PseudoPod 853: Oni in the Box

Oni in the Box

by M.M. Schill

Now, Sobo was our late father’s mother. By our mother’s accounts she was mad, if not wicked. Gossip ran muddy in our family. One relative, now deceased, told me she was once the personal Tay? of the now equally dead Abetake Risu; former, and most honorable, Daimyo of Ouja-jo. Another cousin was far more grandiose in his anecdotes–better known as rumors–claiming that she was a river-witch that bedded Tengu in exchange for the Fortunes’ secrets. Notwithstanding, I never met her, or knew her as I knew our mother’s mother. As our father’s mother, she was distant; only slightly more distant than our late father was.

So, you can imagine our surprise when her steward arrived at our little hovel to announce that we were mentioned in her will.

Even still, knowing what I know now, I would not doubt my Sobo’s wickedness after seeing the long, hideous shadow she casts even now in death; maybe from the shadowy belly of Yomi itself. Perhaps even down in The Realm of Bloody Murder where wayward spirits are eaten, excreted, and eaten again by the Oni King himself.

For all my haplessness, my bones know our Sobo isn’t reaping the barley of her… wrongness. Such women as she always seem to carry on; in this world or the next; without reprisal.

The door to my Sobo’s mansion creaked open with a raspy grunt. The mansion was grand, studded with onyx inlays, and a line of man-sized stone foxes, guarding the towering, vermilion entranceway. Certainly not the hovel of some fornicating witch.

My Sobo’s steward entered before my sweet sister, Yumi, and I. His gnarled cane, dragging behind him, marring the earth with a scar as he went. A serious shadow grew out from the open door and consumed the man. This shadow was carnivorous, seeming to bite back at the mid-autumn light trampling across the threshold.

“Please, come in,” the steward’s disembodied voice beckoned to us from beyond that shadow. His voice had a head to it, welcoming us through the darkness, in the same way a fire welcomes its kindling. We submitted, stepping into the blackness, arm in arm. The scent of mildew and rotted fruit waded in the air; the odor only intensified by our blindness.

“Good steward–” I called out but was cut off by an explosion of light. A red glow shot through the room, blinding me worse than the darkness ever dared, and forcing Yumi to cover her eyes with her bright yellow silk sleeve.

“There, much better,” the steward said. He stood relaxed by the open grate of a deep irori, tending the flickering of flames within its hearth.

He slid the grate down with a clang and turned to address us. “May I show you to a private room to refresh your clothes,” he said, eyeing my sister’s vibrant, and decidedly not respectful of the dead, silks. Most less… gregarious people opted for a traditional white linen kimono when doing dealings for the dead.

She turned, clutching her dress, hiding herself behind me with a pout. Plush as a pillow, my sweet sister was easily offended by even the suggestion of a rebuke, even (especially) when such a suggestion was just. She grumbled at the man, then walked off into the next room without being invited, past the front parlor. Oh, how I admired her beautiful sense of entitlement–-like a wild gale of wind, blowing on and through any place she pleased.

The steward rubbed his hands together in the irori’s warmth then smiled, playing, for the first time, all the part of a host.

Leaving my sweet sister to her own devices, he led me to a side room to change, then left, sliding the door closed behind him.

I slumped into a low, gilded oak chair. The walls were stark white, lined with small dot-beaded lanterns, illuminating the room with a blueish glow.

I finger-combed the edges of my hair, tired, ready for the will to be read and our whole business to be done.

Recounting now, I wonder why I even followed my Sobo’s steward in the first place. Yumi didn’t even want to go. She wanted me to investigate the inheritance and return to her and our meager apartment in Ouja-jo. The steward wouldn’t have it. He pressed her to come.

Family is such a funny thing. No matter how distant and burdensome a relation might regard their kin, as soon as their bones are sorted from the ash, the long negligent relatives are rounded up, expected to pick up the crusted old pieces of that suddenly abandoned life, as if they had been as attentive as nursemaids the whole while.

It was all a bother really.

For my foolishness’ sake, I was barely in the countryside my Sobo once called home before that bother transformed into a lump in my throat. There was a grayness about my Sobo’s village, Urei-makiba. It had a gloom of sky and field I’ve not seen since and, for all my foolishness, should have heeded. A smarter man would have turned back, but instead I spurred forward on a borrowed mare, urged on by the steward’s scowls that he graciously lavished on us from the back of his white horse.

Yumi rode on a new pony that I had barely scraped together the mon to appease her whim with. Such a waste–she injured the pony before we made it to Sobo’s home, forcing my old mare to carry the both of us. The poor old girl protested the whole way, burdened by the added weight.

Regardless. Just as I tied up my white linens in that little room, my weariness climbed back into me, then it shrunk away, replaced by a far more unsettled sensation. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to cower. I was so small. The entire room seemed to swoop up and glare down at me despite its size, as though there were hundreds of tiny hungry eyes, all etched within the papery walls. Staring. Unblinking. Waiting.

Bang! There was a sharp knock at the door.

My breath caught in my throat, “Yes!”

“My sir.” It was the steward. “Are you prepared? Your sister is waiting… loudly.”

I sighed.

The steward led me down a flight of stairs to a tearoom, then offered me a seat opposite Yumi. I knocked my kneecap on the table’s edge as I knelt, smarting myself. The table was low, balanced on four stubby peg-legs. Deep royal cushions lined the beige tatami floors.

I sat on the cushions, tending my bruised knee. A blanket of linen lay, covering something, at the head of the table.

The steward placed a square dish of plum cakes in the middle of the table, then motioned for us to help ourselves. He bowed his head and backed from the table. “Pardon me just a moment, sir. I will procure some tea for your cakes.”

I nodded.

“Oh, and not to disappoint: the house was promised to me years ago, but I’m certain she left you something, else, why would she demand you come here?”

He left, slinking back out the room, his white, twisted cane again dragging behind him.

I shifted my eyes to the door. As soon as it patted closed, I skidded the cakes out of my way, reached across the table, and grabbed Yumi’s hands. “Sister, do you believe all this?”

“Hardly! It’s just amazing, isn’t it?” she said, eyeing the little cakes.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, this house?” She pulled her hands free, then tipped my chin up with a dainty fingertip. “Wasn’t Father’s mother supposed to have been some beggar, or worse? I guess people supposed wrong? She must have been an artist for a Daimyo like some said!”

“No,” I whispered.

“What?” she replied, with plum cake stuck to her teeth.

“No, they didn’t suppose wrong. They supposed her to be a beggar, or worse. I fear the worse is the more likely of the two.”

Yumi snorted. “Don’t be so grave, Jun. Look at all this! How many years have we spent in the boarding houses of that city? We might have just hit the Fortunes’ luck!”

I shook my head. “The steward already said the house was left to him–”

“Oh, think brother,” she cut me off. “Look at this place! Just think of what more wealth a woman who could build a house like this has stored up for her heirs. I mean, why drag us out here? To bestow us with ancient tea-towels and secondhand silks? Think! Not all the riches were saved for the steward, that’s for certain.”

I breathed slowly, my initial fright quaking back up in me. “Speaking of which, that steward!”

“What about him?” She shoved another cake past her lips.

“Who is he?”

“He’s Sobo’s steward. Loyal to a fault, it would seem–a bit discourteous, but you know how some village-folk–”

“No, no!” I leaned in. “I mean, literally, who is he? We’ve traveled with him for over half a day. Did you even catch his name? What is his name?”

Thirsty,” a flat voice stabbed from behind.

I gasped and collapsed forward.

The steward stood over me, glaring a pointed grin, with a jade-colored tea tray in hand. How had he returned without me hearing? Perhaps I was just distracted, or too tired to notice. “Thirsty, sir? Madam?”

I caught my breath. “Ah, thank you.”

He placed the tray down and poured out pretty portions for both my sister and me.

“Are we ready to begin?” he asked. We both replied yes–such a fool, I should have gathered my sweet sister up and fled then.

He hurried himself, cane scraping on the tatami behind him, to his place at the head of the table. He pulled a long, furled up sheet of bamboo thatch from within the folds of his haori. He unfurled it. With another dark smile, he slid a yellowed piece of parchment from it. He cleared his voice and read: “The recently deceased, and respectfully noble, Mistress Odi-emikko…” He recited the honorifics, his tongue wrapping around our dead Sobo’s many titles and worthy accomplishments like honey to a spoon.

Yumi tapped her nails to the table, eyeing the back of the will as if to read through the document ahead of him. “Do we really need to go over all the legality, steward?” she said, groaning; whining.

I reached over and patted her arm. She drew in a deep breath then smiled, beaming a rare light to the steward–rare especially for her. “I mean to say, we would love to get to the meat of the matter… we wouldn’t want to burden you longer than necessary.”

The steward frowned. “The Grand Lady of Urei-makiba! Honorable Matron of the…” he raised his voice.

Yumi slouched forward and glowered down at her hands.

With poise and fueled vigor, the steward continued, droning the courtesies of the will to us until his words seemed to all blend together.

“The expanses of my manor, estate and fifty parcels of acreage, with a trusteeship of thirteen-hundred ryo, I leave unto my steward, The Most Principled Sir…” the steward finally pronounced.

I perked up. I flicked Yumi’s hand to rouse her. She flinched with a start.

The steward continued, “And unto my only granddaughter, Odi-yumi, I leave article-3: one cherry-wood, hand-carved keepsake box.” The steward reached under the table and pulled a small, dim-stained wooden box from under the linen. The box was hexagonal and rounded off at the corners, with six padlocks lining its flat sides. Padlocks were not common to our island, The Land, but instead were brought to us from off-landers–-just like other such oddities the more prosperous among us enjoy.

He slid the box before Yumi. A soft smile rose in the corner of her mouth. She pulled at its lid. It’s locked, she mouthed to me.

I sighed.

“And unto my only grandson, Odi-jun,” the steward continued. “I leave article-4: one jade inlaid kaiken: heirloom from my mother’s wedding.”

The steward cleared his throat, then reached back under the linen.

He tapped a short dagger to the table then slid it to me. Its saya was apparently long lost; it sat on the table, with its decidedly unsheathed blade pointing away from me, across the table to where Yumi sat.

I picked it up. It was barely a letter opener, decorated with quartz and  jade inlays; constructed more for its ceremonial beauty than for self-defense. One could expect about a month’s labor at the consignment shop for it, but it was hardly the life-changing fortune Yumi hoped for, and it certainly did not pay for the pony we lost getting to Sobo’s mansion in the first place.

I picked it up, then spun its thin single-edge in my hand. I chuckled, touching my finger to its point. I flinched. Despite its ornateness, it still had its sharpness still. I placed it back on the table.

“Be careful, sir. Touching the blade’s edge can make it rust,” the steward said without any concern for if I was cut or not.

“Is this it?” Yumi asked, still fidgeting with the locks.

“Yes,” the steward replied, narrowing his glance. “At least that’s all she’s left you with any certainty.”

Yumi scowled.

“If I may continue, madam?”

“Yes, steward, please, ignore her,” I answered for my sweet sister. I shouldn’t have urged him on. I should have thanked him, taken Yumi by the hand and left with our meager inheritance.

The steward nodded, then proceeded. “Articles-6 through 15: the riches of my life. Accounting to: an indefinite note of claim at Urei’makiba’s barley storehouse, my collection of rare plum wines, seventy-thousand mon, five-hundred-score of copper rin, seven-hundred-score of silver shu, seven-hundred poundage of quartz…”

Yumi’s jaw dropped. She pushed the box away and leaned in.

“…nine-score of onyx chip, 19-score of opal chip…”

I looked up to Yumi, then pushed on her shoulder to put her back into her cushion. She was nearly breathing on the man.

“…fifteen-score of cold-water pearls… and, seventy-score of golden bu,” The steward paused.

Yumi fell over.

“Steward?” I questioned, aghast. “How is this? I can think of few families, besides the late Daimyo himself, which would be able to amass such wealth. How is it that our Sobo, all alone, was–”

“My Mistress was a very talented and beloved woman, sir,” he stated sharply, as if those words alone were the only explanation needed.

“But…” I trailed off.

But nothing, Jun. How could you ever question our dear Sobo? Especially in death?” Yumi said, pulling herself onto her knees from the tatami.

“Yumi, it just doesn’t seem–”

“Dammit, Jun! Let the gentleman continue!” she scolded me, leaning over the steward again.

The steward pulled the will to his side, regarding her with a sigh.

“This fortune,” he continued, “shall not be divided among my two only living grandchildren.”

Deflated, Yumi sat back down.

“But instead, it shall be bestowed only onto one of my grandchildren–”

“Which of us?” Yumi asked, cutting the man off.

He scowled again at her then continued. “My grandchildren must come to some consensus as to whom the rightful heir shall be. To claim the inheritance, they must open the box, bestowed to my granddaughter, Odi-yumi.”

It was some trick, I could feel it. I looked to Yumi. She ignored me, fiddling with the locks again.

“However, in order not to leave my only heirs without guidance, also within the keepsake box I have left aid to help them in their decision,” the steward continued.

“But the box is locked!” Yumi whined.

The steward rolled his eyes, flicking his white hair from his face. “The box may be opened with article-16: one bronze pegged-key.” He pulled a square key wrapped in hide from the linen. Yumi looked as though she might pounce on him. I clutched my sweet sister’s hand again. She didn’t notice. It wasn’t me she looked at. The steward cleared his throat and continued, “my steward is to not concede my wealth to either of my grandchildren until the box is opened. With the Fortunes’ blessing, opening the box should provide some direction to my grandchildren as to which of them is to be heir to my fortune. However–” the steward paused, reading the will to himself, squinting his eyes.

I swallowed a puff of air and held it in my throat.

“Well, what does it say?” Yumi asked, almost screaming at the man.

“…however, it should be known that there is an Oni in the box. Open at your own peril.”

“…what?” I asked, releasing the breath.

The steward squinted his eyes on the will. “It ends there.”

Oni? Why would she write something like that?” Yumi asked.

The steward stood, gathering up his cane, and cleared his throat, then placed the key on the lid of the box. “Well, I’ll leave you to it, sir and madam,” he said. “You both obviously have much to discuss.” And with that he left, slipping out into the main belly of the manor. The door’s latch clicked as his shadow shrank against the back of its papery face.

Alone in the room together, we sat in silence. A few stiff moments passed, then my sister laughed. She shook her head then grabbed the sides of the box.

“Whoa! What are you doing?” I shouted, snatching the box from her.

Yumi looked surprised. “What am I doing? Jun, isn’t it obvious? Opening the box. You heard the man, it’s the only way to claim the inheritance.”

“But the will said that there was an—”

“An Oni? Seriously, Jun? Ogres? Devils? Trolls? Waiting to eat you up? And I suppose a Tengu forged that dagger?” she asked, pointing to the jade kaiken on the table. Though she smiled, her sarcasm wasn’t lost on me. “An Oni in the box? It’s an old idiom, you know that!”

I actually didn’t.

“An old turn of phrase, used by shriveled up old people, Jun. It describes families who fight over inheritance. But we aren’t that kind of family, and there is no oni in this box. The old woman was obviously mad or eccentric in her last days…or both.”

“Still, I can’t shake the feeling that something is amiss,” I replied, clutching the box tightly.

“I suppose lunacy runs in the family!” Yumi spat, staring at me, belittling me.

Feeling foolish, I slid the box back onto the table.

She swiped it to herself; eyes locked on it like a cat on a fledgling.

Perhaps she was right, I thought then. We did need a way out of our financial straits. Though I knew it would be my sister that claimed the right to manage the wealth, and then most likely misspend it. I seldom could triumph over her will. You see, she was my heart, my only family–she always got what she wanted… and I didn’t. I always relinquished it for her sake, and for love of course! She was, after all… my sweet sister.

With little pause, she took the key up and placed it into the first of the six little locks. She turned it with a snap.

In an instant, a fever stung into my skull. It wrapped my vision in red, forcing my face to the table. My forehead hit with a thud.

“Jun? What is it?” she said, pausing.

I shook my head, raising my face to look at her. She sat, staring at me, her powdered face contorted in confusion. I didn’t know what had assaulted me. The hot pain left as soon as it came. She raised an eyebrow, then pulled the key out, knocking the first lock to the table. It clanged as it fell.

I took a deep breath. “Nothing… a headache.”

She smiled wryly then pushed the key into the second lock. That one also snapped open as she turned the key. I inhaled. The lock fell to the tabletop.

She lifted the key to the third lock… and that’s when I heard it. A soft thump pulsed from within the box, like a heartbeat, but it sputtered in a foul rhythm. Black tendrils lurched from the box in my mind. “Yumi, stop!” I grabbed her wrist.

She flinched. “Jun?”

Jun! I heard a withered woman’s voice.

“Jun!” Yumi yelled. I blinked my eyes. The thumping was gone. “You’re hurting me.”

I looked down. My knuckles clenched white around her tiny wrist. With a pant, I released her. “Sorry… I thought I heard something.” She looked at me with her brow furrowed. I darted my eyes around the tearoom. It was empty and quiet, except for the gentle fluttering of a moth at a sunlit window. “Nothing, it wasn’t anything.”

She narrowed her eyes. Her lips pulled thin. She turned the key again. The lock popped off. Without hesitation, she moved onto the fourth lock.

The key turned.

At that moment, my sister and her little dark box seemed so far away. As if lit in scarlet at the end of a long black corridor, an expanse between us. It was then that I became dreadfully aware of my own heartbeat. Perhaps that was all it was? Perhaps my heart was just aflutter from stress, drawing the blood from my head? Perhaps the pounding was only my own pulse, and all the weariness of the past hours had morphed to make my Sobo’s peculiar ramblings come to life?

I closed my eyes. The beating pulsed louder in my mind. It was just my heart. I rubbed my temples and opened my eyes. The beating stuttered. Yes, it was just my heart. My sweet sister bit into another cake and smiled at me. The fourth lock fell to the table. I gasped. It was not my heart!

The thumping came from above.

I looked up. A monstrous cadence banged through the ceiling, as though the entire room were a black drum.

Jun! It called out to me between beats with that same withered voice.

My sister gladly continued on, as if the damned beating didn’t bother her at all.

“Do–do you hear that?”

“Hear what, Jun?”


I stood up and looked to the ceiling. There was a weight in the room, spiraling around my head. The sound stopped. I really was insane, I thought. “… it’s gone.”

“You’re hearing things, Brother.” Yumi said, sneering. “We’re not leaving this room without sorting it, Jun. Sit down!”

I obeyed. Yumi clenched her eyes shut, then opened them slowly with a deep sigh. She batted her lashes. “Thank you, dear Jun,” she said softly with a smile, forcing her frustration out of her face. She moved the key to the fifth lock.

Before the key even touched the lock, the thumping started back up. It pounded in cruel punches, sounding very much unlike a heartbeat, and more like a stampede of bewildered feet above my head. It cracked, like breaking bones, with haphazard violence. The feet slapped and scurried around the top floor of the manor. It heaved in my mind until I thought I could hear it move to the stairwell, splitting the fine red carpentry of the banisters as it went. My mind pulsed, nearly bleeding out my eyes. I drew in a sour breath and held it. A dread so black and so fever-pitched came over me in that moment. I think I yelled but might not have. Yumi didn’t seem to pay me any mind, perhaps she was too engrossed in her own need to notice my panic.

The thing clawed at the door. In my mind I could picture the hideous thing, writhing; something with a bigger, more grotesque body than its evil head would suggest–something with wriggling pale limbs and empty, inky eyes.  I looked to the door, it stayed closed and stoic in the mid-Autumn light that filtered through the tearoom. Dust floated indifferently in the air in front of the door.

How could something be thrashing at the door and not be shaking it free from its frame? For all the stillness around us, the pounding and scratching continued! And the pattering and the wailing intensified, until all I saw grew dark-crossed and crimson. My eyes rolled to the back of their sockets.

I shrieked and snatched the box from Yumi’s hands. She yelped and clung to it, allowing herself to be dragged halfway onto the low table.

“What is wrong with you?” I know my sweet sister yelled, but her voice sounded a village away. “Let go! Jun!”


“Don’t open it,” I yelled. The thing fumed behind the door, gurgling. In my mind I saw its thin murk-brown tongue lash at the ground, tasting after me. “It will get me! Don’t let it get me!”

“You’re insane. Let go of my inheritance!” she screamed, then punched me off the box. She scrambled, stabbing the key forward into the last treacherous little lock.

The thing writhed, repulsive and terrible. It yearned after me. Jun! Jun! Jun! it bellowed, chugging against the door. I reached up and pulled my sister back onto the table. “Don’t open the box! Stop! Stop! Stop!”

Jun! Jun! Jun!

She hit at me, wrestling with me on the table.

“You won’t take it! It’s mine! Sobo gave this to me!” she hissed, then bit me. I thrashed, pinning her shoulders to the tabletop.
JUN! JUN! JUN! The voice screamed.

I screamed back. My sweet sister just laughed at me, repulsively, then turned the key. I pressed against her, the box between us.

All went red… then the room materialized around me once again. Soft autumn light. The smell of plum cakes.

The final, diabolical, little brass lock bounced to the table with a heavy clank–so loud it shook my innards as it landed. The room filled with a low buzz. The box fell from my sister’s hands and rolled, flipping open. A little puff of tan dust spat out from it.

The box was empty.

No ogre. No devil. Nothing came to devour me without care.

My heart pulsed in my neck. My eyes itched and my mouth went dry. I cringed.

The door pounded again, then, with a shriek, it slid open.

I shrieked back.

There, from within the shadowy film of the entranceway, the steward walked forward, dragging that wicked white cane behind him still. His face was contorted in a twisted expression, with my Sobo’s will pressed to his chest. He glared down at me on the table. Without warning, his grim countenance morphed. He gave me a toothy grin.

“Good, sir. It would seem you and the madam have come to a consensus regarding the inheritance, then?” He licked his lips and sat himself down at the table with an eloquent poise I had not seen him display before.

A warm rush washed over my right hand. I looked down. Red liquid drenched the table. My hand was closed around the hilt of the jade kaiken, embedded deep into my sweet sister’s chest.

About the Author

M. M. Schill

M. M. Schill

M. M. Schill currently resides in North Florida. She’s a writer, award-winning baker, graphic designer, and illustrator. When she’s not creating, she studies and teaches martial arts. Outside of those pursuits, she’s an outspoken advocate for abuse survivors. She maintains close ties to local survivor volunteer groups and help-centers. She often writes on the topic when she isn’t crafting in her speculative fiction worlds

Find more by M. M. Schill

M. M. Schill

About the Narrator

James Kaku Pierson


James Kaku (pronounced: Kah – koo) Pierson is a Japanese American podcast producer and voice actor living in California. He can be heard as host and game master of the AthraPlay (pronounced: Ath – Ra – Play) podcast, an RPG actual-play podcast set in the world of J R R Tolkien’s Middle-earth, which will be launching in 2023.

Find more by James Kaku Pierson