Fifty feet. Kichirō stared back as the boat pulled away from New York Harbor. Only fifty feet away and he already felt an intense longing to jump off the side and run back to their apartment on Fifth Avenue. He didn’t understand. Why were they leaving New York? Who decided it was their right to take them away from their home?
He’d asked his mother, Holly, at least fifteen times in the past few days, and the only answer he could get out of her was “Japan is our home, sweetie. Our real home, where your father lives”. But just looking at her he could tell that wasn’t true. In fact, she looked almost as miserable as he did as the boat slowly floated further and further away from their home in New York. Together, they stared at the New York sunrise, their eyes remaining fixated on the light peeking out from behind the city skyline even when the brightness of the morning sun became blinding.
Kichirō held back bitter tears. At first all he did was ask questions about Japan. What it was like, where they would be living, and so many other questions. He told himself it was out of anger and concern rather than curiosity, but all that didn’t seem to matter now. All he could think about were the friends he had in Harlem, the abandoned lot they played baseball in, and the warm, unguarded smile of his mother at the breakfast table every morning as she made her famous eggs and bacon. Somehow he didn’t think this new home would be as nice as the old one.
But Kichirō, being just old enough to begin learning how to prioritize others before himself, didn’t want his mother to see him cry. She had so much else to deal with right, and taking care of him didn’t have to be one of them. That and he didn’t know what he’d do if she started crying too. Would he be able to hold back the tears if he knew his own mother felt so sad?
Then all three of us would be crying, he thought.
He looked over at his little brother Yoshirō, who was not quite old enough to prioritize the feelings of others and was selfishly bawling his eyes out. At only five years old, it was understandable why he’d act this way. But it wasn’t helping. Not his mood or his mother’s.
He looked up at her. He didn’t need to be told how she was feeling. Sucking it up, Kichirō put on a fake smile for his brother.
“Come on, don’t cry you big baby,” he said, ruffling Yoshirō’s hair. “It’s not that bad.”
“Yes it is!” Yoshirō whined, still crying. “We’re going away and we’re never coming back again!”
“Don’t be stupid,” Kichirō said. “We’ll be back. Remember when we took the boat to Coney Island and we had fun all day at the amusement park?”
“Y-Yeah…” Yoshirō said, sniffling.
“And remember how when it was time to go home, Mom and I had to drag you out of the park because you didn’t want to go back home? It’s just like that, Yoshi. We always come back home. And when we do, I bet you you’ll be crying like a baby because you won’t want to leave, just like back then! Alright?”
He sniffed, quieting down. “Aright…”
“That’s my little brother,” Kichirō said, smiling reassuringly. “Come on, let’s go below deck. I hear there’s free food and a bunch of fun stuff to do down there.”
He walked his little brother across the deck of the ship, both of them stealing one last glimpse at the New York City skyline as they retreated below deck.
“Do you think Japan will be as pretty as New York?”
Kichirō paused. “I don’t think so, I know so, Yoshi.”
“Are you sure?”
“Have I ever been wrong before?”
As it turns out, the ship didn’t immediately drop them off at their new home. It took them two hours and a whole other trip by boat to reach the island their family supposedly lived on, passing through endless fields of mist and crowded, dirty cities that seemed stuck between two places in time. It was a wet, cold, miserable experience, and judging by the state of the island itself, it wasn’t going to get much better.
Kichirō and his little brother stepped off the boat hand-in-hand, their mother a few paces behind them. Silently, the two set their sights on the island whose vast and lifeless hills had been saturated by fogbanks, and whose mountains were spaced out endlessly in the background like teeth.
“Wow, I was wrong. This place is a total shithole.”
“I wanna go home,” Yoshirō complained.
“Kichirō!” his mother admonished him.
“Sorry,” he said. “A total poophole.”
“Now,” she said nervously, “do you two remember what I told you before we got on the boat?”
“Be polite, be respectful, speak only in Japanese…” Kichirō recited.
“But I don’t wanna speak in Japanese, I’m bad at it!” Yoshirō protested.
“I’ve been teaching you boys how to speak it since you were old enough to understand it, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” their mother said, silently praying that was the case. She and her husband had lived in Japan for a few years before they had the children, so she’d had a very long time to learn and master the language herself, but she’d never forgotten how unwelcome she was as a foreigner in this country. She could only hope that, as their father’s children, her boys would be met with more acceptance, and a lot of that would hinge on them being able to speak their father’s first language convincingly.
Kichirō wasn’t so sure, though. He’d never met his grandparents, but all things considered, they didn’t exactly sound like nice people going off the way they’d treated his father. He’d called them “ultra-nationalist right-wing nutjobs”, but Kichirō barely had a clue what even one of those words meant. All he knew is that they were supposedly pretty keen on the whole “family tradition” thing, which would explain why they lived in a feudal-era castle on top of a big hill.
“So…” Kichirō asked with a sense of foreboding as he stared at the massive stone staircase embedded into the hill. “How are we supposed to get up there?”
“I think we both know the answer to that, Kichirō,” his mother said. “We walk.”
There were few memories Kichirō had of anything quite as miserable and soul-draining as those stairs. As those cold, hard, wet, unforgiving goddamned stairs. After walking them so many times, the banal misery of the exercise became just as dreadful and boring as the inevitability of death and taxes. But on that first trip up the steep 300m staircase, Kichirō actually thought it was hell.
“We’re dead, right?” he said, huffing and gasping for air. “That boat took us across the River Styx and now we’re climbing the staircase to the gates of hell, right?”
“Stop being so dramatic,” his mother said, equally out of breath. “It can’t be that much farther…”
“I wanna go home!” Yoshirō complained.
“I told you honey, this is home now,” his mom huffed. “Just bear with it, okay?”
“But I don’t wanna!” his little brother yelled on the verge of tears. “This place is cold and mean and I don’t have any friends here and I just wanna go home!”
Yoshirō started crying, which made their mother finally snap.
“Look, I don’t like it any more than you do, Yoshi! But sending you two to live here in Japan was your father’s last wish, so there’s nothing I can do!”
His mother tried and failed bite back tears, and Kichirō’s stomach started to sink. What did she mean “last wish”?
“Mommy…” Yoshirō said, sensing the uneasiness in the air.
She sniffed, trying not to cry in front of her child. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…”
Their mother just kept repeating that over and over as the gigantic wooden doors at the top of the hill opened and an entourage of men dressed in what Kichirō assumed was traditional Japanese clothing approached them.
“<Thank you for your hard work, Woods-san>,” a sharp looking man in glasses said as he adjusted his frames. “<I’m sure it was not easy for you to come all the way out here given the… circumstances. We’ll take the boys from here.>”
Two large men grabbed them by their arms and hoisted them into the air before Kichirō could think or so anything. They kicked and struggled but their grips were strong like an iron vice. Where were they taking them? Why was their mother just standing there, doing nothing?
“Mom!” Kichirō yelled out. “Mooooom!”
“Mommy-y-y!” Yoshirō cried.
“I’m sorry!” their mother yelled back as she too was restrained, her arms outstretched as she was carried away. “I’m sorry! Kichirō!”
It didn’t take long for the fight to leave the boys as their mother’s silhouette quickly disappeared behind the titanic wooden doors surrounding the complex. Built twenty feet high out of whole tree trunks and surrounded by walls of stone six meters thick, those castle gates were made to withstand non-stop cannon-fire for days on end during the Warring States period. What chance did they have of breaching them? Their mother was right outside those walls, and yet for all the distance between them she may as well have gone back to America. They were trapped now. Cut-off. Separated from their mother, the only family they had left.
Kichirō shook his head. You don’t know that. You don’t know what she meant. Maybe he’s just missing, or he’s sick!
“Kichirō,” Yoshirō asked weakly, his voice cracking. “Where are they taking us?”
“I don’t know, Yoshi,” Kichirō responded honestly. “I don’t know.”
Their impromptu tour through the complex lasted for almost a half an hour as they were dragged through living quarters, gardens, kitchens, dojos, archery ranges, and rooms whose importance were lost on Kichirō, but he was sure there must have been some. They were too grandiose to be pointless.
Finally, they were brought into a large, open hall filled with mats for sitting. Many people, presumably all family members, were seated around an ornate throne in which an old man sat, much like a king in his castle would. That means he was most likely a lord, and head of the family. Kichirō didn’t need to know much about Japan to guess that. But… he was disgustingly old. Decrepit even, more of a prune or a sun-dried raisin than a man. Could he even walk anymore, or had that
The old man waited until everyone had taken a seat, the brothers included, before signaling one of his attendants to speak. Kichirō paid close attention. As long as they showed respect, and remembered not to talk out of turn, things would be fine.
“<Welcome, children of the Sadoya clan.>”
“<It’s Woods, actually. Sir…>” Kichirō responded.
The attendant frowned. “<I’ll let that one slide for now since you’re new here. That was your name back in America. Your real name, your father’s name, is Sadoya>,” the attendant said with conviction.
“<He never told us anything about that, sir. Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t even know we still had family in Japan.>”
“<Yes, it would appear there was a lot your father never told you about your real family. And yet I’m told you were quite fond of him.>”
“<Yes, sir>,” Kichirō responded. “<He’s a good man. He’s strong, kind, a little strict, and he’s always there for us. I couldn’t have asked for a better father.>”
“<So would you say you wish to be like him one day?>”
Kichirō paused. “… <Yes, sir. My father is a hero to me, like Batman or Superman.>”
“<Or Ōgon Bat.>” The attendant nodded. “<Commendable. Sadly misguided, but commendable. It’s a shame we lost you two to that savage country. If only we could have begun your education sooner… Another question, then. In exchange, for every question you answer, I will answer one of yours.>”
Kichirō nodded. “<Alright.>”
“<Do you know why it is your father left home?>”
“<I’m told it was to be with my mother.>”
“<And do you understand why this was a grave offense on his part?>”
“<To be honest sir, not really, no.>”
The attendant sighed. “<Kichirō… do you know exactly what it was your father did for a living before he ran off to America to be with that swine of a woman you call your mother?>”
Kichirō frowned. Dick… come to think of it he does look like that guy we met at the gate…
“<No sir, I don’t. I’m told he was a salaryman.”>
This time it was the elder’s turn to speak. He opened his crusty old lips to speak, and wheezed.
“<Your father was far more than a mere salaryman, child. Your father slew demons.>”
Kichirō’s eyes widened. Was he sure he’d heard that right? His Japanese may not have been on the level of someone who had been born and raised in Japan, but he was sure he’d just heard the word for “ghost” or “phantom”. Yōkai…
“Ummm, excuse me? Mister? Where’s our dad?” Yoshirō asked out of turn. “I thought we were coming here to visit him-“
The attendants eyes flared with rage. “<Silence!>”
The servant’s deafening roar made Yoshirō flinch. Kichirō flinched on the inside instead. What did mom tell you, Yoshi? That’s not respectful at all!
One of the men seated behind them stood up and walked over to a rack filled with weapons. Carefully selecting a wooden bamboo sword like Kichirō had always seen in the movies, he calmly approached Yoshirō and unflinchingly beat him in the back of the head.
His little brother collapsed to the floor, momentarily stunned, and Kichirō felt a thick meaty hand grab the back of his head and force him to prostrate himself, his nose almost touching the polished wood. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt!
He looked up as much as he could to watch the elder and his assistant, who was still incensed at the interruption. The old man was impossible to figure out though. Kichirō didn’t know if he was angry or not. He just sat their, immobile and looking like a withered corpse. The assistant spoke up.
“<How dare you interrupt his lordship when he is talking! Do you know no respect?!>”
Yoshirō was beat again with the wooden bamboo sword, this time audibly screaming as he curled up on the floor.
“<And speaking like one of those filthy foreigners makes my skin crawl! You would address your lord like that?! Know your place, child!>”
He hit Yoshirō again, making hot tears of anger and shame well up inside Kichirō. You’re dead! Don’t touch him or you’re dead! That’s my little brother, you assholes!
But before he could say anything that got them both beat again, he stopped to think. No. I have to be polite. Can’t make the same mistake Yoshi did or they’ll just hit us both even more. Things work differently here than in Harlem. If we want to survive, we have to learn the rules.
“<Please forgive my brother!>” Kichirō spoke out. “<He’s only six, he doesn’t know any better! I’m sure if he was older and more mature, he would show his lordship the respect he deserves! It’s my fault for not teaching him better. Please forgive me!>”
He bowed out of his own free will this time, and not by the hand of the man sitting behind them, hoping it would appease the elder.
There was silence in the room. Nobody spoke, and the only noise was that of Yoshirō’s whimpering as he was beat over and over with the bamboo sword. Finally, the elder slowly and deliberately raised his hand, and the man stopped. Kichirō felt a surging rush of relief.
“<What makes you think one mistake will make up for another?>”
Kichirō felt the stone in his gut plummet to the floor. No…
The elder nodded at his attendant, who gave the signal to the man with the bamboo sword. Before he could speak out in protest, Yoshirō was struck even harder, a bright purple bruise developing on his wrist.
“<Stop it!>” Kichirō yelled.
“<You’re just like your father, you know. He didn’t know his place either>,” the elder continued, rasping in his old man voice. “<The brat thought he could just up and leave us to be with that stupid foreigner, like we wouldn’t even give it a second thought. He deserved what he got.>”
Kichirō’s eyes widened. “What does that mean? Tell me, you old bastard!”
The elder narrowed his eyes until they practically disappeared beneath the folds of his baggy skin, mere lines on his face.
“<It means your father is dead, boy.>”
He was forced to the ground again for speaking out of turn (in English, no less), and the elder turned to his assistant.
“<Saito, I leave them in your care.>”
“<Of course, Shichiro-sama.>”
The attendant, approached Kichirō, paying no mind to his brother who laid crumpled on the floor, the fight long since beaten out of him. He crouched to get down on Kichirō’s level, and lifted up his chin so he could look him in the eye.
“<You said you always wanted to be like your father, yes?>”
Kichirō looked up at the attendant, no, looked up at Saito, with pure hatred in his eyes. Saito smiled.
“<Rejoice, Sadoya Kichirō. Your wish will finally come true. Welcome to hell.>”
In the months that followed, Kichirō learned that their father was the next in a long line of what were known as onmyōdō, or yōkai tamers, and that in fleeing Japan to be with their mother, he’d more or less abdicated the throne. This left a massive power vacuum that threw the Sadoya and its branch families into chaos. Initially, the role of family head was to be filled by one of the sons of the Sadoya branch families. But with their death in combat, and their father’s death, the responsibility of succeeding the current family head fell to Kichirō and Yoshirō.
What this meant for the boys was twofold. One, it meant their father was dead, and they were likely to never see their mother again. Two, it meant they would be beaten within an inch of their lives almost daily during training to become the next family head, and then perhaps beaten again outside the dojo if Saito felt it was necessary. All in the name of teaching them discipline, of course. “A complacent warrior is a dead warrior”, as Saito always said. “They were being taught secrets no one in the outside world could ever dream of, so be grateful!” he said.
So that’s how it was, their new daily routine. Wake up at five in the morning for a cold, unappetizing breakfast, gear up for suicidal training consisting of impossible challenges an adult couldn’t hope to overcome let alone a child, run laps around the complex, spend the rest of the afternoon being drilled by Saito in language and etiquette, geography, history, demonology and so, so many others, eat dinner, and then spend the rest of the night either doing more training or studying various mantras and other magic spells that were supposed to help summon and control spirits.
After a year of this kind of treatment, Kichirō had had innumerable broken bones, bruises, and scars in all sorts of new places, not to mention so many sleepless nights he now had permanent bags under his eyes. He felt perpetually tired and irritated, and it was only getting worse every day, piling on like snowflakes. Yoshirō was faring even worse. Maybe it was because of how he’d acted when they first met, but Saito was extra-strict with Yoshirō, working him even harder than Kichirō. The two of them barely got a chance to talk to each other anymore, and when they did, Yoshirō was never in the mood. The stress of the training and their father’s death still weighed on him heavily. That was one thing Kichirō was thankful for. He’d found that, somehow, he had this ability to detach himself from a situation when things got bad. It made it easier to cope with their father’s death, the hell they were being put through… everything.
And yet despite all this, neither of them felt any closer to accomplishing something or learning anything about why they were here than the day they’d arrived. They didn’t even know if any of this would ever be worth it.
While he’d initially been in awe of the idea that his father was a monster hunter, what remained of the fantasy had quickly been stripped away by that place and its brutal policies and unforgiving people. No one there liked them, or even wanted them to be there it seemed. And yet here they were, practicing a bunch of superstitious mysticism and other mumbo-jumbo, with no idea how it worked or if it worked, all while being treated like dirt and being worked like slaves. And for what? To support this family they hated and had never known until it was convenient for them? How did he know they weren’t just bluffing about this whole “yōkai tamer” thing? What if all this was just pointless torture?
Kichirō felt a sharp blow connect with his head and because of the arm and the leg he was holding behind his back, he fell over backwards onto the floor of the dojo. Saito loomed over him.
“<You’re too damn slow! Almost as slow as that failure brother of yours. You’ll never be able to follow in your father’s footsteps at this rate!>”
Kichirō panted, and stood up, even though it hurt.
“<Yeah, and do what? Slay yōkai? All we’ve been doing is doing stupid shit like fighting you one-handed and reading history books! I haven’t seen a single yōkai since we got here! Not a single one! I bet this is all just made up, isn’t it, and you’re just beating us up because it makes you feel important. Right?!?>”
“<Oh?>” Saito said, raising his voice. “<So you want to see a yōkai then?>”
“<Yeah, I do!>”
Saito adjusted his glasses. “<Very well then. Meet me out in the forest tomorrow morning then.>”
“<Yes, really. Before breakfast tomorrow at five, there should be a path leading into the forest. I’ll be waiting for you at the end. Don’t be late.>”
“<I won’t…>” Kichirō said, surprised it had gone over so smoothly. Maybe this wasn’t such a waste of time after all…
Nope, nevermind. Total waste of time.
“Saito, you son of a bitch…” Kichirō murmured as he walked back to the complex in the near-darkness before sunrise.
As it turns out, there had been nothing at the end of the path. No Saito, and no yōkai. The path just stopped. With nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, Kichirō had no choice but to head back to the complex to face his punishment.
I bet that was the bastard’s plan all along, Kichirō thought. Send me out here before the crack of dawn so I’d get lost and miss breakfast. Then he’d get to discipline me with the bamboo sword again and give me another lecture on “punctuality” before making me stand on one leg while balancing a cinder block on my head or something. Then I’d drop it and break my toes and I’d have to miss out on one of my two meals a day until I was healthy enough to train again… Damn you, Saito.
Kichirō walked slowly towards the complex, and kept walking for a lot longer than he remembered on the way down the path. Eventually, he stopped and looked around? Was he lost? The path wasn’t paved, so it was pretty ill-defined, and it’s not like he could tell one tree from another out here.
“Great…” he said underneath his breath. “This day just keeps getting better and be… wait. What the hell is that?”
Kichirō sniffed the air. He’d tasted it the moment he’d opened his mouth. There was something wrong with the air. It tasted foul. No… it wasn’t the taste. It was the smell. Something between head cheese and stinky feet, with a little bit of grass and marshland thrown in for extra eugh. What the hell… what was that?
Kichirō looked around, and saw something he wished he’d never seen. A rolling lump of flesh, bigger than a man, with pimples, short little hairs, moles, and folds of fat that made it look like it had a face. It didn’t look like it noticed him, or if it did it just didn’t care. The blubbery bastard just rolled around squishing things and making a flap-flap noise with its gelatinous folds.
“Heheh… heh… what the fuck are you?” he said somewhat nervously. “Are you the fat lady here to sing for me?”
If the creature responded, it did it by nonchalantly rolling over a bush, flattening it as it undulated over it like a flesh carpet. Aside from smelling godawful, the thing really didn’t seem that intimidating. So was this a yōkai?
The thing seemingly attacked a tree next, trying to cover its trunk in its rolls of fat but not quite succeeding. It was just like a snail the way it threw itself on top of things it thought it wanted to eat. Kichirō laughed a little.
“What, are you on a diet? Gotta eat a lot of leafy greens?” he said, smiling. “Wait, I think I know what you are now. You’re a nuppeppo, right? That blobby thing Saito is always telling me about. You don’t look that dangerous.”
Kichirō stared at the thing for a few seconds, watching the deaf-blind creature try to fit its nonexistent mouth around the tree. Then, he thought of trying to feed it.
Picking up a stick, Kichirō threw it at the nuppeppo blob like a dog. It caught in its fat, a tiny little arm or fold shooting out to catch it. Kichirō smiled. It knew how to play fetch.
The thing munched on the stick, pulping it inbetween its folds like it was chewing it. Taking the next big step forward, Kichirō decided he was gonna try and pet it. Sure it looked like a giant lump of disembodied human flesh and smelled even worse, but it acted just like a big cow.
He reached his hand out.
Kichirō snapped his head at whoever was yelling. It couldn’t be Saito. Was it Saito? He thought the bastard had left him out here.
“<Down here, young man.>”
Kichirō looked down at the ground. As luck would have it, he’d met not one, but two yōkai that day. A small furry thing in robes that sat on its own nutsack and dragged itself around with a walking stick was standing (or rather sitting) right next to his leg. A tanuki. This one he didn’t even have to think about, he recognized it right away.
“<Hi…>” Kichirō said. He’d heard tanuki could be helpful towards humans, but that a lot of them were tricksters too. The lore was apparently somewhat inconsistent on that part (then again, you could count the times it was consistent on one hand).
“<Young man, do you have any idea what you were just about to do?>”
“<I was gonna pet it…?>”
“<’Gonna pet it’… hmph! I bet you think it’s just some big old puppy dog, don’t you?>”
“<Actually I thought it was more like a cow…>” Kichirō said for no reason in particular.
“<Listen up, boy. This thing will eat whatever it rolls over. Watch.”>
The tanuki poked the nuppeppo with its walking stick, and it sunk right into the nuppeppo’s flesh, enveloped by its folds of fat.
“<See? Anything it touches, it eats>,” the tanuki said, tugging on the end of its walking stick. “<Get it now?>”
“<Yeah, thanks>,” Kichirō said, minding the blob with a fair bit more suspicion than before. “<So is this like your forest or something?>”
“<No, but this is my cane, so if you could help me retrieve it>,” the tanuki said, grunting. “<I would be most grateful. Its the least you can do. I mean, when you think about it this is kind of your fault.>”
Kichirō frowned. “<No need to be pushy, I was gonna help you get it anyway. I get enough of that back at the temple…>”
“<Oh, so you’re the Sadoya clan heir then>,” the tanuki said as Kichirō grabbed hold of him like they were playing tug-of-war with the nuppeppo. “<Alright, now pull, and make sure to keep a firm grip on me.>”
“<Not like I wanna be, but that’s the gist of it>,” Kichirō said as he started pulling. “<My brother and I got dragged to this island a year ago after our father died.>”
“<A brother, huh? I have a brother too, you know>,” the tanuki said conversationally, still trying to wrench the stick away from the blob of flesh. “<Useless bastard. A real pain in my ass is what he is. What’s yours like?>”
“<He’s been… out of shape since we came here.>”
“<Out of shape? Why?>” the tanuki asked. “<And make sure to keep a tight grip!>”
Kichirō frowned. “<Why? Do you know what they do to us up there?!>”
“<They’re training you to be yōkai tamers, right? The tanuki have been longstanding allies of your family for quite some time. And you’re forgetting your grip, make sure to watch your grip!>”
The nuppeppo pulled on the stick harder, and for a second Kichirō almost tripped after the sudden jerk. He dug into the ground.
“<Training us? More like torturing us! Our attendant Saito is a total sadist! He has us do stuff like punching rocks! Just like, for no reason! Until our fists bleed! Then we have to hold up a hundred pound barbell in each hand until our legs give out!>”
“<Yeah, sounds about right>,” the tanuki grunted. “<I mean, you two are learning how to be yōkai tamers, right? It’s a pretty intense profession. Certainly a lot more difficult than those namby-pamby salarymen.>”
“<Are you kidding me? I’d rather be a salaryman than this! Hell, I’d rather lick toilets clean for a living! But they won’t let us leave!>”
“<Hey, kid!>” the tanuki yelled as Kichirō continued to rant. “<Your grip! Don’t forget to watch your grip! These balls weren’t made for anchoring you know!>”
“<And the worst part is I didn’t even know yōkai were real until today! Saito never showed us any! We just spend our days bending spears with our throats and being disciplined for things we don’t understand because no one ever told us they were wrong! Have you seen the way they treat my brother? It’s awful! Most nights he just falls asleep crying! Saito beats him with a bamboo sword almost every day! I can’t even->”
“<Kid! For the love of god! Your grip!>”
But Kichirō had forgotten to mind his grip like the tanuki warned him, and as he was about to find out, that was a big fucking mistake. The nuppeppo yanked on the stick and the tanuki went sailing out of Kichirō’s hands, its balls smacking against the nuppeppo’s rolls of flesh as it was pulled in. Kichirō tumbled over, landing face-first in the dirt. He only looked up when the tanuki started screaming.
It was one of the most horrible things he’d ever seen. Like the tanuki said, the nuppeppo ate anything it rolled over that was smaller than it. There was no rule that exempted living things like birds and small animals.
The tanuki struggled futilely as rolls of fat lapped over it like waves in an ocean, undulating and trying to bury him underneath layers and layers of blubber. It grasped and clawed desperately, but for every inch it gained it lost another two as one of its limbs was sucked into the tumbling walls of fat, lost forever in the nuppeppo’s unbreakable grip.
“<Kid, help!>” it yelled as it lost its left arm. “<Grab my cane! The cane!>”
The tanuki reached out with its free arm, holding the stick for Kichirō to take. He pulled, but the nuppeppo wouldn’t let go, and the harder he pulled the more it seemed like he was hurting the tanuki. Eventually something had to give, and the tanuki lost hold of his walking stick, falling backwards into the nuppeppo as the last of its flailing limbs was consumed.
“<Kid!>” it yelled desperately. “<Kid! Help me! I don’t wanna die like this! I don’t wanna die!>”
Kichirō looked around desperately for something to distract the nuppeppo with, but his concentration was broken by the tanuki’s panicked screaming. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t just let it die, but what could he do? He didn’t know how to fight this thing!
With nothing left to do, Kichirō did the only thing he could think of and punched the nuppeppo in what he perceived to be its gut as hard as he could, hoping to make it vomit up the tanuki. And while Kichirō’s punches had been honed to hit hard enough to break tree trunks, it did absolutely nothing to the nuppeppo, who didn’t even stop as its flesh rippled outwards, it superior mass completely diluting the impact of Kichirō’s punch.
The tanuki was too smothered to even speak or yell anymore. Kichirō could only watch its flailing limbs as the nuppeppo’s flesh surrounded it, squeezing it until it popped like a pimple, its blood covering Kichirō as the nuppeppo slurped up the remains. The crunching of the tanuki’s bones was grotesque and horrifying, the sounds of nature and swift mortality claiming another victim. Kichirō felt his legs become weak as the nuppeppo finished its meal, turning its attention to him. As the last thing to touch it, he was next on the menu.
“No…” Kichirō said through an eyeful of tears. “Stay away… stay away!”
Something leaped out of the bushes, jumping into the fray like a tiger that was about to pounce on its prey. Kichirō couldn’t see much in the dim light of dawn, but what happened next was unbelievable.
Hoisting an iron club over its head, the new creature, which he could now tell was humanoid in shape, swung at the nuppeppo, bringing its weapon down on its head in full force. Immediately the nuppeppo ballooned outwards, its flesh flattening and expanding like a bloody pillow as it tried to cope with the force of the blow before popping the same way the tanuki had, bursting at the seams in a shower of blood and greasy fat. The stink was unbearable.
Kichirō looked up at his savior standing over the defeated pile of flesh, the rising sun illuminating their features. They weren’t just humanoid, they looked human. About a one and one-third a meter in height, with dark burgundy, almost red skin. Their hair was white like fresh snow and horns were growing out of the side of their head, one on each temple, just above the ear. They were dressed in a tiger-skin loincloth and held their gore-spattered iron club in one-hand, and a lump of the nuppeppo’s flesh in another.
Smiling, they slid off the gigantic flesh mound and kneeled in front of Kichirō, offering him the lump of meat.
“<You want some?>” it asked in a girlish voice. “<It smells like garbage but I hear it’s supposed to grant you eternal youth if you eat it.>”
“<No thanks…>” Kichirō said, waving his hands. “<But thanks. For saving me, I mean.>”
“<Saving you from what?>” she asked. “<This thing? It’s harmless.>”
“<It is now…>” Kichiro murmured. “<Say, what are you? I’ve never seen anyone like you before.>”
The girl-thing pouted. “<Well that’s mean! What are you?>”
“<I’m Kichirō>,” he said, holding out his hand. “<And you are?>”
She looked at him, confused, then smiled, and shook his hand. “<Ren. My name’s Ren.>”