Questionable Days with Yokai
Everything had happened so quickly.
I didn't want to hurt her.
Why did the yuki onna become so furious with her?
I didn't want to hurt her.
She nearly killed Risako...
I didn't want to hurt her!
Risako fell to her knees. She let out a long, ragged, defeated breath. The fire talisman slipped from her grasp, and was carried off by the evening breeze.
She gripped her knees and leaned forward, struggling to breathe. The onmyodo power she had wielded at that critical moment was much stronger than she had intended. Perhaps it was understandable — she only had a moment to act, and she was still learning how to control magical energy properly. Really, she didn't know much of anything about onmyodo beyond generalities... She just used the talismans Akemi provided her, and they just worked.
They work too well, Risako thought. I didn't intend for that fire to reach the yuki onna.
The image of half the yokai's body melted off probably wasn't going to leave Risako's mind anytime soon. It seemed the yuki onna was able to heal herself, so she was going to be all right... But still, Risako felt more awful than she had ever felt before. She wanted to say she never wanted to hurt anyone while she was down here, but she had just punched the kitsune the other day, and didn't even feel bad about it. And she was going to be fighting the giant kappa tomorrow... How awful was that going to go?
When did I get so violent? I don't want this power, if it means I'm going to lose myself...
Of course, she had already literally lost herself, she remembered.
She wished she were herself again. It felt like ages ago that she was yearning to have a little adventure in her life. If only she had considered just how messed up an adventure could be.
Risako realized that Mizutani was kneeling beside her, and had placed an arm around her shoulders. It had to take him some effort to reach all the way across Risako's back and maintain that hold. Risako knew from experience... Again, it felt like ages ago, but there was a time when she was herself, and Mizutani was himself. Mizutani supported Risako after she got injured in the abandoned mansion, letting her place an arm around his shoulders.
He's supporting me again now too, Risako thought.
They didn't say anything for a bit. They just sat there together, just breathed there together.
Mizutani is a good boy, Risako thought.
“I'm sorry, Mizutani,” she whispered. “Sorry... for everything. I don't really get how exactly, but I'm pretty sure I... I really upset the yuki onna there.”
“Yeah, you did,” Mizutani replied, looking back at her wearily. “It's not your fault though. She was just crazy.”
Risako cleared her throat and shook her head a couple times. “I didn't mean to hurt her.”
“I know,” Mizutani said softly.
“I think she really needs... a lot of help.”
“I'm afraid I'll just end up hurting her again... but I want to help her. Somehow.”
Mizutani stood up and held out a hand for Risako. “I'm not going to say you'll definitely succeed, but who knows. Maybe you'll be able to reach her? Like you did Naoya.”
Risako took Mizutani's hand and got back on her feet. “Thanks, Mizutani. I mean it.” She smiled down at him and placed her free hand on his shoulder.
“I might not be able to help much, but I can at least root for you,” Mizutani said.
A loud boom shook the two of them apart. They looked about frantically for a moment, but a bright glow emanating from above quickly clued them in — it was just fireworks.
“Oh, the race is going to start soon,” Risako said.
“We need to be rooting for Mister Naoya then, right?” Mizutani added.
“Yeah, he will be counting on us to be there. Let's hurry on over.”
Things might have fallen apart spectacularly with the yuki onna, but there was still hope for there to be at least one victory this evening.
* * *
The black-painted starting line for the race was at the center of the town's main street. Everyone had cleared out of the road, lining up along the sides in front of or in between the various booths. Where larger crowds were gathered (namely at the starting line), bigger yokai such as oni stood in the back while smaller yokai such as kodama either stood up front or perched atop the bigger yokai. Ghosts and human-like yokai situated themselves between the two extremes. Everyone seemed to be chatting, drinking saké, or both. In most cases, both.
“Looks like they haven't started yet,” Risako said. “Let's wish Naoya luck.”
They found the wheel monk standing a ways behind the other racers, which consisted of Hoshi the kijikui (the giant snail), and three... otters? They looked smaller than Akemi though, and fuzzier. Maybe these were ferrets? Risako noticed what appeared to be small thin blades sticking out of their arms, one curving over each paw.
They must be sickle weasels then, Risako thought. They were known for dashing about in groups of three, guided by violent whirlwinds. As the stories went... one weasel would knock some unsuspecting person down, the next weasel would cut the victim a bunch of times really quickly, and the third weasel would apply some magical ointment to instantly heal most of the poor individual's wounds. Risako had never heard of a reason why the sickle weasels would do such a thing, but she mostly figured it was only natural that yokai in general would have hobbies that humans would find strange.
She and Mizutani walked up to Naoya and greeted him.
“You kids here to wish me luck? I won't be needin' it. I'm peerless!”
“It's one thing to be confident, but don't overdo it,” Risako said. “No holding back, even if you're far in the lead!”
“Of course, of course,” Naoya said. “I won't be satisfied with just a mere win. I'm aimin' for the all-time best record!”
“That's the spirit!” Risako said. “Race with all your heart tonight, Naoya.”
“Don't have one.”
“Race with all your metaphorical heart tonight, Naoya.”
The wheel monk laughed. “I always have. Or at least, I thought I always did. But maybe I didn't.”
“I think you did, Naoya,” Mizutani said. “But there's more to racing than just doing your best, isn't there?”
“Yeah, there's hard work. Not like I've been trainin' every day for nothin'.”
Risako added, “There's also luck. You might have good luck tonight, which will help you win. Or you might have bad luck, and you'll lose even if you truly are faster than your opponents.”
“Goin' on about luck again? What's with that?” Naoya yelled with a fiery rumble.
“It's just... reality,” Risako said, trying to choose her words carefully. Her views on things had shifted a bit as of late, and the way she failed so miserably with the yuki onna was something of a harsh wake-up call. “I've said a lot about giving it your all and believing in yourself, but it's never that simple, is it? It's true. While you're racing out there, you might get caught up in a random landslide. Or you might inadvertently trigger some weird hidden curse that will change your entire life. Anything can happen out there. Out anywhere. But no matter how bad your luck is, you can still give it your all. And you can still believe in yourself. Maybe nobody else will ever know that you did your very best, but you will.”
“Will I though?” Naoya asked. “I haveta wonder 'bout that. I haveta wonder if that nagging feeling in the back of my mind will ever go away.”
“What nagging feeling?”
“How do I put it... The nagging feeling that I still... after everything... that I still coulda tried just a little, tiny, itty-bitty bit harder. And that that woulda made the difference.”
“Make this the day you crush that nagging feeling, Naoya! If you can only accomplish one thing tonight, make it that!” Risako shouted, pointing up in the air. “Every day, there are hundreds of people up there winning races. But how many people are up there crushing that nagging feeling you just described? On most days, it's zero! It's only on the rarest and most extraordinary of days that even one single person manages to crush that nagging feeling. Do you think you could do it, Naoya?”
Risako pointed both her hands at the wheel monk. “Do you have it in you, Naoya?”
Risako pounded a fist into her open palm. “Are you going to crush that nagging feeling, Naoya?”
“I'm goin' to crush it.”
Risako placed a hand up to her ear. “What was that?”
“I'm goin' to crush it!”
Risako lifted both arms, stretching them out wide. “You think the entire world is going to hear that?”
“I'M GOIN' TO CRUSH IT!”
A pillar of fire erupted from Naoya, bursting all the way up to the sky. All of the yokai watching cheered, perhaps assuming this was part of the fireworks show.
“Go get to that starting line, Naoya!” Risako exclaimed.
Hoshi and the three sickle weasels all watched with mouths agape as Naoya leaped high into the air and landed in his spot at the starting line, fortunately containing his fire to only his immediate vicinity. Naoya then revved in place, turning brighter and brighter, until he became a blindingly white circle that emitted an incredibly loud yet eerily peaceful whistling noise.
The three weasels each took on a kind of pouncing position, with their sickles digging into the earth just behind the painted black line. Hoshi meanwhile leaned low and forward, a resolute look on her serpent-like face.
The ghost of the Dutch trader, apparently the one in charge of the race, raised his rifle in the air.
All the yokai watching went silent.
The ghost shouted for all to hear, “May the one thousandth or so Great Underground Prison Summer Festival Yokai Race begin!” And with that, he fired his gun.
All five of the racers took off at once, launching down the dirt road and completely out of sight in a matter of seconds. A great whirlwind left in their wake rushed through all the onlookers, who all cheered once it died down.
“Didn't get a face full of your hair that time,” Risako said to Mizutani. “Maybe you should keep it tied up.”
“Was thinking of lopping it all off, actually,” Mizutani replied.
“No! Don't even joke about that!”
With all the racers out of sight, the hundreds of gathered yokai had nothing to do but return to chatting and drinking. There weren't giant TV screens or anything to show how each of the racers were faring. It was going to take some time for them to race through the forest, up and down the mountain, along the river, and back into town. The starting line doubled as the race's finish line.
“Guess there's nothing to do but wait,” Risako said.
“Not a really great spectator sport, to be perfectly honest,” Mizutani added.
Something latched on to Risako's shoulder. She turned and saw it was Akemi.
“Good evening,” the otter said. “How did everything fare with poor Fumi?”
Risako explained how the festival date was going fine for the most part, up until she went to retrieve another pair of sandals for Mizutani. Mizutani then went over what happened while Risako was away — how the yuki onna turned furious following Risako's departure, and how she set up a test for Risako... which she failed, setting the yuki onna off even further.
“Poor Fumi has abandonment issues,” Akemi said. “There is not much anyone can do for her at this point. The magatama of love was a fitting one for her, but regardless, it has had an ill effect on her over the centuries.”
“I'd still like to try to do something for her,” Risako said. “At least, I need to apologize for hurting her so badly.”
“She does not feel pain like a human does,” Akemi said. “And even if you melted her entire body, I am all but certain she would prove capable of remaking herself, given enough time.”
“I see...” Risako still felt awful by what she did, and she could only imagine the yuki onna utterly despised her at this point. Perhaps Miss Fumi could not feel physical pain, but she could still cry.
There was still a lot Risako needed to learn about the yuki onna, and about Ichijo no Shunzai. And really, this entire hidden world. If she could find the right things to tell the yuki onna, perhaps she could come to an understanding with her. Perhaps Miss Fumi would be willing to part with her magatama, but only after her broken heart was healed.
“So long as I'm down here, and have the means to do so, I wish to help the yokai as best I can,” Risako said. “I want to help Naoya, and Fumi, and even the giant kappa Shuhei, if I can.”
“Truly, you are asking all too much of yourself,” Akemi said. “Just focus on acquiring each of the magatama, and everything will sort itself out in the end.”
Risako wanted to believe that, but it just felt too... convenient. She didn't doubt the power of the magatama — Akemi would not be so insistent about retrieving them otherwise — but the idea that everyone's problems would be magically solved by them felt too simple, too unrealistic. She didn't know what was the best thing for her to do.
One thing at a time. There's only so much I can do at once...
“Speaking of magatama,” Akemi said, “let us ensure we at least acquire poor Naoya's magatama of ambition. If I recall correctly, he said he intended to spit it out upon crossing the finish line, whether he won or lost. We should stand an appropriate distance past the finish line then, to ensure we are the ones to catch the precious jewel. It would not do for some random mischievous mujina or what have you to snatch it away.”
Naoya did say that was his intention. He did not want the magatama anymore... but when he gave it up a couple weeks ago, he lost the will to live.
Once he gives it up again after this race, would he have any ambition of his own left within him? That was the question that would be answered soon enough. There was nothing for Risako to do at this point but believe in the wheel monk.
Risako and Mizutani walked out into the road, a ways past the starting line. It was hard to guess how far down they should go, so they spread out a bit from each other. Chances were Naoya and the other racers would stop shortly after crossing the finish line, and Risako didn't imagine Naoya could spit his magatama out too far.
“Not that it matters,” Akemi whispered in Risako's ear, “but do you think poor Naoya has a chance of winning?”
“It does matter,” Risako said. “But it also doesn't, I suppose. But not in the way you're thinking.”
“Oh?” Akemi drew out this intonation, sounding both amused and skeptical.
The race matters to Naoya, which means it matters.
But it's also just a race. And it's just an ambition. It's just a hope. And it's just a dream.
There's more to these things in life.
“Here comes the racers!” the ghost of the Dutch trader shouted, and the crowds all watched the finish line in eager anticipation.
The first to cross was a sickle weasel.
The second to cross was a sickle weasel.
And the third to cross was a sickle weasel.
“My, my,” Akemi said. “That was unexpected.”
The spectators in the vicinity all cheered and surrounded the three winners, who began performing victory backflips.
All this time, it wasn't even the kijikui that Naoya needed to be so focused on? Risako watched the scene in stunned amazement. There was still no sight of the wheel monk or the giant snail.
“We have a new winner!” the ghost host proclaimed. “A thrilling upset from all three of the kamaitachi! This marks the first time anyone other than the kijikui has won in decades!”
“Are they friends of yours, by the way?” Risako couldn't help but ask Akemi.
“What is this now? You make quite the presumption there... Weasels and otters are not the same.” Akemi scoffed a few squeaks. After a long pause though, she added, “But yes, one could call them close acquaintances of mine.”
“Be sure to congratulate them then,” Risako said. “After we congratulate Naoya.”
“Assuming he does not blow himself up, yes?” Akemi said.
And soon enough, Hoshi crossed the finish line, shortly followed by Naoya. Only a few seconds difference between the two...
The fiery wheel yokai skidded to a halt shortly after passing the finish line, and just as he promised to, he violently spit out his bright yellow magatama. It shot high up, as if aiming for the moon... But it didn't get anywhere near it, of course. It flew through the air in an impressive arc, heading straight for Risako and Mizutani's general vicinity.
Mizutani leaped up for it, his eyes focused on the bead, his arms outstretched.
But Risako caught it handily, just above his reach.
Mizutani sighed. “Nice catch.”
“I'll hold on to this one, if that's okay,” Risako said. She turned to Naoya and hurried over to him.
The wheel monk was standing off by himself, away from the crowds of yokai celebrating the victory of the three sickle weasels, who were each being awarded a gold coin by the Dutch ghost.
Naoya didn't blow himself up. But his fires were dying down. Not instantly like back at their first meeting with him at the restaurant... but gradually.
“Naoya!” Risako shouted as she ran toward him, with Akemi in tow. Mizutani followed behind.
Naoya seemed to be in a daze, staring at nothing in particular, his eyes unblinking. He didn't look upset, but he didn't look satisfied either. Perhaps that was only natural though.
“Congratulations on finishing, Naoya!” Risako said. “How do you feel you did?”
“I... dunno. I dunno, kid,” Naoya said. “I didn't even place, let alone win.” The flames on his wheel and on his face were still dying down, flickering feebly.
“But what about the nagging feeling in the back of your mind?” Risako asked. “Did you manage to crush it?”
Naoya cast his gaze downward for a minute. He didn't respond right away, but that might have been a good thing. It seemed Naoya was really considering this seriously. Risako waited patiently for his answer, not wanting to put any words in his mouth.
The wheel monk took a deep breath, releasing a spray of firework-like sparks from his mouth as he exhaled. The flames on his wheel and face burned a bit brighter, a bit more strongly.
He looked up at Risako and smiled. “I really, truly, without a doubt-ly gave it my all today. My best wasn't good enough to win... but it was my best.”
“That's great,” Mizutani said. “Nobody could ask for more of you than that.”
“I'm really proud of you, Naoya!” Risako added. “I think you have it in you to keep working at whatever you decide to devote your life to, from here on out!”
Hoshi the kijikui crawled over to Naoya with a snakelike smirk across her face. “That was some amazing speed out there, Naoya! We were neck-and-neck the whole time, weren't we? Really took me by surprise!”
“Oh... th-thanks, Hoshi...” Naoya's entire face turned red, though this was obscured by his fire, steadily regaining its former intensity. “Uh, you did damn good out there too, of course. S-sorry ya didn't win.”
“Those weasels were crazy fast,” Hoshi said cheerily. “Already looking forward to racing them again next year!”
“Next year...” Naoya repeated the words with deliberate consideration.
Some other yokai approached Naoya to offer their congratulations.
A large one-eyed priest told him, “I never realized just how fast you could roll! Have you kept up with your go practice too? We should meet up for another afternoon of go sometime.” This was the yokai Risako had gotten Naoya to spend a day playing the board game go with.
“I've been practicin' in my head, yeah,” Naoya said. “There's a damn lot to think about in that.”
“I'm always on the lookout for new yokai to play with. To teach, and to learn from.”
Another yokai, the big cat from the bookstore, showed up with a book in her paws. “I hate to admit it, but I was blow-nya-way by your speed. Here's a small congratulatory book for you...”
She placed the book between Naoya's teeth so he could hold it, and impressively the paper didn't catch on fire. Naoya was still able to control his flames with great precision, it appeared.
The cat continued, “That coin you gave me was worth a lot more than a single bento lunch. So you deserve at least one book, I think. This one's about a kid who was born out of a giant peach, if you can believe it.”
Naoya gulped the book, presumably holding it in some magical safekeeping along with whatever other things he held inside of him. “Well, that's surprisingly nice of ya.”
to read, and you'll have all sorts of interesting stories to enjoy,
just like that boy said.” The cat was presumably referring to Risako, who tried to inform Naoya of the joys of reading a few days ago.
Well, guess I can give it a shot,” Naoya said. "Why the heck not?"
The living biwa tsukumogami showed up too, and started playing the Pifusucha theme song for Naoya in celebration. The wheel monk couldn't help but start singing the lyrics, which he had completely memorized by this point.
“You know, you 'n I could make a pretty good team, don'tcha think?” Naoya said. “Maybe we ought to start meetin' up each week and learn some new songs?”
The biwa hopped in place a couple times, plucking its strings to a pleasant jingle.
Well, looks like Naoya has a lot to look forward to in life after all! Risako thought with a smile.
The fire of the wheel ended up burning even brighter than it had when Naoya relied on the magatama of ambition.
His aged and enduring face beamed just as brightly.