The skull in my hand had at last stopped screaming, but my voice was none too steady as I shook the thing in front of me.
“What are we supposed to do now?”
Yumi’s hands were balled into fists at her sides, and she stood with her feet planted, staring up at the towering demonic creature she’d just accidentally released. Around us, bits of tile and blasted timbers still clattered down, sending rats and other alley denizens scattering. The hideous giant above us laughed, and its laughter was like the hooves of a million stampeding horses, like the roars of hungry predators, like thunder right overhead, flattening my mind.
I’d have been really scared if I hadn’t been so annoyed. I yelled at the skull in my hand.
“You can talk?”
“We have to get out of here. That demon will destroy her. And then us.”
“I’m not leaving my friend!”
Yumi started shouting, calling out in incomprehensible shrieks. Over the demon’s roaring I heard howling winds pile up, shrill laughter and giggles erupting on all sides. I clutched the skull and ducked under the roof of the neighboring. The skull twisted back and forth in my hand. I think he was trying to see around the corner.
“Demons are very dangerous, young man. Run for it while you’re still alive. And take me with you.”
“Oh, sure. We just accidentally summouned a terrible demon so of course I’ll just leave my friend here.”
“Are you being sarcastic? It’s hard to tell when I’m dead.”
Yumi screamed and I looked up just in time to see her flung from where she stood. She crashed through the front wall of a neighboring shrine and the whole structure promptly collapsed on top of her. The demon’s face somehow grinned and it raised an arm, a long trestle of bones ending in a human pelvis. The limb swung, ready to smash again as the monster leaned over where Yumi had disappeared.
“Yes I’m being sarcastic what the heck is going on here?”
I nearly smacked the skull on the floor in my frustration. My friend looked doomed and this dumb skull was asking about sarcasm.
“The Bone Tower clan sorcerers were very annoyed about being left to die while the other clans escaped the Imperial Army during the Bureaucrat’s Rebellion. I was there when they were overrun, and the last of them cast a spell the whole clan had prepared for that moment.”
Boy I was sure interested in ancient clan history just then.
In case you’re also dead, that’s also sarcasm.
The shrine that had collapsed on Yumi erupted in scything lashes of dark sorcery. I saw my friend leap up from the midst of all that scintillating death, rise up into the air on the back of a coiling dragon of smoke, screaming the whole while. Bright flashes like flames, coiling black waves and smoke and dust everywhere. It was chaos.
“A spell for revenge! We have to go now! Run! Run!”
The noise overwhelmed me for a second, roaring and crashing and howling all at once. That pelvis-tipped arm swung right through all that crazy sorcery and Yumi hurtled sideways, plowing into the alley right in front of me and gouging a long trench out of the cobblestones as she went by.
Despite my boasts earlier to Yumi, I’m not the bravest kid ever. Heck, I run away from Kaohisa every chance I get. But just then I didn’t think at all about what was going on, that annoying skull in my hand, those demons overhead, I just rushed out of the shrine and over to where Yumi lay.
She bled from more places than I could count — her forehead, her arms and legs, and one of her fingers was bent in a way that didn’t look good at all, but her eyes were clear and when I reached her she pushed herself upright.
“I may have miscalculated here. Hoshi, if we die, I’m very sorry.”
She saw the skull in my hand and snatched it from me.
“Okay, now you can talk. Talk. Why is there a giant monster made of bones?”
I could hear the terror in that skull’s disembodied voice when it answered.
“Run! They want revenge! The rest of the clans left them to die, so they made sure that if anyone called upon them, or offered their spirits respect, they’d be returned as that–”
Yumi grabbed me and leapt sideways, just dragging me back into the remains of the Bone Tower shrine as another massive arm tipped with heavy bone thundered down into the street. Dust flew in the air and my ears rang from the earth-shaking blow. Yumi shook the skull and glared.
“Why didn’t YOU want that thing summouned? What was all that screaming about?”
“We have to run! That demon is going to kill us all!”
“What does that demon want?”
The demon in question roared and howled overhead. I covered my ears and scuttled over by the last of the big pillars holding up the tattered roof of the shrine.
I have to say by this point I was wishing they’d stopping bellowing about revenge and just get on with the actual vengeance.
“It wants us all dead. We betrayed them.”
I’d had it. Really, I just didn’t even care anymore. Maybe I was just too scared to be scared anymore. In any event, I rushed over and grabbed the skull from Yumi and shook it.
“I didn’t betray them! Why should they want revenge on me?”
I held the skull up, ready to smash it on the floor, but then suddenly Yumi laughed.
“Oh, I get it. I see what this is all about.”
“What do you know about any of this? You’re a child! We have to run away! Now!”
That smile again. That delighted, hair-raising smile appeared on Yumi’s bashed-up face.
“I am Yumi. Yumi Sasori. You may have heard of my mother, the Arch-Witch Yukako. Do you know she has tried to kill me four times? She fears me.*”
She leaned in close to the skull, giggling.
“I see you now, Ryutaro-sama. I see who you are. No ghost can hide from me. You thought you’d be safe after you died, I bet. You never thought their spell would keep you here. Here, where they’d be sure to find you when they awoke.”
“What? No, no. That’s not. That’s completely not it at all. You’re absolutely, totally wrong about that.”
Ryutaro was not the most convincing undead spirit I’d ever heard, just then.
Yumi took the skull and walked outside.
“Bone Tower spirits! Look closely! Here he is!”
The screams that skull had made before were nothing compared to the ear-splitting shrieks he gave now. I staggered to the doorway and saw Yumi standing there in the street, holding the skull up above her heads as that Bone Tower monster leaned way, way over, casting its dark shadow over the street.
Yumi held the skull up for a second and I heard Ryutaro shrieking, begging, and then she slammed the skull down onto the cobblestones. The scream cut off as bone shattered and I heard Yumi giggling again. The monster reached down, that huge heavy arm slamming into the stones at Yumi’s feet, right where she’d destroyed the skull, and I saw some sort of ugly black radiance shoot all through the bones towering above us.
REVENGE. AT LAST.
And then it fell apart. Bones plunged to the ground on all sides, somehow missing Yumi where she stood, but I stayed under that creaking pillar, as the remains of the Bone Tower shrine roof fell apart under the rain of bones.
One last beam was left, balancing precariously on one last pillar as I crept out of the shrine to stand next to Yumi.
“What just happened?”
“Hm? Oh, hello Hoshi. I’m glad you’re not dead.”
“Yumi Sasori! What do you think you’re doing?”
We both turned as Kaohisa came rushing up with an older man. Master Kamenosuke. I groaned.
“What’s this I hear about you helping young Hoshi here with his assigned shrine cleaning? That is strictly forbidden, young lady!”
Yumi smiled and gestured towards the remains of the Bone Tower shrine.
“Oh, Master Kamenosuke, of course not! As you can see, Hoshi hasn’t even started yet. I mean, look at the state of his shrine.”
We all turned to regard the Bone Tower shrine. That last beam teetered, pitched first to one side and then crashed down on the other and the last pillar splintered and the whole structure collapsed in a choking cloud of dust.
Master Kamenosuke coughed and spluttered.
“Well, you certainly don’t seem to have gotten very far. Hoshi, I’ll assign you a different shrine tomorrow. You can complete the assignment then. For now, just…”
He waved around imprecisely.
“…clean this up. Somehow.”
He and a disappointed Kaohisa strode away.
“Uh, Yumi-sempai. What happened to Ryutaro, do you think?”
“Oh, he’s probably being tortured by those Bone Tower spirits. They were very unhappy with him.”
Somehow the sun seemed to lose its heat, just then.
“But… Did they really want revenge… on a dead man? After they were all dead? What’s the point?”
“Revenge is the only perfection possible in this world, Hoshi. It depends on nothing but utter ruthlessness. If your will is perfected, you will see it through, and nothing, not even death, can interfere. Revenge is fantastic.”
Yumi smiled bright and cheerful.
“Now, how do you want to get back at Kaohisa? He’s sure got it coming.”
I wiped dust off my face and considered the ruins of the Bone Tower Clan shrine. I thought about how Ryutaro had spent most of his life here, keeping people away from the shrine so that nobody would ever know he’d betrayed that clan. Until he’d died, and been caught in their all-encompassing vengeance.
I had a feeling he was going to suffer for a long time.
“I think I’ll first try and put this mess back together, Yumi-sempai. Thanks anyway.”
“Good idea, Hoshi. I sure wouldn’t want those Bone Tower spirits angry with me. I told you you were just going to create more work for yourself, didn’t I?”
She waved and giggled and skipped off up the alley. I wiped dust off my face and got to work.