"Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind"
Home. I'm in my father's house again, after a year and a half away. Eighteen months, or twenty-six years, depending on how you look at it.
The house is the same. The older inhabitants of the house are the same. 'Kai!' they say- or squeak or shrill- 'Kai, you're back! Kai's back!' The youkai under the porch, the spirit in the roof, the smallfry who run along the rafters-- 'Kai! Welcome back! Where *were* you?'
The younger inhabitants are another story. My mother is an old woman. My little sister has a teenaged son older than she was the last time I saw her, eighteen months ago. My father is dead-- has been for a dozen years. Even his spirit, that once was as much a part of the house as the paint on the walls and the boards of the floors, has faded away. I won't be meeting him here, not even his ghost. Any chance of seeing him again was taken from me by a country godling, quite without malice, just following her instincts the way spirits and animals do. The only thing left that still speaks of my father...
The only thing left of him wears a human body now, got from the brother-in-law I never knew. It looks at me with pale mad eyes- mad for a person, that is: quite normal for a shikigami. It can talk to me and, not surprisingly, has nothing good to say. Back when I was growing up I only caught glimpses of it when my father wasn't being careful. I wanted it even then- a form of power, a gleaming dragon huge and untamed- well, untamed by anyone but him. Who could resist it?
I always wondered how he got hold of that magnificence. Now I see it up close I begin to understand. Binding lesser spirits is like taming mice, or possibly rats- something small with teeth. It takes no great will or intelligence, and once you have them, they're yours for good. But with anything greater it's more like seduction, and I'm sure that's how my father did it.
I've done it myself, of course. They notice you first- they're aware of you the way a woman is of a man. You make a small sign, you let them know that you see them too, but that's all. That's enough to bring them closer. They can't help it: they're drawn to us by instinct. The younger ones fall into it like girls, not knowing any better. Other youkai they're naturally wary of, but they believe they've nothing to fear from humans. They think they'll gorge on us if we let them get close enough, and even when they find themselves bound by spell and seal, they're still half-happy just being near their master's energy. If they had any sense they'd be grateful as well: as long as they're our servants they'll never be some other youkai's lunch. Not that that ever occurs to them. Youkai live in an eternal now, as dogs do, and what might be has no reality for them.
The oldest ones know better. It takes a while for youkai to develop anything like a human memory but like dogs again, they do learn from experience. But though they don't trust us they still have that need to be close, the youkai hunger for spirit-stuff that's never satisfied. I've never managed to get one of the great ones for myself, but my father did, more than once. They couldn't leave him alone. He held an irresistible charm for them- he was quite the Casanova that way- and he had the cleverness necessary to lure them into the contracts that bound them for good. They gave into him in the end because a youkai's memory is no match for its belly or its gonads. The itch of the... spirit, I think, more than flesh, supposing youkai differentiate between the two, drove them into his arms. Where, like humans, they might repent at leisure; or, like wild dogs, still attempt to savage their master.
This one was the oldest and most powerful of the lot, and by a stroke of luck- my luck- it wasn't released when he died. It's still bound by the command he never rescinded, to remain and guard my sister's son.
It's sitting now on the porch at the back of the house, cross-legged in front of a go board as I approach along the verandah. I never thought to see it in a body belonging to this world, let alone a short-sighted middle-aged human one. There's a certain embarrassment about that. One reason it's so tetchy with me has to be that it resents someone who knows its true glory seeing its present mortifying comedown. But there's one advantage to the situation. It can't disappear when it sees me coming, as I'm perfectly convinced it wants to, but must put up with my company and conversation.
This present state of affairs, painful for both of us in our different ways, will have to continue until I manage to make the thing mine. Then we can finally let my brother-in-law's corpse return to dust. My father's shikigami may make difficulties about the change of ownership. I'm sure it would rather have my nephew as its master: Ritsu can't even begin to control it, so it does pretty much as it pleases. But I fancy it'll become reconciled once I free it from the dead flesh my father imprisoned it in. In a human body it can't eat other youkai, which is the main thing it wants to do. It has to be forever leaving to hunt and then coming back again. Tedious, I'd think, and probably not terribly good for that long-dead body either.
Even speaking to other youkai has to be problematic for it in this present form, unless we're talking unusually powerful youkai. Like the red-haired young man sitting now on the other side of the go board, who casts no shadow because the shape he wears is illusion. An illusion that approaches solidity: the body can move go pieces but not block the sun's rays, which argues a good deal of habituation on its owner's part. He knows I'm coming because he has eyeballs in the back of his head, shining whitely through the hair, and he turns around with surprising eagerness to greet me. His expression freezes when he sees my face with his ordinary eyes- becomes puzzled and confused and then indignant.
"You're not Ryou!"
"His son," the shikigami says, moving two pieces unseen. Should I call him Aoarashi, which is his name, or Takahiro, which is the name his body has? Aoarashi, I think: one should address the essence of a thing, not its appearance.
"I'm Kai," I say, and sit on the third side of their board. "How do you do? You were a friend of my father's?" Definitely power here: something not even my father could have tamed, I'd say.
"Yes, we used to hang out together." He eyes me skittishly. "You feel like him, except... How come you've change so much?"
There's no way to explain why I'm not my father so I don't try. The not-resemblance seems to bother him somehow, because he hunches himself away from me, going back to his game.
"Hey, what did you--" He's seen the new arrangement of the pieces.
"Your move," Aoarashi says, mouth lengthening in a lipless smile, pale eyes blinking malice.
"You cheated!" He pushes spitefully at the board. "Ryou used to cheat too. He must have taught you."
"He didn't have to," Aoarashi says, smug.
The youkai's face goes mean. "You think a lot of yourself for a blue-bummed baby--"
"Look who's talking, you senile fart!" Aoarashi bellows back. My father never bellowed, but if he had, he'd have sounded like Aoarashi does then. That makes me feel most odd.
"Stupid tadpole! Wet-eared whelp!" the youkai snaps. "God, the people in this house--" He gives me a white-eyed glance, like a shying horse. "You're disgusting! I'm not staying here another minute." And he's gone, winked out of existence.
Aoarashi picks up the go pieces, radiating satisfaction.
"I hope he always leaves when he's insulted," I observe. "I don't think you could get rid of him otherwise. Should you have let something like that in here in the first place?"
"Speaking of blue-bummed babies, are *you* telling me my business?"
"Someone has to."
He sniffs. "Ritsu was the one brought him here first. Go tell *him* who he should let into the house and not."
"He's at school."
"And his mother's out for the day and his grandmother's shopping for dinner. No one to be hurt by me amusing myself when I'm left alone like this."
"Unless your friend leaves something behind him after he goes."
He shrugs, unconcerned.
"You're being a bit careless for a guardian spirit." Worrying, that. "Maybe living in that body has dulled your natural reflexes?"
"My reflexes are fine. You needn't bother your little head about them."
"But this-" I indicate his human form- "has to be different from what you're used to, yes?"
He grunts. "More than *you'd* understand."
He looks at me with vague irritation. Not all his reflexes have grown dull: the one to distrust humans like me seems to remain quite acute. But he's bored, as he said, and vain as youkai are, and not likely to pass up a chance to talk about himself.
"There's no point trying to explain. You were born like this and it's all you know. *My* reflexes are dull? What about yours?"
"What about them?"
"They're a human's. Everything comes to you through that flesh of yours- those solid dull organs. Even the things that don't belong to your world- the things your mother doesn't even see- you still see them with the eyes in your skull, right?"
"Mh," I allow. "The light's all wrong, is how you can tell. Do you see differently?"
"If you don't have a body, even a spirit body, you don't *see* at all. The world doesn't look, it feels. Eyes- sight- it's a pretty game, but only an idiot would take it seriously."
"So if it's a game, what's the reality?"
He makes a face. "I can't explain," he says again. "The sense of things-- the feeling of them-- I know what things *are*. I knew what your father was. At the very start I felt the- the allness of him. When he gave me eyes, I could see his soul. It filled up the world. Then I came in here and saw with your human eyes and it made no sense. I was dizzy- confused- all this new stuff coming at me in ways I didn't understand, and the old ways not working right any more-- so of course I looked for Kagyuu. I heard his voice with all my ears and I followed it, and he was-- He wasn't him! I mean it *was* him because I knew the feel of him but he was all wrong! He was small. He was-- he was this little man!!" He looks at me in outrage and, even now, a huge puzzlement. "Your bodies don't see anything! And you still believe the silly things they show you!"
"Why shouldn't we? The eyes in the back of your friend's head, whatever those are, saw me as my father. The eyes in front that he modelled after human ones saw me as me. If even a youkai needs body eyes to know the truth--."
"You think you're so damned clever!!"
"I'm just saying. But if these-" I wave at his eyes behind their thick glasses, and he starts back- "if you feel they see wrong, maybe you should stop looking through them. You're being made to see in a way that you know is false." He looks away and I hitch myself closer to him. "I can free you of that. I can make you what you were before."
He rounds on me then, both angry and wary and yes, attracted. "I'm still what I was before!"
"Are you really? The longer you stay in Takahiro's body, spending your days with Takahiro's family, the more you become like us. Twelve years it's been now. That should be nothing at all to a youkai, but think how it's changed you: think how it *will* change you. You're used to having an earthly shape- used to having arms and fingers and thumbs, used to talking to humans as one of us." He's staring at me, eyes huge behind the glasses' lens. "Used to adapting to human thoughts, used to walking on two feet in a human form-- every second of every minute of every hour the neurons of your human brain fire in a human pattern, they accustom you to thinking human, they accustom you to being human." I put my hand on his arm and he doesn't try to shake me off. "I've heard from Ritsu what happens when you go back to your real shape. You're so used to being human it feels strange to you, and wrong. You're not as fast or as strong as before, right? If you went back for good you'd be so weak, any strong youkai that happens by could snap you up in a mouthful. Your red-haired friend- you know he could do it if he put his mind to it." He jerks instinctively, the denial that rises automatically to his lips not making it out. "That's not what you want, surely?"
"I can free you of all that. You won't have to stay here any more. Tell Ritsu you want your freedom. Tell him you're not willing to serve him any more."
He snorts. "You think he cares?"
"He's not his grandfather. It's the modern age and people see things differently. There's a certain prejudice now against the idea of slavery. He won't keep you if you want to go. But he can't protect you afterward until you gain your strength back, and I can. What about it?"
"What about it?" he echoes. He looks at me and his eyes glitter with the light that isn't human. "I'll tell you what about it. You always fancied yourself so much. You always overestimated your abilities. Now you come sniffing after me when Ritsu's away, trying to get your hands on me. Do you want me that much? Then you can have me"- and suddenly he's thrown himself on top of me. I fall backwards under his weight, pinned by his arms around me. His demented face is an inch in front of my eyes. What does the fool think he's doing? Then I realize what he's doing. He's rubbing his crotch against mine like a dog humping a table leg. "I *like* having this body," he says, hot breath in my face. "I can do all sorts of things I never could before. Like *this*," and he grins at me in witless delight, but his silver-pale eyes have an ageless malice in them.
Horror chills me, a pure reflex of panic. "Get off me!" I claw at him with my fingernails, and butt his face with my forehead. He grunts in real pain and roars his anger. Grips me tighter and grinds himself at me harder. The world is dark with nightmare, lit only by the banality of his pale human eyes. I hate it, hate it, the ageless embrace of the not-human, the sucking swamp of their desires that pulls you in and drowns you, smiling so smug and complacent at your struggles 'you wanted this you know you wanted this' though I didn't, I never did, not like this, not like that. I'm going hard from his heat and weight. The part of me I can't control responds in spite of sense and reason. Reason has no place when you're face to face with something as instinctive, as compelling, as *this.*
But where reason can't speak a beast's instinct for self-preservation will. Terror hammers my heart and puts desperation into my arms. I fight like an animal because I'm fighting for my own survival. With arms and legs I manage to push the weight of him off me, youkai strength or no. And then I'm sitting and shaking, with knees half-bent to propel me up and out and away, and he's dabbing at a bleeding nose and laughing in hysteric satisfaction.
"Now you remember what it's like to be eaten, yes? Remember what it's like to be prey, yes? Twenty-six years, Kai, twenty-six years you were a kami's meat. How can you have forgotten? So stop trying to take me down, little manling. You're not the wizard Kagyuu was- no youkai would come to you of his own free will." The silver haze that's surrounded him for the last few moments fades: he settles again into his human body, and a more human ill-will shines from his eyes. "No youkai would come to you anyway. You've got her mark on you, all over you. Even that red-haired bastard fought shy of you because of it."
"Is that so?" I say. I suppose I should have known that a man can't spend a quarter century in a god's embrace without it leaving its traces on him. I suppose I've always known that it did: but the more immediate problems of finding myself living in a middle-aged body has taken up most of my attention. So there it is. Now I know. Nonetheless--
His malice has missed its mark. It doesn't disconcert me, it returns me to myself. "That's useful to know," I add. Which it is. I'm glad to have learned it, even in such a way. It makes many things clear.
Because I don't believe him. Youkai want strength, and a god's soul-strength is far greater than a human's. Certainly I'll believe they recoil from it- I'm sure they're frightened by its size and power- but in the end I doubt they can hold out against it, any more than a man can resist the sexual pull of a woman he despises as a person. If I wanted proof of that- well, Aoarashi can say one thing; Aoarashi can even think one thing; but the way he instinctively chose to make his point tells me that Aoarashi's soul feels something quite different.
"I'll remember," I say. I get up to go. Enough for one day. Enough of my father's house and my father's shikigami for one day. I'm tired.
But reassured. I know he'll be my servant eventually. He can't help it: he wants it, or his hunger wants it, and some day the rest of him will admit that that's so.