Chapter 24:

[Naoya] — Unhappy Ending (3/4)

Questionable Days with Yokai

It had been a few days since Naoya lost his big race. In a contest between five racers, he had placed fifth. In other words... dead last. Such an outcome would have been unthinkable in centuries past, but it was Naoya's current reality, and he had learned to accept it.

So I ain't the fastest! I'll live.

And the word live seemed to carry a different weight to it, when he thought that. He felt lighter now, like he could roll off a ramp and fly right up to the moon, if he really wanted.

This sort of attitude would have been unthinkable in centuries past as well, but the two kids — Yasuo and Risako — had gotten Naoya to change his tune on things somehow. He wasn't sure when exactly he had been won over by those two... The boy was always saying trite nonsense, but then he started making Naoya do the strangest training exercises. Flying kites, playing board games, singing...

It was that song that literally changed his tune, Naoya realized. That incredibly catchy song. He had never once cared the slightest bit for music, but there was something about that Peerless Flashy-Splashy Champions song that really resonated with him. The kids had explained that the song was from something like a play, a theatrical story of sorts. Normally Naoya wasn't one to care for that sort of thing either, but he hoped that one day he'd be able to see the Champions show. The five colorfully-garbed champions sounded magnificent.

But first, Naoya wanted to learn how to read. The bookstore cat insisted that the story she gave him was amazing too, and Naoya had to admit it piqued his interest. A kid born out of a peach? And then he teams up with a monkey, dog, and pheasant to fight a bunch of oni demons? Naoya could only hope the book's words would fill him in on all the details, because for now the story didn't quite make sense to him.

It was late at night, and Naoya was taking a leisurely stroll through town. Normally he would pass through at full speed, but he had promised the bookstore cat he wouldn't go so fast down the street anymore. Not that there seemed to be anyone out... It was usually quieter at night, but things had gotten tense around here recently with Shuhei and his gang of kappa. Naoya had been keeping an eye out for Yasuo and Risako, to see if there was anything he could do to help them get out of this particular dilemma. He was eager to pay them back at least a little for all the help they gave him the past couple weeks.

The boy knew Ichijo no Shunzai's onmyodo magic though, and from what Naoya heard the girl was at the hidden shrine. So they were probably as safe as anyone could ever hope to be down here.

As Naoya crossed the arched bridge, he found himself humming the song of the champions. When he reached the chorus though, he just had to sing it.

Go Champions / You can't fail, Champions / Know Champions / On the trail, Champions!

It was so damn good. It seemed to fill him with even more ambition than his magatama ever did.

Passing the jewel on to those kids was the right thing to do, Naoya felt. He wasn't sure it would be of much use to them though, given how long he had been using it for... Was it actually all that powerful anymore? Then again, they were supposedly after all five of the magatama. Perhaps that would be a big deal, if they could actually manage it... but now, he felt they really could.

Naoya repeated the champions' chorus as he rolled his way through a field of tall grass. He noticed movement up ahead and slowed to a stop, curious to see who else was out this late. A weasel — no, an otter — stuck its head out of the grass.

“Well, if it ain't Akemi,” Naoya said. “Havin' trouble sleeping?”

“I could very well ask you the same thing,” Akemi said.

“Me? I'm just feelin' restless. It's excitement, really. Got lots to look forward to! I'll be playin' that go game with the one-eyed priest tomorrow. Still tryin' to work out any kind of a strategy... And then the day after, me 'n the biwa'll be workin' on a new song. Probably won't be as great as the champions' tune, but we'll be workin' our way up to it. Oh! And I'll be huntin' pheasant with Hoshi afterward. She's not a bad kijikui, once ya get to know her, heh heh. So yeah, lots going on.”

“My, my! What a fulfilling life you now lead,” Akemi said. “Mister Mizutani and Miss Kitamura would surely be pleased to see how well you are faring.”

“Hopin' to see them again soon! Really oughtta thank 'em right, for puttin' up with me these past couple weeks.”

Akemi squeaked, bobbing her head up and down a few times. “I have some pleasant news for you then! They have recently managed to reunite at a new hideaway. They wished for me to pass word along to anyone who might wish to assist them in their efforts against the kappa.”

“Finally time we start doin' something 'bout Shuhei, huh? Well, lead the way!”

“Very well, follow me.” Akemi dashed off down the other length of the field, leaping high enough for Naoya to keep track of her location within the tall grass. It wasn't hard for Naoya to keep up of course, but the otter was darting along quite a bit faster than he thought she was capable of. She likely had to be quick to avoid humans in the world above though, whenever she went up to scope things out.

Hope the kids are doin' all right, Naoya thought. One of these days, we oughtta go...

Akemi took an impressively long leap forward, breaking Naoya's train of thought.

He continued rolling along after her—

—and plummeted—

—straight down a deep pit filled with long jagged spears at the bottom, all pointed upward.

* * *

[Akemi] — Unhappy Ending (3/4)

* * *

Akemi looked down the trapping pit she had set up for the wheel monk, and watched as his last flames and embers died out. He didn't even have time to let out a cry of agony, let alone any final words. Akemi had been fortunate everything went so smoothly. There were more than a few ways things could have gone wrong, but fortunately the wheel monk had acted precisely according to her plan.

She sighed. She didn't relish killing poor Naoya, but it's like they say: it couldn't be helped.

And this murder was quite the grisly sight to behold. Perhaps there was no glamorous way to go, but being pierced through the head with all those spikes... His eyes were still wide open, staring up toward Akemi. It was almost enough to give her the shivers.

What she had to do now though was going to be even less appealing. Much less so.

Akemi had gone without food the past couple days to prepare for this.

She sighed again. She didn't even like eating the heads of fish, and this was going to be one giant bloodstained human-ish head. And it was going to be half-raw, half-burnt.

There was no use in delaying the discomfort.

It was time for Akemi to devour all of Ichijo no Shunzai's power of ambition, the spiritual energy of which poor Naoya had been absorbing for an entire millennium.