Falling to the Side – By: The psycho writer known as Kobi-chan

This is for my fans, who are no doubt wondering if I have died from overwork in college. To answer: No, not yet. Actually, I have been caught up in something called 'NaNoWriMo,' National Novel Writing Month. I have 30 days to turn out a 50,000 word novel, and have been working hard! So, I have decided to give you all a tasty posting of 'Day 1,' the first chapter of this project!

Warning: 17 pages long!

The lesser-god stared bleakly down upon the mortal world. Good deeds? What was this crap? Why did he have to do a good deed before he could move up to the next power-level? Gah. Well, he might as well have some fun while doing it…ah, what's this? That guy? And he will… oh, this will be good. The lesser-god smirked slightly to himself. A good deed, and some good entertainment too…

DAY 1

Shinzou lazily leaned back against the ancient oak that he had found to provide some shade on this extremely hot summer's day. The life of a wanderer was one of take-what-you-can-get philosophy, so Shinzou considered himself rather fortunate to find such a pleasant place to eat his admittedly meager lunch. Good food that held up for long trips was hard to come by, especially in… wherever he was now. AH, his cursed sense of direction. He was one of the few in the world who did in fact fear the mighty paper bag, for the mysterious depths were quite enough to enclose him and perhaps cause him to starve to death before he found the exit.

            Shinzou decided that the truth hurt, at that very moment. Why should a great warrior such as him have to live in fear of the paper bag? It wasn't fair. He could fight demons, monsters, ghosts and spirits without flinching but bring out his brown paper nemesis and he would either fail to survive to the exit or die of embarrassment from the rescue that would have to be called for him. A deep sigh and one finally finished chocolate bar later, Shinzou was about to start beating his head against the venerable old oak tree in an attempt to shut his stupid brain up. Ah, to have the memory span of a goldfish, that might be nice… but wait, then Kigai, the idiot, would make even more fun of him, and he wouldn't be able to remember it! With a soft growl, Shinzou decided that there was no good solution for the damnable state of his sense of direction, and that the only thing that would help right now was some coffee. No, make that lots of coffee. Soon. Now, how to find a coffee shop…

            Shinzou was in luck. At that very moment, two unwitting souls happened to wander past the irate and caffeine deprived seventeen year old, and guess what they happened to be talking about.

            "New coffee shop just up ahead, I hear."

            "Coffee shop? Out here?"

            "Yep. Gettin' pretty good business too. Only place to sit 'n eat for miles."

            All right! Maybe the gods ARE smiling on me today! With that thought, Shinzou bounded to his feet, swiftly securing his large pack to his back in a smooth motion born of years of daily practice. Many years. He set about 'tailing' the two unwitting country wanderers as they strolled down the road, eavesdropping on their conversation while he was at it. After all, if they knew about a great new coffee shop, maybe they knew more useful information.

            Over the next hour, Shinzou learned more about farming, crops, and weather than he had ever wanted to know. Sheesh, what boring people! I guess the coffee shop was the highlight of THIS conversation. And I also have some 'issues' with their definition of 'just up ahead'.

            With all this mental muttering going on within the dark cloud that had been slowly forming around our hero, it was not surprising that he almost walked right past his destination. A small piece of his dark cloud (very small, seeing as it represented his directional sense) managed to stop him with a tap on the shoulder before he had walked more than five feet too far. A good thing, otherwise he would have gotten lost again, and all this would have been for naught. As it was, he managed to get turned around and heading the right direction, straight into this lovely oasis of caffeine, the 'Kissaten Café'. He drug himself through the door and over to a small booth, garnering the usual weirded-out stares from the 'normal' customers. One perk however, was that a waitress came running as soon as he sat down. After all, the sooner you give the weirdo what he wants, the sooner he'll leave, right?

            Coffee safely ordered and undoubtedly on the way, Shinzou settled back against the cool padding of the back of the booth. This was nice; he was actually out of the elements. Too bad he'd have to leave again soon. Such was the life of the wandering, cursed Apothecary spiritualist…

            His heavy pack occupied the side of the booth across from him, a sure sign saying "No company please." He found that it was the best way to stop random people from walking over, sitting down and talking to him. If he wanted company, which was pretty much never, he'd go looking for it. Why did people always want to chat him up? Was it because he was a spiritualist, or maybe because he was an Apothecary and healer? And why were they usually women?

Where the heck was that coffee? Shinzou was not a very patient person by nature, and certainly not when it came to caffeine. Which he had been deprived of for several days now. He was seriously eyeballing the carafe on the table next to him, hatching overly complicated plots on how to steal it, when the waitress finally returned.

With the lovely 'black gold' finally before him, Shinzou relaxed and turned his thoughts elsewhere. After listening to the two old guys talking about it for the better part of an hour, Shinzou was now painfully aware that seriously bad weather was due late tonight. This was definitely not good news for a guy who spent most of his time living in small camps beside the road. Sure, he could do it, but he would much prefer to have an actual roof over his head. So, the problem was this: how to convince someone to let a random wanderer like him to stay under their roof? His best bet was to supply some service to the house owner… but what?

Shinzou found himself eavesdropping… again. It was rather sad that this was how he got almost all of his news of the outside world. As it was, he turned his sharp hearing to one table after another, hoping for that magical word…

"… Reward to the one who does it…"

There! What was that? Those two women across the room… he narrowed his hearing focus to their conversation only, a trick that was rather unique to him. It was times like this that Shinzou actually enjoyed his cursed self.

"So, a ghost, really? Those really exist?"

"Guess so. This one's been terrorizing that family all year."

"Wow."

"They can barely sleep in the house as it is… and only because it's only one ghost."

"I guess so. Is that why all those creepy ghost hunter types have been wandering through the area?"

At this point, both women surreptitiously glanced in Shinzou's direction. He wisely chose to be 'completely absorbed' by the surface of the liquid in his mug. He was no ghost hunter. And since when was he 'creepy'? Sure, he'd been called gloomy, dark, strange, messed up, and many other less than flattering things, but 'creepy' was a new one for the books. He sighed miserably, and then realized that the women had decided to stop ogling the stranger and continue their conversation.

            "So, how long do you figure until they can't take any more and move out?"

            "A month, I think."

            "Unless someone exorcises that house, eh?"

            The two women shared a laugh at this statement – why? – before continuing on to discuss the state of one of their friend's relationships with a man from the next town over. Shinzou tuned this part out, and contemplated this new opportunity that was staring him in the face. As he'd said before, he was no ghost hunter, but he was capable of banishing ghosts. It wasn't his favourite pastime or the easiest way of making money, so he usually stuck to healing and other types of battling. Ghosts were such pests to get rid of… plus you always felt guilty after you got rid of them; they were tortured souls in the first place and the banisher had, quite literally, just sent them to hell. And hell was one place that Shinzou was quite familiar with, unfortunately.

            But, in this case… the family sounded as if they were desperate, and he really needed any reward they might give, whether it be a meal and a bed or money to procure such things. Mind made up, he decided to try his hand at ridding these people of their ghost problem. You never know, it might not even be a ghost at all… that would be nice. Now, to find someone to give him directions…

Even though he had no sense of direction to speak of, Shinzou was actually pretty good about following directions, so long as he didn't get distracted and wander off course. The guy behind the counter at the coffee shop had even drawn him a crude map to aid him in finding his way across town to the stately old house on the outskirts. Actually, this map looked suspiciously like a photocopy… were there really that many people testing their skills against this troubled spirit? Shinzou began to feel a slight sense of foreboding. Professionals had apparently failed before him, what was he, a part time spirit medium at best, doing? Of course, this may work to his advantage if the spirit was a strange one; ghost-hunters often became set in their ways and were completely stumped when a ghost managed to throw them for a loop.

            Oh well, nothing to do but try. If things got bad, he could always bow out. The bad thing was, he had no backup plan as far as food and shelter went, but he figured he'd deal with that when and if it became an issue.

            The house finally appeared around a grove of small elms, and the young Apothecary let out a small whistle of appreciation. Yes, if this were his house, he wouldn't give it up to some spirit without a fight either! The place had an elegance from another era, immaculately maintained over the years. Surrounded by gardens in which a variety of small animals and birds made their presences known, the estate had a very natural feel.

As he approached, he spotted a young woman working outside in one of the aforementioned gardens, and decided that this was definitely the right decision for his day. She looked up as he approached with some suspicion in her eyes. She took in his outfit, well made for traveling, fighting and healing, but not for fitting in among a crowd. His rough looking dark hair, tanned complexion and oddly grayish eyes added to the overall effect.

Hoping that his new 'creepy' factor was not currently in effect, Shinzou put a grin on his face as he approached the woman. She relaxed a little, but did call out to others who were apparently inside the house. When he was finally in speaking distance, he decided to make sure he'd reached the right place. With his troubles, this was always a good idea.

"I'd heard that there was a house in the area with a ghost problem. Is this the right place?"

"That depends whether you're a ghost hunter or a normal person. If you're normal, you should turn around right now."

"Do I look normal to you?"

"Ah, so another young warrior has found his way into our presence, eh?" A new person joined the conversation. Shinzou turned his head slightly to take in the middle aged man who had just exited the house. The man was in turn sizing the new arrival up with a critical eye.

"If you don't mind my saying so, you don't look like much of a match for a ghost young sir."

Actually, Shinzou did mind. Why were people always underestimating him? Was it because he was so young, skinny and ragged looking? Oh, well maybe that was the problem right there… the Apothecary heaved a small sigh before defending his reputation.

"I'll have you know that I'm an experienced warrior and spiritualist. I heard that you were having some trouble, and felt that maybe I could help."

"You no doubt heard of the reward that has been promised as well?"

"Er… of course."

"I see." The man's face closed up, and he turned to reenter the house. "Follow me. I believe I should like to at least talk to you for a few minutes before I decide if we will hire you."

With no other option, Shinzou swiftly followed his host into the dim entryway, giving the pretty young woman a smile as he passed. She raised an eyebrow and appeared unfazed. Too many people passing through, it seemed. Shinzou decided that all things being equal, he would never get the girl, and then continued deeper into the residence. He didn't have to go too far, as they came to a stop in a large living room that looked out on an immaculate sand garden.

The salt and pepper haired man that he had followed in promptly settled himself at a table in the middle of the room, gesturing for the wanderer to take a seat as well. "So, you think you can rid us of the ghost that is destroying our lives. I can tell you that many have some through saying that they would do that same thing. They ate our food, slept in beds we provided, and in the end could do nothing to help us. They all ended up fleeing in terror or being dragged out on a stretcher. And now I pose you a question: Why should I trust you when so many others have failed?"

Shinzou blinked. He had barely seated himself before the man challenged him. He was certainly wasting no time. Getting his brain back in gear, Shinzou replied, "Many others have failed? How many?"

"Dozens. Now, if you would answer my question: Why should I hire you?"

Shinzou swallowed a bit of nervousness; he really hadn't thought it was that bad. HE was expecting five or ten others had preceded him at most, but dozens? Well, the man was waiting for his answer at any rate, so he'd have to think about that later and deal with rationalizing himself right now. "Well, I am a professional fighter, and that includes duels with things that are – shall we say – not of this world. I'm sure that you've had lots of ghost hunters through here – " the man gave an affirmative nod – "but I am not one of those."

"Oh?"

"Yes. My techniques are far different from those that the Ghost Hunter Guild professionally employs. So, I think that if you let me take a shot at this haunting spirit of yours, I may be able to take it out of your hair."

The man considered this, his chin in his palm. "Well, I will admit, you do seem quite different than the others we've seen. I think… I think I shall let you try."

Shinzou perked up. He hadn't expected it to go so quickly. All of the sudden he was hired to do a job he knew nothing about by a man whose name he didn't even know.

"Ah, and by the way, I am called Hiro Yamamoto."

Politely taking Yamamoto's proffered hand, the Apothecary introduced himself as well. "My name is Shinzou Hyougotani, and I am a wanderer from the southern region. I hope to be of good service."

"Now I suppose we should discuss the details of this deal."

"Probably a good idea."

"Well, you'll receive a meal and a bed in one of our spare rooms tonight, and for however long you need it while actively working on our... ghost problem."

Shinzou nodded. That was all he wanted anyway.

"The end reward, if you are successful in removing the spirit, will be 10,000 in cash and no doubt the eternal thankfulness of our family."

Ten thousand? He could live for a year on that! His needs weren't many, and that money would certainly come in handy. But, rewards aside, back to work. Moving on to specifics, Shinzou queried, "So, what can you tell me about the spirit that seems to be haunting this place?"

"It comes out in late evening, terrorizes us until daybreak, and finally disappears completely in midmorning."

"Energetic, isn't it?"

"Far more than we are. Anyway, it seems bent on driving us out of the house that we have lived in for generations. It plays pranks – sometimes dangerous ones – and bothers us constantly with loud noises. Sometimes it even gets the whole house shaking."

"Hmm…" Shinzou absorbed this information. Definitely a discontented spirit. A sudden thought sprung to mind, causing him to pose another question to Yamamoto.

"Wait, you said you and your family have been living here for generations? How long has this haunting been going on?"

"Only about three months. It's slowly been gaining in intensity to the pretty much unlivable level it's at now."

"Three months? Has anyone been killed on the property or seriously wronged by the family recently?"

"None that we know of. This ghost suddenly appeared to my wife one night, and told her that it would not rest peacefully within our walls any longer."

"Any longer, eh… so it's probably been here a while, but is just making a nuisance of itself now." Definitely something to look into, Shinzou noted. Spirits didn't suddenly get violent for no reason after living passively for years. There must be something setting it off. "It appeared before your wife, so some of you have actually seen it?"

"All of us have. It's not exactly shy. It even appears before strangers, including all of those that we've had out here to banish it. It seems to enjoy the challenge."

Shinzou sighed softly. Well, at least he wouldn't have to spend time looking for it. But these pushy ghosts… such complete self assurance was often well earned. They were the hardest to defeat and generally caused the most damage to both property and banisher.

"I must ask that you try to avoid damage to this house as much as possible during your banishing. This is our home, and we do not want to see it destroyed. We would rather move out first."

Shinzou nodded, he could understand that. Not that it made his job any easier, but it was something he would have done anyway, whether he were asked or not. People who were lucky enough to actually own houses should definitely be able to keep them, in his book. All he had was his tent, and he knew that he was always pretty pissed when someone or something messed with that.

"My daughter, Aoi, whom you saw outside, will be making dinner for us tonight. I have to go tell her to add another place to the table. She does the cooking now that my wife moved out. My daughter and I are the only ones stubborn enough to still be sticking it out in this haunted house," Yamamoto noted with a humourless chuckle, "Everyone else has decided that they enjoy actually sleeping at night, and moved into an empty house in town."

"You are very strong to have been putting up with constant activity for three whole months." Shinzou replied. By this time, the two men had risen from their places at the table and were moving to another part of the house, presumably in search of Aoi. The wanderer took in his new surroundings with interest; the decorations of the house were quite fine, and spoke of a long history of inhabitation. There were paintings, sculptures and hangings from several eras lining the walls, but the beauty was darkly marred by the recent-looking damage that was scattered fairly evenly throughout the house.

A broken floorboard here, a chipped doorframe there, scratches and gouges in the walls and floor. Even a few in the ceiling, if one were to look up. There were suspicious empty spots, as if something had once occupied a space but had been so badly damaged as to have to be removed. Seeing this house in such a state saddened Shinzou, he could almost hear the house spirits calling out for the violence to stop. Actually, he did hear them, being a spirit medium and all. The misery of the spirits was reflected on their master, Yamamoto. The man carried an invisible burden on his shoulders; he was being driven out of his own home by an intruder that he could not evict and whom had already driven almost his entire family away.

They finally reached the kitchen and its welcoming light and warmth. The rest of the house seemed draped in a cloud of darkness, much like the one that Shinzou had been wearing earlier in the day before he made it to the coffee shop. Aoi stood in the middle of the bright room working on what looked to be tonight's dinner in the making. Ah, fish. How long had it been since Shinzou had managed to get a real fish dinner? Usually he just had to roast whatever he caught that day over a campfire. Now he just had to wait and see if the meal would be worth it, or whether he would be wishing he'd decided to sit out in the rain eating a roast frog again.

While he was musing these deep thoughts about dinners or lack thereof, the two residents of the house had started a discussion.

"So, he will be staying Father?"

"Yes, I think we should give him a chance."

"But…" The young woman trailed off with a look of doubt on her face as she noticed Shinzou finally tuning in to the conversation at hand.

"Look dear, we have no reason to refuse him, and this may be our chance to finally be rid of this ghost."

Shinzou quickly slid his 'confidence smile' onto his face, replacing his 'dazed and hungry' look. "I assure you, I will do everything in my power to see that this issue is resolved. So rest assured that I am solidly on the case."

She made a soft sound of disbelief at his statement, and Shinzou had to admit that it was a little cheesy, but did not argue further about his hiring. Instead she simply nodded and returned to the preparation of dinner, for which Shinzou was thankful. He should have known that if she had stayed in a house with an angry spirit for so long that she would be a seriously tough lady. He didn't deal well with tough women; just look at Kumori and Takae for example. Of course, those two were vicious…

Politely excusing himself from his hosts, the temporary ghost hunter set off to do his 'rounds' of the house before the meal. Speaking of temporary… Shinzou wondered if he was in fact leading his new employers on. They had no idea how very infrequently he did this kind of work, and how great the possibility was that he was in over his head. It wasn't exactly lying, but it was false confidence. Oh well, the only solution here was to simply get rid of the ghost and have no questions asked! And get that lovely reward too…

First, he familiarized himself with the layout of the house. This was absolutely necessary for him personally; he needed to spend time simply memorizing the positions of everything in order to keep him from getting lost. Once this was done, he rarely had trouble finding his way around in the relatively small confines of a single building.

An internal 'map' of the house firmly implanted in his mind, Shinzou set about doing the standard spiritualist things, such as placing wards around the house. He was mildly surprised to find many of these lacking, but recalled that ghost hunters were often of the mind that such things were useless in their line of work. Now that he looked, he could faintly see the magical essence of others that had been where he was now placing them, but had apparently been removed. He shook his head in disgust and disbelief. They were so against the idea of wards that they actually removed them? Idiots. Well, the fact that there had once been some in place gave him hope for ghost hunters in general; apparently some weren't dumb enough to scoff at this simplest means of protection.

Looking out past the veranda he was currently sealing with his wards, Shinzou noticed the first drops of rain beginning to fall from the cloud darkened sky. He was very glad he would be inside tonight; even his weak weather-sense was telling him that this would be a big one. It was only four in the afternoon, and it was so dark outside that it looked to be seven in the evening. A chill, damp wind wound its way through the trees and past the house, not yet strong enough to make the eaves moan, but it carried the promise of return.

With a small shiver, he turned to go back inside, making doubly sure that every single ward was precisely placed and very secure. There were other places to seal as well that were thankfully inside of the house. Shinzou set off to take care of these and get away from this disturbing weather.

The work went quickly; placing spirit wards did not require much effort, even if one was using his most powerful kind as Shinzou was doing. Each major and minor support of the house received one, spinning a magical web of holy power in the building.

"Ah, last one." Shinzou muttered to himself, squirming his way through the rafters to reach the central support in the middle of the residence. There it was, a massive pillar that looked to be the entire trunk of an ancient tree. Whoever built this place built it to last, apparently.

Then, something else caught his eye. White paper, scattered around the support? What was that? A nagging feeling began to grow in the back of his mind; he should know what those were. He continued forward, all senses on alert. Finally, at about ten feet distance, realization hit him. They were spirit seals, just like the ones he had tucked into his belt, and just like the one he planned to place on the ancient tree trunk before him. He cloud see the black ink in the flowing patterns of magical script on the face of most of them, but some were blank and some even appeared to be slightly… charred.

Shinzou suddenly felt that time was definitely of the essence here, so he should place his ward and get out of this confined space fast. Of course, there was another voice in his head that was telling him to just screw the ward placement and get out of there now. He ignored this, and continued forward. He had a job to do, dammit! Shinzou was nothing if not dedicated and determined, and he certainly wasn't going to back down now.

Pulling his natural agility and flexibility into play, he made great time through the maze of wooden beams. He pulled out his ward ahead of time, gripping it between his teeth and muttering a protection spell around the mouthful of blessed paper. At least he would be a shielded, fast moving target if he had to be a target at all.

Finally, after what seemed like a week but was in actuality only about five minutes, he found himself crouched before the pillar in what he imagined was about the same place that the owner of those hastily discarded wards once occupied. Pulling the seal paper from between his teeth, he concentrated his spiritual energy it, awakening the magic bound into it. Eyes closed, with one hand held sideways before his face, he ignored the darkness that seemed to be growing from every shadow in every corner of the roof space. He was suddenly glad that it was not yet evening, and thus not yet time for the resident ghost to be truly active.

Finally, he slapped the ward into place on the pillar, an unnatural, bright flash of light accompanying the placement. The darkness that had been encroaching seemed to writhe in fury at being foiled in defending this most important place from being sealed. Eyeing these shades, Shinzou decided that he ought to leave the area with about as much speed as he used coming into it, and set about squirming his way back through the cramped spaces. He also made sure to keep his protective barrier up, this time with his full attention on it. He certainly didn't want to end up maimed after finally completing this small mission, and before receiving that reward.

His relief was palpable when he finally reached the small trap door he had used to access the roof space. He yanked the wooden door up and dropped through as soon as there was enough space for him to fit. The door slammed back into place as he dusted cobwebs and years of dirt off of his clothes and hair.

"That was fun." He muttered absently to himself. "But I don't think I'll be getting attached to attics anytime soon."

A small noise behind him caused him to spin around, and he found himself face to face with a wide-eyed Aoi. He blinked and took a step back, slightly disconcerted by the look of surprise and fear on her face.

"You – you went up there?" She didn't even have to motion to the trap door above. Her meaning was clear.

"Yeah."

"You shouldn't have done that! The last one who did…"

Shinzou's mind went back to the charred ward papers. "He didn't fare so well, huh?"

"He was almost dead! We heard him screaming… and then he just fell back through that door… it was horrible!"

"Well, I'm alright, so…"

She seemed to shake off the fear of her memory. "I must tell Father about this."

Before he could even nod, she had disappeared around a corner, leaving him alone below the only entrance or exit to the dark realm in the rafters. With a final glance up, and a small bone deep shiver to boot, he hastily followed her down the hall towards where he recalled the dining room to be. According to his watch, it was almost dinnertime.

A second glance at his watch reveal that it had stopped. Again. With a sigh, Shinzou removed it from his wrist and placed it in his pocket. Really, he didn't know why he bothered to keep buying and repairing watches. Every time he encountered a spirit or used his powers it seemed they ended up broken. Maybe he should invest some time into a spell for spirit-proofing time keeping devices… he could probably make some money off of that.

He finally wandered into the dining room, after getting lost due to the distraction of his watch, about fifteen minutes later. As he had suspected, both Yamamoto and his daughter were there. They looked up when he came in.

"Ah, Mr. Hyougotani. We were waiting for you."

They were? Oh, it looked like dinner was ready after all. "Oh. Sorry for making you wait."

"Not at all. Aoi was supposed to tell you that dinner was being served, but it seems that it slipped her mind when she ran into you."

The young woman blushed slightly at this remark, turning her eyes back down to the food that she was currently serving onto a plate that looked destined for Shinzou.

Shinzou made no comment, simply taking a seat at the empty spot at the table, and accepting his plate from Aoi with a small nod of appreciation. He happily dug into the food; it was the best he'd had in weeks. Despite living on his own for many years, Shinzou had never bothered to really master the ways of the chef. Though, this could be attributed to the fact that he rarely had access to the things required to make a real meal and the fact that it was hard to cook well for only one person.

The meal continued in a rather uncomfortable silence until Yamamoto himself spoke up. "Aoi tells me you went into the roof crawlspace."

"You know what happened to the last one who went up there?"

"Yes, Aoi said something."

"Then you realized how lucky you are to have gotten out unscathed."

"Not completely. My watch is scrap now." Shinzou noticed the other two giving him a weird look, as if to say 'You're worried about a watch?'

"Well, anyway, I needed to place a seal…"

"Did you?"

"Of course."

Yamamoto gave him a long, hard stare. "Perhaps… perhaps you will be the one to rid us of this demon ghost after all."

Shinzou met the older man's deep brown eyes with his own pale gray, slightly disconcerted by the hope and trust he found there. It was obvious that Yamamoto had become desperate for an end to the horror that besieged his ancestral home, and now saw Shinzou as his deliverance rather than just another potential freeloader. The younger man now he knew that he would have to succeed; he hated nothing more than betraying trust.

"Um, well, I certainly hope so." He stuttered to break the silence that had once again enveloped them. Besides, there was only so much staring into the eyes of another man that he could take.

After another few minutes, and when the meal was nearly over, Shinzou decided to ask one more thing. "By the way, is there anything else about this ghost that you all would like to tell me?"

They looked up, slightly startled and guilty. "Well, we meant to tell you about the attic, but we didn't think you'd get started so early." Aoi replied.

"I don't waste time when I'm on a job. Besides, you told me that the spirit becomes active in the evening, and I had to get things done before that."

"Hmm. Yes. You are a hard worker." Yamamoto took over the questioning.

"So, is there anything else I need to know?"

"Well, its favourite places are the attic, as you've already noticed, the back garden, the front hall and one of the bedrooms."

"One of the bedrooms? Which one?"

"I'll show it to you shortly. It used to be one of my other daughter's rooms."

Shinzou nodded shortly, silently hoping that the room in question was not the one he had been assigned to sleep in during his stay.

Yamamoto finally finished off the food on his plate, and rose to give Shinzou the ghost tour. The younger man followed his lead, thanking Aoi for the meal as they left the room. Her only response was a wide eyed nod.

"If you don't mind my asking, why is Aoi still here? She seems terrified. I would have thought she'd have moved in with the rest of your family if she were so frightened."

"Well, she is a good daughter, and refuses to leave her father alone in a haunted house. She stays for my sake, though I try to convince her every day that it is not necessary." Yamamoto answered. "Though I must admit, I do take some comfort from her presence."

"That seems natural. No one wants to face a ghost alone."

"You are doing it for our sake, though, young man."

Shinzou paused for a bit before answering, "I am not truly alone, I have the strength of several friends that follows me wherever I go. I always try to live up to their expectations, whether they are actually present or not."

"Really? It seems to me that even as I am gifted with the strength of my daughter, you are aided in spirit by these absent companions of yours. You are quite lucky."

"I'll remember that you said that the next time I have to be in a small room with all of them at once."

Yamamoto turned his head to look at Shinzou in surprise, and caught the small smirk on his face. With a chuckle he turned to face forward again. "You do that. Now, here is the room I told you about." The house owner pushed the door open and stood to the side so that Shinzou could enter.

His defenses up and his spiritual senses extended, Shinzou came to stand in the doorway of the apparently normal bedroom. True, there was a slight dark ambiance to the room, but nothing overt. He cautiously entered and made a short round of the space, looking for anything that just screamed 'ghost lives here!' Nothing really caught his eye, so he turned to leave the room again. And then he saw Yamamoto's face.

The middle aged man was staring at something behind Shinzou, and was rather pale. Reading the look in his eyes, Shinzou wasn't really sure that he wanted to turn around, but his own extra sense was screaming at him to do something. Using the forward momentum he already had, Shinzou managed to launch himself to stand almost right in front of Yamamoto, while twisting his body in the air so that he was now facing his adversary.

And there it was, the thing he had been hired to eliminate. And he definitely wasn't getting paid enough. A gigantic mass of swirling darkness occupied the other half of the room, with a palely glowing patch near the center.

The glowing piece, that must be the ghost itself, Shinzou hypothesized, but the rest of this…

"Well, you've been busy making friends, haven't you?" he asked the shadow-ghost. "All that darkness with you, I saw it in the attic too. A bunch of lesser demons, aren't they?"

To his slight surprise, it actually reacted to his speech, seeing to draw itself up in shock. Apparently not many people tried talking to it. Yamamoto was also looking at Shinzou like he was crazy, but the young man ignored it. He sensed something about this beast, that it wasn't ready to attack him yet. Certainly it appeared angry, no doubt due to the fact that he'd managed to place a ward inside of one of its favourite places, but right now all it appeared to be prepared for was scaring people.

Addressing it once again, since it definitely seemed to understand him, Shinzou issued a challenge. "So, I take it that you know why I'm here."

He could sense its affirmation. "All right, then why don't you lose all your buddies and face me one on one. It's not like they're good for anything except looking scary."

It was motionless, thinking for a moment, and then the black clouds began dissipating into various cracks and crevices.

He knew that he was just bluffing the ghost to an extent; even lesser demons could do some damage if there were enough of them, which there certainly were in this case. Not much, considering Shinzou's level of ability, but enough. The ghost seemed to be taking him at his word though, which was a bit puzzling. For such a terror, it seemed rather inexperienced not to be able to sense the extent of his abilities even that much.

Shinzou could sense Yamamoto quietly backing up, putting distance between himself and the ghost that had been ruining his life for so long. Shinzou couldn't blame him; if this weren't his job he'd probably have left long before. Well, it was good that the man was getting out of the way; a confrontation seemed pretty much inevitable here. Having to worry about a civilian would slow him down in a critical situation.

Turning his attention back to the ghost, he found that almost all of the demon energy had disappeared, leaving the silvery, glowing, vaguely humanoid shape of the true spirit before him. It became more solid as the extraneous evil leeched from it, more and more human looking…

Shinzou blinked. Was that--? Oh no, it was! It figured that it would be a female spirit! It seemed that women were the root of all of the Apothecary's problems. He scowled slightly at this revelation. He should have known. Only women could hold a grudge for so long. And be so damned annoying about it too. He'd pissed off enough women to know that for sure.

He readjusted his stance as the spirit moved, lifting its head so that its eyes, such as they were, were now looking in his direction. A brief staring contest took place, with each competitor silently waiting for the other to make the first move. Shinzou finally bit the bullet and decided to try talking again.

"I must admit, you're not nearly as frightening as I thought you'd be." He waited, and then tried again. "From all the hype, I'd expected you to be big and scary, maybe with claws and fangs, but you're just a little girl throwing a tantrum, aren't you?"

That finally sparked a reaction. The ghost girl actually snarled at Shinzou for a moment, and then it spoke for the first time, "A tantrum? You fool! You know nothing and presume to come into my house and insult me in this way! I will have your head or your sanity at least for this!"

"Ah, so you can speak. I was beginning to wonder. Though you're wrong, this isn't your house, it belongs to Mr. Yamamoto and his family."

"Bah, it was mine long before they were even born! They are simply interlopers who intrude into my space with no respect!" It spat out this reply with deep derision, leading Shinzou to assume that this might be the source of the problem. Unfortunately, his session as a ghost therapist was about to come to a very quick end.

"And I have no desire to speak further with another intruder, who presumes to attempt to evict me from my rightful home!" Without further ado, it launched a ball of dark energy at Shinzou, who was forced to leap out of the way. The energy dissipated against the wall out in the hall, but had it hit Shinzou knew that it would have done some serious damage to anything living. He was very thankful that Yamamoto had already abandoned the field. As a matter of fact, the wall ha not escaped unscathed. It had warped slightly, no doubt due to the fact that it was made of wood which was once living. Yes, this was some seriously bad magic he was dealing with here.

That being said, Shinzou responded with a volley of his own. With incredible precision, he flung several of the sealing wards he had used on the house earlier at the building's oldest resident. Unfortunately, none managed to connect. The ghost contorted itself to avoid two of them, and turned a third into ash. 

Luckily, Shinzou had a backup plan. While it was engaged in dodging his paper projectiles, Shinzou was calling up a different magic in the palm of his hand. Before it could fling another one of those deadly spirit balls at him, he crouched down and slammed his palm into the floorboards.

"BIND CURRENT!"

The blue energy flowed out of his hands along the floor to the ghost, who did not have time to dodge this attack. It shrieked piercingly as the spell wrapped around its legs, tying it to the floor while sapping it energy.

Shinzou had no time to relax, though, before it had ripped his magic to pieces and was now a completely free and even more pissed ghost. His eyes widened as he watched the being's legs regenerate themselves in a matter of moments.

"What the--?"

"Idiot! You think you can injure me in my own dwelling?"

Shinzou didn't reply as it set about trying to blow his head off again, but he was thinking. Specifically, he was analyzing what it had said. It couldn't be injured in its own dwelling? Was it somehow drawing power from the house itself? Shinzou retuned his spiritual energy sense, and did indeed pick up on an energy draw that was flowing into his opponent. This ghost must have been here for a long time to have created a bond with the house itself.

If that was the case, then the answer was simple. Get it out of the house. Unfortunately, the logistics were a bit more difficult. How was he supposed to get it to leave? Ask?

Growling to himself, Shinzou turned and ran, listening to the ghost following. He was very thankful for his enhanced speed in cases like this, and it was obviously irritating the ghost even more that an apparently human adversary was moving far too quickly for an average man. It occurred to Shinzou that this phantom was obviously quite capable of killing a person, and yet it had not actually harmed any of the other residents of the house, just scared them… but he had no time to contemplate this thought, as the ghost was slowly gaining on him.

Taking a chance, he slid to a stop, twisting to face his pursuer to fling another spell at it. "SPIRIT WIND!"

Shinzou silently cursed as the shade regenerated once again from the spiritual wind blades he had flung at it. Apparently, being out of one of its favourite rooms had no real effect on its power. And he couldn't use some of his bigger spells for fear of damaging or destroying the house! He ground his teeth in frustration and turned to run again.

After about half an hour more of the ineffectual fighting on both sides, Shinzou was a panting and slightly crispy ghost hunter, and the spirit was only showing weariness in the form of glowing not quite as brightly.

"This – is - stupid." Shinzou gasped out.

"I couldn't agree more." The house phantom grumbled from behind him. "Why don't you stop running and let me pulverize you? I'll even let you live for being a good adversary."

"No - thanks. I'd – never – live – it – down – if – I – got – beat – by – a – girl." Talking while struggling to breathe was not a good combination, so Shinzou decided that long sentences were out of the question for the immediate future. He was used to being able to run for hours without getting winded, but casting spells was tiring. Especially these spells, which required a lot of concentration. It didn't help that this particular magic was not in his usual repertoire, so he had to focus a lot more to get them to work.

Slightly distracted by the conversation, brief though it was, Shinzou abruptly found himself in a dead end hallway.

"Oh shit…"

"Ha! Gotcha now!"

Thinking quickly, he flung himself through a small window that looked out on the sand garden. I guess that's coming out of my paycheck, He thought to himself, wincing at the feel of several glass shards piercing his skin. He rolled for several feet in the smooth, cool and wet sand before managing to regain his footing. It was still raining, and in buckets too. Within a few moments he was soaked to the skin.

"I hope you didn't hurt yourself too badly. I want to do that for you!" He was surprised to look up and see the ghost; it had followed him outside without a thought. He raised an eyebrow, but a quick check of the energy flows in the area proved that the gardens were apparently considered 'part of the house' and supported her energy flows.

Sighing, he decided to give conversation one last shot. Moving to the relative shelter of one of the house's overhanging eaves, he spoke to the phantom. "Look, this is getting us nowhere. Can we just take a minute to discuss this?"

"Discuss? Discuss what? You just want time to catch your breath, lung boy!"

Lung boy? He raised an eyebrow at the choice of insults, but seeing as she wasn't actually attacking him in any way but verbally, he decided that he was getting his shot at talk.

"Look, you don't want to be banished, right?"

"What kind of a stupid question is that? Of course not."

"Well, what would you say if I told you that I don't want you banished either?"

She was silent for a moment. "What are you talking about? You're a ghost hunter, you banish for a living."

"Actually, no I'm not. I'm an Apothecary and a warrior by trade; I was only doing this as a one time thing."

"You're pretty good at it for it being a 'one time thing.'" She noted.

"Thank you. Now, is there any way that I can convince you to let this family live in peace?"

She snorted in derision, and Shinzou learned that a ghost was actually capable of such a sound. "Please. I was happy to just hang out in the rafters for two hundred years, but then these fools had to go and disturb my grave. I can't rest peacefully here anymore, so neither can they!"

"They disturbed your grave?"

"Yes. I was buried in the back garden long ago, because it was my favourite place when I was alive. They dug it up and turned it into a patio and fishpond three months ago."

"Which is when you started haunting them. The rest of the family is buried on the other side of the house, I noticed, so isn't it possible that they didn't know that your grave was there, and couldn't know to honour it?"

"If they'd checked the house records like they should have, they would have known!"

Shinzou sighed for what seemed to be the hundredth time that night. "All right, so they didn't do their research very well, but if this is their ancestral home then you must be one of their ancestors, right?"

"They're descended from my brother."

"Well then, don't you want your brother's family to live in happiness?"

"I hated my brother."

"Oh." Crap. Just when he thought he was getting somewhere! Shinzou thought for a moment, and then had a new idea. "Say, if you hated your brother and don't like his descendants either, why don't you get away from them?"

"What do you mean? Leave? But I was here first!" The female ghost probably wasn't aware how childish that made her sound, and Shinzou was suddenly aware that this girl might well have died at a very young age. He decided to play to that facet of her psyche.

"Well, aren't you bored around here?"

"Scaring the idiots is fun."

"If you keep scaring them, they'll leave, and then it'll be really boring."

"…" She apparently hadn't thought of that aspect of the situation.

"Or they'll finally find someone to banish you, and I assure you that that won't be fun either."

"Really?" She asked in a small voice.

"Really." He crossed his arms in front of his chest and tried to look authoritarian. Apparently it worked.

"So, if I leave… then what do I do?"

"You go to the underworld to be judged and maybe reborn. Well, probably reborn in your case, seeing as you apparently died with unfinished business."

"The underworld? How do I get there? And I don't know if I want to be judged…" She sounded so lost and helpless that Shinzou was surprised to find himself feeling a bit sorry for her. Apparently, his plan was working out a bit too well. And he had never been good at dealing with kids…

"Um well, you accept your death I think, and then you go into the light or something…"

"Or something?! Don't you know? You know everything else!"

"Hey, in case you haven't noticed, unlike you, I'm not dead!"

"Just brain dead."

"Hey!" Shinzou really didn't need to take this kind of crap from a ghost. He really didn't. He pinched the bridge of his nose, behind which he was currently developing a whopper headache. "The point is, though I do know a lot about spirits and death and everything, I don't know much about the actual passing over. I never really thought to ask."

"Ask? Ask who?"

"Er… never mind. The point is, when they die most everybody does it, so it can't be that hard."

"I didn't do it when I died."

"True…" The Apothecary and the ghost were silent for a moment, stumped by their own questions. "Well, how about leaving the house first? It's your ties to it that are keeping you here I think."

"But if I leave the house and lose my ties, what's to stop me from ending up as a wandering ghost? I've heard stories about those, and it doesn't sound fun."

Shinzou, quite frankly, was counting on that. Having been hired to get rid of a ghost, and having spent the last hour arguing with it, being insulted by it, and nearly getting killed by it, he could care less what happened to it so long as it was out of the house and out of his hair. And quickly, the rain did not appear to be letting up anytime soon. But he had to convince it to leave first…

After thinking for a minute, he could come up with only one solution, and it was not one he was very happy with. Beggars can't be choosers, though, so he went with it. "How about this? If you leave the house, I'll guide you to the underworld myself."

"You? Can humans do that?"

"Not normal ones, no. But, in case you haven't noticed, I'm not exactly normal." I can at least put in a good word for her with my relatives down there; she did calm down at talk it out. Plus she seems honestly scared. He thought to himself, trying to justify the treachery he was plotting.

She appeared to be thinking it over. Just when Shinzou was about to say something, she finally answered. "All right, if you promise to go with me, I'll go to the underworld."

Uh oh. That word. 'Promise.' Now he'd be breaking his word… but a promise with a ghost? Did it count? Impulsively, Shinzou decided that it did not and answered confidently, "Sure. Promise."

"All right then." She turned to look at the house one last time, and then resolutely turned towards the front gate. Shinzou watched as the farther she got from the house, the more human her appearance became. Apparently she couldn't support a truly ethereal form when her energy was cut off.

Since the physical confrontation was now definitely over, Shinzou devoted some of his energy to healing the wounds he had received during the fight and from going through that window just now. He followed her toward the gate, readying one of his wards with a powerful barrier spell, thankful that the blessed ink used for such things was conveniently waterproof. You never knew when you might have to place one underwater, or in the rain as he was now doing.

Preoccupied by observing the ghost and warring with his conscience about his 'lie,' Shinzou didn't notice that his ward seemed to be taking a life of its own. The black ink that decorated its surface twisted and warped into a new pattern, one that no human could know. A sign of the gods.

He pulled up the collar of his jacket, which he was thankful he went nowhere without, in an attempt to stem the flow of icy water that was making its way down his neck to soak his shirt. Glancing behind him, he spotted Yamamoto and his daughter observing the two of them as they made their way out. Apparently the home owners had figured out from the lack of explosions that the fight was pretty much over, and had come out to see who the victor might be. Needless to say, they seemed surprised to see the ghost leaving amicably. Shinzou casually tossed them a 'victory' sign over his shoulder, which they hesitantly returned.

The spirit – Shinzou realized he still didn't know her name – finally reached the archway that marked the edge of the property, and thus the end of her domain. She hesitated, looked back at Shinzou once more, and then 'stepped' through. A bright flash of light and a metallic stench of electrical current marked the abrupt termination of the massive energy flows that had been a part of her body for so long. If she weren't already dead, she would have been badly electrocuted by the feedback. As it was, Shinzou had to throw up a shield to prevent the energy from 'puddle-hopping' over and frying him.

Standing on the other side of the boundary line, the faded form of a young woman looked back with trepidation at the blast-dried and steaming dirt that was swiftly turning back into mud. "I hope this is the right thing…" Shinzou thought he heard her murmur.

Taking a deep breath, Shinzou set out to finish this deal he had started. There was no going back now. He strode over to the gate, stepped slightly outside, and turned to look up at the acme of the entrance archway. With a quick move that forbade any second thoughts, he flung the seal in his hand up to stick in the exact center of the arch.

"What are you--?" He could hear the surprised exclamation of the phantom behind him, but his eyes were riveted to the seal he had just placed.

It wasn't his. What was it? He'd never seen anything like it before! But he had definitely pulled it out of his own pocket…

Shinzou fell to his knees clutching his head as he was suddenly assaulted by the feeling of another presence, a powerful one, inside of his own head. He watched the recent past like a movie, specifically the one word that he had spoken only a few minutes before: "Promise."

With a sinking feeling, Shinzou realized that he was not going to get off easily for this treachery. Someone had been watching, someone who had apparently decided that promises, even ones with ghosts, must be kept.

The rain was still pouring down, Shinzou was thoroughly soaked but his non-corporeal companion was not feeling the weather in the least; the rain passed right through her. He brought his barely focusing eyes up to look at her; she stood over him, a look of confusion and slight worry on her pale features.

"What is it? What happened?"

"I guess… a promise is a promise."