Chapter 4:

[Risako] — I Don’t Have a Plan, I Don’t Have a Strategy

Questionable Days with Yokai — Volume 2

It had been about a month since Risako traveled to a haunted mansion, discovered a hidden realm of yokai creatures, and gained a fantastic assortment of magical onmyodo powers. And became a boy, that was a thing too... A day or two of that alone would’ve been more than enough strangeness to satisfy her desire for an exciting summer—or really, for an exciting life—but she was still at it, and now with the added bonus of having to survive day to day under constant threat of a gruesome and painful death at the clawed hand of some fearsome yokai. Most likely a kappa.

After the botched duel incident with Shuhei, Risako had to hole up in Tsutomu the crow tengu’s inn, using barrier talismans to keep all of the kappa hancho’s goons at bay. Most of the days that followed took on a new pattern:

1) Wake up, perplexed and panicky

2) Remember she was at an inn, remember she was trapped in a yokai world, remember she was a guy now, etc

3) De-stress with some “me time,” as she called it

4) Eat breakfast (mostly just rice)

5) Train her onmyodo abilities

6) Eat lunch (mostly just rice)

7) Train her onmyodo abilities some more

8) Eat dinner (mostly just rice)

9) Train her onmyodo abilities further still

10) Place what was left of her magical energy into her barrier talismans—couldn’t let the kappa break in during the night...

11) Lie down in her futon

12) Mull over lots of dreadful and existential things, remember all the mistakes she made in life that led her up to this moment, wonder if she’ll live to see another day or ever be herself again, etc

13) Eventually fall asleep, a sweaty and worn-out bundle of nerves

The hope was that once Risako had a better handle on wielding the ofuda talismans that Akemi the otter provided her, she would be able to deal with Shuhei properly and retrieve his magatama. Risako also needed to deal with Fumi the snow woman at some point and retrieve her magatama. And then there was the lost hidden magatama... And also the one Mizutani had. Risako had the fifth one, which had previously belonged to Naoya the wheel monk. She wondered where Naoya was currently, what he was up to during this tumultuous time. As long as he was safe, that was what mattered most... but Risako couldn’t help but hope he’d come over and help her out at some point.

Because right now, things weren’t looking so good. It was just her, Tsutomu, and Akemi versus Shuhei, his legion of kappa, and all the other yokai he had convinced to aid in his mission of dispelling the humans that had infiltrated their world. Akemi would sneak out from time to time (via a series of bamboo tubes that went underground) to scope things out, and the news she’d return with was never pleasant. With each passing day more and more yokai—from huge demonic oni to tsukumogami objects come to life—were all turning against them.

It wasn’t anything to be shocked by. Though Akemi was the emissary for the yokai, she was far from popular—the jealousy and distrust of the yokai was understandable when she was the only one who could leave this underground prison. (And if Risako was being honest, Akemi didn’t exactly have a winning personality.) Perhaps the yokai wouldn’t try to kill her outright, but they were at least through with supporting her crafty arrangements. Tsutomu meanwhile had apparently long been viewed by most as a washed-up has-been. And then Risako herself of course was not only a human, she was seen as the descendant of Ichijo no Shunzai—the very onmyoji who had banished and detained all these yokai in the first place, presumably about a millennium ago.

Risako knelt on a cushion in the empty dining area of the inn, staring silently toward the front entry. It had been secured properly, but it was the thin paper ofuda she stuck to it that was preventing the kappa from barging in and tearing out her entrails. The barrier she’d constructed thankfully kept the sound outside from entering as well—otherwise she would have had to deal with the constant cacophony of blood-curdling screeches and guttural growls. The kappa could do nothing but charge toward the inn and hurl themselves at the invisible magical shielding with all their might... and Shuhei had likely ordered them to keep at it, even if it resulted in their injury.

I don’t want any more yokai to get hurt, Risako thought. But what am I supposed to do, if nobody is going to listen to me? I want to help everyone...

The only thing she could think to do was get stronger, and gather all five of the magatama at Akemi’s behest. This was a yokai-eat-yokai world, and at the end of the day it was Ichijo no Shunzai’s power that was holding this distorted facsimile of a society together. Before things went from bad to worse, she had hoped to use that great onmyoji’s power to free all the yokai—but now she had to question this sincere yet naive aspiration.

Setting that issue aside though, she also needed all the magatama for the sake of removing the curse that had befallen her and Mizutani, which they apparently needed to deal with before they could leave this hidden realm. According to Akemi, their mind swap would be permanent if they withdrew prematurely.

There was also Risako’s personal wish of finding her grandmother. Was Grandma actually down here, as her letter had implied? Risako’s current theory was that Grandma was a ghost, but she had no way of knowing for sure until she found her. With all five of the magatama—the spiritual essence of Ichijo no Shunzai—Risako would be able to sense every presence within the hidden realm, she felt certain.

For now though, she needed to get a better handle on controlling ofuda talismans. She was more than capable of it, as she had shown during her fight with Shuhei. But mastering telekinetic movement of the mystical slips of paper was something that required concentrated focus more than sheer power.

Akemi had given her a series of exercises to perform at the start of every training session, and Risako measured her progress by how fast she could get through them.

She placed an ofuda on the ground, caused it to rise in the air, spin in a circle, twist in place, and then lower back down to the ground. Then she did this with two ofuda at the same time, then with three, and finally with four. She stood up, caused all four ofuda to rise again—two to the right of her head and two to the left—then launched them at a target across the room: a floor table turned up on its side, with thin ropes tied across its surface marking four squares to aim for. Risako managed to hit all four targets, then forced the ofuda to peel off and return to her outstretched hand. She snatched all four in one swoop, and let them slide up her yukata sleeve and adhere to its inner cloth.

Risako wobbled for a moment, but the spell of dizziness passed once she took a step back, shut her eyes, and took a deep breath. She opened her eyes, shook her head a few times, and sighed with a weary sort of half smile. Just a month ago this would have been the coolest thing she had ever seen—and here she was, doing it herself, almost effortlessly.

But that was nothing compared to some of the other things she could do. With an ofuda attached, she could move other objects through the air, and even support her own weight. It was much more difficult to lift herself up with paper talismans, but there was great potential in being able to maneuver herself swiftly through the air. If she could stay out of reach of the kappa, she’d be able to fight with her elemental talismans from a distance—or at the very least, escape them safely. Of course, there were some yokai that could fly...

Risako attached the four ofuda to her body, one on each of her arms and legs. It took extreme concentration to control all four at once, having them all lift her up with the right amount of spiritual power flowing into each. Her left leg suddenly slipped forward—and in her effort to correct that leg’s movement, she lost control of her right arm, which shoved into her side. Her whole body twisted in the air, and her attempt to regain control only sent her diving straight backward, slamming her head against the ground. Her whole body collapsed on the tatami floor... save for her right leg, which still dangled awkwardly, as if held up by an invisible cord.

“Uguuhwuu...” Once she regained her breath, she couldn’t help but laugh at herself a little. But in doing so, she was reminded of yet another little thing that had become so different about herself. Her laugh was deep and rough, completely different from how it was a month ago...

Mother always said I had too rough a personality. So maybe this laugh fits me.

An odd sort of feeling settled upon her, like a long-lost memory suddenly returning, albeit in a hazy, possibly false form. It wasn’t like she was all that fond of her old laugh, or anything. And at the same time, it wasn’t like she hated this new laugh. Maybe this was just how people naturally had to be, to adapt to all the changes that life could throw at you.

Well, at least Akemi and Tsutomu weren’t here to witness my epic fail.

She forced her right leg down to the floor with her own strength, slamming it much harder than she’d intended.

“Oooooh!” She scrunched her body up, bending her leg so she could grab her knee. She had bashed her ankle into the floor in a strange way, a feeling reminiscent of hitting the “funny bone” of her elbow.

She laughed again, albeit more shakily this time. Perhaps a part of her was glad Akemi and Tsutomu weren’t here to voice their disappointment, but she also felt kind of lonely having to train by herself so much. She understood there wasn’t much of anything either of them could teach regarding onmyodo, but still... some support would have been nice.

It doesn’t matter. I’m used to being left behind.

But instead of her parents or her friends, the person who came to mind first was Mizutani. She hadn’t expected it, but she found herself kind of missing him.

Even if he did kind of ruin everything for my duel with the head kappa... And then took off right when all hell broke loose... And let himself get completely won over by that incubus of a fox... Meanwhile I’m stuck with the weight of this whole yokai world on my shoulders!

She recognized she was probably being too harsh on Mizutani. She didn’t actually know what he was up to, and she didn’t actually have any proof that Eisuke was up to no good. And Mizutani had always gone along with her half-cooked plans, no matter how ridiculous they were in hindsight. It’s not like they were good friends before any of this—really, they weren’t even acquaintances. He wasn’t obligated to help her with anything, or stick by her once things started getting especially dangerous. He didn’t have any magical power to protect himself with, after all.

I kind of stole that from him, Risako thought. Not like I’d intended it, but still...

She had no choice but to keep recommitting herself to gaining greater control of the supernatural abilities she had acquired. She needed to become a hero like in all the stories she enjoyed reading. She needed to save herself, save Mizutani, and save all the yokai.

She stood back up and forced the four ofuda to fly back into her hand.

She needed to keep fighting.

* * *

A couple more days passed, and things seemed to only grow more tense between Risako and her two fellow vagabonds. Akemi was never impressed by any of the progress Risako made in her onmyodo training, and was particularly frustrated by Risako’s failed attempts to magically locate the missing magatama. Currently Risako was sitting meditatively on the floor in the dining hall, with a special paper talisman covering her eyes and forehead. Painted on the ofuda in vermilion ink was a single eye, positioned sideways just above her nose—and it was through this that she was supposed to be able to search the hidden yokai realm in some spiritual sense. As Akemi put it, this ritual was supposed to incite visions through Risako’s “third eye.”

But no matter how much she concentrated, she never saw anything but the back of her eyelids. At times she focused on the power within the pale yellow magatama she held in her hand, but it never seemed to help her any. What felt like an hour had passed by the time Risako decided it was time to try something new. She peeled the ofuda off from her eyes and rubbed her forehead wearily. This particular ritual always gave her a headache after a while.

Akemi was curled up on a nearby floor cushion. “You have given up? So soon?”

“It’s been at least an hour...”

“Not ten minutes have passed.”

Risako groaned. “You’ve got to be joking.”

“I assure you, I am not. You have the power to do this. You merely need to harness that power, just as Ichijo no Shunzai would. Do not think solely on the end goal—be mindful of every step it takes to reach it.”

“Okay, I’ll try again, just give me a minute.” She got up to make herself some tea, hoping it would help clear her headache a bit. She passed by Tsutomu, who was sitting at a table in the back corner of the room, reading a book. That was all he really did most days lately, it seemed. That and exercise. (For as many push-ups and sit-ups Risako could now manage, Tsutomu would always match ten-fold.)

“Anything exciting happen?” Risako asked.

“Hmm.” Tsutomu was too absorbed by his story to look up or say anything.

Risako continued into the kitchen area, leaving the bird-man be. She had hoped that the two of them could’ve found common ground with their shared love of stories, but in each attempt to start a conversation, Tsutomu was insistent that Risako could only read one of his books once she had proven herself on the battlefield.

“You wouldn’t understand any of it,” he had told her. “The warriors in these stories have hearts that are tried and true. They share a bond stronger than ties of father and son, brother and brother, or husband and wife.”

It sounded like Tsutomu was just into samurai-themed BL novels, honestly. Risako would’ve liked to read one, if only to take her mind off all her present worries for a bit—but she had learned to not bother Tsutomu more than she had to while he was grumpy. And unfortunately, he seemed to be mostly grumpy these days.

It was understandable, of course... Risako had saved his life, for which he was grateful—but some part of him probably still wished to have passed on that stormy, climactic night. And then there was the whole thing about his beloved inn no longer being open for business, and being drawn into a great battle he had no desire to take part in, and being cooped up inside 24/7—and not having any more delicious meals prepared by his co-worker Eisuke... Even Risako kind of wished the kitsune were still here, that’s how good the food was.

Risako finished making her tea. She offered some for Akemi and Tsutomu as well, but they both declined, each content with their respective bottles of saké.

We’re going to be in real trouble if they run out of their precious alcohol.

Risako sat down at a table, and Akemi soon joined her.

“I wonder if you would find greater success with the more delicate human magics, were you in possession of another magatama or two.”

“Maybe,” Risako said. “Go get me one.”

“Do not jest. I would perish in an instant, were I ever to face one of the wardens in combat. I had hoped you would be strong enough to defeat poor Shuhei without issue.”

“Well, guess I’m no more an expert fighter, than I am an expert onmyoji.”

“You could have gained poor Fumi’s magatama without resorting to violence. A shame your ‘display of love’ plan fell through.”

Risako was aware she was even worse of a lover than she was a fighter or onmyoji, so that plan of hers was probably doomed from the start. Please, let’s move on to another subject...

Akemi did, for good and for ill. “Perhaps I should have forced the magatama from Miss Kitamura’s hand, back when I had the chance. A potentially fatal error on my part.”

Risako didn’t like this topic either, because she had been wondering the same thing—but blaming herself. She’d probably made the wrong choice, letting Mizutani keep his magatama when he had no use for it. She also still felt a pang of irritation at hearing him referred to by her name.

“What’s done is done,” Risako said. “Just leave me alone for a bit, while I attempt to clear my mind for the thousandth time.”

“Still struggling to loosen your mental tethers, Mister Mizutani?”

“I do have a lot to think about, you could say.”

“Perhaps then I can find something to assist you... Help you think outside the box, outside your own self. I will return shortly.” The otter took off down the hall, presumably to retrieve something from her room. But perhaps she was actually using one of her underground bamboo tubes to scamper to some other part of the realm.

Risako took a sip of her tea, not sure what to think of anything. She felt kind of dead inside, and maybe a tad crazy. Maybe she was just tired. She downed the rest of her tea, hoping for any kind of rousing or revival, any kind of calmness or composure, any kind of anything.

But she still just felt dead. She thought of talking to Tsutomu, maybe asking him for some advice on what to do about... everything. Were they really close enough for that though? Risako decided to just go for it, and not back down if he didn’t respond.

But before she could work out exactly what to ask him, Akemi returned. She scurried over to Risako’s table, then took on her refined geisha-like human form—a rare sight, as of late.

“Let us play a little game, you and I.” Akemi slid out a rectangular wooden board from the front of her purple kimono. It turned out to be a thin hollow box, which unfolded via metal hinges to reveal a square 8x8 grid painted atop. Held within were 64 discs—each black on one side and white on the other—which Akemi promptly began setting in four tidy stacks of eight to either side of the green board.

“You have reversi?” Risako asked, smiling. Of all things. This takes me back...

“I acquired the game about a century ago, a few decades before I was turned into a wooden statue,” Akemi said. “Unfortunately, very few yokai ever cared to play it. A bit too modern for our tastes, generally speaking.”

The board did look pretty old, but it was still in fine condition.

Akemi asked, “You do know the rules, I presume?”

“I do. It’s been a while since I last played though, so I can’t promise I’ll be any good at it.” But if Akemi hadn’t been able to play much with anyone, perhaps she wasn’t that good either.

“Very well, then let us begin. You may go first.”

After placing the four starting pieces in the center (a square of white, black, then black, white), Risako placed her first dark piece in one of the four possible spaces afforded to her. In reversi, you place your disc on a space that lets you flip the opponent’s discs lined up between it and another of your own discs. The board could change dramatically from one turn to the next, with rows, columns, and diagonals of discs “reversing” from black to white and from white to black.

The game was deceiving in its simplicity. Risako had learned from her times playing against her grandmother that it was dangerous to focus on taking as many pieces as possible at the start of the game. It seemed counter-intuitive (especially as a young child at the time), but reversi is about playing “the long game,” as it were. The most valuable spaces on the board were the edges—and especially the corners—which you generally didn’t get to right away.

Risako played as carefully as she could, but in the end Akemi won by a landslide. Almost a completely white board...

“You must look at things from my view a bit more, Mister Mizutani,” Akemi said. “Analyze my options, as well as your own.”

“Right.” Risako wasn’t sure how playing reversi was actually going to help with her onmyodo efforts, but she appreciated the diversion all the same. They began another game, and this time Tsutomu sat down to watch from the sidelines.

About halfway through the game, he blurted out, “I get it now. There. You should put your tiny saké saucer there.”

“It’s not a saké saucer,” Risako said, though she could see how it would look like one to Tsutomu, since the pieces were slightly concave. “And I’m not putting it there.”

But after thinking about it a while longer, she did begrudgingly set her piece there.

Tsutomu folded his arms and puffed out his broad chest proudly. “There, you see?”

Unfortunately though, Risako still ended up losing. But at least Akemi’s victory wasn’t as overwhelming as it was the first time.

During the third game, Risako decided to attempt speaking to the crow tengu. This game had not only brought him over to her, but had gotten him to open his beak. Though Risako was supposed to be focusing on the game and clearing her mind or whatever, she felt it more important to take advantage of this opportunity.

“What do you think I should do, Tsutomu?”

“Hmm... Maybe that spot there.” He tapped a claw against the space left of two light pieces.

“Stop helping him,” Akemi muttered behind a folding fan she had pulled out, to keep herself from sweating in this hot and poorly ventilated inn.

“Not what I should do in the game,” Risako clarified. “I mean... in the real game. In our actual battle. Or battles, possibly...”

Tsutomu sighed. “So, you’ve definitely got at least one big battle ahead of you. But realistically, there’ll probably be at least two or three, since I doubt those magatama are gonna all conveniently be together. And if you’re not gonna be as capable as Ichijo no Shunzai, then you probably won’t be able to keep so many of us unruly yokai under control.”

“Right...” Risako didn’t care for some of the wording there, but she felt they were on the same page. “We could use more allies. Is there any way we can reach Naoya?”

Akemi spoke up, still fanning herself. “I am afraid I have not been able to find him anywhere. It is true that in the past, poor Naoya would have been able to handle the likes of the kappa and yuki onna. But I do wonder how great of a disadvantage he would be at now, were he to fight without his prescribed magatama.”

Risako placed a piece on the board, not sure if it was the best move or not. Eventually you have to do something. Maybe you won’t make the best possible move, but the second-best or twentieth-best move is better than doing nothing, and running out of time. She decided to shift gears a bit. “What are the most powerful yokai down here? The three wardens would be at the top, right?”

Tsutomu nodded. “The thing is though, after them... How should I put it. Most of the yokai down here aren’t the greatest of fighters, and most that once were have lost most of their power over the years. But I guess after the three wardens, there’s me and Yohachi, at least as far as decent swordsmen go. We both have good control of the wind too... Oh, Yohachi is the town’s swordsmith, and a tengu like me.”

Risako had seen the hunched white-winged man in town once or twice. He was the red-faced and long-nosed variety of tengu, and seemed much older than Tsutomu, given the white beard and bushy white eyebrows.

“Do you think he would help us?”

“We never got along well, unfortunately,” Tsutomu said. “But I doubt he will want to assist Shuhei either. He’s even more done with fighting than I am.”

“What if he does fight though? Would you be able to take him?”

Tsutomu shut his eyes and tilted his bird head wearily. “Tough to say. I certainly don’t want to have to find out, I can say that much. I’d also rather not fight any oni... I know our otter friend said Shuhei was enlisting their aid though.”

It went without saying Risako had no desire to fight one of those giant demonic ogres. “Would they be the other most powerful yokai here?”

“Yeah, if you’re up against one of those... just run. They’re unnaturally durable, even among yokai. And no, I don’t think there’s any way to convince any of them to join us. Their whole shtick is torturing humans.”

That might not have been completely true. Risako was familiar with at least a couple folk tales that featured friendly oni. But there was also no proving which stories she knew were good to go by, especially down in this hidden realm.

“Any other strong yokai we could turn to?” She posed the question to both her accomplices, but Akemi’s eyes did not stray from the game board.

The crow tengu meanwhile twitched, then silently opened his beady eyes at what appeared to be a sudden realization. “Well, there was once this giant skeleton...”

“A gashadokuro?” Risako exclaimed, shaking the floor table a bit. (Akemi scoffed when some of the reversi pieces were jostled out of place.) The creature Tsutomu brought up though was iconic among yokai, largely thanks to a famous ukiyo-e woodblock print. It featured a princess wielding an open handscroll, summoning a giant skeleton to peer into a palace room and threaten an enemy official of the emperor. “I never saw any giant skeletons here. Where is it?”

“Like I said, there once was one. But one day, a long time ago, it disappeared. Nobody liked it really, so I guess it probably left.”

Risako glanced over to Akemi, who didn’t look all that pleased about this conversation. But maybe she was just a little peeved with Risako for delaying the game. She placed a piece on the board, not caring if it was a good move or not.

“None of the yokai can leave this realm, other than Akemi. Where would it go to?” Risako understood the gashadokuro to be several stories tall—in some depictions, standing twenty to thirty meters in height. It would be hard for a yokai that big to hide anywhere.

“That’s the mystery,” Tsutomu said. “I imagine it wouldn’t want to help us anyways though, so it’s a moot point. Some skeletons just want to be left alone.”

“We really need someone to help us though...” Risako hated to bring him up, but she couldn’t think of anyone else to mention. “What about Eisuke? He’s a kitsune, so he’s got to be really powerful, right?”

“He will never fight,” Akemi interjected. “I am entirely certain he intends to remain cloistered within the domain of his shrine with your friend. Which in all honesty is likely the safest and wisest course for them to take, while we sort out the dangers within the rest of this underground prison.”

Risako didn’t like Eisuke, but she couldn’t deny it would be helpful to have his presumed fire-power on her side. If he truly had no will to fight though, then she wasn’t going to waste time trying to work with him.

Akemi placed a disc on the board, turning ten of Risako’s from black to white, forming a kind of crooked spinal cord. Risako decided to take this as a sign. If the opportunity presented itself, she would seek out the gashadokuro... so long as it was still numbered among the living(?) in this realm, of course.

After all, what would be cooler than fighting with a giant skeleton on her side?