Yumi turned the screaming skull over in her hand.
“Now, let’s see what this is all about. I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding.”
I fought with my terror to get some sort of response out.
“A. A misunderstanding, Yumi-sempai? But. But that skull’s really, uh, upset, don’t you think?”
My friend pointed an admonishing finger at the skull and cocked her head.
“Now, what’s this all about, you silly thing? Stop this nonsense at once and tell us what’s going on.”
The scream faded away and Yumi smirked.
“That’s more like it. See, Hoshi? Dead people are always easy to deal with.”
I looked around at the interior of the Bone Tower clan shrine, dark and dusty, the main altar supporting a shaky tower of bones. Human bones. The presence of undead spirits filled every corner here — I kept thinking I was seeing something moving off to the side of my gaze, only to turn and find another batch of dust-covered bones mouldering away. I could hear bodiless voices hissing and whispering words I could never quite make out, muttering tones of menace.
I wanted out of there.
“Okay, great, Yumi-sempai. He’s stopped screaming, thanks. I better start cleaning up in here, or I’ll never finish in time.”
And then the screaming started up again.
Yumi glowered at the empty eye sockets, studying them like the reason for this terrible noise would just show up in there.
“Stop that now! I’ll get properly annoyed if you don’t behave.”
No reaction. The horrible wailing filled the dark narrow space of the shrine, setting all the bones to rattling.
“Yumi-sempai, make it stop!”
My friend snarled and I saw her give the skull a big shake, like she was trying to knock the scream right out of it. But the hideous noise went on and on.
To my horror, Yumi dumped the skull into my hands.
She headed back out of the shrine.
“Wait, what are you doing?”
I ran after her, and as I neared the front of the shrine, the scream again died away.
“Yumi-sempai. What am I supposed to do?”
“What you’re supposed to do, punk, is clean your shrine up by yourself, not get her to help you.”
It was Kaohisa again, standing out in the alley as Yumi and I emerged. He had his arms crossed over his big barrel chest and sneered at us both. He had his usual little gang of buddies with him, all grinning and smirking.
“She’s not helping me clean, Kaohisa. I asked Yumi-sempai to look at this skull for me.”
“You must have heard it screaming, you big–”
“Hoshi, don’t worry about him. Listen.”
I waited for Yumi to say something else. We all did. She just smiled at me.
“It stopped screaming again.”
I looked down at the skull in my hands.
“Yeah, it stopped when I–”
“Go back inside. Start cleaning again.”
The second I turned around and stepped into the shrine again, that terrible noise started up again.
It was kind of satisfying seeing Kaohisa and his buddies cringe at the sound. I turned back to the alley and it stopped again. I had a sudden idea, and realised that Yumi had already figured it out.
“He doesn’t want me to clean the shrine. It’s Ryutaro, the old guy who never cleaned it. He doesn’t want anyone cleaning it up.”
Kaohisa thrust himself in between Yumi and I.
“Hey, you dummies. I already told Master Kamenosuke about what you’re doing here. He’s on his way.”
“Oh, Kaohisa, don’t be silly. This is important.”
He grabbed the skull from my hand and held it, ignoring my leaps and grabs to get it back. He toyed around with it like it was a little bauble in a gift shop.
“Important? Sounds like you’re interfering with ancestor spirits without consulting any grown-ups. Man, if Master Kamenosuke finds out about THIS, he’ll freak out.”
It’s funny; moments ago I’d been terrified of that skull, but now, watching Kaohisa toss it from one hand to another, uncaring and spiteful, outraged me. I lunged for it again and again.
“Give that back!”
Kaohisa chuckled until Yumi spoke. Yumi had a low voice, sleepy and slow, but when she got angry, it carried the sort of menace that I only otherwise heard from long-dead ghosts.
“Kaohisa, put that skull down. Now.”
I had to give it to Kaohisa. He only looked terrified for a moment and then with a sneer, he tossed the skull back into the shadows of the Bone Tower shrine. It clattered out of sight.
I cried out and rushed in to find what I was sure was the mortal remains of the old man who’d tended this shrine until he died. Outside I heard Yumi carry on in that scary voice of hers.
“You should leave, Kaohisa, and you should take your friends with you. It’s going to be dangerous here for a little while, and I can’t protect you.”
“I told you, Master Kamenosuke is gonna be here any moment.”
“Well, I won’t be able to protect him, either. Stand back, at least. The spirits I’m summouning are very hungry.”
I had to get down on my hands and knees to reach under the altar where I saw the skull had rolled. Dust puffed up from everything I touched, so I kept my mouth shut to keep from breathing it in and dragged the cold skull out into the light again.
“Ryutaro-sama. Let me just find you a spot–”
I started clearing some dust off the altar, then jumped as that shriek howled out again, the whole shrine shaking around me at the terrible screaming.
I stumbled to the shrine entrance, only to see Kaohisa and the others scrambling away down the alley. Yumi stood with a happy smile, giggling and waving as bizarre lashing tendrils of dark shadow erupted from the cobblestones on all sides of her.
The skull shuddered in my hand, twisting and jumping and biting. I clamed a hand on either side of the braincase, trying to hold the undead thing steady.
“Yumi-sempai! What are you doing?”
Yumi lifted her hands to either side and the shadowy swirls around her rose up and then launched themselves straight at me. I squeaked but didn’t dare move.
“Oh, Hoshi. You remember my friends from the Upside-Down Drowning Hell*, right? I’m just asking them to try and break whatever spell is keeping Ryutaro-sama from speaking with us.”
“Well, there must be some reason he screams instead of explains, don’t you think? Hold still and try not to be afraid. They like the taste of fear.”
I believe Yumi’s honestly trying to be helpful when she says things like that, but just between you and me, she’s not helping. Those terrible dark shades slid across the street to gather around me. They smelled like nasty old fishmeat left in the sun, and I had to swallow hard against the urge to throw up. Trying to breath shallow so as not to inhale too much of that hideous stench, I clutched the skull in my hands and tried to concentrate on Yumi’s voice.
“What do you see, dread spirits? Show me what holds down this unfortunate soul.”
The skull screamed in my hands, this time sounding angry somehow. I felt something cold and slick trail over my hands and kept my eyes screwed shut while the skull went on screaming. I felt the reaching tendrils of shadow yank away from me, and I sagged with relief.
Relief that now it was just that screaming skull I was dealing with. I was beginning to wonder if seeking Yumi’s help had been such a great idea.
A voice, grating and harsh and everything you’d expect from a shade of the Upside-Down Underwater Hell spoke.
“He is chained to this clan. To the sorcerers of the Bone Tower.”
I was facing Yumi as I opened my eyes, and saw her scowl. I don’t think I’d ever seen her so angry. The Upside-Down Underwater spirits popped out of existence as she stormed right past me into the shrine to stand defiantly before the altar.
“Alright, we’re getting to the bottom of this. Bone Tower spirits, I call you! Come forth and explain!”
The skull’s screaming took on a more urgent, shriller tone. It shook in my hand and I swear the jawbone started jerking like it was trying to bite.
“Yumi-sempai, I don’t think this is a great–”
“Spirits! Come forth! I command you!”
Yumi threw her hands out and her hair flew back in a sudden gale of sorcery. The floorboards around her erupted in a black shimmering radiance, and it seemed like every dead thing within ten blocks screamed out loud. I fell to my knees, overwhelmed by Yumi’s power, but as I did so, I saw the tower of bones in the Bone Tower shine leap into the air.
Roof tiles blasted outwards in all directions, and the massive pile of bones rushed together, up and through the roof, clattering and rattling as they joined together.
The skull turned right at me and I heard its scream transform into a terrifed, wretched wail of denial.
The bones connected together, forming a gigantic skeleton — though a skeleton like none I’d ever seen before.
And remember, I grew up in Kimurachi Temple. I’ve seen plenty of skeletons in my short time. But this was a monstrosity, rising up hiring than the shrine itself, a latticework of bones, with strange limbs projecting out from all sides, and a face formed of thighbones, rib cages and spines. It was hideous, and it leaned out over where Yumi stood.
Somehow it spoke.
FOOLISH MORTAL. NOW YOU HAVE FREED US. NOW WE SHALL HAVE REVENGE!
If nothing else would, the string of curse words Yumi snarled at that point would definitely have gotten her in trouble with Master Kamenosuke. I didn’t even know what some of those words meant.
As Yumi stood there, a fifteen-year-old girl facing a towering undead monster, I realised the skull had stopped screaming. It spoke in a tired sort of voice.
“Well, now you’ve done it.”