There are many wells in the world, some that have a mysterious background, others that are mysterious themselves. There are people that revere them because they are like portals to another realm, shrouded in darkness, and in some instances, even death. The land of Japan is one of those mysterious places that is engrossed with the world beyond the grave, with many wells littering the island from one end to the other.
However, there is only one well in all of Japan that emerges from the depths of legends onto the surface of the truth. A well that is thirsty for blood . . . and pennies.
Ixinizhi was overcome with grief. Shizune had to admit that she’d never seen a full grown man weep as much as the fox did. He looked pathetic. Here he was, a supposed protector of the Emperor’s son, sprawled out on the ground as though he was drawing his last breath, his red ears limp and his tail dead.
“Alright, that’s enough already!!” Shizune Hakura snipped, combing her black hair in the mirror. “Someone’s going to come up here and find you! And I don’t need to remind you that fox-men aren’t exactly a common sight here on Earth!!”
“I don’t care!” Ixinizhi whimpered. “My lord . . . my lord is lost! He’s lost to the clutches of hell and I can’t do anything about it!”
“You can stop your whining!” Shizune threw her brush at him, hitting the young man right on top of the black and red head. “I told you last night! Heaven’s going to get him out of this mess!”
“How can you be so sure?!” Ixinizhi wailed, ignoring the pain in his skull.
“Shizune!” a voice called from downstairs. It sounded like Mrs. Hakura. “What’s all that commotion up there?”
“Nothing!” Shizune hollered, despite her bedroom door being closed. “It’s just me talking to myself!!”
She whirled upon the figure lying in the middle of the wooden floor and grabbed a fistful of his striped hair, forcing him to look at her.
“Hey! Fox! You listening to me? I told you to shut up! If my family finds you up here, they’ll freak out. And there’s no telling what they’ll do, but it won’t help you with your situation, you understand me? Now wipe your face off and stop moping on my floor! I’m not mopping up your tears!”
He stared at her with a flicker of startlement in his eyes. Shizune, however, didn’t notice his awe. Instead, she flew into a miniature temper tantrum herself.
“Why the hell did Michael put me in charge of you?! Why couldn’t he have one of his friends babysit you? I can’t deal with this right now! School starts in five days! And why the hell aren’t these spirits going away?!?! ”
Shizune seized a perfume bottle and pitched a slugger that would’ve impressed the professionals at a random floating apparition hovering near a bookshelf. Of course, the bottle passed right through it and exploded all over the floor.
It the next instant, a set of footsteps came racing up the stairs. Panic set in, and Shizune scrambled towards a petrified Ixinizhi. She grabbed one of his triangular ears and threw him into the closet, slamming the door closed just as her bedroom door flew open. Her mother, still wearing her apron, appeared rather angry.
“Alright, what is going on up here, Shizune Hakura?!”
“Nothing,” Shizune fumed, quickly changing out of her old clothes into a new set. “I just dropped the perfume bottle, that’s all.”
“Is that why those books are covered in perfume?” Her mother pointed at the drenched collections from where the impact had covered them. “Shizune, I don’t know what’s gotten into you lately, but you’re really starting to push our buttons. Now get downstairs and eat something.”
“I’m not hungry,” Shizune lied, her sour attitude only half masking her rumbling stomach.
“Fine. Fine! Then go help your grandfather with the shrine. He’s doing it all by himself--”
“Me?” Shizune scoffed. “I didn’t move here to help Grandpa clean his shrine, Mom! Dad was the one that wanted to help, not me! So why aren’t you asking Dad to help?”
Mrs. Hakura looked like she was going to explode. “You get downstairs right now or I’ll--”
“You’ll what?” Shizune demanded, pushing past her. “You’ll move us again? Go ahead! I’ve had it with this freakish place!”
Shizune felt like a lion, pacing up and down in its cage, except that she was free to go wherever she wanted. But no, she was in a cage of sorts. She was trapped here with an ignorant family, manifesting spirits, and an ongoing war between heaven and hell.
She stormed outside, wanting to scream at the sky, but found it difficult to do. Despite this rage she was in, she was still afraid of hell coming to get her. Or worse . . . another unexpected visit from the Shinigami.
And then she remembered that Blood Pennies Annijo wasn’t allowed on the shrine grounds. His malice for her had been the very thing that had prevented his negative energy from crossing over.
She glanced to her left to see if she could spot her grandfather or father, but neither were in sight. There was only the six statues of the guardians of the Emperor’s son, and the shrine that had been dedicated to Ixinizhi. Oddly enough, she found satisfaction that neither were to be spotted, and trekked across the partially wooded grounds in the direction of the grove. She stopped short of passing under the Myojin torii gates, knowing full well that the protection ended there. Who knew what was waiting for her on the other side of the invisible boundary?
Shizune jumped, actually crying out. She whirled on the spot, gasping at the sight of Ixinizhi standing there, his twin katanas at his sides. He seemed to be a little more recovered, his ears upright and alert.
“What--what are you doing here?” Shizune choked, unable to believe he had snuck up on her like he had. “How--how did you make it past my family? Did they see you?!”
“You know, you do have a window in your room,” Ixinizhi murmured. “And I am a highly skilled warrior. It doesn’t take much.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” Shizune snorted, turning away from him.
The fox man leapt up into the lowest hanging branch of a nearby tree and settled down, frowning at her.
“What was all of that about earlier?”
“What was what?”
“All that yelling. Was that your mother you were arguing with?”
“So what if it was?”
Ixinizhi’s scarlet colored pools directed themselves away from her lone figure on the ground below.
“You must really be in a lot of turmoil for you to be so hateful.”
“Hateful?!” Shizune rounded on him. “You have no idea about me, okay? Don’t go trying to pull that bonding garbage with me! I don’t need your pity, okay?!”
“Why did an angel choose you to look after me?” Ixinizhi glanced at her. “For a fact, what made an angel want to look after you? The way you act around others . . . it almost makes me want to leave.”
“Believe me, I’d let you go!” Shizune motioned to the torii gates. “But I can’t right now. You go, and hell could get ahold of you. I don’t even know why I care! I mean, you people are fighting your own battles. Why do you need me?”
“Obviously, you are needed for something for Archangel Michael to have involved you,” Ixinizhi said quietly.
“No, see that’s where you’re wrong!” Shizune rounded to stare up at him in the tree. “The only reason any of this happened was because I decided to go to the well out of curiosity! And ever since then, my life has been ruined! Now, I don’t care what happens to your lord or whatever! He tried to kill me, remember? And I wasn’t even the right person!! The way I see it, he deserves what he gets!!”
In the next instant, there was a flash and Shizune found that both katana blades were crossed in front of her throat, a pair of angered eyes beyond them.
“The only reason you aren’t dead yet is because I realize how oblivious you are to the facts. You are but spouting your mouth about things you have no clue as to what they are!”
“Then tell me!” Shizune challenged, jerking away from the weapons. “What is it about your Shinigami lord that justifies his trying to kill me?”
“Because Shizuka killed him!” Ixinizhi snarled, sheathing his blades. He stared at her for a moment, then sat down under the tree where he’d been resting in moments ago.
Shizune sighed heavily and sat next to him, sensing that a long speech was drawing near.
Ixinizhi paused before starting.
“Five hundred years ago, the Emperor of Japan ruled over the world of the samurai. When a son was born to him, he was a beautiful baby. He made his father’s heart sing. And so our Emperor was always fraught with worry that something would become of him. He pestered my lord to find himself suitable soldiers to protect him, and so, my lord searched for six men to help guard him.
“I’ll never forget meeting him for the first time. He was so beautiful, and so wonderfully kind. He was hot blooded, always ready for an adventure. I was so grateful to have been chosen by such a man that I dedicated body and soul to his every wish.”
“Why?” Shizune made a funny face. “Come on, any sappier and I’d think you were gay!”
“I am not!” Ixinizhi’s cheeks flushed. “I did love my lord, but--!”
“But?” Shizune gave him a toothy grin.
He shook his head and continued on.
“As time wore on, my lord became stronger and stronger. And His Majesty became more and more worried for his only son. So the Emperor declared that his only son marry a suitable woman before he could claim his right to the throne.”
“Why does he need to marry somebody?” Shizune’s nose wrinkled. “I’d never marry, even if my parents told me to! Marriage is for losers.”
“Hmph. Is that what you think, Hakura?” Ixinizhi said with slight disdain. “Clearly we have different views of the same things. If it’s any concern of yours, the reason that the Emperor wanted him married to a woman was to keep an eye on him so that he did nothing foolish.”
“Oh, I get it. So the Emperor didn’t trust you to do your job.”
Ixinizhi looked as though he had actually thought about lopping her head off then and there.
“Such insolence! Of course His Majesty trusted the six samurai to protect him! The Emperor only wanted his son to find real love! He thought that a proper royal needed a woman at home, so that he would have a reason to come back to the palace!”
“And then this happened?” Shizune grunted. “Sounds like he picked out a dandy of a woman. See, this is why I will never get married. This is why I don’t believe in love and all that emotional crap.”
“Is this what the world has become in my absence?” Ixinizhi cast his scarlet eyes at her violet ones. “How disappointing it would be to know that five hundred years have passed and the world has changed so wickedly!”
“Stow it, fox. This is reality. Five hundred years ago or now, it doesn’t matter. You were all living in a fantasy. Isn’t that Shinigami’s girlfriend proof enough? Because of her, he’s condemned to hell. That’s the way it is. That’s the reason the world is the way it is. We’re all bound for hell, one way or another.”
“How can you say that after witnessing heaven’s grace yourself?” Ixinizhi said scathingly. “Or have you forgotten so quickly?”
“Hey, if I remember correctly, we were supposed to be talking about the Shinigami.”
“His name is Annijo! And he is not a Shinigami! He is my lord!”
She glowered at him. “Fine! Whatever! Annijo then! But you do admit that the woman you guys kept telling me I was, was in fact the cause of all this, right?”
“Yes!” Ixinizhi growled in his throat, turning his gaze away from her. She could see that he was burning with hatred. “I’ll never forget the day we first encountered her--Shizuka!”
He closed his eyes.
“We were walking in the market place, Lord Annijo and I. The other samurai were elsewhere, going about their business. No one person dared to raise his eyes at the Emperor’s son. He was a handsome man, which prompted the sight of many, but it meant sneaking a peek at him. So in all of those lowered heads, hers was quite easy to pick out.
“I remember she was standing in front of a stand selling high quality rugs and tapestries . . . far beyond what she, a mere peasant, could afford. And my lord approached her, for he was intrigued at her beauty, which even I admit caught my eye.”
Shizune made a slight noise, but Ixinizhi ignored her.
“My lord fell in love with her, even though he knew his father would never approve. But even with all of her beauty . . . from the moment our eyes met, I had this sense that something wasn’t right. I wasn’t sure of what it was, but I could just feel this gnawing impression that it was off. I immediately tried to warn my lord, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. And he began meeting in secret with her.”
“So, you followed, right?” Shizune prodded. “I would’ve.”
“No, I did not.”
“Why the hell not?!”
“Because I couldn’t change his mind, believe me, I tried to!”
“You people are so naïve!” Shizune huffed, crossing her arms over her legs. “If you felt like something was wrong, you should’ve snooped around a bit!”
Ixinizhi was shocked. “He was the Emperor’s son! I had no business in his affairs!”
“Oh, so being a good soldier was more important than being a good friend?”
Instead of retorting something back of equal sarcasm, the fox man fell silent for a moment. He surprised her with his answer.
“I suppose so. I suppose it was. Maybe it is my fault for this entire mess. Perhaps if I had been more adamant in my arguments--”
“Don’t start this again!” Shizune rolled her eyes. “Just tell me what happened the night that your Shini--Annijo met with what’s-her-face!”
He murmured, “I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”
She sighed, frustrated.
Her interest shot up once more.
“--I do know this. The next day, I could not find my lord anywhere. I searched and searched with my fellow samurai, but we never did find him. The Emperor fell ill after receiving the news that his son had vanished.”
Ixinizhi stared her straight in the eyes. “Gone. And we never heard from her again. I assumed that they’d eloped. I thought that--I had been abandoned.”
“Wow. So that’s how it ended huh? And you killed yourself? How did you become a fox, then? And why were you sealed inside a red jewel? I still got it, you know . . .”
Ixinizhi shrugged his shoulders. “I have no idea why I became what I am. I surely thought I was doomed for hell as well. But I can tell you what the red jewel is. In fact,” he frowned, “it’s--uncanny that you mention it.”
“Huh?” Shizune blinked. “It is? Why?”
“Well, that jewel is one of the seven gems of the Emperor that he passed on to his son, Lord Annijo. It was a birthday gift, a necklace of the rainbow. He wore it on him all the time when he was alive. What’s uncanny is that it’s suddenly reappeared . . . and that I should be sealed within it. You see, it vanished on the night that my lord and Shizuka went missing. So how in the world did something as valuable as that come to be at the shrine--and with my soul in it, no less?”
Shizune realized the logic in his questions, and her mind went to work trying to figure out a solution.
“I--I don’t know. That’s something else that I have no clue about, I guess. All of this is beyond me. Spirits, angels, Shinigami, hell . . . way in over my head over here.”
Ixinizhi got to his feet, his armor and swords clinking. “That is all I know. If there are any other questions you wish to have answered, it is best if you go see Lord Annijo and ask him yourself.”
Shizune stood up, scoffing at his idea. “Yeah, that’s a real smart idea! Go back and visit the guy that tried to kill me! ”
He rounded upon her. “He knows now the truth! You are nothing to him now! What reason could he possibly have in pursuing you?!”
“Revenge? After all, I did take him to court, remember?”
“Did you not see the look on his face when he realized what had been going on around him? All the lies? All of the trickery?! He could care less about a human like you now! He understands that his very soul hangs in the balance. And what is a stupid hearing to him when he knows that for the past five hundred years, he could have been at peace?!”
Shizune said nothing in reply. Ixinizhi didn’t expect her to. He turned away from her.
“I am going back. You do understand that, don’t you? I will eventually return to the well. I couldn’t help him before, but this time will be different. I am going to save him, and no one is going to stop me.”
Night had fallen upon the Hakura home, and Shizune was not in any way able to sleep. She laid in her bed while Ixinizhi camped out in her closet, snoring slightly, occasionally scratching at his ears.
“This is stupid,” she muttered to herself.
What she was referring to was the fact that all of life’s events had taken a turn for the worst. Why hadn’t she listened to her grandfather for once and not gone to see the light in the woods? Why had she cared about the supernatural stories of an old codger anyway?
“If I hadn’t have gone . . .” she muttered aloud.
“Hmm?” Ixinizhi yawned loudly, pushing the closet door open so that he was in full view. “Are you still awake over there? What’s the matter now?”
“I’m deep in thought, okay? Now go back to sleep.”
“What are you so deep in thought about?”
“What do you care?”
Ixinizhi shook his head. “I am incredulous to the amount of sheer malice you seem to keep in reserve. You ought to show me a little more respect. I am a samurai warrior, you know.”
“It’s kind of hard to respect somebody who has fox ears and a tail.”
He glared at her from inside the closet. “At least my ears and tail are a good trade off! I’d rather be a sour fox than a smug stuck up bi--”
A faint flash of light from outside interrupted their bickering, surprising Shizune enough to get out of bed to investigate. Ixinizhi watched her push aside the curtain and peer outside.
“What is it?” he said, rising.
She wasn’t sure herself. Outside, the thousands of soul spheres were floating through the air as usual, minding their own business. The flash of light wasn’t coming from them. No, it seemed to be centered out in the grove.
Ixinizhi joined her at the window, staring outside.
“It’s coming from the grove.”
A chill went up Shizune spine. “Do you think it’s from . . . ?”
“I don’t know. But . . . it doesn’t look right, does it?”
“Well,” Shizune admitted, “I guess not. I mean, when I first saw the Shinigami light, it was a white blue, not red. Is someone down there with a fire going, maybe?”
“No. It’s not moving. It appears to be at the well. My lord--!”
He started to jerk open the window when Shizune snatched ahold of his wrist.
“Hey, now wait a minute! Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
“Something isn’t right. You said so yourself.”
“Stuff it, fox. You have to stay here!”
She sighed out of pure annoyance. “Because heaven thinks that hell wants to kidnap you! Don’t you get it? They’ve got hell on the ropes, and the well isn’t on the shrine grounds. You won’t be protected. For all we know, it’s a trap to lure you down there!”
“I don’t care,” Ixinizhi replied flatly. “Hell can have me! But my lord must go free! He has clearly suffered an existence not meant for the lowest of criminals! I have to find a way to save him. It is my duty!”
He leapt outside without a moment’s hesitation.
“No, you stupid--! Aarrgh!!”
Shizune ran to her dresser and quickly tore off her pajamas, throwing on a pair of shorts and a shirt. She couldn’t believe how idiotic he was, rushing off like that without thinking at all! Now she had to go and fetch him!
“If I get ahold of him, I’m going to drag him back here by the ear and then I think I’m going to kill him!”
She swung her leg over the sill out onto the roof, then slowly made her way down to the ground, grumbling to herself.
Still, she couldn’t help but wonder what was going on. Was someone summoning the Shinigami, Annijo? If so, then why was the light red like that? What if they were running into a trap? Who was going to save her when she saved Ixinizhi?
Why did she have to be a part in any of this?