Chapter 25:

[Ichijo no Shunzai] — Unhappy Ending (4/4)

Questionable Days with Yokai

Deep underground, inside a mountain — essentially a cave within a cave — there lived, or perhaps more accurately there existed, a candlestick demon. This being, arguably a yokai, was once a normal human being... well, perhaps not normal, but he was a human being. A thousand years ago, he was actually the most powerful onmyoji in the land — and indeed, quite possibly, he was the most powerful onmyoji to have ever lived.

Ichijo no Shunzai. The man whom the imperial court proclaimed “an onmyoji a thousand years ahead of his time.”

Is this finally my time then? he wondered. It didn't feel like it was. He no longer had the power to do anything but maintain the existence of his hidden world for yokai — an underground prison just as much for himself, as it was for the monsters who united under a nurarihyon and rebelled against the human government over a millennium ago.

And even that power was starting to slip away from him... Akemi, his trusted caretaker over the hidden world, appeared to be betraying him outright. Though Ichijo was sealed within a cave that nobody else knew of (not even his beloved yet equally fallen Fumi), he was still fully aware of every significant thing that happened in the world he created. And so he had, in a way, witnessed Akemi's murder and consumption of Naoya, the warden of Ichijo's magatama of ambition.

Chances were she intended to do the same for everyone else who possessed one of Ichijo's magatama, the jewels that he had infused with the base elements of his very essence. But it was not the magatama themselves Akemi desired; they were all but useless at this point. What she sought for was the latent power absorbed by those who had held onto them for so many years.

But to what end? There were several possibilities Ichijo could think of, but none of them were good. It did not look like Akemi shared Ichijo's priorities any longer, nor did she consider the safety of all the yokai her responsibility. Perhaps it was foolish of Ichijo to have counted on the otter never changing over such a long period of time, and with such steady contact with an outside world that had transformed so drastically over the last couple centuries.

In comparison, I haven't changed even the slightest bit, have I?

In his current state, Ichijo could do nothing but stand inside his small smoke-filled cave. His body still looked and felt like that of a human's, but it was technically made of the wax of warosoku candles. Same for his white courtly robes, and his tall black eboshi hat. Over a hundred candlesticks of varying lengths had grown out of his body, burning through his clothes and jutting out in unpremeditated directions — but primarily up and down his arms and legs — and each flickered with a faint wavering light from its thick paper wick. The largest flame however blazed from the top of his hat, which itself essentially functioned as a giant candlestick.

Ichijo had become a pitiable thing, even less living than tsukumogami, the everyday objects that had gained spirits. He could not freely move, he could not willingly act.

All he could do was think, remember each and every mistake he had made in life, and lament.

His continual state of despair was not something he could really do much about. For around his neck hung a cord, at the end of which was looped a clear glass bead — the magatama of sorrow.

Ichijo knew this jewel would gradually yet ever-increasingly affect his mental state like a poison. Which was why he could not entrust it to anyone else... It was a burden for him alone to bear.

But even still, he didn't think it would crush him this thoroughly. How did he become so weak?

Just let it end. Just let it all end. No more. No more pain. There comes a point when you can't keep fighting anymore. And I'm so far past that point...

To say Ichijo felt sad... wasn't quite right. He couldn't care enough about anything to feel sad about it anymore. He was cut off from the world — both the real one, and his own. He was the trail of smoke of an extinguished flame. The snowflake approaching a river. The turtle flipped on its back. An unidentifiable corpse waiting to be forgotten.

Not even the recent arrival of humans to his fabricated realm could give him a speck of hope. Perhaps if they had shown up a couple centuries ago, Ichijo could have wished for their well-being and pushed himself to help in some way. But they were clearly brought here by Akemi for her own purposes... And the more of Ichijo's power she obtained, the more power she would hold over this realm — and all the yokai who were bound to it.

So as far as Ichijo could tell, there was little hope for the yokai to break free of this doomed province — and even less hope for the children to break free of their curse.

What made the situation all the more tragic though was who, specifically, Akemi chose to use as her pawns.

Of all the people she could have brought here... Why did she choose them?

He wasn't sure which of the two it was more cruel of Akemi to drag down to this hell with her.

First there was Yasuo Mizutani, the descendant of Ichijo's greatest nemesis: Abe no Seimei — the onmyoji who forced Ichijo's hand to create this underworld in the first place. Ichijo could think of no reason for Akemi to bring him here, than to spite Ichijo in the most vindictive way possible.

And then there was Risako Kitamura.

Was the otter's hunger for power truly so great, that she would heartlessly sacrifice her own grandchild?

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(End of Volume 1)