This is a somewhat different sort of story that I've been planning for some time. Comments, discussion, feedback of any sort and—of course—votes are appreciated. Activity certainly motivates, helps the story continue at a good pace and enriches the experience for fellow readers. I hope we both enjoy the journey.
It had taken some persuasion to get the kappa to tell him of the half-forgotten route underground. He was not in the habit of approaching strangers, much less youkai, and for a few days he played out the conversation he hoped to have in his head, analyzing every single possible outcome ahead of time. The moment picked also had to be perfect; the kappa were gregarious and prone to being in groups and so he only chose to approach when one was by herself. He felt a tightness in his chest as she looked him over. His lip quivered even before he had uttered his first word; only by reminding himself that there was no other alternative was he able to force the words out.
Her initial reaction was one of predictable skepticism. A human wishing to travel underground? For what purpose? It was unheard of. She asked the obvious questions, and it seemed to him that she believed that he was putting her on. All he could offer by way of explanation was to redden and tell her it was a private matter.
“I could be sending you to your death. Some people take a dim view of youkai doing that to a villager,” there was a lilt to her voice that suggested that she was teasing him, her short green cap jiggling on her head as she grinned and nodded, “I’m a friend to humans and we enjoy good trading relations besides so I don’t want to complicate things.”
It had been on that mention of trade, and all of the imagery that that conjured up, that the villager recalled something that the kappa was sure to value. His planning had been thorough and his contingency kept the door open. “Um, if you don’t mind!” he had thrust out his hand at her and bowed his head, presenting a tiny cloth pouch.
The kappa’s blue eyes widened as she appraised what the nervously sweaty man was offering her. “Yes, because I’m a friend, it wouldn’t be right for me to ignore such an earnest request,” she immediately backtracked and took the valuable salt from his hands. Going underground was easy—if you knew the best routes in and out—she explained. Even a sweet human like him, she said with a patronizing giggle, could be safe and avoid dangerous youkai if they knew the way.
She promised to meet him in three days at the outskirts of the village and show him a way into the depths of the mountain. She would also provide him with a map should he need one. It would just take a little extra salt—to cover the expenses of paper and ink. Additionally, there was also the matter of a small consulting fee that she would need to pay out. Another kappa that had been underground recently and could confirm what she knew or provide more up-to-date information. It was all just for his peace of mind, of course. The man knew he was being taken advantage of but agreed anyways. He did not wish to delay and risk starting the process all over again with another youkai that would certainly lead him astray.
True to her word, the kappa escorted him from the village to the foot of the great mountain and to a wide entrance half-hidden by foliage and erosion. Exceeding the terms of the deal, she even accompanied him into the first cavernous area where daylight could still be seen through the occasional shafts that penetrated up to the surface. The last he saw of the sky was an agreeable blue that seemed all the more vivid when seen through the long vertical apertures. It was a striking contrast to the dull shades of varied brown and grey that seemed to make up the main hues of the underground passages.
The kappa had given him plenty of fuel to reignite his torch, if needed, and provided a map and a few warnings. That he should keep to where the rock felt warm was chief among them. “It’ll take you a little longer to follow these smaller tunnels but you should be where you want to be in a couple of hours,” she had said by way of goodbye, waving at him as he ventured down the first tunnel on his own.
The kappa had lingered for a long while after the curious villager disappeared out of sight. The fey energy the man projected had been unlike anything she had ever seen a human exhibit. She would have taken him for a likely suicide had he asked for directions to the densest parts of the Great Youkai Forest; a youkai hunter with a grudge to settle, perhaps, had his voice carried a sharp edge; or maybe he was a greedy merchant or explorer, crazed by the promise of plentiful riches deep in the earth. There was no telling what he wished to accomplish, she finally concluded.
All that mattered was that he had proven himself a friend—sworn or not was a matter of semantics—and she found herself wishing him the best of luck on his journey. The underground was not a place for surface youkai to venture into casually, let alone a simple human. A part of her wished she had given him better service for his generosity; the girls would have found his intensity adorable and welcomed him to idle about in the river, playing games and laughing gaily as all splashed around. That was a more agreeable use of a of a human life than certain death.
Letting her shoulders slump, she wished him good luck on his journey once more. As she turned away from the dark depths beyond, she clutched her bag full of preciousness. There was nothing more to do than to hope. It would be great to see him back in the village sometime soon: for generous purveyors of salt could easily win over the heart—and many other parts besides—of a youkai such as her.
The torch hit the stone above once again. Little chips of red fire flitted down in no particular rush before abruptly snuffing out. Kawanami lowered his arm for what felt like the thousandth time since he had entered the network of caves and tunnels. Visibility was still poor, with torchlight unable to penetrate past jutting rock and blind corners that were typical in the tighter tunnels. His pace had been deliberate, mindful that a stumble into a deep pit would cut his adventure short.
He took another moment to feel the rock wall with his free hand. It was smooth and a little moist. A mild heat—no hotter than a tepid cup of tea—could be felt on extended contact. This mysterious warmth was an odd thing for a surface-dweller to accept. A dark and lonely place underground space should consist of cold and inert earth. The sun, obviously, could not penetrate through solid rock and, as far as he knew, there was no type of fire that could warm rock without smoke nor stench. Perhaps what it was that gave youkai form and power could also affect the earth itself. Regardless, he took comfort in feeling that mild heat for it was a sign that he was on the right track.
Hell was sure to be very close.
Kawanami found it impossible to estimate how long had spent on his descent already; time seemed as likely as he was to get lost in the dark. The uneven intensity of his journey also messed with his calculations of distance. Counting steps was easy enough when he traversed pebble-strewn inclines or winding surfaces of compact earth. Matters were less manageable when he had to jump a gap or go down large blocks of carved stone that could have been considered steps of sorts were he many times larger.
Occasional pauses were necessary to catch his breath. He was unused to strenuous exercise. In fact, the journey out the village and into the tunnels had been the most he had ever walked in his life. The temptation to take an extended rest presented itself whenever he found himself in wider segments of tunnel but he thought it wiser to power through. The ridiculous purpose of his journey was a source of strength that muted the aches of exhausted muscle.
He adjusted the strap on his haversack and began to move once again, careful to avoid hitting his only source of light against the rock again and tempt fate. Extinguishing it would be a catastrophic event. Not only would he be lost in the dark but he reckoned that hungry youkai would make quick work of him if they found him completely defenseless. Those cheery thoughts kept rattling around in his mind for quite some time. In fact, he was thinking about how his marrow might be considered a delicacy—he could not decide if a bone broth or grilled ribs would be the superior way to bring out his flavor—when presently the cramped passage he traveled disgorged into a far wider area.
He moved past a boulder that obscured the way he came from and found that there was some sort of bridge not too far away. He could not hear the sound of water as he approached and divined that there was a chasm. His small torch could not hope to dispel the umbra below. The bridge seemed to be in good condition, veneer still shiny on its wooden handrails. A probing first step confirmed its stability and he did not hesitate to carry on.
“Hey!” a sharp call from the dark stopped him in his tracks. He had made it about halfway across the bridge. Kawanami looked around, his guts infested with invisible butterflies. For a moment, he allowed his mind to delude itself by thinking it possible that he simply had imagined the call. He took another step forward, his leg tremulous, when another cry dispelled the fantasy, “Either cross the bridge quickly or go back. Make up your mind!”
“U-uh,” he tried to stand up straight, to look larger than he was. He carried on forward, his lips trembling as he extruded what remained of his cool. “Hello there, where are you?”
“Right in front of you!” came the reply. The man squinted. Then took a few more steps forward. His torch created a penumbra which revealed a large figure dead ahead. Possibly sensing his reluctance, the figure moved closer. “Well, what now?”
It was a question that barely registered. Torchlight penetrated enough of the dark to reveal the otherworldly; she stood in a place where no living being ought to be; a horn was the first thing that he noticed about the apparition. There was very little that the torch could hope to reveal at a distance. Yet were its meager light extinguished, he was certain that he would see her clearer still. Even if he shut his eyes, even if he returned home, the image would remain; the pale fire of her eyes, fed by the constancy of confidence in her grin and ensconced by the fool’s gold of her hair, set his soul ablaze.
He had not expected his expedition to come to such a fortuitous head. Not so soon, not so easily.
All the moisture had been sucked from his mouth, turning his tongue into cracked parchment. He understood what she was but could not find the means to express acknowledgment. He reached for the pouch slung over his breast, inside his coat, but knew that neither salt or coin could produce a satisfactory reply.
The youkai stared at him with what he hoped was benign curiosity. The question repeated itself loudly in his mind. Her lips, however, moved to say something different, “Go home, human, before you get hurt.”
 As his legs failed to stiffen and move, he forced air to move about his mouth and spoke.  He had no words, but he could neither be still nor retreat, so he advanced.
> the pale fire of her eyes, fed by the constancy of confidence in her grin and ensconced by the fool’s gold of her hair, set his soul ablaze. Struck dumb by the first underground girl he sees, smh. At least wait for one of the cute ones. Guy needs youkai ho resistance. Anyway, what's Yuugi doing at the bridge?
[x] He had no words, but he could neither be still nor retreat, so he advanced.
Also in case anyone missed it, the OP is the SA stage 2 background, appropriately.
[x] As his legs failed to stiffen and move, he forced air to move about his mouth and spoke.
One chapter and I'm already hooked, though I'm still not entirely sure what I'm hooked on. Wonder why it's Yuugi at the bridge and not Parsee though? And why he finds it so fortuitous. Suppose we'll find out soon enough if its relevant.
[x] He rushed over to wrap his arms around her. [x] He had no words, but he could neither be still nor retreat, so he advanced. Star-Bear! Please give bear-hug!
In all seriousness, oni aren't fond of cowards, and talk is cheap. Maybe it's not the epitome of bravery, but moving forward despite clear terror is at least a show of guts. Probably won't make them instant buds. Still, it's a step in a direction!
Good to see a new /underground/ story. It's not a terribly well-explored setting, so I'm very looking forward to whatever you come out with. The Beast and the Crime really drew me in, and I expect this one will do the same.
By the way, I really like the little cutaway to the kappa's PoV. Even if she's just a mob kappa who probably only appears once, it's still neat to get an alternate viewpoint of things for a brief second. It's a nice effect to underscore just how odd and mysterious his motivations are at the start. Plus, we get to see what a normal cute kappa thinks. Too bad about the possible 'service' he could have gotten had he stuck around...
>trade, and all of the imagery that that conjured up What a splendid YAF reference!
>All he could offer by way of explanation was to redden and tell her it was a private matter. Hmmmh, suspicious.
>the girls would have found his intensity adorable and welcomed him to idle about in the river, playing games and laughing gaily as all splashed around God, I wish to be surrounded by frolicking turtles.
>It was smooth and a little moist. A mild heat—no hotter than a tepid cup of tea—could be felt on extended contact. L-Lewd.
>he could not decide if a bone broth or grilled ribs would be the superior way to bring out his flavor Happy and tasty thoughts. Kawanami must be a gourmand. Mayhaps, even a glutton.
Why the hell do I suddenly want Korean food reading this? Seriously, some kimchi jjigae or ddeokbokki sounds super good right now.
>The bridge seemed to be in good condition, veneer still shiny on its wooden handrails. A probing first step confirmed its stability and he did not hesitate to carry on. I like how this bit quietly presses on how timid and cautious Kawanami is. Sure, everything up to that point has done the same, but this is a much more understated little bit. It activates my almonds.
>“Go home, human, before you get hurt.” But what if it's what I'm hoping for!
>>17110 >>17111 Notice that he considers her an 'apparition'. Not quite smitten, just very impressed by her appearance.
>what's Yuugi doing at the bridge? >Wonder why it's Yuugi at the bridge and not Parsee though? Despite her species name, if you actually look at canon materials, there is no mention of Parsee in connection to any bridge underground, or even the capital for that matter. In fact, her profile from SA says that she's the watchwoman for the passage to and from the underground, i.e., the pit leading down. The translation on the wiki implies this was in the past, but that's a mistranslation. So, yeah, Kawanami's gone way past the knife-ears at this point. Probably part of why the kappa steered him down the scenic way.
That said, who knows what Yuugi's doing at the bridge. Guess we'll find out soon enough.
That said, I would appreciate it if people took a moment to share a thought, even if it's something small. Could be something they liked, they didn't like, what they think should happen, how they're feeling about something that happened in an update, a reply to something someone else made etc
If I just wanted to write a story by and for myself, I'd just do that. This is a CYOA because I want to to write it with you. I'm not really interested in a vote just for the sake of it.
[X] As his legs failed to stiffen and move, he forced air to move about his mouth and spoke. From the way he dealt with the Kappa, he's a talker, not a doer. He'd likely try and talk his way out. Will we see more of the kappa?
>>17124 >From the way he dealt with the Kappa, he's a talker, not a doer. >He was not in the habit of approaching strangers, much less youkai >for a few days he played out the conversation he hoped to have in his head, analyzing every single possible outcome ahead of time. >only by reminding himself that there was no other alternative was he able to force the words out. Dunno, man, kinda seems awkward and not all that used to talking to me. The only way he was even able to get anywhere with the kappa was by shoving a bag of salt at her.
[X] As his legs failed to stiffen and move, he forced air to move about his mouth and spoke.
If a youkai means him harm, there's not much he can do to stop them. This one is at least friendly enough to talk, so talking his way through this sounds good to me.
I wonder why he's trying to reach hell. Maybe he's got unfinished business with a condemned soul. I also wonder why Yuugi is here, possibly in anticipation of his arrival. They seem far enough away from the former capital that I wouldn't normally expect her.
I look forward to finding out as the story continues.
>>17127 >>17129 She's literally anything but friendly. She's telling him to fuck off, and I doubt screwing around trying to force words out is going to do anything but incline her to throw him back up to the surface like a javelin.
>>17130 Excuse you. There was no implication of snoo-snoo in exchange for the salt, now, was there? Hardly the skin trade.
I'm leaving voting open until a under a day (18-20 hours from this post) from now since I'd like to make use of my free time and write. If things are still tied then I'll try to figure something out. As a last resort I'll flip a coin but there's probably a better solution.
I'll change my vote if someone can make a good case as to why talking would be better.
I think people are of the impression that this is a "Yuugi? Y/N" choice when it probably isn't. She's going to be a gatekeeper in any case, so it's better to not lose any semblance of respect from the off.
The man did not stay still on the bridge. As she watched him, he struggled to push himself forward, pressing one leg ahead of the other, advancing in a fashion that reminded her of those novelty puppets whose trick was to serve tea as a flesh and blood attendant would. Craftsmen made those to boast of their skill, adding unnecessary complexity to their bobbing movements. Thus it was with the human and she could not help but feel that the stilted figure, caressed by torchlight, was attempting to make a show of his ability.
Aside from the driven struggle, there was little about him that made an impression; he possessed no features that set him apart from the transitory mass that was humanity. Youkai eyes sussed neither threat nor potential gain by his presence. The only thing that was noteworthy was the fact that he was—after all—in the underground. His standing among his kind was consequently higher, for having no real defense nor wits, he had nonetheless penetrated into the dangerous mountainside. The deep contained youkai whose existence was found to be detestable even by other even by other supernatural beings.
In response to the man’s advance, the youkai had become as a statue; those self-indulgent artisans would be hard pressed to match the purity of expression and subtle power that emanated from every pore of her being; instinct had sculpted an ambiguous smile on full lips, one that showed a sly hint of teeth and danger underneath, while the crease of fabric around crossed arms seemed—in blatant contradiction—both tense and somehow loose-limbed. She watched the man’s display impassively, her thoughts focused on herself.
An ancient recollection came about slowly, gathering in her mind as mist might foretell rain. Instead of cold and damp, however, she felt a warmth that concentrated itself into a tight center. She could not remember the last time she had felt that desire, that guiding fire that promised the primal. A human! He was one for certain—the stink of mortality and awe at her splendor invited a strong response. Her purpose at the bridge somehow seemed to become utterly irrelevant, a dull mandate forced by untold years of relative passivity.
She could. Rather, it quickly became that she should. It had worked so well in the past….
The man would not be missed. The warning had gone unheeded. What’s more, it seemed to her, that he wished for something from her. He was either brave or a fool, possessed by something that he struggled to express even at present. As the should was tempered by her fire, becoming a sharp and durable must, she found her voice again.
“Begone,” she said softly, her voice echoing in the dark, “or you shall be lost to the world by your own choice.”
Truthfully, it no longer really mattered what the man might answer. The only thing that would save him would be his immediate retreat. She knew the rules and knew the stakes and would not willingly violate the pact her kind had made. Excitement akin to a paroxysm threatened to crumble her contained exterior. That old thrill would be known to her again! She only had to reach out and seize the opportunity.
There was no reply from the man still, he looked ahead wide-eyed and, seemingly, dumbfounded. Blood had drained from his skin and he was pale and fair as the maidens had been at Ooe. She only hoped that he prove himself less vapid and capable of summoning more vigor than that sorry lot. Those who followed after the hapless maidens had possessed great fortitude of both mind and spirit.
That he did not flee nor place his hand over his face in a bashful manner confirmed that there was at least some virility in him. That he continued to force his legs forward, overcoming a fear of the unnatural, did seem to suggest that he was in control of enough of himself. He took responsibility for his own fate, as lame-footed as he appeared to be. That was something to be lauded, perhaps with drink and song. It would depend on how things worked out.
“So you wish to come with me?” the youkai kept her voice firm, her eyes drilling deep into the man’s own. “Your kind and mine have lived apart for many years, perhaps you do not fear us as you rightly should.”
The human looked straight at her, his eyes no doubt lingering on the red horn that jutted out from her forehead. Certainly, she thought, he did not see her as anything but fantastical, as a creature whose mere presence could rob a man of speech. Conversely, she did not see him as anything but a human, a soft thing that, individually, could not hope to confront a youkai.
There was no show of anything that could be interpreted as a hostile act. The light was his only weapon and, even then, she was sure that he could not imagine it being used as anything as a deterrent. He approached because he wished to do so. In the long-forgotten past, others had exclaimed their curiosity or even blamed destiny for their inability to break away—she was convinced that something similar overrode what should have been inviolable natural instincts.
“I will do with you as I please if you willingly submit; your fate will no longer be your own.”
The man was stubborn, that was for certain. She charitably thought that his determination was a type of madness, the sort which would be sure to provide a surfeit of pleasure to most youkai. There were many of her kind that would feast upon him if given the chance. Still, she did not expect her pleasure to come from his end. On the contrary, the pleasure he would grant would be from the process, from the actions that she would take.
In the harsh quiet of the underground passage, it felt like even the softest of sighs would have sounded like a roar. The youkai listened attentively, imagining that she could hear the man’s turbulent heartbeat. It was just as likely to be her own. She stared at him, scrutinizing the silent human carefully once again—he had not withdrawn his gaze from her. His legs, thin and unsteady, looked like they were bracing for more effort and would renew their crawl towards her. That was an answer in of itself, she determined.
The youkai grinned, abandoning her stolid form at long last. She came close to the man, standing tall and dignified to hide her inner stirrings. The burning torch was reflected cleanly in his dark eyes and she wondered what it was he was thinking at that moment. He did not flinch as she grabbed his hand and held it firmly in her own. Nor did he say a word when she tugged him towards the dark, away from the surface and from salvation.
Her feet moved quickly, forcing both of them into a run. She deftly jumped over stone and pit, lifting the hapless human as easily as a straw doll each time. He felt as frail as all humans in her grasp; she relished the ease with which she handled him. The lack of struggle and quiet grimness that she felt coming from him made her redouble her pace. They raced deeper underground and away from the checkpoint bridge.
Remembering something important, the youkai spoke in mid-flight, “Call me Yuugi. If your voice ever trembles when saying it, I will break your bones.”
Yuugi laughed at her own joke, imagining the expression on the man’s face as she continued to spirit him away.
For some time, footsteps had reverberated along the rock walls of the tunnels. At first it had been a soft patter, distorted by distance, but it had eventually become a very constant and evident din. Those in the underground were used to the slightest noise signifying unwelcome activity and so she had hurriedly sought the source of the disturbance. A native would be careful not to disturb the eerie stasis of the passageways so, she quickly concluded, it must have been some new arrival who did not know any better.
Footprints left in the dark in one of the side tunnels immediately piqued her curiosity—a youkai might have been more conscious of their own intrusion and gone to certain lengths to hide their passage. If not a youkai, the foolish variety from above ground, then who? The answer was as unlikely as it was obvious. There was no reason not to accept it as truth.
She had planned to intercept the human somewhere in the depths, using shortcuts known only to youkai familiar with the underworld. It was easy to track his position from just the sound and to choose the right tunnel to close the gap between them. A dim light at a distance was soon visible and she redoubled her efforts to reach him without giving herself away. The shape of the arrival was—even at a distance—difficult to mistake. A freshness of trees and sun followed the human in his wake, causing a throb of excitement to rush into her throat.
Her mood brightened and her thoughts turned to a well-maintained store of rich ideas within. She had mostly built up this reserve during idle moments spent in the dark caverns. A lot of the time she was lost in her own thoughts, sometimes reflecting on her lot but sometimes finding herself pulled towards both fantasy and the undiscovered country alike. An uncountable amount of scenarios that she replayed and polished in her mind were at her command—she looked forward to using one of them to warn someone away from the dangers that were endemic to the deeper reaches of the underground.
Granted, the last humans to pass were anything but friendly and they eagerly defended themselves when she popped out. That had been entertaining in its own way, even if her plan had been frustrated. Someone on foot, however, seemed likely to be in a more mundane category. Certainly, his dim torch would do little to deter anyone with ill intent.
Indeed, he had proven himself unprepared for the reality underground. That Yuugi … she had made an unexpected appearance. She had been an opportunistic specter that manifested itself outside of its usual domain. It was difficult to explain Yuugi’s presence. Why should she have been around instead of cavorting with her own kind as usual? More importantly, why couldn’t she have been only a few minutes further away?
It only seemed right to her that she should have been the one to intercept and greet the unfortunate soul. It couldn’t possibly have been a coincidence, she reasoned as she bit her lower lip hard enough to add a touch of a metal to her saliva. Typical arrogance from the former capital!
She had watched silently, from the black shadows beyond the light, the exchange. The man had moved with purpose, as if meeting his destiny. That destiny had drawn him underground, led him to the bridge, and led him to a youkai. But not to her! A tightness in her chest overrode other considerations. She knew that she would not be at peace until she knew the truth. It would be wholly unfair for someone like her to witness such a display and not be moved. Her nature demanded a suitable resolution. It was her right. The whimsy of destiny would not rob her of the opportunity. After all, on any other day, she would have been the only one around.
Green eyes stared out towards the path to the capital. Like most youkai who lived underground, she was accustomed to the darkness.
 Though the underground felt essentially alien, Kawanami could not help but notice the similarities with his village.  There was much that was novel and strange and Kawanami focused on the unexpected.
[x] Though the underground felt essentially alien, Kawanami could not help but notice the similarities with his village. Spicy update. Not everyday someone fires up an oni just by taking a few steps. Real fun to get even more perspectives, by the way, especially Parsee's. I'm not sure I've seen anyone handle her character quite like that.
Anyway, Kawanami strikes me as someone who would be more comfortable seeing familiarity in things. At least, I'm guessing this vote's about his outlook, yeah? Couldn't say why he comes across that way to me. Probably his timidity with everyone else.
>In response to the man’s advance, the youkai had become as a statue; those self-indulgent artisans would be hard pressed to match the purity of expression and subtle power that emanated from every pore of her being; instinct had sculpted an ambiguous smile on full lips, one that showed a sly hint of teeth and danger underneath, while the crease of fabric around crossed arms seemed—in blatant contradiction—both tense and somehow loose-limbed. Loving these descriptions.
>Instead of cold and damp, however, she felt a warmth that concentrated itself into a tight center. She could not remember the last time she had felt that desire, that guiding fire that promised the primal. >ywn make Yuugi hot and bothered
>She could. Rather, it quickly became that she should. It had worked so well in the past…. Hmmm. "Could/should kidnap him?" "Could/should take him under protection?" Having trouble connecting the right dots here.
>Those who followed after the hapless maidens had possessed great fortitude of both mind and spirit. A parallel with oni-killers, eh? Can't tell if that's a good thing or not. I mean, she clearly has some degree of respect, but...
>“I will do with you as I please if you willingly submit; your fate will no longer be your own.” >ywn
>Still, she did not expect her pleasure to come from his end. On the contrary, the pleasure he would grant would be from the process, from the actions that she would take. >ywn
>Yuugi laughed at her own joke, imagining the expression on the man’s face as she continued to spirit him away. 10/10, best goblin, would be bear-hugged by
>she looked forward to using one of them to warn someone away from the dangers that were endemic to the deeper reaches of the underground. [x] doubt
>Green eyes stared out towards the path to the capital. Like most youkai who lived underground, she was accustomed to the darkness. Sinister as. Guess it's a good thing Yuugi was there, then, huh? Imagine being intercepted by a knife-ears.
Jesus, if every underground youkai is this starved (in whatever sense) for humans then this bodes poorly. Then again, bumbling randomly into a youkai-infested hole with (apparently) no plan would go poorly even in the best imaginable scenarios, so maybe it doesn't matter.
[x] There was much that was novel and strange and Kawanami focused on the unexpected. If you're going out of your way to go on a suicide tripan adventure, may as well appreciate the exotic, eh?
[x] There was much that was novel and strange and Kawanami focused on the unexpected.
Even leaving aside the population of youkai that the other youkai found too extreme, the former capital is a pretty unique place, what with the restless dead, the nuclear reactor, and being deep underground. I want to see how life here is different. I only hope it's survivable for Kawanami.
Kawanami had let himself be stolen away by the oni—the word found its way into his mind at last—and had been in a blank of insentience while he was forced to race along in the dark. It was only when their pace slowed and, eventually, came to a complete stop that feeling returned in violent fits. His chest ached and he found it difficult to breathe; as air was drawn it felt like it scraped past raw nerves. The muscles on his leg were contracted and stiff while his ankles felt swollen. The arm by which the oni had dragged him and made him perform impossible feats of agility felt like it had been ripped off and reattached eight million times over.
It took him several moments of deep breathing to even give thought to where he was and why the oni had stopped. She had let go of his hand.
He found that she was staring at him with demonically red eyes, as if assessing how much sin he had in his being. “We haven’t even begun to do anything interesting yet,” she said, “why seek hell if you cannot even endure this much?”
“I am not dead yet,” he managed to reply. “I won’t die before I get what I want.”
The oni turned away from him and began to move at a more measured pace down nearby stone steps. Kawanami would not allow his heaving get the better of him and fought to suppress the sick acidity that swirled in his stomach. The strap of his haversack dug into the flesh of his shoulder; the skin underneath was likely raw and red and would hurt for several days. Still he did not let that and other pains stop him from pushing himself back to action. Having found an oni, he was not about to lose sight of her quite so soon.
His torch had extinguished itself during the wild flight. There was no need to light it again, however, as a larger cauldron-shaped brazier by the stairs provided more than enough illumination. In fact, he noticed that the brazier was the first of many of its kind; a line of light could be traced from his position atop a small cliff to a brightly-illuminated area off in the distance. The narrow tunnels and slopes had given way to an open space. He began to follow down the steps after putting away the torch.
An occasional breeze came from the dark depths and did much to help cool off his overheated body. Visibility was difficult beyond the light of the braziers. It was impossible to tell where the ceiling or other walls to the cavern were exactly; the relatively flat terrain that was revealed by the light appeared as phantasmal islands in a dark sea. The first sightings of buildings—shadowy shoals of wood and stone—by the sides of the path did little to remind him of the distance he had traveled into the earth. Low walls, sheds, half-demolished towers all loomed in the dark. They became more frequent—and grander besides—as they approached the bright central lighthouse.
He kept a few paces behind the oni as they approached the the concentrated light, as they approached what was no doubt a settlement of some sort. He was suddenly bashful and cowed by her, struck by just how effortlessly she had navigated the dark underground passages. With all his planning, all the thought he put into things, he had really not expected to run into an oni so soon. Let alone one who did not immediately club him and eat his bones. Perhaps he had used up a lifetime’s worth of courage when approaching her, he thought. No one he knew would believe he had done such a thing. Other people were used to …
Before his mood could darken, he brushed aside the well-trod subject. It was scarcely the time to get lost in his own thoughts, he decided.
“Yuugi,” he called out firmly, unwilling to make light of the oni’s threat.
“What?” the oni replied without slowing down nor turning to look at him.
“Where are we?”
“Where my kind lives. Keep close now, I don’t want someone else to take you just yet.”
He could not tell if she was being serious or not. But he took the brusque reply to mean that she wasn’t eager to keep on chatting. So he shut up and came closer as they passed by under a large arch with a worn-out inscription. Beyond, the settlement sprawled.
A familiar, unwelcome, scent was the first greeting he received. It seemed that those who lived underground shared the human villager’s proclivity for relieving themselves just off to the sides of a street if the need arose. Thankfully, the dank smell wasn’t ubiquitous and he was able to enjoy a different pleasantry soon enough: the smell of stale sake that had been spilled into the ground by, seemingly, the barrelful. It made the stories of oni and their love for drink all the more believable. As did the fact that the first inhabitant he encountered was a squat oni with two short horns who was drinking straight from a bottle.
“Hey Yuugi,” the oni said by way of greeting, putting down the bottle after a chug, “me and Uraki were looking for you to settle a bet the other day.”
“I can drink more than the both of you can put together, no need to wonder!” she roared a reply and both of them laughed. The other oni seemed to be pacified by the exchange and took again to his bottle as they passed further into the town.
The buildings on either side of the road seemed to mostly be homes; small, single-story but fashioned in a surprisingly sophisticated style. They weren’t quite as luxurious as the small mansions that the village elders and richer families fancied above ground but they were made of solid-looking wood and, in some places, stone and all had proper tiling. They were mostly painted in light colors, typically with slate grey roofs and other sombre stones and wood. Though Kawanami knew little about construction, he knew plenty about luxuries; he could tell at a glance that the deeply dark and polished wood was not native to the area. A certain quality of craftsmanship would also be required to get the finishing glazes for ceramics and the smoothness of the stones to look that pleasing. Even the lanterns that hung on nearly every exterior wall were small pieces of art themselves—various delicate patterns had been laid into the frames themselves.
While there was the occasional small crack on a wall or a chipped stone here and there, the buildings were all more or less in pristine condition. Even their path was comfortable to travel; large parts of the village above settled for mere dirt while every street and alley that he passed he could see boasted of cut and smoothed stone. Kawanami had not expected the oni to live such a luxurious existence; his human conceit had given credence to the myth of savages in loincloths that lived in the most primitive of conditions.
Darkened alleys ran between many of the larger buildings and intersected the path. A few figures could be seen—loitering was Kawanami’s best guess—in the dark either alone or in groups. Some stared at him as he passed and glimmers of unnatural color came from their obscured features as lantern light caught their eyes. It seemed that these caliginous figures were more often found in the alleys that cut between buildings whose lanterns were extinguished.
In some of those dark spaces there were also signs of commerce. A few signs with drawings such as a bottle of sake, sewing needles or—strangest of all—crystals hung at the corner before some of the alleyways. Weird light, colored in dark hues such as purple or green, came from unknown sources and seemed to invariably light these mercantile corridors. A steady amount steady amount of foot traffic entered and exited some of those spaces. More than one figure pulled the hood of a cloak over themselves when they noticed the human’s wandering eye. It was strange that no goods were displayed in the open—customers would push deep into the murky depths until they entered doors and entirely disappeared out of sight. Only the occasional emergence of a figure carrying a wrapped parcel confirmed that business had taken place.
They passed several more group of oni as they navigated the streets. The oni seemed to come in all shapes and sizes and were all united in their pursuit of merrymaking—most drank, some sang together bawdry songs, others played games of chance, and one group gathered around a pair of quite drunk oni who were wrestling nude in the middle of the street. No one seemed to object. The previous year’s harvest festival in the village had been about as lively, Kawanami recalled. The few that bothered to notice their passage all invariably greeted Yuugi, if only by a nod of the head.
As they ventured deeper into the heart of the city, the single-story buildings gave way to larger constructions. They thrust up towards a still-unseeable stone ceiling, some illuminated their surroundings with lanterns that were placed on second or even third floors. There a few buildings that were even larger but few in number. Kawanami could only guess at their purpose as some resembled temples with large, sloped roofs but had none of the religious markings that would be expected. A pair of these larger buildings even had a walkway between them that crossed above street level.
They crossed the intersection with a large street that was awash with light. A general festival-like atmosphere that pulled large number of figures into a proper lively crowd. Far at the end of the street, he spotted the largest building yet; it sat on higher ground, with robust walls that hid the ground floor from his viewpoint. It could pass as the seat of some aristocratic authority or maybe the hall of a magistrate. He spotted multiple levels of decorative eaves and an excess of crimson supporting columns that caught the eye. The building towered above much and behind it, he could finally see sheer cave wall that protected its rear. A wry smile formed on his lips as he remembered the experience in his own village and thought of another possibility: those who collected taxes and tariffs loved to surround themselves with luxury.
They eventually turned into a narrower street. Yuugi came to a stop in front of a two-story building and checked to see if Kawanami was still behind her. It seemed unremarkable from the outside, with a few small windows on the second floor and a small balcony on one side. A wooden sign rested outside the building’s wall, depicting an oni belching lightning while holding up a wooden cask with a single hand. Tengu, tanuki and earth spiders lay sprawled, either dead or unconscious, by the eruptive oni’s feet. “Satou” was sloppily written in red ink below.
The building was home to a pub and a noisy one at that—as soon as Yuugi opened the door, a roar of greetings spewed forth. She placed a hand on either hip as she walked in and barked back a simple “Yo” as a reply, beckoning Kawanami to follow with a smile and a wave of her hand.
About a dozen or slightly more oni were inside the main room. Half a dozen sat at a long bar and the rest clustered around tables full of bottles and cups as well as the occasional bar snack. The stench was quite something else and Kawanami thought himself on the verge of gagging; sweat was mixed with strong alcohol and an undercurrent of charcoal. It was hellishly hot to boot and much of the unpleasantness that he had felt earlier came back with unrelenting intensity. He found it difficult to breath once again.
“Shut up for a moment!” Yuugi bellowed, instantly quieting down the room, “I’ve got something to say: I caught a human just like in the old days.”
A large cheer came from the group; cups were raised and Kawanami felt all eyes upon him. He was not comfortable with being the center of attention, particularly if the attention came from drunk oni. He noted that one of the oni licked his lips as he looked him over and another flashed a very toothy grin that included a pair of fangs.
“That’s Yuugi the Strong fer ya!” one of the oni cried.
They were about to start back up again with their chattering in earnest when Yuugi signaled she wasn’t done yet with the narrowing of her eyes. “Because he’s mine, if anyone hurts him, they’ll have me to answer to. Got it? Spread the word.”
Everyone expressed their understanding immediately. It was fascinating to Kawanami. Oni society wasn’t something he had ever really thought about. Strength was something that legendarily revered by the oni, he knew that much, but he was not sure if it was the only thing that mattered. There were unspoken rules at play and Yuugi’s no-nonsense display raised more questions than it answered: was she a leader some sort? A figure of some esteem, yes, but why? Just a matter of strength? If so, was she stronger than some of the larger oni they had passed on the street who proudly displayed their massive, corded muscles?
He still felt unsteady on his feet, however, and still struggled to breathe properly. Yuugi had approached a group of oni and was happily chatting to them about whatever. Kawanami stood limply a few steps behind her and was having a difficult time following anything that was said. His vision had become a little cloudy. The oni who had been tending the bar approached the group.
“Get you the usual?” he asked her. He was significantly shorter than most other oni, sporting a pair of horns on a bald head. His skin was tinted towards grey, which made him all the more unusual. Noticing Kawanami’s shaking knee, he added, “Your human there looks like he’s about to cross the Sanzu.”
“You think?” Yuugi turned to look at Kawanami as she crossed her arms over her chest. “Think it’s just his nerves. You know how humans are.”
“Eh, want a drink, human? Calm your nerves some,” the bartender asked.
“I just need to rest a little. Maybe get some air,” Kawanami said weakly, feeling his throat dry. Sake would utterly destroy him at that moment, he felt.
“Ah, I guess I forgot how brittle humans are,” Yuugi laughed, “I didn’t think our little run would be that bad for you.” She turned to the bartender, “Satou, you can put him up in one of your rooms upstairs, right? You probably don’t have any guests right now.”
“I can. And we still need to talk about that,” the bartender did not hide his bitterness. The nostrils on his snub nose flared.
“Good, good. It’s settled then!”
 He followed the oni upstairs to rest and was left alone with his foolish desire.  Fool that he was, he insisted that all he needed was fresh air.
[x] He followed the oni upstairs to rest and was left alone with his foolish desire. Hmm. This feels like an imminent knife-ears ambush in either case. In one scenario, she tries to nab Kawanami outside. In another, she sneaks into bed with him... Nah, probably not. Unless???
Kind of want to see where this whole thing with Yuugi goes, considering she's practically his owner. That said, before anything else, I'd like a clue as to what the hell Kawanami's deal is. He's clearly a twerp who gets no respect or something, but why underground? Why oni?
The big building isn't supposed to be chireiden, right? I don't recall any red columns in that. If it was supposed to be chirei I'd have expected mention of stained glass windows.
We can infer some decent amount about our lad so far. Wealthy family, seen as a coward back up aboveground or something along those lines, not used to physical exertion, timid (present circumstances excluded). In other words, he's a NERD. Given that, I think he might just match better with, for example, a reclusive writer than an oni. Just saying.
[X] He followed the oni upstairs to rest and was left alone with his foolish desire.
Perhaps he isn't that foolish yes? You have an oni on hand, even if its technically the other way round, no reason to throw it all away by going about before the news spreads of his status as property.
>>17155 >Wealthy family Huh? I don't think the bit about tax collectors and so on is specific enough to support that, assuming that's what you're basing that off of.
>match better with [...] a reclusive writer The monkey shuns pretty much all society aside from animals, so good luck. Also, going by the manga, she'd probably get ill being around a typical surface dweller for long. Not to mention I doubt this guy wants his thoughts read; he dances around things in his own head enough, as far as the narrative shows.
>>17158 this bit: > Though Kawanami knew little about construction, he knew plenty about luxuries
From that and following stretch of text, there are two possible implications I can see: he's either rich or a craftsman('s son) himself. Or both. I'm guessing the former because that's just the vibe I get from the rest of the narration, plus the fact that he's introduced doling cash in salt to a youkai.
[X] He followed the oni upstairs to rest and was left alone with his foolish desire.
Stepping outside away from our oni "protector" would probably be unwise. At least everyone in the bar knows not to mess with us. Let's stay in our current company and learn a bit about the new society we're currently in before we get spirited away again by a more hostile oni.
I want to get to writing sometime soon. So voting is open until some time tomorrow, like 18ish hours from now.
Also, I'm unsure if I'm going too quickly or not with regards to updates. There's been a drop-off in activity which is expected to an extent as people might not like the story, be busy, or go away or whatever else. But the idea is to have a consistent schedule that works for people and allows consistent participation and results. So let me know how you feel about the update rate.
The bartender quietly herded the human to the back of the pub. Kawanami was too out of it to pay much attention to his surroundings and something as simple as climbing up a flight of stairs proved to be very taxing. The second floor was dark and the oni guide did not bother to light anything. Instead, he pushed his vacillating human charge towards the end of a small corridor. The bartender slid a door open, made sure the human made it inside and then basically abandoned him there without a word. He doubled back quickly, rejoining his patrons downstairs.
Fortunately for the exhausted traveler, the room was not pitch black. A second door, opposite the entrance, had been left open and it let in some of the ambient light from the city. It had to be the door to the balcony that he had spotted from the outside, Kawanami reasoned. But that was all that he could reason for the time being. He slumped onto the floor, letting the strap of his bag roll off the shoulders as he sat. There was probably a futon somewhere but he couldn’t be bothered to look for one. Instead, he simply allowed his body to continue to crumple, leaving him supine on the matted floor.
He closed his eyes for a moment. He did not sleep. He was conscious of his inert body and its total shutdown. Nonetheless, he dreamed, exploring in his mind the fantastical sights he had seen in the past few hours, mixing imagination with memory.
“Yuugi,” he whispered to himself, almost believing that just saying her name would be enough to summon her. She seemed to be something pure, uncomplicated, raw and true. Her essence was akin the certainty of sunrise. Would any other oni have taken him so quickly, so effortlessly, and a similar lack of hesitation? He believed her unique in that regard. The other oni he had seen had been impressive specimens all—even the diminutive bartender radiated otherworldly energy—but no other induced such lurid thoughts!
Demons came in all shapes in sizes. That was simple common sense. And yet, he had scarcely given her form much thought; it was only in the dark, with his mind returning to the fool’s gold that shimmered under torchlight, that he thought to acknowledge that she was a woman. Her clothes were as strange as those of most youkai. Broken chains that were curiously silent had captured his attention more thoroughly than any shirt or translucent skirt ever could. Though he had stared at her for what felt like a lifetime when walking to the pub, he could not say much about her actual physique.
He could, however, recall every small gesture she had made towards other oni and himself. Her eyes were always commanding, piercing through uncertainty with steady flame. It only took the slightest wrinkle on her face, a twitch of the lips, for her will to be known; many of the greetings she returned were silent and instantly understood. There was effortless strength in her every movement; she had made him float like a leaf in the wind, bounding up and down as she ran like a child might during play. Moreover, her voice always seemed to come through clearly, even in a noisy street or pub. Perhaps it could even drown out a thundering summer storm, if she felt the need. A primal fear within him—that of self-preservation—hoped he would never see her terrible power unbound. Of course, he also felt that he would never feel true satisfaction until he did.
It was possible that Kawanami fell asleep at some point. He could not recall how he ended up face-down by the far door. A trickle of air came from the outside, bringing with it the smell of damp and minerals. Finding that his body felt lighter, he sat up and nudged the door to open further.
He had been right in thinking that he was by the balcony. The previously dim light of fiery braziers caused his eyes to narrow as he stood up. The underground city sprawled before him. It was difficult to tell just how deeply it stretched in any direction but he felt that it was perhaps as large or larger than his village. He leaned up against a wooden rail and watched the street below, finding it emptier than earlier. There was no real day and no night underground but maybe there was still an agreed-upon convention for when to work and when to rest.
Only when a drop of water hit his hand did he realized that it was drizzling. A thin curtain of water fell upon buildings and hooded figures alike. Were there clouds underground? He could not tell by looking at the darkness above. It might be possible that rain from above fell on the earth and slowly worked its way towards the city. When it reached the unseen ceiling, it gathered and fell. Would it continue ever-downward for all eternity?
The rain stopped abruptly. The wet stones of the streets glistened. It was only after the rain had gone that he realized just how much he had been refreshed by the moisture—his hands had felt dry and the flesh on his forearms sticky with dried perspiration. He had rolled up his sleeves and freely let water wash over the parts of his body he exposed by leaning against the wet railing.
The desire to smoke overlapped with a wish to collect his thoughts. The latter preferably done on the balcony as he idled and took in the view. It was easier to see into the room with the light streaming in from outside and he found that he had been placed in rather spacious quarters—there was a large chest in a corner, shelves with scrolls and a series of boxes, a room lamp, a writing desk next to the balcony door, and a closet where he supposed he would find a futon. There was enough room for several people to sleep without having to huddle together. The equivalent amount of space in the village was the totality of a home for poorer families.
A quick rummage in his haversack produced his short—but ornate—pipe. He found the pouch with the shredded tobacco easily enough and tamped in a small amount. The loading and lighting were practiced motions both and he could accomplish them with only a pair of fingers. He stood out on the balcony again and looked at no one thing in particular as he lit the pipe. The familiar acrid taste filled his mouth and lungs as he took a slow drag. He exhaled after a moment, expelling a small murky cloud upwards. The silver pipe was nestled between two of his fingers as he took a moment to relax. It was certainly novel not to have anyone around who would reflexively nag him for his habits.
By the time he finished smoking, he still felt tired but more able to function. He left the balcony and closed the door behind him. He placed his pipe back into its case, making sure to clean out any ashes before leaving the room. There were a few other rooms on the second floor but he didn’t bother to explore them. Kawanami instead descended the stairs, finding them easily enough even in the dark, and found himself back at the first floor of a now-quiet pub. He went towards the light and found that the only oni around stood with a impassive expression behind the bar. The human sat at the bar stool furthest from the entrance, nearest to the recessed hallway with the stairs.
“She left,” Satou preempted the obvious question. His small—but sharp—red eyes looked over Kawanami slowly, a sly smile curling over thin lips. More imp than oni, Kawanami thought, recalling the stories told by elders to curious children, warning them away from anything that was not human. Their generation presumed to know all about youkai, their natures, and yet—well, a youkai at the village was not a rare sight. The impish oni arrived at some sort of conclusion, asking, “Are you well?”
“Well enough,” Kawanami replied, conscious that he had been on the verge of being lost in his own thoughts yet again. Questions of the nature of youkai and contradictory attitudes could occupy his mind for many hours. “Satou, is it? This is your business, I take it?”
“Are you closed for the night?”
“We never close,” Satou replied, devilish energy alight in his eyes. There was pride there, Kawanami thought, although it was difficult to conceive of an oni as a diligent business owner.
Satou laughed. It was a dirty, guttural sort of affair, air escaping through a surprisingly large mouth and set of teeth. “They will be back.”
“Whenever they feel like it.”
Kawanami was not sure whether it was the imp’s nature to be terse or if he was having fun at the human’s expense. That same slight smile—a semi-permanent fixture it seemed—was the only real answer he got as the bartender and owner cleaned the empty establishment. He watched him carry away empty plates, bottles, cups, and more. There was a sink behind the bar and Satou immersed anything that wasn’t broken into soapy water. The smell of something like vinegar and soot came from the cloth the oni used to wipe off surfaces; from time to time it would be dipped in a small vessel behind the bar before he continued to clean. Such a scene was typical of drinking houses everywhere, Kawanami knew, but from the perspective of his small stool at one end of the bar, it seemed unreal and alien.
There had been a dread born from the inexplicable strangeness of the oni, Kawanami realized. His mind and senses had been overwhelmed; the recrudescence of his fatigue and pain had obscured something more fundamental about his experiences. He felt powerless. Put more accurately: wholly untethered. No natural connection existed between him and the creature tending bar. Less still to the wild, willful woman who had stolen him at that bridge. Yes, he had been an outsider even in his own home, even when nominally fitting into society; the perfunctory role and respect he received had still been based on common humanity, on common ancestry and common culture. There were no such minimum assumptions at present. He was alone.
The realization caused him to look again at the space he was in; without oni boisterously drinking and talking, he realized that it was a larger space than he imagined; art, wall scrolls and woodblock prints decorated the pale walls at regular intervals; light came from more than the occasional wooden brazier but also from small recessed points on the ceiling that had no fire burning in them; the tables themselves were large, enough for several humans to sit around and chat, but they had seemed small with but a pair of oni sat around them; towards the back, by the stairs, there were rooms at either side of a small corridor. He guessed that here would be a storage space of some sort somewhere but he reckoned that private sitting areas could also be found behind the thin screen doors to the rear. Oni with a sense of privacy were another strange thought but, given all else that he was rapidly learning, he somehow did not think it impossible.
“Satou,” Kawanami called. The imp did not turn away from his tasks. He took it as a sign he should just speak, “Do you mind if I eat here?”
“Do as you like.”
The haversack carried some provisions in it and Kawanami had removed some earlier and placed them into his pockets. He retrieved a carefully-wrapped morsel. The rice ball was plain and just flavored with salt. “Would you like some?” he offered out of obligation.
In truth, Kawanami was not hungry. He ate because he thought that his body would need it once present feelings fully dissipated. His tongue felt little flavor yet and he chewed diligently, carefully, but took absolutely no pleasure in the experience. There was much that he wished to say. Much he would ask Satou: about the oni, about Yuugi. He could not bring himself to muster the energy. Instead, he danced around the fundamental, asking between bites, “Do I owe you anything for being here?”
“Would I if I stayed longer?”
“If you wish to stay for days, I would charge you,” the oni grunted, still too preoccupied with cleaning to face the human.
“I have money,” Kawanami assured him, “but could I earn board through work? If you never close then you must need someone to handle things when you rest.”
“I would have to think about it.”
Having finished his rice ball, Kawanami placed his arms on the bar top and leaned forward until his head sat on his hands. He sighed, not having much of a clue what to do next. Closing his eyes, he simply submitted to exhaustion once again.
Arai and Andou had been at it for a while, airing out stale grievances in public. Drink had loosened tongues and both wagged on, to the amusement of many of the others. The rain had failed to smother their fire. A brawl would be inevitable. It was actually overdue. Oni did not generally prefer to solve things with words with other oni. The extended performance was likely a ploy to garner sympathy from outsiders and, possibly, backup in case third parties began to get involved.
Yuugi had had just enough of the annoyance. She had been in a good mood all evening—drinking amounts of sake that would humble lesser oni. With her group she had made a game of drinking and telling jokes, the more you made the others laugh, the more of the high-grade stuff you got to drank in a round of passing around the bottle. Bickering over petty crap threatened to interfere with her genial state. She had shot a glare at Arai and Andou which had gone either unseen or ignored.
“Satoshi,” she kept her voice steady for the time being, “don’t finish the bottle by yourself while I’m gone. I know how much is left.”
“Ah, sure, Yuugi,” Satoshi, a rather thin and awkward-looking oni with a single small stub of a horn, got her meaning immediately. Yuugi didn’t think much of him and knew he liked to spend time around her in order to feel powerful, but she appreciated how considerate he otherwise was—he always made sure that the others in the group had everything they wanted. He had been responsible for arranging their impromptu picnic by one of the small streams that ran through Old Hell after it had been suggested by Miyo.
Their group had been sat off to one side of the stone-banked stream, away from the paths and near a high wall at the rear of a building on a gradual slope that provided a good measure of privacy. A pair of blue and white umbrellas had been set up and had kept them dry for the brief downpour. A small bridge—little more than a bump on a road—was at a distance along with most of the braziers and lanterns that lined the streets. Arai and Andou were just off to the side of the bridge, sat on a pair of larger dark stones that dipped into the thin mirror of slow-moving and dark water.
Those in her group all shared a knowing smile which Yuugi returned with a wink as she stood up. A group of non-oni, clustered in the shadows of the opposite bank by a small rear courtyard of a building watched her intently. Yuugi gave them a wave, approaching the oblivious Arai and Andou at a brisk pace. She stopped just behind the squabbling oni, squatted until she was at eye level. “Act like oni already!”
The pair barely enough time to register who it was when a synchronized smack hit either one on the head. It was a proportionate response, Yuugi felt. She didn’t want to cause too much commotion and ruin the mood at the picnic. The blows would have likely rendered unconscious anyone that was not an oni. The pair looked dazed, their eyes unfocused, but they still reacted instinctively with a pivot, and quick jump to their unsteady feet, as they readied themselves for a fight.
Recognition washed over their faces as Yuugi grinned at them, unconcerned that they might strike back. All their bark had been lost to the aether as one outdid the other with a torrent of excuses and apologies. Yuugi silenced them with a shake of her head and then turned away. She calmly returned to her party amid laughter from her group and some of the bystanders. Congratulations gushed forth as did more drink—she was given the rest of the good bottle as a toast was made to her health. The two that had been the source of trouble stood dumbly for a few moments before scampering off away towards an alley and the dark.
“Say, Satou, have you ever felt like you were trapped?”
The bartender had been sitting upon a stool, arms crossed and eyes closed for what could have well been hours. No doubt that a youkai like him was ageless but Kawanami could not help but think him slightly older than himself in appearance. There was still youth to be found in rounded ruddy cheeks and tight skin around the neck and arms; a crease or two on the forehead as well as a fully bald head paid lip service to the passage of time. The small oni gave no signs of life—it was not evident if he was even breathing.
Much of the exhaustion that had weighed on Kawanami had evaporated over time and he had awakened somewhat restless. He paced around the empty bar, navigating around the empty tables, tracing a path that circled into itself constantly. The excuse he gave himself was that he wished to test whether or not his legs had recovered yet. Happily, he noted, a lot of the swelling had gone down and he could sustain a moderate pace without tiring. He doubted that he could walk for hours but he ought to be able to explore the town if he so wished. His right was still more tender than his left, yes, and he was liable to cramp up if he strained himself, but his long rest had borne results. And, well, he did not imagine he would need to run anytime soon … youkai could do as they liked with him already.
Kawanami thought about repeating his question. A sort of panic had come down upon him. Ever since realizing that he was truly on his own, he had been trying to think of ways he could form some sort of connection with someone. He had thought of going out, trying his luck with some random passerby, but he was intimidated by the vast unknown. It was a strange, dream-like sensation, he figured, something that was difficult to convey to someone who did not share in his dream. Feverish, perhaps, if not for the very sensuous reality that he could yet feel; each step invited him to be aware of his muscles and the effort that was needed to walk and of the release of pressure as he sat back down; he was keenly aware of his thirst, his remaining saliva feeling viscous as it passed over scratches on his tongue and on the roof of his mouth; the cool and smooth of the veneer of the hardwood bar surface; the potpourri of scents that combined strong alcohol, vinegar, lingering notes of sweaty flesh, charcoal and even the vague sweetness of fried foods. All that commingling of the absurd, of the unexpected, of the very familiar with the exotic, and the fatigue he felt—it made for an incredible essence of something that could only be alluded to imperfectly but never truly explained.
Satou was left as the most basic, somehow most understandable, option that he had available. He thought of rousing him by shaking his shoulder but held back, wary of that it might instead rouse the oni to anger.
“Hrmph,” the bartender at last stirred, just as Kawanami was close to having enough courage to speak up again. One of those sharp eyes opened halfway, as he added, “If you’re going to ask me stupid questions like that, at least buy a drink first. Bartenders don’t listen to problems for free.”
Kawanami laughed loudly. There was something only too universal in the bartender’s grumbling. It was enough to bring him back towards reality and away from the jumble that was his mind. “A drink or two, then,” he said, fetching from his coin purse a few small denominations.
The oni rose from his stool with a shake of his shoulders, as if loosening up for a performance. He fetched a bottle and cup from under the bar and palmed the coins before pouring a generous drink. “Here, this oughtn’t kill you.”
“So, you asked something about being trapped?” the oni had that curled smile of his on his lips once more, “being chased up there so that’s why you had to come underground?”
“Hm, something like that,” Kawanami said with an ambiguous smile of his own. He played with his drink, shaking the cup from side to side, making little ripples in the drink that lapped up at the cup’s edge. He looked Satou in the eye, “I asked if you ever felt you were trapped.”
“Oni sure are blunt.”
“Not all. But I am.”
The bartender’s reply made him laugh again. Raising his cup, he made a small toast, “To bluntness.”
Kawanami had expected his drink to be as blunt as his bartender. The first impression did not disappoint. As he pressed the cup to his lips he first felt the anticipated pungent aroma of a strong drink. The first drop landed on his tongue with an almost numbing prickle and the whole mouthful multiplied that effect. He swallowed, following the sensation from the back of his tongue, to the sides of his throat and finally to the pit of his stomach; at once a heat swelled up from within and spread all over, like the flames from splintering charcoal. A surprisingly flowery aftertaste followed which made the drink not as bad as he had feared.
“Not the worst thing I’ve ever had,” Kawanami said with what he hoped was sufficient levity, taking another sip. The drink’s bluntness was lessened on a second sip and more of that subtle secondary flavor came on through. A simple human like him could get used to it over time.
“If you like, I should have pickled plum somewhere.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Another customer arrived. Kawanami only noticed because the bartender gave a brusque greeting and turned away from him. The human was more interested in his drink than any arrival. He nursed his drink, sloshing around the potent liquor as he slowly built up the courage to try for something besides the general with the bartender. Reaching a decision, he emptied his cup and placed it back on the bar. He tapped with two fingers the wooden surface, indicating that he wanted another pour.
 He wished to know where he could find Yuugi, perhaps where she lived as well.  It occurred to him that information about the town and the types of youkai around could be useful.
>Excitement akin to a paroxysm threatened to crumble her contained exterior. That old thrill would be known to her again! She only had to reach out and seize the opportunity. So she found a human and abducted him (this is apparently a big deal and exciting), dragged him to a pub and then... just fucked off? What, was she just being considerate of his state? Seems rather un-oni-like.
>Would any other oni have taken him so quickly, so effortlessly, and a similar lack of hesitation? He believed her unique in that regard. lol. lmao even
[x] It occurred to him that information about the town and the types of youkai around could be useful. Eh, you can find oni anywhere around here. Why obsess over a particular one? I'm sure she'll drop by whenever.
[x] He wished to know where he could find Yuugi, perhaps where she lived as well. I just want to know more about the both of them, tbqh. Very hard to read, they are. Especially Kawanami.
By the way, are we all going to just ignore that there's rain underground? Weird as.
>The other oni he had seen had been impressive specimens all [...] but no other induced such lurid thoughts! >it was only in the dark, with his mind returning to the fool’s gold that shimmered under torchlight, that he thought to acknowledge that she was a woman. Point at horny. Although, with all the oni around...
>A primal fear within him—that of self-preservation—hoped he would never see her terrible power unbound. Of course, he also felt that he would never feel true satisfaction until he did. Not definitive, but I think this adds to the pile of evidence that he's probably down here specifically for the oni.
>smokes a kiseru >It was certainly novel not to have anyone around who would reflexively nag him for his habits. >he had been an outsider even in his own home >the perfunctory role and respect he received >offers to work for room and board Still having a hard time getting a read on Kawanami, but I'm getting the feeling he's someone's servant, probably largely doing desk jockey work of some kind. Apparently, he gets some minor degree of authority from it, though probably not enough that it matters, considering he just up and buggered off underground. Family might be labourers of some kind, at the very least folks who frown on idleness, and seemingly share different enough values for him to be the odd one out.
I really want to know what Yuugi's deal is, though. It's clear that she commands some kind of respect, but what does that actually mean? Does she actually hold some kind position? Is she just like a banchou of the oni?
For that matter, what the hell sort of order do the oni have, anyway? Where do the non-oni fit in all of that? How can a bunch of outcasts have a functioning society? A lot of questions get raised with every update.
The bartender was, predictably, not very responsive to questioning. He would dole out attention in small portions, mostly grunting a reply to a question when asked. As soon as he was able, he would disengage, pretending that other customers needed needed him. The exchanges could not—even charitably—be called a conversation.
That wasn’t to say that it was entirely pointless. The imp was not outright dismissive and did say let slip things that were of some use. It was very clear that the underground city essentially a city of oni—every place of note seemed to be either run or frequented by them. The sake and other drinks were all “proudly made” by oni as well and there was just a glimmer of self-satisfaction in the bartender’s eyes as he poured more from the bottle. Given the amounts that Kawanami had seen consumed in his short time underground, he imagined that the production process never ceased; he got little more than a shrug when he suggested as much.
“The others…. Mostly trouble. They do as they please, “ the bartender had said without a trace of irony. He had left the bottle on the counter top and, after what he likely felt was an inordinate amount of questioning, only came around when Kawanami’s cup had been left empty for too long. Only the clink of coins when receiving payment seemed to arouse any enthusiasm.
His words of wisdom came tersely, assembled in full after several visits, “Others who are not oni … stick to their own kind … only when one wants something from the other … shunned by others a lot of the time … a human would do well to avoid complications.”
Fool’s courage had made Kawanami impatient and he looked at the bartender crossly, no longer really caring that he was only a simple human. The latter ignored the obvious display, his own expression unchanged as he gave the last question an ambiguous shake of the head. The heat that caused his insides to bubble seemed to have a consciousness of its own and it threatened to override his caution. He awaited for the bartender to make eye contact again. He would not let him slip away so easily again.
“Do all humans ask so many questions?”
An interloper interrupted the would-be eruption. The bartender had given up the bottle to Kawanami by leaving the stopper off, scampering away to deal with other customers. The oni showed neither relief nor emotion as he walked slowly away towards the now-occupied tables. Rebuffed but not surprised, the human held back a sigh. With a subtle grimace, he emptied his cup before turning towards the voice.
It had been his neighbor from two stools away, the one that had arrived some time ago. He faced his neighbor for the first time and found that it was woman, one whose golden hair and exotic dress placed her firmly in the category of strange and otherworldly. There was a depth to her queerly-colored eyes; the deep green was lit by an internal light with an unclear source. He could scarcely look away from those soulful eyes, pellucid as if cleansed by collyrium, and framed by the delicate application of cosmetics in the form of dark thin lines. He barely gave thought to her unnaturally-pointed ears nor the vital reddish-pink of her painted lips.
Kawanami could not help but think back to something he had once seen in a reading book. The greater context had long-since been forgotten, lost among the many things he had voraciously read in his youth. Yet the last lines of the verse flowed clearly into his mind:
The killer with the painless knife Is the very one in front of your face. Her lovely eyes are in fact sparkling waves That drown the good as well as the foolish.
“I can’t speak for all of my kind,” Kawanami replied.
“Oh, that’s a shame. There’s never humans down here so I thought it might be interesting to learn more about them while I had the opportunity.”
Drink had dulled the anxiety that had seemed overwhelming only recently. The heat within was happily diffusing up his chest. Kawanami smiled, politely, as he might have at a gathering of the self-important families in the village. They would drone, pontificate and otherwise waste time more on form than anything of substance. He had always resented being dragged along and, from a young age, had learned to keep his distance with vague replies and niceties. He felt those eyes of her draw something from thing, something intangible but important; he was wary, knowing it was not fear but … he did not wish to let down his guard entirely.
“You were asking questions about the people who live underground, right?” the woman tightened her lips into a sheepish smile, her eyes looking away from his face. Like him, she had a cup poured in front of him and it was also empty.
“I was a little curious about that, yes,” he said, offering to pour her a drink from the bottle that had been left behind. She nodded assent, brushing back a strand of somewhat-messy hair from her eye. It was an act that came across as self-conscious as she looked away from him momentarily. Further, acting to draw attention away from her face, she tugged at the loose end of her scarf and tightened up the knot. “I take it you live here.”
“I’m a youkai, yes,” she said, her voice almost barely registering as a sound; it was a sort of silence that made him naturally concentrate on her; there was no explicit melody but it was almost as a faint hum: similar to the space between a plain note and that of one in a song.
“Ah, sit closer if you wish,” he said, finding himself suddenly bothered by the background chatter of other patrons. He invited her to talk awhile, introducing himself in a polite manner.
The youkai introduced herself as Parsee. She accepted his invitation with a delicate smile, one that Kawanami thought unimaginable on the face of an oni. What would the elders make of this maiden, whose unusual attire—with crisscrossed patterns on the borders of an earthen jacket that covered dark clothes beneath—seemed so out of place in Japan? There was a touch of conch ink about her. Not in coloring, he thought, but in origin; the luxury had been imported from the faraway west by emperors for the women in their court in times past.
There was an evident cheer in her as she spoke. What passed as unease at her earlier forwardness became, at times, a lonely apparition of a flowering peony. She asked about him, puzzled that a human would venture to the underground.
“I have my reasons for wanting to meet an oni,” he said, “I wasn’t very happy with the way things were going in my life.”
“Aren’t you afraid of being killed?”
“Yes, I am,” he laughed as only a man who had accepted the absurdity of his actions could. He hated that it would sound that it might seem that he was playing up his own courage as he added, “I don’t think I could have lasted another week without doing something.”
“Were you thinking of killing yourself?” she asked quietly before catching herself, “sorry, that’s not the kind of thing I should ask.”
The man took no offense, having wondered the same himself at times. It was easy to forget that he was speaking to a youkai—a creature that likely had a very different perspective on mortality. “No, not at the moment. I wanted to exhaust my other options first.”
“Even after drinking a lot, it’s not really easy for me to talk about this, sorry,” he shook his head, “or maybe I just haven’t been able to put things in a way that others might understand yet. I’m not really good at talking.”
“You’re doing a good job so far,” the youkai encouraged him.
“It’s just not easy being disliked, you know,” the human tried to explain, “when things are supposed to be one way but because…. I don’t know. I think I’m a good person, I always did what they asked of me. Still, that wasn’t good enough. Everyone went out of their way to make me understand that I wasn’t needed. I think it’s more of a feeling thing. Because if it was an argument … I could try to change their minds.”
“The underground is full of youkai that are disliked,” Parsee said after taking a sip from her cup. Her gaze fell to her hands and Kawanami watched as she seemed to be lost in thought as well. She drank again, emptying the cup. “Even other youkai avoid the ones here and the worst ones don’t even live in the city; there’s a hierarchy even among the unfortunate.”
Kawanami poured another round of drinks from the increasingly-lighter bottle. The human and youkai were quiet for a few moments. In profile, he noticed her sloping shoulders, finely shaped as if by carving. Foreign and unpowdered, he could not conceive of writers speaking of her as a beauty of twice eight with lotus feet and a willow waist. As a result, his own vocabulary was lacking. He thought about it, looking at her light hair and the pale tint of her clear skin. What came to mind was relatively uninspired but fitting: she had a floral visage.
“You were wondering about the types of youkai that live down here. Other than oni, I mean,” Parsee spoke up.
“Yes, I was.”
“There are those who bring pestilence and a slow death. It is one thing to be eaten or ripped apart, another to die miserably and invisibly, don’t you think?”
“Yes. Those who steal children or corrupt them would also be in a similar category, probably.”
“There are those here as well.”
“Murderers that had to be put down by imperial decree too, I wager,” Kawanami recalled the stories he read and the stories told of youkai hunters in a time before Gensokyo had come about. Expeditions, replete with warriors and priests, would set out to hunt notorious man-eaters or being s that caused great misfortune. That some of these monsters were created by the actions of the very men that sought to exterminate them or others like them was seldom emphasized.
“Those who felt betrayed and had to take matters in their own hands and could not rest until their vengeance was complete are misunderstood like that.”
“Ah, is that what you are?” Kawanami joked, alcohol eroding inhibition.
“Perhaps,” she laughed softly, “I sure look the type, don’t I?”
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“Yes, they can be,” Parsee said before finishing off another cup. “If you stop to think about the other side of things, it might not seem so fair sometimes. Is a faithful woman who was cast away entirely by a jeering husband really an oni because she decided to not simply die quietly? Should not the usurper and bewitched, who schemed together at night amid laughter, not pay a price?”
“Those who hurt others so cruelly don’t really think about their victim’s feelings,” Kawanami remarked. He smiled because the other option was inappropriate gloom. The magic contained in his cup preemptively exorcised his would-be haunting demons.
“It’s the way of the world. Even these oni here all carry their own burdens, even if they are lesser than those of others….”
“It may be the way of the world, but it’s the way of the world that strangers who drink together might become friends.”
Parsee mumbled something, a flush of red taking to her cheeks. Alcohol was to blame, doubtlessly, as Kawanami felt his own face warm from drinking so much. In fact, he was surprised he had acclimatized himself so quickly to the drink and was enjoying every drop; it was no longer hot and abrasive but warm and inviting, like conversing with an old friend in a mineral bath. Maybe that explained the strange direction the conversation had taken. The comfort of being in their cups had caused common sense to be displaced some time ago.
 As they spoke more, he could not help but feel that they shared a feeling of detachment and isolation from others.  He gleaned that the rules and organization of youkai society could be as similarly stifling as those of the village.
>“It may be the way of the world, but it’s the way of the world that strangers who drink together might become friends.” Smooth, but not daring enough. Come on my man, it's like you're not even plastered on oni spirits at all! Seems like my initial guess of a spare son of a rich family might be close to right. Even in Gensokyo, young idle people with money to burn will always be greatest troublemakers.
Had a laugh at the IMMEDIATE disregarding of advice. >hey, don't get involved with random youkai, they're trouble >Yeah sure. Oh hello random youkai, wanna drink and chat?
Now this choice is tough. I'm assuming it steers the conversation: either bringing the subject more towards Parsee and relating to her, or broadening it to the former capital and talking about how it works around here. On one hand I'm really interested in the city, but on the other hand Parsee cute. Cute! Besides, I feel like getting attached to Parsee in any capacity is likely to create a shitton of trouble, which sounds fun. Maybe extrapolating that far off of a single choice is falling for ye olde route thinking trap? Well, whatever. [x] As they spoke more, he could not help but feel that they shared a feeling of detachment and isolation from others.
[X] He gleaned that the rules and organization of youkai society could be as similarly stifling as those of the village. The tide was as yellow as the youkai's hair. Poor bartender getting nagged for info by the human Yuugi dragged in though.
>>>17173 >So she found a human and abducted him (this is apparently a big deal and exciting), dragged him to a pub and then... just fucked off? What, was she just being considerate of his state? Seems rather un-oni-like. Well it would be a bit pointless to spirit him away only to immediately get him killed b!y dragging him along for an entire party. Between "She had been in a good mood all evening" and Kawanami going to sleep and waking up on his own, it seems that she's been out partying for atleast 8 hours. She'll probably be back to pick him up when the fun finally ends.
[X] As they spoke more, he could not help but feel that they shared a feeling of detachment and isolation from others.
Let the liquor do the thinking. We're probably pretty far gone on very strong drink. Plus we are currently having a conversation with someone who potentially shares a similar mindset. Let's see where this conversation will lead.
>>17178 Hmm, so, I'm trying to understand the cause-and-effect chain of the choices thus far. We had the first vote over whether or not he could take action, and then we had the one where he either saw things as strange or familiar. That was followed by hanging around the bar versus trying to go outside, which led right into him asking the barkeep questions, so the next choice was asking about Yuugi or other youkai. Then we get to here with a choice between what I'm seeing as either getting into Kawanami's inner problems or his more outer ones.
I'm guessing that the first choice set up a little bit of extra boldness in Kawanami, whilst the second made him approach the underground almost like a tourist, which is why he was barraging the barkeep with slightly inane questions. The third reads to me like a choice of either jumping to Yuugi things quickly or not, but maybe that's not totally right. Not sure about the fourth choice; it could have been slight filler, but I guess it did catch Parsee's interest, and she was probably going to be there either way. Right now, everything seems to have added up to him taking an interest in Parsee despite the fact that it's probably not the best of ideas.
Where that leaves us with the current choice, I'm not entirely sure. They're both about things I'd like to know more about, but I can't really see what sort of effect choosing between either may have down the line. Thus, I'm a little indecisive at the moment.
Care to tell me if I'm barking up wrong trees here, Teruyo?
>>17182 >Maybe extrapolating that far off of a single choice is falling for ye olde route thinking trap? Yeah, pretty sure it is. The story's gonna be focused on Yuugi after a point, considering Kawanami's basically confirmed at this point that he's down there for oni. What that really means is up in the air, but it's not like things are going to just break off and go all-knife-ears.
>>17183 I read it more as a power move by Yuugi. She's completely confident in her influence over others (or, at least, other oni), so she knows nobody will touch 'her' human after warning them. After all, she wouldn't go out of her way to stop all conversation in a crowded bar just to say that if she wasn't pretty sure it was true, now, would she?
>>17187 >Care to tell me if I'm barking up wrong trees here, Teruyo? Sorry, that sort of thing is exactly what you should be discussing with other people and not me! I'll just say that there's no need to optimize things—not that I'm saying you're trying to do that. Just a general thought. The fool is free and has a future full of possibilities.
>>17188 >discussing with other people What I'm seeing thus far is a lot of the same old routebrain, and I dunno if there's a cure for that. Dunno if there's even any anons that feel strong enough to push someone towards $choice because they want $waifu. Then again, if somebody wants to try, I'm open to suggestions.
I'm still pretty strongly of the impression that this is ultimately a Yuugi story, though.
>The fool is free and has a future full of possibilities. What does that make the magician?
>>17189 It might not be entirely down to route-brain. I want the old hell talk, but that's equal parts tide-pissing and genuinely being more curious about it. The drama of having two different youkai after our intrepid spelunker could produce a beautiful tragedy. >>17187 >She's completely confident in her influence over others (or, at least, other oni), so she knows nobody will touch 'her' human after warning them. Ywn. I see what you mean, no reason both couldn't factor in though. People can have multiple reasons to have done something.
Anyway, I'm angling for the shitfaced drunk in an alleyway route and none of you can stop me. If we get drunk enough we might even see Komachi.
>>17190 Whilst the externalities of things may involve a knife-ears getting owned by an oni for touching her human or whatever, I'm more interested in where these choices that are obviously Kawanami thinking about himself are leading. I feel like I don't really understand the difference between going for one option or the other.
Case in point, this choice is between two things: a) Kawanami relating whatever he hears from Parsee to his own feelings of being alienated from his family or whoever. b) Kawanami relating whatever he hears from Parsee to whatever it is he usually does in the village.
I'd love to know more about both, but we're sort of pushed to choose one or the other here. Why is that? More than that, how is that going to reflect on his character and actions later? I have a hard time telling in either case.
[x] He gleaned that the rules and organization of youkai society could be as similarly stifling as those of the village. Basically just picking at random at this point. Really, I guess I'd rather hear more about underground society than about alienation and hurt feelings.
[x] He gleaned that the rules and organization of youkai society could be as similarly stifling as those of the village. i guess it depends on which youkai society you're taking part in, doesn't it? i mean, i can't imagine... i guess fairies being so regimented
>>17204 I'm sorry that you can't view vulnerability or emotional connection as anything other than a precursor to sex. Have you considered going to therapy for your obsession with it? >>17199 This isn't a story from 2008. You ain't getting laid just by existing and being simp-pathetic.
>>17205 >I'm sorry that you can't view blah blah Folks have often voted with general reasoning that they think they'll eventually get a sex scene or whatever by simply "being nice" to their favorite toehoe. If that's not what applies to your vote, great. Don't be a jerk and put words in my mouth over it, friendo.
The bottle was nearly empty. Only a pour, pour-and-a-half, ostensibly remained. It had been drunk at a steady pace, with very little resistance over the length of the intercourse. The gruff oni had not bothered to replace the bottle nor, indeed, even bothered to come back to that corner of his bar. The new acquaintances had been left to their own devices, in a bubble where the noise made by the other patrons seemed to become as a babbling brook, almost agreeable in its constancy.
Without realizing it, both human and youkai were sat together, almost conspiratorially, having moved their stools close to both bar and one another as they talked. They learned in closer as their voices became quieter, a byproduct of both subject matter and the disinhibition from drink. That intimate corner of the bar—for what else could Kawanami call it?—was a place where a small laugh, an inane anecdote or a casual revelation were all equally appreciated. He could not imagine himself sharing such a moment with a woman from his village; the familiar was impossibly exotic, while the exotic then felt wonderfully familiar.
“Stupid, isn’t it?” he asked her with an affected sigh. He had his right elbow on the bar and was using his upturned forearm and open hand to support the side of his head while leaning forward.
“I’m not so sure,” she replied, lowering her eyes as she seemed to think about what to say. He watched as she crossed an arm over herself, loosely grabbing her other arm. It wasn’t a gesture that he thought particularly bashful but it did make her appear a delicate creature, body thin and easily embraced.
“They’d call me stupid, if they knew.”
“It’s very human,” she said, a smile blossoming on her lips as she raised her eyes to meet his. Ardent understanding seemed to be reflected in them and he could not detect anything approaching disgust in their depths. It was unexpected and it made the aloneness that had been foisted upon him seem at once abnormal. “I’m not surprised that you’ve come looking for oni.”
“It seems strange to be confessing petty things like that to someone I just met,” Kawanami said, treating a lot of what he said with artificial levity. He was still wary of baring too much, too quickly.
“It’s not a problem.”
“I don’t even talk this much, normally.”
“Oh, neither do I,” she said. It appeared to Kawanami that she wished to make him feel at ease. Her tone was light, as airy as his head felt at times. Parsee displayed an almost-coy smile as she added, “Youkai like me don’t get many opportunities for conversation.”
“Everyone down here seems to enjoy drinking and socializing.”
“I know what you’re trying to say, but that’s mostly oni. The rest of us live in our own dark little corners, doing what we can to survive. That sounds a little harsh, doesn’t it?” she laughed softly, “but it’s still true. There’s not much of an opportunity to talk.”
“Mm, that seems like a shame,” Kawanami said simply. It took some effort for him to remember that the woman who sat next to him—so close that if he moved an arm carelessly he would brush up against her—was not human at all. Life couldn’t be easy in the deep and dark tunnels. He did not say as much as he thought it might be rude to bring up. But what could there be to do? There seemed to be less solidarity among the broad category of youkai than there was between humans. An obvious fact, maybe, if not for the lifetime’s worth of stories categorizing all of the supernatural as terrors to be avoided.
He poured the last of the drink, dividing it up equally. Parsee thanked him, offering a playful “cheers” as they raised their cups. As he drank, he saw that he was being watched and an inexplicable feeling swelled up from his guts up to his face, leading a rush of blood and warmth upon his cheeks. The last of the bottle found him in a strange state, one that could not be entirely blamed on its strong contents.
“Sorry, I’m not the best of company.”
“What do you mean?” Parsee asked before gulping down the last of her drink.
“It seems like a waste for me to not say anything interesting when you’re probably starved for good conversation. People don’t really talk to me except to boss me around these days, so I don’t make it a habit to talk back. And books don’t talk, so….” Kawanami felt his explanation clumsy but it didn’t feel like he could have done much better. He was tired and a little too proud to make a mistake when enunciating. “… I guess even having others talk to you is lucky, sorry.”
There was something about how she looked at him, something that bubbled up mysteriously from time to time, that he couldn’t quite figure out. Despite awareness of his conceit, his internal apologia still insisted he was ultimately interesting to her. Well, he supposed, wouldn’t any human be interesting to a youkai? Especially a youkai who didn’t get along with her neighbors too much. It was a shame but it was what it was.
It wasn’t any good to try to get rid of that aloneness by oneself. He knew that from experience. It would stick closely for life. But that didn’t mean that there couldn’t be gaps in time where it didn’t dominate; those gaps could be filled in with something else, with something or the other different. With someone. It was a matter of patience, of waiting, of something else arriving after acceptance. It couldn’t be forced and it couldn’t be tracked down. So, what then? A matter of fortune! Serendipitously, those gaps and that desire would be filled for a time. Suddenly and without warning, ideally; momentarily but for the longest time possible, he hoped.
Kawanami made a half-hearted gesture with his free hand. It was hoped that it would come off as a wordless apology. Without anything else that he could think of saying, he instead sighed quietly to himself.
Parsee had spent most of the evening observing the human. She had watched him drink alone for a long time and witnessed how he had pestered the owner of the establishment with questions about the former capital and its denizens. Despite the strong feeling that welled up in her chest, threatening to burst and spill out, she had managed to show restraint. She had waited for any and all developments, watching carefully before acting. As way of making time and quieting her all-consuming feeling for a while, she had ordered a weak drink which she nursed for a long time. The moment to act would reveal itself, she was adamant.
Somehow, without much effort or thought, one thing had led to another. Whatever it was she had been obsessing about during her long walk from the dark tunnels and through the city streets was forgotten, consigned to the unconscious for the time being. As they drank together, Parsee also drank deep of the man’s frustrations and hints of jealousies. What he might have considered trilling nonsense, embarrassing and exposed by drink, she found thrilling. There was little chance to egg him on and really whip him up into a state given the escape valve of alcohol but it didn’t matter—she was pleased that she had managed to track him down and interact with him.
She hadn’t held back and hadn’t really tried to hide what she was or how she felt; there was a natural reluctance for her to share. It was clearly mutual and the man—Kawanami—seemed caught himself more than once and held back from truly exposing himself. That was just one of their strange similarities. Could she go as far as to call it compatibility? She found herself getting ahead of herself at times, saying something to him that could have sounded indecent to sober ears. In that closed-off corner of the bar, however, it was interpreted in the most innocent of ways. She soon felt that was no need to pretend to be something she was not. Clearly he felt the same way but, like her, chose to only slowly expose his heart.
A few times as she spoke she noticed that his dark eyes would stare directly at her, showing none of the disgust or fear that she was used to seeing. A feeling that they would, eventually, persisted. The warmth of his blood would be stolen away, as usual, and that would be that. He would recoil, the easy and carefree expression he freely showed her would then be unimaginable. The human would come to see her as a youkai. A detestable one. And when that time came, would he run? Would he make imprecations, hoping to give her pause? Would he resist, trying to claw at her in desperation? Would he lash out with a sword or club? Or would he submit as easily as he submitted to happenstance at the bar, crafting another warm space of understanding? Parsee cursed herself for thinking such thoughts. Her lips showed him a soft smile, one that she hoped concealed her fatalistic thoughts.
The youkai took solace that alcohol also gave her an excuse to be consumed by something other than herself for the time being. The human, her human, was good company. He really was. She really couldn’t recall the last time she had willingly drank and socialized so readily. It was, therefore, a mild letdown that it all had to come to an end. Morover, it was not the end she had originally envisioned—not for the a first encounter, at least.
Kawanami had been overcome by drink and fatigue. He had said a couple of things to her with a serious look on his face, one that seemed to silently scream for someone to understand what he really meant, before sighing and pretending that it hadn’t been important, after all. Someone said something else, Parsee wasn’t sure which one of them had done so. Another thing of indeterminate origin was whispered. Faces leaned in close and the youkai could have sworn that she was able to hear the human’s heartbeat steadily thumping in his chest. That was impossible given how, suddenly, the whole bar seemed to be so noisy and full of rowdy customers; she understood that they had been there all along.
Either or both of them apologized. Kawanami headed up the stairs at the back of the pub, with Parsee holding onto him as he went along. It was a necessary bit of support but not a physical necessity. He stumbled into his room, mumbling that he needed to fetch something. Kawanami slipped from Parsee’s hold and slumped down in the middle of the room, lethargically fumbling with a bag.
It was near the end of the hour of the ox. There was nothing that the drunken human could do to deny the youkai. The oni below were still busy drinking and making a nuisance of themselves. In all likelihood none of them would have spared either the human or the youkai much thought and, even if any had noticed they had slipped upstairs together, they would be either too indifferent or self-centered to be curious about things. So, should she…? Parsee wondered in silence for a while.
Kawanami had slumped to his side, drowsily holding up a small silvery object to his lips with a hand. He mumbled something and let the object slip from his hand and clatter onto the floor.
The youkai closed the door behind her. Myriad thoughts competed for her attention. Silently, she took a few steps forward until she loomed over the collapsed human. She squatted next to him and extended a thin arm towards him, delicate fingers probing in the dark.
It was early afternoon when Yuugi returned to Satou’s pub. She had spent most of the night as she usually did and had great fun behaving as all oni should. The party hadn’t really ended so much as been absorbed by a larger ongoing party. That was an inevitable fact of life in the former capital. Just as it was that even the largest of gatherings would eventually dwindle away into isolated pockets of noisy excess. It was a process that repeated itself over and over, sometimes lasting only a few hours in either configurations or, sometimes, lasting days or weeks.
Whenever the those larger gatherings went on for more than a few days, things could get a little chaotic for the other inhabitants of the underground. Sure, everyone in the former capital knew to avoid the streets unless they wished to be conscripted into the festivities but, as things got louder and busier, even youkai who lived in the periphery found themselves getting involved, roped into the cacophonous carnival. Many complaints were made afterwards and Yuugi, as a recognizable face, had heard more than her fair share of bitching. The weaker youkai could whimper all they liked; they had to endure because they had no alternative!
Yuugi had slept a fair amount at home but found the streets mostly empty. Likewise, the pub. She expected there to be at least a few stragglers or enthusiastic early risers enjoying themselves. A slight surprise, yes, but the occasional stint of relative peace and quiet could be a welcome change of pace.
There was an honor system in place at Satou’s. Whenever the proprietor was away from the bar, anyone could help themselves to whatever they liked. They were expected not to break (much of) anything and to leave fair compensation behind. Satou himself was likely to be found nearby on the first floor, in a tiny room by the last private seating rooms at the end of the corridor. He had half-converted a storage room into a makeshift bedroom and gave the space dual-usage. Yuugi had seen inside once and the smaller oni had hung a hammock over large jugs of drink and chests of food. He rested himself in short bursts, idling on the hammock as it swung slowly from side to site. If anything happened in the pub that required his immediate attention, he could quickly leap out and take care of things.
Uninterested in seeing Satou, Yuugi instead went on ahead to the second floor to check in on her human. When she thought of him, a self-satisfied grin formed itself on her face. She was still extremely pleased with her impulsive act. Given how much of the other crap she had had to deal with as of late, it had been a pleasant throwback to a simpler time. A part of her wondered about him and just how long he would last in the underground. Another, much larger, part of her didn’t really care.
The moment was all that mattered. The oni took a sharp snort of air once on the second floor. The dank mix of perspiration infused with alcohol wafted about and led her to a room at the very end of a hallway. She opened the door without knocking and immediately spotted the human.
He was supine, completely nude and with his mouth agape. It did not disturb Yuugi in the least to see him like that. She quickly concluded that he had had some fun of his own in the night. Had she known he was due for a second wind, she would have dragged him along with her and shown him off to others. Then again, humans were fragile, and perhaps it would have been too much for him to handle. At least one overbearing oni would have pawed at him or attempted to test his limits to a likely disastrous end.
The human’s snores were as unguarded as his pose. Though he laid upon a futon, he had probably kicked off his duvet at some point during his sleep because it lay in a messy lump to his side. In other pile by his splayed legs were his clothes, ripped off and crumpled thoughtlessly. The oni hesitated for a moment before moving past him.
The door to the balcony was opened, letting in the light from the outside. The sleeping human did not so much as wrinkle his nose. That sort of indifference would be impossible to keep up. Yuugi could tell from the intensity of his torpor that he would wake up feeling a lot of pain and aches. Humans were prone to cursing the gods for their ills, she recalled with a smirk. They never stopped to think that maybe any and all divine retribution was wholly deserved. She briefly tried to decide whether or not he was worth her pity before doing what needed to be done.
 He found himself reacting automatically, quickly and recklessly matching the oni’s tempo.  As his senses returned to him, he wondered what became of his drinking companion.
[x] He found himself reacting automatically, quickly and recklessly matching the oni’s tempo. This is exactly who he is. His life is so tiny and boxed in that he wants to emulate an oni, no matter how ridiculous and infeasible it is. So, yeah, this is the plot button choice. Time to mash.
Interesting update, as always, and with a welcome return of the perspective switches. Yuugi's segments always feel short but packed with enough to stoke curiosity. Parsee is creepy, as expected. I wonder if Kawanami is really worth sympathy. Seems like he probably lived alright up top, even if he wasn't fully in charge of his life.
>the familiar was impossibly exotic, while the exotic then felt wonderfully familiar Weird how that always seems to happen.
>threatening to burst and spill out >managed to show restraint >all-consuming feeling >drank deep of the man’s frustrations and hints of jealousies. >her human >loomed over the collapsed human Bad vibes, just like I got from her intro. Kawanami's right to hold back, but he's still a fool for getting sloppy drunk around a stranger. Seriously, guys, around elves, watch yourselves.
>holding up a small silvery object to his lips Possibly something important??
I bet she stole it for a memento.
>as a recognizable face >other crap she had had to deal with as of late Hrnnngh, I really wanna know what her position is here. It's hard to tell if she's an actual authority figure or something else. If she's well-known, what for? Being really strong? Drinking a lot? There has to be something else to it.
>Yuugi sniffs >an oni wn imagine your smell
>A part of her wondered about him and just how long he would last in the underground. Another, much larger, part of her didn’t really care. Well, she clearly cares enough to keep him from getting broken by other oni, but... hmh. Not sure how to read this.
>He was supine, completely nude and with his mouth agape. It did not disturb Yuugi in the least to see him like that. She quickly concluded that he had had some fun of his own in the night. Wait, is that deadass IMPLIED YOUKAI RAPE? Wow, sudden turn there. Maybe it's misdirection.
[x] He found himself reacting automatically, quickly and recklessly matching the oni’s tempo. I do like Paru better than any oni, but being absent while someone's trying to engage with you is just rude, so I gotta go with this. Besides, lingering on it will probably lead to bringing it up with Yuugi, which seems unwise. Let it have been a chance encounter, and it can be pursued further when the stalker comes byit comes up again. That seems like the proper mindset for this kind of adventure.
>>17214 >font color There's a button right over the post box that lets you do it whenever you want, so it's not like something nobody else can do. Though it probably would be obnoxious in most cases.
>>17216 >Maybe it's misdirection. Pretty sure it is. The elf wants a psychological salt lick, not his meat and tackle. At the very least, she wants to take advantage of his delicious neuroses.
>being absent while someone's trying to engage Eh, was he really, though? Kawanami's pretty self-centered and steeped in his (probably self-created) issues. Even the knife-ears kind of sees that over her own totally-not-yandere fantasies of Understanding™.
>bringing it up with Yuugi, which seems unwise Doubt she'd really care, by the looks of things. She just doesn't want anyone breaking her new human. Hell, we don't even know if she actually knows or cares who Parsee is.
>>17212 [x] As his senses returned to him, he wondered what became of his drinking companion. i cannot believe we were taken advantage of in our drunken state. i am literally shaking and crying rn, we should confront her.
>>17217 >The elf wants a psychological salt lick, not his meat and tackle. At the very least, she wants to take advantage of his delicious neuroses. Why would those be mutually exclusive? In fact, considering the nature of the beast (so to speak), I'd expect inevitable intertwining of motivations and emotions along those lines. Especially if we assume Parsee isn't the most well balanced individual around.
>>17219 I never said or implied they were mutually exclusive in principle. However, my read on Miss Pointy Ears is that she doesn't particularly want to jump the guy's bones as an end in itself. She might do it if it's part of psychologically torturing him, I guess. Either way, she wants to revel in his misfortunes and generally be a psychic vampire, and fuck all of that.
[X] He found himself reacting automatically, quickly and recklessly matching the oni’s tempo. >>17220 What, you don't want to be a cute girl's torture caprisun? >>17214 Yeah but he got pretty plastered the night before. He might not even remember her properly. That and Yuugi might pick up on it if he's too distracted and even if she wanted to use us as on tap misery it'd suck to get someone killed because he can't keep his mind off someone.
>>17221 >A part of her wondered about him and just how long he would last in the underground. Another, much larger, part of her didn’t really care. >He was supine, completely nude and with his mouth agape. It did not disturb Yuugi in the least to see him like that. She quickly concluded that he had had some fun of his own in the night. Yuugi's not that protective, and by all appearances, not that possessive, either. True, we don't know if that lack of caring extends to non-oni, considering she thinks of them as a bunch of weaklings, but even then it doesn't seem like she'd go homicidal.
>>17222 Fair points, not as potentially death inducing as I thought. Gonna stick with my vote anyway since he'll have just woken up. He probably wont have them mental capacity for anything but being pissed he woke up for at least a paragraph.
I'll get to writing sometime "soon" when things settle down on my end a little. I'm breaking the tie by picking stuff from your posts/comments that I like and find relevant and that also makes sense for the update. I think that's better than an all-or-nothing coinflip in this case.
A deep calm had enveloped Kawanami as he slept. In his dreams, he had come upon a grassy hillock by a river and slowly drank in the vibrant springtime. He could not see the sun but could feel its warmth radiating from everything in the environment. The soft babbling and gurgles of moving water made him pliant and he did not mind all the questions that were asked of him.
The woman had proven to be good company—garrulous, yes, but disarmingly forthright.
Her laugh, originating deep in her gut, was as clear as her voice and, he felt, almost lonely. It boomed and reverberated in his chest—or, rather, his heart—and offered no suggestion of ill-intent or simple-minded obstinacy. Finding that chamber empty after it struck, it quickly fell away in silence.
Nonetheless, he felt at peace as he spoke of things he would never share in the waking world. It gratified him to find that the woman shared his enthusiasm about his journey; she thought it exciting, in a romantic sort of way, to venture into the unknown on a gamble. Even though she had made it clear that he was welcome to come with her if he liked, she suggested that perhaps it would be better if he tried to see things through as best he could. The offer would still be valid later.
Human time was different for every person, she had said as she sat up and hugged her knees, drawing up her dress. Seeing in his eyes that he didn’t quite understand, she pointed to the river, where a few flower petals were floating downstream. Not all of them went at the same pace, as the current could slow or speed up depending on unseen rocks and other features the underwater terrain. It was difficult for something inside the flow to realize how quickly and slow they were going, relative to the whole of the body of water. But it didn’t matter whether he was quick or slow. Ultimately everyone ended up in the same place, she assured him.
The human leaned heavily against the balcony. He was not in a very presentable state. While nominally no longer naked, he had scarcely bothered to throw on his dark-colored jacket over his flesh and made little effort to draw it close to his body.
Smoke drifted lazily from his pipe as he held it to his lips with a hand. In profile, the man’s nose seemed straight and elegant; the light from the street below drew pronounced shadows onto his face. His whiskers, kept neat in what may have been a fashionable style, gave the rest of his head a more angular definition and his face a sharper appearance. A blank expression concealed whatever he might have been thinking about.
Yuugi had allowed the human his indulgence. When roused, the man had presented a pained face—a pathetic look, really—which had served as a reminder of human fragility. It was possible, she thought, that there was melancholy in his eyes—an oni who finished off the last of their store might display their affliction similarly. She did not think herself callous enough to ignore that.
Kawanami was led to a bathhouse.
Thoughts had smouldered in his head for some time, failing to do much but wear him down and disperse up into the aether. Memories or, more accurately perhaps, impressions lingered and preoccupied him as well. The fragmentary nature of it all made for ungratifying work.
A smoke had not helped. Neither did a walk through the streets enveloped in perpetual twilight. Awareness of his senses, of the strain of the physical, did little else but distract; he resented having sore legs, churning guts, and a head that translated his body’s disproval into grim censure. Every beat of his heart and every protracted thought caused a painful echo in both ears and skull. He had no recourse against that obloquy but still attempted to carry on with as much dignity as possible. It would not do to show himself conquered by base distractions.
The turmoil was difficult to hide. On his way to the bathhouse, Yuugi had led, saying little but likely aware of his feelings. An uninvited stench tested his composure; acidic and foul, someone had made a mess by the side of one of the narrower roads; it threatened to draw out the bilious contents of his own stomach. Kawanami stilled his breathing and concentrated on walking. Somehow, he managed not to contribute to the dank urban fragrance.
His sensitivity made him pick up immediately the mineral-rich moisture in the air as he stepped into the bathhouse. He was surprised by how similar the space was to the large public bath in the village—he might have expected the wood and high ceiling but not a facsimile of the usual dour-faced attendant, albeit with darker skin and a brown horn jutting out off-center from his head. Yuugi exchanged a quick word with the creature and urged Kawanami onward.
It seemed that weren’t many patrons about at that time of day. He got undressed and forged ahead, finding that the bath area was a large natural-looking space made of rocks and stones. It was enclosed by wooden partitions and had no roof. A single gold-and-copper-colored oni was soaking at one end of the area, by a large boulder that doubled as a section of wall. The oni gave him a quick glance, sharp dark eyes standing out in a head full of bristles of wild, silvery hair. Muscled arms folded over a ruddy red chest as he submerged his broad torso slightly deeper into the hot water.
Kawanami imagined himself to stink given his activities since … however long it had been since he left the village. He took his time to clean himself before dipping heading into the bath proper. He was unsure if the waters came from a natural spring or if it had been heated artificially. As he was deep under a mountain, it seemed likelier that primordial forces were responsible.
The water was hot and it caused an intensity of feeling when it came into contact with his cool, freshly-washed, skin. He did not hesitate to press forward and his body creaked and groaned as he settled into a sheltered edge of the area, his back touching a large stone. A nearby lamp emitted a mildly acrid scent of burning oil which somehow reminded him of burning incense.
His father, pragmatic to the point of obstinacy, often found excuses to repurpose things—even votive candles or incense that had been unneeded and left unused was burned from time to time just for the sheer pleasure of it. No one questioned his decisions. Young Kawanami had never approached his household shrine but had nonetheless been intimately aquatinted with the smell of sandalwood.
His thoughts started to become more coherent as he soaked the calm warmth of his surroundings. The water was agreeable once he got used to the temperature. He meant to think more of oni, more about his drinking companion but instead found dissolving into a comfortable state of nothingness. The public bathhouse in the village was too noisy and his own private bath too solitary to produce much in the way of true detachment.
The other bather stood up before too long. Kawanami spied the crag-like body moving out of the bath from the corner of his eye but paid him no real mind. Etiquette demanded nothing less. Oni were larger and stronger, yes, but he was quickly understanding that they were otherwise similar enough to humanity in many ways. As such, he showed the same discretion he would have shown at the village.
All was silent for some time.
The worst of his headache was close to passing. So he hoped. The pressure inside his skull was decreasing slowly but surely just as his airways opened up due to the heat. He recalled talk of sake strong enough to fell an oni and wished to never find out whether such a thing could really exist. Already he had seen oni in a state of deep inebriation and had thought that there were fair comparisons to be made to the infamous luncheons enjoyed by the old men of the village; they would decide tariffs and the next season’s field rotations with the same ease with which they drained their cups. Doubtlessly, they would be comfortable spending time at Satou’s pub.
The stillness of the bath was interrupted by a small splash of water. The oni had rejoined him after cooling off a little, he imagined.
He kept his eyes shut and kept to himself. Only when he felt that there was a presence near him, moving through the water in his direction did curiosity get the better of him. A faint laugh escaped his dry throat as he recognized the arrival. “This is a mixed bathing area?”
“It may as well be,” she said with heavy indifference. She carried herself with the same self-possession as when fully clothed. Yuugi joined him, finding a place to sit nearby. She set herself down and spread out her arms on the rocky edge of the bath. Placing a small bottle that she had been carrying onto a flat bit of stone behind her, a flat cup was then brought to her lips. With a triumphant smack after a gulp, her arms then stretched out to either side along the rocky edge; she was close enough that she only had to lean a little and she could touch him with the tip of her fingers. The previous oni had had extravagantly chiseled arms but Yuugi’s more subtly-braided cords of muscle appeared to be no less powerful. With a tilt of her head, she asked, “Do you want to be alone?”
“No,” he answered truthfully.
“Good, because you have to put up with it either way. I hate pointless complaining.”
Kawanami closed his eyes once more and began to relax. Yuugi’s actions were neither modest nor immodest as far as he was concerned—it was simply how oni behaved. Even if he were outraged, he could not hope to change a creature that was as powerful as lightning. So it stood to reason that he should carry on and instead focus on managing his own behavior.
“Want a drink?” the oni offered.
“I drank too much last night. I need a break.”
“It was an interesting experience.”
“Drinking in a place full of oni was new to me. I wasn’t sure if what Satou gave me would kill me or not. I’m at least proud I managed to drink the whole bottle by the end of the night….” he wished to add “with help”, but thought it unnecessary as he had done most of the work.
“Mmm, what an unusual human you are,” she seemed to relish the conclusion, emitting a noise akin to roiled gravel. A few moments later he realized it had been a chuckle.
 It was unclear what she expected from a typical human, much less an unusual one.  Oni likewise behaved in ways that were unexpected and unlike their depictions in stories.
[x] Oni likewise behaved in ways that were unexpected and unlike their depictions in stories. I mean, he's spent a lot of time noticing pretty much this.
>opening scene Wow, sounds like the lad had alcohol poisoning and took a quick trip to the Sanzu before pulling back.
What a splendid reference to the 2020 Touhou-Project arbiter-in-training story, Judge Not!
>When roused, the man had presented a pained face—a pathetic look, really—which had served as a reminder of human fragility. It was possible, she thought, that there was melancholy in his eyes—an oni who finished off the last of their store might display their affliction similarly. She did not think herself callous enough to ignore that. Big softie. Imagine a big, strong star-bear hug...
>An uninvited stench tested his composure; acidic and foul, someone had made a mess by the side of one of the narrower roads Sometimes I opine being unable to imagine the smell; this is not one of them.
>a brown horn jutting out off-center from his head Off-center naturally or from a few good whacks from rowdy patrons? Are horns kind of like noses or any other facial feature for oni? It'd kind of make sense. Makes me wonder what their beauty standards are. Are big, curvy horns an ideal? Straight horns? A single horn? Two horns? Surely, there's some ideal there.
>given his activities since … however long it had been since he left the village. That's a good question. How long has he been gone? The journey down seemed to take a couple of hours at least, then at least a night seems to have passed. Is this where the whole 'human time is different for everyone' point is poking at? Hmh.
Anyway, one can only shudder at the idea of the fury one would invite trying to step into an oni bath unwashed. A mortal would probably discover new degrees of pain yet unconceived before expiring.
>more hints at Kawanami's family You tease. He's definitely of some comfortable background, but what else? Offshoot of a generously-landed country samurai family turned landlords? Reasonably prosperous provincial merchants? I know it's gotta be one of those.
>he was quickly understanding that they were otherwise similar enough to humanity in many ways Well, they act similarly enough. Of course, he can't see into Yuugi's head like we can.
I wonder if oni truly being like humans would disappoint him. Or does that fall under the 'unusual things' in the underground that his focus is falling towards?
>Yuugi’s more subtly-braided cords of muscle /r/ deeper descriptions of Yuugi's muscles, including an examination by touch
The water felt tepid against her skin; the sake that she drank in large gulps imparted a similar feeling in her stomach. An oni, used to inhospitable hells, could withstand much more. The ebullience she had felt when she first stolen the human away had reminded her of those long-absent extremes.
The man’s question—politely but clearly stated—hung about, mixing with the moist air that surrounded the bath. She felt his eyes discretely on her, their dark oaken depths hoping for a response. Oni did not mince words nor tolerate delayed replies. A loud and firm acknowledgement was what he deserved. Anything less might as well be a mewl.
Yuugi reached for the bottle she had brought with her. She poured more sake into her cup. She drank. A moment later she poured more. As she drank again, she could not help but be bothered by her vacillation. It was becoming an altogether annoying habit.
Well, what did he expect her to say? She did not doubt that his awe was absolute and unabashed. His comportment—deferential but unafraid—could well be explained by that fact. As she sipped her drink pensively, she did not taste its flavor. To be larger than life, to be the subject of myth, expectations, curses and charms across generations….
Yuugi grunted to buy herself more time.
Perhaps not unafraid, she corrected the earlier thought, but unhesitatnt. The drive to push forward had little to do with fear; a man may opt to face a rampaging demon due for any number of reasons; a lack of choice leads to desperation that displaces reason; intoxication or stupefaction from drink can mimic courage likewise. It was difficult to tell with humans what the case might be and, even had she asked him what he felt, she could not trust the words of someone who so thoroughly lacked common sense. She tried not to smile at the conceit that he continued to drink of her deeply and greedily.
Her lips lingered on the edge of the cup for a moment before she finally made up her mind for good. She placed the cup behind her and gave the human her full attention, finding that he did not look away as she stared hard into his face.
The answer, when it came, was posed as an unfair question, “Would you rather I had crushed your bones and drank your blood?”
“… No,” the man replied simply.
“Then why ask about how oni behave and what we are like as a society? Isn’t the fact that you are alive enough of a prize. Or have humans really become so greedy as to expect more from those banished from the surface?”
“I am curious,” the man said, never breaking eye contact.
The oni thought, with impish acerbity, that such earnestness could be disarming. A softer creature than her might have even found it charming. While she did not let herself believe in the promise of deep adoration, she was, nonetheless, reminded of how oni could become deities through faith. And, conversely, how a scorned or forgotten deity could become like her.
Was that something that the man knew? He seemed to be at least somewhat cultured, having let slip something of what transpired around Suzuka. In bloodier times, when humans brought on conflict and then blamed her kind, she might have suspected him as a disguised warrior, looking to best her by cunning and take her head as a trophy; a meddlesome priest, perhaps, had he invoked Bishamonten. He certainly was no maiden, she thought as she suppressed a quiver on her lips that might have blossomed into a wry smile.
Times had changed. The man and his kind no longer posed any danger.
“Even if I felt like it, I’m not a good storyteller,” she said with a soft chuckle, still evasive for no good reason.
The man betrayed a lack of satisfaction with her reply for but a moment. His lips tightened into a thin line, draining blood from their surface, before his mouth returned to a more neutral configuration. There was nothing else that Yuugi could detect as different about him, save for the ongoing effects of the bath. Moisture and heat had caused his hair to clump up towards the edges of his face, bringing the eye towards the relatively sparser area at the crown, where time had begun to exact its toll upon youth.
“If you like,” the oni said with usual mirth, “I can drink and scream and run around wearing nothing but a loincloth, terrorizing all in my path. Would you like that?”
Though hers was an idle offer, it was not entirely uncommon for oni to do just that. Drink led many to lose control; something primal was accessed at the core of many others; a rage that simmered—the rage of the forgotten and despised—was present in most of those who a human might call demon. She wondered if the human would be paralyzed by the sight of her reveling in the glory that came with unbound terror. Would he, like a mayfly whose instinct orchestrates a fatal attraction towards heat and light, stay enraptured even as he became a shade, extinguished by club, fist, and perhaps even teeth?
“… If you don’t speak up, I won’t be able to hear you,” she unfairly interrupted any thoughts he might have been forming with a wicked laughing roar that was common to her kind. It lingered about in the air for a long time, joining the original question.
The man seemed to be stubborn, indeed, as he was not cowed by the truculent oni. He asked the same question in another way, “Yuugi, you are an oni. I am a mere human. I already know you can do as you please with me. Why continue to taunt and vex me?”
“Must I explain myself to you? What right do you have to demand it?”
“I don’t have a right,” he concluded softly.
“Weak men disgust me,” the oni smiled at him. It was a look that had been the prelude to killing in the remote past. She knew that no poet could hope to put into words the terror it had once caused. Any brute could growl or stomp their feet with anger. Real menace, the kind that froze the blood of hardened men, was both more subtle and more powerful.
The man seemed troubled at her declaration. He withdrew into himself, breaking away eye contact for the first time. Nude, he appeared all the more naked as he closed his eyes, submerged more of his body into the bath and seemed to get lost in his own thoughts.
By contrast, whatever doubts may have kept her from enjoying the moment fully were exorcised. The oni poured herself yet more sake but did not hurry to drink; Yuugi let her shoulders slump back and her muscles relax in the lukewarm water; her sharp red horn pointed up at the unseen rock ceiling above as she titled her head back; she felt comfortable, no different than when wearing clothes, even as her bare breasts caused a small splash as she adjusted her body to its new position.
Yuugi became bored of bathing eventually. The drink was not as good as it could have been and the man had not risen to the challenge. On the latter note, she had instructed that “oni do not hesitate” but doubted that her lesson had been understood. No challenge of “what right do you have?” was uttered either.
In their long history, oni had always been outsiders. Sociable but shunned by society. It was a fact that most of her kind accepted and it colored outlooks and set their direction. It expedited their retreat from the surface and away from humans. All that had led to loneliness but also to freedom. Whenever a voice was not heard was simply because it did not dare to be loud enough.
“Speak firmly,” she wished to tell him again, “make me hear you.”
Instead, she stood and withdrew from the bath. She dried herself off and got changed, readying herself to deal with reality again.
The underground settlement was not flat and uniform. Kawanami had already seen taller buildings ribboned by light and ornately decorated with immaculate coats of paint that stood in direct contrast to the simpler and less maintained residences on the periphery. It was difficult to tell in the dark but, as far as he could tell, the city had several slopes in either direction—some with a subtle incline that extended on for as far as the eye could see while others with a pronounced difference similar to a hillock on the surface.
He eventually found himself firmly in a small valley—peeks between buildings showed that larger structures sat on low crowns on either side. The underground rain had collected at the lower points in the sloping streets and dark, unlit, puddles were found every few steps. People, too, seemed to be attracted to the downhill spots and the market was slowly coming to life with carts setting up on either either side of the street.
Yuugi had been mostly quiet since they had left the bathhouse. That was perhaps for the best. Kawanami did not know how to approach her again, much less express what had been fermenting within him for some time. In his bemusement, he trailed behind without a word.
It seemed senseless to spend time in a dank place, full of still water and the whiff of decay that came from bits of discarded food. What remained of the feeling of fresh and reddened flesh, scrubbed clean, was quickly dissipating.
Yuugi attracted recognition wherever she went, much in the same fashion as when he first arrived at the underground city. A few would approach her to impart a greeting or engage in a brief chat, ignoring him entirely during the exchange.
Had Kawanami been a particularly proud man, he might have felt insulted. Had Kawanami been able to offer a retort to Yuugi in the bath, he would not have withdrawn into himself.
It had not been fear that had caused him to hold his tongue. He said nothing because he agreed with her. That was the fundamental issue. A strong man would not have come underground seeking an oni. A strong man would not harbor foolish delusions of change, upheld by unjustified hope. A strong man … however it was that he thought … it was foolish to try to act strong without first being sure of things.
The truth did not make Kawanami overly gloomy—withdrawn, to repeat a kindness, sure—and he did not waver from his purpose. Ever since he had decided upon his plan, all those many weeks ago, he knew that he would either succeed or not return home at all. Should drinking his blood and feasting on his entrails bring someone happiness, he would not mind death so much.
He continued on forward as best as he could, willfully ignorant of his origin and ultimate destination.
Yuugi had tensed up a little, projecting a stern aura of authority about her. She did not have to scowl to make it understood that she wished to be left alone. The well-wishers and chattering others who were full of inanities were repelled, avoiding eye contact or pretending to be busy as Yuugi passed by. It was an incredible thing to witness.
The trick was not at all obvious to him. He just knew that Yuugi wished to be left alone. Her walk seemed as carefree as usual and her expression—something between an amicable smile and playful smirk—was also the same. Was it something in her shoulders? The oni wore her clothes loosely and her lower neck and upper shoulders were both exposed. There was nothing to that, he figured, but nothing more obvious came to mind.
A far less subtle change happened soon enough: Yuugi stopped and crossed her arms, her eyes narrowing. An oni was waving to her from further down the street, wearing workman’s clothing, the thick kind that a metalworker might wear. Kawanami scanned Yuugi’s face and was surprised to see just the slightest hint of worry in the form of creasing around her mouth.
“You need to straighten something out,” the arrival wasted no time on pleasantries, his deep voice booming from a squat, rectangular head, “there’s another one. Back of the second distillery.”
“I’ll have a talk with her later,” Yuugi spat out, “busy right now.”
“If you don’t sort ‘em out, we’re going to have to interrupt production. And then we’ll be below the target and-”
“-then the other agreements are in trouble,” Yuugi finished the sentence. She started at the oni’s weathered face and did not seem impressed. He did not show the slightest hint of humor in him as he returned the look.
“You are stronger than me,” he said with indifference. If it was a form of flattery, then it sounded too factual and too cutting, judging from the shake of Yuugi’s head. A reminder, then.
“All this fuss for some shitty booze, huh?” Yuugi asked with a shrug. The other oni replied with a shrug of his own.
“Unexplainable,” A more natural smile returned to her face.
“Yes.” It seemed like they might have an understanding.
Any trace of annoyance or doubt was gone from the blonde oni. With a throaty chuckle, she pressed her hand onto Kawanami’s head, giving it a sloppy and altogether-too-rough pat. “You’re right to take a break from drinking,” she told him, “brings nothing but trouble. I gotta do this thing and I’ll be busy for a while. You’re clever enough to figure out how things work so you won't starve. Be good and don’t get yourself killed. We’ll get back to it some other time.”
The other oni did not even acknowledge the interaction, instead turning away, confident that Yuugi would join him. The pair walked away briskly, exchanging a few more words that were lost to the noise of the streets. They soon turned a corner and disappeared from view.
Why Yuugi had taken him to a market in the first place remained unclear. Kawanami was left to his own devices.
 Curiosity drove him to take a closer look at the market and see if there were any interesting trades to be made.  The mention of industry and spirits made him wish to explore the other city quarters and see how its inhabitants lived.
[x] The mention of industry and spirits made him wish to explore the other city quarters and see how its inhabitants lived. Whilst it would be interesting to see the sorts of things that oni and other pariahs covet, getting a lay of the land and a general sense of the diorama of underground life would be nice. What other parts of the former capital — if we're indeed even there and not somewhere outside — are there to be seen? Even if it's potentially dangerous because of the vengeful spirits, there's also the chance of getting near the Moriyas' pet energy operation. Or maybe the monke's manor, though I doubt Kawanami would ever be allowed to approach. Really, there's no telling what else is out there at this juncture.
>The ebullience she had felt when she first stolen the human away Evocative choice of words when paired with the imagery of boiling hells.
>As she drank again, she could not help but be bothered by her vacillation. It was becoming an altogether annoying habit. Hmm. I'm not sure if I have the right end of this, but it seems that Yuugi is hesitating over something as of late. Perhaps something has been going on in her life as Kawanami has entered? He certainly seemed to be something of a brief diversion for her. Wonder what's going on there.
>“Would you rather I had crushed your bones and drank your blood?” Yes.
> [...] what transpired around Suzuka [...] looking to best her by cunning and take her head as a trophy An Ootakemaru reference, I see. Unsure what the other two points might be referencing, though. I feel like there's been a lot of this sort of stuff sprinkled in here and there. Very interesting to spot.
>“If you like,” the oni said with usual mirth, “I can drink and scream and run around wearing nothing but a loincloth, terrorizing all in my path. Would you like that?” Yes.
>coloured words I'm still not sure what you're doing with this, but I like to see it happening. It doesn't feel like a gimmick or anything like that, so it's interesting.
>In their long history, oni had always been outsiders [...] it colored outlooks and set their direction. [...] Whenever a voice was not heard was simply because it did not dare to be loud enough. Seems like something to keep in mind when trying to understand oni stuff in future.
>People, too, seemed to be attracted to the downhill spots Why might that be? Easier to go downhill than up? Doesn't seem like that'd be it, but who knows.
>It seemed senseless to spend time in a dank place, full of still water and the whiff of decay that came from bits of discarded food. More smells. I get the feeling that living in Oniville is a stankfest.
>He said nothing because he agreed with her. That was the fundamental issue. A strong man would not have come underground seeking an oni. A strong man would not harbor foolish delusions of change, upheld by unjustified hope. A strong man … however it was that he thought … it was foolish to try to act strong without first being sure of things. Okay, so we're starting to get a little more of a picture of what Kawanami's down there for, I guess. He sees oni as big and strong and... wants to be like them? Hmm. Seems odd. Maybe there's more to this than meets the eye?
>“You need to straighten something out,” the arrival wasted no time on pleasantries, his deep voice booming from a squat, rectangular head, “there’s another one. Back of the second distillery.” >“I’ll have a talk with her later,” Yuugi spat out, “busy right now.” Now, were these referring to the same thing/person, or was Yuugi talking about someone else? I don't think it's likely, given what we know, but maybe she's talking about talking to Satori about vengeful spirits? Seems like a hint at something, anyway. Maybe things are happening.
The dark space between the tiled rooftops of the Former Capital and the cavern ceiling was home to a complex system of currents. Invisible and unnoticed by most residents of the underground, air circulated constantly. Their sources and destinations were the various tunnels and passageways that disgorged at or fed from—depending on an observer’s perspective—the central area where the settlement was rooted. Doubtlessly there were tributaries, eddies, estuaries and everything else that might be expected from a system of that size. All playing a role in the replenishment of the atmosphere and the necessary work of tempering the incessant heat that came from the deeper parts of what had once been hell.
In her moments of idleness, Parsee often thought about what it would be like to ride around those currents of air. On a boat, of course, and making no effort—just allowing herself to be swept along, adrift but content. It would be preferable to drift along real waterways—towards, perhaps, a lake or an unimaginably-large sea—but she knew that to be an even greater impossibility. Youkai such as her, detested and consigned to the deep earth, could only dream of the warm sun and the gentle waves of a river lapping earnestly upon her. Still the fantasy persisted.
She settled for the invisible shoreline that could be found just above the roofs of the taller buildings and watched the city below. Up there the noise from the streets quickly lost most of its volume and even the most cacophonous of events dissipated when met by the cool silence of the flowing air. The quiet formed a bubble in which she had license to think for as long as she pleased. Should she grow bored, or wish to move away from her own preoccupations, the twinkling of lights from the city below provided stimulating distraction; the full view of the never-ending spectacle of daily life was a comforting escape.
The wooden railing creaked as she shifted her posture and let her arms slack. Her chin came to rest upon the back of her hands, themselves resting upon the aged surface. The small platform that she stood upon, perched casually on the center of the rooftop, might have once been manned by a sentry who kept watch over a portion of hell. The vertiginous lookout, high above the last lantern and painted lacquer black, hid her from casual glances stolen from any nearby windows or the busy street below.
Not that anyone in the capital would be looking for her.
The oni were almost always too busy being amused with themselves and their antics to perceive the world beyond the bottom of a sake bottle. Their activity—often exemplified by the raucous gatherings in public spaces—was both excessive and pointless, she felt. There was much that Parsee knew about those displays and their intricacies but her mind refused to set down that well-trod path. At least for the time being. It was enough to note with some satisfaction that although their festivities were open to all, they were almost exclusively attended by oni. The pecking order may have been clearly understood but so was what everyone aside from the horned revelers thought of it.
The others … there were too many others to generalize about. Parsee typically preferred to think about them more than the oni. They were, after all, mostly like her; the shunned and misunderstood mass of creatures that humanity had very little tolerance for were weaker than oni and far more repellent. Some skulked in eternal loneliness, others formed their own communities. Always in the shadows, even the relative lambency of the city failed to showcase much of their lives. Glimpses and a few scattered scenes, incomplete and underwhelming, was all that one could hope to observe from time to time.
She watched all the usual echoes of humanity happening down in the streets: greetings, conversations, displays of affection and all the darker impulses besides. At times, something would stir within her, hot and volatile, but it would usually be snuffed by the cool quiet that surrounded her.
The power of her heart was intimately known and she allowed its call to become dominant from time to time. She did not mind the loss of control, the intensity of feeling, and the despair that sometimes followed. Why should she? It was part of her nature. She could not deny herself any more than an oni could deny the allure of the bottle.
The same conclusion was reached time and again, perhaps to justify the intensity of the events—or at least the lack of mitigation. There were other answers, surely, but none that were obvious and fewer still that could dare to match the intensity of her rapture. With acceptance more-or-less assured—should she feel it must come to that—she might have well have stayed in an introspective state, thinking about her lot and the lack of satisfaction foisted upon her. The movement of a figure down below, moving with purpose through the crowd, teased her that that an alternative may be possible. At least for the day. The culprit was an oni, of course. His destination was….
From the dark, clarity was beginning to come to her.
The oni being true to themselves … the freedom of the underground was possible only because of its restrictions. How much of that was conceit? The youkai below could leave if they wanted; she could leave if she wanted. Were the noisy streets, those conversations, all that conflict on display just the indifferent voicing of thoughts and outpouring of natures? It suddenly struck her that perhaps there was no greater purpose or desire at play yet things could not be any other way.
Surrendering to fate, freedom of action would follow. It was a comical sequence of events that seemed to mock her delusions of probity. The oni were to blame. As usual.
Less than a day had passed. She had held back; her initial reluctance had not come from a misguided attempt to spare herself nor, much less, deny her desires; she had been concerned about the messiness, that imperfection that arose from circumstance and mental capacity. In short, she had been picky and had decided to let things reach a slow simmer before acting. Only then could she hope to delight herself fully.
Parsee abandoned that plan as quickly as she had decided upon it in the first place.
An oni, serious in their pursuit, would not hesitate and neither would she. The encounter-to-be, sure to happen because she had come up to be by herself … just what exactly was that oni thinking? She abandoned everything to go with her fellow oni. Was she so indifferent to the draw of humanity? Were their natures truly so different? There was no denying that both could be bloody-minded. Perhaps she was confident that she could reclaim her prize without effort, without consequences. How detestable!
Parsee could not stand to be mocked thus.
When she next felt that inner heat—that inevitable longing—flare from embers, she did not let it dissipate. She raised herself from the railing and violated the silence again, green eyes stared hard at the streets below and at the lone figure, her body no longer lissome. A tension took to her muscles even as she felt like she could begin to melt in febrile excitement. She could no longer remain contented as a mere observer and so she decided to abandon the heights. Even if she was unsure or frightened that she would have to do something new … things could not be any other way, her mind insisted.
Ooh, it updated! I was beginning to wonder when we'd get more.
Even if it's not a really long update with a choice, I feel like it's a pretty jam-packed one. Gives me the feeling of one of those interlude chapters in a Steinbeck novel, though the narration there tends to be a bit more 'god's-eye view' than here. Then again, that doesn't feel like the point here. We're getting a little more of a peek of things from the long-range view of a cave elf, like the end of the second update, complete with green eyes, all from the vantage point of a lookout point possibly once occupied by one of Hell's sentries, perhaps meant to prevent the escape of the damned.
One thing I really like in this update is the fairly subtle playing with ideas of temperature. I'd never given much thought to the role that air currents would play in an underground city, but they would have to be pretty significant, especially in keeping things cool in a former Hell. We start off with the idea that Parsee is up in the rooftops to have a look down at everything where it's cool and quiet, and we end with her beginning to 'melt in febrile excitement' and 'abandon[ing] the heights', heading down to where the 'incessant heat [...] from the deeper parts of [...] hell' is more likely to be felt.
This all has to do with a force of sentiment felt by Parsee, of course. Meanwhile, the rest of the capital, despite its raucous activity, has a sense of 'lambency' to it — despite being bright and sparkly, that glow carries no heat. The non-oni skulk around and, as far as we see from the bridge princess's point of view, pointedly avoid the non-stop festivities going on around them. They reflect a lot of the same emotions felt by the humans who scorn them, most importantly including 'all the darker impulses'. And yet there is the perception on Parsee's part that the majority of that is the 'indifferent voicing of thoughts and outpouring of natures'; no particular thought or desire drives any of it beyond the inevitability of impulse. So, we see how Parsee justifies sinking into fits of envy and acting on them.
Overall, this update reflects a facet of this story that I feel a lot of stories don't cover very deeply. Namely, youkai themselves are reflections of humanity, and they can reflect a lot of those same feelings, desires, and impulses, but they also have a psychology that is fundamentally alien. We got some of that in the previous update with Yuugi's POV as well, but this makes it even clearer. After all, humans rarely find clarity in the dark, unlike the youkai here.
“Just this once … don’t tell anyone, alright? I have a reputation to protect, after all,” the woman said by means of final surrender. She looked him in the eyes, a coquettish smile on her lips.
Kawanami returned the smile, well-acquainted with the sweet little lies that were part and parcel to trade. He made a token show of last-minute doubt, as if to reassure her that she was the one actually getting the better end of the bargain. It was not a difficult concession. That well-worn mask was familiar to any who spent their days among merchants and peddlers. To haggle without it would be akin to a violation of sacred law.
In a sense, it did not matter how either party really felt about the pantomime. If profits were preordained, then surely their behavior was as a votive ritual. Her eyes lowered as he fetched his offering, hiding the anticipation well. Without rushing himself, he unwrapped the bundle and carefully separated the correct amount. Demonstrating its heft with a bob of his hand, he presented payment. The youkai gave it a polite and perfunctory inspection, taking it into her hand. With the other, she welcomed him to take his purchase from the wooden counter. Kawanami obliged. And so the trade came to an end.
“It has been a pleasure,” the youkai said, “I hope you will be back soon for more.”
He nodded as he stowed everything away in the haversack. The youkai offered a polite bow as he melted back into the the crowd.
After being abandoned, he had busied himself with exploration. Much as he might have liked to have ascribed his motivation to simple curiosity, his education had compelled him to amble about and to make as complete a survey as was possible. To have information—who sells what, where and for how much—was essential when it came to being able to survive. Had not his father revealed that mantra, insisting upon its truth for as long as he could recall? The tours of the market and of the various stores and stands, the social visits to merchants,and the plethora of bargains struck not only for goods but also for the relationships between families…. Day after day, season after season, year after year … that had been his habit and, by extension, became the habit of the son.
The thoroughness of the regimen made for many acquaintances but few friends. If there was an advantage to be had at the expense of the other, it was to be pursued. Objections, raised by the young and amiable son, were dismissed as mere noise. He was not to speak in the presence of others, lest they think their position discordant and exploitable; in practice the son never spoke, as—when they were together—they were almost always away from home. Only entrusted with the actual execution of agreements or with minor and unimportant transactions, the son never thought of himself as particularly competent, let alone incisive when it came to business.
Truthfully, there had been no need to make a trade. It had been a pilgrimage of opportunity. Kawanami found himself questioning his motivations. Repetition of tenets eventually made obligations out of opportunities. Was that what he was telling himself? He had not been coerced and, at the moment, no better alternative had presented itself. It was an act of devotion. Duty. An appropriate tribute. Just as above he had followed the form of things even when he was sneered at, even when he had been told that he would no longer need to worry himself with anything. Meant to keep quiet and to follow along once again. He better not let foolish notions of pride get in the way, they had insisted. It would be for the best.
His neck felt stiff and perspiration moistened his shoulders and upper chest.
Scampering after oni by venturing into parts unknown … he had done so once before, so why hadn’t he done so again? Nothing substantive had changed. Yet the unease that he felt had not been there the day before. Or perhaps its incipient form had been masked by his fatalistic purpose. The oni’s words may have helped cultivated it. But that, like his upbringing, felt like an overly-convenient and underwhelming explanation. However much he might wish to reach some sort of definite conclusion, he did not trust himself to determine the complete truth of things.
He tried to focus on the tangible, feeling alone in the mass of non-humans. Concentration above all else! He gripped his haversack and held it close as he squeezed by a pair of dark-skinned creatures who made a show of their indifference by crossing their arms as he passed. The contents of his bag was proof that he still retained some common sense. It was a treasure trove of things coveted by humans. Luxuries. Silken cloth. Gems, dark and stormy in their uncut form but certain to reveal their crystalline charm with some work; they would enchant the most mundane of trinkets into fine jewelry; around a pale neck or a thin wrist they would draw the eye and demonstrate privilege.
If he ever returned to the village, he would have something tangible to show for his adventure. If he did not receive recognition, as he expected, then he could at least console himself with a tidy profit. The knickknacks and salt he had traded away would not be missed.
… Ultimately, he had acted to quiet several of the spirits that haunted him. Those ugly creatures, opprobrious and fearsome never left his side…. The evil they inflicted was surely greater than what any youkai could manage. Although he was sure that the creatures that he passed and spoke to—some beastly, proudly displaying claw or fang—could be cruel and merciless, their torment would end with his death. By contrast, those spirits would bind him to the earth, leaving him in misery for an eternity. Regret and sorrow would be sure to turn him into a restless spirit.
The energies that swirled around places of trade tended to exhaust him. A crowd was an organism that drew the energy of all for its own fleeting existence. He found it difficult to breathe and blamed it on the stench produced by the combination of dirty, pooled water and the masses of bodies that pressed up against one another. The freshness that he felt after the bath was a distant memory. His hands were cold. He made for higher ground, keeping to wherever the throng was its sparsest.
At some point the crowd began to thin and its densest point became a blur, half-hidden by distance and height. Kawanami found a dark little space by an extinguished lantern where a small stone bench was pressed up against a wall. The wall itself surrounded an earthen pillar that originated from the dark ceiling above. In a daze, he had traveled uphill until reaching the outskirts of the city. There was hardly anyone around and the few youkai that he did see minded their own business. As a result, the area was eerily quiet.
He sat and tried to recuperate. His fingers trembled as they held his silver pipe. For safety, he set it down upon his lap.
The packing process was a struggle. Several false starts where he failed to loosen the string on his pouch forced him to close his eyes and attempt to push away the anxiety before proceeding. Once open, he withdrew a pinch of material carefully and began to rub it in a nominally-practiced fashion between fingers. Failure ensued; the fibrous tobacco stubbornly refused to form into a uniform ball and it somehow felt especially dry and flaky. Was it his own fingers that were cold and dry, greedily sucking the moisture from everything he touched? He looked at his hand, unsure if it could be described as leathery. The lack of sunlight obscured the truth. With quiet exasperation, he instead stuffed the collapsing mass of tobacco into the bowl as it seemed likely that it would otherwise all become waste.
The pipe swayed as he pressed it up against his lips. It would not steady. Perhaps it would be best not to light it. Although he could breathe—and, indeed, the air felt cool and fresh against his face and nose—the promise of fire and smoke might well suffocate him. A sense of stubbornness, unwilling to admit that he had been wrong, made him grip the pipe tightly, his fingers wrapping along the finely-polished metal. As nausea lapped at the bottom of his throat he stared blankly ahead.
The energy that he possessed just a day or so ago was nowhere to be found. Or, rather, wasn’t it that he had been possessed by energy? For what else could drive a man to abandon what remained of his life in the manner that he had? That bright beacon of the otherworldly had dragged him deep into the city and there he had drank to excess but, even so, his own somber thoughts had been unable to dispossess him of his mania. Kawanami knew that he was, once again, thinking too much. No alternative presented itself. Nothing obvious could account for his deep unease save for certainty that he had made a colossal blunder.
His drive had been senseless and unnatural. Without it, he was enfeebled. He had been left with nothing more the empty echo of an illusion and he could no longer tell if the memories since he left his home were actually real. They had become phantoms and apparitions that haunted his mind. Was it a permanent transformation or could they be transformed? Perhaps dyed with colors of his own choosing?
To proceed, to calm himself, to make sense of things, to prosper…! It all seemed very indulgent. But he reminded himself that there was no alternative. He recalled the flowers petals as they flowed downstream. What he carried made him sluggish, nearly to the point of stagnation, but could not halt him completely. He had cause to urge himself forward, crashing up against rocks if it came to that. So what if he pretended to transform despair into an act of self-love? Waves could be violent but they ultimately signified motion.
Kawanami lit his pipe. He aspirated without feeling the taste of the tobacco, merely contented with the pointless defiance.
Green eyes found him in the darkness, their look so bright that he felt impaled upon them. What was already an inexplicable confluence of thought became a whirlpool.
A smile was proffered, a mechanical reflection of his earlier prayer. “How nice to see you again,” he said, feeling his throat dry and scratchy. It was a wonder that his voice did not break.
Those eyes narrowed as the youkai presented a scowl. It was a shadow that made the light that had him captivated seem all the more bright. The brashness that she exuded was something that Kawanami had not witnessed the first time they had met. It made her exotic features beautiful as he recognized that they reflected something familiar: humanity.
“I was wondering when you would stop ignoring me,” came her vituperative greeting, “I have been with you for some time now.”
Smoke wafted from his pipe, making the youkai seem almost part of an illusory haze. He felt his pulse acutely in his hands as he let the pipe come to a rest onto his lap again.
“Are you really that carefree? Or are you maybe looking down on me?”
“… No, it’s nothing like that,” he exhaled.
While Kawanami felt himself listless, he saw in the youkai enviable vivacity. A few paces separated them and he was immersed in shadow. Still he saw the newness of her skin, lucent and clear as a freshly-peeled bulb, flushing with rosy vitality on her throat, face, and the tips of her elongated ears. Had he a mirror, he suspected that a chalky paleness would be reflected from his face.
“Would you like to join me here?” he made room on the bench. He did not know what else to say to her.
“You stink,” she said, crossing her arms.
Kawanami ran his hand across the back of the neck, finding that the perspiration had only been momentary; his skin felt dry. Regardless, he made a show of pulling at his collar and sniffing. “You are likely correct, I was not aware it was that evident.”
“No, I didn’t mean it like that!” she was impatient and snapped at him. A vague feeling of guilt washed over Kawanami.
He thought about what she meant. Using a swift motion, he smothered his pipe. “Not everyone appreciates the smell of this fine tobacco,” he said with a sigh.
“Ah, surely no one would mind me killing such a foolish human….”
That would be considered a startling statement. Yet Kawanami did not feel at all perturbed. A laugh escaped his lips, faint and involuntary. He had thought long and hard about how a youkai might find and kill him but never did he question the why—it was because he was a human. A frank musing like hers was mildly titillating if he was honest. He became aware of the beating in his chest and the effect that it had on his energy. From the moment he had set out he had been prepared to reach the end of that river.
Parsee approached him, a hunger on her lips that looked out of place with the disgust in her brow. She hovered over him, looking down while he kept his head level. Her scarf hung in front of her, radiating a florid scent; winter peonies that bloomed thanks to a warm sun or perhaps white camellias or even wisteria, their fragrance a herald of spring; it was her scent, fresh and invigorating. He thought of the seasons and of the trees that so faithfully produced flowers in the garden. He would observe them from his room whenever he tired of reading. Delicate petals formed from a bulb in such a short time, with almost no warning.
Her lips parted and he felt the warmth of her breath on his forehead. It made him think that he must also, surely, possess some warmth within. From deep in his chest he could feel the stirrings of blood.
He turned his gaze upward and saw how close her head was to his. They had plunged into a close and almost transparent darkness together. The gleam of her teeth was visible. It matched the glint of her softening eyes; her lips formed a smile, sly and mysterious as golden hair fell from her head, tickling and burning his forehead and cheeks. He caught his breath and held it until his lungs began to ache.
They remained as they were for an uncountable amount of time. There was something instinctual that generated a sense of expectancy that penetrated his whole being; hers as well, he imagined. He breathed it and it permeated his every drop of blood, presentment flowing through his veins. Whether it meant death and ruin or life and salvation, he could not tell.
Her breath was soft and moist as she whispered into his ear, “Your troubles give you away. They excite the blood of youkai, awaken their hunger, turns them into the monsters that they know they are. From vast distances they would notice the scent of your thoughts, the perfume of spice and dreams, and do anything to wallow in it. I’m jealous of that power but I’m also thankful that I can intoxicate myself like this right now.
“Fear, hatred and all those other things that humans feel before they die—they entice youkai to act out and to be cruel. In a place for the damned, for those of us who are not worthy of finding our place under the sun, it can lead to madness. Even the oni have spent hundreds of years without knowing the taste of humanity … aren’t you afraid for your life?”
The blood streamed quickly through his body and he felt his strength return. Was he once again possessed? “I knew that I would likely have to settle for either being forgotten, mocked, or made use of. I came here knowing that and without expectations of being understood.”
“And you wouldn’t mind if I killed you?”
“Could I stop you?”
“No, but the laws that youkai are bound by keep us in check,” she laughed grimly, her head grazing against his for a moment. “That does not mean there aren’t limits to our restraint. And, well, if threw away your life willingly … ah!” she paused and squatted until her face was at the same level as his, “some would not hesitate to consume all that you are.”
“And, would you like to do that?” he asked breathlessly, lost in the deep sea of green that had not only immobilized him but also threatened to pull him in and drown him at once. The whirlpool churned at the speed of his pulse.
“No,” she said lightly, as it if was an unimportant matter, “unlike the oni, I am not a fan of flesh. I prefer a nice jeweled rice, richly spiced, if you would believe that.”
“I do believe it,” he said. Being near her was like being at the edges of a storm. A sudden shift of the wind and he could, in theory, be consumed by its turbulent depths. That precariousness allowed him to better appreciate warmth wherever it could be found. And so he was unafraid. Had the fair-headed youkai wished to do him harm, she could have taken advantage of him at any moment. There was no need to justify herself or her kind beforehand.
“You’re a kind human,” she said and pressed her forehead against his. Perhaps he had been wrong in his choice of flower: the white rhododendron was rich and fragrant but that fact was not immediately obvious unless one came close to its blooms. “I don’t want to share you with the oni.”
She separated from him and remarked, “You seem calmer now.”
“Am I?” he asked but felt that she was right. His hand was steady and he had no trouble breathing. The whirlpool had gone. “I suppose I have you to thank.”
Parsee shook her head, “No. If it were up to me I would have pushed you even farther. Drawing out your problems would be more intoxicating than the drinks we shared. My heart responds to yours.”
The youkai crossed her arms and cast her head downward, looking like she was self-conscious of his continued scrutiny. Youkai—he certainly thought the term applied as she exuded an undeniably exotic air—but also a person, a woman as well. Her sudden bout of shyness did not seem so different than that of some of the villagers he had known. A matter of natures? His, when younger, had at times been predisposed towards insecurity and impetuousness. As much as he had grown and changed, some of that still existed within him. With some amusement he noted that he could explain away the madness that had taken him to the underground with that.
Kawanami put away his pipe, dumping the half-burned tobacco without a care. He stood, steady on his feet and looked around. They were being observed but from afar by youkai who were behaving no differently than gossipy housewives keenly attuned to sources of entertainment.
He stood before the girl.
Hers was a quiet question, almost lost to the darkness, “Do I repulse you?”
 Kawanami had no reply.  Kawanami expressed the truth.
I don't see this as a simple 'Yes, he did that' versus 'No, he did not' choice. And it's certainly not about any relationship or lack thereof with the cave elf.
The thing is that if he expresses 'the truth', he's very likely to express himself in terms of the intoxication that she effects in him. I'm fairly certain he himself doesn't know whether or not he's repulsed by her. All he knows is that she is an attractive illusion that just as easily represents a means of his own destruction as anything. If he were to attach himself to her, it would be out of a sense of self-indulgence in a sort of childish defiance of his own inner-daemons — sought with an outer one.
By contrast, if he says nothing, he remains lost in the blur of everything he's strove to embed himself in. This is truer to the nature of his struggle; he cannot form bounds on what it is that he seeks, much less how to achieve it. Muteness is the nature of his existence back home. Whether he struggles against it or not, there is some part of him that will always tend towards reticence anyway. It's right there in the text: he doesn't 'trust himself to determine the complete truth of things.'
And, well, my view on votes of this sort is to follow what I feel are the most natural tendencies of those involved, so that makes things rather simple.
[x] Kawanami had no reply.
I wish I could satisfactorily express my appreciation of the craft that goes into updates like these. Perhaps it might be easy to see some of it as self-indulgent, but the dedication to thematicness in different passages is something I don't think I've seen much of elsewhere on THP.
My take on all this is that Kawanami is as much living in a haze of self-delusion as anything else. His life as a merchant's son — evidently one of relative ease and repose — felt empty, so he gave in to a desire to find 'something else' in hopes of filling the void. It's funny because there is a fascination with the non-human, and yet it's things that are very human that he attaches himself to and finds comfort from, to the extent that he exoticises the 'ordinary'; what he sees in Parsee is humanity, and he finds that beautiful.
Of course, there is a gap that can't feasibly crossed here. After all, he is, like all humans, unable to see in the dark, the thing that holds the underground together. He sees light that pierces through that darkness and is immediately attracted to it. In other words, he isn't anything like Parsee, who comes to clarity more easily in the umbra. He'll never be able to pull himself away from the comfort of the familiar, much like he'll never truly escape the dogma of mercantilism impressed on him.
I have a feeling all endings here would be bad for Kawanami. Perhaps he truly is a damned soul who belongs in the former Hell. He hasn't really left the world of humans out of a need for self-fulfillment, but merely to take his rightful place. But Hell's torments last for eternities and end in even more suffering.