Final Chapter - Mischief Managed
As Rikuo returned to Jigoku and the courtroom of the God of the Dead, a torrent of old memories swept up around him. He saw himself, five years ago in a familiar construction sight, staring down a pair of onmyoji bent on destroying him. A massive shikigami wolf formed of water lunged for his throat, but it did not take him down.
Rikuo blinked in surprise as a circle of prayer strips appeared around him, hovering in midair. Yura was on her knees in front of him. She had deflected her brother's powerful magic, protecting Rikuo because she believed that he was her friend, an ignorant mere mortal caught up in the grand battle between good and evil. She hadn't known the truth about him... not then.
"Keikain-san?" Rikuo whispered in disbelief.
Yura turned to face him. "You're human, right?"
Rikuo hesitated. "I'm human," he lied.
The lie made him feel like he'd swallowed lead. It wasn't the first he'd told to protect his family or other denizens of the night, but it carried a different weight. He was lying to his friend's face in a desperate moment when she was risking her very life to defend him. He was also denying his Night Parade and the work he'd done to secure the future of the Nura Clan. At the time, he'd believed that his worlds of Day and Night could not coexist.
It was one of the many things he'd been wrong about.
Rikuo glanced at Yura, who was waiting solemnly for Emma-O's verdict. His eyes drifted to Kana and then came to rest on Tsurara, who was sitting on the floor. Her hands were still shaking, and Gyuki stood directly behind her, ready to intervene if she tried to interrupt the proceedings again.
Rikuo turned to his grandfather, who was smiling slightly. Nurarihyon still held the feather he'd plucked from the tenshi between two fingers, idly rolling it in his hand and admiring how it captured the firelight of the courtroom. The tenshi herself looked surprisingly smug... at least until she realized that Rikuo had seen the smile on her face. She immediately composed herself, but not quickly enough.
Rikuo smiled himself. Clearly, there was mischief afoot. He could feel it.
Lord Emma-O stared at Nurarihyon gravely.
"The soul which has been offered in exchange for yours, Nurarihyon, is quite valuable," Lord Emma-O said. "In fact, our jurors believe that it is too valuable. We cannot accept it."
"What do you mean, you can't accept my soul?" Rikuo protested. He didn't know which of his souls Lord Emma-O was talking about, but it didn't seem to matter. The alternate worlds he'd seen had convinced him that he needed both of his souls. Without his Day self, he wouldn't have the empathy for humans that had given the Nura Clan its chivalrous reputation. They were powerful, but they were not monsters. In fact, they gave wicked yokai something worthy to Fear. But worse still, without his Night self... he would be helpless. The secret wars of the unseen world would continue whether he fought in them or not. And the weak and the innocent would be the first casualties. Still, if he could not sacrifice part of himself to save his grandfather... did that mean Nurarihyon would have to die?
"That's enough, Rikuo," his grandfather scolded. "Let Lord Emma-O finish."
The Judge of the Dead sighed heavily. "This matter is not negotiable. Any exchange must be perfectly balanced. Your offer is rejected, Nura Rikuo. The Judge of the Dead and lord of all Jigoku cannot be indebted to a yokai. Least of all, the Lord of Pandemonium."
Rikuo bit his lip. There was nothing else he could say.
"But we are not finished. It has not yet been decided what Nurarihyon's fate will be. For his numerous crimes against humans and other yokai, he ought to be sent to one of the hells. But, for the legacy he has left behind..." Lord Emma-O glanced at the members of the Nura Clan, and then at Rikuo. "It seems that perhaps the heavens may want him after all."
A pair of golden scales were brought forward by one of the ghostly attendants. The Judge of the Dead cleared his throat. "There is an ancient tradition in the Court of the Dead. The heart of the one on trial may be weighed against the feather of an angel to determine its worth. If the weights are balanced, or if the heart is lighter, the soul's worthiness is assured. And correct me if I am wrong, but I do believe you have already chosen your feather."
"I have indeed," Nurarihyon nodded.
Rikuo stared at the tenshi's feather. It seemed like a very small thing, and there was certainly no way it could be heavier than a man's heart. His grandfather set the feather on the right side of the scale. The little golden bowl barely moved. Rikuo suspected that it would have sunk further if he'd blown air on it with his breath. Still, Nurarihyon seemed confident. Had his grandfather known what would happen all along? He glanced at Gyuki, Karasu Tengu, and Inugamigyobu. Both Gyuki and Inugamigyobu shared quick, almost imperceptible glances with the tenshi. Were the two of them working with the angel?
Rikuo squinted. The tenshi did look familiar. Had he seen her before? For certain, he thought he would have remembered meeting an angel... but maybe not. It seemed that tenshi would have ways of concealing their identities if they ever did visit earth.
Taking a deep breath, Nurarihyon reached into his own chest and took out his heart. Such an action certainly would have been impossible... and fatal in the mortal world, but they were in Lord Emma-O's courtroom and it seemed that very different rules applied in the realm of the dead.
The yokai's heart did not look like a heart at all. It was a smoky black thing, surrounded by tendrils of Fear. The Judge of the Dead evaluated it for a moment and then carefully set it on the left side of the scale. There was a brilliant flash of light and the Fear surrounding Nurarihyon's heart dissipated. What remained underneath looked like an uncut diamond.
The scale wobbled slightly, and then balanced.
The Nura Clan retainers all cheered, and Yura stared in shock.
The tenshi came forward. She retrieved her feather and slipped it back into her wing. Then she picked up Nurarihyon's heart and examined it. "A diamond in the rough," she observed.
"Didn't I always tell you so?" Nurarihyon winked.
The tenshi glared down at him. She crossed her arms, and snorted, turning away from the yokai. "You are so arrogant! Do you always get what you want?" She demanded.
As she said that, Nurarihyon looked very smug himself. "You know I do," he replied.
"This court is adjourned," Lord Emma-O declared, pounding his gavel on his desk. Two doors appeared on either side of him. To the right was an ornate silver door glowing with white light. To left was an ordinary screen door made of wood and paper, exactly like the doors which lead to the courtyard of the Nura Clan mansion. Rikuo swore he could hear familiar voices close by. A dusting of cherry blossoms blew in on an unseen wind. Rikuo took a deep breath. He glanced at his grandfather, who was standing with the tenshi in front of the silver door.
It was time for him to say goodbye. Tsurara scrambled to her feet. She must have seen how Rikuo needed someone to reassure him, because she fearlessly seized his hand. "You're not alone, Rikuo-sama," Tsurara whispered. "I'll be with you. Always," she promised.
Tsurara's grip was like iron and her fingertips marked Rikuo's palm with spots of frost. Still, it was easier for him to be strong when she was close by. Her faith in him never wavered. It gave him faith in himself.
"Congratulations, Nurarihyon! I don't think any yokai has ever gone to heaven before," Inugamigyobu laughed, slapping Nurarihyon hard on the back. "You will have to prepare things for the rest of us up there. We'll need lots of sake... and of course, as many beautiful young girls as you can find," the tanuki added, giving Yura a lecherous wink.
"What makes you think you're getting into heaven?" Nurarihyon replied.
"If you are going to heaven, Supreme Commander, you must know that we will never leave you there alone," Karasu Tengu said. "We will work, each of us, to be the very paragon of yokai virtue as you have always been. And one day," he sniffled, beginning to cry. "Perhaps we will be fortunate enough to join you."
Yura groaned. "Oh, my poor ancestors..." She buried her head in her hands.
"The Nura Clan will not be the same without you, Supreme Commander," Gyuki bowed slightly.
"I think Rikuo will do just fine," Nurarihyon replied, nodding slightly to his grandson. "But I will be watching!" He warned.
"I won't disappoint you," Rikuo replied. "But I will miss you."
His grandfather reached out for a hug, and he sighed and bent down to accommodate the little old man. In a shimmer of white that was altogether unlike Fear, his form changed and Rikuo blinked in surprise as he saw Nurarihyon standing before him, looking exactly as he had in his youth.
The resemblance between Rikuo and his grandfather was very strong, in more ways than one. The tenshi came forward. She put her hand on Rikuo's shoulder and leaned forward, kissing him on the forehead.
"Take care of yourself, Rikuo," she whispered. "I'm sorry I never had the chance to know you."
That was when Rikuo realized who the tenshi actually was, and why she looked so familiar. There was a portrait of her in the Nura Clan mansion. It was a little discolored, being a few centuries old, but the likeness was unmistakable.
"Grandmother?" He hissed.
"Shh!" Inugamigyobu scolded, cuffing Rikuo hard on the back of the head. "We don't want Lord Emma-O to know he's been cheated again!"
Rikuo smiled slightly.
Nurarihyon took Princess Yo's hand. They waved goodbye and stepped through the silver door, which vanished in a flash.
"5,000 yen. I give it a week," Gyuki said.
"You know they haven't seen each other in a few hundred years," Inugamigyobu shook his head. "Two weeks!"
Kana and Yura both stood and walked toward the door which lead to the Nura Clan mansion. The door opened as if blown by a summer wind, and more cherry blossoms littered the stone floors of Lord Emma-O's courtroom. They stood out starkly against the darkness of Jigoku, flickering with life in the land of the dead.
The two girls were the first to leave, followed by Gyuki and Inugamigyobu who were still debating the terms of their bet, and Karasu Tengu who was scolding them for not taking the departure of the Supreme Commander more seriously.
Rikuo and Tsurara were the last to pass through the door before it closed. They found themselves on the edge of Kappa's pond, underneath the sweeping branches of the only cherry tree in Japan still blooming in August.
Kana and Yura stood by the mansion's gate. The sun was almost down and all the stars were peeking out. Neither of them belonged in Rikuo's Night world, and they knew it. Kana looked wistful as she departed, but Rikuo didn't stop her. They needed to have a long talk, but that would be easier in the morning when he was his Day self again. He also needed to call Kiyotsugu and Jiro, although he felt certain that the paranormal investigators were fine.
Lord Emma-O had received his due.
Rikuo smiled slightly. The former Supreme Commander's closest allies went into the house, but he could still hear them bickering.
"I can't believe that those two are making bets on how long it will take the Supreme Commander to get kicked out of heaven!" Tsurara sighed, her hands on her hips. "Doesn't anyone believe in happily ever after?"
Rikuo smiled slightly. He turned to Tsurara.
"Do you?" He asked, taking her hand and drawing her close to him.
Tsurara blushed. Her complexion was normally so pale that it was very obvious.
"R... Rikuo-sama?" She stammered. "What are you suggesting?"
"It's a serious question. If we both died, and you went to heaven.. would you come back and help me cheat my way out of hell?"
"What makes you think your grandfather cheated?" Tsurara laughed. She pushed him, but not very hard. She was obviously content to stay right where she was, wrapped in his arms. "You don't believe he was good on the inside?"
"I know he was. But I also know that he'd preferred to be remembered as sneaky," Rikuo admitted.
"True," Tsurara admitted.
Rikuo stared up at the stars. The sunset was a dim ember on the horizon, and the air was crisp and cool. He could fell his blood sparking in his veins like a string of fireworks. "A perfect night," he observed.
"Do you have some mischief in mind?" Tsurara asked.
"I might," Rikuo replied. He took her chin gently in his hand and studied her golden eyes. For so many years, Tsurara had been his protector. Why had it taken him so long to notice how beautiful she was?
Without hesitation, he kissed her. It wasn't a magnificent kiss by any means, but Tsurara was obviously shocked. She pulled away and stared at him in disbelief.
Rikuo wondered if he had made a mistake. Tsurara seemed confused. He wasn't sure if she thought that she was dreaming, or if she feared that she might be trapped in another of Lord Emma-O's alternate worlds where everything was different... and yet somehow, still the same.
Before Rikuo could ask if she was all right, Tsurara leapt into his arms and kissed him. The second kiss carried everything he'd hoped for in it, and even more than he'd expected.
Rikuo lost his footing on the wet grass and they both tumbled into Kappa's pond.
Tsurara laughed as Rikuo surfaced. He spit out water and tore a wilted water lily out of his hair.
A flurry of frosted cherry blossoms rained down on them.
"I believe in it now," Tsurara said.
"What?" Rikuo asked.
"Happily ever after," she replied.