Yoshirō watched dispassionately as his older brother stepped up in front of Saito to begin the monthly evaluation. Genius Kichirō. Talented Kichirō. The fortunate son. If they weren’t brothers, Yoshirō would’ve punched him.
It had been nearly eight years since they’d been dropped off on this godforsaken island. In that time they’d been taught hunting, calligraphy, swordplay, martial arts, spearfighting, demonology, exorcism rites, youkai-taming, meditation and purification practices, traditional Japanese kabuki theater and fifty different kinds of tea ceremonies. And in all that time spent laboring, working towards something greater, never once had this place felt like a home.
Kichirō stepped forward. The elder Shichiro nodded at Saito. Saito reached into his pockets and tossed handfuls of colorful paper squares into the air.
“<First task: demonstrate the proper technique to summon and control shikigami. You will be judged by your efficiency, finesse, and number of shikigami created. You have thirty seconds. Begin!>”
At the word go Kichirō began snatching pieces of paper out of the air and folding them into basic aerodynamic shapes. For every one he completed, he muttered a brief mantra, animating the paper with a faint blue glow.
Yoshirō frowned. His brother made it look so easy. He had never been particularly adept with shikigami, and he dreaded having to do it in front of Saito.
Maybe shikigami won’t come first. Maybe they’ll switch it up, he said, trying to console himself. I mean, it’d be just like Saito to throw a curveball like that at us.
Kichirō’s hands were a blur as he furiously folded piece after piece of paper, imbuing it with one of the hundreds of ambient spirits all around them. They’d been told that this was referred to as “contracting a familiar” in the West. Whatever it was, Kichirō was good at it. Youkai taming had come naturally to him, which was great for him but rather disappointing for Yoshirō, as the family considered it to be the most important skill out of all the ones they were being taught. Yoshirō was more of a sword and spear kinda guy, and he excelled at those tests, but it seemed like he was always being tested on magic.
Kichirō stopped mid-motion, letting the last scrap of paper fall to the floor. Thirty-six shikigami floated around him, glowing with a bright blue radiance. The elder clapped.
“<Incredible, child. Not since the great Abe no Seimei have we seen such an unparalleled prodigy. This boy has talent. You’ve trained him well, Saito.>”
“<A thousand thanks, Shichiro-sama,>” Saito said, bowing.
Kichirō exhaled in relief and the spirits left the paper, fluttering slowly to the ground.
“<Next is Yoshirō,>” Saito said.
Yoshirō stepped forth. Kichirō smiled at him, and gave him a pat on the back as he passed.
“<I know you’ve been practicing. Knock ’em dead, Yoshi.>”
Yoshirō frowned. What was he so happy about? Being praised by a clan of psychopaths was hardly worth smiling about.
He stopped in front of Saito. Then again, Kichirō had been seeing that oni a lot lately. The one named Ren. He had more free-time because he performed well on the monthly evaluations, so he’d been going to see her in secret more and more frequently. He had a reason to be happy.
Yoshirō frowned. That just made this even more vexing then. If that’s how he was spending all his free time, how was he finding the time to do this well on the evaluations?
“<Yoshirō,>” Saito said, reaching for the wooden sword at his hip. “<You will be tested on->”
“<Swordplay, right?>” Yoshirō said out of turn.
“<Excuse you?>” Saito said tersely, angry that he had been interrupted.
“<Swordplay. You tested Kichirō on his best skill first. I’m betting that has something to do with why the elder is here today. Normally he doesn’t watch our evaluations. Am I wrong?>”
Saito grimaced, then smiled crookedly. His hand returned to his pockets.
“<Yoshirō, you will also be tested on shikigami exertion.>”
“<What?!>” Yoshirō said. “<But that’s not fair! You were just about to hand me that bokken>”
“<Now Yoshirō, no one expects you to do as well as your brother, but I do hope you’ve been putting the effort into your studies,>” Saito said, still grinning. He reached into his pockets. “<The rules are the same. Make as many as you can as efficiently and as properly as you can. You have thirty seconds.>”
Saito threw the paper into the air and Yoshirō made a mad scramble to grab the paper, as much of it as he could at once. He fumbled with folding them, his hands filled with other pieces of paper that were falling to the ground as he folded. His creasing was imprecise, and when he started mumbling the mantras, he went so fast he skipped over a few syllables and had to start over again. Saito looked on, unimpressed.
Saito called time. All Yoshirō had were three wobbly, ugly shikigami that could barely fly. Their connection was too weak, and their power faded soon after. Yoshirō looked around, panicking. Kichirō sighed, got up and left the dōjō.
“<Too weak!>” Saito yelled, and he caught Yoshirō on the back of his legs with his signature bokken, sweeping him off his feet. Yoshirō fell to the ground with a thud, losing his wind as Saito kicked him in the stomach.
“<I thought! I taught you! Better than this!>” Saito grunted as he kicked Yoshirō while he was down. “<You’re a disgrace! A failure!>”
The blows became so intense Yoshirō rolled over onto his stomach to shield it. Saito smirked.
“<Showing your back to me? Very well then. Accept your punishment!>”
Saito ripped off his shirt. The bokken came down like a crack of lightning on Yoshirō’s back, leaving bright red marks all over his sickly green and purple bruises. His back was always like this, some kind of technicolor. It was Saito’s way of punishing them when they did something wrong.
“<This close! To graduation!>” Saito grunted as he swung the bokken. “<And yet you’ve learned so little! How! Do you expect to pass! When your performance! Is this poor?! Huh?!>”
The sword came down harder and harder each time, the pain becoming white hot and lingering, like a burn that never quite stopped hurting.
“<Why can’t you be more like your brother, huh?! At least he knows his ass from his head!>”
Saito swung the bokken with such force that it cracked against Yoshirō’s back, splintering in such a way that one half was barely connected to the other. Saito tossed the broken practice sword away with a “hmph”.
“<Get up, you can still move.>”
Yoshirō struggled, his muscles protesting as he lifted himself back up. It was true. Endurance was one of the first things drilled into them during the early winter months. He could stand. He got up, and wiped a tiny bit of blood away from his lip.
“<You have a one hour grace period to rest before the next test. Prepare yourself,>” Saito said, then walked away.
Yoshirō walked out of the dōjō, broken and defeated. Kichirō was standing outside, smiling sadly.
“<Hey little brother.>”
“Why are you speaking Japanese?” Yoshirō asked. “We speak English.”
“<Yes, but speaking Japanese even when they’re not looking will give them more of a reason to like you,>” Kichirō said.
“Oh boy,” Yoshirō said sarcastically. “By the way, thanks for your help back there. Seeing you win was really encouraging as always. I especially love how you walked out on me for a bathroom break as soon as Saito started whacking me.”
“Come on, you know I couldn’t just watch that,” Kichirō said, reverting to English. “Here, let me take a look at it.”
“It’s fine,” Yoshirō said, smacking away his hand. “I can do it myself. I need the practice anyway.”
Kichirō frowned. “Look, I’m just trying to help-”
“Yeah well I appreciate it, but now is not the time to start caring, Kichirō! Why don’t you just go talk with that oni friend of yours like you always do?”
Kichirō stared at his brother, then sighed. “If that’s what you want.”
Yoshirō watched as brother walked off into the forest. Wincing with pain, he went to his room to find a mirror he could check his back with. Uttering a few mantras, he applied a light healing and purification rite to his wounds, which only helped a little bit in healing him.
Maybe he should apologize to Kichirō, is what he thought. Wasn’t he just trying to be helpful and watch out for him?
Watch out for him? Yeah, that would’ve been great before he left. Instead he left him to get thrashed by Saito. Plus, when you think about it, Kichirō was the big reason this was happening to him in the first place!
Filled with conflicting thoughts and emotions, Yoshirō licked his wounds in silence, waiting for Kichirō to come back.
“Okay, so I thought of a plan to help you out,” Kichirō said, walking back from the forest. “They’re gonna have us fight each other in the ring next, right?”
“Probably,” Yoshirō responded.
“Then I’ll just have to fumble and lose on purpose. Shouldn’t be too hard, this is your specialty, the thing you excel at. This way, I get my way and you get yours! How does that sound?”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass,” Yoshirō said, sighing. “If I needed your help, then what would be the point?”
“The point is letting you win so they won’t have to discipline you again! Come on Yoshi, don’t let your pride get in the way of passing this test! This is important!”
“Why don’t you just call it what it is, Kichirō? They beat us. They beat us until we bleed, and we have to take it on the cheek and thank them for it, because there’s no way off this godforsaken island!”
Yoshirō picked up a rock and punctuated his anger with a well-placed shot at one of the trees just beyond the castle gates. Birds flew into the air.
“Come on Yoshirō, it’s not that bad,” Kichirō said nervously, trying to calm down his brother. “You make it sound like we’re at an internment camp. At least they’re teaching us something.”
Yoshirō stared back at him in shock. “I can’t believe this. You’re taking their side?”
“Yoshirō, that’s not what I’m doing-”
“Oh, but of course you are. After all, you’re the prodigy. They don’t have to discipline you. And hey, what does it matter if you get roughed up a little bit? At least you still have friends!”
“Yes! I do! You, Yoshi!”
“Bullshit! You spend more time in the forest with that oni girl than you ever do with me. You know, you used to stand up for me. We shared the beatings. We used to suffer together. As brothers. But ever since you met that horny bitch, you don’t seem to care about me anymore.”
Hearing that Kichirō lost control and slammed his brother up against a support beam, holding him up by his shirt collar.
“Don’t talk about her that way!” Kichirō said coldly.
Yoshirō smiled bitterly.
“So? How is it? You having fun out there sticking it in her while I’m getting the shit kicked out of me by Saito?! Does it feel good? Knowing that you’re out there and I’m in here? I bet it makes you feel real good, doesn’t it, hotshot?!”
“No, it doesn’t!” Tears began to flow down Kichirō’s eyes. “I’ve never wanted to see you hurt, Yoshi. And I never will. I’ve just been trying to make the best out of a bad situation. Make this place a home. It’s better to bend than it is to break, Yoshi. If you’d just accept that and maybe try to look at some of the good things we have here instead of just the bad, then maybe this could be your home too!”
“Home?” Yoshirō repeated in a hollow voice. “We have a home, and it’s seven thousand miles away, halfway across the world. It’s called New York! I was right about you, Kichirō. You really have changed.”
“<Hey, you two! Five minutes until the second evaluation match! Hurry!>”
Yoshirō brushed his brother’s hand off him once his grip loosened.
“Do what you want, I don’t care.”
Holding a wooden staff, Yoshirō stepped into the ring, with his brother at the opposite end wielding a bokken like Saito. Kichirō seemed hesitant. Yoshirō still felt fresh, raw, like an exposed nerve, inflamed. So for now, he’d pretend Kichirō was Saito, and take his anger out on him.
Immediately Yoshirō rushed in, using his staff’s longer range to jab at Kichirō wildly, applying pressure. But Kichirō didn’t seem fazed.
Catching one of Yoshirō’s wild thrusts, Kichirō smacked it downwards with one of his strikes and sidestepped, lightly rapping the back of Yoshirō’s legs with the wooden blade. Yoshirō flinched but didn’t stop or hesitate, swinging wide to hopefully land a hit on him. His guard was full of holes as always. But because of that fucking pain in his back, because of Saito…
Kichirō dodged easily and hit him again. How? Kichirō was terrible at fighting with weapons, and he wasn’t even trying! This was the one thing Yoshirō was supposed to be good at, dammit! So why couldn’t he land a hit?!
He felt the bruises on his back throb in agonizing pain. They were still fresh. Poorly performed mantras and a few minutes rest wouldn’t make that go away.
“Hey Kichirō, I take it back,” he said under his breath. “Go a little easier on me, will you? This really hurts!”
Kichirō frowned. For a moment it looked like he was hesitating. Who wouldn’t when asked for mercy by their own brother? But…
Kichirō tightened his grip on the bokken, and raised it over his head for the finishing blow. “This is your grave, Yoshirō. You dug it, so now you have to lie in it. I’m sorry.”
Hours later, Yoshirō laid back against the wall of his room, massaging new bruises and generally being bored out of his mind. He couldn’t get up and go for a walk because Saito was keeping him locked in the storage shed overnight as additional punishment for losing the match. He couldn’t practice swordplay or spearfighting, it was too cramped. He couldn’t do pushups (well, he could do some, maybe). He couldn’t read or do any studying, and even if he could he didn’t want to. There was nothing he could do in here!
He wanted to cry out somehow, let the world know what his frustration was like, but the overwhelming apathy he felt following that battle smothered him like a thick wet blanket. He just… couldn’t do anything. Not about his situation or even anything to ease his pain or his boredom. More than ever before, he felt trapped here in this place. By this life. It was all he could remember, all he’d ever known, but he’d never once accepted it.
“<Come on, Saito,>” he said desperately. “<Let me out, I need to go for a walk.>”
“<Fine, then I need to piss.>”
“<Hold it then.>”
“<Do you really want me to lose control of my bladder here? Inside the storage shed? You sure you’re up for cleaning that?>”
“<Who said I was going to clean it? If you make a mess, you take responsibility for it. You should reflect on that while you’re here.>”
Yoshirō sighed. “<At least give me something to do then. I’m losing my mind in here.>”
There was momentary silence, then Saito slipped some bright pieces of paper under the door to the shed.
“<If you’re that eager to keep yourself busy, why not spend your time doing something productive for once?>”
Yoshirō picked up the pieces of paper, realizing what Saito wanted him to do, and sighed.
“<I expect to see every single piece folded by tomorrow morning,>” Saito said as he got up from his sitting position in front of the door. His replacement had come just in time for dinner, something Yoshirō wouldn’t be getting. He had a feeling this one wouldn’t be as talkative (even compared to Saito).
With nothing else to do, Yoshirō got to folding. And folding. And folding. Folding some more, then unfolding, refolding, and folding again. Eventually at some point during the riveting festivities, he got an idea. If he was making shikigami anyway, why not use them?
Yoshirō picked up one of the manikins he’d folded, and decided he was going to try something he’d seen his brother do once. Chanting a mantra very slowly and purposefully, he imbued the paper with a spirit, and commanded it to fly to the small hole near the ceiling. Then, he commanded it to fold.
Folding on its own this time, the paper manikin slowly but dutifully set about the task of making itself small enough to wedge into the hole and escape. There were starts and stops, times when Yoshirō certainly felt like he wasn’t going to be able to pull off Kichirō’s trick, but finally, he made it. The shikigami nudged its way to freedom through the crack and unfolded its wings, taking flight.
Yoshirō opened his mind’s eye, letting the shikigami see what he saw, and vice versa. And then he was flying. Just like a bird, he was flying, with no one to tell him where he could and couldn’t go! He left the shed, now he could leave the compound. He could leave the island! Just as long as he closed his eyes and pretended he didn’t have any body except the one made of brightly-colored paper, he was as free as the sky.
He did loops and dives, twists and rolls! He ducked in and under the trees, nimbly sailing between the branches, then glided across the crystal clear surface of the lake before taking back to the skies. He smiled with childlike wonderment and glee, wondering why he hadn’t tried this before now. Though it may have only been for a short time, Yoshirō was finally free.
Finally, Yoshirō decided he’d better return. Keeping this up even with a single shikigami was becoming exhausting, and if anyone caught on to what he was doing, he would be punished even worse, and lose this one kernel of freedom he had now gained. So with that in mind, he directed the shikigami back to the shed through the forest. Halfway home however, something caught his eye.
“<So, did my idea work? Did Yoshirō win the match?>” he heard an unfamiliar voice say. Swooping down lower, he caught a glimpse of a burgundy-skinned midget with snow-white hair walking next to his brother.
Yoshirō’s eyes narrowed. He understood. This must be the oni. The one who’d made his brother turn turncoat.
“<No, he refused me flat out. I just don’t know what’s gotten into him lately,>” Kichirō said. “<He always seems so angry and depressed now. It’s like nothing’s changed since we got here, except now the one he’s angry at is me, not Saito.>”
“<Did you ever consider that maybe he’s just at that age?>” the oni said. “<Puberty makes humans all sorts of whiny.>”
Yoshirō clicked under his breath, but held his tongue. Why don’t you two try being the unwanted one for once? Maybe then you’ll get it.
To his brother’s surprise however, Kichirō said, “<No, it’s something else. Something’s really bothering him, and I don’t know what. I don’t think he’s going to calm down any time soon either.>”
Well, at least you’re close. I’ll give you that much.
Kichirō sighed. “<I dunno, I’m at my wits’ end with him right now. Let’s talk about something else. Did I tell you I decided what I want to as proof of my graduation?>”
“<Get this. I found out where they buried the Sesshō-seki!>”
Yoshirō’s eyes widened. The legendary killing stone?
“<What?>” the oni said. “<Bullshit, there’s no way!>”
Kichirō snorted. “<Yeah, says you. I’ve been studying yōkai-taming and omnyōdō for eight years now, so I think I know a little more about this than you do.>”
“<Oh yeah? Well I am a yōkai and I say it’s bullshit. I think that means I win.>”
“<No, really! Look here!>” Kichirō said as he took out a map of the nearby islands. “<Look, it’s right around here. Notice the utter lack of spiritual activity around Nasu?>”
“<Yeah, so? What is that supposed to mean? If it’s so not-magicky, then doesn’t that just prove the opposite of what you’re saying?>”
“<Think about it, Ren. Yōkai, kamis and spirits are everywhere. You can’t escape them. There’s always at least one nearby, even if you can’t see them. But around here, there’s nothing. Not even a bite past the volcanic hot springs, and you love hot springs. The yōkai are being scared off by something. They’re too afraid to get any closer.>”
“<Wait, you’re not saying what I think you’re saying, are you?>”
“<I am. I think it’s her. But if I wanna exorcise her, I’m gonna need a hell of a lot of power. More than I’ve got now. All I have contracted are some shikigami, a few kubikajiris, a yuki-onna, and a tanuki pup.>”
“<Hmmmm..>” Ren thought for a second before jumping off her rock. “<I’d be willing to help you.>”
“<Really? Does that mean you’ll contract with me?>”
“<Yeah, sure! If you can beat me in a contest.>”
“<Gaaaahhhh,>” Kichirō sighed. “<You know that’s not fair, Ren! I could never beat you in a fight.>”
“<That onis must be the strongest at all things and to never back down from a fight,>” Kichirō recited. “<I’ve heard it all before, Ren. Honestly, does it really hurt your ‘warrior pride’ that much just to help someone out?>”
“<You’re asking me to pledge my loyalty to you and become servile. That’s a big commitment to make, especially for an oni. It means I acknowledge you as my superior, and if I do that, I bring shame on my entire clan. Not that they don’t already do a great job of that themselves,>” she said sarcastically. “<Besides, if it should hurt anyone’s ‘warrior pride’, it would be yours, Kichirō. It’s like you’re admitting you can’t do this on your own.>”
“<And so what if I can’t?>” Kichirō said. “<Everybody needs help now and again! It’s only natural!>”
“<Oi. Are you seriously saying you think you can’t do this on your own? A man saying he’s not responsible enough to clean up his own messes… you know there’s no honor in that, right?>”
“<There’s that word again. Honor. Pride. I seriously hate those words. They’re just used as an excuse to do things like start fights and beat down on innocent people like Yoshi. Do you know how many wars have been fought because of ‘honor’ and ‘pride’? And for what? What do those things really even mean? They’re just misplaced expressions of aggression and ridiculous, over-the-top machismo with no thought beyond them whatsoever! Maybe I’m just a stupid kid from the Bronx who has no idea what he’s talking about, but to me, ‘honor’ and ‘pride’ are just excuses to do stupid shit without considering the consequences!>”
“<I don’t care about honor or pride, Ren. I just want to make a world where Yoshi doesn’t have to hurt anymore. Becoming that heir they want me to be is the quickest way to do that. If I give them what they want, then they won’t have to keep talking it out of my brother!>”
Yoshirō bit his lip. That’s why? That’s why you’ve been doing all this? Acting the way you have? Bullshit! They’re never going to stop! Even if you give them what they want, I’m still a disappointment. A failure. A disgrace, to the family and to you, my glorious older brother! If that’s really what you wanted, then why did you never support me when I needed you the most?!
Realizing that in the middle of his speech he’d somehow stood up and started making poses without realizing it, Kichirō quickly sat back down in embarrassment.
“<What’s with that weird look? I bet you think my ideas are stupid, don’t you?>”
Ren sighed. “<Well, I’m not gonna lie, they do sound pretty stupid.>”
“<I knew it.>”
“<But I’m just an oni, and onis are stupid, so what do I know about being smart? Other than the fact that you’re stupid smart.>”
“<Ren, are you saying->”
“<Yup. The stupid ideals of a smart human are bound to be better than the smart ideals of a stupid oni. I don’t really get any of that stuff anyway, so why don’t you show me what honor there is in relying on others?>”
“<I told you, honor and pride have nothing to do with it!>” But even though she didn’t understand, Kichirō smiled wholeheartedly. “<But you’re serious, you’d really do that for me, Ren? You know it’s dangerous. They could excommunicate you from your village if they find out.>”
“<It’s no big deal,>” she said, waving her hands around. “<I’m just helping out a friend. Nothing rule-breaking there. And who said they have to find out anything? With my help, we can take care of this stupid evil stone and be back before anyone even knows we’re gone! Besides…>”
She leaned in gingerly and pecked Kichirō on the cheek.
“<I really do like you, you know.>”
A warm rivulet of blood crept into Yoshirō’s mouth as he watched this overly sappy scene. He smiled sardonically.
Well, I suppose if you really did want to help me out, you’ve succeeded, Kichirō. Now I know what I have to do to surpass you! If I can exorcise her, and prove to the clan that I’m not a failure, then I’ll finally be able to live free from your shadow. No one in this godforsaken family will be able to tell me what to do any more once I’ve tamed the famous Tamamo-no-Mae.