For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Oni
Meighan and her family find themselves competing on the ultimate Japanese game show, Climb to Oni Mountain! But as they progress, the rounds keep getting darker and stranger, as well as more dangerous. The only way out is to win.
If you’d like a version of this story to take away and read on your ebook device, feel free to download it from here! I’m generous that way.
“Welcome to Climb to Oni Mountain! Worldwide famous ultimate game show!”
Meighan blinked and looked around in confusion. It felt like she’d forgotten where she was for a moment there. Stage lights dazzled. Hyperactive screens and flashing lights turned the game show’s set into a seizure. Right, the game show. Climb to Oni Mountain, that’s where they were, of course they were. Meighan’s family lined up alongside her dressed in baggy coveralls that looked like something the Eighties would vomit up after a bad night. Meighan felt her anxiety spiking. Determinedly, she inhaled in through her nose and exhaled through her mouth.
The show’s host, a handsome, middle aged Japanese man in a glittering tuxedo, rattled off something in his native tongue. Earpieces in the family’s ears translated for them. Meighan started to reach for the earpiece, as if she’d forgotten it was there, but then dropped her hand. She saw all three members of the rest of her family do the same, blinking as if dazed by the lights.
“In our game, two families, one American and one Japanese, will compete for the chance to Climb to Oni Mountain, and win nine million yen! Or, over sixty-five thousand American dollars!”
Meighan’s mom and dad, Sandra and Paul Robbins, perked up at the mention of the money. They smiled broadly for the swarming cameras. The host jogged circles around the stage. Meighan’s brother, Seth, leaned in next to her.
“If this show is so famous, why have we never heard of it?” Seth whispered.
“Shut up, they’ll hear you,” Meighan hissed, eying the four microphones lined up on their desk.
Across the stage were another family, who must have been their opponents. A Japanese man and woman with two daughters who looked roughly the same age as Meighan, sixteen. They, too, wore neon jumpsuits, but their faces looked oddly dour and even a little frightened. Maybe they were feeling just as overwhelmed as she was, Meighan thought. Meighan struggled to fix a fractured smile on her face.
The host had been introduced to Meighan and her family as Mr Sutoku. She was pretty sure they’d been introduced, how else would she know his name? Stage lights made his blue tuxedo shimmer and sparkle. Most of what he said was in Japanese with a few random English words thrown in. A neutral voice translated into the earpieces the Robbins wore.
“In the first round, teams must be answering questions about both Japan and America for points, or face punishment.” The drab voice of the translator conflicted with Sutoku’s flamboyant presentation. “Then, they face three challenges. The Valley of Hungry Ghosts, the Bridge of the Kappa, and then the Climb to Oni Mountain for deserved slaughter. Top quality ultimate entertainment.”
Meighan’s smile faltered and she reached for her earpiece again at the word ‘slaughter’. She looked to her family but none of them reacted. Assuming she’d misheard, Meighan struggled to regain her happy expression. Harsh as they were, the spotlights hurt her eyes. The audience laughed and cheered at Sutoku’s antics but behind the lights and cameras she couldn’t make them out. Just a single black mass of quaking shapes and the occasional flash of teeth or eyes.
“Time to meet our competition,” the earpiece crackled.
Sutoku approached the Robbins’ desk and switched to English. “Robbins family, many welcomes! What wind of fate brings you to our fateful country?”
“Ah, well, thank you for having us! We are just on vacation, visiting Tokyo and then taking a train to some other places!” Meighan’s mother, Sandra, took the lead.
“How do you enjoy so far?”
“Oh, it’s wonderful! We often like to do something a little bit adventurous on our holidays. We’ve done whitewater rafting, rock climbing. Last holiday we went to a ranch that taught us how to be real American cowboys, riding horses and throwing lassos and stuff!” Sandra laughed a little too hard.
“What is it that you and Mrs Robbins do for making a living?” Sutoku turned to Paul.
“I’m an engineer and Sandra is a teacher,” Paul said. “Meighan and Seth are, of course, still in school.”
Sutoku turned and rattled something off to his audience. They laughed, the sound taking on an almost cruel edge. The earpiece in Meighan’s ear didn’t bother to translate.
“What about you, son? What is your favourite lesson in school?” Mr Sutoku continued down the desk to Seth.
“Uh, music! I want to be a rockstar,” Seth said.
Sutoku made an exaggerated expression and then relayed something to his audience in Japanese again. They laughed, and Meighan again thought the sound contained a cruel edge. It was probably just her anxiety, she decided. Mr Sutoku’s accent when speaking English seemed exaggerated, like a racist caricature. Meighan felt guilty for thinking it and put it down to his overacting. Seth, who had no interest in making music that Meighan was aware of, looked pleased with his answer.
“And you, Meighan! Wow wow, you must have many boys asking you on dates!” Mr Sutoku leered.
“Uh, I don’t know,” Meighan stumbled. “I’m not sure I’m even into guys.”
“Meighan, not now,” Meighan’s mother hissed past Seth’s shoulder.
“I’m just answering!” Meighan said.
After speaking to the Robbins, Sutoku crossed the room to the Japanese contestants, the Kimura family. Everything they said was in their own language, untranslated. From time to time, the audience laughed or cheered. The Kimuras looked weirdly morose. A few times, Meighan almost thought Sutoku was snapping at them to cheer up. They managed a few weak, almost scared smiles.
“We flip a coin to decide who is our first competition.” Sutoku returned to centre stage, and to English, before pointing at Meighan’s dad. “Call it!”
“Heads!” Paul shouted over the noise of the audience.
Mr Sutoku flicked an oversized coin, gleaming in the stage lights. Catching it on its way down, Sutoku slapped it onto the back of his left hand and made a show of furtively checking the result. Turning, he pointed at the Kimura family.
“Kimura!” Sutoku bellowed.
The Japanese audience brayed and screens across the stage seized. Mr Sutoku pulled some cards out of his sequined jacket. Four metal rods rose out of the Kimura family’s desk. As Sutoku readied himself, the contestants took hold of the rods.
“What are those?” Seth asked.
“I don’t know, some kind of buzzers I guess?” Meighan said.
“Each family member will be asked four questions, two about Japan and two about America,” Meighan’s earpiece translated as Sutoku explained. “For each correct answer you will receive ten points. For each incorrect answer, you will receive punishment.”
“Punishment? They said that before,” Meighan said.
Mr Sutoku started with the father of the Japanese family. Meighan couldn’t understand him and the unseen translator didn’t bother to relay what they were saying but the host tried to put the man at ease while asking the first couple of questions. The man got both of the first two right. A big digital scoreboard in front of their desk showed ‘10’ and then ‘20’. On the third question, the Japanese father hesitated. He erred until Sutoku insisted on an answer. When he replied, in Japanese, Sutoku shook his head sadly.
Suddenly, the Japanese man went rigid. His grip tightened on the metal rod he’d been made to hold, arm shaking, and a violent tremor went through his body. His wife and two daughters shrieked and let go of their own rods. The audience roared with delight.
“Oh, my God, did they just shock that guy?” Meighan gaped.
“Cool!” Seth said.
“They’re probably just-, just acting,” Meighan’s mother said.
Mr Sutoku barked something at the Kimuras. The woman and two teenagers hesitantly took hold of the metal poles again. The father looked frazzled but recovered. Sutoku laughed and cracked another joke, making the audience cheer. Once it settled, Sutoku asked the father his fourth question which he got right in spite of his shock.
“This is messed up,” Meighan whispered.
The mother of the Japanese family looked nervous but got her first question right. She got the second question right as well. Meighan recognised a couple of words in what Sutoku read off the card, ‘California’ and ‘Hollywood’, but didn’t understand the answer. She felt so tense on the woman’s behalf that it made her sick. On the third question, the woman apparently got the answer wrong and suffered a shock. She was allowed to recover, the audience laughed, but then she struggled over the fourth question and was shocked again. The second shock looked even worse than the first, and her husband comforted her. The girl who was next in line broke and started to cry. As Sutoku moved onto her, she could barely form words.
“No way, mom, we can’t do this!” Meighan said.
“Meighan, they’re acting! They’re just trying to freak us out,” Sandra said. “I bet they’re not even real contestants, they’re a part of this.”
Meighan considered the possibility. “I guess that makes sense.”
“It’s sixty-five thousand dollars, Meighan! Do you know what we could do with that money? I bet the idea is to trick us into giving up rather than winning.”
The audience roared with laughter. Sandra’s theory seemed plausible but if so the girl was a really good actor. She kept crying even as Mr Sutoku cooed and tried to calm her down. Instead of answering her first question, she just shook her head. She kept holding the metal rod in front of her, however. It delivered a shock that made her cry out, and sobered her up a bit.
The girl tried to answer the next three questions but she looked scared. She only answered one right and received two more shocks, each appearing to hit harder than the last. Meighan watched with amazement and studied her for signs that it was all just an act. The fact that she couldn’t understand anything they were saying, and the way the audience kept laughing, was weirdly isolating. Meighan felt lost and out of place, and on the verge of panic. Inhale through the noise for five seconds, hold, exhale.
The scoreboard read ‘60’ as Sutoku moved on to the second teenager. She looked more serious. Given that they spoke Japanese and the translator did not chime in, Meighan still didn’t understand what was said but the second girl apparently answered the first three questions she was given correctly. The scoreboard rose to ‘90’. Only on the last question did the girl stumble, and she knew it. Sutoku made sure she was holding her rod. Someone triggered a shock that rocked the young woman backward. She took a few long moments to recover as the audience clapped and cheered.
“See? Ninety? We can beat that easy,” Sandra said, completely unaffected by the threat of the shocks.
“Now, the Robbins family! Are you ready to compete?” Sutoku crossed the stage, switching to English.
“Ready as we’ll ever be, I hope,” Paul, Meighan’s dad, said.
“Ah, nervous? You shouldn’t be nervous, you just need to get all the answers right! Please, take hold of the punishment buzzers in front of you.”
Paul took hold of the metal rod that had risen out of the desk in front of him, and the rest of the family did the same. The rod felt warm and a little staticky in Meighan’s hand. She felt her stomach rolling. Mr Sutoku sorted dramatically through his cards.
“Four questions, two on Japan, two on America,” Sutoku said. “The four islands of Japan, Mr Robbins, are Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and, what?”
Paul Robbins’ face paled. Meighan had been reading a guidebook about Japan ever since they first decided to vacation there. As she opened her mouth though, Mr Sutoku shot her a look and gestured for her to stay quiet.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know, I can’t remember,” Paul said.
Apparently silent but very real, a shock from the rod jolted Paul backward. His eyes went wide. The zap only went on for a second or two but Paul pulled his hand away as if burnt as soon as it was done.
“Not off to a very good start, Mr Robbins!” Sutoku said.
The audience laughed, and Meighan wondered if someone was translating for them. Her dad looked genuinely stunned.
“Hey, hey, wow, that hurt,” Paul said.
Sandra gave a loud, fake laugh, playing it up for Mr Sutoku and the audience. “Don’t be such a wimp, Paul!”
“Mr Robbins, please take hold of the punishment buzzer again,” Sutoku said, and Paul grudgingly relented. “Second question, America! On your Mount Rushmore, the presidents are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and, who?”
“Roosevelt,” Paul replied snappily, clearly annoyed.
“Very good! Mount Rushmore is a very American idea! Maybe I should get my face carved on Mount Fuji! Third question, Mr Robbins, at the end of World War Two, American bombers dropped atomic weapons on which two Japanese cities?”
Meighan’s father looked shocked that the show would ask such a loaded question. A few members of the audience giggled. Meighan felt surprised as well, while her mother and brother didn’t really react.
“Uh, Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Paul said.
“Correct!” Mr Sutoku didn’t look put out by the question at all but a mischievous twinkle showed in his dark eyes. “And final question, ‘O Captain, my Captain! Our fearful trip is done. The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won’ is from a poem by which American poet?”
Paul hesitated again. “Uh, uh, I don’t know?”
A jolt of electricity arced through the punishment buzzer. Paul went rigid and his legs nearly slipped out from under him. He whipped his hand loose and shook it.
“Hey, I wasn’t finished!” Paul said, and he looked to his family. “You’re not going to shock them as badly as that, are you?”
“I’m sorry, Mr Robbins! You’ve got to be quicker, the answer was Walt Whitman.” Mr Sutoku’s accent still sounded a little tortured. “Mrs Robbins, are you ready?”
“Absolutely!” Meighan’s mother looked unafraid.
Sandra answered her first two questions correctly, one on the capital of Japan and one on the Brooklyn Bridge. Paul looked a little worried but she teased him about not receiving any electric shocks. Mr Sutoku bid his time.
“Third question! The popular Japanese dish, ‘Sushi’, is a word meaning, what, in English?”
Again, Meighan knew the answer from reading the guidebook. Her mother, however, looked stumped.
“I’ve never really thought about it,” Sandra said. “Raw fish?”
Sandra threw her shoulders back, hair frizzing as the punishment buzzer went live in her hand. She hadn’t even seemed to anticipate it. As soon as it stopped, she looked genuinely stunned. Her expression vacillated between her fake smile, hurt, and anger.
“Hey, hey, that’s not-, that’s not okay,” Sandra managed.
“I’m sorry, Mrs Robbins, but the answer is ‘Sour Rice’! You are looking a little sour too,” Sutoku said, as the audience laughed. “Are you alright to continue?”
Meighan’s mother stiffened, but her smile became a lot thinner. “I’m fine,” she said.
“Alrighty then! For your final question, the Trail of Tears is a famous period in which America removed sixty thousand Indians from their homes to Indian Territory in which modern American state?”
Sandra’s eyes moved from Sutoku to the buzzer, swallowing hard. “I’m not sure, Texas?”
The shock came again without warning, throwing Sandra back and making her cry out. The audience roared with laughter. Sandra struggled with his composure, her eyes a little wet.
“Okay, I think that’s-,” Paul began.
“I’m sorry, the answer is Oklahoma!” Sutoku didn’t appear to hear him.
“I think we’re done here,” Paul insisted.
“No way, dad! I want my turn!” Seth said, with the heedless excitement of a fourteen-year-old boy.
Meighan thought of what her mother had said, that maybe the real point of the game was to freak them out until they quit. Paul and Sandra looked to her. She nodded hard.
“I’m fine, let’s do it,” Meighan said.
Mr Sutoku laughed. Across the stage, the Japanese family, the Kimuras, watched on. Their score was ‘90’ while Paul and Sandra had scored a combined total of ‘40’. Meighan wasn’t sure what would happen if they came to a draw. Both she and Seth had to get at least three right.
“Please, take hold of the punishment buzzer,” Sutoku moved on to Seth. “Are you ready?”
“Yeah, I kind of want to get shocked just to see what it’s like,” Seth said.
“First question, the Japanese flag is a red circle on a white background. What does the circle represent?”
“Uh, I’m pretty sure that’s the sun, bro,” Seth said.
“Correct! You are a bright one too, like the sun. Second, the American kaiju, King Kong, is famous for kidnapping a woman and climbing to the top of which tall American building?”
“The Empire State Building! I’ve seen that really old movie with Jack Black!”
Meighan felt relieved. They seemed to be giving Seth easier questions, so they weren’t total sadists. The score rose to ‘60’. Theoretically, even if Seth choked on the next two questions then Meighan could still get all of her answers right and they would win.
“Okay, rock star, we have a rock star question!” Sutoku said. “Beatles’ rock star John Lennon cheated on and divorced his first wife to marry which Japanese artist?”
Seth screwed up his face. “The Beatles? They’re like, ancient.”
Both Paul and Sandra looked like they wanted to shout the answer. Meighan, for her part, was just as stumped as Seth even though she knew John Lennon and The Beatles were supposed to be pretty famous.
“I don’t know,” Seth said.
A shock came through Seth’s punishment buzzer. Meighan could see the narrow muscles in his forearm stand out as his hand involuntarily clamped onto the rod. Seth slumped and struggled to recover once it finished. The shock looked like it had been pretty bad. He grinned, but like their mother his expression wavered.
“Oh no! The artist was Yoko Ono,” Sutoku said. “Please hold your buzzer again.”
Seth kept grinning like it was all a big joke but he was slow and jumpy about taking hold of the punishment buzzer. Sutoku watched expectantly and refused to continue until Seth had a proper grip.
“Very good! Last question, we have another rock star question! The Nightmare at Altamont involved the stabbing of a man at a concert by a member of which American outlaw motorcycle gang?”
“Uh, I don’t know, bro, Hell’s Angels?” Seth said, clearly naming the only bikers he could think of.
“Correct!” Sutoku said, and Seth visibly relaxed. “Very good, your score is at seventy as we move to the last family member!”
These questions were super weird, Meighan thought. She felt nauseous as the audience clapped and Sutoku turned his attention to her. She only needed two correct answers to draw with the other family, three to beat them. After seeing the reactions of her family though, she really didn’t want to get shocked.
“We have saved the hardest questions for last!” Sutoku said.
“Really?” Meighan asked.
Sutoku only laughed. “First question, Japan, often called the bullet train in English, the ‘Shinkansen’ is a word meaning, what?”
Meighan felt a wave of relief, knowing she’d come across the answer in her Japanese guidebook. “New trunk line, or new main line, and it refers to the train or the line itself,” she said.
“Very good, correct!” Sutoku’s expression betrayed little. “Second question, America, to make you even with the Kimura family. What is the largest American state, by population?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s California.” Meighan eyed the punishment buzzer nervously.
“That, too, is correct! You are equal with the Kimuras, but to avoid the tiebreaker you must answer one of the next two questions correctly.”
Across the stage, the Kimura family looked upset. Meighan supposed they figured they’d already lost their chance at the money, or if they were actors then it was part of the act.
“For your third question, Aokigahara, known as the Sea of Trees on the north-west side of Mount Fuji, is also known by what name?”
Meighan hesitated. She didn’t think that information was in the guidebook but the name ‘Aokigahara’ rang a bell for her.
“I remember, I think that’s the Suicide Forest?” Meighan said.
“Correct!” Horns blared and screens flashed, and Meighan snatched her hand away from the punishment buzzer. “That’s one hundred points! Enough to go through to the next round!”
“Great.” Meighan felt relieved but part of her wished she’d failed just so the game would be over, money or not.
“One final question. During the slave trade to the New World, roughly how many African prisoners were transported as slaves? Five and a half million, eight million, or twelve and a half million?”
Meighan blinked, again a little shocked by the question. “Uh, eight million?” she said, splitting it down the middle.
The shock that travelled through the punishment buzzer threw Meighan backward, while her hand refused to let go. Every nerve of her body felt like it was set on fire. Fortunately, the sensation only lasted a second and then vanished as if she’d had a bucket of water thrown over her. Meighan huffed, as if taking her first breath for several minutes. Her mom, dad, and Seth all looked on in sympathy.
Sutoku rattled something in Japanese and then repeated himself in English. “We’ll be right back, with the Valley of Hungry Ghosts!”
Meighan and her family were ushered off the set as the lights dimmed. The Kimuras were taken away by a different route, surrounded by several stagehands. Over the music that started to blare, Meighan could hear them speaking rapidly over one another. It almost sounded like they were pleading, begging. Maybe they were real contestants after all, Meighan thought, and really needed the money.
Offstage, the Robbins were met with a stocky Japanese man whose face was cratered with old acne scars. He gestured for them to remove their earpieces. Backstage was a confusion of corridors and what looked like racks of costumes and props. Meighan twisted and turned.
“Did we come through here before?” Meighan said. “I don’t-, I don’t remember any of this?”
“Good work out there, honey. You both did great!” Sandra said.
“How’s your hand, sweetheart?” Paul asked.
Meighan flexed her right hand, the palm feeling staticky. “Yeah, I’m alright.”
“I’m fine too, thanks for asking,” Seth said, mock petulant.
“A few electric shocks wouldn’t hurt you. Might even help,” Paul joked, but he still looked a little shaken.
When they reached the green room, Meighan looked around again in puzzlement. It would make sense if they’d been there before the show but she didn’t remember it. She didn’t really remember where they’d been before heading onto the set. The room was mostly featureless but off to one side was a long table loaded with way more food than the four of them could eat. Fruit, pastries, sushi and sandwiches, and a bunch of brightly coloured junk food, along with bottles of water and soft drinks with Japanese names. Something about it looked vaguely unreal to Meighan, like a movie prop, or a banquet table in a fairy tale.
“Alright!” Seth went to help himself.
“Were we here before?” Meighan asked. “I don’t remember being here. This place is weird, right? This game is crazy.”
“It’s Japanese, honey,” Sandra said.
“Maybe we should call it quits?” Paul suggested.
“Sixty-five thousand is a lot of money! Especially after what we spent on this vacation.”
Paul looked helplessly at his two kids. “What do you guys think?”
“I want to keep going! And if we win, I want a brand new Nintendo Switch!” Seth said. “No, two brand new Nintendo Switches!”
Meighan shrugged. “It’s fine, we’ve already beaten the first round.”
“Okay, but if it involves more-, pain, we tell them we’re done!”
“Robbins family, back to set!” a stagehand interrupted from the doorway.
“Already? We just got here,” Meighan’s dad said.
The stagehand looked at them blankly, as if he’d exhausted his command of English. “Back to set.”
The Robbins followed the stagehand back through the corridors to the same stage. Seth stuffed his face with bits of sushi and quickly guzzled an orange soda on the walk. Meighan looked around in amazement. The set had completely transformed, she didn’t understand how they’d done it unless the whole thing was on some kind of rotating machinery. The same dark, strange, shapeless audience watched on. The stage lights were, if anything, even brighter and hotter.
Mr Sutoku waited for them. “Robbins family, welcome to second round! You are on your way to Climb to Oni Mountain!”
The new version of the set was a lot deeper, with the back wall of screens taken out. What replaced them kind of looked like a small, stony valley, littered with prop boulders. At the far end of the set was a landscape. A river snaked by in the mid-distance and further on a black mountain or volcano, almost like a twisted version of Mount Fuji.
“You will have to cross the river and beat the kappa, but first you must pass through the Valley of Hungry Ghosts!” Sutoku said.
Sutoku gestured Meighan and her family behind a blue line. Resting nearby was a rack filled with small but heavy balls, like shot put balls.
“To pass through the Valley of Hungry Ghosts, you must score five hundred points! Take the balls and throw them at the ghosts, you will get fifty points for a hit on the body and one hundred for a hit on the head! Stay behind the line, and your time starts now!”
Music blared and two digital screens appeared above the valley, a scoreboard and a timer. The timer counted down from ‘120’ seconds. From behind the boulders, four cartoony ghosts sprung up on large levers.
“Go, go, go!” Sandra shouted.
The four of them didn’t have time to think. The loud music and sound of the timer pushed them into movement. Meighan grabbed one of the balls but it was heavier than she’d expected. Returning to the blue line, she threw it but the ball fell short of the nearest ghost and landed with a thump.
The ghosts looked weird. Human-sized, padded, they were covered in white vinyl with cartoony faces printed on their head areas. Big, shiny eyes and grins filled with pointed fangs. They must have had some kind of mechanics inside them because they bent and twisted and writhed on the ends of their supports. Beneath the loud music, Meighan thought she could hear a ghostly moaning coming from them as well.
Meighan’s father hurried forward, ball drawn back to his shoulder, and threw as hard as he could. The ball sailed into one of the ghosts and hit it in the ‘chest’. The ghost recoiled then slumped forward, moaning. ‘50’ appeared on the scoreboard. Laughing, Sandra hauled around with a ball in both hands. She made it fly a good distance but missed hitting any of the ghosts by a mile. Seth narrowly missed a ghost’s head. Thirty seconds disappeared off the timer.
Meighan returned to the rack, grabbing another ball, and sprinted back to the line. Holding the ball over her head in both hands she threw it like a basketball. She hit one of the ghosts in the chest and let out a loud laugh in spite of herself. The first round of the game had been kind of weird but she was surrounded by her family and they were all caught up in the fun, not simply thinking about the money. Meighan felt herself enjoying it all. The ghost she’d hit slumped forward and writhed even harder. Seth threw his second ball and hit one in the chest as well. ‘150’ appeared on the scoreboard.
“Good work, guys!” Paul shouted.
Paul threw another ball shot put-style. He hit the same ghost as he had on his first throw, this time in the side of the head. There was a muffled crack, loud enough to be heard over the music. The scoreboard blared and showed ‘250’, halfway there, and Paul cheered. Going limp, the ghost slumped sideways. Its support lever dropped and it disappeared behind its boulder.
Meighan went to collect a third ball but something about the way the ghost went limp stopped her. It was as if her subconscious had picked up on something her conscious mind missed, giving her a bad feeling in her gut.
Meighan’s mother made another completely hopeless throw. Seth scored a second chest hit. Before this trip, Seth had only been a few hairs shorter than his ‘big’ sister. He seemed to be right at the point of puberty where, as a teenage boy, most of the time he was awkward and still looked like a big kid but occasionally he delivered a spurt of strength or athleticism that took Meighan by surprise. His throw slammed the ghost backward, its mechanics thrashing, and it went limp but didn’t fall down. ‘300’ read the scoreboard. Paul made another throw but missed. Half their time dropped off the clock.
“Wait, wait, stop and-, don’t,” Meighan spoke too softly for anyone to hear and wasn’t sure exactly why she was trying to stop them anyway.
The audience cheered and Mr Sutoku was practically dancing in pleasure as the Robbins scrambled. More balls rolled onto the rack to replace those that they’d used. Only Meighan had stopped moving.
The ghosts originally consisted of one tall ghost and three smaller ones all roughly the same size. As Meighan watched, she noticed their movements looked less like mechanical systems and padding, and more like people with ankles tied together and arms pulled behind their backs, wrapped in white vinyl. The way they turned and twisted blindly looked too fluid for machines, and the moans they were making sounded almost too human. The father of the Kimura family had been tall, while his wife and two daughters had all been smaller, roughly the same size. Four of them, four ghosts. Somehow they matched too well.
“No, no, stop! Stop!” Meighan found her voice but still wasn’t loud enough over the music and the audience.
Pressure started to get to the other three members of the Robbins family, although none of them stopped moving. All three made throws that missed. Seth and Paul quickly grabbed two more balls and threw again, hitting two of the ghosts in the chests. Muffled cracks and what could have been cries came from both of them. One dropped, falling behind its boulder.
“Thirty seconds to go!” Sutoku said. “Don’t let those hungry ghosts get you!”
Seth grabbed another ball from the rack but Meighan went to stop him. “Wait, don’t!”
Giving Meighan a puzzled look, Seth brushed past her. His surprising and unintentional strength sent her stumbling back. He almost went to help her but time was ticking. He returned to the line instead and lined up another throw. The ball hurtled toward one of the ghosts, the smallest one, hitting it in the face. Its head wrenched backward with an almost wet snap and the ghost fell. Klaxons blared, the audience cheered, and the last remaining ghost dropped out of sight. Seth pumped his arms in victory.
“Congratulations, Robbins family! You win again!” Sutoku said. “You go through to the next round!”
Meighan felt slightly dazed as they were ushered off the stage again. Stagehands shoved them back down the corridor toward the green room. Her family were busy celebrating but finally they noticed how pale she looked.
“Honey, are you okay? You look a little sick,” Sandra said. “And you froze a little bit out there, huh?”
“I’m-, I’m okay,” Meighan said slowly.
What could she say? If she was somehow right about the Kimuras being inside the ghosts, her family, her little brother, had just tortured and maybe murdered several people. She’d done it as well. She’d laughed. But that was insane, this was a game show.
“I had kind of a-, I don’t know, kind of a weird moment out there, sorry. Like a freakout,” Meighan said.
“Aw, honey, it’s okay! You did great, better than me!”
Sandra laughed and wrapped an arm around Meighan’s shoulders. Meighan’s skin crawled. They made it back to the green room and Seth attacked the food table again.
“Go easy, buddy, you’ll make yourself sick,” Paul said.
“This place is weird, even if it wasn’t-, what I thought it was for a second out there,” Meighan said. “Do you remember what they said when they got us to sign on? I remember the hotel and-, we agreed to come on the show, right? I don’t really remember talking about it or us all agreeing to it?”
Meighan’s mother took a bottle of water from the craft services table and made a thoughtful expression. “I mean, of course we agreed. We must have-, it was the money, I don’t remember exactly what was said.”
“Robbins family, back to set?” a stagehand interrupted from the doorway.
When they returned, the stage had changed even more dramatically. The rear wall had receded even further and a giant screen at the back showed that dark, twisted mountain closer than before, clashing with the rest of the set. Even more impressive, a massive pit around twenty metres long and as wide as the set had opened in the floor, filled with bubbling water. Meighan assumed it was water anyway, with some kind of hidden spa system to make it fizz. Its colour looked kind of off and a chemical smell filled the air. A single bridge made of rope and wooden planks, movie perfect, stretched from the near end of the pool to the back of the room.
“Robbins family, welcome to the round three!” Mr Sutoku met them in his glittering suit. “This round is very simple! All you have to do is cross the bridge. But to cross the bridge, you must get past the kappa!”
With a dramatic swell of music, melodramatic really, with a mocking edge, the screens flashed stormlight. A creature emerged from a side entrance on the other side of the bridge. Hulking and green, the kappa resembled a humanoid turtle complete with shell. Its beaky face was twisted into a goofy grin. Waving its webbed gloves, it capered and played to the audience like a sports mascot. Stringy hair trailed from a bowl-shaped depression in the top of its head, sloshing with water like an overfull cup.
Several stagehands distributed padded batons to Meighan and her family. Each baton was almost as long as Meighan was tall with cushioned bulbs at each end, obviously for hitting the kappa in a playful way. Meighan gave hers a couple of experimental swings.
“What is that? A teenage mutant ninja turtle?” Seth said.
“It’s a kind of Japanese monster, they’re supposed to live in bodies of water,” Meighan said. “I guess they’re kind of like an oni.”
“Robbins family, you have three minutes to cross the bridge!” Mr Sutoku said. “Your time starts now!”
Sensing the kappa wouldn’t make things easy, Paul Robbins hurried onto the bridge with his baton raised. Sandra followed, then Seth and Meighan. The kappa joined the other side of the bridge, grinning and dancing. The melodramatic music ceded into the same loud, urgent, disjointed tune as the last round. A digital timer appeared from the ceiling, counting down from ‘180’ seconds.
“Oh, look! In the water!” Sandra said.
Meighan looked down, over the edge of the rope bridge. With each movement, the bridge swayed almost violently. The pool wasn’t very deep, although its clarity and bubbling made it difficult to fully judge. At the bottom of the pool were skeletons, human, picked utterly clean and white as the teeth in a toothpaste commercial. Too perfect to be real, Meighan thought. The kind of thing you’d see in a science classroom. They couldn’t be real. They couldn’t. And yet something about the way they’d fallen in splayed and tortured positions evoked something strangely real.
“Come on!” Meighan’s father said.
Suddenly, one of the boards collapsed under Paul’s foot. It snapped perfectly in half, a clean cut down the middle, although it had shown no signs of weakness moments before. Paul fell but caught himself, and yanked his leg back. The heel of his sneaker caught on the edge of another board and was pulled off his foot. It fell into the pool and the water hissed. White rubber started to dissolve and spread across the surface like foam. As the shoe sank it disintegrated, falling apart into tatters that were eaten up by the bubbles.
“What the heck?” Paul said.
Meighan looked from the disappearing shoe to the skeletons. “I don’t think that’s water.”
“They gave us these clothes.” Sandra gestured to her neon tracksuit. “Clever, it must be some kind of material that reacts to the water!”
“Right.” Paul looked uncertain.
Mr Sutoku blocked the end of the bridge where the Robbins had set out. The audience, massing behind him mostly unseen, loomed. A sinister smile crossed his lips.
“I forgot to mention!” Sutoku said. “If you do not beat the kappa and cross the bridge in three minutes, the bridge will break and send you all into the river!”
Sandra laughed. “Of course it will!”
Over a minute had vanished off the timer already. Paul pushed forward again. He used his baton to test the planks ahead of him, rapping each one with the padded end. Another plank broke neatly in two and fell, sizzling as it landed, and he stepped over the gap.
The kappa lurched forward. As they got closer, the costume looked more detailed than it had first appeared. The skin rougher, scalier, the kappa’s breastplate and shell harder and craggier. Its beak no longer appeared to be grinning, its expression was more neutral. Meighan didn’t know how the costume had changed, there didn’t appear to be any animatronics. She was struck by the same conviction she’d felt in the last round, that this game was not just weird but lethal, unhinged, and wrong somehow. In the last round, the ghosts had been inhabited by the Kimuras or some other real, living people. The water was not water but some kind of acid, and the kappa was not just some costume but real, or at least not merely a man in an outfit.
“Dad, look out!” Meighan said.
Paul led forward with his cushioned weapon, thrusting into the kappa’s chest with no intention of hurting whoever was inside the costume. He was caught by surprise by the kappa’s sudden violence. Its hand came around and tore the baton out of his hand, sending it spiralling into the pool. The kappa’s hand appeared to have gone from an oversized glove to a claw, its arm rougher than it had been a moment ago with pronounced scales. Its face now turned down and scowled. Meighan’s father was too distracted to really notice the changes, however. He backed away, the bridge swaying, before he was knocked off. Shocked, it was obvious he still thought he was fighting for sixty-five thousand dollars and not for his life though. He didn’t look frightened.
Meighan grabbed for one of the railings of the bridge to steady herself. The timer ticked. Pressing its advantage, the kappa continued forward with water sloshing in its head. Suddenly, an idea struck Meighan. She didn’t think Sutoku would let them off the bridge, and even if she tried to return she didn’t know how she’d convince her family to do the same. But she thought she might have a way to defeat the hulking kappa.
“Guys, guys! Listen to me, I have an idea!” Meighan said. “Forget the clubs, grab the sides of the bridge and do what I do!”
The rest of Meighan’s family glanced over their shoulders. Meighan dropped her baton and grabbed the rope railings to either side, then braced her feet. Using her whole body, she began to sway. The others didn’t understand but recognising that Meighan had a plan they followed suit. Their combined weight as they found a rhythm caused the bridge to rock wildly.
“Keep swaying!” Meighan said.
“What are we doing?” Sandra shouted.
“Thirty seconds!” Sutoku yelled.
The kappa kept scowling but Meighan sensed concern on its twisted face. As the bridge swayed it kept its footing but water began to slosh out of the bowl-shaped hole in its head. The kappa panicked and grabbed at the bowl instead of steadying itself, only causing more water to spill. The violent rocking caused the bowl to overflow. As it emptied, the kappa shrank in on itself. It weakened and fell to the bridge. The rest of the water drained out and ran between the gaps in the bridge’s planks. The kappa rolled over the side. As it hit the bubbling water, or acid, whatever it was, the creature started thrashing. It clawed at the air, disintegrating, disappearing into a cloud of bubbles and green foam.
“Ten! Nine! Eight!” Sutoku started counting over the roaring audience.
“Run!” Meighan said.
Paul, in front, led the way. Meighan’s family and Meighan herself streamed off the bridge, still rocking violently. They made it to the other side before the clock finished counting. Sirens howled, music swelling and drowning out the audience who sounded like they were both cheering and booing. Meighan glanced down to see what had become of the kappa but the pool lights suddenly shut off, hiding the kappa and the skeletons.
“Congratulations, Robbins family! You beat the kappa, you go on to the final round!” Sutoku said.
For what was apparently the last time, the four of them were taken off the set and back to the green room. Seth had done his best to make a dent in the craft services table but he returned to eating. Meighan’s hands shook. She’d been thrilled by her victory but overwhelmed, confused, and she didn’t know what to think or say as the others talked over one another in their excitement. A new pair of sneakers waited in the green room for Paul, and there were four collections of straps and buckles, harnesses, that it appeared they were supposed to put on.
“Amazing work, honey!” Sandra said. “How did you know how to beat that monster?”
“The kappa.” Meighan felt surprised by how calm her voice sounded. “They keep water in that bowl on their heads. If they spill it, they die, or something like that. They’re Japanese folklore, I read about them.”
“Very clever,” Paul said.
“Didn’t you see it changing? It changed, didn’t you see it?”
“Must have been mechanical,” Sandra said.
“Its skin changed too. It became scalier, more detailed.”
“I did notice some of it,” Paul said. “I was a bit distracted! Not sure how they did that.”
“This place isn’t real!” Meighan’s voice cracked. “It’s not real!”
Seth turned, mouth full and spitting rice. “What do you mean? The money’s not real?”
“No, this game-, it’s not a game! You must see it, right? You must see how weird everything is!”
“Well, of course.” Meighan’s mother looked uncomfortable.
“Do you remember agreeing to do this? Did we apply to it? Do you remember what was said? Tell me! I mean, I remember it happening, but I don’t really remember anything specific. When did we travel here? Did we take a car? A train? When did we change into these clothes?”
“Meighan, honey,” Sandra started.
“You know what I’m talking about, I can see it on your faces! We were going somewhere but it wasn’t this place, and we got-, pulled in or something! It’s not real! That kappa was real! The ghosts, I think the ghosts were that other family!”
A voice interrupted from the doorway. “Robbins family, you are needed back on set.”
“No, no!” Meighan found herself crying.
“I don’t understand what’s happening, but it’s okay! We can go, we can go,” Paul said.
“I admit, I don’t remember,” Sandra said. “This is-, strange.”
“Robbins family, you are needed back on set,” the stagehand repeated.
“Let’s go!” Seth said.
The stagehand did nothing as the four of them brushed past him. Paul looked around and then headed in the opposite direction from the set. His eyes hunted for an exit sign.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Meighan asked.
“No, just, this way,” her father said.
“Paul, the money-,” Sandra said.
“Meighan’s right, I don’t remember anything solid. It doesn’t make any sense, I don’t know how we got here. Maybe they drugged us or something?”
“Maybe this is like Squid Game!” Seth said.
The corridors and rooms branching off one another formed a labyrinth of possible paths. Signs in Japanese covered the walls but nothing that looked like it was pointing toward an exit. Several stagehands dogged them, shouting things in Japanese and broken English. Eventually, Paul spotted a couple of grey doors ahead that looked like they could potentially lead outside. He slammed a hand against them, finding them unlocked, and the others followed him through.
“Robbins family, welcome back for the final round of Climb to Oni Mountain!”
Blaring music and flashing lights greeted Meighan and her family. Mr Sutoku grinned at them from across the set, the audience massing behind him. Somehow, in spite of heading in the exact opposite direction, they’d wound up back in the same place.
Meighan’s father stared blankly, and then wheeled around. Paul led the way off the set without speaking, shoving his way through the double doors again as stagehands tried to force them closed. Meighan, her mother, and Seth all followed him down another corridor surrounded by racks of costumes and cartoonishly oversized props. They made a couple of turns and spotted a door at the end of the corridor.
Meighan wasn’t even surprised when her father pushed through the exit and they found themselves on the set again. Cameras stared them down with cyclopic eyes and the audience laughed over the music. They’d appeared on the other side of the set but there was no logical justification as to how the route they’d just taken had led them there. Sutoku swivelled around, still grinning.
“Welcome back, again! As you can see, the only way to complete the final round is by going through it!” Sutoku said. “You are so close to beating Oni Mountain and winning our grand prize, it would be a shame to give up now!”
The entrance the Robbins had used slammed shut behind them. Several stagehands in black outfits appeared as if from nowhere holding the harnesses that had been laid out in the green room. Meighan’s family were too stunned to resist as straps and buckles were forced around their chests and affixed into place. Meighan squirmed uncomfortably as someone reached between her legs to pass through part of the harness, and then buckled it to her chest.
“To beat the final round, you must do as the show is named, and Climb to Oni Mountain!” Sutoku said with a flourish.
The stage had again transformed. The pool had disappeared and instead, at the back of the set, was a massive climbing wall like they had in certain gyms. It was designed to look like fake rock but with ledges and handholds forming uneven ladders. An empty moat sank into the stage below the wall, Meighan was surprised it wasn’t full of more acid. Looking up, Meighan struggled to see where the wall ended. Its top stretched beyond the rafters and gangways and blinding spotlights.
“What do we do?” Sandra looked to Meighan for advice.
Meighan hesitated. The last game had been potentially deadly, but beatable. They’d beaten every round so far. And after their attempted escapes only led them back to the set, maybe Sutoku was telling the truth.
“The only way out is through? I guess we have to climb,” Meighan said.
Nylon ropes trailed down from the top of the mountain, hidden high above the spotlights. Stagehands attached D-shaped carabiners on the ends of the ropes to the Robbins family’s harnesses. The four of them were herded across a small bridge crossing the moat.
“We’ve done this before, we’ve all climbed these kinds of walls as a family!” Sandra said, struggling to hold onto any positive. “We have safety ropes!”
“I don’t know if I’d trust the ropes, mom,” Meighan said. “I don’t know if I’d trust all the handholds and stuff either.”
Mr Sutoku and the four stagehands, two men and two women in black uniforms and with blank expressions, formed a barrier at the other end of the bridge. Music throbbed in the background. If it came down to a physical fight, Meighan thought they probably could have broken free. Her dad, maybe even Seth as well, was more than a match for Sutoku or any of the stagehands. Meighan thought she could probably fight one or both of the women. But Sutoku’s wolfish smile gave the impression he was holding back. That the grin could have opened much, much wider if it wanted to. And even though the stagehands were expressionless and looked normal enough, they moved with an almost predatory confidence.
“The only way out is through,” Meighan repeated.
“Robbins family, time to climb!” Sutoku said.
“I’ll go first,” Paul said.
Paul turned and took hold of the first few rungs on the climbing wall. Testing them before committing his full weight, he found them solid. Hands and feet working together, he began to climb. One by one, Sandra, Seth, and Meighan followed. Music thundered in the background, demanding action even though there didn’t appear to be a time limit on this challenge. Meighan could feel the eyes of the audience on their backs.
Four distinct runs made their way up the wall. Meighan and her family all separated, following different paths. Arms and legs shook, pulling and pushing. The holds gave them a reasonable amount of support but sometimes they blended into the fake rock. Large gaps, almost like gutters or fake cracks of some kind, split the wall in various places between handholds.
“We can do this!” Meighan’s mother said.
Meighan looked down and was shocked to see how far they’d climbed already. Sutoku and his stagehands shrank. And yet the spotlights and gantries overhead seemed to be just as far away as they had been when the family started.
Paul remained ahead of the other three, concentrating on the task of climbing as a way of ignoring everything else that had happened. Suddenly, he grabbed one of the scalloped handholds and it came loose in his hand. It slid out of the wall and Paul tipped backward. Fortunately, he was still fully supported by his feet and other hand so he didn’t fall. Moments later, the wall started to rumble. Sandra cried out. Meighan and Seth both flattened themselves against the wall, feeling it vibrate.
“What’s happening?” Seth said.
“It’s like an earthquake!” Meighan said.
After a few long moments, the shaking subsided without throwing any of them loose. Meighan hesitated but then sensed movement overhead. When she dared to look, she saw a fiery orange glow. The top of the wall was obscured by shadow but lines of brilliant, oozing, neon orange started to make their way down toward the family.
“What is that?” Sandra said.
“Lava! I think it’s lava!” Meighan remembered the depictions of Oni Mountain as some kind of volcano on the earlier screens.
The runnels in the wall between handholds quickly made sense. They helped guide the molten rock, or whatever it was, as it slid down the face of the false rock wall. Lava sheeted down the wall in some places, moving rapidly, but got caught in gutters and guided across the wall, or was funnelled from one point to another so it could pour over sections unexpectedly. The pattern of lava filled the wall above them.
“Mom, move!” Meighan said. “Dad, move toward the middle!”
Paul Robbins scrambled sideways, grasping for hand and footholds. Oozing lava swallowed the wall where he’d accidentally pulled the trigger stone. Plastic scorched and melted, releasing a toxic stench. Sandra screamed, huddling directly beneath her husband. Meighan and Seth pulled together to avoid the vertical trenches of lava.
“Keep climbing, Robbins family! The lava flow will only get heavier!” Sutoku encouraged from the ground, his voice coming over the same speakers as the pumping music.
Heat from the molten lava roasted Meighan and her family. The material of Meighan’s ultrabright coveralls wilted. It burnished her exposed skin, frying her hair and eyelashes.
“Move! You have to move or we all die!” Meighan shouted.
Paul looked back and then up. “Follow me!”
In spite of the lava, a couple of paths showed clearly to the top of the ‘mountain’. Aware of the urgency, Paul forged ahead. Another handhold ripped loose in his hand but thankfully Paul was still bracing, and it didn’t set off any more rumbling. He tossed it outward, wary of hitting any of his family, where it smacked and rattled through some of the gangways now below them.
“Meighan, I’m scared!” Seth said.
Ignoring the distance to the ground, ignoring the audience, the four of them climbed hand over hand. Spotlights and gangways disappeared behind them. Fiery, baking heat radiated from the lava. Sweat oiled Meighan’s face and began to make her grip slippery. The material she was wearing didn’t help dry her hands.
“Meighan, look out!” Seth said.
Overhead, lava escaped one of the gutters and spread down the false wall. It avoided Meighan’s father, mother, and Seth, but made a beeline right for her. Meighan hesitated, seconds away from receiving a faceful of molten rock. Finally she scrambled sideways, grabbing for any hold that came to hand. Her foot landed on a hold that came loose, tumbling away from under her. Slamming against the wall, Meighan avoided falling and found holds for both hands and feet.
Lava separated Meighan from the rest of her family, and boxed her in. An impassable gutter cut her off overhead and streams carved down the wall to either side. Breathing hard, she found herself locked up. Below, the lava reached the stage and spread into the moat at the base of the wall. The bridge was gone.
“Seth, keep climbing!” Sandra descended, passing Seth and drawing level with Meighan. “Honey! Honey, look at me! You’ve got the rope, you can swing over it!”
Orange reflected on both Meighan and Sandra’s faces. Sandra got as close as she dared, reaching out with one hand. Meighan shook her head but quickly realised she didn’t have a choice. Leaning back, she tested the strength of the rope attached to her harness. She wouldn’t trust it to take her full weight if she fell but it did catch and would maybe be enough to swing sideways.
“I’m coming over!” Meighan said.
Paul and Seth watched on anxiously. Meighan braced, pulling herself backward. Lava flowed down the wall all around her. Gathering momentum, Meighan rocked once, twice, and then launched herself off and across the wall. The rope, held by a single carabiner, pulled taunt against her harness. Meighan arced over the lava and the rope swung her back toward the wall. Sandra grabbed for her and pulled her in. Together, they crashed into the fake rock and scrambled for purchase on the hand and foot holds. When it was obvious they weren’t going to fall, the audience booed and jeered.
The four of them climbed the rest of the way without incident. Reaching the top of the wall felt anticlimactic. Lava flowed around them from special gutters but there was a clear path for all of them to make it over the top. Paul reached it first and helped the others. Meighan, Sandra and Seth all collapsed in fear and exhaustion.
Eventually, Meighan risked a glance over the edge of the fake cliff. Somehow, the audience were still there, across a chasm, watching them on an equal level with the top of the wall. The spotlights and gantries were no longer below them but above again, like they’d originally been. Mr Sutoku, on the ground, was far below but not as far as he should have been based on the distance they’d climbed. It was as if the audience’s seats had risen and the wall had slid down while they weren’t looking, none of the dimensions made sense. But they’d reached the top, they’d won.
“We beat your game!” Meighan yelled. “We’re done, let us go!”
“You are doing very well, Robbins family, but I’m afraid the final round is not quite over yet!” Sutoku said.
Meighan straightened and looked around the fake plateau. Roughly the same size as the original stage, false boulders marked and dotted its edges. Screens created dark clouds around the plateau, as if the four of them were standing on a mountaintop. And directly across from the family’s position was a statue, big and blue. An oni statue. Around ten foot tall, bulging with muscle, it had a face like a kabuki mask. Tusks bristled from the sides of its leering mouth. It leaned forward on a giant club, a black, knotty weapon as long as Meighan was tall. A statue, only a statue. Until it blinked.
“Oh, no,” Meighan said
“Robbins family, grab your weapons and face the oni to win the game and nine million yen, as well as your lives!” Sutoku’s voice came from everywhere, backed by music that began to thunder.
“This cannot be happening,” Paul said.
“Oh, my God!” Sandra said.
Like some kind of ancient creature breaking free from a shelf of ice, the oni cracked and popped. Similar to the kappa, it started out looking unreal, like a fibreglass statue, but with every step it became more and more real. Its skin roughened, becoming thick and leathery like a bright blue elephant. Muscles rolled and shifted. The oni’s face came alive, its eyes glittering with malice.
Meighan looked around and saw a barrel holding a bunch of weapons. She hurried to it, grabbing the first handle that she could find and whipping it free. The rest of her family followed her example. They were disappointed to find themselves holding nothing but a bunch of fighting staffs, not unlike the ones they’d been given to battle the kappa but without the padding. Long, solid, with grips wrapped in some kind of fake leather binding, they looked like toothpicks compared to the oni.
“What are we supposed to do with these?” Meighan said.
“Look out!” Seth yelled.
The oni, slow and ponderous at first, gained speed and motion with every step. It wore only a black loincloth, swinging between its legs. Lunging, its club hauled around from its shoulder. Iron rivets studded the weapon. The Robbins family scrambled clear. The oni’s club smacked into the wooden weapon barrel, now empty, and shattered it across the stage. Shrapnel hissed through the air, luckily not hitting any of the family.
Meighan and the others retreated to the edge of the fake plateau. Ropes, still attached to their harnesses, tangled around their waists and legs. All four held their bo staffs defensively.
“We can’t fight that!” Sandra said.
Paul went to unclip the rope from his harness but Meighan stopped him. “Wait, everyone! Get the ropes, maybe we can trip the oni up with them!”
All four Robbins grabbed their ropes and started hauling them through the nearby pulley system. The oni rounded on them and forced them back across the stage. They kept pulling as they did so. All four ended up with a pile of rope spooled in their arms.
“Come on!” Paul said.
Passing one end of his rope to Seth, Paul gestured and the two of them ran back toward the oni. Splitting up, they pulled the rope between them. The oni didn’t seem to know which of them to go for. In an attempt to trip it, Paul and Seth kept the rope low and yanked it around the oni’s ankles. The oni slowed and stumbled but didn’t fall. Meighan’s father and brother circled around behind the oni, reining the rope in. The oni kicked with one foot and pulled the rope forward. Seth was yanked by the arms, stumbling and falling.
The audience laughed and cheered. Meighan glanced toward them and recoiled in shock. For most of the ‘game’ the audience had been too steeped in shadow to see but now lighting revealed their true nature. She saw rows and rows of seats filled with ghouls and monsters and weirdness. Most were at least partly human, bird-men with beaky faces, froglike humanoids, and huge snakes with the heads of women. There were women whose heads drifted like helium balloons on the ends of long, ribbony necks. Foxes and oversized racoons that stood on their hind legs and watched with eyes that were too intelligent for normal animals. Ghostly figures with seats or other members of the crowd showing through their translucent bodies. Animated skeletons that clapped bony hands together, jawbones chattering. And weirdest of all, antique objects with eyes and mouths that moved as if alive, umbrellas, bolts of cloth, or hovering lanterns just to name a few.
“They’re monsters, they’re all monsters,” Meighan said.
“Meighan, help!” Sandra yelled.
The oni lumbered toward Seth. Paul hurried to help him and spun on the oni. He swung hard and his staff glanced off the oni’s forearm. The oni whirled, forcing Paul to duck under its club. Sandra bounced from foot to foot, unsure of what to do.
“Meighan, do these things have a weakness? Like the turtle man?” Sandra said.
“Not that I can think of!”
Against the kappa, Meighan had used both her knowledge of its weakness and the environment to defeat it. She looked around the plateau. There was little for them to use, however, except for the boulders, their staffs, and what they’d brought up the wall with them.
“The ropes, throw me your ropes and clips!” Meighan said. “Distract it!”
Without hesitation, Sandra unlocked the carabiner from her harness and tossed her coil of rope to Meighan. Paul’s rope was spilled across the stage but Seth hauled around and tossed his one to Meighan as well. They surrounded the oni. The big, blue troll laughed and rumbled something in Japanese in an impossibly deep voice.
Meighan unbuckled and stripped off her climbing harness. She took it along with the ropes to one of the boulders near the edge of the fake mountaintop. Before doing anything else, Meighan gave the boulder a shove to test its weight. The boulder wasn’t real but it was still heavy. All of Meighan’s strength could only rock it.
Seth, Sandra and Paul circled the oni, slashing at it with the ends of their staffs. Distracted, it twisted to lash at them with its club. The audience of freaks and ghosts and monsters cheered and booed in alternating waves.
The boulder Meighan had chosen came up to mid-chest on her. She whipped her harness about and caught it, tying it and her rope around the fake stone. Adding her mother and brother’s ropes as well, she tied them to the harness. She collected the other ends of the three ropes, two of which were attached to carabiners. Meighan looped the three together to create a kind of noose or lasso.
“Keep it distracted, I’ve got an idea!” Meighan said.
Meighan got behind the oni, facing its broad, blue back. The others kept fending it off on the other side. Meighan thought of their last holiday as a family at the cowboy ranch. As her mother told Mr Sutoku earlier, they’d practised all kinds of cowboy skills, not for real of course but Meighan had gotten pretty good with lassos. The climbing ropes she’d gathered were more tangled and ungainly than the ones they used back then but Meighan held the loop by the base and started to swing it. Once she’d built up enough momentum, she raised the lasso over her head and hurled it at the oni. It looped over the top of the oni’s cinderblock of a head and fell to its shoulders. Meighan grabbed the trailing ropes and yanked, drawing the lasso tight.
The oni snarled and grabbed at the ropes, fumbling with fingers the size of salami. Knowing time was short, Meighan ran back to the boulder she’d leashed the oni to. Taking her staff, Meighan wedged it between the boulder and a smaller rock. Meighan used the staff like a lever and pushed down as hard as she could. The staff bent and the boulder rocked from side to side but didn’t shift.
“Help me! Help!” Meighan shouted.
Meighan’s mother and then Seth answered her call and ran over. Paul tried to keep the oni distracted. The monster was more concerned with the rope around its throat than with him though anyway. Sandra and Seth joined in, jamming their staffs against the boulder and levering it. The boulder rocked, tumbled over, and began to roll.
The audience, the screens, the music all seemed to fall away as the fake boulder, wrapped in their ropes and Meighan’s harness, rolled to the edge of the plateau and into empty space. It dropped, and the ropes tied to it quickly unravelled. Meighan and the others leapt clear. Enough slack was in the ropes that the boulder fell a good distance before they went taunt. Pulled tight, they stretched from the falling boulder to the edge of the plateau, to the oni’s throat.
With the weight and momentum of the rock pulling the rope tight, the oni’s head jerked sideways. Its neck vertebrae let out a loud, wet snap. Eyes rolling, the oni stayed on its feet for a few moments before being pulled to the side of the mountaintop, staggering, slipping, and then plunging over the ledge.
Meighan managed to get a look over the cliff just as the oni fell. Below, the stagehands scattered. Only Mr Sutoku remained, looking straight up with a half-smile, meeting Meighan’s eyes. The boulder crashed into the moat of lava. Rope trailing, the oni fell after it. Its body arced toward the stage, falling directly toward the game show host.
As soon as the oni landed on top of Sutoku, seemingly crushing him, the man exploded into a cloud of dark grey smoke. The cloud billowed, erupting outward to consume the stage, the audience, everything. It ran up the wall and slammed Meighan backward. She couldn’t see anything as the smoke covered her family and the rest of the mountaintop, and she struggled to breathe.
Meighan heard her family coughing and gagging. Conscious not to step off the edge of the plateau, she moved toward them. Underfoot, she felt the ground shift from hard, smooth floor to loose and uneven dirt. Sunlight began to carve through the smoke. Tall, straight figures emerged from the smoke, trees with reaching branches.
“What-, where are we?” Meighan said.
As the smoke wisped and cleared, the Robbins found themselves standing in the middle of a forest. The television studio, the fake mountain and the audience full of monsters had all disappeared. Instead, there was a dirt clearing with sunlight dappling dark green trees surrounding them. Looking down, Meighan realised they were back in their normal clothes and not in the neon tracksuits and harnesses the show had made them wear.
“Of course, the forest walk!” Sandra said.
Meighan felt her memory returning. “Aokigahara, the suicide forest. The forest of ghosts and monsters,” she said. “We were supposed to go on a hike through it today. I guess-, I guess we did come hiking here.”’
“And something found us,” Paul said.
Seth stopped and pointed. “Hey, what’s that?”
Along the trail the four of them found themselves on was a pallet loaded with stacks and stacks of pale, rectangular pieces of paper. Yen, in ten and five thousand denominations, arranged untidily. Meighan and her family gathered around it.
“Yen, there must be millions here,” Sandra said.
“I’m guessing nine million to be exact,” Meighan said. “We won.”
“Should we take it?” Seth asked. “Maybe it’s cursed?”
“We did earn it,” Paul said. “What do you think, Meighan?”
Meighan shrugged. “If we failed, we’d have died. I guess it makes a kind of sense that we still get rewarded for beating them.”
Grabbing fistfuls of yen, the Robbins shoved bundles into their pockets and clothing. Once they had as much as they could carry, they left the rest to scatter in the breeze and hurried back down the path the way they’d come, out of the forest and back to Tokyo.
Sean: Sometimes I notice I wind up with weird parallels week by week in these stories. A turn of phrase I guess I liked that week, and ended up using more than once, or even a specific word. I usually don’t notice until I’m editing them to put up. Anyway, this week it’s climbing, last week I had characters climbing, this week it’s characters climbing, I have no idea why. Recently I read The Abominable by Dan Simmons and it would kind of make sense if it was in the wake of that because that book is all about climbing, but these stories were written, typed and scheduled way before I touched that book.
Next week is Christmas, and I have a Christmas story! One more long one to see out the year, so I hope you’ve got a little time on your hands over the Christmas break. It’s a creature I’ve been specifically saving for the end of the year. Thank you so much for reading by the way, it’s been a real thrill for me to see the numbers of visitors to the website steadily climb over the course of the year! Given the amount of choices for content available out there in the world, love that people are willing to give longer stories as well as shorter a go as well.
Next Week’s Inspiration: Zombie