Justin A. Williams
Hashito shone his flashlight back and forth amid the shadowed trees. "Where is it now?"
Tommy stood behind him, reaching out with his senses. He tried to feel the oni, searching for its breath, the disturbances in the air as it moved. "It's right behind you, Hashi!"
Hashito spun, flinging a glowing paper talisman in the same motion. It struck something unseen in midair. There was a white flash, and a hulking human-shaped figure appeared. A tiger hide was draped about its blue-skinned body. The talisman stuck to the creature's head between two small white horns that protruded from its forehead. A pair of huge glaring eyes and a leering mouth with dripping tusks dominated its face. It carried a massive wooden club.
"Release me!" the creature boomed.
"No," Tommy said. The oni roared, and its muscles strained, as if it were trying to attack. But the power of Hashito's ofuda held its rage in check.
"Thanks for locating the thing," Hashito said. "Now let's see if I can dispatch it." He pulled another talisman from his long white coat and began to intone words Tommy couldn't fully understand.
Hashito's chanting neared a climax. As he raised the ofuda, the oni released a tremendous roar. The talisman upon its head burst asunder and it charged Hashito, interrupting the spell and crushing Hashito to the ground. The beast raised its club.
Before the monster could deal a blow, Tommy stretched out his hands, and the earth beneath the ogre erupted. Stone and dirt, moving like liquid, snaked upward, entangling and restraining the oni.
Hashito stood and brushed himself off. "Now, where was I?" He began the spell again while the oni hurled what Tommy assumed were insults in Japanese.
Tommy gestured, and the earthen prison covered the creature's mouth.
Hashito completed the spell and hurled the glowing talisman. It struck the creature squarely between the horns. There was another flash. Where the oni had stood, there was now an intricately carved wooden figurine of the ogre.
Hashito picked up the figurine. "Thanks for the save, partner."
"That's what friends are for: saving you from giant marauding ogres," Tommy said.
"Exactly," Hashito said. "Let's head home. I want to give this thing a magical once-over before we return it to the client."
"Right. I definitely don't want to have to chase that thing down again. Or have to save you from it again."
The duo walked through the trees and finally emerged from Central Park onto the busy streets of New York City. They made their way to the unassuming office they called home. Its window read, "T and H General Services."
Tommy looked at the figurine thoughtfully. "I guess it's lucky the oni became invisible and decided to head for the Park. Imagine the panic it would've caused running around Manhattan."
"It's even luckier we found it again as quick as we did." Hashito headed downstairs to his spell casting sanctum. "I'll slap a warding on this thing and require the client to put it in a safe."
"I'll watch the shop while you do your thing." Tommy settled down at his desk and began playing with his paddle ball. He could sense Hashito working below him.
Tommy was pounding away at the paddle ball, on the verge of a new personal record, when the doorbell rang. A middle-aged couple stood at the door. The man was tall, white-haired and square-jawed, the woman slight, her blond hair barely touched with gray.
Tommy gasped. "Mr. and Mrs. Hancock?"
"Hello, Tommy," the man said.
Tommy hadn't seen the Hancocks in several years. "What are you folks doing here?"
Mr. Hancock shifted from foot to foot, clearly uncomfortable. "We came to hire your services. We need your help."
"It's about Linda," Mrs. Hancock said. Her face looked drawn, with dark patches under the eyes. "There's something... wrong with her."
"You mean something supernatural?" Tommy asked.
"Yes," Mrs. Hancock said.
The prospect of seeing Linda again made Tommy's heart race, but that didn't keep him from appreciating the irony of her parents coming to him now. "Last I checked, neither of you believed in the supernatural. You put Linda in an institution because my 'strange notions' about having supernatural powers 'unhinged her mind', and you wouldn't even allow me to speak to her. Or did you forget about that?"
Mr. Hancock went red. "It was your fault she came apart!"
Hashito came into the room and stopped in his tracks. He turned toward Tommy, holding up the oni figurine. "I'm going to run this back to our client while you and these nice folks talk, okay?"
Tommy nodded, eyes fixed on Mr. Hancock.
Hashito made a break for the door and stepped out into the night.
Tommy took a deep breath. If something was happening to Linda, then all that mattered was helping her. "Mrs. Hancock, tell me what's wrong, please."
"It started two weeks ago," Mrs. Hancock said. "You remember our son, David?"
Tommy nodded. "He was going to become an archaeologist or an anthropologist or something, right?"
"Yes. He was studying a shrine in the mountains of Japan. We, along with Linda, decided to go and spend some time there. It was a beautiful place, and Linda was fascinated by the shrine. One day Linda was visiting her brother at the site and she caused an accident that destroyed a carved stone in the shrine."
"Do you know what the shrine was dedicated to?" Tommy asked.
"The writing on the stone said that the people of a nearby village had been plagued by an evil fox-spirit, but a man with great powers had come into the village, fought the fox, and imprisoned it within the stone."
"And Linda destroyed the stone?" Tommy asked.
Mrs. Hancock nodded.
Tommy put a hand to his head and sighed. "Oh, boy. This is not good."
"What is it?" Mr. Hancock asked. "Do you know what's wrong?
Tommy nodded. "I think so. My partner, Hashito, is half Japanese, and an onmyoji - a wizard. So I've learned a bit about Japanese magic and creatures. Let me guess: Linda started acting strange, like an animal, eating weird food, stuff like that?"
"Yes!" Mrs. Hancock said, tears now streaming down her face. "That's it exactly! She even looks different - her face has narrowed, her eyes are closer together. Please, what's happening to our daughter?"
"It sounds like the fox possessed Linda's body," Tommy said.
Mr. Hancock suppressed a snorting noise.
Tommy turned on him. "You think it's funny?"
"No," Mr. Hancock said. "I don't think what's happening to my daughter is humorous at all. But the idea of someone being possessed by a fox is preposterous."
"Please, Edward," his wife said.
Tommy leaned forward and crossed gazes with the older man. "If you think these things are so absurd, why did you come to me?"
Mrs. Hancock stepped in before he could answer. "We've tried everything. Doctors, psychologists, hospitals. None of them can do anything for Linda. You are our only hope now."
Tommy took a deep breath. It didn't matter if her father was a fool. He had to help Linda. "Don't worry, Mrs. Hancock. Hashito and I will do everything we can."
"Thank you, Tommy."
"I can't believe you volunteered me to perform an exorcism - for free," Hashito said as he drove them down the rural roads of upstate New York.
"I'm sorry, Hashi," Tommy said, "but they're paying for all our expenses, for as long as it takes to help Linda." He hung his head. "I know I should have talked to you first, Hashito, but when they told me Linda was in trouble -"
Hashito glanced over at his partner. "You really care about this girl, don't you?"
"I was in love with her."
"Are you still in love with her?"
Tommy shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. I guess we'll find out."
The Hancocks' vacation home was a small mansion, the driveway longer than some of the back roads they had taken to get there. The Hancocks came to greet them before Tommy and Hashi reached the door.
"Tommy, Hashito, thank you for coming out so quickly," Mrs. Hancock said. "I'll take you to Linda."
Hashito shook his head. "If you don't mind, ma'am, I'd like to see the pictures you mentioned, the inscription from the stone, first."
"Of course." She led them into the well-appointed house. Mr. Hancock followed silently, looking as if he wanted to boot both of them right back out the door.
Mrs. Hancock took them to a small study, a room lined with books, containing a desk and a few chairs. On the desk was a sheaf of paper. "Here are the pictures."
Hashi pored over the images. Finally he looked up, shaking his head. "This shrine was definitely the prison of a nogitsune, a wild-fox. According to the inscriptions, it was a five-tailed fox that terrorized the area for years."
Mr. Hancock smirked. "A fox with five tails? I've never seen one with more than two, myself."
"Then consider yourself lucky," Hashito said. "As a fox grows older, it becomes more powerful, and gains more tails. A nine-tailed fox is an incredibly dangerous force."
"But you can handle a five-tailed one, right, Hashi?" Tommy asked.
"I don't know about 'handling' it, but I think I should be able to exorcise it," he said.
Mrs. Hancock grabbed Tommy by the arm. "It won't hurt Linda, will it?"
"Not if I can help it," Hashito said. "Exorcism is the only option that doesn't involve hurting her to drive it out."
Tommy nodded. "I think you're right. The big question is, what will you do with the fox once you kick it out of her body?"
"I'll have to prepare a new prison. It'll be harder without a shrine but -" He turned toward the Hancocks. "Is there a large tree or some rock formations on your property?"
"Yes, there's a huge old oak tree in the backyard," Mrs. Hancock said.
Hashito smiled. "That should be perfect. Now, I just need a little time to prepare -"
"Don't you want to actually see our daughter?" Mr. Hancock asked, voice impatient.
Hashito shook his head. "If we're right about what's going on, and I get too close to her, the nogitsune will recognize me for what I am, and it'll know what I'm trying to do. Foxes are unpredictable. Who knows how it might react? I want to be ready first." He turned to Mrs. Hancock. "Would you take me to the tree you mentioned, please?"
Tommy watched as Hashito laid the final talisman in the large ballroom he had prepared for the exorcism. They had placed a bed in the center of the room, after Hashito finished the main pentagram. Tommy was amazed, as always, by the precision and perfection of Hashito's diagrams and talismans. He had never been more glad of his partner's skill, since now Linda's safety depended on it.
"There, it's finished," said Hashito
"So," Tommy said, "how are you going to get the fox to come out of Linda?"
"There's a particular ritual and specific talismans for exorcising a nogitsune."
"Have you done it before?"
Hashito shook his head. "No, but my mother taught it to me. I'm going to have them sedate Linda first so the fox can't get the drop on me. Once I get it out of her, the sacred barrier will trap it temporarily. Then I can perform the spell that will bind it into that tree, just as it was bound to the stone back at the shrine."
Tommy had watched Hashito prepare the tree as well, painting it with an intricate array of kanji and performing various chants. It made him feel helpless - his elemental powers weren't of any use in this situation. Unless, of course, the fox somehow broke free. If that happened, he and Hashito would have to fight the creature. He hoped, for all their sakes, the exorcism went smoothly, even if he would have to simply stand and watch.
Tommy found his way to Linda's room. She was lying in bed, her fair hair tangled and damp with sweat. Her eyes, filled with a savage gleam, fell upon him. She sat up with a jerk, growling and barking in his direction. A small lump appeared under the skin of her face, and Tommy watched in horror as it moved downward toward her chest.
He wanted to go to her, try to make her understand who he was, that he was here to help her, but he knew Linda - the real Linda - couldn't hear him now or respond to him even if she could.
Her parents sat nearby, Mrs. Hancock nearly in tears as she watched her daughter writhing on the bed.
"Mr. and Mrs. Hancock," Tommy said.
Mrs. Hancock shook her head and raised a hand, interrupting him. "Please, call us Mary and Edward."
Tommy nodded, unable to take his eyes off the girl he had once loved. And probably still did. He wanted to cry as he looked at her face, changed by the fox almost beyond recognition. "All right. Give Linda the sedative, and I'll take her to him."
With Tommy's help, Edward restrained Linda long enough to inject her. In moments, she was unconscious.
Asleep, Linda almost looked like herself again. Tommy had never forgotten her beauty, but seeing her again stirred up feelings. He tried to put those thoughts out of his mind as carried her into the ballroom.
"Perfect," Hashito said as Tommy laid her on the bed. "I wasn't sure the sedative would keep the fox down too, but it looks like it worked. Stand back."
Tommy stood against the far wall and watched as his partner ran through a series of complex gestures. He wondered how Hashito managed to perform them without dislocating a finger now and then. A word or a string of words accompanied each gesture. They came faster and faster, until he spoke the final word. The ofudas situated at each point of the pentagram flashed, and a barrier of blue-white light appeared. Its walls matched the pattern of the pentagram, reaching from floor to ceiling.
As soon as the barrier closed, Linda's eyes sprang open. Tommy gasped. Her eyes had turned orange like a fox's. As they watched, her face grew sharp and feral. Snarling, she charged at Hashito but collided with the sacred barrier. She glared at them both, and, once again, a moving lump appeared beneath her skin, moving fast and erratically.
She screamed, flinging words at Hashito. Tommy didn't understand the words, but the intentions were clear.
Hashito shook his head. "She doesn't like me much." He held out his hand, the first two fingers extended, and spoke a series of words.
Linda - or the creature controlling her - fell back, hissing. She climbed backwards up onto the bed, hate-filled eyes fixed on the young onmyoji. Finally, she settled back, chest heaving, with a gaze full of malice.
Hashito lowered his hand, but kept his eyes locked on the being before him. He pulled a talisman from his coat, but before he could begin an incantation, the nogitsune opened Linda's mouth, and a burst of shimmering green fire rushed forth.
"Hashi!" Tommy cried.
The blast lifted Hashito off the ground and slammed him into the far wall. He slid down to the floor, scorched and moaning.
The fox-creature stood on all fours upon the bed smiling, orange eyes alight.
Tommy rushed to his partner's side. He was breathing and conscious, but there were burns on his chest and arms. "Are you okay, Hashi?"
Hashito sat up; smoke still rising from his clothes. "I guess that depends how you define 'okay'."
"How did it get through the ?"
"The barrier only keeps it from physically leaving the area. It doesn't block the thing's powers."
Hashito stood "Okay," he said, "no more Mister Nice Exorcist." Moving faster than Tommy could follow, Hashito pulled five ofudas from his trench coat and flung them at the nogitsune.
The force of the attack knocked Linda's body backward. She lay with the talisman's adhering to each hand and foot, the fifth squarely between her eyes.
Fingers intricately laced together, Hashito began chanting.
The creature writhed, yelped and growled as the talismans upon her body glowed with white light. Her head suddenly snapped forward, and she vomited another blast of green fire, but Tommy gestured, and a white-gray shield of hardened air appeared in front of them, deflecting the flames.
Hashito continued the ritual, until at last something erupted from Linda's chest as the five ofudas burst into blinding light.
When it was over, a large fox with five bushy tails lay upon the bed beside Linda, seemingly asleep.
Tommy saw Hashito slump and quickly grabbed him before he could hit the floor. "Are you all right?"
"Not really, but I will be. That thing is strong; it almost broke me at the last. Go take Linda to her parents."
He let Hashito slide to the ground, and then went to the bed.
Linda stirred as he lifted her, and slowly she opened her eyes. Her own blue human eyes. They grew wide in surprise. "Tommy? Is that you?" her voice was faint, groggy from the sedative, but her face had returned to normal.
"Yeah, Linda it's me."
"What's going on?"
"Go back to sleep, Linda, I'll explain everything when you wake up again, okay?"
She drifted off again as he carried her back to the bedroom.
"Linda!" Mary cried as he walked in. "Is it over? Is Linda all right?"
Tommy nodded. He laid her gently on the bed, and, hesitating for a moment, kissed her on the forehead.
Edward offered his hand. "I still find all of this hard to believe, but it looks like you and your friend have saved my daughter. I owe you my thanks, at least."
Tommy took his hand. "I appreciate that, Edward. I hope that maybe -"
A loud crash, followed by a bellow, interrupted his words.
"Hashito!" Tommy ran into the ballroom.
His partner lay on the marble floor.
The fox stood atop him, its five tails held high, jaws stretched wide for a throat-bite.
Tommy screamed and launched a huge bolt of flame and rushing air at the creature. It struck home, flinging the fox backward and slamming it into a pillar. The pillar splintered and broke upon impact.
I never should have left him; I should have carried him, too, Tommy thought, as he knelt at Hashito's side.
"Stupid," Hashito breathed. "I let down the barrier - thought it was asleep."
"You rest here, Hashito, I'll take care of everything." Tommy looked up and saw five narrow bolts of green flame hurtling toward him. They slammed into his body, knocking him flat.
"All right, um - Fido! Let's dance!" Tommy swept his arms through the air and a spinning wave of wind sped toward the nogitsune.
The fox spun about, tails whirling, and shattered the wind-wave. Making a sound like a laugh, the fox leapt at Tommy.
Tommy cast about with his senses and felt a large water pipe directly below the room. He gestured, and the floor in front of him burst apart. A high-pressure gout of water struck the fox from below and bore it upward. It nearly hit the ceiling, and then fell dripping to the floor as Tommy sealed the pipe.
He lashed out with another blast of wind. This one struck home, and bore the nogitsune back.
Then, it vanished.
Great. Another invisible Japanese monster.
Tommy could sense the fox, but it was moving so fast.
He cried out in pain. It felt like knives slicing into his flesh. He felt the wind of the fox's passing, but its speed, and the pain -
Something struck him, and he fell to the ground. He felt the fox on top of him, smelled its scent of musk and forest. He felt its jaws clamp down on his neck, and he screamed. Its teeth were like needles, sliding deeper into his flesh. Tommy felt blood flow down his neck onto his shoulders.
Suddenly, the fox let go and staggered backward.
Tommy sat up, his hands pressing the wounds at his neck. He turned, and there was Hashito, shoulders slumped, barely standing. Nevertheless, his hands were woven together, and the words of an incantation tumbled from his lips.
Tommy wasted no time. He extended one hand, and the marble at the nogitsune's feet rose up, moving like liquid. In a moment, a set of marble manacles encased the creature's forelegs. It whined and whimpered while Hashito continued to chant.
Tommy got to his feet, tore a strip from his shirt and wrapped it around his neck-wound. He placed a hand on Hashito's shoulder, lending his support. As the young onmyoji cried out the final word, the five-tailed fox screamed with an almost human sound. There was a bright flash of green, and the fox was gone.
"'Bout time," Hashito said and lapsed back into unconsciousness.
Tommy eased him to the floor.
"Oh my God," Mary cried as she ran into the ballroom. "Tommy, are you all right?"
Tommy nodded. "Yeah, I think so."
"But your neck, I'm calling an ambulance!" She pulled out a cell phone and began to dial.
"Yeah, that's a - good idea -" His vision blurred, and he didn't bother fighting it as he lost consciousness.
"I'm just happy you're all right, Tommy," Linda said while they all sat around the table.
"Yeah, I'm okay. But only just barely." He fingered the stitches in his neck. A few more millimeters and the fox's fangs would have severed his jugular.
"Hey, what about me, people?" Hashito asked.
Linda laughed. "I'm grateful to both of you."
"You have to protect that tree," said Hashito. "If it gets cut down, the nogitsune would be free again."
"Don't worry," Edward said. "I'll be sure someone is here to look after it."
"Good," Hashito said. "Then we'll be heading home."
"Why don't I walk you two to the car?" Linda said, rising from her chair.
"I'll go get the car started," Hashito said as they came out onto the drive.
When his partner was in the car, Tommy turned to Linda.
"I'm sorry, Tommy," she said.
"Sorry, for what?" he asked.
Linda looked at her feet. "I'm sorry I didn't contact you for so long. I was confused, and my parents..."
Tommy smiled. "I understand."
Linda looked up. "What they did was wrong, but they're my parents. I had to forgive them."
"Of course." He paused. "So does that mean that we can be together again? I still love you."
Linda sighed. "It's been a long time; I'd like to talk more first, find out what you've been doing. Is that all right?"
"That's more than all right. Linda, it's wonderful."