Chapter 1: Danger Arrives
Three hours before dawn, Matoba Seiji woke with a start. He rolled off his futon and drew his knife in one motion. A mass of writhing limbs crashed into the empty bedding. Darker than shadow, it dragged itself up and coiled itself to strike again.
"Ropes to bind the beast to earth, chain the foe that enters here!" Matoba chanted the stunning spell and leapt backwards towards the door. The creature shrieked in rage as glowing ropes ensnared it, twisting its head to glare at its prey with one bloodshot eye.
Just as his hand touched the sliding door, Matoba felt the spell snap. Between one heartbeat and the next the exorcist was slammed against the wall. For three terrifying seconds his lungs struggled fruitlessly to take in air. An icy claw clamped over his jaw, fingers sliding towards the seal protecting his eye. Matoba jerked back and slashed blindly with his blade. It would not be enough...
"You who enter by force begone! Darkness is dispelled by pure light!"
A flash of light enveloped the room and Matoba fell to the ground. He gulped down breath after breath as Nanase barked orders to her shiki. He stood and straightened his robe, "Well that was exciting."
His second in command raised an eyebrow. "That was far too close for comfort," she retorted. "It has never been able to break through our barriers until now. We must gather the household."
"The barrier was not broken," said Matoba.
"Then how did the monster enter?" Nanase asked.
Matoba picked up a scroll that had fallen from his desk. "If the barrier had been broken, the guards would have been alerted immediately. But if the barrier were dropped momentarily the disruption would be noticed only by the casters of the barrier. If I had not woven this charm into the barrier I would have had no warning."
Nanase looked around once more at the shredded fabric littering the floor and the scratches gouged out of the walls. "We shall arrest the guards in charge of the barrier immediately."
"No. Say nothing of our suspicions to anyone," ordered Matoba. "Our enemies have gained sympathizers in our ranks. But the hand that tears out a weed in haste leaves behind the root. For now we will observe the suspected traitors closely and use them to find our hidden foe."
"Sir, I must urge you to reconsider. You came close to losing your life tonight. I cannot agree to a plan that would place the clan head in jeopardy," Nanase answered, eyes flashing behind her spectacles.
"You act as though risk were rare in our line of work," Matoba answered with a smirk.
Nanase crossed her arms and retorted, "Minimizing risk is a practice that should not be rare in our line of work."
Matoba gave a dry laugh, "You are right of course. But my purpose in life is to clear any obstacles in the way of the Matoba clan. Please debrief the household on the attack. I will be out shortly."
Letting her disapproval show, Nanase made a slight bow and walked out.
Natsume Takashi stirred slowly from his dreams. Blinking up at the ceiling, he tried to hold onto the fading images in his mind. He'd had a dream about his parents: their voices laughing and their hands sweeping his hair back gently. He was never sure if they were real memories or just his imagination trying to fill in the precious moments he was missing. He found he didn't mind either way.
"Natsume Natsume Natsume!" came a nagging voice.
"What is it Nyanko-sensei?" Natsume groaned.
"There's no school today. Take me to Nanatsujiya! I want sweets!"
"...It's too early for sweets Sensei," Natsume sighed covering his face with a pillow.
Four small but powerful paws knocked the wind out of Natsume. "NATSUME!"
"GET. OFF!" Natsume yelled sending the fat cat flying with an angry uppercut.
Fujiwara Touko hid a smile as she watched Natsume eat breakfast with his cat. The plump feline finished its meal in seconds and started whining for more. Natsume rolled his eyes and pushed the cat away.
"So Takashi what are your plans for today?" she asked refilling his tea and dropping more food into the cat's bowl.
The boy smiled and said, "Tanuma invited me over to his house to play a game of shogi. Would you like me to pick up any groceries on my way home?"
"No thank you. We are all set," she replied bringing out a basket from the pantry. "Please take some of these sweet buns with you."
Natsume's eyes lit up and color rose to his cheeks. "Thank you Touko-san. I will."
She saw him off after insisting he leave the dishes to her.
"Has Takashi left already?" Fujiwara Shigeru asked, coming in with the mail.
"Yes he's gone to see his friend, Tanuma," she said giving her husband a kiss on the cheek. "Takashi is very thoughtful. We're lucky to have him."
"I couldn't agree more," Shigeru said returning the kiss. "Ah I wanted to show you this. I was surprised to find a handwritten letter from an unknown sender in our mail today."
Touko took the envelope he held out. The front of the immaculately white parcel had the Fujiwara name and address written neatly in black ink. The back bore the sender's name in graceful strokes: Matoba Seiji.