Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This chapter might be a little strange. Most of the time I try to let a chapter rest for a while before I got back and revise it so I see it with at least semi-fresh eyes. This time parts of the chapter were written just days before I jumped back in to revise. I’m not sure what that means for the quality of the chapter, but I think it means I’m less likely to be objective about what I wrote. Please let me know if you spot any serious issues with this chapter!
Inside the pathway, Rina realized that she had not opened a direct route to Diyu, but rather a hallway. After a few seconds in a world of darkness and void, she felt her feet touch the floor. She looked around and realized she was in an actual place again. This was not at all what she had expected, even if she did not know what she expected to see.
She tentatively took a step forward. It seemed to be the only thing she could do. The void she had been in was nowhere to be found. There was no going back. She felt a bit guilty even stepping on the floor. The wood was polished to a high sheen and she was sure that she would scuff it and ruin everything.
The walls appeared to be gilded in gold. She felt her heart skip a beat. As afraid as she was to mess up the floor, she felt as though she had to keep to the center of the hallway to avoid brushing up against the walls and damaging it in some way.
The hall was filled with doors. Each one was unique but unlabeled. Her feet moved her forward of their own volition. She passed a door on one side and then on the other.
This was supposed to be Diyu and her gut told her this was not Diyu. The hallway stretched on endlessly as far as she could tell. Her heart skipped a beat. This unexpected hiccup in her plan made her feel trapped even in this vast space. She wished there was at least one other person in sight. She needed to know where she was and there was no sign to even give her a clue now. Nothing she had heard about Diyu sounded like a long, ornate hallway filled with a variety of doors as far as the eye could see.
Walking did not seem to be getting her anywhere. She felt a bit silly thinking like that as walking was usually a pretty good way to get somewhere, even if she did not have a direction in mind.
She stopped. Even if she was moving forward she was getting nowhere. The hallway did not appear to be getting any shorter. The only way out of this hall must be to pick a door.
There were just so many doors. She turned slowly in a circle to observe as many of the doors as she could. Each of the doors was ornate and unique. As far as she could tell there was no connecting theme in either design or color. There had to be a reason for each of them being different. There had to be a reason for this hall to exist at all.
One of these doors had to lead to Diyu. She had been trying to get to Diyu when she ended up here. She had enough faith in her abilities to believe that she could get to Diyu from here. Now she needed to figure out the rest of the way there on her own. She wished she had asked more questions when she had the chance. No one was available to field questions here.
She would never know unless she started opening doors, but a part of her could not shake the thought that she could only open one door. It sounded like the sort of thing that would happen at the climax of a high-stakes movie scene. This hallway obviously had a purpose and it would be pretty unfriendly for its users if that was the case. Another scenario came to mind and she worried that she would be forced to enter whatever door she opened. It seemed like she could think of a dozen reasons to do nothing at all.
She knew nothing good could come from waiting here and hesitating to do anything at all. This place seemed pretty deserted. She could easily imagine being here for hours or even days and never running into another soul.
That notion made her shudder. Souls. Where she was going pretty much everyone would probably be nothing more than souls. She wondered if she would stick out like a sore thumb by being corporeal. The oni she saw appeared to have bodies so there was a chance she would not be the only one there with a physical form, but the idea of being around what would more or less amount to spirits of the dead left her feeling cold and clammy.
She shook her head. All this thinking was just to delay the inevitable. She had to open a door. She might not know all of the rules pertaining to door opening in this place, but there were no other means of exiting this hallway and she would not survive long in a place like this. She would lose her mind long before she died of dehydration or starvation.
One of these doors had to be the right one. It only made sense. Her final destination had to be here somewhere. As far as she knew all of these doors might lead her down the correct path. The only thing she could know for sure at this point was that doing nothing would not help her in any way.
It seemed wrong to her to just open the closest door so she started walking along the hall looking for the perfect door to try. With no further clues to indicate what she should be doing and no real beginning to this hallway she figured the best place to start would be with the door that she liked the best.
She picked the plainest door. It seemed like an obvious choice since a plain, ordinary door stood out in this hall amidst all the ornate decorations and gilding. Even so, this door was quite pretty in Rina’s opinion. The plain wood was covered in carvings of leaves and vine, which she might otherwise believe was a bit too much but here it appeared to be plain and subtle and the difference appealed to her.
With the door picked out she had nothing left to do but give opening the door a try. Her heart rate picked up and she had to wipe sweat off her palms on her pants. She placed her hand on the door nob and turned it. The door swung in and she found herself gazing into an empty void. The darkness was so intense that her eyes watered from looking into it.
She did not know what Diyu looked like, but at this level of darkness she could not even be sure that there was something out there. She knew there was only one way for her to figure this out. She would have to step out of the hallway and go beyond the door.
Diving in blindly was so far past her comfort zone that she could not allow herself to throw caution to the wind even now. She gripped the door frame and tentatively put one foot out into the void. Much to her surprise, her foot made contact with a solid surface. She still could not see the ground, and the darkness even seemed to be trying to obscure her own foot from view. While a bit disconcerting, she tried not to let it shake her resolve. She was sure there was a way for her to explore this place if she stuck around long enough to give it a try.
She tried once again to look out into the darkness. Her confidence grew ever so slightly now that her foot was on solid ground and she leaned out into the darkness to see if it was easier to see once she was in the thick of it. With her head in the darkness and all but one foot out of the hallway, she confirmed that it was a bit easier to see once she was in the darkness. Now everything just seemed to be covered in a filmy, grey haze. The world beyond the door was barren enough to be almost concerning in its lack of interesting features.
The only way she would know if the desolate barrenness stretched on beyond her current limited field of vision would be to step in a take a bit of a stroll. She hesitated to do that only because she feared that her way back to the hallway would be closed behind her much in the same way that her tunnel into the hallway had closed up behind her before she even had a chance to consciously decide to remain in the hall.
As she continued to waffle back and forth about exploring further she thought she saw some movement at the very edge of her field of vision. She squinted and strained her eyes to see just what it was out there.
In a flash, she noticed red eyes. She could feel the thunderous pounding of heavy footfalls heading her way. The impression of two rows of razor sharp teeth in a grinning mouth finally broke the spell that held her frozen in place.
She threw herself backward out of the doorway and did not stop until she slammed into the wall on the opposite side of the hall. That half knocked the wind out of her lungs, but she did not have time to feel stunned. She launched herself back at the door. She could not see now that she was back on this side of the mysterious darkness, but she could still feel the rumble of the footfalls now rattling her very bones. Without time for thought or hesitation she reached in, grabbed the door nob and slammed the door shut.
As soon as the door was closed the rumbles from the heavy footfalls stopped. She sighed in relief. She was safe once again from whatever the creature might be. Her glimpse into the world beyond that door had only been brief, but she had a feeling that it was not the place she had been looking for.
That just meant that she would have to try again. Even after her bad experience, she felt more confident than she did before. There were things beyond these doors. She could check and see what was behind the doors and if she spotted danger she could slam the door shut again and stopped whatever she saw from getting to her. The power boosted her resolve.
Now she just needed to pick another door that would be likely to be hiding Diyu behind it. She did not want to check every single door now that she knew just how dangerous the things contained behind those doors could be.
The next door she tried was everything the first door was not. Crystalline and blue, it seemed to represent bright, clear skies in Rina’s mind. She hoped it would be the answer to all her problems.
She opened it with her heart full of hopes. An icy blast of wind slammed into her and dashed her hopes on the floor. She tried to look through the doorway while struggling against the unyielding wind. It was not as dark as the place beyond the other door. Instead of a complete and utter, impenetrable darkness, this place was more of a purpley twilight. She gazed out into a frozen wasteland with seemingly unending winds.
Her gut told her this was not the right place. Her mind felt inclined to agree. She could not go out there anyway. She did not have the means to survive for more than a few minutes in such an environment. She closed the door and decided to try again.
She was starting to grow a bit impatient. She wanted to find a door that actually led to somewhere she was not immediately deciding she could not possibly go. She stopped trying to pick ones that looked the most likely or appealing and just tried them all.
One after another she peeked into worlds that seemed utterly inhospitable. She started to despair. She knew that she was searching for some sort of afterlife and all of the afterlives she had ever heard of were in some way unpleasant. At this point, she was sure she could tolerate unpleasant. Her standards were lowered. She just needed to open a door into a place she thought she could survive. It might not be Diyu, but if she went to a place that was at least hospitable she might be able to find someone that could help her. She was beyond the point of being worried about getting in trouble for being here. Now being here by herself seemed like the greatest trouble she could be in. She was starting to feel dragged down by exhaustion.
The exhilaration of harnessing her magic and getting here fueled her for a while, but now she was realizing how drained she felt. It would not be long until she would need to sit down and rest and she wanted to make some sort of progress before then.
She told herself she would rest after one more door. The next one in her systematic opening of every door in the hallway happened to be a black and white number. She had a good feeling about it, but she knew that was likely just a delusion created by her own mind as a survival mechanism to keep her from falling into a huge pit of sadness and failing to do anything at all.
It was impossible for her to get too hopeful. Everything so far ended with almost immediate failure. She expected nothing. The door swung open with almost no resistance.
There was no wind. There was no darkness. She peeked in and did not see any terrifying monsters either. It looked like a street. That was something new at least.
Diyu might be still a thousand doors away for all she knew, but she needed a break and she needed help. A street meant she had found civilization. She could find help in a civilized world.
She stepped through the doorway and heard it slam shut of its own volition behind her. She jumped, turned around, and saw the door vanish behind her. Like it or not it seemed like she would be here for a while.
Souma worried. Yuzuki sulked.
Bringing Hisako to visit was the only way to solve their problems. Souma needed to have his mind put to ease and Yuzuki needed a boost to her spirits and a bit of reassurance that there really was nothing to worry about.
Even when Souma left to retrieve the midwife, Yuzuki did not find it easy to break free from the worries that had been planted in her mind. She did find it a bit easier to get out of bed. Without Souma’s watchful gaze trapping her into being on her absolute best, least upsetting behavior she found it a lot easier to get up and just be herself again.
She did her best to tidy up their house a bit. Somehow all of Souma’s attempts to be helpful seemed to result in clutter starting to collect everywhere. She did not want to have Hisako see their brand new home looking like this.
Getting up and moving around helped to lift her spirits. She filed that away as a mental note for later. Appeasing Souma might help to keep the peace, but being herself was the only thing that could keep her happy.
With the place looking spotless again she was able to sit down and relax. She wondered where she could begin with telling Hisako about her new life. In some ways, there was not much to tell. The house was wonderful. She was pretty sure she was in good health, and Hisako would be able to confirm that and put their minds at ease. Then maybe, just maybe she would be able to drill Hisako a bit about the shrine to Inari and his kitsune servants that she saw. She wondered if she had cause to be concerned. If these people held celestial kitsune in very high regard she knew she would have to be even more cautious. If the shrine was a bit of an anomaly she knew they would just need to avoid passing by the shrine again. Once she knew that she would feel a lot less insecure in her place in this world.
She found herself nearly overflowing with energy now that she had started to move around. After all of her time tucked away in bed to give Souma some peace of mind she had a lot of pent up energy.
By the time Souma returned with Hisako their home was once again spotless and she was in the process of cooking them a meal. Yuzuki could just imagine how dire he had made the situation seem to Hisako — not that she expected Hisako to believe it to be anywhere near as bad as he said — so it was just a bit more satisfying to have ample evidence that she was, in fact, doing well.
She greeted Souma with a quick kiss and then hugged Hisako. She had missed her mentor and she felt a sudden urge to barrage her with questions. The only thing that restrained her was her lack of desire to expose her inner turmoil to Souma.
Lucky for her she did not have to worry about that for too long. Hisako shooed him out of the house soon enough so she could give Yuzuki a proper check up. That finally gave them the privacy they needed to talk about whatever they needed to without worrying about Souma interfering or projecting his own thoughts and fears onto Yuzuki.
“How are you feeling?” Hisako started with the most simple, obvious question.
Yuzuki shrugged. “I think I’ve been feeling just fine.”
“Your young man seems to think that there’s cause for concern.”
She shook her head. “He’s overreacting.”
“But something did happen to trigger this overreaction, did it not?”
“Yes, but I tried to explain to him that it’s not worth worrying about.”
“We were out walking and overdid it a bit. As soon as I slowed down I felt much better.”
“You know you should be taking it slow in the first place.”
“I know. It was not like I set out to rush around and upset the kit. I just got a bit upset and needed to get away.”
Hisako sighed. “I’m not trying to lecture you. Everything seems to be fine. I see nothing that suggests you haven’t been taking excellent care of yourself. Now do you want to talk about what’s on your mind?”
“What makes you think that I have something on my mind?”
“You might have wanted to set Souma’s mind at ease, but that’s not the only reason you wanted to see me, is it?”
Yuzuki shook her head. “I’m not sure moving here was such a good idea. It’s not that there aren’t good points. A lot of what has happened since we moved here has been wonderful. I’m glad Souma is around more and that he’s finally left behind that dangerous job he had, but I’m a little worried that we might be intruding on the territory of some of Inari’s servants. Do you know much about the kitsune that live in this world?”
“I can’t say that I do. We always just took for granted that they must be there. We would leave offerings and when the offerings disappeared we knew they had to be around somewhere.”
She could not decide if Hisako’s words could be turned into a source of comfort or if she was going to spin it into a new way to prolong her anxiety. She tried to take comfort from the fact that Hisako did not have any stories of humans regularly interacting with Tenko. That might mean that they did not have a huge presence in this world, but she knew more than likely it just meant that they were not inclined to make their presence known to humans. Hiding from the humans might not mean they would hide from other kitsune.
“I’m afraid they won’t be happy to see us here,” she admitted quietly.
Hisako sighed. “I’m not going to pretend I understand the problem, but I will remind you again that you need to stop worrying on your own.”
“That’s why I wanted you here,” she pointed out.
“And what’s wrong with sharing your worries with your young man? I thought you were trying to be more open with him.”
“It’s complicated. I am trying not to keep things from him. In fact, I’m sure I annoy him quite a bit with all of the things I do share, but with this, I don’t want to be the one to bring it up.”
“And why is that?”
She sighed. She knew this was going to happen, but it was still incredibly difficult for her to explain just why she did not think it would be a good idea to unburden all of her worries on this particular topic on Souma. She did her best to explain the situation, essentially everything she knew about Souma’s parents to Hisako. Overall their situation seemed to be a good summary of the problems that arose whenever nogitsune crossed paths with the Tenko, servants of Inari. Even if things seemed to go well for a while, somehow they always managed to turn sour when the two groups were exposed to each other for too long. She worried that things would go wrong for them here too. Nogitsune always seemed to lose out in these things. That probably came with the territory. They did not have a god on their side. They did have their freedom and Yuzuki thought that was of greater value than having some god looking out for them and imposing rules on them.
“I don’t see why these kitsune at the shrine would bother you as long as you mind your own business,” Hisako assured her.
“That’s the problem. It never seems like there should be a problem, but somehow it always seems to go wrong.”
“But you’ve never experienced this yourself.”
“No. Thankfully. I’ve always lived in places where Tenko would be entirely unwelcome. I’ve heard so many stories, though. I know nothing good can come from interacting with them.”
“Your young man wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for one of them,” Hisako pointed out.
Yuzuki thought about it a moment. Souma’s father was a Tenko. He would not exist if his parents had not been together. Then again, that ended badly. Souma still bore the emotional scars from when his parents’ relationship turned sour. That relationship turned so bad that his mother was an irreparable mess even now. No. Even if it did result in someone as wonderful as Souma she could not say that it was a positive thing. There were two kitsune left with deep emotional scars from that association and she could not imagine it going any better in any other scenario.
“That’s true, but the relationship still ended in tears and heartache. They refuse to think of us as equals, Hisako. They treat us like lesser beings just for wanting to be free to do as we please.”
“I see,” Hisako said int hat way that made it amply clear that she did not understand the situation by half.
It would take more time for her to understand just how serious this all was. Most of the time she forgot that Hisako was an outsider. She had learned how to live with youkai but she did not yet understand all of the underlying nuances of the culture she surrounded herself with. It was not something she particularly needed to know as an outsider. It would not come up in normal conversation and without learning about it that way she would have no way finding out about it.
Yuzuki felt it was time for a bit of a cultural exchange. She could teach Hisako a bit more about kitsune in exchange for hopefully learning more about the association between the humans and the kitsune they apparently left offering for.
“Hisako, do you think you could stay for a while? Do you need to go home right away?”
“I can stay, although it seems as though you have everything under control. You know you’re perfectly healthy and you seem to be doing everything that you’re supposed to be doing to stay healthy.”
She shook her head. “I’m not worried about my health right now. It’s more of the cultural stuff I need help with.”
Hisako sighed. “I don’t know what you think I’m going to be able to help you with in that regard. I haven’t lived among humans in years and there’s only so much that we all have in common. Each village is going to have its own quirks and I won’t know them.”
“But you can help me ask the right questions. I would have been okay before, but after seeing the shrine I need to have some back up to keep my nerves under control. Please tell me that you’re able to stay.”
“I’ll stay. I was prepared to stay for a little while anyway. It’s a relief to be staying for another reason.”
“Are you sure?”
“Are you? You’re the one asking me to stay after all.”
“I want you to stay. I feel so much better knowing I can count on you to help me. I just don’t want you to feel obligated to stay. My insecurities aren’t your responsibility.”
“I’ll stay. You will be happier and your baby will be healthier if you aren’t spending all your time worrying about this nonsense.”
Yuzuki did not particularly like that her mentor thought this was nonsense, but she knew that she would have time to make her think differently since she would be staying with her for a while now.