Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This chapter is interesting, in my opinion. I doubt it will be as interesting to you, but I went into this chapter with a first draft that was more of a rough outline. I tried to flesh it out some, but I don’t think I had much success. Once you see the problem in this chapter you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Like most of the chapters lately, I’m imagining a huge overhaul on this chapter once I’ve stepped back from the story for a while and go back in for a third draft.
NaNoWriMo starts in a few days. I’ll still be posting the final chapters of The Dreams during November, but I’ll also be working on the first draft of a new novel, Inbetween. My patrons will be able to read the first draft as a write it so be sure to sign up on my Patreon if you want to see that.
With this chapter like every other chapter, I owe a huge thank you to my fantastic supporters.
Souma was not in his cell. Rina froze with panic. Her mind would normally jump to a million different conclusions in a moment like this, but now she just shut down. She even stopped breathing for a moment or two.
The need for oxygen forced her to get back to something resembling normal working order. Souma was gone. There was only one way he would leave this cell. He had to be going to his trial.
They had never bothered to tell her his trial was starting. She could not believe they left her behind when it was the only reason she had come here.
Actually, she could believe it. They had been too nice and lenient by far and now she was finally seeing why. They wanted to get her guard down. Now she was left out and utterly lost. Her purpose in coming here was ruined and she did not know how to recover.
She turned on her heel and dashed back into the palace proper. Then she realized no one had ever told her where the trial would be taking place. She ran down a list of possibilities. She had not explored much of the palace. Once she knew where to find Souma she had pretty much spent her time there or in her room.
The great hall where she had first met King Yama seemed like as logical of a place as any. She did not know of any other place that would hold a large group of people.
The closer she got to the hall the more oni she saw standing around. Even the ones that were milling around seemed to be doing it in an official capacity. Something had to be happening around here for so many oni to be gathered in one place.
She decided to investigate for herself rather than trying to pry information out of one of the oni. Her limited experience with them told her that she would waste a lot of time and get very little information for her trouble. She would have a better chance of figuring it out for herself.
At the doors to the hall, her path was blocked by two red oni standing guard. As much as the others seemed to be standing poised for action these were the only ones that seemed to care one way or another that she was here.
“No one is allowed to enter while the king is holding court,” the oni on the left announced.
It was more of an explanation than she had expected and it actually confirmed that she was in the right place. She tried to look at it on the bright side and consider herself lucky to have at least made it to the right place. It was not easy to suppress her frustration once she realized that she was going to have to find a way past these guys. She wished that it was anyone other than a red oni. Her nerves were not quite up to dealing with their bad tempers considering the urgency of the situation.
“Look, I’m supposed to be in there,” she insisted. “If it’s alright with you I’ll just slip in there and stop bothering you.”
She tried to step past the oni and open the door but the oni blocked her path. She retreated a few steps and tried to see a different way to approach this situation.
“The king is holding court, right?” she tested the waters to see if she could talk her way into the hall. “It’s a trial and I’m supposed to testify for the defense.”
Neither of the oni at the door looked interested in speaking to her. She did not even register as enough of a concern to keep an eye on. They were looking straight ahead and gazing out into the middle distance. If she jumped around and waved her arms she might be able to draw their attention again, but that seemed like it would be counterproductive.
She eyed the door and wondered if she was capable of rushing inside without getting caught. It seemed unlikely. The oni were big and strong, and they had weapons. She would rather not get skewered just now.
There had to be another entrance around here somewhere. She looked around and bounced on her heels. As long as she had hope, she would be able to keep going.
“Fine,” she said with a huff and turned on her heel and marched away from the door.
Now she needed to hope that she would not run into more oni at the next door. The door she could not get through was the one that she had been through the only time she had been in the king’s hall. There had to be another one, though. In places filled with very important people and more often than not other, sometimes dangerous, people that might not particularly like the important people it would be a serious design flaw not to have multiple ways in and out of a room.
Her heart sank when she realized the next door had guards posted as well. It was probably too much to hope that they would man one door and forget to post guards on the others as well.
She started to look around to see if she could find a way to create a diversion. Getting the guards away from at least on of the doors seemed to be her only option. Everyone else seemed to be bent on ignoring her so she did not think any of them would be offering assistance in any way.
In her desperate, frantic scanning of the area for anything she could use to cause some sort of commotion, she spotted the kitsune that had helped her the first day she had tried to find her way to the jail cells. She realized with a bit of an inward cringe that she did not know his name, which could make getting his attention with so many people milling about almost impossible. She tried to get a bit closer to him without bumping into anyone or stepping on anyone’s toes as she did not think she had the courage at the moment to try shouting and have all eyes present turn to her, or perhaps even worse realize that shew as being ignored to such a degree that she could not get anyone’s attention even whens he went out of her way to try.
Her struggle did not last long because by some miracle the kitsune noticed her and changed his course to meet up with her.
Normally in such a situation she would smile out of relief, but this time she felt too uneasy and could not put her finger on what exactly felt wrong about this situation. This was not the time to run away from whatever assistance she could get. If she did not get inside that hall she would miss the entire reason she came here in the first place. It was not as though anyone else present made her feel particularly comfortable anyway. The only reason this kitsune stood out was because he was paying attention to her.
“You’re still here,” he said with a hint of surprise in his voice when they met up.
“Of course,” she replied. “This trial is the reason I came here in the first place.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “What are you doing out here then?”
“They won’t let me in,” she explained. “It’s like I’m not on the list or something.”
“Are you on the list?”
“Wait. Is there really a list?”
He shrugged. She wilted.
“I suppose you’re going to need my help again aren’t you?”
She measured him up carefully. “What are you going to expect in return this time?”
A grin spread across his face. “You’re a fast learner, I see.”
“What’s it going to be?” She did not have time to waste on his games. From out here, there was no telling how far the trial had progressed and she could not miss any more of it than she already had.
“That’s hard to say,” he said teasingly. “There’s so many things I could ask for. It’s just a matter of guessing what you’re willing to part with.”
“I knew it,” she said under her breath. Louder, she said, “I could use some help, but I’m not so desperate that I’m going to say something stupid like ‘I’ll do anything’.”
“Oh I wouldn’t expect you to be that stupid,” he assured her. “Maybe I could be convinced to help you out of the goodness of my heart. Maybe I’m curious to see what you think you can do in there. Maybe I think you might be able to take this place by storm and I’ll be able to say I knew you before anyone else.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “You don’t know me.”
“I know you better than any of these fools that won’t even give you the time of day.”
“You don’t even know my name.”
“That can be easily remedied.”
Rina shook her head. This conversation was getting her nowhere. It was a waste of time and she needed to be inside that hall, not out here talking to this kitsune that seemed to think she was nothing more than a novelty plaything he happened to discover before any of his friends.
He smirked. “I’ll even give you my name first. I’m Mori.”
He waited and Rina quickly realized she was not going to be able to get out of this situation without sharing her name as well. She was not in a position to just turn and walk away. The only way to move forward was through Mori and she would have to play his game to do that.
“Rina,” she finally replied. She made a point of sounding and looking as sullen as possible so Mori would have no illusions about her feelings about this exchange.
“Well, Rina, let’s get you into that trial.”
She was tempted to ask him just how he was going to do that, but she thought it might be better if she did not know ahead of time. At least this way she would not be overly nervous about the potential mess she was getting herself into.
He led her right back to the main doors where the red oni were still standing guard. She did not particularly like the ferocious look that was thrown her way by the first guard when he noticed she was back again. She elected to hang back a bit and let Mori do his thing. It seemed like the safest way to handle the situation after all.
“Would you fellows be so kind as to let us pass? I know we’re terribly late for the show, but I’m sure you know sometimes these things simply cannot be helped.”
As soon as he started to speak the oni were back to their statue act. They were immovable, non-communicative, and somehow exuding an air of lethal force that set her nerves on edge. If this was any other situation, if she was trying to get to anything other than the trial that would determine Souma’s fate she would be calling off this stunt already. Of course, it just happened to be one of the few things she felt as though she needed to risk her neck to attend.
She winced as Mori made the mistake of trying to move past the oni to the door itself. For such hulking creatures, the oni were remarkably quick. His hand never reached the door. After a brief blur of motion, the oni were in their new position and looking as immovable as ever.
He remained unflappable. In fact, his sense of self-importance seemed to be growing.
“Don’t you know who she is? Obviously, no one bothered to tell you or you’d have those doors open by now.”
The oni did not move to open the door, but there was an ever so slight shift in their pose that seemed to indicate they were listening to him speak. Rina did not know if she should do anything or if she would be better off hanging back and allowing Mori to see this the whole way through on his own.
He continued talking and more and more people were listening. “This is Rina. If you haven’t heard of here you must not be doing that whole sucking up to the boss thing very well. She’s an anomaly, a freak of nature if you will, and she happens to be here to speak in defense of that poor fellow in there.”
Somehow his words managed to crack through the stony exterior of the guards. Rina did not know how he managed to do it but it was a skill she could now see she desperately needed to acquire.
The door was not yet open, but she could swear that she could practically see the oni considering it. As much as she did not want to waste her time and energy getting her hopes up she could not help thinking that she just might get inside at this rate.
It seemed Mori was not done with his pontificating. He had more courage than Rina thought she could ever muster and he was using it for her sake. Considering everything else she had to worry about at the moment she filed wondering why he would do such a thing away for later.
“You should just be grateful that she’s saving her energy for once she gets inside. You would not like her to unleash her full powers on you. It would not be pretty.”
Mori glared up at the oni. Their resolve appeared to be crumbling between his words and his confident glare.
Rina did her best to stay composed. She needed to appear impassive so she did not do anything to break the illusion that had been built up around her. Conveniently enough for her, she just needed to be there and keep her mouth shut so they did not realize she was in no way anything other than ordinary in every way.
She almost did not believe it when the oni moved out of the way. The door opened and they were able to move forward. For once Rina did not hesitate. She jumped at the chance and hurried through the door and into the hall. Mori followed close on her heels.
Inside a hush fell over the crowd. No one had been allowed to come or go this entire time. The doors opening had broken whatever spell had been over everyone here.
All eyes came to rest on her. Her heart leapt to her throat as she continued to walk further into the hall. After all the effort she spent getting here she felt as though all of her plans for once she got here had run out of her head.
She swallowed hard as she came to a stop in full view of everyone in the hall. She fought against her wobbly knees as she felt the full force of King Yama’s angry glare. She wanted to look around for Souma, but she dared not turn her head away from the king for fear of losing what little nerve she had left.
Since she could not let herself be afraid, she allowed herself to get angry instead. She clenched her fists at her her sides and glared up at the king. It did not seem to have any effect on the king, but it at least made Rina feel a bit more confident.
“What’s the deal with starting this trial without me?” she demanded.
“This is none of your concern,” one of the clerks insisted.
Rina did not turn her gaze away from King Yama. Even if he did not think she was worthy of responding to himself she still knew who she was really talking to.
“This is my concern. Souma did this for me. I should be here to speak to everyone about my experiences and what you’ve done to me against my will.”
The king looked disgusted. “Sit down and wait your turn to speak.”
She could hardly believe she was allowed to stay. She had hoped for it and even counted on it, but she had never believed she would be allowed to stay without a fight. Before he had a chance to change his mind or have someone else try to change it for him she scrambled to find a place sit.
Once she found a place to sit the hall settled back into a watchful silence. Then the testimony resumed and she had to sit still and listen.
A haze filled his mind. It ebbed and flowed like the tides, but never disappeared entirely. Since that day he spoke to no one. He barely ate. He could not say with any certainty whether or not he slept. For all he knew, it was all just a dream. He hoped it was a nightmare while knowing all the time that it was all too real.
He was alone now. He lost Yuzuki.
He failed her and all he could think to do was find a way to make it right. She had to be here. The only purpose he had in this life was to be with her.
It had been his mistake. He realized he had not done enough to protect her, to shield her from the horrors of the world around them. He deserved to suffer for his shortcomings, but he could not tolerate that he had caused her to suffer as well.
As sleep deprivation and grief mixed into a sort of insanity, Souma decided he had to have her back. It would be impossible, but he decided to do it anyway.
He still had connections to some less than law abiding youkai from his time with the smugglers. He sought them out and called in favors where he could and used force where he could not. In the end, he got himself in a place where no living being belonged.
His senses were all but gone. The search happened almost purely on instinct. Whether it was true or just the imagining of his mind half-deranged by grief he could feel her spirit tugging at his heart.
The tugging intensified until he held a fragile orb in his hands. For the first time in days, he felt a bit of relief.
His grief lessened. His thoughts were clear.
He was mortified by what he had done. There was nothing he could do to take it back now even if he put her soul back where he had found it. He realized with a searing clarity of thought that he would never do that. Now that he had the very essence of Yuzuki’s being cradled in his hands, he would never allow her to be lost to him again.
Becoming fully aware of just how far out of his mind he had gone made it more difficult to leave than it had been to enter. Somehow while operating on grief and instinct he had infiltrated the very core of Diyu without triggering any sort of alarm. Using his senses and all the stealth he possessed he still managed to run into guards at every turn on his way out.
At first, he was able to avoid them and remain undetected. Adrenaline and determination only allowed his body to follow his commands for so long before exhaustion dulled his reflexes just enough to ruin everything.
Once he had been spotted he dropped everything but Yuzuki’s soul and he ran. He was not even sure if he was running on two legs or four. He needed to get away and he did it as quickly as possible. He was not in it to gain any points for style.
He was fast. He was strong. He was a wild animal being chased by something much, much bigger than him. He escaped from Diyu and returned to the human world.
Either through cunning or luck, and he did not particularly care which, he evaded his pursuers. Even so, he dared not go home again. On the slight chance that they did not already know who he was, he did not want to be there when they did figure it out.
The fight of flight instincts gradually subsided and he started to think clearly again. He had Yuzuki’s soul. He knew as long as he had it that he would not lose her to reincarnation.
If he wanted her back he would need to find someone to help him get her incarnate again. Her soul might be the most essential part of her being, but she was not herself, not truly herself, as long as she was without a body.
To get her a body again he would need help. With no one to call in a favor on in this particular case, he would have to find someone that would let him work his debt to them off after the fact.
Even if he did not know much about what he was doing he did know that he could not keep Yuzuki like this indefinitely. Souls were not meant to exist without a body in this world. He needed to act quickly or he could still end up losing her.