A Love Hina fairy tale
by Brian Randall
Disclaimer: Love Hina belongs to Ken Akamatsu, Kodansha Comics, Shonen Magazine Comics, TV Tokyo and Pioneer Entertainment. As always, their paints, my easel.
Exclusive: The brush is mine too. Surprised, Mr. Nowack?
Hinata was a land of greens and pinks, leaves and cherry petals. The land was seldom seen without being well-adorned in its proper colors. Shinobu thought she could remember Grandmother Hina explaining why it was, once, but couldn't remember what the reason was. It probably wasn't important.
Either way, Grandmother Hina had left on a trip, which was unusual, but had been known to happen. And when she was gone, Shinobu and the other girls at the inn would take care of it, their attention strengthening the wards that allowed Hinata to retain the magic that fueled it and kept it cloaked in its pinks and greens, save those rare occasions when it felt a dash of white snow would be more fitting, anyway.
Humming to herself, Shinobu admired the sea of pink and white that spread out from the hilltop, snapping out the wet laundry and carefully putting it out to dry. That was devotion, and Grandmother Hina had explained how that was how Shinobu was to do her bit to ensure that the wards on the inn were maintained.
She nodded and smiled as one of the other tenants climbed the stairs to the laundry area, bowing her own head to Motoko. Motoko stood clear of the laundry and began to practice her own art, which was the art of the sword. Her way, too, helped fuel the wards.
Still humming to herself, Shinobu picked up the empty laundry basket and strode into the house, carefully putting it away and checking the clock. She had time enough to make lunch before bringing in the laundry.
She put away the laundry basket, and walked through living room, waving and smiling at Mitsune and Naru, who were both on the couch. Mitsune was watching a soap-opera raptly, and Naru was intensely studying her guide-book, but both still broke from that long enough to smile and wave back. Shinobu walked through the hallway, carefully looking both ways after hearing a shout from the excitable Suu. The young inventor was chasing her latest invention through the inn, but also still paused to smile and wave at Shinobu.
And then she entered the kitchen, and set about preparing lunch for everyone. All five of the girls did their part to keep the inn alive, and Shinobu felt that made it a happy place.
Mitsune had a dream. In her dream, she stood before a great palace of jade and gold, which beckoned her to enter.
Frowning, she looked back and forth, and said, "This is not Hinata. This must be the dream of an oni prince, who thinks he can fool me."
The gates of the palace swung open, fifteen meters tall and carved with images of dancing oni on the inside. "You are correct," a voice called from within, where only inky blackness could be seen. "But you are wiser, perhaps, than I thought. Come, young witch, and enter my palace, that we may speak."
Still frowning, Mitsune set her fists on her hips and glared sternly at the opening before her. "No, Oni, I do not wish to speak with you; for you are wily, and I trust you little."
The voice from within chuckled, as the doors once again swung shut. "As you wish, young witch. But you will learn, in time, that I only offer what you need because your land is dying."
Mitsune shook her head, but woke before she could ask the oni for an explanation.
Walking cautiously around the inn, Mitsune frowned. While she had hoped it only a dream, the oni's words were true. The wards on the inn were weakening, and her own power was far too faint to repair them alone. She walked from the inn to the tea-house, where Grandmother Hina's daughter Haruka stayed.
Haruka, too, knew of the fading wards, but could not repair them. "Instead," she said, "you should ask my nephew, for he has some small power, too. Perhaps with his aid, the wards can be healed."
Mitsune raised an eyebrow at this, and shook her head. "He has not long been of our circle," she said slowly. "I do not think it would be wise."
"Then you will have to find your own way through this," Haruka replied, shaking her head back at Mitsune. "Good luck."
Suu knew it was a dream. She stood before an oni's palace, though it was twice as large as when Mitsune had seen it, and the oni carvings on the gate appeared on the outside.
She crossed her arms over her chest, frowning at the walls of jade, gold, and precious jewels. "You try to tempt me, Oni?" she asked the palace.
The doors once more swung open, now thirty meters high, and a voice chuckled from the deep blackness within. "I do, for that is what I am, young witch. But I tempt you with a fix for your ailing wards."
Suu turned her back on the palace, and shook her head. "I would have to be desperate to bargain with an oni," she sneered.
"In time," the voice from within assured her, as the doors closed once more. "In time."
Suu fretted in her room, unable to focus on studying. It was, she felt, her job to fix the wards on the inn, since Grandmother Hina was still missing. She had not spoken to the others about her dream and the oni, because she did not know what they meant. She suspected that she might have no choice but to bargain with the oni, as he had said.
And, too, she would not speak to the others about the broken wards. They had enough to occupy their attention without needing to worry about further complications.
Or she, for that matter.
Sighing, she made her decision, and sent herself back into the dream again.
This time, the oni's palace towered to the very heights of heaven itself, walls of jade and gold encrusted with precious gems the size of her fists. The gates of the palace gleamed with figures of dancing oni that appeared to move in the corners of her eyes.
"I have returned," Naru said in a subdued voice. "Speak, Oni, and tell me what it is that you offer."
This time the voice that replied to her was deep and booming, seeming to reverberate the towering gates of the palace open, and revealing the great blackness that lay beyond. "Enter, young witch, that we may discuss the terms of the bargain more closely," the oni's voice bade.
Shaking her head, Naru stepped forward, raising one hand and speaking the words that summoned a small moon to hover over her shoulder, shedding light across her path.
For all of the palace's gold and jewels, the path before her was bare stone and dirt, but no sooner had she stepped inside than the doors slammed shut behind her. Naru frowned, and steeled her resolve, marching forward resolutely, with the silver ball of light illuminating her way.
In time, though she was not certain how much, she reached another door, this one much smaller, and wooden, with a simple iron ring on the front. Hesitating for only a moment, Naru grasped the ring, and hauled the door open.
Beyond lay the oni's private room, which was a well-appointed modern parlor. There was a green couch, a polished wooden floor, a great mirror on one wall, and small lacquered wooden boxes about the corner of the room. In the center stood the oni himself, looking much like a normal man, save that he was twice as tall as any man that Naru had seen, his skin was the red of a glowing fire, and he had two horns protruding from his head. He was even dressed in a clean gray three-piece suit.
"Welcome," the oni said, bowing to her politely, "to my home."
Naru nodded at him warily, dismissing the moon over her shoulder, as this room was lit by a number of lamps in the corners, which shed light without flame. "What can you offer me that I could use to repair the wards of Hinata?" she asked. "And what price would you ask?"
The oni shook his head, smiling, and displaying too many sharp teeth. He gestured to the mirror, and explained, "This mirror is a great tool of power. It was made by a witch so powerful that when she created it, it learned her craft itself. With this mirror, even a young witch like yourself could repair the most damaged of wards. As for the price, young witch… I know of the enemies of the oni, and I know that there remains only one who would stand before us."
Naru shook her head. "I will not give you the power to rule the world, Oni. Ask for something else."
"I wouldn't ask for the power to take the world," the oni said as soothingly as it could. Its coal-black eyes narrowed slightly. "Indeed, our time is past, and I and my brethren fail. We are doomed to die, and we wish nothing more than revenge on our foe before we perish."
"And who is your foe?" Naru asked, a suspicion forming in the back of her head.
"The Immortals, which hunted and slew us with their Iron in the days of eld," the oni said, grimacing. "Now, there is but one. You know him. All I ask, then, is that you give him to me, and I will give unto you this mirror, which knows your craft better than you know it yourself."
"Never in a million years," Naru said, shaking her head quickly. "I wouldn't sacrifice Seta for anything!"
"Oh no," the oni said, shaking his head ruefully. "I meant Keitaro, young witch. He is the last."
"Oh," Naru said, understanding dawning on her. "Well, I couldn't sacrifice him, either."
"Very well," the oni sighed, looking mournful… or as mournful as he could. "Would you agree to a lesser bargain, then?"
"Lesser how?" she asked, not trusting the oni.
"If you wound him, I would be willing to make the trade," the oni offered. "Wound him so that he is marked by that injury for all his life."
"I will do no such thing," Naru said, shaking her head. "He is undeserving of such a fate."
"Very well," the oni sighed again, tears shining in his coal-black eyes. "Then I can only beg you, young witch, for the very smallest of things. I plead," he said, falling to his knees, and clasping both red-skinned hands together, fierce black claws reflecting the light into her eyes, "that you merely inconvenience him. My revenge must be had, as small as you are willing to let me have."
"Inconvenience?" she asked, frowning. "How?"
"I would ask for no more than you to hide his powers from himself," the oni said. "For no more than a span of a minute, to force him to live as a mortal, and realize what a blessing he has. To make him realize what he and his forefathers have done to the oni."
"Is that all?" Naru asked warily. "Will you strike him in this moment of weakness I create?"
"No," the oni said, shaking his head. "I swear upon the honor of my name and my father's name. I will make no move to harm him while he is weakened. And in exchange… I give you a mirror."
"The magic mirror," Naru said, glancing at the mirror over the couch.
The oni frowned, and nodded. "I will give you a magic mirror," he said.
"The one you promised," Naru pressed. "Which knows its craft better than I know it myself."
"Very well," the oni sighed, tears flowing down its face. "You rob me of my greatest treasure just to cause an ancient foe to redeem himself. I offer, then, my magic mirror, which you so covet. It is a deal, young witch, is it not?"
"It is a deal," Naru agreed.
Then she woke up.
Pacing back and forth, Naru checked her watch. There was time, yet. The oni had left a message on her table when she woke up, which told her at which time he wished Keitaro to be stripped of his powers, even if only for a minute.
She could find no flaw in the agreement yet; no way that the oni could be deceiving her. Surely there could come no harm from weakening Keitaro for only a minute?
Nodding to herself, she readied the small spell she would need to use, and slid the door to Keitaro's room open. He looked up in surprise, and Naru said apologetically, "I have agreed to do something to you for the sake of the inn, but it is a small thing. I am sorry, but I must protect this place."
Keitaro nodded, and said, "I would strive to protect this place too, Naru. What can I do to aid you in your quest?"
Naru sighed, and explained what the oni had asked of her.
"Well, I see no harm in that. I will agree, Naru, for you," he said, smiling.
Naru smiled back, and thanked Keitaro, and then cast her spell; and because she felt guilty and did not want to watch, she then turned and left before it began.
It was later, when Mitsune was in her room, thinking of all the things that could be done with the mirror once she received it, that Mitsune heard Shinobu scream. All thoughts of the mirror vanishing from her mind for the moment, she dashed out of her room, finding Shinobu before the door to Keitaro's room, which was open.
Inside, Keitaro struggled valiantly, but vainly, against a force which strove to pull him into a dark portal. It gaped wide, like the mouth of an oni, and Keitaro spied her, reaching a hand out and calling for help… but for naught. A barrier of some kind rebuffed her, glowing motes of light forming a wall between her and him.
"Keitaro!" she called out, beating on the wall ineffectually.
"I'm sorry!" he called back, shaking his head sadly. "Please… work together to heal this place."
And then he said nothing more, because a pair of strong arms covered in gray business-suit sleeves seized him and pulled him into the portal, which immediately vanished.
Eyes filled with tears, Naru did not see the gleaming outer walls of the oni's ever-impressive fortress. She spared not a pause for the now darker and more solid door, or the larger and weightier iron ring. She didn't look up at all until she was in the oni's parlor again, though it was larger, too, and not as brightly-lit as it had once seemed.
"You tricked me," she accused, pointing a finger at the immaculately dressed oni. "You tricked me into sending you Keitaro!"
"Perhaps," the oni said, shrugging. "And perhaps you fooled yourself, greed blinding you to truth."
Naru seethed with rage, but did not move to attack the oni. It was more powerful than she, and in its own home. She knew there was little she could do, but it was a bitter truth. Closing her eyes, she sighed. "Then give me the mirror," she said.
"Very well," the oni answered, placing one of the room's many small wicker boxes into her hands.
She blinked in surprise, and opened it, frowning to find a much smaller mirror, only a hand and a half long. "Is this the mirror?" she asked. "The mirror which knows my own craft better than I know it myself?"
The oni said nothing at that, merely smiling, and glancing at the great mirror on the wall, which Naru realized with some dismay the oni was not giving to her. "I promised you a lesser bargain," he said, with a shrug. "And there is your mirror of magic. It has learned from you, watched you, and perhaps knows your craft better than you yourself. But for now, it is a mirror of little power, tainted by the greed which seized it."
Naru gasped in horror, taking up the mirror, and casting about the room… and then she saw two identical, already open boxes on the floor, and knew what had happened.
And then, of course, she woke up, still weeping tears of anger and shame.
Haruka sighed, and shook her head, looking across the assembled girls. Suu, Mitsune, and Naru all stared angrily at the three mirrors on the table, smoldering resentment in their gazes.
"So, that's how it goes that my nephew is stolen from us," she said, somewhat crossly. "Very well. Three things must be done. But before that…." She frowned and looked across the three girls who sat before their mirrors, which caused them to flinch away.
"Before that," she continued, "we must first address these mirrors. They are reflections of the trap you were drawn into, but could become pure. You must therefore put your best thoughts and wishes into them, and give them up."
Naru nodded meekly before Haruka, and took up her mirror, looking into it. It was perfectly round, and flat. The edges were of a polished metal that shone a rich red. Closing her eyes, she thought about her best wishes, and sent into the mirror the one she felt more important than any others. That done, and tears in her eyes, she gave the mirror to Haruka.
Haruka nodded, and turned to Suu.
Suu bowed her head, and placed her palms on the mirror, not picking it up. Hers was identical to Naru's, save that the metal was a nearly luminescent white. Closing her eyes, she thought for a time, and then smiled fondly, and nodded. After a pause, she opened her eyes, and offered her mirror, too, to Haruka.
Haruka nodded, and turned to Mitsune.
Mitsune sighed, and leaned back, looking at the mirror speculatively. Hers was a rich green, but otherwise identical to the other two. Then she nodded to herself, and closed her eyes. After a pause, she leaned forward, and took up her mirror, then offering it to Haruka.
Haruka looked at the three mirrors, and shook her head.
"Now. The three things that must be done.
"Firstly, one must remain here, to watch over you three and ensure that no lingering trace of the oni torments you." Motoko and Shinobu, who sat in the other chairs, nodded at this. "Secondly, one must seek out Grandmother Hina, and call her back to heal our wards." Haruka glanced at Motoko, then. "And finally, one must venture into the oni's lair and seek to steal back Keitaro."
"I will go and fight," Motoko said, "for that is my duty, and I have some small debt to Keitaro that could be restored, perhaps, by bringing him back from the oni."
"No!" Shinobu protested. "Motoko's way is of the sword, and is not suited for outwitting oni trickery. Only Keitaro can fight an oni. We must send someone brave and clever, who has resolve and is a witch who can resist the oni's spells."
Haruka raised an eyebrow at this. "Who do you think should go, then?" she asked, looking at Shinobu calculatingly.
Swallowing nervously, Shinobu said, "I will go. For I have done less than any other here, and I need to help, too."
"Is that the only reason?" Motoko asked, crossing her arms beneath her chest.
"And… also… because I think I can free Sempai from the oni," Shinobu said, staring at her feet.
Haruka stared at Shinobu for a time, while the sun moved across the heavens. Finally nodding, she said, "Very well. You are brave, Shinobu, and you are clever, and I cannot question your resolve… And I cannot go myself, because the one who goes must carry these for strength." Haruka handed Shinobu the three mirrors. "Freely given, and in good will, they will aid your journey. Borne of greed, or command, they will do more harm than good. Motoko shall search for Grandmother Hina, and I will keep the watch here."
Motoko frowned, but nodded, and withdrew a tiny sword from her robes. "Take this," she said, giving it to Shinobu. "And when you are in need of me, do not be afraid to use it."
Shinobu accepted the tiny sword with trembling hands, looking between it and the mirrors. "Thank you, Motoko. I will treasure it, and be comforted to know I have a friend such as you looking over me," she said, bowing.
"Enough," Haruka said, shaking her head. "Our time grows short. Shinobu, your path will take you many places. But stay fast and remember our allies. The Princess of the Sea has always been a friend of Keitaro, too, as has Seta. I do not know where Seta is, but the Princess of the Sea's palace is only a day's walk down the hill."
Shinobu nodded, and gathered a few possessions for her trip. She took a nice dress, and a school uniform, and just in case the oni's abode was cold, she packed an extra sweater. After a pause, she wrapped one outfit around each of the mirrors, and placed them carefully into her backpack. Shouldering it, she set out from Hinata, pausing only long enough to look back up the hill fondly, and to see Suu, Mitsune, and Naru all waving, calling out, and wishing her luck.
The journey to the Princess of the Sea's palace was short, a friendly passing hotspring turtle offering to carry her there. She accepted, and the turtle grew large enough for her to sit comfortably on its back as it soared over the town outside of the inn. Shinobu gasped, looking out over the gray streets, and the lifeless-looking world below.
"So this is what Hinata will look like if the wards fail," she whispered. "I understand how the oni was able to trick the others." Nodding to herself, she swore, "I will be strong, and get Sempai back!"
The turtle offered an encouraging chirp, and then made for a gleaming palace, just visible on the horizon. Shinobu's eyes widened, and she ducked a low cloud as the turtle dipped beneath it. "Wow," she breathed, as the turtle glided to a gentle landing before the entrance to the immaculate and soaring palace, as the sun began to set. "It's beautiful!" The gleaming spires reflected the red traces of the setting sun across golden parapets and towers of lovely coral.
The turtle nodded knowingly, and Shinobu paused for a moment to admire the seashell castle, with its pearl and alabaster gates. But she was on a mission, and had no time for distractions. Nodding to herself, she approached the gates, and knocked on them with a trembling fist.
Echoing as though a much greater fist had struck the doors, they rumbled open, revealing a single well-lit room, glowing as though it were lit from the sun, but lay beneath the sea. In the middle of this room, lying on a bed of an opened clamshell, Mutsumi lay, her eyes languidly drifting open.
"Oh my," she murmured, stifling a yawn. "I didn't expect a guest today. Of all the times for my servants to be away!" Mutsumi sat up, and hopped down from her bed, rushing over to seize Shinobu in a tight hug. "Aren't you adorable! But I know that you're brought here by a situation most deplorable." Mutsumi nodded to herself. "What brings you to my home, Shinobu-chan? Are you here on the part of some greater plan?"
Struggling to free herself from Mutsumi's grip and get some air to breathe, Shinobu gasped out, "I'm trying to find the oni that has kidnapped Keitaro!"
"Oh my," Mutsumi replied, gently lowering Shinobu to the floor. "You've chosen to undertake a grand quest. It will most certainly put your abilities to the test." Mutsumi turned about, and plucked a tiny, marble-sized watermelon from thin air. Turning back around, she presented the tiny fruit to Shinobu. "Take this on your journey. If you are in need of my aid, merely hold it and think of me."
Shinobu nodded her thanks, and asked, "Do you think that Seta can help me find the land of the oni?"
Mutsumi pursed her lips thoughtfully, and finally said, "There is a one who travels very near the land of the dead, and also to the land where the oni dwell. If you can find him, then he may lead you to where you wish to go in his van… but only time will tell."
Shinobu nodded again. "Then where shall I find him?"
"As he brought you to me, Tamago shall lead you to him," Mutsumi decreed. "Now quickly, Shinobu, find Seta before he drifts with his whim."
"Okay!" Shinobu gave Mutsumi a thankful hug, and then ran for the door, where the flying turtle was still waiting. "We must find our way to Seta… can you help me, please, Tamago?"
The turtle nodded, and gestured Shinobu to climb aboard its back. Shinobu did so, pausing only long enough to put on her sweater first.
The cold night air seemed to do nothing to Tamago's shell, and the sweater kept the worst of the chill off. The stars gleamed in the heavens above, the moon shedding more light across the land below, and the turtle swiftly winged its way across the land, though Shinobu had long ago lost her own way.
She felt the urge to sleep, but resisted it, patting the turtle affectionately in silent thanks. It managed a somewhat tired, but still cheerful chirp, and then began to descend towards a flickering light, which Shinobu quickly came to recognize as a fire pit.
The turtle landed in the clearing, and Shinobu's eyes quickly adjusted to the slumbering form of a man sitting before the fire, his van behind him. "Excuse me," Shinobu said tremulously, climbing off of the turtle's back. "I… Seta-san?"
The man across the fire roused himself. "Shinobu?" he asked sleepily. "What brings you out here?"
"I need your help, Seta," she pleaded, explaining how an oni had stolen Keitaro away.
After hearing her story, Seta nodded. "Very well," he said gravely. "I will drive you to the oni lands… but in the morning. For now, it is a long trip, and you will need your rest. As will you, Tamago."
The turtle chirped an acknowledgement, and lay down near the fire to sleep. Shinobu felt tired, too, so curled up next to the turtle.
Morning found Shinobu lying on the back seat of the van, the occasional mild jolt just strong enough to wake her up. She sat up and looked around, blinking in surprise at the view outside of the windows; trees and rocks, slopes and mountains.
"Does this road lead to the oni?" she asked, carefully making her way to the front of the van, and sitting in the passenger seat.
"Yes," Seta said, watching the road. "We are near, now. When you enter the oni lands, be warned. It is not a safe place. You must be very careful, for while the oni cannot lie, they have made an art of twisting words."
Shinobu nodded her understanding. "I will be careful," she promised.
"Good," Seta said, pulling the van to a stop before a vast red plain beneath a darkened sky. No sun shone in this land, but there was light anyway. "Here we are, Shinobu. Let me give you something before you go."
He fumbled in his pocket for a moment, and gave Shinobu a tiny van-shaped charm. "When you are in need of my aid, merely use this, and think of me," he advised.
Shinobu nodded her thanks, and took up her backpack, climbing down from the van. "Thank you, Seta. Thank you for taking me to the oni lands… do you know where the oni palace I seek lies?"
Seta shook his head. "I do not," he said apologetically. "I wish I could offer more aid, but I cannot easily enter this place while that oni remains. Good luck, Shinobu-chan."
"Thank you again," Shinobu said, bowing her head to the man.
He nodded at her, and then drove his van away.
Shinobu watched it for a moment, and then turned away. This was the challenge she had asked for, and she would weather it as she must. Sighing, she strode forth across the rocky red wastes.
After a time, Shinobu found a river of fire, far too hot for her to try and swim through and too wide for her to try and jump. Looking up and down revealed a bridge some way to her right.
She made her way to the bridge, observing the odd oni-red stone that comprised this land, and the river of dark fire. The bridge was a solid piece of stone, and a lone figure stood atop it, glaring at her menacingly. It was an oni, but she did not think it was the one she was looking for.
He was huge, and had massive red muscles, and a giant tree which he brandished like a club. All he wore was a hide loincloth. "Halt," he said, his voice accented by his teeth. "None may cross this bridge without besting me!"
"But I am only a little girl!" Shinobu protested, looking up at the oni meekly. "Surely I could pose no contest for you!"
"Then you could serve me," the oni decided. "If I were to defeat you, then you would become my slave."
"I don't want that!" Shinobu exclaimed, one foot going backwards before she remembered her resolve.
"Then you shall not cross."
Shinobu sighed, and looked around. "Are there other bridges?" she asked.
"None," the oni said, grinning. "This is the only way deeper into the oni lands."
Shinobu sighed again, and looked at the oni. "What else could I do for you?" she asked. "Could I serve you, for a time, without fighting you, and then be free to go? Wouldn't that be more convenient than having to fight me?"
"Hah!" the oni scoffed. "I wouldn't dream of it. Have you serve me for moments when you could serve me for eternity? Never."
Shinobu bowed her head, and frowned. "Is there anything else you want?" she asked.
The oni looked at her speculatively, and rubbed its chin, leaning on its tree-club thoughtfully. "Well," he said slowly. "I am in need of shoes, for my stone bridge is quite hot. But I do not think your shoes would fit me."
Nodding to herself, Shinobu took her shoes off, wincing at the heat of the rocks without that layer of protection. "They are small," she said, frowning, and eyeing the oni speculatively. Her own magics were small, and not very well suited to fighting demons. But she could cook, and clean, and mend clothes very well, so it was only a simple matter to turn her Shinobu-sized shoes into oni-sized shoes. "Shoes, will you fit an oni?" she asked. And then, stretching and growing to accommodate her wish, they could. "Would you let me cross if I gave you these?" Shinobu asked, holding up the giant shoes.
The oni raised an eyebrow, and leaned forward to look at the offering. "I might," he said, "if I could try them on."
"Very well," Shinobu said, setting the shoes down and then backing away. "But do not try to steal them, Oni-san."
The oni snorted, and lumbered forward, taking the shoes, and trying them on. "Hmm," he mused, taking a few experimental steps across the bridge. "Say, these are pretty nice… but… I think I'll just keep them, instead."
Shinobu frowned, and resisted the urge to sniffle. "Well, fine," she said crossly. "If you're going to keep my shoes, then I'll take my spell back. Shoes, please return to your normal size." And with that, the shoes shrunk to the size of Shinobu's feet, causing the oni to fall onto the bridge howling in pain.
"Get 'em off!" he yelled, tears running from his eyes. "Get 'em off! Turn 'em back and I'll let you cross the bridge! Please turn 'em back!"
Shinobu nodded, "Shoes, can you fit the oni again?" And with that, the shoes did so. The oni panted for breath and staggered upright, glaring at Shinobu menacingly. "You are not just a girl," he said accusingly. "You are a witch. But you have my word of honor. You may cross this bridge without menace from me."
"And if you promise to not chase me, or send your brothers after me, I will let you keep the shoes like they are," Shinobu offered.
The oni rubbed his chin, and then nodded. "Very well," he said gruffly. "I would not want my brothers to know about this shame anyway."
Shinobu smiled, and quickly dashed across the bridge, wincing as the heat of it scalded her through her socks.
The oni grunted when she had finished crossing. "My other brothers will not be so kind to you when they find you," he warned.
Shinobu nodded at him. "I know… but I must do this thing anyway."
The oni shook his head. "Good luck," he finally said. "You'll need it."
Some time later, after Shinobu had lost track of time and sight of the oni bridge guardian, she stumbled across a clearing, where four twisted trees grew, and six oni danced in a circle around a large fire. They stopped dancing when the saw her, all dressed as the bridge-guardian (only, without her shoes).
"What is this?" one of the oni asked, looking at her in confusion.
"Some mortal slip of a girl?" asked another.
"And an easy meal?" suggested a third.
"Perhaps a hero, searching for battle?" a fourth asked.
The fifth glared at him, and said, "No, you fool, it is a young witch, come to bear someone away from the land of the oni!"
"Indeed," the sixth said, crossing his arms over his chest, and looking at Shinobu sternly.
"Will you not let me pass?" Shinobu asked with a trembling voice, looking between the oni nervously.
"Bah! A mortal in the oni kingdom?" asked the first oni. "Of course not. You must turn back now, or we shall eat you. And you may bargain with one oni, but six will not bargain at all."
"But I don't want to fight you!" Shinobu protested, her feet now sore from walking across the oni kingdom with nothing but socks to protect her from sharp rocks. "I just want to find the oni that stole away Keitaro, and get him back!"
"We will not let you pass," the second oni said, shaking his head. "Only if you best us may you proceed."
Shinobu hesitated, and pulled the tiny sword from her pocket. "I do not wish to fight you, but if I must, then I will," she said, drawing the tiny sword from its equally tiny sheath. The miniscule blade glinted, and prompted the third oni to laugh. "You challenge us with such a thing?" he asked incredulously.
"A joke!" protested the fourth.
"A mockery," insisted the fifth.
"But if you insist, then we will fight," the sixth said, lumbering forward and cracking his knuckles.
Whimpering, Shinobu held the sword before her like a shield. And then, as the oni reached her, she felt like someone was guiding her. She ducked forward and leapt, the sword slashing to one side… cutting a swath far deeper than the blade.
With a few mighty chops, she left the oni in a pile of untidy pieces, feeling as though Motoko had guided her steps. "Thank you, Motoko-san," she said to the sword, as it vanished in a spark of white light.
"You cheated!" the bits of the first oni protested.
"You didn't even fight us yourself," the remainder of the second oni complained.
"I don't even know where my right hand went," the third's head grumped.
"I'm sorry," Shinobu said, bowing her head. "But I have to pass!"
"Fine," the fourth's remains growled.
"You've bested us," the pieces of the fifth's admitted unhappily.
"And so, you may pass," the chunks of the sixth oni sighed. "Now hurry up."
Shinobu bowed her head in apology, and then continued her trip.
What Shinobu found next was a small hut, built of stone and dead tree-branches, where a small human family of father, mother, and their young daughter remained.
The three humans looked at Shinobu in surprise when she came across their home. "Hello?" Shinobu called when she saw them, sitting down on a rock and rubbing her sore feet. "Do you live here?"
"We do," the man said, nodding. "Few humans live in the oni lands, but we are such."
"It must be hard," Shinobu said looking at the ragged and filthy clothes the trio wore.
"It's not too bad," the man said, shrugging. "I can afford to feed my family by working for the oni, and I have this place to stay."
Shinobu frowned at this. "Do you know of an oni that captured someone from outside of the oni lands?" she asked.
"I do," the man said, nodding. "He lives in that direction," the man said, pointing in the direction that Shinobu had been heading. "But it is a long way away. You look tired. Why not stay here for the night, and partake of our hospitality?"
"I couldn't do that," Shinobu said, shaking her head apologetically. "I have nothing to give you in return."
"I insist," the woman said, smiling at Shinobu.
The girl hesitated, and finally said, "I will stay… but only if you allow me to pay my way."
The woman frowned. "I thought you had nothing to give us?"
"I cannot give you much," Shinobu admitted. "But I can help you. I am a good cook, and I can clean, and I know how to mend clothes. I can do these things for you before I sleep. It is the least I can do."
The man and the woman were much too taken aback to stop Shinobu before she did as she insisted, quickly cleaning their house with a combination of effort and magic, and then mending their worn clothes, and cooking them all a fine meal with the scraps she found lying around.
When it was all done, she bowed to the couple and their young daughter (in her newly mended outfit), and took the most threadbare blanket she had found and slept in the corner, not accepting the proffered bed.
When Shinobu awoke, she thanked the couple again, and made to set out, but was stopped by the man. "Wait," he said, frowning. "It… I must tell you a truth. I am human, and not an oni, so I may lie… and I lied to you. It was my intent to betray you while you slept, and give you to the oni I serve. But your heart is too kind for such a fate. I can only offer you my apologies for this, and ask for your forgiveness." He bowed his head.
"Why would you do such a thing?" Shinobu asked, shouldering her backpack and frowning at the family.
"We do not have the money we need to send our daughter to school," the woman finally said, looking at their young daughter and smiling. "We cannot afford the uniform we need."
"Well, if that's all, then I can mend that for you," Shinobu decided. Drawing the spare uniform from her backpack, she carefully fitted it for the small girl, and then said, "Clothes, please fit this girl, and take care of her." Her school uniform quickly resized itself as she directed. "There," she said. "If you treat it well, it will grow with you, and serve you well."
The little girl smiled, and accepted the gift, but said nothing.
Turning back to the girl's parents, Shinobu said, "It is only right that parents look after their children, just as friends look after one another. But… the direction you told me I needed to go… that is the true direction where my goal lies?"
The man nodded, sniffling. "Your kindness must not go unanswered," he declared. "The way is long, and treacherous. I will give you my own shoes, though they will not fit you. They shall protect you on your journey."
Shinobu accepted the man's shoes, and with a moment of work was able to make them her own size, and a more suitable style. "Thank you," she said, smiling at the man and his wife, and their daughter fondly. "Good luck to you… but I must be on my way. Sempai is waiting for me."
"Good luck," the family called, as Shinobu strode towards her goal, her feet comfortable in their new shoes.
It was not long after leaving the family that Shinobu came across a great stone wall, reaching into the sky, and with only a single gate in sight. Another oni, this one leaning against the gate and watching her warily as she approached guarded the portal.
She bowed when she was within speaking distance, but well outside of the oni's reach. "Greetings," the oni said. "I suppose you want to get through this gate."
"I do," Shinobu said apologetically. "I want to rescue Keitaro."
The oni grunted. "You've no way to fight past me, and I am not allowed to let you pass through," he declared.
"Is there anything I could do that might change your mind?" Shinobu asked hopefully. "My Sempai is within, and I must help him."
The oni raised an eyebrow, and rubbed his chin in thought. After a time, he said, "My wish is that I have something to look at. Something interesting, that is different from all of this rock, and has some practical use."
"I can give you something," Shinobu said after a moment of thought. "But if I do, you must promise me that you will let me through, or I will take my gift away."
The oni shook his head. "That I cannot do," he said. "For I have already promised not to let you through this gate. But if you were to do me a favor, then I could let you pass some other way."
"If you promise me that I can pass another way, I will give you something, then," Shinobu said.
The oni nodded. "Very well," he said.
Moving to one side of the gate, so that it wouldn't be stepped on, Shinobu pulled the tiny watermelon that Mutsumi had given her from her pocket, and set it gently on the ground. "Please help me, Mutsumi-chan," she whispered.
The melon burst apart then, a tiny cloud of watery mist, and a dozen seeds. The seeds instantly grew into full-sized melons, huge vines shooting out around the melons, and then a greater vine climbing the rocky wall.
Shinobu stepped back, and looked at the vine. "This will be my way past," she said, looking at the oni.
He nodded gravely. "Very well," he said in agreement. "It is pleasant to look at. Do as you will. Unless you seek to pass through this gate, I will make no move to stop you."
Shinobu nodded at him, and begin the arduous climb to the top of the wall.
When she reached the top, she found the vine had crossed the thick wall, and gone down the other side, giving her an easy way to the bottom. She whispered her thanks to Mutsumi, and looked around from her height.
In the distance, she could see a great palace, gleaming in the sunless light of the oni land. Behind her, she could make out in the distance the great river of fire that she had taken a bridge across once, without thinking of how she would cross back.
Shaking her head, she set her eyes on the palace, and then began climbing down the wall. At the bottom, the watermelon patch had thrown up a small room of leaves, protected from the sight of all. Thoughtfully, Shinobu entered, and took advantage of the opportunity to put on her nice dress. Her old clothes had served her well, but had gotten worn, and she'd been too busy helping the man and woman clean their home to tend her own clothing at the time.
Aside from which, she told herself, she wanted to look her best for Keitaro. Wrapping the three mirrors carefully in her discarded shirt and skirt, she left the tiny watermelon-leaf changing room, and began to march to the oni palace.
When Shinobu reached the gates of the oni palace, they stretched higher than she could see, vanishing into the heavens. She knocked tremulously, and a deep, angry voice answered, "Who dares enter my domain uninvited?"
"I am Shinobu," she said trying to hide the faint quaver of fear in her voice. "I have come to rescue my Sempai — Keitaro."
"You are brave," the voice answered from within, thoughtfully. "You do not have what it takes to best me in a challenge… but it amuses me to let you try. Very well. Enter."
The doors of the palace creaked open, revealing inky blackness within. Shinobu swallowed nervously, and entered. As soon as she did so, all light vanished, and the oni of the palace laughed. "Three challenges must you face before you can free your… Sempai. And should you fail, then you belong to me, a prisoner for all time, along with your Keitaro.
"First, you must face a test of strength."
A door opened, spilling light onto the ground before Shinobu, and showing her the path to it.
She walked in nervously. There was no way to turn back now. Within, was a large room, a grand hall, with a stone block the size of the Hinata inn at the far end.
"You must move this block, and enter the door behind it."
Shinobu glanced behind her, but found nothing there except a blank wall. Sighing, she approached the iron block, and tested it. It was as solid as it looked. "Will you move for me, stone?" she asked hopefully.
The stone did not deign to reply.
Frowning, Shinobu reached into her pack, and pulled out Naru's red mirror. "Perhaps," she murmured, turning the reflective face to the stone block. Brilliant streamers of white and red force swept out, lifting the block, and moving it all the way across the room.
Shinobu smiled in delight, and hugged the mirror to her chest. "Thank you, Naru-chan!" she whispered, tucking the mirror into her backpack and marching into the next room.
"Interesting," the oni's voice came, obviously less interested and more annoyed.
"For your second test, you must prove that in addition to the strength of an oni, you have the heartiness of an oni!"
A table appeared in the center of the room, laden to the point of nearly breaking with barrels of beer, casks of rum, and bottles of wine.
Shinobu gasped at the collection, and warily uncorked a bottle, to sniff at it. The smell alone left her reeling, and she staggered back, shaking her head. Tapping the side of the bottle, she asked, "Will you drink yourself for me, wine?"
The wine did not deign to reply.
Shaking her head, Shinobu reached into her pack, and pulled out Mitsune's green mirror. She turned the reflective face to the table, and streamers of white and green energy swept out, dipping giddily into the bottle of wine, and then the barrels of beer, and then the casks of rum, and when it was gone, the weight on the table was reduced to almost nothing.
"Not a drop left?" the oni asked in surprise. "Very clever."
The doors at the far end of the room opened once more, and Shinobu made her way there, frowning at what looked like an empty room.
"And now, you've proved you've the strength, and the heartiness… but do you have the speed of an oni?"
The room filled with thousands upon thousands of candles. "Think quickly, now," the oni taunted. "You will burn to a crisp if you're not fast, and these candles will light themselves again, unless you extinguish them all!"
Whimpering, Shinobu turned to the nearest candle, and asked, "Fire, will you put yourself out for me?"
"I'm sorry," the candle-flame said in reply. "But I cannot, for I am enchanted by oni magic."
Nodding, Shinobu pulled the final mirror from her pack, turning its reflective face to the room. Pure white strands of energy exploded with the force of a hurricane, screaming across the room at a hyperactive pace, and putting out every flame.
"You have bested the third trial," the oni said, clearly upset. "Very well. Now you may bargain with me for your… Sempai."
A new set of doors opened, and Shinobu took a deep breath, putting Suu's mirror away. After striding through the doorway, she was only a little surprised to see the room that Naru, Suu, and Mitsune had described, and the oni within, sitting on his couch beneath the great mirror and smoking a cigar moodily.
"I've come to reclaim Keitaro," Shinobu said resolutely, looking at the oni mistrustfully, and then at the mirror, not surprised to see Keitaro there. Turning her eyes back to the oni, she asked, "What would you want to get him back?"
"I want those three mirrors," the oni said without pause. "The power put in them is great indeed. For that power, I will give up a piddling Immortal, even if he is the last one."
Shinobu hesitated, considering this for a moment, and then nodded. "Very well," she said, setting her pack on the floor and removed all three mirrors. "If I give you these mirrors, do you promise to release Keitaro, and let both of us leave the oni land unmolested?"
The oni reached for the mirrors, and said, "I agree. On the condition that you do no more than leave."
"Then it's a deal," Shinobu said, nodding.
In the mirror, Keitaro smacked himself on the forehead and shook his head, silently mouthing something.
The oni took the mirrors, and spun the great mirror on the wall, which spat Keitaro onto the floor.
"Though," the oni said, pausing, as he shuffled the mirrors in his hands, looking at them and grinning, "you failed the third challenge. For oni are not swift; they are cunning. And it is a simple matter to be faster than an oni… but you failed to be more clever. The challenges and the mirrors were both drawn from the essence of those witches I tricked. That puzzle was merely a distraction, and now I've outwitted you."
Keitaro glowered, and reached to strike the oni, but he was trapped in a circle of shadow before he could move more than a step.
"But I did too fool you!" Shinobu countered. "You haven't tried to use the mirrors yet, have you?"
The oni blinked, and quickly faced the green mirror at Shinobu. The lines of power that washed out from it had no affect on her. Frantically, the oni fumbled out the white mirror, and faced it, too, at Shinobu. But the lines of power from that mirror also did nothing to her.
"No!" the oni growled, taking the red mirror, and trying it as well. "How can this be?" he howled, when Shinobu ignored the power that had moved a block of stone the size of an inn. "How did you fool me?"
"Because I know what was really put into those mirrors," Shinobu said, moving to stand before Keitaro. "Are you brave enough to look and see what it is for yourself?"
Growling, the oni lined up all three mirrors, and gazed into them. And what he saw instantly turned him to stone, and causing the ring of shadow about Keitaro to vanish.
"Huh," Keitaro said, rubbing his chin. "That… was very clever, Shinobu-chan. Did… you come all the way here to rescue me yourself?"
Shinobu blushed, and nodded, collecting the mirrors from the oni statue's hands, and putting them in her backpack. "Yes, but we should hurry, and leave this place."
"No complaints here," Keitaro said, as Shinobu threw her small van charm at the ground.
The charm exploded in a puff of smoke, and when the smoke faded, Seta's van sat in the small room. The man blinked, looking up over his newspaper and seeing the room he was in. "Oh," he said. "Hmm. Hop in, guys, I think it's time for me to wheel on out of here."
Keitaro and Shinobu climbed into the van, both sitting in the middle seat, while Seta floored it, and drove out of the oni country. It took only a few minutes to make it to the wall, the gate-oni blinking as the van smashed him to one side. From there, they quickly hit a rock that caused them to bounce over the shack where Shinobu's human friends lived. A quick detour around the pit where the six piles of oni-pieces were laboriously reassembling themselves took them to the bridge, where the guard wisely leapt aside before the van drew near, and not long after that, they were back at Hinata.
Haruka nodded in approval, as Shinobu finished explaining how she had rescued Keitaro. "I'm very glad, then, that our trust in you was not misplaced," the older woman said. "Very glad indeed."
"I do have a question, though," Keitaro said, rubbing his chin. "What did the oni see in the mirrors that turned him to stone?"
"I put wind in my mirror," Suu said helpfully.
"And I put strength in mine," Naru added.
"I put my amazing tolerance in mine," Mitsune finished. "But how would those things turn an oni into stone?"
"None of those things would turn an oni to stone," Haruka said, shaking her head. "And anyway, after the mirrors were used to change things touched by oni magic, that power would fade. Only love can turn an oni to stone."
Naru and Mitsune blushed, looking away, and unable to meet Keitaro's eyes. Suu merely giggled.
Shinobu turned a dark shade of red.
"All's well that ends well," Haruka decided.
And after that, Motoko returned with Grandmother Hina, and the inn's wards were restored. And then, eventually, Keitaro and Shinobu were married, although that came much later.
Of course, those are both stories for another time….
Author's notes: …I don't know. I just… don't… know. I suspect that about a year of ignoring fan fiction does this to me. Hmm. I'd better write more often.
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