Odds and Ends
B Anders (Author)
Mutsu remembered the snow.
It was billowing from the grim colourless sky covering everything as far as the eye could see in a thick coating of white. She was at an inn.
Was she alone? Why was she there?
No, she wasn’t alone. They had travelled from Tokyo. She remembered the deserted train station and Nakoi, her father’s apprentice, making a hare-brained remark about how peaceful the snow looked. It was as if the world had decided to curl up and go to sleep, he said in that dreamily way of his. She was unhappy at being made to come with them, so she cuffed Nakoi on the side of his head and he ran complaining to her father.
Yes, that was it.
But why were they there?
Mutsu of the Poison Blade picked up her teacup and took a sip of the clear amber liquid.
Mutsu was sitting on the floor at a low, round wooden table. The table was beautifully laid out with lacquer teacups and an array of colorful red bean sweets set out in elegant dishes, each reflecting one of the four seasons. The room was unlike any she had ever seen in Tokyo. The sliding screen doors, polished hardwood floors, and gaslights made it look like the set of an Edo drama series. Mutsu kept expecting some television actor in a samurai outfit, complete with topknot to walk in unannounced. Still the room was warm and comfortable with an old fashion charcoal burner placed discreetly in a corner. Outside the garden was a sea of white. It was still snowing and at the thought, Mutsu shuddered.
“More tea?” The dark haired witch girl asked as she produced an exquisite blue pot out of her sleeve, but Mutsu shook her head. She wasn’t fond of the potent herbal brews the Kansai exorcist clans favored. They tasted of wormwood to her.
“Perhaps you would like some more tea then, Nakoi?” Ignoring Mutsu’s rudeness, the witch girl turned to the young man sitting on her left with a slight smile. Nakoi politely nodded his thanks as he brought his cup forward, causing Mutsu to frown slightly. She sometimes found Nakoi insufferable with his puppy like willingness to please.
“Help yourself to the sweets. My mother would be most unhappy if I failed to show our guests hospitality.”
“You should not worry about that. My master has instructed me and Mutsu to treat you and your mother as an extension of our household.”
At Nakoi’s words, the witch broke out in a peal of laughter. “Is that why you are called Sweet Prince Nakoi because of your honeyed tongue? I can see why you have a reputation as a lady-killer.”
Nakoi had the sense to blush before clearing his throat and launching into a long monolog exhorting the virtues of his master and the benefits of merging their respective households. Mutsu could tell by the way the witch girl was nodding and smiling that she was merely humoring her father’s apprentice. Mutsu was impressed by the girl’s patience if their places were switched Mutsu was sure she would have slit Nakoi’s face into two by now.
Mutsu had long heard of the witch girl’s reputation. Despite her apparent youth, she was a deadly opponent, skilled in the dark arts. Together with her mother, they were called upon for assistance by the Grand Council only in the direst of crisis. While mother and daughter were fearsome enemies in battle, their fickle natures made them even more dangerous allies. It was in such circumstances a year ago in Nagoya that Mutsu’s father had met the witch girl’s mother. To Mutsu’s surprise, her father had struck up an easy friendship with the witch woman that rapidly blossomed into affection and then love. Mutsu had thought the middle-aged man beyond the reach of human emotions, concerned as he was only about his books, and his work. But then Mutsu knew Karma was a Bitch. This was perhaps her father’s payback for his general lack of empathy for the world in general.
“Here let me feed you, Sweet Prince.” Mutsu watched in silence as the witch girl effortlessly slipped a dainty morsel between Nakoi’s lips, her own mouth a laughing smudge of red against the deathly paleness of her skin. It was obvious that Nakoi was way in over his head. Mutsu silently unsheathed her blade and bid her time. Soon Nakoi’s eyelids grew heavy and his head started to nod.
“Was the sleeping draught in the tea or the sweetmeats?” Mutsu asked in a low, calm voice.
“Neither, a puff of sleeping dust in his face was all it took. The boy is a fool. A handsome fool, but still a fool.”
“I will not let you have him, Flesh Eater. He is my father’s apprentice.”
“Put away your blade, Mutsu. I have no intent to harm the boy. I just wanted to speak to you in private.”
“Of the fact that we are to be sisters through marriage. My mother is anxious that there be no obstacles to the match between herself and your father.”
“Ah…” Mutsu sighed with understanding as she put away her blade. “My father feels the same. He has sworn to claim the head of any who stands between him and his bride to be.”
“Even if the head is yours?”
“Especially if the head is mine. My father is a hard man.”
“No harder than my mother. My younger sisters are on their way home, as we speak.”
“Soul Ripper and Mind Bender? Your mother has summoned them?”
“Yes, soon we will be together as a family under a single roof. My mother intends to announce her nuptials to her father when we are all assembled.”
“Is that wise?”
“Perhaps not. Your father’s apprentice will be safe under my mother’s protection. My sisters know better than to incur her wrath, but I cannot say the same for you. You will be one of us and fair game.”
“How long before your sisters arrive so we can finish with this charade?”
“Within the week. The trains have been delayed because of the snow. Are you worried?”
“I can take care of myself. I have fought worse monsters than you and your sisters.”
“Then let us drink to being family, Mutsu of the Poison Blade.”
Mutsu took her teacup and downed the bitter liquid at one go. She was going to have to get used to the taste of wormwood.
It was snowing outside.
The inn was a strange, lonely place nestled in hills overlooking abandon fields. A traditional building set amidst extensive gardens, with what seemed to be endless rooms filled with secrets. To the casual observer, each room appeared the same, but was at the same time in some subtle way different. There would be a spry of lavender in one or an ornament in another. There were no other guests or servants present that Mutsu could see. Yet there was tea and sweets and the charcoal burners were lit.
Did places like this exist? How did they get here?
The witch girl. She was waiting for them at the station. Nakoi was the first to spot her. She looked young, barely eighteen and cute in that Lolita way with her long, dark hair. She was dressed in a floral mini dress, topped off with a fur coat. When she saw them, she smiled, and that was when Mutsu noticed her mouth was odd. It was much too wide like she had too much teeth.
Mutsu let out a small moan of pleasure as she settled herself happily into the large outdoor bath. Made from the wood of hundred-year-old cypress trees, the bath was a thing of beauty. The broad verandah sheltered its bathers from prying eyes while allowing them an uninterrupted view of the falling snow from within the enclosed dry garden. Who would have thought that Mutsu of the Poison Blade would be soaking her cares away on a snowy day in such a serene place?
Mutsu had to admit that the witch girl and her mother were wonderful hosts. She could not remember eating better since they arrived at the inn. So much so, she was beginning to think that perhaps Nakoi was right. The upcoming nuptials joining their two households were not an unwelcome idea.
“Care to join me in a drink, Mutsu?”
Mutsu lazily opened an eye to spy a small round lacquer tray laid out with a bottle of sake and two cups floating her way.
“How long have you been watching me, Flesh Eater?” She directed the question to the dark haired witch girl lounging at the far end of the bath.
“Long enough.” Came the reply as the girl smiled showing an impressive array of needle-sharp teeth.
“I will help myself then.”
Mutsu picked up the bottle and carefully poured out two cups of sake. Picking the cup nearest to her, she sent the tray floating back to the far end of the bath.
“Isn’t the snow beautiful?” The witch girl commented as she picked up the other cup of sake and took a sip. “This is my favorite place in the house. It is so calm here. You can linger and watch the falling snow forever.”
“Hmmmmm.” Mutsu agreed as she brought the cup to her lips. Like everything else in the inn, the sake was exquisite.
So Mutsu thought it a waste when the witch girl suddenly kicked the tray into the air and punched the bottle in her direction forcing Mutsu to duck out of the way. There was a crash as the sake bottle hit its intended target causing the intruder to cry out in pain. Jumping out of the bath with her blade, Mutsu had barely time to grab her robe before following the witch girl out into the snowy garden.
“Be alert.” The witch girl snarled as she sniffed the air. “There may be assassins underfoot.”
“How many?” Mutsu asked as she unsheathed the blade.
“Only one. Look.”
Mutsu nodded in agreement, as they pursued the blood trail their mysterious visitor had left behind. Round the building, they ran and into the outer gardens, across strangely untrodden paths to the foot of the ancient weeping willow near the pond.
“Trail ends here. How strange.”
“And there is no sign of our intruder,” Mutsu added as she inspected the undisturbed ground around the gaunt old tree. “There are no footprints in the snow, only drops of what looks like ink.”
“What are you thinking, Flesh Eater?”
“Our intruder was never here in person.”
“Astral projection? That would explain how he seemed to have floated over the snow. If he had feet, I would have heard footsteps on the verandah.”
“Yes and No. If he was purely here in spirit, I wouldn’t have been able to hurt him with the sake bottle. He sent a supernatural minion in his stead. It was probably an imp or a paper man.”
“To spy or to steal?”
“Probably both. Minions like that are no good for killing. They cannot venture pass the protection seals in the house. Here help me look.” The witch girl replied as she scanned the truck of the willow. Her eyes growing smoky and dark as the seconds went by.
“What are we looking for?” Mutsu asked as she joined in the search.
“A piece of string or a slip of paper. Something that does not belong… AHCHOO” The dark haired witch girl ended her sentence with a loud sneeze.
“You have caught a… KERCHOO” Mutsu likewise ended her sentence with a loud sneeze.
“Flesh Eater, we should go back in before we catch our deaths of cold.”
“Mutsu of the Poison Blade, I never pictured you for a quitter.”
“It is snowing and I am clad only in a light robe. While you are…” Mutsu sheepishly replied averting her eyes downwards as it dawned on the witch girl that she was standing in the outer gardens with only her waist long hair to protect her modesty.
“You might have a point. What about the intruder.”
“Whatever it was. It’s long gone from here, but it will be back, and we will catch it.”
The witch girl carefully mulled over Mutsu’s words for a few minutes before nodding her agreement. “Come let us go back to the house.”
“Do you have some more of that sake?” Mutsu asked somewhat keener than usual.
“Only if you drink it with me.” The witch replied with a wink.
As they made their way back across the snow-covered gardens, a crumpled slip of paper slowly floated down from the upper branches of the weeping willow. Cut in the shape of a tiny man, there was the muffled sound of laughter as it was suddenly caught up in a violent gush of wind. The paper man fluttered for a moment and then disappeared over the wall and into the whiteness of the world.
Was there a hidden enemy spying on them? Were they in danger?
Mutsu did not know. All she knew was that the days never seemed to end and the snow kept falling.
“So you weren’t able to catch the intruder?” Nakoi asked.
“No. Whatever it was, it wasn’t human.” The witch girl explained as she sipped her sake.
“Do you think we need to tell Master?” Nakoi asked. “This is a little troubling, given that we are so far away from everything.”
“Well, you don’t need to worry about it, Nakoi. Just concentrate on being their chaperone. Mutsu and I will handle this. I don’t think this is a severe matter. It’s just an imp or a paper man.”
“You cannot be serious,” Mutsu commented with an irritated air.
“But I am, they require a chaperone until the wedding and they have chosen Nakoi.” The dark haired witch girl replied with a resigned air. “I have tried to reason with my mother, but she insists that all the proper etiquette be followed to the letter and your father agrees.”
“He would, the spineless snail.” Mutsu cursed under her breathe.
“I am so honored. I swear on my name that I will do my best.” Nakoi ventured earnestly as he bowed in quick succession to Mutsu and then the witch girl. “You can entrust this job to me.”
“Pass the sake. I need a drink.” Mutsu snarled.
“Yes, we should toast to Master and to our soon-to-be Mistress,” Nakoi suggested brightly oblivious to the dirty looks that Mutsu were throwing in his direction. “This is a very happy occasion.”
“Well, at least they didn’t choose one of us.” The witch girl added. “I can drink to that.”
“Why the fool?”
“Hey, you promised Master you won’t call me…” Nakoi protested only for Mutsu to draw her blade and slice the sake bottle in two in one swift fluid move. “… that…”
“Shut up. You talk only when you are spoken to.”
“Yes, I am sorry I did not know my place,” Nakoi replied loudly as he continued bowing like a clockwork toy to the now irate swordswomen.
“They felt it was the fairest choice, Nakoi is not related to either of them by blood unlike you or me. To choose one of us would be to favor one over the other.” The witch girl explained with an exasperated tone. “And you didn’t have to break the sake bottle. It was the last bottle we have.”
Mutsu stared hard at the dark haired witch girl, only to have the witch meet her glare head on.
“Are you criticizing me, Flesh Eater?” Mutsu asked in a low even voice.
“I would not dare, Mutsu of the Poison Blade. You are a guest in my mother’s house.”
“It is not good to fight…” Nakoi attempted to speak only to be silenced by a fist smashing the low wooden table they had been sitting at into two. The air around the witch girl appeared to be boiling. Her eyes were now large dark smoking pools of red, set by a monstrous grin in a much too broad mouth festering with needle teeth.
“You father must be an ogre to have a daughter like you,” Mutsu commented as she continued staring at the witch girl.
“You mother must be a fox bitch to have a daughter like you.” The witch girl replied as she stared back at Mutsu.
“I have had enough. I am telling Master and Mistress that both of you have been disrespectful and childish. Calling each other names and breaking things…”
“My father is an ogre.”
“What? How can you say that about your father?” Nakoi shouted.
“It’s the truth.” The witch girl replied in a bored voice. “My parents separated years ago. It was a friendly parting. They got married when both of them were much too young. It was only a matter of time before
they grew apart. My father lives in Osaka. He runs an extortion racket there. He’s known as Demon King Conan.”
“Good living for an ogre,” Mutsu commented with a slight smile. “He must be splendid at it.”
“He likes it there. Osaka suits him. He’s a bit of a party animal, my father. I go down and visit now and then when he isn’t too busy. He treats me like a kid all the time. I swear he’s still paying child support to my mother.” The witch girl continued with a frown.
“Ogres have difficulty with human time. I don’t think he means anything by it. He cares enough to be responsible for your upbringing, so he isn’t all bad.” Mutsu replied in a knowing manner. “My mother is a fox bitch.”
“I must protest! You cannot refer to your mother in that way!” Nakoi shouted again. “It’s disrespectful to Master.”
“My mother is a nine-tailed fox spirit. She claims descent from the Fox Divinity.”
“What? Master never said anything about…”
“He was young and foolish. He thought he was in love.” Mutsu explained in a quiet tone. “It wasn’t the best of matches. They parted on unhappy terms. I am the product of an indiscretion in his youth. One that he prefers never to talk about.”
“Ah. I suspected fox, but not a nine-tailed spirit. That would explain why you are immune to mind control spells. I thought it was because you had a powerful talisman.” The witch girl commented mostly to herself.
“Were you trying to charm me?” Mutsu asked in an amused voice.
“Can’t blame a girl for trying can you?” The witch girl replied with a wink. “Do you see your mother often then?”
“When she’s able. She’s very busy. My mother is the editor of a very popular woman’s fashion magazine. But, when I go and see her. All she does is try to make me over.”
“That’s hard. I would hate that. And I thought it was terrible when my father keeps asking me if I need to go to the toilet in public like I was a small kid or something.”
At this thought, both Mutsu and the witch girl let out a collective sigh of resignation.
“So you father really is an ogre and your mother really is a fox bitch?” Nakoi interrupted with a question, as clueless as ever.
“What have you got against ogres, you racist twerp?” Mutsu asked angrily as she turned to face the young man.
“And what have you got against fox spirits, you bigoted idiot?” The witch girl chimed in immediately with a shout.
“Nothing… Nothing…” Nakoi quickly countered putting up his hands to try to fend off the angry women.
“I am so sorry I opened my mouth. Oh… Oh, my… I hear Master calling me. Master, Master I am coming.”
“Twerp.” Mutsu spat as Nakoi scrambled out of the room as fast as his legs could carry him.
“Idiot.” The witch girl muttered.
Turning to face each other across the shattered table. Mutsu and the witch girl stared at each other for a few minutes.
Snow absorbs sound.
Mutsu remembered the house being strangely silent. Was that why the gardens were so barren and lonely? Empty of even the sounds of birds. Mutsu felt as if she had been transposed onto the scenes of a movie without both soundtrack and audience. Even Nakoi was beginning to sound like some poorly scripted character.
Mutsu replayed her conversations with Nakoi over in her mind. Was he really such a clown? He was older than she was. She had known him since she was five. Tall, handsome, and athletic, she had such a crush on him when she was in Middle School. He had dutifully taken care of her to the extent of walking her home after her tennis practice. He was born to play the caring, big brother.
Her father, when was the last time she had seen him? Hadn’t he been at the train station with her and Nakoi? She couldn’t recall. He was always busy, always working. They won’t close, even when she was younger. There was this distance between them. He had never reached out to her, and after a while, she quit trying. He wasn’t the sort to suddenly drop everything to get married. He hated women. He thought them weak and stupid.
Why did everyone seem so strange? Why was the witch girl suddenly everywhere?
Mutsu smiled slightly as she pasted the last of the paper talisman seals to the doorframe.
“Is that the last one?” The dark haired witch asked as she looked over Mutsu’s shoulder.
“Good. The rooms on the other side are done. I’m exhausted. We must have pasted at least a hundred of those things all over this wing of the house. I need a drink.”
“I thought we were out of sake?” Mutsu asked with a frown. “I broke the last bottle.”
“We are, but I still have a case of beer hidden away in my room for emergencies.”
“You’re not going to drink that all by yourself are you?” Mutsu protested, her mouth watering at the thought of ice-cold beer.
“Depends.” The witch girl replied with a wink.
“On whether you are going to be pleasant company tonight instead of your usual sour self. I would have thought that an esteemed exorcist such as you would not be such a complainer.”
“Quit whining. I didn’t ask to be trapped in this house with you while our parents make lovesick eyes at each other.”
“Keep that attitude up and I’ll drink the entire case myself.” The witch girl smiled showing an overabundance of teeth. Mutsu thought the girl would have been pretty if not for that mouth of hers. It must be nice having such long eyelashes and that high-bridged nose.
“I don’t believe I actually agreed to this stupid plan,” Mutsu grumbled as she sat down on the hardwood floor with a flop.
“Your father thought it was a good plan.” The witch girl commented as she went over to the windows to check the alignment of the seals. “This room is good. Any imp or paper man that walks in here tonight will be wrapped up tighter than a fly in a spider’s web.”
“What sort of seals are these? They don’t appear to be regular kind used to bind fast minor supernatural evils.”
“I’m not sure, I’ve only seen these seals once before and that was when my mother used them in the Nagoya incident.”
“That was some nasty business. We were lucky that time. It could have gone bad for us.” Mutsu added before continuing. “Does your mother suspect a powerful entity is coming to visit tonight? It is almost a year to the day we banished the Dog Star Demon.”
“She didn’t tell me. After I told her about the intruder and the chase ending at that willow tree, she looked worried for a minute and then retreated into her room. She spent the night writing out these seals.” The dark haired witch girl sat down next to Mutsu and stretched her arms upwards with a big yawn.
“What were her instructions to you exactly?” Mutsu turned to look at the witch girl, who in the meanwhile had shut her eyes and made herself comfortable against the wall.
“I was to take you with me. We were to paste the seals on the entire east wing of the house. I was to make sure that the seals in each room were aligned in the shape of a six-point star, blah, blah, blah. After which we were to wait the night out in one of the empty rooms in the other wing, while she, your father, and Nakoi spend the night in a spa hotel in town. We were not to leave the room until the intruder was caught and bound fast by the seals. Then we were free to extract information out of it by whatever means necessary.”
“Ah a confession under due stress, it’s been a long time since I’ve done one of those. Might be fun seeing that there is nothing to do here.” Following the witch girl’s lead Mutsu leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes.
“ … Oh and I wasn’t supposed to eat you while you were sleeping at pain of death. My mother was very clear on that point.”
“Nice to know your mother is concerned about my well-being,” Mutsu remarked with a slight smile. “I’m beginning to think that this marriage might not be an entirely bad idea.”
“How so?” The witch girl flicked opened an eye in Mutsu’s direction.
“Well, the great thing about being an Exorcist is catching demons and powerful supernatural things. But, most times it’s a bore. It’s usually an imp out for mischief or a vengeful ghost or some spiteful goblin, and working with Nakoi is the pits.” Mutsu explained.
“I can imagine. I bet he’s the ethical sort of guy who wants to help even goblins.”
“Exactly.” Mutsu agreed.
“Eweeeeeeeeee. I can’t stand those ‘holier than thou’ sorts.” The witch girl exclaimed making a face. “They give me the creeps.”
“I like how you and your mother operate. You people get in and out fast and kill everything that moves. I admire that. In comparison, Father and Nakoi are all caught up in the moral dilemma of this and that and how it will affect the karmic cycle. They are such nerds.”
“Thank you for the compliment, but really my mother doesn’t want anything to ruin the wedding especially me eating you.” The witch girl explained as she closed her eyes. “Besides Fox gives me gas.”
The snow was everywhere now, it stuck to her clothes, her face. Mutsu closed her eyes and tried to focus.
What had happened in Nagoya? Why had the witch girl brought it up? Why couldn’t she remember?
Mutsu groaned as she pushed her reading glasses back up the bridge of her nose. She was stuck in the middle of nowhere while all her peers on the women’s tennis team were enjoying themselves back home in Tokyo and blogging about it all over the internet. The thought of missing out on all the fun was giving her a headache, not to mention the lectures at University she needed to catch up on.
“What are you doing?” The dark haired witch girl asked absently, her eyes glued to the drama series blaring on the television set.
“Answering emails,” Mutsu replied drily. “My professor says I am going to have to do summer school if I miss any more classes.”
“Too bad. What are you studying anyway?” The witch girl turned to look over her shoulder at Mutsu. “You don’t strike me as the bookish type.”
“Eweeeee, I hated that in High School.” The witch girl made a face before turning her attention back to the television screen.
“Did you even graduate High School?” Mutsu asked caustically.
“No need to be rude, just because you’re a book worm. I graduated High School thank you very much.” The witch girl rolled over onto her back and stared at the ceiling with a smile. “I made my father very proud. He was worried it would be too much for me, given that… well, he is an ogre. His people don’t care for books very much.”
“Hmmmmm,” Mutsu said as she shut down her laptop.
“You know you look cute in those pajamas. I would never have thought of you as a Hello Kitty fan.”
“And what about you? Your pajamas are covered in little hearts.”
“You noticed. I thought you ‘d be too busy sticking that nose of yours in the air to bother about me. You Tokyo types are all the same.”
“And you Kyoto types think you know everything.”
“Let’s stop fighting. So we both look cute. Nothing wrong with that is there?” The dark haired witch girl remarked as she sat up and reached for a can of beer. “You want another one?”
Mutsu nodded. In response, the witch girl launched the beer can at Mutsu’s head like a missile with a swift, powerful movement.
“Nice,” she remarked as Mutsu calmly caught it with one hand. “Have to remember your mother is a thousand-year-old fox spirit.”
Mutsu ignored the quip and broke open the can, taking a long deep gulp.
“When are your sisters coming so we can get this announcement business over?” Mutsu asked as she drained the last drops of beer from the can and crushed it with a satisfying crunch.
“They have been delayed. They were supposed to arrive on the local express train tomorrow afternoon, but I understand an urgent matter has come up in Nagoya.” The witch girl grinned happily, as she sipped her can of beer.
“You don’t look particularly happy to see them.”
“I’m not. They’re twins and they’re pretty annoying.”
“More annoying than you?” Mutsu remarked as she wiped her mouth on her sleeve, before throwing the crushed beer can onto the floor.
“I’m not annoying. Wait until you meet them. They say the same things at the same time and wear the same clothes. I’ve never trusted them. They’re two faced and they like to stir up trouble, and you have terrible manners you know.” The witch girl commented as she pointed to the scattered remains of at least ten cans of beer on the floor. “Your room must be a pig sty.”
“What are your sisters doing in Nagoya?” Mutsu asked with a burp as she lay down on the hardwood floor. “I thought your father was in Osaka?”
“They live with their father, the Master Alchemist Kenji. Mother’s second husband.” The dark haired witch replied as she lay down on the floor next to Mutsu.
“Second husband? Just how many husbands does your mother have?”
“Mother gets lonely. Your father will be her third. I like him better than Kenji. That man was an insufferable blowhard. Like all Alchemists, he relies on all these magical objects he makes to get the job done and acts like he’s some sort of big shot.”
“I know the sort.” Mutsu agreed with a nod of her head. “Does that mean your sisters are…?”
“They take after their father. They are totally unreliable. Soul Ripper uses a magical bag to suck the life force out of others and the Mind Bender… Ah, she has that magical mirror that allows her to enter dreams and distort them. Soul Ripper once tried to…”
“Do you know that if our parents get married, I’ll be your senior?” Mutsu added with an evil grin.
“I’m actually older than you.” The witch girl answered with a leer. “You’ll have to call me senior.”
“You got to be kidding.” Mutsu protested. “You look eighteen barely.”
“Shit. You’re really older than me.”
“I’ll expect you to call me elder sister.” The witch girl added in a serious tone. “And you can rely on me to make sure that nothing bad happens to you.”
“Thank you, I will bear that in mind,” Mutsu replied respectfully at which both she and the witch girl broke out in a fit of giggles.
“I think I’m starting to like you, Flesh Eater.”
“You’re OK in my books too… I have a name you know.”
“I’m sorry. We didn’t have the chance to make formal introductions. I am Mutsu Akihito. Please to be of service to you.” Mutsu apologized with a formal bow.
“Please to meet you, Akihito, I am Mizuki Kitahara.” The witch girl replied with a formal bow.
“Now that we have introduced ourselves, how long do we need to wait?”
“I would say a couple hours more, it’s just past midnight. Most entities don’t show up until just before dawn. We should pretend to go to sleep.” The witch girl suggested as she looked up at the clock on the wall. “Maybe that will encourage whatever it is to show up sooner.”
“So you won’t eat me?” Mutsu asked with a big yawn.
“Nah… Can’t eat people I like.” The witch girl replied with a smile only to find Mutsu already fast asleep on the floor.
They were on the rooftop. Laughing and drinking beer. Mutsu pointed out a shooting star to Mizuki, causing the witch girl to laugh aloud. Mizuki was happily drunk, and Mutsu had drunk more beer than she should have. Nakoi was standing by himself in a corner with a sad, concerned look on his face. He had come up to bid them goodnight, but Mutsu could sense that he was hiding something. Mutsu asked what was wrong, but he only shook his head. Everyone was so tense. Mutsu would be worried too if not for Mizuki. The witch girl acted as if she didn’t have a care in the world, even if tomorrow meant they would never see another sunset.
“You should come down to Osaka with me sometime after this is over.”
“My father lives there. He’s been bugging me lately to come see him and bring a friend along.”
“Don’t you have friends at home?”
“Sure, I have friends. I’ll pretty popular you know. It just that’s he different, I mean he’s a great guy and all, but… they would never understand.”
“Yes, it’s strange, but I seem to know you very well.”
Mutsu opened her eyes. She was lying on her back on the hardwood floor with a thick blanket over her.
“Good, you’re awake.” A familiar voice spoke up. It was the dark haired the witch girl.
“What happened?” Mutsu asked sitting up. “I feel terrible.”
“You passed out.” The witch girl replied as she pushed a mug into Mutsu’s hands. “Here drink this. It’ll make you feel better.”
“What is this?”
“Hot tea. You had too much beer. I should have warned you to take it easy. That brand comes with a higher than usual alcohol content.”
“Bummer. Now you tell me.” Mutsu muttered sheepishly. “What time is it?”
“It’s coming up to seven in the morning. Dawn broke almost two hours ago.”
“Shit. I missed out on the action.”
“Only there was no action. Whatever was supposed to materialize last night didn’t show up. I feel quite disappointed.”
“Did you stay up all night?”
“Pretty much. I think I better let…”
Suddenly the witch girl frowned and put a finger to her lips indicating to Mutsu that they had a visitor. Picking up her blade, Mutsu kneed down directly in front of the closed door while the witch girl carefully positioned herself behind Mutsu. At a silent count of three, the dark haired witch girl threw open the door with a slam, and Mutsu charged straight into Nakoi, her blade missing his neck by the width of a hair.
“Nakoi, what are you doing here?” The witch girl gasped as she rushed over to where the young man had fallen over. “Are you hurt?”
“He’s okay, I didn’t touch him,” Mutsu replied as she sheathed her blade. “Mizuki, why don’t you get Nakoi some tea?”
The witch girl nodded with a slight frown and went back into the room leaving Mutsu alone with Nakoi.
“Why are you here?” Mutsu asked calmly as she stared at the shape huddled in the corridor.
“Master thought you might need help, so he sent me,” Nakoi answered. “I didn’t think you would try to kill me.”
“You should know better than to try to sneak up on us,” Mutsu replied as she pulled Nakoi out of the shadows by the collar of his shirt.
“Ouch. Don’t tear my clothes. Do you need to be so rough?” He protested as Mutsu pushed him into the room and closed the door.
“How is Father?” Mutsu asked nonchalantly as she turned to face him.
“He’s all right.”
“Did you speak to him?”
“I just told you he sent me back here to aid you.”
“I see. How did you get back?”
“He told me to take the car.”
“The Nakoi I know can’t drive. What are you?”
“Have you gone mad?”
Mutsu unsheathed her blade and slowly brought it up to his neck.
“Help me. She’s gone crazy.” He cried out as he turned to the witch girl. “She’s going to kill me.”
“Mutsu stop. What are you doing?” The witch girl shouted. “That’s Nakoi.”
“That is not Nakoi and I’ll prove it to you.”
In a blink, the blade swept upwards taking out an eye. The young man screamed once before falling on his knees, hands clutching his face.
“Mutsu, that’s enough.” The dark haired witch girl said as she moved between the swordswoman and the figure cowering on the floor. Her eyes were dark smoking pools crackling with mystic energy. “Stand aside.”
“Are you alright?” The witch girl asked helping the injured man to his feet.
“My eye. She cut out my eye, the Bitch.”
“Hmm. You need to get to a hospital, no telling how fast that poison of hers acts.” The witch girl remarked in a concerned tone. “It could be a matter of life or death.”
“Poison?” The young man’s voice was trembling.
“Come on, don’t tell me you didn’t know that blade of hers is poisoned.”
“Oh my… so nobody told you. Hang on, did you think she was that great with a sword that she could kill all those demons single handedly without cheating.”
“Hey, are you calling me a cheater,” Mutsu shouted angrily.
“If you were a real swordswoman, you won’t need to weld a poisonous blade.” The witch girl shouted back. “I’m calling it as I see it.”
“And what about you?” Mutsu replied in a cutting tone. “You eat demons.”
“And what is wrong with that?” The witch girl shot back.
“Everything. I’ve seen you at work. You’re nothing more than a big greedy mouth with legs.”
“Please stop fighting. I need to get to a hospital.” The young man pleaded.
“We are not going anywhere until she apologizes for that tasteless comment.” The witch girl snarled.
“Me apologize. What a joke.” Mutsu snarled back. “And after you called me a cheat. You demon eating piece of shit!”
“Please, I want to live.” The young man whispered.
“GO TO HELL!” The witch girl screamed in a fit of rage her fist punching right through the man’s head.
Both Mutsu and the witch girl watched in silence as the headless body started imploding within itself until all that remained were a few chunks of meat cooling in a pool of blood.
“We were supposed to soften him up to interrogate him,” Mutsu remarked in a slightly annoyed tone. “Now see what you’ve done.”
“You were supposed to play along with me and not get angry and call me names.” The witch girl sniffed, as she started tearing on cue.
“Here.” Mutsu offered the witch girl a tissue. “Don’t cry.”
“It’s all your fault.” The witch girl sniffed.
“If I say I’m sorry, will you stop crying?” Mutsu asked suddenly sorry she opened her mouth.
“OK, but you have to promise never to call me a demon eating piece of shit again.” The witch girl replied as she turned to look at Mutsu with tear-filled eyes.
“I’ll do that if you promise never to call me a cheat.” Mutsu offered.
“Hmm, you have a deal.” The witch girl replied with a smile. “God you are easy and I thought my father was a push over for tears.”
“Are you always such a brat?” Mutsu made a disgusted face.
“Pretty much. What do you think that was?”
“Minor shapeshifter and not a very good one at that. He clearly didn’t do this homework.” Mutsu said as she wandered over to take a better look at what remained of the body.
“What now?” The witch girl asked as she kicked the remains of the shattered head into a corner.
They were waiting in the outer room as the Council finished its deliberations behind closed doors. Her father had been summoned. She had never seen him so tense. He was deep in discussion with Nakoi. It was about Master Alchemist Kenji. Her father and Kenji had been friends and colleagues for years. She knew he hoped that the situation could be resolved.
The door opened and Mutsu turned to see a tall, elegant woman walk in, she was dressed in a Chanel pantsuit and pearls, followed by a young girl with waist long hair. The girl was wearing a floral mini dress and a knee-length mink coat. Mutsu’s breath caught.
“The seals are intact,” Mutsu remarked as she inspected the doorframe. “What about the rooms on the other side?”
“Nothing.” The dark haired witch girl replied with a frown. “I don’t understand this. Mother was distinctly disturbed by the news of the mysterious intruder. She won’t have acted the way she did if there was no real danger.”
“I agree. Something is not right here. She wouldn’t have bothered to write out the seals if it was just some shape shifter lurking around. She would have just told you to hunt it down and eat it for breakfast.”
“No Thank you. Did you see that thing’s head explode? The blood and flesh were foul like it had been dead for some time.” The witch girl crinkled up her nose at the thought.
“Now that you mentioned it… the way that thing fell apart was strange. Have you seen anything like that before?” Mutsu asked turning to look at her friend.
“I actually have. Have you heard of homunculus?” The witch girl replied in a thoughtful voice
“They are humanoid creatures grown in vats from blood and body parts.”
“Sounds like a bad horror movie.”
“Fortunately they are not common. It is an expensive process and it takes an extremely skilled Alchemist to successfully grow one. Homunculus can be created to resemble friends, family, whatever, some of these replicas are so good that you normally can’t tell the difference. I tried to eat one once, it make me sick.”
“You think that thing you killed wasn’t a shifter, but a homunculus?” Mutsu asked.
“From the way those remains smelled, I’ll bet on it.”
“Let’s go back. I want to take another look,” Mutsu suggested as she ran out of the room with the witch girl in tow.
When they reached the room, everything was neat and tidy. Even the bedding had been put back into place and the empty beer cans placed in the trash. It was as if the events of the previous night had never happened.
Mutsu was five. Sister had whispered to her that the stern looking man taking to Mother in the living room was her father. She had never seen him before. There was a boy with him. Mutsu liked the boy because he had a kind, friendly face.
The conversation was not going well, the man was shouting. Sister took Mutsu outside. They walked to the playground and sat on the swings. Sister had this sad look on her face that Mutsu tried to wipe away. She laughed and held Mutsu close.
“I will take care of you always.”
“I can’t believe you can eat at a time like this?” Mutsu frowned as she watched the witch girl finish her third cup of noodles.
“Hmmmmm.” The dark haired witch girl mumbled in between mouthfuls before putting the empty noodle cup aside and rubbing her tummy. “That was good. Besides there’s nothing more to do here, but wait. We’ve checked all the rooms and the gardens. There’s no one here.”
“Have you wondered about that?” Mutsu asked as she put away the noodle cups into the sink. “How everything is always neat and tidy, and when we’re hungry, there’s always food. Like just now. You wanted curry noodles and when you open a cupboard it’s filled with cups and cups of the brand you like.”
“This place is strange. Yes, come to think about it.” The witch girl replied as she wiped her mouth on a napkin. “But, I’m not complaining. I like living in a house that cleans itself and feeds me.”
“No. I’ve been in cursed places. They don’t feel like this. The atmosphere is always dull and unhappy because something bad happened. This place seems sort of the opposite.”
“Unreal,” Mutsu added absently.
“Yes. That’s the word for it. It isn’t depressing or threatening. Everything is too calm. It’s devoid of emotions like a vacuum.” The witch girl added as she stood up from her chair. “Like a dream.”
“I don’t know,” Mutsu mumbled. Suddenly frightened.
“Are you sure we haven’t met before? I seem to feel like I know you very well,” Mutsu answered, her back towards the witch girl.
“Now that you mentioned it. You seem familiar like I… shit.” Mutsu heard a slight quiver in the witch girl’s voice.
“Did you recall something?”
“I don’t know.” The witch girl was elusive.
“Tell me,” Mutsu demanded as she turned to face the girl.
“Are we dead?” It was only a whisper.
“What do you mean?”
“This place is it some sort of hell?” The witch girl offered as she moved forward towards Mutsu.
“Huh? What are you saying?”
“Ever since I came here I had this feeling. It’s like all this has happened before and we are reliving the past.” Mutsu could feel the faintest brush of the witch girl’s fingers against her face.
“That’s ridiculous,” Mutsu said as she turned away.
“Really then how do you explain the blanks in your memories or how strange everyone is acting? When was the last time you spoke with your father? Do you remember his face?”
“I… I don’t remember.”
“It’s the same with me. I have flashbacks. Pieces of lost memories that seem so vivid, so real and then… a fog comes over me and I forget. Nothing seems real in this place. The food that comes from nowhere, the snow that is always falling, the enemy that is not an enemy, it’s like we are trapped in an endless loop.”
“You seem real to me,” Mutsu replied as she turned back towards the witch girl.
“I feel cold.”
“Don’t be.” Mutsu reached out and hugged the witch girl close.
“What are you doing, Mutsu?” There was a shadow standing at the door of the kitchen.
“Father is that you?”
“Stay away from her. She is Kitahara. Have you no shame?”
“Why are you saying such horrible things, Father?”
“I don’t have a shameless bastard daughter like you.”
“SHUT UP!” Mutsu screamed as she lashed out with her blade only to be stopped dead by the witch girl’s fist.
“Mutsu, he isn’t here. It’s a ghost, an illusion. A memory of something bad that happened in the past. Nothing here is real. We are stuck in a place made up of a patchwork of memories.”
“No, you are real.” Mutsu insisted stubbornly with tears in her eyes.
“Mutsu look around you. Do you remember this place?”
“It’s the kitchen of the old house in Kyoto. Try to remember. You used to wait for me to come home from school and we would sit together in the kitchen waiting for Mother to prepare dinner.” The witch girl pointed out the table to Mutsu.
“When you were three, you’re parents separated. You came and stayed with Mother and me until your father took you away when you were five. We used to go to the playground at the park and sit on the swings. Do you remember, Mutsu?”
“Yes… I didn’t want to go. I cried all the way back to Tokyo. That time with you in Kyoto was the happiest in my life.”
“When she could, your mother would come visit us. She wanted so much to see how you were. She would always bring a box of red bean sweets along. She and your father were having a difficult time. She loved you, but she didn’t have the strength to fight him for you.”
“Tea and sweets. The living room in the old house. You used to take me to the bathhouse and wash my hair.”
“Yes, I’m happy you remembered that. Your father didn’t want you to have contact with us or your mother after he took you away. It broke all our hearts.”
“Because my mother and your mother were half-sisters. You are Kitahara too. He was afraid of all of you. It wasn’t until I was older that he finally relented and allowed me to see my Mother.
The witch girl nodded with a sad smile. “Your father was a proud man. If he hadn’t been so pig-headed, maybe things would have turned out different. I didn’t see you again until Mother was summoned to Tokyo by the Grand Council. You were waiting along with your father and Nakoi in the outer chambers.
By then you were all grown up and I couldn’t recognize you.”
“I recognized you. I would never forget you. I slipped you my mobile number when Father wasn’t looking. I was so hoping you would call.”
“I did call. It was awkward.”
“In the beginning, then you agreed to come down and meet me at that coffee shop and we talked. It was like…”
“It was snowing that day at Nagoya.”
“No… You… You promised to take care of me always.”
“I did protect you that night.”
“No… Nagoya never happened.”
“Don’t forget me.”
“Noooooooooooooo,” Mutsu screamed as the witch girl punched a burning hole into her chest and everything faded from black to gray to the whiteness of snow.
Mutsu heard the voices. They were speaking in a thick Owari dialect, a search party. There was no feeling in her legs and her chest was burning. She tried to reach out for Mizuki, but there was no one there. She was alone in a snowdrift. Mutsu blinked trying to bring her scattered thoughts in order. Where was she?
She was in Nagoya. She and Mizuki were the last to arrive from Tokyo. Nakoi met them at the train station. He was worried. What the Grand Council feared was true. The Master Alchemist Kenji had managed to track down the location of the ancient artifact, the Dog Star Demon. He was going to use it to infuse his humanoid creations, the Soul Ripper, and the Mind Bender, with the stolen psychic forces of their victims.
Father had been entrusted to retrieve the Dog Star Demon, but because of his past doubtful dealings, they didn’t trust him. It was Mizuki who told her of the Grand Councils decision to involve the Kitahara. They were in a coffee shop around the corner from the University. They had begun meeting there in secret ever since Mutsu convinced Mizuki to come out for tea. It was Mizuki, Mutsu turned to after she fell out with her father when he found out about the clandestine meetings from Nakoi, and it was Mizuki she followed to Nagoya.
Despite the Council’s instructions, Father insisted on talking Kenji round. They had been closed as fellow students. Kenji was Father’s senior and Father had looked up to him. Nakoi had objected, telling Father that the Grand Council was already suspicious of them, but Father overruled him and then abruptly left on his own. When Nakoi finally broke down and told Mutsu that night when they were on the rooftop, it was almost too late.
Kenji had brought the artifact to an abandoned inn located in an isolated hamlet. The snow was falling when they arrived at the deserted train station. Mizuki took that as a bad omen and pulled her mink coat tighter against her slight frame. Mutsu had never seen the witch girl so serious. Her eyes were dark, smoking hollows sucking in the light.
It was almost dust when they drove up to the house. Soul Ripper and Mind Bender were waiting outside. They looked like twin dolls, with their white porcelain faces and matching frilly dresses. Mizuki and Mutsu took on the two humanoid killing machines, leaving Nakoi to enter the building and go to Father’s aid. It was a poor move on their part, by then Kenji had already started the ritual. Mutsu could hear Nakoi’s screams as the hungry mystic forces penetrated his defenses and ate his mind alive. In hindsight, he must have known he never stood a chance against the powers aligned against them. He was not strong, or talented enough.
Mizuki, on the other hand, seemed to gain power from the mysterious forces surrounding them. Mutsu watched in awe as the witch girl made short work tearing Soul Ripper apart limb by limb. Her form was now a dark, smoking avatar pulsing with energy. Mutsu had Mind Bender on her knees, the humanoid whisper something to her before Mizuki tore its head off.
What did it say?
I want to live.
It was a statement that all sentient beings say when faced with their own mortality.
Perhaps that was what drove Kenji to do what he did. The need to make his children truly alive. Kenji was driven by passion, he loved the creatures he created, loved them so much he called them his daughters. In contrast, her father was weighed down and chained by his obligations. He had no love for the things he did. It was his responsibility. Just like it was his duty to guide his apprentice, and protect his daughter. In both aspects, he failed miserably. His apprentice fell trying to defend him, his daughter defied him and sought comfort with the people he hated the most.
Kenji must have known he would ultimately fail. He watched as she and Mizuki cut down his children. His eyes were still open when Mutsu sliced open his chest with her blade, and Mizuki reached deep into his chest and pulled his torso inside out. They used his broken body to stem the breach in the artifact until the others could arrive and seal it off. Only there was a price no one could have foreseen. As he laid there dying, Kenji wrote a word of power in his own blood on the artifact as insurance. The symbol of the Seven Spirits of the Unwinding of all Things. Just as the object was sealed, there was a brilliant, searing white light and then silence. Mizuki had thrown her out of the way before the artifact imploded taking the inn and everything in its vicinity along with it.
They found her when she started screaming.
Six months later.
Mutsu was slowly walking home from school. Her legs were much stronger and if she could get her fitness back up, the tennis coach had told her she could rejoin the tennis team for training in the fall. Her life was very much different since she returned from Nagoya. She was living with her mother now. Her mother had flown to Nagoya to be by her side when the news broke and had stayed by her side until Mutsu was well enough to leave the hospital. Something the doctors declared to be a miracle. They were now slowly trying to mend the tears in their relationship after so many years of silence.
Her father was dead. His pig-headedness had cost him dearly as well as taken the life of her mother’s beloved half-sister. Nakoi survived, but his body and mind were shattered by the incident. He disappeared from the hospital a few days later, taking her father’s secrets along with him. Mutsu would think of Nakoi from time to time.
Mutsu had asked her mother what happened to Mizuki. No one knew. The witch girl was missing and presumed dead. There was a rumor that a separate search party had found her barely alive, her body torn beyond recognition, and that she had been whisked away by her father. Mutsu could not find anyone to confirm that story, the most anyone would say was that it was an ogre war party pressed into service because of the incident. Mutsu attempted to get in touch with Demon King Conan, but he wasn’t answering his mobile and a trip down to Osaka resulted in a dead end. He had disappeared and taken Mizuki along with him.
Mutsu stopped. Her mother’s Mercedes was parked in the driveway that meant she was home from work, but it was only midday. Walking up the steps, Mutsu let herself in with her key. She could hear her mother excitedly talking to someone in the kitchen. A family member. Mutsu stopped. There was a mink coat lying on a chair in the living room. Mutsu held her breath and walked towards her mother’s voice.