Cover by A. R. Shellnut
Sorry about this chapter being late! Being almost caught up to the point in the novel I’m writing is really messing with my revision mojo. Forgive me!
I hope that this chapter was worth the wait. As always, be sure to let me know about any errors in the chapter or any other issues you might have with it.
My goal is still to finish writing The Dreams this month. As of right now, it looks like the last chapter will be posted in either November or December. Starting on November 1, I’ll be posting the first draft of my next novel on my Patreon. Once The Dreams is finished I’ll start revising and posting the second draft here, but the first draft will continue to be a patrons-only thing.
Someone did eventually come for her. She really did feel like she was being collected. She felt like some sort of animal. She had to be walked everywhere and fully supervised at all times. She could not believe that she was being treated with such distrust. Overall she was sure that she was the least dangerous being here. She was not strong enough to even put up a fight against these huge oni. The powers that she barely managed to use once were not even something that she thought she could replicate here and now. She was fairly useless and completely defenseless.
Her escort/guard was not particularly talkative. She could not get any sort of response out of him at all. All of her questions went unanswered. She tried so hard not to let it get to her. This sort of behavior had to be some sort of mind game. She tried her hardest to remain calm and keep her wits about her. She would need it for when she faced King Yama again.
She expected to be taken to a great hall of sorts with huge, long tables laden with food and dozens of guests and dignitaries dining in the company of the king. Instead, she was left alone again in a relatively small room with a table that would not seat more than six.
This might work to her advantage. If there were fewer people around she would have more time to talk to the king. At the same time, she did not know if she could handle an entire meal in the presence of just the king. He was utterly intimidating and she was convinced that too much time near him would cause her to lose her resolve.
A few more moments alone gave her some time to collect herself again. She could not allow the king to see her worrying like this. As far as he knew she had to be strong, determined and unwavering in her desire to see Hibiki freed. He had to know she was completely convinced that Hibiki’s arrest was unwarranted.
She was pretty sure that she was not supposed to sit down first so she idly looked around the room to make herself look at least slightly busy. Her mind was thrumming with activity. Now that she knew she would not be one among a massive crowd she knew she would be able to speak with King Yama. She needed to make sure that she had enough to say to be an entertaining guest.
That was if she could be considered a guest. She was pretty sure that guests did not have the door to their room locked. If she was under arrest she might not be permitted to speak. It did not make much sense to her, but she was so confused in general that she considered it to be at least a slight possibility.
The door opened and she nearly jumped out of her skin. She pressed herself up against the wall and tried to be invisible or at least inconspicuous. It did not work. She knew it even as she tried. She was the only living, breathing thing in the room. She watched the door with wide, frightened eyes.
King Yama entered the room, flanked by a red-skinned oni and a blue oni. She felt particularly leery of the red oni since she had been warned about them and the fact that she had been fortunate to have dealings only with blue oni so far. That short moment of panic was quickly superseded by a jolt of pure terror when she realized there were no more guests coming to dinner.
The oni were here to attend to the king, not as dinner guests. Only two places were set at the table and she sat at one end of the table with the king at the other. She did not know if she had what it would take to survive a meal one on one with him. She had so much she wanted to say, but she barely had a chance to get a word in before. She was afraid that she had no idea how to combat it this time around.
It was so easy to feel intimidated by King Yama. It made it easy to forget that she came here on a mission. She had been so determined before. If she set her mind to it she was sure that she could get the determination back. She would need it if she wanted any chance to survive this meal.
She had to survive. She had to take this time and put it to good use making the king understand that he had to set Hibiki free.
The meal started out silent. She knew she had so much to say, but she was unsure how to initiate a conversation with King Yama. From what she tried the first time they met, she knew just speaking her mind and trying to make demands of him would not get her anywhere. She could not even finish a sentence with him so it seemed like she needed to try a different tactic.
She tried to focus on the food. Plates were placed in front of her and swept away again at a pace she had never before experienced. It made it easy to ignore the uncomfortable silence in the room for a bit longer.
“Will I be able to see Hibiki soon, sir?” she asked when she could not stand to wait in silence any longer.
“You’ve mentioned this Hibiki before.”
“Oh. Um. You probably know him as Souma.” She realized now that she still was not entirely used to the idea that Hibiki only really existed for her and the other people that only knew him as a human. Everyone else would know him as a kitsune and always think of him as Souma.
For some reason being permitted to speak now when she had been so consistently interrupted before disoriented her just as much. She found herself wondering if she was addressing the king with proper respect. She wondered if she actually owed him any respect considering her current stance on his treatment of Hibiki and now the way he had decided to punish her as well when all she had done was come here and tried to defend her boyfriend. As intimidated as she felt by King Yama, she realized she was also angry at him.
That anger was something she could latch onto and use to her advantage. It was a lot easier to ignore her fear and worries about decorum when she was angry.
She looked up and met the king’s gaze. She was done with backing down and being interrupted. She came here because she had something to say and she was not going to allow herself to be bullied into silence.
“I need to see Hibiki — Souma before he stands trial. I’m going to make you see that you have no right to keep him here.”
The king met her gaze with an unimpressed stare. “Who do you think you are to come here and order me around in my own domain?”
“I’m the alleged injured party. I’m telling you that you shouldn’t punish him for this. Everything turned out fine.”
“You think you’re the injured party? You’re just the end result of his defiance and disregard for the natural order of life and death.”
She tried to find the words to explain herself even better. Just because he said something she had not expected, she could not let the matter drop. She needed to get Hibiki out of here. Now she was starting to get the feeling that she needed to worry about how she would get out of here herself. She did not like how the king spoke about what had happened. He seemed less interested in punishing wrongdoers for their deeds and more interested in forcing the order of life and death to follow his rules. She realized now that she was possibly in even more danger here than Hibiki. He was the one who stole her soul and caused her to reincarnate this way, but she was the one walking around amongst all of the properly reincarnated people with the very core of her being not properly prepared for her current incarnation.
“I didn’t ask to be born this way. No one asks to be born with the soul they got, right? How can you blame someone for existing? Underneath all of the other things we’re supposed to be, our primary purpose is to live the best we can. I’ve done the best I could with the life I’ve been given and I don’t think there’s any reason to punish me or the people in my life for my existence.”
Rina was shocked when King Yama appeared to be considering her words. She still expected to be cut off at every word and to have her every attempt at arguing with him to be shot down. He was a king after all. He could do that and no one would stop him. It was his right. His voice was meant to be heard, not hers.
“You might be able to return to your life after a few more modifications.”
“Modifications? What modifications?” she demanded.
“We can’t have memories of your former life filling up your head. We’ve already put a stop to the new memories coming in and you appear to have no even noticed that happening. Removing the ones already there might be a bit more intrusive, but it should be just as painless for you.”
Before Rina had a chance to rein herself in she jumped up from her seat and slammed her hands down on the table. “You had no right to do that. You can’t just tamper with my mind without my permission.”
“I have every right to do that. You’re damaged and I have a responsibility to repair that damage.”
“Those memories are mine,” she insisted.
King Yama’s gaze was cold and hard. She felt all of her anger retract into a red hot ember in her belly where it burned on but could no longer be expressed outwardly. She sat back down and to her own disbelief found herself feeling quite contrite.
“Those memories were never yours. They were meant to be gone long before your soul was to start a new life.”
She frowned. “Well, they’re mine now and you have no right to be tampering with me. Do you have any idea how much I had to work to reach the point where I was okay with this? I don’t care who you are. It is not okay for you to just change who I am without even asking me first.”
She glared at him. Just one look told her that she was not going to be able to get him to understand just how much of a problem this was. Continuing this discussion would only land her in even more trouble than she found herself in already. She needed to get away from him before he goaded her into saying or doing something that would get her into even more trouble. She needed to see Hibiki. Getting angry at King Yama would not get her any closer to being able to see him and it would probably hurt Hibiki’s chances when he was put on trial.
The last thing she needed right now was to make any more enemies. More than anything else right now she needed some allies. She had no one she could trust in this place and there were so many things she did not know or understand. She needed to know how things worked here so she could be prepared for what was coming next.
She felt as though the moment was stretching on and on. Her more logical, sensible part of herself knew as most a fraction of a second had passed. She did not want to allow any more time to pass though because she knew this discussion would continue if she stayed here too much longer.
The meal was not yet over. She had barely eaten anything at all due to her nerves and their disagreement. Now she needed to leave without getting a reasonable amount of food in her stomach. If there was one thing she regretting about this meal that would be it. She had already decided without a doubt that King Yama was a jerk and deserved the amount of disrespect she was capable of dishing out.
Before things could go any further or she managed to think her way out of doing anything at all. If she allowed herself to give it any serious thought she would psych herself out of doing anything other than complying with the expectations of those around her. Currently, she was too annoyed with everyone around her to want to allow that to happen.
She got up and stormed across the room. She realized the door might be locked. It was the sort of thing that seemed likely in this type of situation. Her luck was not the best these days and something was bound to go wrong for her sooner rather than later.
The door was not locked and she found herself in the hallway in no time at all. She hesitated there for a fraction of a second. She had not quite believed she would make it to the hall. She had no idea where to go from here. The only option available to her at the moment was to keep moving forward. She took a deep breath and did just that. She might not be able to leave, but she could take this as an opportunity to see if she could find out where they were keeping Hibiki. She might even be able to see him and if she was lucky she could have the time to speak to him.
Then she heard the footsteps behind her. At first, she had been too excited by the brief sensation of freedom to notice, but now it was unmistakable. She was being followed. She could only assume that it was a guard and she would be detained again sooner rather than later.
She was shocked whens he made it to an intersection and was permitted to stop for a brief moment and consider her options without being stopped. She decided to go left for no particular reason at all.
She turned the corner and then the one that had been following her said, “Your room is the other way.”
“Oh.” she paused mid-step. “What makes you think that I’m trying to go to my room?”
“I would hope you are because I will have to stop you if you are aimlessly wandering the halls.”
“I’m not aimlessly wandering,” she insisted petulantly. She realized she had been caught.
The guard might not have grabbed her and forcibly detained her in any way but she was just as stuck as she had ever been. Things would get worse if she ran now. It might not be so bad if to put up a fight, but she did not think she had much fight left in her. If she gave an honest assessment of herself at the moment she had to admit that she was still exhausted, and she had not had a proper meal in quite some time. She did not stand a chance. Right now she needed time. She needed to learn about this place. She needed to rest and eat. It might not be ideal, but she could do that if she went back to that room. She thought she might be able to avoid thinking of it as a prison cell for at least one night.
She was a little bit grateful that she did not have her arms bound or anything of the like. She could hold on to a bit of her dignity and pretend this was something she did entirely of her own free will.
For that shred of dignity, she elected to turn around and head down the other hallway. Her jailer continued to shadow her. She imagined she would be allowed to continue playing this game until she was back in her room and then she would hear the click of the lock and know that she was once again in a cage.
Rina knew she needed to rest, but she did not think she would be able to sleep in this room anytime soon. Since she left home to come to this place she had lost all sense of time, but she had a feeling that it was late. She needed to sleep and the only way that was going to happen was if she found a way to calm down.
She made herself stop pacing. It was not doing her any good now that she had passed over every inch of floor space multiple times. At this point, she was only making herself more nervous by continuing to act nervous.
The least she could do was sit down on the bed. Once she did it, it seemed all too easy. She did not know why it had seemed like such an impossible task before. It emboldened her to give laying down on the bed a try too.
The bed was nothing like what she was used to. There would be no tricking herself into believing this was home while she was in this bed.
She reminded herself that she was an adult and did not need to be babied into thinking that she was in her own bed to be able to sleep. Different did not mean uncomfortable, just unfamiliar. It would not be so difficult to close her eyes for just a few minutes.
The intention had been to just close her eyes, but she must have fallen asleep. She woke up with no idea how long she had been sleeping.
Her time asleep had been completely uneventful. She did not have a single memory from while she as asleep. She could not remember the last time she had woken up from even the briefest nap without a new memory deeply embedded in her mind. Waking up to nothing new was even stranger than not having new memories trickling in while she was awake and going about her day.
It seemed that King Yama had not been lying when he said that he had stopped the memories. She had been angry before, but now she was just afraid of the emptiness. She did not know if she could handle being herself and knowing everything that she could about what had already happened to her. Waiting and finding everything out gradually had been hard enough. She only exercised patience to the degree she did because she had been told that she might not be able to handle knowing everything at once. Now she was dealing with how much damage she could do to herself psychologically by not knowing anything more at all.
She felt impatient. She felt uncomfortable in her own skin. She found herself wanting to go back to the way things were before. Convincing the king of anything, particularly something he seemed pretty determined to do, did not seem to be likely to happen for her so she did not hold out much hope of getting the memories to start coming back anytime soon.
This just added another degree of urgency to her desire to find Hibiki. She needed to ask him more questions now. He had to tell her what had happened to Yuzuki. She was not going to find out any other way and not knowing was now making her feel more than a little sick to her stomach. Realizing she might never get a straight answer if she failed in this mission had her insides tied up in knots. The only small consolation she had was that her stress and anxiety kept her from feeling the need to eat.
Now she needed more than anything to just get out of the room. It was the first step to getting to any of the things that she had been hoping to accomplish this entire time. Last time it had been locked. This time she realized she had not even bothered trying the door and just assumed it would be locked again. She needed to know now if she was effectively in a jail cell once again or if she had been holed up in a room that was actually being treated as a guest room now.
She tried the door nob with no expectation of success and was pleasantly surprised to discover that she could turn the knob. Now she was overwhelmed with the thought that this door would only be left unlocked if there was something even worse than a locked door waiting for her on the other side. As part of her had to admit that her recent behavior should not have worked in her favor and made it easier for her to get around the palace. It was possible though that this was just an oversight on a servant’s part. She did not think the room she was staying in was one that would typically be used to detain someone so it seemed logical to assume that most people would not be in the habit of locking the door to this room she did not know what the real reason behind it might be but she could not let that stop her now.
She opened the door and poked her head out in the hall to look around. She did not know exactly what was going on, but somehow at the moment the odds seemed to be in her favor. There was no guard posted at her door.
The hallway was empty. She could step out and start exploring if she so wished. She realized that she wanted nothing more in the world than to get out of this room and at least feel as though she was once again making progress towards her goal of finding Hibiki.
She glanced back into the room one more time just to be sure that she was not leaving anything behind that might be of use to her during her explorations. As far as she could see there was nothing she could carry with her that might do her any good. She wished she had a map or even a clue or hint as to where she needed to go. She did not have the benefit of anything of the sort so she was really and truly on her own.
She had been relying on nothing more than her own instincts and judgment for the entirety of this trip so she did not see much point in changing her style of operation now. Everything was working out to some degree or another. Things were far from perfect, she was willing to admit that, but she managed to stay on the right track at the same time.
Her first choice was deciding on a direction. She turned left because she had tried to go left the last time she had a decision to make and had been stopped. She wanted to know what left had to offer her now that there was no one to deter her from giving it a try.
Walking through this hall made her feel like more of a ghost than a person. There were not too many people around and the oni she did cross paths with did not seem to pay her any mind. After being such a high profile intruder not that long ago she found it a bit odd to be basically ignored now.
She refused to allow that to unnerve her. The entire palace seemed to be operating in a way that would just serve to undermine whatever small tidbits of confidence she picked up as she wandered around. She was not going to let this place get the better of her. She had let so many things lately mess with her mind. Now she was going to fight back by holding on to her confidence.
This little bit of freedom was all she needed. She could take it and run with it. Maybe not literally, her poor feet and legs would not appreciate a sprint at the moment, but she could take advantage of whatever allowances were given to her and learn everything she could about her surroundings. Even if she did not find Hibiki on this outing she was sure that she would at least gain a better understanding of the layout of the building so she could start mapping it out in her mind.
Concentrating on remembering where she had come from was a more difficult task than she originally estimated. Whatever sleep she had managed to sneak in obviously had not been enough to give her mind a proper rest. She could feel the ill effects of sleep deprivation tampering with her ability to focus and memorize information. She needed a good night’s sleep or at least a strong cup of coffee if she wanted to have any sort of confidence in her memory. Both of those desires were out of reach at the moment so she had to make due with what her mind was capable of accomplishing on its own.
She knew her memory was not that bad. She just liked to be able to operate with a reasonable degree of confidence.
With everyone ignoring her she was able to continue walking further and further away from her room. She did not see any point in turning away or doubling back when no one seemed the least bit interested in stopping her from pressing onward.
She wondered if prisoners were even kept in the palace, but knew at this point the only way she would find out anything was by exploring. Everyone around here was in some way affiliated with King Yama, most likely they were all his servants and subjects and would be about as much help to her as this king himself had been, which was to say none at all. She would be stuck fending for herself for the time being and she would just have to count her blessings that no one wanted to impede her right now.
If there was going to be a proper jail of some sort connect to the palace she imagined it would be below the rest of the building. There was no tower so the only other place she was familiar with jail cells being located was in a dungeon.
It was not much to go on, but it gave her a goal to focus on. She needed to find stairs and go down.
The first flight she found only took her to the floor below the one she started out on. She knew this was not the lowest floor so she continued to wander the halls looking for another staircase that would take her lower still.
These halls did not see a lot of traffic. The area had the feeling of being mostly unused. Rina never liked being in places that gave off that vibe. She could never shake the feeling that she was doing something wrong by being there.
In this situation, there was not much she could do about it. She did not know how to get to a more populated area and she was not all that sure that she wanted to do that in the first place. All she could do was keep moving at a brisk place. At least she would not be staying in the same area for the weird vibes to catch up with her.
She very nearly jumped out of her skin when she nearly knocked herself over running into someone by recklessly rushing a corner. She did not know if she had been the one to do most of the of the rushing in that led to the collision, but she had a feeling she took the brunt of the impact since she was the only one knocked off balance by it.
Realizing she had not run into another oni surprised her almost as much as the impact itself.
“You’re a kitsune,” she barely managed to squeak out.
The features were undeniable. She was sure she would recognize them anywhere now. The ears, the eyes, the tail, all of them pointed to the same conclusion. In a place full of spirits and oni she somehow managed to bump into a kitsune.
This particular kitsune had platinum blond hair and eyes that were a pale brown that might even be considered orange in the right light. He had an off-putting smirk on his face as though he was amused by their current predicament.
“And you’re, well, I’m not sure what you are,” the kitsune said. He started to circle her in a vaguely predatory manner. “You look human,” he announced finally.
She did not know what to say and stood stock still as he leaned in toward her and sniffed. She was feeling a bit like a piece of meat and she did not like the feeling.
The kitsune continued to make his observations. “You don’t smell human. Well, not quite human. You’re a bit of an odd one, aren’t you?”
She crossed her arms over her chest and tried to glare at the kitsune, but she felt sure that she failed miserably. She lacked the nerve to make the glare stick.
“Look,” she said finally. “I’m kind of busy right now.”
She tried to side step around the kitsune, but he mirrored her movement and continued to block her way. She sighed. This was starting to feel hopeless. As soon as she found someone that was not an oni to talk to she had to discover he was as much of an obnoxious jerk as her worst fears could have devised. It seemed the stuck in high school mentality did not see species as a boundary.
“If you aren’t going to leave me alone maybe you can help me?” she asked, hoping that somehow she could turn a negative into something resembling a positive.
“I could help you,” he agreed cryptically.
“Will you help me then?” She felt in her gut that she should not get her hopes up at this point.
“What’s in it for me?”
She sighed. Nothing wanted to go her way lately. As hard as she tried to make things right she always seemed to make it worse. She hoped that she could at least force things to turn around if she exerted enough willpower.
An idea popped into her mind. She had at least one small bargaining chip at her disposal. “You think I’m odd? If you help me I’ll tell you just how odd I am.”
“Tempting,” he admitted.
He appeared to be considering it. Rina tried to keep herself from getting her hopes up. So far he had only cemented the impression in her mind that he wanted to irritate her and found her annoyance immensely entertaining.
She scoffed. This all felt like a waste of time. Even just by keeping her here while he pretended to consider it, he was messing with her.
“How do I know what you’re going to tell me is any good?” he asked finally. “I don’t want to be bothered if your secrets aren’t even interesting.”
“Well, I didn’t get to eat dinner tonight because I got into an argument with King Yama and that’s not even the strangest thing that’s happened to me lately.”
“I see,” the kitsune said while practically looming over her. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to help you out.”
“Great,” she said while not feeling at all sure that it was such a great thing to have the help of this particular kitsune. “I’m trying to find my boyfriend. He’s locked up somewhere around here, but I have no idea where prisoners are kept in this place.”
The kitsune sighed and shook his head. “There’s always a boyfriend, isn’t there? Don’t worry. Follow me and we’ll see if we can reunite you with your boyfriend.”
Rina was not entirely sure if she should feel relieved at this point. Trusting this kitsune was the only viable option she had at this point. Whatever the consequences might be, this was the only lead she had so far.