you then.”

Tsutomu nodded. “Good to see you're not too full of pride, boy. You'll need more than just tricks up your sleeve to defeat the likes of Shuhei. It'll have to be a crash course, but if I can teach you at least one useful skill then I think you'll pull through.”

“Great! Thanks, Mister Tsutomu.”

“Don't mention it. I owe you at least that much. Is there anything else I can help you with? I know you've got the other two wardens to deal with too...”

Risako thought it over a bit. She knew it would be embarrassing to ask, but perhaps Tsutomu was inebriated just enough to not find the question weird.

“Risako and I have to prove to the yuki onna that we're a great couple... but I guess, uh... I don't really know much about... love.”

“Love?” Tsutomu squawked. “What do you not get?”

Risako sighed. “I don't know. Things just aren't going so smoothly with Risako at the moment.”

“Ah, I see,” Tsutomu said. “Girl trouble, eh? The ladies can be a bit crazy sometimes.”

“Says the guy who nearly got us both killed flying like a maniac in a thunderstorm.”

Tsutomu shrugged. “I didn't say men weren't crazy too.”

“Great, so everyone's crazy.”

“Sorry, but I'm not the one to ask for love advice. I thought you kids made for a pretty cute couple though? I'm sure you'll work things out if you just talk about your feelings, and all that. Oh! I know. Write Risako a nice poem, that'll cheer her up.”

“I guess I could try... I'm more worried about the day of the festival though. The yuki onna will be watching us to see how loving we are to each other, and our performance will determine whether we get her magatama or not. Do you have any advice for... acting romantic?”

“Hm... I think if you two genuinely love each other, then you don't need to act? The two of you should be able to just be your natural selves around each other, because you both accept everything about each other. Maybe you don't love everything about Risako, but you love her so much that her faults don't matter. Right? And vice-versa, naturally... That's how it was for me and my wife, at least.”

“I see. Thanks, Tsutomu.” Risako wasn't sure how much any of this advice would really help her and Mizutani though, when they didn't genuinely love each other, and had no way to act natural under their current circumstances.

“You kids will do great,” Tsutomu said. “Just be yourself!”