A blast of youkai energy had me screeching to a halt and ducking behind a tree. The roiling heat of it was thicker than tar, as tough as any shield. The Parade came soundlessly, but their presence resonated heavily through the air. My lips were dried and when I bit my bottom lip, I could feel pieces of dried skin peeling from them.
The Night Parade moved through the streets in an organized clump, each monster almost bleeding into another. They were hungry, they were powerful, and they meant to enjoy the night. A part of my brain catalogued the traits of all the creatures I could see, labeling them and remembering the bits of their stories from the scrolls with their epidermis-thin papers. I had never seen most of them before and a small part of me was just a little awed.
“Do you smell that?” A lone voice rose among the hundred.
“Smells like…human.” The word was hissed out like a salivating gourmet.
The Parade drew to a stop as each youkai looked around, lifting their heads up and down, tasting the air for the bouquet of blood and flesh. “Where? Where is the human?”
I pressed myself against the rough bark of the tree, willing myself not to break and run. I was the Kanda Onmyouji. I would not run. Probably.
“Over there,” it was the Bakeneko that pointed, his two tails rising in agitation, hissing, “behind the tree.”
I expected to be found, I wanted to be found, but still my heart juddered to a stop when all those – eyes – swiveled towards me.
“Here he is. Here he is.” They gathered to look. “A human. A human boy!”
“Look at him.”
“Fragile.” Shrieks of laughter rattled through my skull like a thousand shattering windows.
“He is fearless.” One with the face of a bug-eyed lion snarled.
“Oh, good, sniveling humans ruin the taste.” Several of them moved towards me. The Kiyome reached her scaled hand towards me. I slapped it away instinctively, causing her to hiss in fury.
“What is your name?” She slithered, one long claw reaching out to trace my cheek. I felt that claw trace a thin line and the piercing itch that came when the thinnest layer of skin broke into a red line. I kept my mouth shut. My name would give them a claim over me, the most basic and truest form of a spell.
They surrounded and circled around me, like I was some rare species of circus animal. One of them moved forward and shoved a face that smelled of decaying garbage into mine and inhaled deeply.
“The bouquet of power.”
Suddenly they were all there, sniffing at me, causing the dust to rise up in a small whirlwind at my feet.
“Such strength,” one said dreamily.
“His vitality will enrich us. We shall toast to his blood!” An ogre cheered.
The moon chose that moment to appear from behind the clouds, completely removing the shade of the shadows. I felt exposed, naked. My hair, my goddamn cursed red hair bare for all to see.
The mountain hag shrieked, “He is one of them. One of the cursed ones!”
“Onmyouji.” The word was repeated down the Parade, an echo of disgust.
“The cursed one with red hair,” Bony fingers reached out to drag through loose strands. “Marked for our notice. He is our sworn enemy. He will kill us all.” The fingers seized into a fist and yanked. “He must die!”
“He must die, he must die.” The chant grew louder, spreading throughout the Parade, gaining force. I barely swallowed the gasp of pain before the Tengu spoke up, finally. He stood tall and arrogant, black wings spread out, balancing on tall geta shoes, a mark above the rest.
“He is one child among many,” the Tengu paused importantly, “there is no rush.” The chanting calmed and the youkai looked at each other.
“What does Tengu-sama recommend?” The Nurarihyon tilted his gourd-like head in a subservient manner, a creature who would prostrate himself in front of you, then turn around and stick a knife in your back.
“A game,” the Tengu said, “with the boy as the pawn. He will bleed and weep for our entertainment. We will hear his screams until such time and before dawn, he will be gone.”
“A game!” The youkai cried, moving to encircle me. “How wonderful! A game to quash the hated Onmyouji child!”