Chapter 19:

[Yasuo] — The Battle She Fights, The Battle He Fights

Questionable Days with Yokai

It had been an exhausting day, to put it lightly. And though not everything went smoothly (again, to put it lightly), Yasuo felt the day was about as “all's well that ends well” as could have been realistically hoped for. He had been all but certain that the yuki onna was going to kill him shortly after Kitamura ran off, and then had to fear the worst for her when she failed the yuki onna's shaved ice challenge. The ending to that wild drama left Kitamura and the yuki onna scarred in more ways than one, but in time it was possible for them to recover. And perhaps it would even be possible for Kitamura to help the yuki onna overcome her trauma one day.

She managed to help Naoya, after all. Her training methods over the past week had never been about preparing the wheel monk for the race; it was all just an excuse to get him to interact with others and to have something other than racing to live for. If Naoya wasn't going to be able to overcome his inadequacies on his own, then they could try building a network of support for him.

Yasuo couldn't help but feel he had been too harsh on Kitamura, at least in his mind. It seemed that it was fitting for her to be the one to gain Ichijo no Shunzai's onmyodo power after all. She was the right sort of person to help out all the yokai down here, and to acquire all the magatama. Seeing what she accomplished, and seeing her struggle with the pressure and responsibility of her power, it felt wrong to stay jealous of her. If anything, Yasuo felt happy for her now. A quiet and slightly wistful sort of happy, but still.

Against all his expectations, it wasn't hard for Yasuo to fall asleep that night. Perhaps that was just how drained he was.

* * *

Yasuo woke up to the sound of a loud groaning. At first he thought Kitamura had gotten hurt, so he got off his futon quickly to go see if she was okay. But by the time he reached her sliding door, she started sighing dramatically, more a sound of frustration than anything else. So maybe she wasn't hurt... but maybe it'd still be a good idea to check on her. He was already up, so...

He knocked on her door. “You all right in there?”

Kitamura gave a light gasp. “Oh, I'm fine, I'm fine. Everything's fine. Just fine!”

Yasuo somehow doubted that. He slid open the door to find Kitamura pacing about the room, her hands clutching her messy hair. She was wearing a plain blue T-shirt and pair of black shorts, what Yasuo normally wore to bed. (You know, before the whole switching places thing. Now he was wearing a teal set of satin pajamas.)

Kitamura turned, staggering unsteadily to face Yasuo. Her eyes looked crazed and bloodshot.

“Whoa, you look awful,” Yasuo said. “You don't look like you got any sleep.”

“How can I sleep?” Kitamura asked, clearly agitated. “I don't want to fight that giant kappa. I don't want to be killed!”

“Hey, what's this all about?” Yasuo asked. “You know magic... You're going to be fine. You said so yourself.”

Kitamura grabbed Yasuo by his shoulders and shook him a bit. “I don't want to die, I don't want to die, I don't want to die!” Her voice cracked terribly.

Yasuo pushed off Kitamura's arms. “That hurt! Get a hold of yourself, Kitamura!”

Kitamura went back to pacing the room. “I'm sorry. I'm just. I'm just sorry. I messed up. I'm not ready for this. I was really lucky yesterday, you know? If I had been one second slower with that fire talisman, I'd be dead. If I make a single mistake against the kappa, I'm dead.”

The danger of yesterday's encounter with the yuki onna had forced Kitamura to confront her own mortality, obviously. Yasuo sympathized, but she had to get her act together if she was going to stand a chance in her upcoming duel.

“Here, sit down and just breathe a bit,” Yasuo said. He knelt down on Kitamura's futon and patted the space next to him.

Kitamura begrudgingly complied. After taking a few deep breaths to regain a little composure, she said, “I'm sorry, Mizutani. I know I must be worrying you. If I die, you lose your old body.”

“Yeah, so don't die.”

Kitamura exhaled a sort of laugh. “Thanks for the advice.”

“It's good advice, don't take it lightly,” Yasuo said, smiling. “But seriously though, weren't you training with the inn-keeper the other day? I wouldn't be surprised if he had his fair share of scuffles.”

“Yeah, he's pretty wild,” Kitamura said. “But his training is partly what's gotten me so worried. He really made me realize just how utterly unprepared I am for this fight. And just how formidable of an opponent Mister Shuhei will be.”

“He's, uh, intimidating. But if you can stay out of his claws' reach I think you should be okay? Rely on your magic, and always have a second ofuda ready to use in case you don't succeed with the first one. And if you absolutely must use your sword...” Yasuo tried to think of the most important advice he could give. “Move your feet. Close angles when you attack, so you're still able to defend yourself. Strike efficiently. And... don't forget which edge is the sharp one.”

Yasuo had intended that last bit to lighten the mood some more, but Kitamura nodded seriously. “Right. I won't forget. The front part, curved out.” She drew the curve of the blade in the air with her finger.

Maybe Yasuo needed to be more worried about this fight... “The wakizashi is a last resort, okay? Just try to defeat the kappa quickly with magic so it doesn't get to that point.” He patted Kitamura on the back. “You can do it. Just think of all the things you told Naoya. You've got to take your own advice, don't you?”

“Yeah... I'm such a hypocrite, aren't I? Getting this desperate.”

“It's fine. It's normal to feel afraid when confronted by danger. What matters is what you do afterward. You can't expect yourself to just... will yourself to not have fear. Maybe some people can do that, but I think most of us have to learn how to live with it, to continue to function with it.”

Kitamura took another deep breath and nodded. “You're right, Mizutani. Thanks again... for supporting me like this.”

“I believe in you, Kitamura. And I'll be there at the fight to root for you.” Really, Yasuo had the feeling that most of the other yokai who were going to gather to watch would be rooting for her. The giant kappa and his gang didn't seem all that popular down here.

And if things did take a turn for the worst in Kitamura's duel with Shuhei...

Well, Yasuo wasn't sure what he would do. He hoped he wouldn't have to find out.

* * *

It was already almost sunrise when Kitamura woke Yasuo up. Yasuo wished she could have gotten a full night's sleep before this big fight, but what was done was done. Kitamura got dressed in her samurai getup from their first night in the yokai realm: the dark blue kimono, and the black pleated hakama trousers. She then placed plenty of paper talismans in her sleeves, but not so many that she wouldn't be able to slide them out easily.

Yasuo asked how they stayed put, and the explanation was that the energy each ofuda was imbued with allowed the paper to stick to whatever surfaces their onmyoji intended for them to. She was even able to make the talismans float in the air now, which Yasuo figured would surely prove useful. It took a lot of focus to move the ofuda with her mind, so it was still preferable for her to wield them by hand though.

With all her talismans ready, Kitamura then firmly placed her sheathed wakizashi blade in her sash.

“All right, you look ready,” Yasuo said. “Are you ready?”

Kitamura looked down at him and opened her mouth, but no sound escaped. She nodded, ever so slightly... Actually, that might have just been trembling.

“You're going to win,” Yasuo said. “You're going to win in less than a minute! Then we can go back inside and enjoy another excellent breakfast.”

He hoped that would break Kitamura out of her stupor, but the fact Naoya didn't actually win his match perhaps still weighed on her mind. It was entirely possible — honestly, perhaps likely — that she would lose too her contest too. Losing for her was much more a matter of life and death though, so she really couldn't afford to lose.

“Come on.” Yasuo held out a hand. “We can go out there together.”

Kitamura shakily nodded again and took Yasuo's hand. It was strange to see Kitamura like this, since she always seemed so on top of things. Or at least, she was always able to act like she was so on top of things.

Everyone has their limit, I guess. Yasuo had to hope this wouldn't truly be Kitamura's limit though.

They headed out of the inn and found the giant kappa Shuhei standing out in the middle of the road, waiting for them. Just him was a line of about twenty regular-sized kappa, all staring at the entrance just as attentively. There were plenty of other yokai gathered as well, with more arriving from down the road in either direction.

It probably wasn't every day — perhaps not every century — that a ghost or yokai dared to challenge one of the three wardens like this.

“Good, you didn't back out,” the head kappa said. “Time to settle this man to man then.”

Yasuo had said earlier that Shuhei was intimidating, but seeing him again now out in the clear daylight, that felt like all too tame of a descriptor for the hunched beast. His disfigured spiked shell, unnaturally long and muscular arms and legs, seaweed-like hair, yellow snakelike eyes, and eerily bleeding head all painted an abhorrent picture. The sight of this so-called kappa unnerved Yasuo now a lot more than it did the first time they met, for some reason. Maybe Yasuo was just too overwhelmed by everything else going on that day, for it to fully settle in just how much more horrific Shuhei was in comparison to all the other yokai down here.

I really haven't been worrying enough for Kitamura...

Yasuo looked away and noticed Akemi in her otter form approaching. She climbed up onto his shoulder to talk with Kitamura.

“Best of luck,” she said. “I am confident you will be able to end this fight swiftly and soundly, if that makes you feel any better.”

“Thanks,” Kitamura whispered.

“Just ensure you do not hesitate to kill. If you hold back even slightly, poor Shuhei shall eviscerate you.”

Yasuo knew Kitamura hated to even hurt anyone. There was no way she would try to kill Shuhei, even if he was going into this fight with every intention of killing her. He couldn't help but envision Shuhei tearing her apart with his incredibly long claws, then sinking his squirming degraded teeth into her.

Yasuo's heartbeat quickened to the point that it was a bit painful, his head feeling dizzy. Kitamura was going to be in grave danger, and there was nothing he could do about it. That hurt more than anything...

He wanted to grab Kitamura's hand and get her out of there. Get her out of this entire insane yokai realm. They weren't supposed to be here.

“It... it isn't worth it,” Yasuo said, barely above a whisper.

“Hm?” Kitamura furrowed her brow, glancing over at him.

“It isn't worth it,” Yasuo repeated. “You don't have to do this.”

He felt like the worst person ever, to say such a thing now. Kitamura was pushing herself more than ever to go through with this terrible ordeal, and here he was trying to get her to back down all of a sudden. After everything he had just told her this morning...

I'm horrible. I'm sorry, Kitamura.

“Of course I have to do this,” Kitamura said. “There's no turning back now.”

“No, there's still time!” Yasuo said, clenching his teeth. “This is crazy. We don't need the magatama so badly... Just, just call this off.”

“I'm not calling it off. We absolutely need that magatama.” Kitamura glowered at Yasuo. It was an expression surprising enough that it made him take a step back.

Yasuo balled his hands into small fists. “It's... it's not worth your life! We can just leave.”

“We can not just leave!” Kitamura yelled. “Have you lost your mind? If we leave, we'll never be able to...” She didn't finish it, since there was a crowd here.

“It's fine,” Yasuo said. “I'll live.”

Shuhei suddenly hissed so loudly Yasuo had to cover his ears.

“Someone shut that girl up!” the kappa yelled hoarsely, somehow maintaining his near-perfect monotone. “I'm itching to get this over with. You can cry for your idiot lover boy after he's torn to shreds. Just be happy I promised to never hurt you... Your mouth would have been shut up real good by now, if I hadn't.”

Yasuo did shut up after that. He knew he was making a fool of himself, with every single word he said. He was supposed to be supporting Kitamura, but he probably just ended up making her feel all the more unsure of herself. If he got her thrown off balance right before this battle to the death, and she died...

It happened again. Tears just poured from his eyes, all on their own.

But it wasn't really all on their own though... Yasuo really didn't want Kitamura to die, and he really was willing to live with her body the rest of his life if it meant she didn't have to risk her life like this.

It wasn't fair to her, to have to put her life on the line, while Yasuo stood off to the side safe and sound. And it wasn't fair to her, to have the weight of a millennium's worth of expectations placed upon her, while Yasuo coasted along to reap any of the benefits of her efforts.

A hand settled on Yasuo's shoulder, and once again, he looked up to find Eisuke by his side.

“Let's stand back,” the kitsune said. “It wouldn't do, for you to get caught in the crossfire.”

“Eisuke...” Yasuo wiped his face with his yukata sleeves. He felt embarrassed, crying in front of Eisuke once again. But his presence also made Yasuo feel a little more at ease somehow. He had never seen Eisuke actually fight, but he had to assume he was strong. He was a kitsune, right? And Eisuke wouldn't let Kitamura just die in front of him, would he? If it was clear Kitamura had lost and the kappa was about to kill her, Eisuke would step in, yeah?

Yasuo recognized these thoughts were completely selfish, but he was desperate for any kind of realistic hope to latch on to. He noticed Tsutomu the crow tengu standing in the crowd as well, so maybe he too could help if necessary.

Akemi scampered off by herself and perched in front of the inn's entrance.

“I, Akemi — the emissary of this underground prison — shall oversee this duel. The fight between Shuhei and Yasuo Mizutani will last either until one of them concedes defeat, or until one of them dies. They may attack one another however they see fit. When I say begin, they may begin. I strongly recommend everyone give them plenty of room!”

All the gathered yokai split up into two groups and gave Kitamura and Shuhei a nice wide area to fight in.

“No funny business, from any of you,” Shuhei said in that disquieting airy voice of his. His head swiveled in place so he could look from one group of yokai to the other. “If anyone interferes with this fight, there's no telling what my boys'll do... The only blood I care to spill today is the blood of Ichijo no Shunzai's progeny.”

There were kappa among both crowds of yokai, including one who stood near Yasuo and Eisuke. There was no way for Yasuo to be sure, but it felt like most of the yokai here were of the less dangerous variety... A coordinated ambush by all these clawed kappa trained by the likes of Shuhei, would likely be more than a little devastating. Again, Yasuo was thankful Eisuke was with him.

Kitamura and Shuhei faced each other, standing a good fifteen paces or so apart from each other. This was good... It meant Kitamura would have time to attack first with her ofuda. But then Yasuo had to wonder, just how quick was Shuhei? He may have been a turtle-like monster, but that didn't mean much when the snail-like monster of this realm was faster than a cheetah.

Yasuo watched Kitamura's face carefully. It was Yasuo's face of course, but he had started to get used to thinking of it as Kitamura's. And as Yasuo feared... she looked terribly nervous.

Akemi stood on her hind legs and raised a paw in the air. “Begin!” she shouted.

Kitamura pulled a talisman from her sleeve and immediately released a giant blast of fire, just as she did for the yuki onna the previous evening.

But at the same time, Shuhei leaped forward, spinning violently. As he did so, he slid his arms, legs, and head into his large turtle shell. The roaring burst of fire collided with him within a second, but the instant it passed, he fell to the ground with his head, arms, and legs back out.

Kitamura took a few quick steps to the side as the kappa landed, and pulled out several more talismans from her sleeve. When she stopped and turned toward Shuhei, she released her six paper talismans in the air. Three hovered to her left, and three to her right. Yasuo recognized them as lightning talismans.

She's got him!

Shuhei's seaweed-like hair suddenly stretched out, instantly extending toward Kitamura. The moment her lightning talismans began to glow, six of the kappa's strands of seaweed pierced them all at once. And before Kitamura could even register what was going on, two more of the whiplike appendages wrapped around her shoulders.

“No!” Yasuo cried.

The giant kappa lifted Kitamura up and swung her high in the air. He continued to fling her in a great arc, clearly intending to slam her head-first into the hard earth.

But at the last second, Kitamura managed to use a water talisman to shoot a jet of water into the ground, preventing a blow that could very well have killed her. The blast of water flung her out of Shuhei's grasp, and she rolled across the dirt road roughly. She ended up not too far from where Yasuo stood. He winced from Kitamura's painful-looking tumble, but was relieved to see her get back on her feet right away.

Shuhei was already upon her though, barreling toward her at a full wobbling bone-crackling sprint with his shining lengthened claws outstretched.

In one swift movement, Kitamura stepped forward, unsheathed her wakizashi, and swung.

Shuhei stumbled to the side at the same time and swung his claws. He flung Kitamura's sword out of her grasp... and it landed just in front of Yasuo.

His eyes remained fixed on Kitamura though. She was reaching into her sleeve, but at the same time, Shuhei was spinning in place with the momentum from his previous attack. He ended his spin with a firm kick directly into Kitamura's stomach.

She fell back hard, and landed even harder on her back. As she grunted desperately from the pain of that massive impact, Shuhei swiveled his head toward her, his eyes lighting up a bright yellow. And then he grinned, his needley blue, gray, and brown teeth quivering in anticipation. Blood spilled from his bowl over his face as he took a great lumbering step toward Kitamura, struggling for an ofuda from her sleeve.

The paper talismans blew away, taken by a passing breeze. She had lost control of them when she was hit so hard, so they were no longer sticking to the inside of her sleeves properly.

It's over... Yasuo thought, panicking. He looked around frantically, but it didn't look like any of the yokai were going to step in and stop this fight. Yasuo suddenly felt foolish for thinking anyone would want to... There was no fighting Shuhei.

And now Shuhei was going to kill Kitamura.

No. No. No. No!

Yasuo stepped forward, picking up Kitamura's wakizashi.

Isn't there something I can still do?

He stepped again, raising the sword and adjusting his grip.

I may not have any powers, and I might be weak.

He stepped toward Shuhei, who continued to approach Kitamura — but at the same time, he twisted his head backward to see who dared to interfere.

But can I not still hold a sword?

He swung the wakizashi.

Can I not still aim?

The blade slashed across the kappa's face, straight across both his eyes.

Can I not move forward?

The kappa screeched a shrill blood-curdling howl, stumbling backward and placing his webbed hands over his blood-covered face.

Yasuo knew that what he just did was irreversible. But he was through with standing by and doing nothing.

“Wh-whyyyy?” Kitamura groaned, staring at Yasuo with the same cruel glower she cast at him earlier, when he asked her to give up on the duel. She held another ofuda in her hand, Yasuo only now noticed. Perhaps she had a backup plan then after all...

In other words, if Kitamura wasn't furious with Yasuo before, she surely was now. He had gotten mad at her when she protected him from Shuhei... and this fight was a much bigger deal.

“Kill them! Kill them! Kill them!” Shuhei roared, still somehow in a monotone, but now with a disgusting gargling noise accompanying his words. “Kill Yasuo Mizutani! Kill Risako Kitamura! And kill anyone who dares to protect such filthy oath-breakers!”

All of the kappa immediately charged, half of them for Kitamura, and half of them for Yasuo.

Before Yasuo could take a defensive stance though, someone grabbed the sword out of his hands and tossed it aside. Startled, Yasuo turned and found Eisuke, who immediately proceeded to grab Yasuo and carry him in his arms.

“My apologies, Risako.”

Eisuke then took off at an incredible speed, escaping the four kappa that leaped toward Yasuo simultaneously, claws outstretched. Several more kappa rushed for Eisuke ahead of him, but the kitsune managed to weave around each effortlessly, avoiding all their attacks and sprinting on down the road.

Yasuo tried to squirm out of this princess carry, but Eisuke held too strong of a grip on him. Looking back as best he could, Yasuo could only vaguely make out the chaotic scene ensuing behind him. Most of the yokai had fled in a panic, and Kitamura meanwhile was being defended by the inn-keeper Tsutomu. The crow tengu had picked up the wakizashi and was laying waste to each and every kappa who attempted to approach Kitamura, who was still struggling to stand back up, clutching her pained stomach.

“Stop, Eisuke! We can't just leave!”

“Shuhei and his kappa are never going to stop hunting you, I'm afraid,” Eisuke said. “The only place in this underground prison where I can assure your safety is at my shrine.”

“Shrine? Your shrine? And what about Ki... Yasuo?”

“He has all the potential of Ichijo no Shunzai, does he not? He will have to rise to the challenge.”

Yasuo didn't like being separated from Kitamura like this, but it didn't look like there was any arguing with Eisuke, at least for now.

Some of the kappa had followed Eisuke through town, but gave up once the kitsune passed the arched bridge. The fox man wasn't as fast as Naoya, but he was still incredibly fast.

“Don't worry, Risako. Shuhei has been blinded. He and his goons will have to retreat for the time being. Tsutomu is strong, and can help Yasuo survive.”

“And you... you'll help me survive?” Yasuo asked.

Eisuke smiled down at him, exposing the tips of his fangs. “I will give my very life to protect you, Risako.”

Cho Desu