Sarah lobbed a tennis ball to the opposite end of the dog park. A cluster of smaller dogs scattered as Sarah’s boxer, Magnum, charged after the ball.
“You went on a date in the Poultry Zone?!” she said. “Are you insane?”
““I didn’t know what to tell her!” Ben watched as Toby worked the perimeter along the chain-link fence, peeing at strategic locations only when he knew no one was looking. Ben brought the inugami here to socialize so that he wouldn’t, say, eat any regular dogs he might encounter on their adventures, but Toby never really mingled. Admittedly, he was like a hundred times as old as these dogs.
“What am I gonna say? ‘Hey, can you pick a different restaurant? That one’s got an invisible chicken carcass the size of a house rotting behind it.’ I didn’t want to spook her. She thinks I’m kinda sketchy as it is.”
“She’s not wrong.” Sarah said. “Did you throw up in front of her?”
“No I, uhh, got that out of my system before she got there.” Ben shrugged. “I thought you’d be impressed. It was like twenty feet from me, and I held it together enough that we’ve gone out since then. Actually, do you want to go to her open mic tonight? I’m supposed to invite people. The comedy is free, but there’s a two-drink minimum.”
“Hmm. Do I want to watch your co-worker do standup at an open mic…?” Magnum brought the ball back, wet with slobber. Sarah wiped her hand on her pants as she threw the ball again.
“Well, when you say it like that.” The ball was headed towards Toby, who acknowledged it grimly. Cool it, Ben thought in Toby’s direction. “She’s not just my co-worker.”
Sarah grinned and smacked Ben in the arm. “You really like this girl.”
“Yeah,” Ben looked away. “It’s nice to have someone outside of all of our paranormal shit. We talk about movies and make out and stuff. Nobody gets the limbs cut off. Nobody dies.”
Magnum nudged the ball into Sarah’s hand. She tossed it. “Well sure, that’s like, what ‘dating’ is but do you–”
The tennis ball bounced and hit Toby in the leg. He spun suddenly, eyes red, fangs bared, shadow wolf encasing his body. Magnum dropped onto her belly and then scampered away, whimpering, tail down. The three or four other dogs near them also scattered, much to the confusion of their owners.
“Hey! Toby!” Ben shouted. He thought calming thoughts in Toby’s direction, but they were muddled, mixed with fear and embarrassment. The inugami growled, then went back to sullenly circling the park. It was impossible to tell if Ben’s thoughts had gotten though.
“Sorry.” Ben said. “He’s been acting weird lately. Even for him. Marcus says it’s cause I’m not the alpha dog.”
“Yeah, he would, wouldn’t he.” Sarah muttered. Magnum was leaning against her legs demanding comforting pets.
“He’s staying with the old lady who lives a few doors down from me. She gives him bacon and sausages five times a day, and lets him come and go as he pleases. We still have the kakawari, but I think I’m losing him on a personal level. I just take him out to eat demons. We have a Charlie Brown and Snoopy relationship. I’m just the bald kid that brings his supper.”
“Uh-huh,” Sarah said, having no idea what he meant by that. “Hey, before you spend forty dollars on amateur standup, can you come look at a crime scene with me?”
“Sure,” Ben said.
“No wolf guy. No Jake. This is, uhh…just don’t tell anybody.”
“Ok.” Ben said. “I trust you.”
Sarah looked at him. She threw the tennis ball. “Just like that?”
“Yeah,” Ben nodded. “Just like that.”
A shadow tentacle whipped through the air and sliced the tennis ball in half. Two tennis balls slices landed on either side of Magnum’s head. The dog sniffed one, nudged it with its paw, then barked at it.
Sarah stumbled wobbily off the back of Ben’s moped as he swerved to a stop across the street from St. Felix’s. He went to help Toby down, but the inugami brushed him aside, using shadow tentacles to lower himself to the sidewalk.
“Ugh.” Sarah said, fixing her shirt. “Please buy a car.”
She looked up at St. Felix’s and immediately yanked Ben back behind the parked car next to them.
“The kids are in there with the social worker. Probably picking up their stuff.” she said. “Shit. We’ll have to come back later.”
Ben peeked around the bumper. Inside the group home, a middle-aged woman in a skirt suit lead two little girls around the living room. He glanced at Toby, who was using the back tire of the car to get a good angle on licking his crotch.
“Run around to the back door,” Ben said. “I’ll meet you there.”
Sarah nodded, heading around the other side of the car, ducking behind a tree and then the bushes so the social worker wouldn’t see her, and then walking as casually as she could into the backyard. She wanted to look official if any of the neighbors saw her.
Several minutes passed as Sarah waited at the back door. She pulled her phone out and held it to her head. Too much time had passed. She was starting to look suspicious.
The door opened. Ben was alone.
“What’d you do?” Sarah asked.
“I told them Toby was a comfort dog, donated by the church.” Ben opened the door a little further. Down the hall, Sarah saw Toby sitting between the two girls, who were kneeling on the floor petting him. The social worker was on her phone, asking about donated comfort dogs.
“Toby!” said the older girl. “Good boy!”
“He’s such a good dog!” said the younger one.
“Is that, uhh…” Sarah searched for the right word. “Safe?”
“Yeah, totally,” Ben said unconvincingly. “He’s kind of a wildcard lately, but he’ll have to get a lot more aggro to eat a couple of kids.”
Ben turned and winked at Toby. The smaller girl threw her arms around the inugami, hugging him. Toby glared at Ben.
KILL YOU, he thought.
“We should go quick.” Ben said.
He closed his eyes, touching his forehead. Down the hall, Toby rolled onto his back, exposing his belly. The two kids and the social worker all Aww!ed at the sight, and Sarah used the opportunity to take Ben into one of the bedrooms.
A wide variety of textbooks were spread out on the desk, a few pictures were taped to the wall, and that was about it. This kid lived a pretty spartan existence. There was a pile of clothes on the floor next to the bed that caught Ben’s attention. Something about those white pants…
“We’ve got some evidence the normies can’t see.” Sarah said. “Blood on the doorframe. Slash marks on the walls. And this…”
She gestured to the heating vent, where a faint green stain dusted the grate. Ben went in for a closer look. He scratched at the green with his fingers and sniffed them.
“Kakawari.” Ben said. “The yokai release it to bond to humans.”
“Like you and Toby,” Sarah said, like she knew he was going to say that. “The younger girl, Sophie, said something about a spider. You think it’s the one from the video store?”
“Maybe.” Ben said. “Kind of a small vent for a giant spider, but it was just a head last time I saw it. I’ll ask Tatsuya which spider yokai can kakawari. It’s a kid and a grownup that’re missing, right?”
“Yeah,” Sarah said, sighing. “I think this kid’s got a pet spider.”
“Or the spider’s got a pet kid. The power dynamic’s not always as straightforward as it is with me and Toby.” Ben held his forehead. “Toby says it’s time to go.”
He started towards the door, then stopped. He reached down and picked up the white clothes on the floor. It was a gi for a martial arts class. “Dragon Mask Lucha Dojo” was printed on the back.
“Oh no,” Ben suddenly realized where he was. “Is the missing kid’s name Ash?”
“Ashley Ocampo.” Sarah squinted at him. “How do you–”
“I know her.” Ben said. “She’s in my luchador class. She beat the shit out of me.”
“God, what are the odds of–” Sarah stopped. “He still makes you fight the kids?”
Ash had a hard time keeping track of where she was, since her head was twisted 180 degrees the whole time the Spider was in control. It reminded her of when her parents were still alive, and she would sit in the way way back of their station wagon, watching gas stations and fast food places go by in reverse. She used to perch her feet on the windowsill and pretend she was in an out-of-control spaceship or on the back of a dragon, clinging to the seatbelts, trying to regain control. These thoughts helped to distract her from the fact that a spider monster was controlling her body and murdering people. A little, anyway. She was clutching desperately to any sane thoughts she could.
The spider brought her indoors. They were in some sort of small church. Or a temple? There was a lot of gold glinting in the darkness, a smell of incense burning in the air.
“Where are we?” Ash said.
“Quiet.” said the mouth on the back of her head. “Mikoshi nyudo! Konbonwa!”
“Jorōgumo,” a male voice responded. It was deep and old. “This is a surprise. I had heard you were back in Yomi. I was deeply saddened to hear about your young.”
The spider bowed. For a moment, Ash was staring at the ceiling. Beyond the rafters, streetlights gleamed in through cracks in the ceiling.
“I will make more.” the spider said. “They will be avenged.”
“Mm. Speaking of young, this new host seems…fresh. Are you planning to stay awhile?”
“It is becoming difficult for yokai in the land of the living. More and more humans can see us. These people have video cameras in their pockets, infinite encyclopedias in their pockets, and assault weapons in their homes. We have teeth and claws and parlor tricks. We are relics of a forgotten era, and we’re running out of darkness to hide in.”
“You want revenge on the inugami and his boy.” the male voice said.
“On all of them. Alone, we are easily disposed of. Together, we can take power back from the mortals. This world should be ours.”
Ash didn’t like the direction this conversation was going at all. She noticed that if he concentrated hard enough, she could move her toes while the spider was ranting. If the spider wasn’t paying attention to her, she had more control. She waited for her moment.
“Mikoshi” said the spider, “The other yokai won’t listen to the spider. They think I’m mad. But everyone listens to the Tall Priest. I want a meeting with the leaders of every tribe in this city. Obake, tsukumogami, yurei. Even the gaijin.”
Ash felt the spider’s focus slipping. She took a deep breath.
“And what do I tell them we are meeting for?” the male voice said.
“Chi no gisei. A blood sacrifice at a scale which this century, this continent has never–”
Ash turned her head. She saw old, hairy feet in wooden sandals, dusty, faded blue robes, and an elderly man’s face, black hair, long mustache, bald on top. He had thick, busty eyebrows, like twin black caterpillars above his eyes. As Ash’s gaze moved upwards to look at them, his eyes kept rising to meet hers. She found that she couldn’t stop, looking up, meeting the man’s gaze, looking up, meeting his gaze. Soon, she was leaning back so far that she fell on her butt.
The Tall Priest pounced on her, his long pointed nails digging into her arms. His neck was at least twenty feet long, and it curved down to his shoulders like the body of a snake. He smiled, baring dozens of pointy teeth.
“Go back to sleep, child,” the Tall Priest snarled, “The grown ups are talking.”
Ash’s neck twisted around with an audible snap, and she was staring at the floorboards.
“No.” Ash said, tears welling up in her eyes.
“I apologize.” said the mouth on the back of her head, hoisted Ash’s helpless body back to its feet with its hair tendrils. “This host is stronger-willed than the last few. If she had been any older, I never could have bonded to her.”
The Tall Priest grunted amiably. “Be here tomorrow afternoon. I will get you your meeting.”
Ash heard footsteps and a door closing.
She tried to wiggle her toes and found that she couldn’t.