In front of the stone stairs that led to the Japanese temple, built almost one hundred and thirty-seven years ago by a monk and entrepreneur named Yushio Kazikawa, abandoned inside a forest on the outskirts of a not very big city, a group of children was talking. Or rather, they were making a bet.
– Go. I doubt you will.
– Come on, you're telling him to go... not very fair...
– Why not?
– Come on, his dad's a weirdo who messes with freaky stuff.
– My dad's not a weirdo.
– He is, he sees dead people!
– No, he doesn't! That's a movie, you idiot!
– You're the idiot! You git, I bet you don't go up there, not even for a bag of Ruffles.
– One is too cheap. I'll do it for three.
– That's no good, I've only got one...
– Shhhhhhh, you two! So, are you in or out, Roger?
– If you go, I'll give you the answers for next test.
Roger stared at the rickety boy with square, yellow glasses who stared at him with bright eyes, his face tense, as he thought about how to convince the other to go to the abandoned temple. Suddenly, as if a lamp appeared bright up in his head, his smile became wider:
– And I'll share my lunch with you for a week!
– A week's lunch and the answers to the science test... – He looked with calculated risk at the blond boy with short hair and a tiny fringe, which he left up with gel.
– They spat into their palms and sealed the bet.
Roger slung his backpack on his back and watched the huge, long stone stairs before he began his climb.
At no time did he look back.
– Damn, he's really going...
– He's crazy.
– He's a weirdo just like his father.
– It would be sick if he died...!
– Watch your mouth, asshole!
– Yeah, git! Knock on wood. If he dies now, it's your fault.
– Shit, but there's no table here...!
– Oh, git, we're in the middle of a forest. There is no lack of wood! Go on!
One of them pushed the other one into a tree, where he tapped his knuckles three times, quickly and nervously, before going back to the other two friends.
The three watched Roger's red backpack disappear through the tall, leaf-filled tops of the woodland trees that blocked the continuation of the ladder sight. One of them whispered, amazed.
– But it would be sick if he didn't come back, right?
– Yeeeeaaaahhh – they all said in chorus.
Roger, in turn, climbed the stone stairs with a certain boredom. As he walked, he counted the number of broken steps and thought about how childish his classmates were. Not that he himself had already passed into adolescence or anything, it was just that, because of his father's work, Roger had learned not to be afraid of things and situations that his classmates were normally afraid of, even more so when the healthy and creative minds of each one of them were creating wondrous stories and scary monsters of their own. And the fact that Roger was not like his classmates was simple, very simple indeed: his father collected old stuff.
Right. Maybe "old stuff" was not the best term to use, even Roger recognized this, but that the objects his father brought home were old, that could not be denied. He mentally shrugged his shoulders, imagining his father explaining to him for the millionth time about the importance of each one of those dusty, corroded things.
His head brushed lightly against a new pine branch, which brought him out of his thoughts. Looking around, Roger realized that he could no longer hear the three boys below. The woods were silent, the sun shining through the greenish flashes of the trees, giving a calming touch to the atmosphere. A quick and instantaneous movement appeared from behind some ferns and disappeared.
Roger tightened the strap of his backpack, cautiously watching the stirring of the laced leaves that were calming themselves, and as nothing jumped out at him, he proceeded up the path of the stone stairs. When he started counting the number of the broken ones again, he realized that he had forgotten where he had left off, but this didn't become a problem for him, not least because his eyes noticed the head of a medium-sized animal, hidden behind some dry branches of a vine with dead flowers.
He drew closer when he saw that it wasn't a living animal, but a bronze-colored statue, dirty and blackened. To Roger's eyes the statue appeared to be that of a dog, or bear, or lion, perhaps? He wondered, finding it a bit funny, and realized that on the other side of the stairs there was another statue just like it.
Roger put his hand on his chin thoughtfully. He decided to remove the dry branches that surrounded the two statues before continuing. After this, it didn't take long for the child to spot the characteristic roof of the Japanese temple.
The building might well have been listed as a municipal heritage site, but apparently no one in the city seemed interested in remembering the majestic moments the temple once possessed.
The wooden walls and sliding doors were rotten and mistreated by the weather, and all over the ceiling there were holes made by animals of the forest that sought shelter from time to time.
Roger climbed the two steps to the temple, which wasn't at ground level, and suddenly remembered that the Japanese were used to taking off their shoes when they entered their house. He had seen it on TV with his grandmother one day. Bending down, he took off his shoes and placed them on the level ground beside the little two-step staircase, and made his way into the temple.
He pulled his backpack over his shoulders again and opened a sliding door that almost collapsed upon him, and a wide hallway lit by the half-light from outside was revealed to his eyes, which caught on a tall little table leaning against the wall of the hallway, above it, there was hung a white mask with colored details around the eyes, mouth, cheeks, and head.
Roger looked sideways and took another look at the mask. It was so beautiful. And if it was cleaned with that product of his father's, it would certainly shine on his shelf of old things. Who knows, maybe they could get a good price for it and finally take a trip abroad together: he, Grandma and Daddy?
Without another second thought, Roger balanced on his tiptoes, leaning his torso on the high table. But his fingers only rubbed slightly the hanging mask. He bit the tip of his tongue, feeling his toes sliding on the woody floor because of the socks he was wearing. He had just about managing to pull the mask off the pin that held it in place, until the sound of lightning-fast footsteps came running after him, crossing the entire corridor and disappearing into the shadows of the temple's depths.
Roger let out a scream, startled by that, all the more because he didn't see who had run after him and crossed the corridor, and let out another, more shrill scream when the mask hanging on the wall fell loudly beside him, breaking into five pieces on the floor.
Roger's heart gave a tight beat at the sight of it, feeling as if his longed-for trip abroad with his family had just been many miles away. His eyes began to fill with water, and as he shamefully tried to dry them, he failed to notice the countless particles rising from the broken mask and gathering, clumping, expanding, separating, swirling around it like a faint tornado of light.
Feeling a strange pressure beside him, Roger took his hands away from his eyes and opened his lips, ready for a huge, crying scream as he saw that wind of light and brightness swirling around the broken mask. He was about to get up and run out of there in his socks when a child, apparently about his age, emerged from the lights and glows of the mask.
Roger cringed and then approached the child. Was it alive? Was it dead? Was it a figment of his imagination? Roger lightly touched the shoulder of the child that was all curled up in on itself, as a cat would do if it was very cold.
After a long groan, a face appeared among the child's red and white robes, a face with clear, sleepy eyes, a face with sharp little teeth, a face with a thin nose, a boy-child face. And what surprised Roger even more, was to notice that right on top of the boy's white hair, there were two chubby, fluffy cat ears, as just as white.
- Wooow! Ears! - Roger started squeezing the little boy's white ears, who was still half asleep, but was soon awakened by Roger's cold hands touching his little ears.
Roger giggled as he squeezed the boy's ears, who also started to giggle softly as the tickle went down his scalp and reached out his hands to squeeze the other's ears, but when he realized that Roger didn't have ears like his own he opened his eyes wide with amazement.
– Where are yours?
– They are here, look - he pushed the black hair away from his ears and showed them to the boy who grimaced.
– They are strange...and have no hair!
Roger sat down cross-legged and held his feet, his back straight.
– They are normal, yours are strange. Who are you?
The boy looked at Roger's sitting movements and copied them ceremoniously, which made Roger realize that the white part of the other boy's clothes, which he thought were clothes, were in fact a long, hairy and much fluffier extension of the boy. He felt his jaw drop. He was too stunned for any comment.
As the boy's long, thick tail swished from side to side behind him, he lifted his back and faced Roger.
– I am a youkai. A demon. And you? – he stretched his neck forward, giving two sniffs with his thin nose. – You smell human!
– A de-demon? You?
Roger wondered at that word, watching with frowning eyes, analyzing every part of the other, he couldn't find anything that made him look like a demon.
– You don't look like a demon...
– Oh, but I am!
The boy smiled openly, which made Roger see his sharp, shiny little teeth. But that wasn't exactly what made Roger shiver.
As the boy stepped back a little, he sat up on his knees, bent his head to the floor, and said in an almost mechanical voice
– My name is Renshin. You have awakened me. You are my great master now, and master of the temple. What are your orders?
It was then that Roger felt he had made a serious mistake.
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