Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This chapter and probably the next few are going to be a bit less polished than I would like. In a perfect world I wouldn’t be revising until I could look at the chapter with fresh eyes, but jumping around and working on scenes I was comfortable with has caused us to become very nearly caught up to the part of the story I’m writing. I don’t want to stop sharing chapters so I’ll just do my best to get the writing cleaned up. My goal here is just to be sure that I’m posting something that is of better quality than my first draft.
Speaking of first drafts, I’m going to start writing my next serial in November for NaNoWriMo. I’ll be sharing my first draft every day on Patreon so be sure to head over to my Patreon before November if you’re interested in seeing the next novel before anyone else.
A city sprawled out before Rina. The door she had entered this place through had disappeared. Now behind her a wall stretched to the right and the left as far as she could see. In front of her a city stretched out into the distance. Several pagodas stretched up toward the sky quite a distance away. They loomed far above any of the other buildings. She knew she needed to head in that direction. Nothing else within sight looked half as important as those buildings and she was looking for the king.
As soon as she stepped away from the wall, she felt the unsettling sensation that she was being watched very carefully. She did not see anyone around, but that did not mean that someone was not there. This was a place for the souls of the dead. Unless she developed the ability to see ghosts recently she had to assume that she might be surrounded even at this very moment by souls of the undead.
She felt vaguely uncomfortable at that thought. Since she had provided it for herself she tried to push it to the side. It was not something she could do something about anyway so the best thing she could do for herself was try to remain calm and keep moving forward.
The pagoda was huge so she did not have to worry about losing sight of the landmark she was heading toward. Having a destination in mind did help keep her focused and being focused helped keep her worries at bay. She did not have time to get the creeps from the notion of being watched and possibly walking through a spirit or two just because she could not see or feel their presence.
She did not pay much attention to the city around her for a while for the sake of her sanity. She could not handle the idea of taking in the sights and mentally preparing for what she was going to do once she reached the pagoda right now. After the events of the day so far she knew she was on the verge of collapsing from exhaustion. Mentally she was beyond her limits and after the walking she did in the hallway she was feeling physically fatigued as well. She needed to stay focused and motivated to avoid getting caught up in her body’s flagging energy levels.
Unfortunately, the city was absolutely huge. She ran out of willpower for avoiding her own problems before she made much visible progress toward her destination. She did not like how empty the city seemed to be. It was unnerving. Someone had to be here. She saw the oni that came for Hibiki. They were from Diyu. She thought she would see some oni here.
Then she started to worry that she might be int he wrong place after all. Nothing was turning out the way she imagined it would. She did not have the energy to do anything about it. She wanted to cry but she felt too tired and too overwhelmed to even do that.
She lost count of the number of intersections she crossed. At first, she had half-consciously kept a tally, but now that was all out the window. She knew she had crossed more than five intersections, but beyond that, she could not say for sure how far she had traveled from the wall.
Even more than five block in toward the center of the city, she did not see any signs of life. This was starting to seem like an impossible situation. She could not find a way to know for sure this was the right place. She had no one to ask. There were no signs. She was just operating on her gut feelings, and the more time that passed away the less she felt as though she could trust her own instincts.
Everything seemed to be going wrong. She was so tired now that her optimism faded away. Her footsteps started to become less steady and she stumbled once. Then she stumbled over her own feet again and she knew that she needed to sit down.
One more look around confirmed that the immediate area appeared to be just as deserted as ever. She saw no reason she could not sit down and rest for a while without fear of consequences. There would not be an opportunity for her to do much more than sit and try to recover her strength even though she was sure that she really needed to get a good night’s sleep, but she would have to take what she could get at this point.
She sat down on the steps to one of the large, silent buildings that filled all of the streets she saw so far. She was at least out of the sun here. It was a bit cooler and her feet immediately rejoiced to no longer be trudging down the street. She knew her feet would continue to protest any further walking for quite a while. She might have needed to take a break an hour earlier if she had actually hoped to prevent this sort of problem from happened. Then she had still had enough energy to keep pushing so she ignored the signs her body gave out.
All she wanted right now was a safe place to sleep. Not walking confirmed just how little energy she had left. The magic had wiped her out in the first place and since then she decimated her reserves which had not been what they should have been in the last few months.
This could not be a permanent stop. She knew that. She needed a short rest, but she would have to get up and keep going soon enough. Hibiki was waiting for her. Somewhere. She did not know where or how to get there from here. She had been trying her best and none of it was good enough. That made her want to scream. She still felt that she was being kept in the dark by pretty much everyone around her she did not know what else she could do and there was no one left to ask any questions at this point anyway. She was almost inclined to think that she had been set up to fail, but she could not bring herself to imagine anyone being cruel enough to do that to her.
She had to force herself to get up again. The temptation to stay seated was great, but she knew it would do her no good. She could not sleep here and sitting any longer than she already did would not improve her chances of making anything better.
She told herself she would just walk one more block. Nothing changed. She walked another block deeper into the city.
The energy of the place did start to feel a bit different. That was not something she even thought she was capable of noticing a month or two ago and now it was all she had to go on. She did not know what to make of it. She was far too inexperienced. She just knew that it did not feel the same and she could only assume that different meant something.
The sense that she was being watched intensified. She was sure now that someone, most likely many someones were watching her and she just could not see them. That was not good. It made her increasingly uneasy. Her instincts told her to run or hide. Her higher mind told her that she was not going to be safe doing either of those things. She did not know anywhere to hide seeing as she had never been here before. Ducking in one of the buildings lining the street would be foolish because it was more than likely that she was being watched from those buildings and that would leave her in a more trapped position than she was in now. Running seemed like a slightly smarter option. There were several problems with running. She did not know where to go. She had just been walking toward the pagoda all this time. She could keep running in that direction or turn right or left. Those were the only options available to her by running and she was not sure that she had the energy to run very far at all.
She stopped in the middle of the street and turned slowly in a circle, scanning the street and the rooftops. She still did not see anyone, but now the feeling of being watched was giving her chills.
It might be foolish, but she did not have the ability to hold back the urge to run any longer. She felt threatened and she needed to get away from that threat. She turned and ran toward the pagoda. Even in her moment of terror and panic, she kept herself on target. There was no sense in going in any other direction when she had only had one single goal since she arrived in this place. She needed to find her way to king Yama and then she would figure out what to do from there.
She ran. It had been a long time since she last ran anywhere. her lungs started to protest in no time at all. Her feet started screaming at her just about the same time. She wanted to stop, but she was terrified of what might happen if she did.
There was an undeniable sensation of being chased now. If she stopped she would be in serious trouble. Her gut feeling kept her going well beyond what her body was willing to tolerate. She could hear her heart racing in her ears. It blocked out all other sound. She could not even hear her own footfalls and only knew her feet were even touching the ground through the sensation of each time her foot hit the ground sending throbbing aches through her feet and up her legs. She knew she would have terrible blisters soon enough. Her shoes were not the best for running and if she was going to be honest with herself she probably could have found better shoes for the amount of walking she had done today.
Everything she did seemed to reinforce just how unprepared she was for this sort of journey. She had been so wrapped up in worrying about Hibiki and getting to him to try to help him as soon as possible that she did not take the time to become properly prepared or informed. She lacked the knowledge to know how to prepare for such a thing anyway and only knew what she needed now by looking at what she had failed to prepare and bring with her.
She had no idea how far she had run. She saw spots and knew she needed to stop. She could not catch her breath. She leaned forward with her hands on her thighs trying to get her breathing back under control before she got sick.
A hand grabbed her shoulder from behind. She tried to scream but only managed to cough. She was still too winded from running to put up much of a fight.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” a deep voice rumbled in her ear.
Panic rushed through her and she got a sudden burst of strength. Flight had failed her before she ever had a chance to really use it so her instincts forced her to fight instead. Calling on reserves of strength she did not know she had, she wrenched her shoulder out of the grip of the hand that had grabbed her.
For reasons she did not even know well enough to manage to explain to herself she found the courage to wheel around and face her attacker.
She did not know why, but she was shocked to see that it was an oni similar to the two that had come to take Hibiki away. She had spent so much time hoping that she was in the right place that she did not know how to handle this small suggestion that she was correct in her assumption that she was in the right place.
Her breath still had not fully returned to her, no thanks to the square she had just received. She gathered up all of her wits to calm herself enough to speak.
“I’m here for Hibiki,” she announced just as she managed to look into the oni’s eyes.
The oni laughed. She took a step back when she heard the sound. She could feel that her nerves were completely rattled. Any and all sounds had her jumping now.
“We’re not exactly in the business of welcoming visitors here. You don’t belong here.”
“You’re right. I don’t belong here. Neither does Hibiki. Take me to King Yama so I can tell him about this terrible mistake.”
The oni laughed again. This time, there was no humor whatsoever in his voice.
“I’ll take you to King Yama. It won’t do you any good, but I’m sure the king will enjoy your little speech. He might even let you live if you can get a laugh out of him.”
“Fine,” she said with bravery that she could not comprehend. “Take me to your king.”
She realized she had effectively volunteered to be arrested, but at this point she did not think she was any better off on her own. At least with this oni leading the way she knew she was going to the right place.
Her captor seemed to be at least a bit afraid of her. After their initial contact where he placed his hand on her should her seemed hesitant to touch her again. She was guided with minimal contact so she hardly even felt as though she was under arrest right now.
There was not much different even with the oni there, but they walked another block and then everything changed. The oni knew the way to truly enter Diyu and helped Rina do so as well. The air shimmered slightly and she felt that electrical sensation that she was learning to associate with traveling through a portal from one world to the next.
With just a few steps she somehow managed to pass into Diyu proper like she had failed to do so spectacularly before. The streets were not exactly bustling, but now there were oni and other beings around and there were sounds and signed of life everywhere. It seemed almost normal to her now, even if there was no way she could ever imagine a place like this on her own.
They were given a wide berth on their march down the street and Rina could now sense that the watchful eyes on her were fearful. She did not know how or why but she was being treated like the greatest of threats. She felt as though she was some sort of dangerous beast that needed to be avoided just as much as it needed to be watched and admired.
She was not sure that she disliked it. At least being feared in this way made it easy to deal with crowd control. At this point, there were hardly enough people to qualify as a crowd with the way they were spread out, but she had a feeling that the numbers would increase as they continued toward the center of the city.
The people and the building went from modest to increasingly ornate as they walked on. She did not know if or when she could expect the ostentation to stop growing. Now the pagodas were now looming in the foreground. She expected to be guided in at any moment.
They went past the pagoda and suddenly Rina was left with no expectations. She did not know where she would go or what she would do now that she was walking past the only landmark she had to rely on in this strange place.
There was another wall. This wall had a gate and she was led through the gate. Just beyond this gate, she was passed off from this first oni to another. She continued to be led on with no real understanding of where she was being taken, but with increasing clarity that she was undeniably under arrest. She was not free to go and she was being constantly pushed forward.
She passed hands again and was made to wait just outside the most intimidating pair of doors she had ever seen. Even with no expectations left to her, she found herself anxious about what was to come. Her mouth was dry, her throat parched to the point that she could not even swallow without feeling a great deal of pain. She could feel the intimidating, authoritative power emanating from beyond that door. She knew she would be taking into that room and she would have to face the source of that power. That thought terrified her.
Finally, the door opened and she was ushered through the doorway and into the court of King Yama.
Rina had never imagined she would ever have to face and speak to royalty. On top of that she never in her wildest dreams could have guessed that the first king she ever met would be a ruler of the afterlife. She was not so sure she could trust herself to remember what she had come here to say.
Her heart drummed in her ears so she could barely make out what was being said to or around her. She could not comprehend what parts she did hear either. All she could do was wonder and worry that she was not going to know when to bow or even if she was expected to bow to this king. She had never given this any thought before now and she worried that it would be her downfall.
Finally, she settled on a stiff, awkward curtsy to the king while she struggled to find her voice again.
“I’m here, your highness, to ask you to please release Hibiki. If anyone was harmed by what he did it would be me and you can see that I’m fine so—”
King Yama raised his hand and silenced her. She stared at him wide-eyed, unsure if her ears would continue to throb and prevent her from hearing what the king had to say now that he had interrupted her plea.
“Your presence here is a violation of the natural order. You are a violation of the natural order.”
She did not know how to respond. She only just barely resisted the urge to stare at him slack-jawed. “I’m sorry, sir. I’m only try to —”
He cut her off again. “You will stay here as my guest until it is determined what will be done about you.”
She stared, unable to form any words as a form of protest at this point. She felt horribly discouraged by her words being constantly cut off. She did not know if she could bear to endure it any longer. She felt completely cowed and stood waiting for the king to fling more words at her.
He was silent for a moment, but he continued to look at her. She felt uneasy, unnerved by his gaze. She only managed to meet his dark, penetrating gaze for half a moment before she started to feel ill and had to avert her gaze. Her eyes darted around the room trying to find something to rest on that she could at least feel slightly at ease gazing upon. She had no luck in that endeavor. Eve with her eyes looking elsewhere she could see feel his eyes watching her with such intensity that she could practically still see them no matter where she looked.
When he spoke again she nearly jumped out of her skin. The silence in the room had been so absolute and all-encompassing that sound started to feel like an assault on her ears.
“You will dine with me tonight.”
His words were not an invitation but an order and she realized that immediately and all the way to the core of her being. She did not like the way his words made her feel. Out of control and unable to get a grip on the situation was a feeling that threw her mind into a frenzy of panic.
She was sure she was expected to say something. It was not polite to stand and stare at anyone let alone a king, but she did it anyway. The words just would not come to her. She knew she should say something, that she should agree with him and bow and scrape and try her hardest to get into his good graces, but she just felt terrified and overwhelmed by his presence. She had come here on this mission to rescue Hibiki, but everything she encountered only made it more and more apparent that she did not in any way come into this situation prepared.
She forced herself to respond in some way. She knew she was expected to acknowledge him and she had to do it or she ran the risk of angering him and finding herself being punished instead of being invited to dinner. Her mind lurched along and she managed to coordinate her own body enough to curtsy to the king.
The king seemed mildly amused by her curtsy.
Before she knew it she was being led away by yet another oni. She was placed in a room and told it was hers for the duration of her stay in the king’s household.
It was then that she realized being a guest here was just another way to be held prisoner. She was a captive herself now and did not know how she would ever find her way to Hibiki.
The room was not as terrible as a prison cell. She never expected it to be. A guest room in a king’s palace would always be preferable even to the best cell in a prison, even if both served the same purpose.
She realized she would want for nothing in this place. The room had everything she could possibly need and she knew she had no cause for complaint — that was probably all part of the scheme.
There was not much for her to do now that she was tucked away in this room. She heard her escort lock the door once she was inside the room. She needed to find a way to keep herself busy so she would not panic at the realization that she was in fact trapped in this space. She paced the length and the width of the room. She tried opening the door one last time just to see if she had been mistaken in her understanding that it had been locked behind her. The door would not budge.
She suppressed her urge to panic. It served no purpose at this point. She knew she had been operating for far too long without a plan and she needed to make one now. There were a lot of variables she had no way of knowing or controlling, but she felt sure that she could formulate some sort of plan from what she knew and thought she could either manipulate or control.
Without a plan in mind, she had managed to stumble into a few advantages. She was inside the palace. Considering she managed to get herself arrested, being in the palace instead of a prison or a dungeon seemed like something she could consider a plus. The locked door was certainly a minus, but if she had a chance she was sure that she could make that go away. The real advantage came in the invitation to dine with the king. She had not anticipated seeing that happen, but she found herself having a second, hopefully more informal, audience with him. She would have another chance to plead her case before him and make him see that Hibiki did not deserve to be punished.
That time with the king would be her greatest advantage and she was sure that she could formulate a plan to get just what she wanted out of their next meeting. There were still variables she could not know ahead of time. Her knowledge of dining with royalty was next to nonexistent. She did not know if she would be one in a crowd or if she would be a part of a more intimate dining setting.
Whatever the case might be she knew she should not see King Yama again looking so travel worn and weary. Sleeping would be out of the question. She was still too wound up to even consider it even if she was in a situation where she felt safe enough to let her guard down.
All she could think to do at the moment was take a few moments and try to clean herself up a bit. There was a porcelain pitcher and washing bowl in the corner of the room before a mirror. She went to it and was surprised to discover the water was still warm. She had an eerie feeling now that so much care had been put into preparing this room that it could not possibly have all been done in the time it took her to be brought her. This space seemed too well thought out to be tossed together in a few minute’s time.
She tried her best not to worry about it. This place was so terribly strange she could not fathom all of the mysterious goings on. Half the time she did not know if she could trust her own senses anymore. Since she came here she felt as though her every sense had been deceived in some way. Even know that she had crossed into the more real version of the world she was not entirely sure that the illusion of the world had truly been lifted.
She did her best to clean the dust and dirt of her travels off her skin and shook out her clothes. She only had those clothes as no other option had been provided for her. That was another oversight on her part. She should have brought more presentable clothes. Now she was stuck going into the presence of the king in clothes that were hardly up to the standards she imagined a royal person required. She hoped it would not be held against her.
Without much else possible in terms of preparing her appearance for dinner with the king she found a lot of time to ponder her current circumstance. She had hoped that she would be able to see Hibiki again by now, but that was out of the question at the moment.
This was the most alone she had felt in a long time. Within a few moments of being stuck in this room with only her own thoughts to keep her company, she realized that she had her mind all to herself again. There were no extraneous memories coming to her mind and trying to find a proper place to settle down.
She did not know what to make of it. Those memories had become a part of her everyday routine lately. Going so long without them made her feel more alone than ever. It was in some ways even worse than losing Hibiki because this was a part of herself that disappeared out of the blue.
If the memories were gone for good she had to imagine something else would come to replace them. That was not a comforting thought as the memories had caused her a lot of problems when they first appeared. She had just learned how to get a handle on them and now she had a feeling that she would be stuck learning a whole new set of coping mechanisms soon enough.
The timing was not great. With everything else that was on the line at the moment, she did not have time to deal with this problem all over again.
She had plenty of time to worry and fret about it while she waiting for someone to come collect her and escort her to her meal with the king.