Chapter 9 - The Judge of the Dead

Water dripped from the ceiling. Rikuo slowly regained consciousness. At first he couldn't see anything, but then he felt a cold, familiar hand holding his. It hurt to turn his head, but when he did he saw Tsurara kneeling at his side.

"Rikuo-sama!" She exclaimed. "You're awake! I was getting worried!"

Rikuo slowly sat up. Though he felt weak and clumsy, he did not need to see his own reflection to know that he'd assumed his Night form. How long had he been unconscious? Or maybe time had nothing to do with it?

There was certainly a lot of energy swirling around in the place that they'd come to. It was quite dark, but from what he could see, it looked a bit like the cave under the old mansion that had previously served as the Baku's prison. Wherever they were, it was not where they had been before.

"What happened?" Rikuo wondered.

"No idea," Yura replied. She was sitting next to Kiyotsugu, who was fiddling with his flashlight.

On the other side of the room sat Kana. Her white coat was gone and so was her purse. She'd also lost one of her shoes. She wasn't crying or shuddering, but the expression on her face seemed catatonic. Whatever she had seen was obviously something she didn't know how to handle.

"Kana?" Rikuo slowly approached her. "Are you all right?"

"It's nothing," She replied quickly, rubbing a smudge of black off of her face.

"You were attacked?" Rikuo observed. "Who was it? Tamazuki?" He pressed. "The Baku?"

Yura shook her head. "It was a yokai I've never seen before. A very powerful one. I thought for certain that it was going to kill us. But it only drug us here. I don't know where we are. My flashlight stopped working."

"The same thing happened to us," Rikuo paused.

Tsurara shrugged. "Well, I never needed a flashlight," She admitted. "But I was with Tamazuki, and I haven't seen him so surprised since the last time Rikuo-sama beat him up. Whatever it was, neither of us saw it coming." She paused. "Where is everyone else anyway?"

Apart from the three members of the Kiyojuji Paranormal Patrol, Tsurara, and Rikuo, the strange space they had come to was completely empty.

"How many of your subordinates were in supposed to be in here trying to scare us, Rikuo-sama?" Kiyotsugu asked.

"All of us," Tsurara smirked.

"Your brought your entire Night Parade here?" Kiyotsugu gaped.

Tsurara giggled. The mischief that Rikuo-sama had planned was so magnificent she could barely contain herself.

Rikuo sighed. He would have preferred to see Kiyotsugu's reaction when the entire Hyakki Yako took to the sky right after the last camera was put back in the van... but apparently there was real trouble afoot.

"A hundred demons," Kana mused. Rikuo's role as Lord of Pandemonium was very difficult for her to accept. "So you really the leader of a hundred demons now? A yokai yakuza?" She laughed slightly, although she was obviously nervous.

"It's nothing new," Rikuo sighed. "I've been doing this for years, Kana."

"Did you bring some enforcers? Some really powerful yokai?" Kiyotsugu suggested hopefully.

"My strike team. Gyuki, Aotabo, Kurotabo. And as Tsurara said, Tamazuki is probably around here somewhere. Oh, and I think Awashima called in some more yokai from Toono to help if we couldn't handle the Baku. I saw Itaku earlier," he added. Of course, before Rikuo could list even half of his subordinates, Yura cut him off.

"Your horrible subordinates can take care of themselves. It's Kiyotsugu's camera crew and our friends that we need to worry about. There's something that feels wrong here," Yura finished. "You can feel it, can't you?"

Rikuo closed his eyes for a moment and concentrated. The air all around him was thick with Fear, but it was not an aura he recognized. "We're not alone." He whispered, drawing his blade.

"One of your subordinates, Rikuo-sama?" Kiyotsugu wondered.

"No," Rikuo shook his head. "I would recognize their Fear."

A faint sinister laugh immediately caught his attention. He heard the sound of a monk's staff on stone.

"Who are you?" Rikuo demanded. "Identify yourself!"

As the stranger stepped into the faint glow of Kiyotsugu's flashlight, Rikuo realized that he was the same man who had taken the wounded Baku back to his master. Rikuo remembered that he'd called himself Himitsu, not that such a name meant anything at all.

"Have you already forgotten me so quickly? From the stories I've heard, I expected you to be clever." The shadow snorted. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to discover that your reputation is... somewhat exaggerated. So you're just another barbaric yakuza running around with a sword pretending to be a prince, are you? Frankly, I'm disappointed!" He taunted.

"You can't speak to Rikuo-sama like that! My master is the Lord of Pandemonium!" Tsurara warned. "What kind of yokai are you?" She demanded, watching Himitsu suspiciously.

"I am a jikininki," Himitsu replied.

"A corpse eater," Rikuo observed, recognizing the name.

"That's a vulgar way to put it," Himitsu snorted with distaste.

"A corpse eater?" Kana echoed. She looked very uncomfortable with the prospect.

"Jikininki is a hungry ghost. A spirit that subsists on human remains. That's an ugly fate for a former monk," Yura remarked, her eyes fixed on his staff. "You must have done something very bad in life."

Himitsu twitched but did not respond.

"So where exactly are we? I take it this isn't the Shikoku Power Plant," Kiyotsugu paused.

"No," The jikininki replied. "This is the very edge of Jigoku. And because of... very unusual circumstances, my master Emma-O wants all of you brought before him immediately."

Rikuo did not relax his grip on Nenekirimaru, not that he expected it would do much good against the jikininki. He knew where Jigoku was, and he definitely recognized the name Emma-O. Still, he couldn't bring himself to ask the question which stuck in his throat.

"What is he talking about?" Kana demanded. "What kind of yokai is Emma-O?"

"He's not a yokai," Yura took a deep breath. "Emma-O is a God. He's the Judge of the Dead."

The three remaining members of the Kyojuji Paranormal Patrol stared at one another, and then at Tsurara and Rikuo. After what Yura had just said, no one seemed sure what to do next.

Finally, Kana broke the silence. Her voice wavered slightly as she spoke. "Are we dead?"

"I don't think so," Rikuo shook his head. He had been close to death so many times before that he could taste it. He remembered facing Hagimoro Gitsune, the coppery taste of blood in his mouth, his body beaten so far beyond anything he should have been able to endure. And yet he had survived. He'd somehow found the strength to defeat the evil kitsune, Abe no Seimei, and all of the other monsters he had faced over the years. No, he was not dead. Rikuo felt certain that it was not possible for him to die without a fight.

"So if we aren't dead, how are we in Jigoku?" Yura pressed. From her onmyoji training, she understood very well what Jigoku was. Jigoku was the gateway to the underworld, from which souls were brought before Emma-O, the judge of the dead. Emma-O sent the souls of good people to be reincarnated or taken to heaven. A whole myriad of hells awaited those who had done evil, each more horrible than the last.

There was also the possibility that a mistake had been made, and that something would prevent any of them from passing on. In that case, they would be doomed to haunt the power plant forever. Yura shuddered. She could not imagine a more horrible fate.

"Well?" Kiyotsugu pressed, noting that Rikuo had not answered Yura's question. Years ago, Kiyotsugu would have considered himself the "paranormal expert" of their group. However, when the cameras were not rolling, he saw no reason to pretend that his television show and fame could possibly compare to Rikuo and Yura's experiences. He only stirred up yokai for entertainment. The two of them had battled forces intent on destroying the whole world.

Yura turned to Rikuo, and all eyes were suddenly on the Lord of Pandemonium. He slowly stood up. Nenekirimaru sheared free of its sheath with a whisper, the powerful blade sparkling silver in the dim light. Rikuo pointed his sword at the jikiniki.

"Answer Yura's question," he ordered.

"The truth is, you aren't dead, and you didn't stumble into Jigoku on accident," Himitsu replied. "That would be quite impossible. On the contrary, you are... expected. Someone you know has come before Lord Emma-O, and he has invoked an old law which allows him to call eight witnesses to speak at his trial. Since his case is... quite complicated, your testimonies could determine whether he ends up in heaven or hell."

"Someone we know is going to hell?" Kana bit her lip. She looked ready to cry.

"Perhaps. That will be up to you," Himitsu replied.

Frost blossomed around Tsurara's fingers. She didn't call for her ice spear, but it was obvious that she was worried about a fight. "You must not know anything about the Nura Clan if you think we will let you take of our friends!"

"Lord Emma-O takes everyone in the end, yuki-onna," Himitsu replied. "Now shall we be going? The Judge of the Dead is very busy and does not like to be kept waiting."

Once again, everyone glanced at Rikuo. He sighed in defeat and sheathed his sword. Himitsu bowed, but only slightly, and in a rude manner.

"Wait! Didn't you say eight witnesses were allowed? What about our friends? Where is Chiaki? Where are Saori and Natsume?" Kiyotsugu demanded.

"And Jiro," Kana prompted.

"And Jiro!" Kiyotsugu repeated. "Why aren't they here with us?"

"Their testimonies will not be necessary. The other three witnesses are already waiting," Himitsu replied.

As he spoke, a massive set of black doors appeared in front of the group. They opened with a sound like a tolling bell. A sea of swirling mist, and the sounds of whispers and moans swept out of Jigoku. Rikuo hesitated on the threshold. Although he knew that if he led, the others would follow, he still felt nervous. Who was he going to be defending? What kind of dangers lurked beyond those doors? The evil in the air was hard to ignore. Yura had a wad of shikigami summoning strips crushed in her hands. She had been a child prodigy, able to summon four shikigami at once when she was only twelve. More importantly, she could also call upon the ancestral spirits of the Keikain clan, which was something most onmyoji could not dream of.

Rikuo smiled slightly. If they succeeded in completing their task and returning to the world of the living, his friends would be able to claim that they had literally followed him to hell and back.

His closest friends had grown and changed so much. They were all moving in different directions with their lives, and after this wild "reunion", there was a good chance that they would never be together again. It seemed appropriate for them to have one last adventure.

One last adventure.

Rikuo froze. He had already stepped across the threshold into Jikoku and both Kana and Tsurara were right behind him. Kiyotsugu and Yura were a few steps further back.

"What is it, Rikuo?" Kana whispered, although she was afraid to hear his answer.

"I know who summoned us," he said, hoping that his voice didn't betray more emotion than he wanted it to.

They entered into a massive firelit cavern. Thousands of spirits and yokai sat waiting on either side of the Judge of the Dead's central dais, hooting and howling. The evil beings and guardians of the many hells licked their lips hungrily, eagerly anticipating a new soul to devour. Across the room, a beautiful woman dressed entirely in white stood with her arms crossed. Her face was as radiant as the sun, and what at first appeared to be a cloak on her back was actually a pair of magnificent white-feathered wings.

Kana shielded her eyes. "Is that an... angel?" She asked. It felt odd to use the English word instead of the Japanese one, but she had been in America for quite some time. "Tenshi?" She corrected herself.

Yura nodded.

In all the years she had known Rikuo, Kana had encountered many cruel spirits and yokai, as well as a fair number of terrible humans. She realized slowly that she had never asked if benevolent beings, like Bodhisattva and tenshi were real. Despite all of the Kyojuji Paranormal Patrol's "adventures", there were still many things about Rikuo's "Night" life that were new to her.

"Rikuo-sama!" A voice shouted. Lightning fast, Rikuo whirled around on his heel. He would have drawn his sword, but before his fingertips even touched Nenekirimaru, the tenshi stopped him.

She did not say a word, but her firm grip and the cold certainty in her silver eyes made it obvious what she wanted.

"It is a very bad idea to start a fight here," Yura warned. A huge, three-headed dog demon growled and dribbled drool all over Kana. She scooted behind Kiyotsugu.

Rikuo nodded. He sighed in relief as he saw three familiar faces. Gyuki, Inugabigyobu, and Karasu Tengu were all sitting in traditional fashion along the left side of the room. Apparently, they were the remaining witnesses.

The selection of the three old and powerful Nura Clan yokai confirmed Rikuo's earlier suspicions about the identity of the person on trial, but they also left him more puzzled about the selection of Kana and Kiyotsugu.

Why had they been chosen as witnesses in the trial of a yokai? Kana hated yokai, and Kiyotsugu was obsessed with them... but he didn't actually understand what it meant to be part of the Night world.

Rikuo slowly sat down beside Gyuki. He suspected he would have his answers soon enough.

A gong was struck, and the courtroom quickly came to order. A tall, gaunt figure dressed in the antiquated black robes of a government official came to sit at the central desk. Lord Emma-O opened the huge book in front of him, turning several pages.

The Judge of the Dead cleared his throat.

"Will the defendant please come forward?" He announced in a voice as dry and cold as a tomb.

From behind the tenshi, Rikuo's grandfather suddenly materialized in a swift moving cloud of Fear. The tenshi shrieked and swatted at the old man, looking momentarily undignified. Her beautiful face turned bright red as she sat down, and smoothed out her skirt.

Emma-O looked down. Nurarihyon appeared in a cloud of fear directly in front of the dais. He smiled, twirling one of the tenshi's immaculate white feathers between two of his fingers. "It is like plucking a goose," he remarked.

"Oh, Supreme Commander! No! You are destroying your own case!" Karasu Tengu wailed.

"I knew he would do it," Inugamigyobu said smugly. He put out his hand, obviously expecting some sort of compensation. Gyuki sighed and passed the old tanuki 5,000 yen.

Kana stared. Yura looked absolutely mortified.

"There must be a mistake!" Yura protested. "I refuse to be a witness! I'm an onmyoji! I can't send a yokai to heaven! He just assaulted a tenshi!"

"But it's Rikuo's grandfather," Kiyotsugu protested.

"Oh, that makes it so much worse!" Yura groaned. "All of my Keikain ancestors will be furious!"

"Enough! I will have order in my Court!" Emma-O snarled, pounding his huge gavel on his desk.

"Come forward, Nurarihyon."

Rikuo's grandfather sighed and casually tossed the tenshi feather over his shoulder.

The Judge of the Dead mused over the pages of his book. He seemed concerned, and began turning back page after page. Finally, he caught sight of the line he was looking for. He groaned.

"You nuisance! Do you realize that you are five years late for your trial?"