As he raced through the trees in pursuit of the Baku, Rikuo could feel his Fear waning. Trading blows with the monster, he noticed that its Tamazuki appearance had begun to flicker and fade. Was the Baku losing the tanuki's Fear somehow, just as Rikuo seemed to be losing his own?
Maybe Tamazuki was still alive! Could that be why the Baku was unable to hold its stolen Fear?
Clinging to that hope, Rikuo leapt down from the trees, his Nenekirimaru striking the Baku's sword. Sparks filled the air as their blades collided.
So close to the monster, Rikuo seized onto his own Fear and ripped it free from the Baku. A flash of blue fire arced between the two of them. The Baku tried to grab hold of Rikuo and he dispersed into shadow. Like a walking dream, Rikuo reappeared silently behind the Baku and ran the monster through with one clean thrust. The wound he had given the Baku bled energy, and the power that was rightfully his flowed back into his body.
The Baku crumpled to the ground, losing its Tamazuki shape. For a moment it appeared like Rikuo, and then it resumed its true form. Though it had appeared impossibly huge when it had first been released from its seal underneath the old mansion, it was not much bigger than a man. With wrinkled skin like an elephant and sunken eyes, it did not look very frightening at all.
Even still, Rikuo raised his sword for a killing blow. A swirl of cherry blossoms and blue fire rose up all around him. The Baku cowered and whimpered, but Rikuo did not hesitate. He struck.
A strange reverberating silence suddenly filled the clearing, and Rikuo gasped as he realized that someone had stopped his blade. The stranger was dressed all in black and carried a silver monk's staff with long black chains instead of the usual rings dangling from it. He had a very thin, pale face, long black hair, and piercing dark eyes that seemed to reflect no light at all. Without a doubt, he was a yokai... but one that Rikuo had never encountered before.
"I think not." The yokai smiled slightly. It was not a nice smile. "This one is mine."
The Baku turned very slowly and its eyes widened in terror as it saw who had come for it.
"No! No! Kill me!" The Baku howled. "Nura Rikuo, please kill me now!"
The monk's chains moved as if they had a mind of their own and bound the Baku hand and foot.
Rikuo drew away from the Baku slowly and stared at the newcomer.
The dream-eating Baku was obviously very powerful and cunning, but it was a single-minded creature and obviously not the sort of yokai capable of leading others. Without stealing Fear, it had hardly any power at all! Rikuo stared at the pathetic Baku. If the ugly creature were not a danger to Inugamigyobu's little children, he wouldn't even consider it worth killing!
Why hadn't it occurred to him before that the Baku must have a master of its own?
"Who are you?" He wondered uneasily. He'd been so intent on seeking his own revenge against the Baku that he hadn't even stopped to consider that the situation he was involved in might be more complicated than it seemed.
"You can call me 'Himitsu'." The stranger replied. "And I thank you for your efforts in subduing this errant yokai, but your assistance is no longer necessary. My master will punish his own disobedient subordinates."
Rikuo frowned slightly. It was obviously an alias of some kind. "Himitsu" meant "secret" and it was not the proper name of any yokai he had ever heard of.
"Help me, Nura Rikuo! Don't let him have me!" The Baku howled as Himitsu seized it by the back of the neck and began to drag it away. The black chains constricted as the Baku struggled. It said nothing more but only stared at Rikuo as if it still hoped he would do something.
"Give me one good reason why I should defend you!" Rikuo snapped. "You tried to kill me, and you tried to kill my friends!" He gritted his teeth, remembering all too clearly the expression on Tsurara's face when the Baku had seized her. Causing her such pain was unforgivable!
And yet at the same time, there was something undeniably sinister about Himitsu. It was a feeling that Rikuo recognized, the same sort of chill he'd gotten the first time he crossed swords with Abe no Seimei. Still, he turned to walk away... at least until Yura caught up with him, riding on the back of her wolf shikigami, Tanro. Tanro watched Himitsu and gave a low growl.
"What's going on?" Yura wondered uneasily.
'The Baku's master has come to punish it." Rikuo explained. That was the situation as he understood it anyway. Being the leader of a yokai clan himself, he understood that it wasn't his place to get between another yakuza boss and one of his subordinates. Though he still wanted to finish off the Baku himself, there was nothing more he could do.
"I don't know. Something isn't right here. I don't like this." Yura whispered, scratching Tanro behind the ears. The shikigami still growled and bristled. "Neither does Tanro." Yura added, as if that wasn't obvious.
But it was too late to do anything. When the two of them looked up, both Himitsu and the Baku were gone as if they'd never been.
"Let's go on to Inugamigyobu." Rikuo suggested.
Not wasting any time, the two soon reached the home of the 88 demons of Shikoku. A dozen tanuki with little spears made from sharpened tree branches and "Shikoku Strike Team" headbands stood guard around the gates of Inugamigyobu's sacred grove. They shouted battle cries and charged as they caught sight of Rikuo.
"Take it easy!" Rikuo held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "It's me, Rikuo!"
The tanuki were undeterred. Two of them took a bolo rope and tied Rikuo's feet together. Another pelted him with rocks.
"Ow! Ow!" Rikuo protested.
"He's not the Baku!" Yura laughed as the little tanuki seized Rikuo's hair and knocked him flat on his back. They stomped on his chest and jabbed him repeatedly.
"Oh yeah? And why should we trust an onmyoji?" One of the tanuki demanded. Rikuo noticed that it was wearing the same "Shikoku Strike Team Captain" hachimaki headband he'd seen the Baku wearing earlier when it had been posing as Tamazuki.
"It's all right." Tamazuki laughed. "That's the real Nura Rikuo. Eighty-ninth little brother, you can let him go."
Rikuo looked up slowly. Tamazuki looked battered and pale. He leaned on his katana as if it were a cane, and his right arm was put up in a sling. But he was alive, and from the looks of things, his Hachijuhakki Yagyo was well-prepared to defend Shikoku against any intruders.
"I could feel it when you defeated the Baku." Tamazuki admitted. "You must have cut it with Nenekirimaru. I still remember what it's like to take a wound from that blade." Tamazuki smiled slightly, rubbing the scar on his face. It was a reminder of the fight he'd had with Rikuo many years ago.
"I was worried you were dead." Rikuo admitted.
"No reason to worry about this one." Inugamigyobu Danuki laughed, putting an enormous paw on his son's shoulder. Tamazuki winced.
"Come in, let us tend to your wound!" One of the female tanuki volunteered. Rikuo obediently followed her into Inugamigyobu's grove and stripped off the top layer of his clothing so that she could bandage him. As he sat down, another tanuki poured him sake. Tamazuki and Inugamigyobu took their usual places across from him.
Yura banished Tanro. The tanuki boss shook the ground as he sat down and gave a wicked, mischievous smirk. "Come sit beside me, onmyoji." He said to Yura. "It is very comfortable."
Though she disliked most yokai on principle, Yura was too polite to refuse such a request in someone's home. She sat down next to Inugamigyobu and his mischievous smirk turned into a very broad grin.
"It is very comfortable." Yura admitted. "I could almost fall asleep right here."
"Oh yes." Inugamigyobu agreed. "Nice and cozy, isn't it?"
All of the little tanuki giggled. Yura looked confused.
Rikuo felt his face beginning to burn.
He wanted to warn Yura about the awful mistake she'd just made, but it was too embarrassing!
Really, she should have known better than to expect that a whole clan of trickster tanuki would welcome an onmyoji into their home without playing some sort of trick!
"How are you feeling, Rikuo-sama?" Inugamigyobu asked.
"Much better." Rikuo nodded. He had resumed his "Day" form as he was being bandaged, but he could still feel his Fear churning in his veins and knew that when the sun went down, he would be in full command of his powers once again. "Have my subordinates come yet, Inugamigyobu-sama?" He asked.
"Not yet." Inugamigyobu admitted. "I hope they did not run into any trouble."
"Well, as soon as your daughter finishes taking care of my wounds, I'm going to go look for them in the forest." Rikuo admitted. "I appreciate your hospitality, but I don't want to leave Tsurara and the others searching for me and worrying when I'm perfectly fine."
"So you are." Inugamigyobu observed. "I am impressed that you fared so well, Rikuo-sama, fighting a yokai with such a reputation." He admitted. "These days I sometimes forget how you handled Abe no Seimei and that mad Kyoto kitsune. I told Tamazuki to leave the Baku to you and your Nura clan. He refused to heed my warning, and now he has learned his lesson."
Tamazuki rolled his eyes. "It was stupid to go after the Baku alone." He sighed.
Rikuo smiled slightly. From the way Tamazuki recited those words, he suspected that Inugamigyobu had made him repeat them many times already.
"And how many times do I have to tell you?" Inugamigyobu scolded. "Son of mine, if a tanuki wants to impress a woman, this is very easy. All you have to do is..."
The little tanuki all giggled again.
"Stop!" Yura turned bright red. "Please! I don't want to hear this!"
Rikuo smiled slightly. He decided it was best not to tell the onmyoji what she was really sitting on.
"There is something else you should know, Inugamigyobu-sama." Rikuo admitted. "The Baku isn't dead. A strange yokai came to take it away. He said that it was one of his master's subordinates and that his master wanted to punish it."
"Hm." Inugamigyobu nodded. "Well, you were right not to interfere. You may be the boss of all Kanto, but one yakuza commander should not get in the habit of disciplining another's subordinates."
"Have you ever heard of a yokai who calls himself "Himitsu"?" Rikuo wondered. "Or who the Baku's master might be?"
"I do not know." Inugamigyobu shook his head heavily. "But I will investigate. I would like to get to the bottom of this myself. If I were you, I would consider making a trip to Toono. Akagappa's mercenaries travel all over, and they have worked for everyone at one time or another. It is possible that they may know of the one you seek."
"All right! You're bandaged up, Rikuo-sama!" The tanuki woman informed him. "But please be careful!"
Rikuo slowly stood. "Ready to go, Yura?" He asked. "It must be close to noon already. Kiyotsugu and the others will probably be ready to start filming."
"The television show! I almost forgot!" Yura exclaimed. She jumped to her feet, and as she did, she threw out her left hand to steady herself. All of the color drained from her face as she realized what the "pillow" she'd been leaning against really was.
Inugamigyobu said nothing at all but only gave Yura a lecherous smirk.
Yura stared, an absolutely mortified expression on her face. "You... you evil yokai!" She gasped. Then she turned to Rikuo, her eyes narrowed and glittering like new steel.
"You! This is all your fault!" She snarled.
"Thanks for the sake, Inugamigyobu-sama!" Rikuo gave a little salute. "I'll see you again soon!" Without waiting for Yura to summon one of her shikigami, he took off running into the forest.
"Rikuo-sama!" Tsurara exclaimed. She was running in the opposite direction, obviously headed to find Rikuo herself. Aotabo, Kurotabo, and a large number of other yokai were following close behind her. "Is it the Baku?" She wondered fearfully.
"Worse!" Rikuo replied. He motioned for Aotabo and Kurotabo to lean closer to him and whispered what had happened.
Kurotabo paled. "Oh. Oh dear."
Aotabo whispered to Awashima who cackled. Rikuo smiled as he noticed that his old friend Itaku had made it down from Toono.
"Glad you could join us, Itaku." Rikuo nodded.
"I heard you needed help handling some weak Fear-stealing yokai." Itaku replied. "That's pretty pathetic for the Lord of Pandemonium! You should get your lazy butt back to Toono for more training!"
"You're right, Itaku. I've been slacking." Rikuo admitted. When he had first started learning to control his Fear, Itaku had been one of his teachers and he was a good yokai to have on hand for a fight. "But it's still good to see you."
"Likewise." Itaku nodded, leaping down from his perch.
Kubinashi casually followed after him, making a cat's cradle with his deadly red string. He and Kejoro froze where they stood as the ground beneath their feet suddenly began to shake.
The rest of the yokai all stared in disbelief at the onmyoji and her four charging shikigami.
"You horrible yokai!" Yura howled. "I'm going to get you for this!"
Itaku immediately reached for his deadly kamas, but Rikuo stopped him. "The Keikain onmyoji are Nura Clan allies." He explained. "Yura's upset right now, but she's not our enemy and she won't really hurt us."
"Are you sure?" Kubinashi wondered doubtfully as Yura's elephant shikigami picked up a tree and hurled it at him.
"Okay, maybe we should get out of her way!" Rikuo winced.
"Everybody, run!" Tsurara ordered.
The yokai scattered.
Forty minutes later, Rikuo and his subordinates reached the edge of the forest. All of the television crew vans and a huge crowd of "Paranormal Experts" fans were gathered around the fence surrounding the old Shikoku Power Plant, waiting in eager anticipation for Kiyotsugu to cut the rusted locks on the gate.
After chasing the yokai for miles, Yura banished all of her shikigami and shot Rikuo a paralyzing glare as she went to check on her sorry-looking apprentice, who was standing near Kiyotsugu and his co-host.
Tsurara, Aotabo, Kurotabo, Itaku and Awashima donned human guises while all the other yokai went to hide where they had been assigned. The chief duty of the Nura clan's retainers was to make sure that Kiyotsugu's television show was not disturbed, and with the threat of the Baku only recently passed, they were particularly vigilant.
In the forest, some of Inugamigyobu's children had gathered to watch the show and Rikuo blinked in surprise as Tamazuki stepped out of the trees, assuming his human disguise as well.
Tamazuki gave Tsurara a curious look and Rikuo remembered belatedly that Inugamigyobu had said something about Tamazuki wanting to impress a woman. Rikuo scowled. He didn't like what Tamazuki had implied about his relationship with Kana and Tsurara and he wasn't about to let the tanuki harass either of them.
"Shouldn't you be resting?" Rikuo demanded.
"Feh! I'm fine! Besides, how could I miss all of this?" Tamazuki replied with a smirk. He jerked his thumb at a fan who was wearing a t-shirt showing Kiyotsugu's face. The kanji on the back of the fan's shirt read "I believe in yokai!"
"I know we're here to protect Kiyotsugu, but... can't we have a little fun, Rikuo-sama?" Tsurara begged.
She clung to his arm. Her hands were very cold as always, but there was something else in her touch as well. Their eyes met for a moment and Rikuo could feel the tattoos on his back burn slightly in response to her Fear. It wasn't Matoi, but Tsurara was making it very clear to him that he shouldn't have left her behind when he went after the Baku.
"I want to do something!" Tsurara informed him.
"Yeah!" Aotabo agreed, though he couldn't have understood what Tsurara really meant.
Sunset was still several hours off, and being in his Day form made Rikuo particularly aware of the Fear swirling all around him. His subordinates were an impressive lot, and sometimes he forgot how strong they really were. Having to stand against the Baku without his powers had been a good lesson for him. It was all too easy to forget that it was his Nura Clan that had made him Lord of Pandemonium.
He had to trust them as they trusted him – Tsurara especially.
"Well, it wouldn't be a good show if we didn't." Rikuo admitted with a slight smile.
"Excellent!" Awashima crowed. "So what's the plan, boss?"
The yokai gathered around Rikuo. He smiled at each familiar face. Itaku looked very serious as always. Kurotabo was clearly enjoying his "exceptional" human disguise and Aotabo was standing with his arms crossed. Awashima was clearly eager for a good fight. Though he pretended to be very cold and refined, Rikuo knew that Tamazuki was a troublemaker at heart and hoping for a little fun himself.
He smiled every so often when he thought no one was looking at him. Little sparks of frost danced around Tsurara's fingertips as she waited for Rikuo to give the word.
He didn't have the opportunity to propose a plan.
"Rikuo!" Kana exclaimed, running over to join the little gathering. "I haven't seen you all day!"
All of the yokai glanced at one another in confusion, not sure how to react to a human interrupting their mischief. Once again, Kana was dressed very fashionably. Rikuo noticed she was still carrying her ugly doll, a birthday gift that Kiyotsugu had given her in Junior High. Someone, probably Saori the aspiring fashion designer, had transformed it into a purse.
"I've been a little busy." Rikuo admitted.
"So who are your friends?" Kana wondered innocently.
"Well, you know Tsurara and Aotabo." Rikuo gestured to his subordinates. "And I think you've met Kurotabo, Itaku, and Awashima... oh, and... Tamazuki. He's um, working with us now?"
Tamazuki gave Kana a wink. "It's been a long time, pretty little human girl." He smirked.
"Uwaaa!" Kana gasped as she realized that she was completely surrounded by yokai. She stumbled back and Rikuo jumped forward to catch her arm before she tripped over a piece of broken concrete. "Rikuo, your friends are all demons!" She whispered fearfully.
"I know! Calm down, Kana!" Rikuo shook his head heavily. "They're here to keep everyone safe!" He explained. "Remember what happened at the restaurant?"
"I'm really sorry about that." Kana admitted. "I'm trying to be brave, I promise I am. It's just that it's been so many years and I... I suppose I sort of forgot what it was all like. You're still..."
"Still part yokai?" Rikuo sighed. "You know I always have been. But I'm also part human, Kana. You can trust me. And I know they scare you sometimes, but you can trust any yokai who wears this insignia. My clan won't hurt anyone. They know I won't allow it." Rikuo gestured to the white kanji for "Fear" on his coat. "Although... you should still be careful around Tamazuki. Tell me right away if he bothers you and I'll deal with him."
"I will." Kana nodded. "Thank you."
"Hey! Enough smooching, lovebirds!" Awashima scolded, seizing Rikuo by the back of his hapi coat. "They're starting the show!"
The yokai all turned to see where the camera men were standing, filming Kiyotsugu and Chiaki before the gates of the power plant. The reunited Kiyojuji Paranormal Patrol quickly gathered behind them. The older girls and Jiro seemed comfortable being on camera, but Kana still looked very nervous. Tsurara shoved Rikuo into the frame and he slowly inched away from Yura who shot him a paralyzing glare.
Jiro eyed both Rikuo and Yura suspiciously. Saori and Natsume stood behind Yura and gave Rikuo very condescending looks. Then Jiro noticed Tsurara standing with her hands on her hips glaring at Kana, a cloud of dagger-like icicles forming from her breath. Kana paled.
"What did you do?" He hissed. "All of the girls are upset!"
"I didn't do anything! It wasn't my fault!" Rikuo protested.
Jiro looked doubtful, but before he could say anything else, Chiaki motioned for him to be quiet.
"All right, everyone!" Kiyotsugu announced, holding up a pair of bolt cutters for everyone to see. "Here we go! 100th episode of Paranormal Experts, begin!"
The rusted lock clattered to the ground and the fans all cheered.