A Nurarihyon no Mago fic
by Mel the Redcap
“Well. That was annoying.”
Kyousai scowled, shielding his eyes against the cold wind that blew in the shattered window. Some of his crafted youkai were still clustered at the edge, peering downwards into the dark and chaos below, and a couple of the stupider ones had followed the escapees out through the glass -- either too focussed on pursuit to notice the drop, or forgetting that they couldn’t fly. A couple of the youkai leaning out the window had wings, too, but it hadn’t occurred to them that they could.
“I suppose she had a point,” he muttered, scratching his scalp with the shaft of his paintbrush. “If I want them to be anything more than extra targets, I should start making smarter ones… but not too smart. So. Off to the next building. I wonder if I’ll find any inspiring women there?”
As he turned towards the stairwell, though, Kyousai couldn’t suppress a faint, admiring grin. That last vision of her, elaborate braid and long robes whipping in the wind as she leapt, one final glimpse of jade-green eyes and the sweep of her sleeve as she cast fire in her wake… she’d been magnificent.
Truly appropriate for the picture of Hell he was creating, painted on the living canvas of Shibuya.
* * * * *
[About half an hour earlier…]
Shouei snarled, punching a buglike youkai into the ground and crushing it. “Get inside!” he shouted, gesturing at the humans cowering nearby. “Get behind doors and hide! This lot can’t follow you indoors without an invitation, so get off the streets and out of our way!”
“Yeah! We’re the Nura clan!” Aotabou bellowed from half a block away, mowing down zako-youkai with something that looked like half a light pole. “We won’t hurtcha, but you gotta get outta the way and let us fight or we can’t protect you!”
I don’t know whether he’s wasting his breath or not. I suppose if even one human rethinks that idiotic panic about the Third, it’s worthwhile, Shouei thought, looking around for his next opponent as the humans scrambled towards a restaurant that hadn’t lowered their security shutters yet. Not that there was any lack of targets, the streets (and alleyways, and walls, and skies above) were literally crawling with enemy youkai, but --
These are just distractions! Small fry, no brains, no strength; the only thing they’re good for is scaring humans and getting in our way. Half of them can’t even talk. They’re not worth drawing my sword on, but there’s no end to them. If we can’t find where they’re coming from we might as well be trying to bail out Kappa’s pond with a tea strainer!
Something made a chittering noise behind his shoulder, and he backhanded it without looking, shaking bits of shell and gore off his hand after the crunch. There had to be some way to tell…
I think they’re moving east, he decided, eyes narrowing. Well, more like they’re milling around aimlessly and sort of drifting east, but if I head westward… It’s better than hanging around here squashing bugs.
Patting his jacket to make sure that his father’s mask was still safely tucked away inside, he strode up the middle of the road, searching for any sign of the enemy youkai’s source.
Two blocks later, he found it.
Huh. Not really trying for stealth, are they?
The building in front of him, one in a row of multi-storey department stores, looked like it was oozing. Streaks of something black were running down its walls, great chunks of stone and glass were missing, and a slow but steady stream of animalistic youkai slithered or flew out of the holes. Down at ground level, more youkai were dragging half a dozen struggling humans inside.
All women, Shouei noticed, and all fairly young. This doesn’t look good…
The electricity was out for the whole block, making following them an easy task; there were youkai hanging around inside the building, probably meant to be guards, but even the emergency lights in the fire stairs were out. What was one more shape squeezing past in the darkness, so long as it didn’t attack? It was nearly pitch-black, but something above was generating enough youki for there to be faintly glowing fog trickling down, highlighting each stair and puffing up around his sneakers with every step he took. He had to bend his head and hunch his shoulders to fit, feeling the hood of his jacket brush the underside of the next flight of stairs, but he was used to it. Human buildings were never big enough.
I must be getting near the top. The youkai were climbing faster than him, scrambling up the stairs with no concern for noise, and Shouei paused for a moment, cocking his head to listen and taking a deep breath. Footsteps and sobbing above him, creaks and the rattle of rubble all around, shuffling noises below him as more youkai left; mingled scents of human and youkai blood, shattered concrete, something oily and foul that he mentally filed as zako-youkai B.O., ink-- Wait. Ink?
He frowned, taking another deep sniff to confirm the scent. That’s what it is. The scent of ink is all over this building, mixed in with everything else. Sumi-e ink… ah. Didn’t Kurotabou mention something about an enemy who can paint youkai--?
There was a horrified scream from above, and Shouei swore, drawing his sword as he leapt up the last flights of stairs.
Kyousai turned away from his latest creation, already focussed on his next work. The girl screamed again, voice cracking as she shifted from horror at what had happened to her friend to terror at what was about to happen to her, and he sighed. There was no inspiration here, no spark, just a succession of cheap canvases to turn into ordinary minions. His brush flicked over her back, compensating automatically when she squirmed, finished in just a few strokes, and he sighed again. This was so boring.
It was understandable, therefore, that his mood actually brightened when the seven and a half foot tall swordsman kicked out the fire door and charged straight for him.
He could feel a grin spreading over his face as he rolled to one side, throwing the sobbing girl at his attacker. The swordsman slashed through two youkai who had the misfortune to be in the way and then checked, blade jerking to the side and narrowly missing the human as she fell against his chest, and Kyousai had a moment to study him. He fumbled for paper and inkstone without looking, eyes taking in every detail. Pale skin; blood-red eyes; white hair with red streaks; a haori matching his eyes draped over his shoulders on top of a dark maroon hoodie, the exact shade that would coordinate without clashing. What a shame I didn’t bring my coloured inks. A composition in blood tones-- wait, I can literally paint him in blood! Yes, that would be magnificent! He can provide both the inspiration and the pigment for the work. Finally, something worth calling art!
Then the girl shrieked, eyes going vacant as she changed, and Kyousai’s grin sharpened as the swordsman’s red eyes widened in shock. “Hadn’t you noticed?” he asked mildly, slapping the paper down in front of him and dipping his brush. “I’ve been turning humans into youkai all night, and you Nura clan fools have been killing them. So much for your commander’s principles.”
The girl had become something rat-like, swinging long claws towards Shouei’s face as she-- it-- yowled mindlessly, and he shoved it away hard. His first instinct was to follow through with a sword strike, one quick slash to cut down this enemy and then move on to the main target, but--
She’s an innocent. There’s got to be some way to turn her back-- kami, I’ve killed hundreds of these youkai tonight, we’ve all killed them--
Aotabou’s voice rang in his memory. “We’re the Nura clan! We won’t hurtcha!”
--Rikuo-sama must have-- when-- when he finds out--
He could feel horror slowing his reactions, and the rat-girl was far from the only crafted youkai in the room.
…If I’m not willing to risk killing them, they’re going to kill me.
Shouei punched the rat-girl off him, wincing internally at the feel of bones breaking under his fist, and managed to shift his grip on his swordhilt so that he could strike with the back of the blade. There was a sudden weight on his back, pushing him off-balance, something twining around his legs, and as another youkai with far too many legs scrabbled at his sword arm the damn painter was smirking at him--
Smirking, and lifting his brush away from a large sheet of paper.
The painter-youkai grabbed the bottom edge of the paper and flapped it almost casually in Shouei’s direction, as if shaking crumbs off a tablecloth or dust out of a carpet, and ink boiled off the surface in roiling black swirls. It looked exactly like the painted clouds in a sumi-e landscape, and for a moment that was all he could see, nose and mouth full of the metallic taste and smell of ink. Something yanked his sword out of his hand and he heard it clatter on the concrete floor as he struggled against the force pushing him back, buffeting him from side to side as the painted swirls rushed by.
When his vision cleared, he couldn’t move.
“That should keep you out of the way until I have the time to deal with you properly,” the painter said cheerfully, turning the paper around to display the drawing. It was himself -- Shouei -- caught in something like a giant spiderweb, held spreadeagled with his oodachi lying on the floor beneath his feet and an expression of helpless exhaustion on his face. Twisting his head, he could see the thick webbing wound around his arms and legs. It looked real, and certainly felt real, but at the same time looked and smelled like a painting… and suddenly, he felt so tired it was an effort just to raise his head.
“Now then,” the painter went on, flicking the paper to one side. “Work before pleasure, I suppose,” he sighed, and turned back towards the four remaining human girls. They were on their knees, hands tied behind them, and their blouses had been ripped open down the back to bare skin from shoulders down to the waist. The closest girl cringed back, whimpering as he reached for her, long black hair escaping from her barrettes and half-hiding her face.
“Wh-what are you, s-some kind of idiot?!”
The painter blinked in surprise, then turned to look at the girl who’d spoken. She was dressed fairly plainly, shoulder-length hair scraped back under a plain headband and wearing no makeup; it was clear she was trying to glare defiantly at the painter, but she was shivering and her voice was unsteady. “Oh?” he asked, voice surprisingly mild. “You have a complaint?”
“Y-yeah!” She lifted her chin defiantly, biting her lip. “You’re turning people into youkai. Fine. If I’ve gotta become a m-monster, then I d-don’t want to be a weakling, okay?”
“Nao-chan, what are you doing?!” one of the other girls squeaked, horrified.
“What does it sound like I’m doing?” she snapped in reply, then turned back to the painter. “You said it yourself, you’ve been turning people into youkai all night and he--” her chin jerked towards Shouei “--and his friends have been killing them. He t-took down two with one cut right there, so they’re weak, right? And I saw plenty of them while I was hiding, and on the way here, and most of them looked stupid. Weak and stupid means they’re p-pretty useless, doesn’t it? All they can do is bumble around and get killed. Well, if I’m stuck turning into a youkai, I want to be one that’s smart enough and strong enough to do better than that!”
The painter blinked again, eerie pale-green pupilless eyes looking almost bewildered, and the girl hurried on with her argument.
“It’s better f-for you too, isn’t it? If you have youkai that are smart enough to understand c-complicated orders, smart enough to fight smart instead of just charging straight in to bite? If you turn me into a dumb youkai, all I’ll do is get killed. If you let me stay smart, I might be able to do something useful!”
A slow grin spread over the painter’s face as he crouched down beside her, gripping her chin in the hand not holding his brush and tipping her face up for a better look. “Useful, hmm? The Nura clan aren’t pushovers, you know. You think you can defeat a youkai, little girl?”
“I can’t.” Anger seemed to be getting the upper hand over fear as she stared stubbornly back at him. “B-but that’s not the point, is it? How about you turn me into something that can?”
“Oho, I think I like you,” he chuckled. “Yesssss… you’re a bit more inspirational than I thought at first. So? Got any ideas?” he added, already turning away to reach for his inkstone, clearly not expecting an affirmative answer.
“Yes.” The girl’s mouth firmed into a hard, determined line, and she jerked her head towards where a couple of shoulder bags and purses had been dumped, presumably tossed out of the way when their owners were tied up. “There’s a book in my bag.”
Kyousai paged through the softcovered book, frowning at the small black-and-white illustrations, then closed it to look at the cover. A robed creature, something insect-like yet still humanoid, was pictured sitting on a throne, raising a beckoning hand towards a young woman wearing a glowing diadem. “I don’t recognise any of these.”
“It’s about Western demons, not Japanese ones,” the girl said shortly. “Which means that nobody here is likely to know how to fight them.”
“And I suppose that also explains why I can’t read it?”
Something flickered in her eyes for a moment, then was gone. Relief? “It’s written in English. I can tell you what it says.”
“Heh. Happy to have a bargaining chip, hmm?”
Astonishingly, she managed a thin smile. “Wouldn’t you be, in my position? I’ll happily translate the whole book for you -- if I survive the night.”
In other words, it’s in my best interests to see to it that she does. Definitely interesting. It’s a pity I don’t have time to create a whole new story just for her… well, I’ll just have to content myself with saving the other one for later, Kyousai told himself, glancing over towards the webbed swordsman to make sure he wasn’t making any progress towards escape. “All right, then. Which one did you have in mind?”
“There are some papers tucked in between the pages, about a third of the way in.” The girl watched as he flicked the book open where a couple of folded papers were forming a bookmark, then nodded at the page. “They’re called ‘Bales’. That paper is… research, kind of, on one particular Bale; her strengths and weaknesses, skills, personality, everything. There’s a picture, too. I want to be like her, if… if you can do that?” Her voice was uncertain again. “Or… if you can only pick the type of youkai, not individual traits, then--”
“Like her?” Kyousai snorted. “Don’t make me laugh. I can turn you into her. What does all this say?” he demanded, turning the book towards the human. “Summarise it.”
She swallowed hard, then nodded, looking down at the book. “Bales usually look like tall, slim, beautiful humans, except for their eyes and hands. They’re intelligent and magically talented…”
Breathing hard, Shouei sagged against the strands holding him up. It’s no good. I’m well and truly stuck, and it feels like I’ve been fighting for days, not less than an hour.
Head down, he watched the painter-youkai and the human girl talk, peering through his fringe. The painter seemed absorbed in what the girl was telling him, pointing at a picture in the book and asking questions; the girl was concentrating more on him than on the book she was supposed to be translating, shoulders hunched, tongue darting out to moisten dry lips as she watched his face.
…She’s lying to him.
He wasn’t sure whether it was her posture, her expression, or something in the faint scent he could discern through everything else, her sweat acrid with fear but somehow hinting of calculation more than panic. Whatever it was, though, somehow he knew. Something about what she’s telling him is a lie, or at least misdirection. She’s not collected enough to be making it all up on the spot, and she couldn’t be sure ahead of time that he wouldn’t be able to read the book himself, so a lot of it must be true… but she’s trying to fool him somehow.
And at the very least, while she’s distracting him like this he isn’t making more youkai.
Gathering what strength he had left, Shouei settled down to watch and listen.
“…so they’re vampires?”
The girl shook her head. “No; they’re alive, not undead, and sunlight doesn’t hurt them.”
“But they are immortal?”
“As long as they can get blood, yes. They’re very hard to kill.” The girl gestured towards one of the pages with her chin. “You can’t poison them, they don’t catch diseases, they don’t bleed, and it only takes them about a day to heal most wounds.”
“Mmh.” The painter looked unimpressed. “Fine, but what are they like?”
“Uh… what do you mean?”
“How do they act? What do they do?” He looked up from the page and smirked at her. “Since you actually want to be one, I’m guessing they’re nice,” he added sarcastically, voice practically dripping syrup on the last word.
The human girl stared back at him. “Bales are evil,” she said flatly. “Almost all of them are sadistic megalomaniacs. Their most respected occupations are ‘necromancer’ and ‘torturer’. Their racial defence policy is basically ‘Kill your enemies, drink their blood, raise their corpses as your undead slaves, then send them to kill their former friends’. They’re pretty, but they’re definitely not nice,” she almost spat, then took a deep breath and visibly controlled herself, biting off her tirade. “Ought to fit right in with you,” she muttered, looking away.
The grin on the painter’s face was practically blinding, a scythe-shape of white against his tanned skin. “Oh, I do like you,” he crooned. “Do try not to get killed. I like your ideas. I want to keep you around. I want to play with you.”
“Not getting killed is the whole point here,” she said under her breath, nearly inaudible.
“This one, the one that you want to be,” he continued, unfolding the papers he’d taken from between the book’s pages. “Is she a necromancer?”
“A bit,” the girl shrugged, eyelashes dropping to shield her eyes. “She specialises more in illusions and hypnotism, but she knows a lot of other spells too. She’s… very good at seeming harmless.”
“Oh? That could be useful.” The painter looked at the first piece of paper, covered with columns of numbers and English words, and grimaced, flicking to the second page. One eyebrow went up. “Did you draw this?”
“Yes.” The eyebrow went up further, and she blushed. “I’m not an artist!”
“I can tell,” he snorted. “It’s enough to give me the gist, though. What’s her name?”
The girl paused, licking dry lips again. “…Celadon. It means ‘Aoji’, like the porcelain.”
“Right,” he muttered. Still holding her drawing in one hand, he stuck his paintbrush in his mouth and reached for the inkstone with the other. “Hol’ still.”
please let this work
oh please kami, let this work, let me become her and not something that will do what he wants
Her forehead was pressed against the dusty concrete floor, tears that she could no longer hold back welling up between tightly-closed eyelids.
I don’t want to die
I don’t want to let my friends die
The bristles tickled on her back, and the ink was cold.
The girl didn’t scream. Somehow, that made it worse.
Her eyes and mouth went wide, breath huffing out in a quiet little “ah” of surprise and pain as the lines of ink on her back bubbled up and spread over her skin, but she didn’t scream and her eyes never went blank the way the rat-girl’s had. Shouei watched as the ink swept over her, changed her, and right up to the moment when it covered her face and blotted out her features her eyes were still awake and aware.
Then the ink ebbed away, wet black surfaces drying into pale green and white silk, and the girl was gone.
The new youkai sat up slowly, bringing one cloth-covered hand up to her face, and blinked open cat-slit green eyes that were just a shade darker than the painter’s. She had skin as white as milk, knee-length hair as black as the ink that had created her in a wrist-thick complicated braid, and was wearing vaguely Chinese-looking layered robes with overlong sleeves that hung loosely at least a foot past her fingertips. Gold and jewels glinted in her hair and dangled from her earlobes.
“…Nao-chan?” one of the other girls asked tentatively. “Nao-chan, are-- are you--”
“That girl is dead,” the youkai -- Celadon -- said coolly, pale lips curving in a faint, meaningless social smile. Her expression didn’t shift as she stood and rearranged her robes, flicking away dust, even when the girl who’d spoken began to sob hopelessly.
“You can translate this, right?” the painter asked, already flipping through the book’s pages in search of another interesting subject. “It’ll be a bad joke if I’ve turned my translator into someone who can’t read it.”
“I speak and read English,” Celadon confirmed. “Anglish, actually, but the formal mode is similar enough. If you don’t object,” she went on, in the sort of politely firm tone that means ‘this will happen whether you object or not’, “might I suggest you find the next section you would like to read while I get a drink? I’m… quite thirsty.”
“Go ahead,” the painter told her, absently waving her towards the remaining humans with his brush; then his head jerked up and he frowned as she instead turned and began to walk towards Shouei. “Hey! Not him, I’m saving him for later! Take one of the girls instead.”
“I shan’t harm him,” she objected, pausing. “He’s large and strong enough that he’s unlikely to even get dizzy. If I take enough to satisfy me from one of those undernourished waifs, though, I’ll probably kill them,” she said, swishing one trailing sleeve dismissively, “which will mean that you have one less to play with. Unless you don’t mind that?”
He hesitated for a moment, then grumbled under his breath, turning back to the book. “Fine, go ahead.”
“Thank you,” she purred, smile widening as she turned back towards Shouei.
Whatever that girl was trying to do, I don’t think it worked, he thought grimly, tensing his muscles. His eyes narrowed as he studied the approaching youkai, watching her walk. I can’t feel more than a trace of youki from her. She doesn’t move like a fighter, and she doesn’t look physically strong, though you can never really tell… and not that it really matters, with me stuck like this. If she’s careless, though, I should be able to do some serious damage with a headbutt, he mused, darkly amused despite the situation.
Celadon paused just out of arms’ reach, studying his face. “Oh, aren’t you handsome,” she murmured, voice low and warm. “So young to be so large and strong.” Her eyes widened, gleaming, and suddenly he couldn’t look away.
~Shall I show you a pretty dream, pretty boy?~ He heard her voice, but her lips hadn’t moved.
“She specialises more in illusions and hypnotism--”
“Get out of my head,” he choked out, voice slurring as a chill spread through him. “Get-- get out--”
~Hush. Let me show you.~ His vision was going dark as she stepped forwards, cloth brushing his cheek as she reached to push his hood back.
Shouei blinked. He was standing in the courtyard garden at home, gi tucked down around his waist and bokken in his hands.
…was I practicing? he thought, looking around. I… don’t remember how I got here…
His father’s bonsai trees were arranged neatly on their shelves, leaves sparkling with droplets from a recent watering. The newest bonsai, barely more than a sapling and still being trained into its basic shape, was out on the table. Pruning snips and wire lay next to it as if Hihi had just laid down his tools and stepped away for a moment, and Shouei grinned. When his father came back, he’d have to tease him about acting like an elderly retired human again.
Something was wrong, but he couldn’t tell what.
“What a beautiful garden,” a woman’s voice said from behind him, and he spun around, bokken lifting to strike. Celadon was perched on the biggest decorative boulder, slippered feet neatly together and sleeve-draped hands wrapped around her knees, and Shouei remembered.
--he’s dead my father is dead you bitch--
“Stop that,” she said reprovingly, and the bokken stopped mid-swing, inches away from her head. All his strength couldn’t shift it.
“How dare you--!”
“I didn’t choose this location,” she said, tone somewhere between offended and apologetic. “I left it up to your subconscious to pick a place and time where you felt comfortable.” She paused, then continued, definitely apologetic now. “I can change it, if you would prefer?”
“Just get out of my mind!” he snarled.
“Not yet.” She looked up at him from beneath her lashes, green glint in her eyes matching the jewels in her hair. “If I can get you free from that web and distract the artist, do you think you can get the humans to safety?”
“I want to escape,” she explained patiently. “All of us. Will you help?”
Shouei took a step backwards, eyeing her suspiciously, and nearly dropped his bokken as whatever force had been holding it let go. “Why? That painter made you, why are you going against--”
“He did not,” she hissed, fabric crumpling as she fisted her hands inside her long sleeves. “He did not create me, I do not belong to him and I will not obey him!” There was a faint chiming sound as her hair ornaments rattled together, and Shouei realised she was trembling slightly -- fear or anger, or both, he couldn’t tell. Her expression was a mask, as cool and unreadable as the porcelain she was named for, and he couldn’t smell anything from her but a faint floral perfume.
Not that it would mean much if I could, given that this is an illusion, he thought wryly, and lowered the bokken. “I’m willing to try,” he said grudgingly.
She smiled, the first genuine-seeming expression he’d seen on her face.
Another blink, and he was back in the web, sagging forwards with his cheek resting on a silk-clad shoulder, cool lips pressed to his throat. There was a slight twinge of pain as she swallowed and pulled away, soothed almost immediately by a couple of dabs from her tongue; he shivered at the sensation, and her hands tightened warningly on the back of his head and shoulder. He played dead -- unconscious, whatever -- and her grip relaxed again as he stayed carefully limp, eyes closed, breathing controlled and slow.
“You haven’t broken him, have you?” came the painter’s voice, sounding annoyed.
“Of course not,” she chuckled, right in Shouei’s ear. “He’s delicious; I wouldn’t want to waste him. I’m just going to let him sleep until you have time to play.”
“Good. Get over here and translate this bit, would you? It looks interesting.”
“Certainly.” She let go, tugging the hood back into place over his bowed head, then turned and walked a few feet away; he tracked her by the sound of her footsteps, noting with approval that she’d moved a little to the side, out of the direct line between him and his targets.
She’s got at least some battlefield awareness; that’ll help… Eyes slitting open, he checked to make sure that his sword hadn’t been moved in the minute or so he’d spent unaware of the room.
“By the way, may I know your name? You never did introduce yourself,” Celadon asked, sounding only mildly curious.
“Hm? Oh. Kyousai.”
“Thank you. I always like to know the name of anyone I’m trying to kill.”
A ball of flames shot past Kyousai’s shoulder and exploded, throwing flaming papers everywhere and blasting him with heat. He could feel the short hairs on the right side of his face crisping as he ducked and scrambled away from the next fireball; it struck the book of youkai square on the front cover and engulfed it, and he swore.
She missed me?
A sudden burst of light at the other end of the long room, behind her -- well away from anything she’d just set on fire -- told him otherwise. The webbing holding the tall swordsman flashed into momentary flames and evaporated, and Kyousai knew that one particular piece of paper had just burned to ash.
Exactly what she was aiming at. Which means she isn’t missing. Which means she aimed at the book, too, and now she’ll be aiming at me!
He swept up his hand, not bothering with the brush, and ink leapt from his inkstone to follow the gesture, forming into a hulking oni barely in time to intercept the next blast of flames. Another gesture sent every crafted youkai in the room after Celadon, and he grinned.
That should give me a moment to draw something more personalised--
A sword smashed down only a hair away from his reaching fingertips, shattering his inkstone and carving a gouge into the floor. Blood-red eyes glared at him over the hilt, and the follow-up stroke sliced into his left sleeve as he used an ink-formed claw to yank himself backwards with desperate speed.
She put him to sleep! How-- oh, don’t be stupid, of course she was lying, idiot!
The swordsman bared short fangs in a silent growl, then spun away, flaring his youki and growing even larger as he swept the three screaming human girls up in his arms. A flick of Kyousai’s hand spattered ink across the wall and floor near the emergency door, welling up into a crowd of youkai and blocking the exit, but the swordsman didn’t even pause; he charged straight for the cracked wall of windows, spinning as he leapt so that he met the glass shoulders first, vanishing into the darkness outside in a cascade of shards.
The fires were already dying, extinguished by a combination of lack of fuel and spattered ink, and Kyousai turned to glare at Celadon. She was pressed back into a corner, cut off from following after the swordsman by several large youkai, hands raised ineffectually to ward them off. As he watched, one leaped for her throat as she screamed, cowering--
--and the youkai passed straight through her, hitting the wall with a hollow sound as her image evaporated into nothing.
“Goodbye, Kyousai,” her voice said from near the shattered window. “Let’s try not to meet again.” Shadows rippled as she stepped out of nowhere and jumped, glancing back at the last moment to cast one final arc of fire, incinerating the closest youkai and driving several others back a few steps. The wolflike youkai that had jumped through her illusion came charging back past him at the head of a small pack of predatory-looking beasts, leaping into the darkness after her without a second thought; Kyousai winced as it vanished downwards with a surprised yelp, and wondered if the soggy *thump* several seconds later was his imagination or not.
“…Well,” he said eventually, blowing out his breath in an aggrieved sigh. “That was annoying.”
Finishing his spin in mid-air as he sailed across the street with his terrified passengers, Shouei lashed out with his sword and stabbed it into the façade of the nearest building. It carved a broad furrow down through reinforced concrete and steel, scattering rubble around them and slowing their fall, finally bringing them to a halt dangling two storeys above the street below.
Two of the girls were held in the crook of his left arm, squashed uncomfortably against his chest and sobbing; the third was dangling from his left hand by her belt, probably even more uncomfortable and definitely not happy about her position, making quiet choking noises that indicated either difficulty breathing or a desire to throw up. She twisted to look up at him, paling visibly as she saw his face, notably less human-seeming in his true form.
“Now what--?” she began, and screamed again as he pulled his sword free of the building and let them all drop. He landed with only a slight stagger, fatigue making him clumsier than usual, and set all three gently on their feet. They promptly collapsed to the ground again, but he’d at least made the gesture.
A loud, animalistic yelp from above brought Shouei’s head up, searching for the source of the noise, and he sucked in a hissing breath as he saw Celadon tumbling towards the ground in a swirl of hair and fluttering robes. He started forwards, aiming to catch her, but her arms spread out as if to cup the air and she suddenly slowed, drifting down the last twenty feet or so like a leaf on the wind. The two youkai plummeting after her weren’t so fortunate, landing heavily enough to ensure that nobody would need to finish them off.
Celadon’s eyes widened as she touched down and got a good look at Shouei. “And I thought you were tall before,” she murmured, then shook her head slightly, glancing up at his face. “Where to now? Is there somewhere safe we can go?”
As her eyes turned up towards his, he jerked his head to the side almost by reflex, avoiding her gaze. Feeling slightly embarrassed, he shifted back to his usual nearly-human shape, bringing his height back down to ‘only’ somewhat over seven feet. “If we head east, there should be several Nura clan members nearby we can join up with. I can check--” Pulling out his cellphone, he stared for a moment at its cracked screen and ‘no signal’ indicator, then sighed, putting it away again. “Or not. Still, heading east would be a good start. We should move fast, though, before that Kyousai guy comes after us.”
“I can delay him a little,” she said, and began to turn towards the building they’d jumped from; then she checked, looking uncertain. “Oh. Might there be more humans still hiding on the lower floors?”
“I doubt it,” he said grimly. “I didn’t smell any other fresh human scents on the way up the stairs… just stale fear and blood.”
“…Very well then.” Lifting her hands, she narrowed her eyes in concentration.
When the stairwell belched a gout of flame up from ground level and blew him out through the fourth-floor fire doors -- which had been locked -- Kyousai decided that his half-formed plans to chase after Celadon and the blood-coloured swordsman would just have to be abandoned.
Let them go join up with the rest of the Nura lot, he scowled, limping over to a window and looking gloomily at the billows of smoke rising from all the windows on the ground floor of the building. Encho and the others can have them!
With three humans to protect, still exhausted from Kyousai’s spell, and with the knowledge that at least some of the enemy youkai roaming the streets were transformed humans making him reluctant to fight, the trip back to where Shouei had last seen Aotabou and the others took longer than he liked -- and when they arrived, the fight had moved on.
“Damn,” he muttered, looking around for any sign of where his allies had gone.
“I can look around a little, if you stay here,” Celadon offered, glancing sideways at the human girls. They were huddled against a building, hugging each other and trying to keep their torn clothing in place to preserve at least a little modesty. They’d tried hard to keep up without getting in the way or drawing unwanted attention, but anyone could see they desperately needed a rest… and they were more afraid of her than they were of him.
“Thanks,” he said brusquely, nodding towards a narrow service lane with a couple of abandoned cars partially blocking it. “We’ll be down there.”
She bowed slightly and padded off, flickering into the shadows and not reappearing.
Shouei ushered the girls to a sheltered spot and handed them his haori after checking for lurking youkai or other fugitive humans. “Here. Sit down and catch your breath,” he said quietly, sheathing his sword and taking up a position he could see the lane entrance from.
“Th-thank you,” they murmured, huddling together underneath the cloth. It was thin -- and sooty, after the way Celadon had broken him out of the web -- but it was a warm night, and at least it was big enough for them to share.
“…Can you tell me more about what sort of youkai Celadon is?” he continued after a brief struggle with his conscience. It felt underhanded, asking for information behind the back of his at-least-temporary ally, but given her origin as Kyousai’s creation he couldn’t yet bring himself to trust her more than absolutely necessary. “I couldn’t hear everything, and I think at least part of what I heard was lies anyway.”
“She isn’t a youkai at all!” the girl with long black hair burst out, sniffling. The other girls hushed her, and Shouei sighed.
“I know she was your friend, but--”
“No, that’s not it,” the girl went on, quieter now. “Bales aren’t youkai. They aren’t even real!”
“Huh?” Frowning, he crouched down and peered at her. “What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s a game,” she said miserably. “A roleplaying game, where you make up a character and roll dice to fight imaginary enemies. We played it together, even got permission to run sessions during our free period at school because all the materials are in English and it counted as practice… It’s all pretend. Some of the creatures in the game are taken from real-world myths and legends, I guess some of those might really exist, but everything about Bales was written for the game.”
“Celadon is -- was -- the character Naoko-chan played,” one of the other girls chimed in. “She-- she liked the idea of playing a character who belonged to an evil race, but wasn’t evil herself; I guess a lot of people do, really. She didn’t play her as a good character either,” she added, looking nervous, “but as… um… I don’t really know how to explain it. She wouldn’t harm people without a really good reason, because it would cause her more problems than it solved, if that makes sense? She tried to get along with people so they wouldn’t want to attack her, even if they found out what she was.”
“Pragmatic?” Shouei suggested, and the girl nodded uncertainly. “So you’d say she’s at least somewhat trustworthy?”
The girls exchanged worried glances. “Um… well, if this Celadon acts the way Nao-chan played her Celadon, she’ll be trustworthy.”
The long-haired girl sniffed again and wiped her eyes. “I don’t think he got her right. The painter, I mean, I don’t think he got it right when he made her. Maybe it’s because Bales don’t really exist, so he ended up making a youkai that’s as close as he could get to a Bale? Or as close as he could get to what Nao-chan told him about Bales? She… she’s not behaving quite the way Nao-chan played her. Nao-chan would be acting nicer, trying to make us feel safe, that sort of thing.”
“And she doesn’t look right,” the third girl said quietly, leaning against her friend’s shoulder. “In the game books, Bales are described as being dark-skinned, not light; I always imagined her as looking kind of Indian. The drawing Nao-chan did for her character sheet was just a black-and-white sketch, no colour and not much shading even, so the painter wouldn’t know that.”
Instead, Shouei thought grimly, he was told ‘beautiful’ and shown a picture of someone with long black hair, his imagination defaulted to ‘classical Japanese beauty’, and she turned out pale-skinned. He was told ‘evil’…
She’s a completely unknown quantity, then. She’s answering to the right name, and she’s helped us so far, but for all I know she’s just playing along until there’s a good opportunity to betray us.
One hand lifted to the healing bite mark on his throat and he frowned, turning to watch the street. No. Don’t be stupid. If she was going to do that, what would be the point? If she wanted to stay with the Hundred Tales Clan, she was in the right place for it and we’d be dead by now… or at least the girls would have been made over into youkai, and I’d be on my way to something really unpleasant. If she didn’t want to join them but didn’t care about us one way or the other, she didn’t have to help us escape; she could have left me in that web, translated the book for Kyousai, then walked off ‘to fight the Nura clan’ and just never come back. We’d still be doomed.
It’s likely she’s helping us in order to make allies, not out of altruism or kindness… but that works well enough for me.
He was looking in the right direction to see Celadon the moment she melted out of the shadows at the mouth of the laneway, looking over her shoulder. She was clutching some wadded-up cloth to her chest as she hurried towards them, which was revealed as several loose flannel shirts as she arrived and held them out to the girls.
“Here; they’re far too big, but better than nothing,” she said, a little out of breath. Turning to Shouei, she kept her eyes level instead of looking up at him, focussing on his chest rather than trying to meet his eyes. “There’s a fight a few blocks further on. I didn’t get close enough to get a good look, but it sounded like someone was enjoying himself, so--”
He snorted, mood lightening immediately. “So it’s probably Aotabou or someone else from the military faction, not humans fighting back.”
“Yes,” she agreed, answering smile peeking out for a moment. “Also, I think there are some humans hiding in the store I got the shirts from, but I didn’t want to approach them without someone to vouch for me.”
“Good idea.” The girls had struggled into the shirts with admirable speed and were now rolling up sleeves and fastening final buttons; Shouei turned to them and bowed slightly, accepting his haori back. “Would you three be willing to coax them out? They’ll be safer if they come with us.”
“Uh. Um, sure,” the long-haired girl stuttered, glancing at her friends for support. “But… come with us where? Where are we going? And, um--” She blushed nervously. “Who are you, anyway? You saved us, we’re very grateful, but-- sorry--”
He could feel himself blushing, too. “No, I’m the one who should apologise. I didn’t think.” Drawing himself up, he bowed formally, right foot and open hand forwards, left hand holding his sheathed sword at his hip. “I am Shouei, head of the Kantou Oozarukai, subordinate to the Nura clan of youkai chivalry. In accordance with our leader’s will, members of the Nura clan do not attack humans; if you come with me, I promise to do my utmost to escort you to a place of safety, where you will be protected until the current situation is resolved.”
Two of the girls seemed impressed, eyes widening; the quietest one gasped, drawing back. “Wait, Nura? I didn’t realise before, but -- that rumour about Nura, um, Nura Ri-something, bringing doom--”
Damn. Not this idiocy, not now! Shouei’s hand tightened around his sword, but he kept the irritation out of his voice with an effort. “Nura Rikuo-sama is our clan head, yes, but that story is a lie. It was started by our enemies, the Hundred Tales clan, to get humans to attack Rikuo-sama. They’re the ones causing all this mess and killing people!”
The situation hung in the balance for a breathless moment, the girls looking at him with expressions of mingled fear and uncertainty; then Celadon spoke from behind him in a calm voice. “So that painter Kyousai is a member of the Hundred Tales clan?”
“Yes,” Shouei nodded, turning to look back at her.
“Well then,” she shrugged. “I know I don’t want to be on his side, and you’re fighting him, so…” She shrugged again, waving one loose sleeve in a lazy circle like an impromptu pom-pom. “Yay, Nura clan?”
For a moment, all Shouei could do was stare at her, boggled by her sudden flippant tone and attitude; then there was a giggle from behind him, and he looked back at the girls. The long-haired one was hiding a smile behind one hand, and somehow all the tension had gone out of the air.
“You’re right,” the quiet girl said, embarrassed. “Sorry. If your leader is trying to protect humans he doesn’t even know from people who’d do stuff like that, there’s no way he can be as bad as that rumour says.”
“Thank you,” he told her, relieved.
As they moved on, Celadon and Shouei in the lead with the humans tiptoeing through the shadows behind them, he could hear the girls whispering. “That bow he did, it was like something out of a historical drama! Or maybe a play--”
“Like in the Lone Wolf and Cub movies, the one where they met the yakuza?”
“Well, it makes sense that youkai would have old-fashioned manners for some things, and he did say the Nura clan are yakuza.”
“…No he didn’t.”
“Yes he did! He said he was ‘subordinate to the Nura clan of youkai chivalry’,” the third girl said, the one that didn’t have long hair and wasn’t the quiet, nervous one. “They’re a ninkyoudantai, a ‘chivalrous organisation’; that’s what some yakuza organisations call themselves. Usually the old-fashioned, honourable ones,” she added thoughtfully, “which fits, I suppose.”
There was a slight pause, then: “Huh. So… youkai have yakuza too?”
“I guess so.”
Given that he was sneaking along a half-destroyed street, hiding from enemy youkai, protecting humans and planning to rescue more as the opportunity arose, Shouei decided that now was not the time to start snickering helplessly… tempting though it was.
By the time they were halfway to where the fighting had moved to, their little band of rescued humans had grown to nearly twenty, and the original three girls had come up with a short speech of explanation and reassurance. “It’s okay! There are two groups of youkai fighting here, and he’s one of the good ones -- they’re like youkai yakuza, the honourable sort, so they’re protecting humans while they fight the bad guys. He’s from the Nura clan--”
As they moved on, the first humans they’d gathered up had started joining in the explanation… and were also helping squash the inevitable objections. “Nura? But I heard--” “That story’s a lie!”
The objections didn’t tend to last long, in any case; even the stubbornest humans quieted down after the group got too big to sneak effectively and Shouei had to cut down several attacking youkai, assisted by Celadon with a few well-placed fire spells. Practical demonstrations make the best arguments, he thought wryly, flicking blood off his sword before sheathing it. I suppose Ao had the right idea after all… Remembering the rest of Aotabou’s earlier cheerful declaration, he sobered.
“Is something wrong?” Celadon asked quietly, padding up beside him. “Besides the obvious.”
Shouei grimaced. “I was just thinking… I hope none of those youkai just now were transformed humans.” He didn’t continue the thought, looking sideways at her for a moment and then away. I don’t know how she’d react to the idea that we might be able to change the transformed victims back, given that she is one. It’s a lot simpler when you’re talking about the mindless ones.
“Ah.” She fell silent for a moment. “I might be able to handle some of our opponents without harming them -- the ones that arrive alone or in pairs, at least, if not the ones in larger groups.”
“Oh? That would be something, at least.” Approaching a corner, he waved for their human charges to stop and peered carefully around it, then drew back. “And it looks like you’re going to get a chance to try,” he added dryly.
The lone youkai rattling at the security gate protecting a small coffee shop turned and hissed as Celadon approached, then drew back slightly as she didn’t react. It was a big one, with a humanoid torso above a segmented many-legged lower abdomen and large pincer-like claws that it clacked aggressively at her.
“You seem to be working hard,” she said calmly, lifting her eyes to meet its dead-black gaze. “Well done.” ~Trust me. I’m not running away, I’m not attacking, there is only one thing I can be…~
“Eh?” it muttered, bending to peer at her. A mouthful of oversized fangs distorted its voice a bit, but it was still understandable. “Ally? Don’t know you.”
Intelligent enough to speak and be reasoned with, hopefully not intelligent enough to spot holes in my logic, she judged. Calculations of threat and danger, risk and benefit shifted in the back of her mind, and she smiled, smooth expression hiding the ever-present cold fear. “Kyousai painted me,” she said truthfully. Only painted, not created-- “What are you doing?”
“Ah. New ally, yes, yes. Kyousai,” it said, relaxing its posture slightly but developing an expression she could only describe as a pout. “Working for Kyousai. Canvases. Boring,” it said glumly, and went back to rattling the gate.
“Canvases? You’re collecting humans for him to change?”
“Canvases, yes. Boring. Hard,” it muttered, slumping. “Find, dig out, run-run-run-catch, can’t eat, have to carry, kyaa-kyaa ears-ow-loud, is that all go get more. Can’t catch all of them. Others get away.”
“That’s a shame,” she said sympathetically, reaching up to pat one of its several knees. “You know, I don’t think you’re really suited to this job. What would you rather be doing?”
“Fight! Fight youkai,” it said, perking up. “Fun! But canvases needed.”
“Oh, of course. Somebody has to do it, but why you? Why don’t you let my friend and I collect these humans -- canvases, I mean -- while you go fight the Nura clan youkai instead? That would be more fun,” she suggested. ~Much more fun. What a good idea.~
“Lots fun. Good idea,” it muttered, echoing her mental prompting. “You sure?”
“I’m sure.” Looking back over her shoulder, she beckoned for Shouei to come out from behind the building, bringing the humans with him. “You see? My friend and I have already collected lots of canvases. We’re good at it, just like I’m sure you’re good at fighting. Doesn’t it make sense for us all to do what we’re good at?”
“Lots, yes. Why they no run-run-run?” it asked, scratching its head with one immense claw. “Always run-run-run, have to run-run-catch, then kyaa-kyaa loud. No kyaa-kyaa either! You very good.”
“It’s a talent,” she said modestly. “Shouldn’t you get going? You don’t want the fighting to be all over before you get there.”
“Yes, yes! Thank you! Bye!” it said happily, and scuttled off, pausing to look back and wave both claws before going out of sight behind a pile of rubble.
“…Did that youkai just wave bye-bye?” Shouei asked, walking up with his sword resting on his shoulder. Behind him, the humans were staring after the scorpionish creature with expressions of mingled fear and surprise.
“I believe so,” Celadon told him, dropping her gaze to avoid meeting his eyes. I mustn’t scare him. I need him to trust me. Someone has to trust me, or all this will be useless… “I gather it doesn’t like catching humans for Kyousai because they scream and hurt its ears; also, it can only carry a couple at once and gets scolded for not bringing more. I told it that since we’re demonstrably much better at collecting humans than it is, it should leave that job to us and go have fun.”
“And that worked?!”
“Well… it’s technically true. We are better at collecting humans than it is; we’re just not going to deliver them where it thinks we are.”
He snorted softly, hiding a grin, and bent to haul the security gate up one-handed; the bars bent and locking pins snapped as it came up, jamming halfway. The coffee shop looked deserted at first glance, but Celadon could hear stifled gasps and rustles of movement inside.
“Hello?” one of the human girls called. “It’s safe to come out now…”
Hearing a familiar voice call his name, Aotabou turned and grinned, waving. “Yo, Shouei-kun! How’s it-- eh?!” He blinked at the crowd of humans huddled behind the younger youkai, puzzled. “What’s all this? You starting your own Night Parade of a Hundred Humans or something?”
“Can’t protect ‘em if I leave ‘em behind,” Shouei muttered, looking slightly annoyed. “Never mind that. Do you know where the Third is?”
“You’re turning out just like him, you know,” Aotabou snorted. “Last I heard he was… hang on, his orders were to not go after him, remember?”
“Yeah, but I need to get a warning to him,” Shouei said, leaning closer. “Do you remember what Kurotabou mentioned recently, about the painter who attacked the Third’s friend Torii-san?”
His explanation was fast and hurried, given in a low voice so as not to be overheard, and took barely a minute before Aotabou understood -- not just the basics, but the implications.
“…They’re human?!” he choked out, staring around at the shattered cars and masonry where he’d been fighting. Even with most youkai evaporating shortly after their death, enough remained to make it clear that he’d been very busy.
“A lot of them, yeah. If someone manages to kill that Kyousai bastard, then-- well, I don’t know for sure, but at least some of the transformations ought to be reversible. At least it works with curses, right?” Shouei’s eyes were dark, almost ashamed, and Aotabou wondered how many possibly-transformed youkai he’d killed before finding out their origin. Or since.
“Usually, yeah,” he nodded. “Kill the caster, break the curse; it worked against that Sodemogi jerk… you know, Torii-san was involved that time too? That girl has terrible luck. Anyway, all the more reason to keep the humans safe. Good work.”
Shouei waved that off irritably. “Never mind that! We need to let Rikuo-sama know, and I broke my phone in the fight with Kyousai. Can you call him, or whoever’s bodyguarding him?”
Aotabou flipped his phone out, thick fingers already punching buttons. “One way to find out.”
There was a tense pause as he listened intently, taking a moment to glance around. The humans were clustered nearby, several of them staring open-mouthed at the sight of a large youkai in archaic blue monk’s robes using a streamlined flip phone, and the green-robed woman who’d shown up with Shouei was standing on the other side of the group watching for enemies.
…Huh. Haven’t seen her before. Shouei’s been expanding the Hihi-gumi, maybe she’s one of his new recruits?
< < The number you have dialled is not responding. Please leave a message, or hang up and try-- > >
“It’s not connecting,” Aotabou grunted, pulling the phone away from his ear and dialling again, punching in a code for a conference call this time. “Probably broke his phone, too, damn human technology is too fragile… Oi! Everyone, this is Ao. Is anyone with the Third?”
< < Not me. > >
< < No. > >
< < I think Yuki-onna is? > >
A sharper voice cut across multiple responses; Kuromaru, speaking with the crisp authority he wielded as the leader of the crow-tengu ‘enforcer’ squad made up of him and his siblings. < < Rikuo-sama is guarding Ienaga-san and accompanied by Yuki-onna. We Sanbagarasu were with him, but he despatched us all on different missions. > > He hesitated for a moment, then went on, voice slightly uncertain. < < As I recall… neither he nor Yuki-onna had their schoolbags with them. They may not have their phones. > >
Aotabou swore. “Does anyone know Ienaga-san’s phone number, then?”
A breathless pause, then Kuromaru again, sounding dry. < < Apart from Rikuo-sama and Yuki-onna, you mean? I think not. What is it, Aotabou? > >
“Hang on a sec, all of you. Everyone needs to hear this.” He held the phone out towards Shouei, gesturing for the younger youkai to take it. “I’ve got pretty well everyone but the Third on the line. You tell ‘em.”
Explanation finished -- again -- Shouei winced and held Ao’s phone slightly away from his ear as the angry / excited / worried / horrified responses to the information crackled from the receiver.
< < Quiet! > > Kuromaru’s voice cracked out, overriding all the others. < < If you have nothing constructive to contribute, be silent! > >
Apart from a couple of disgruntled mutters and some background noise -- at least one person seemed to be fighting one-handed with most of their attention on the phone -- everyone obeyed, and the black-haired tengu continued.
< < We must proceed as ordered by Rikuo-sama, > > he said decisively. < < I will set the crows to finding him as well as continuing to search for more Nura clan members who have not received word, but if he is trying not to be found… In any case, we must not kill these transformed youkai unnecessarily, but we also cannot simply stop fighting and we must find the enemy executives. If your lives or the lives of humans are in danger, do not hesitate to strike. > >
“In other words, ‘you’re gonna have to kill ’em anyway; try not to feel bad about it’,” Aotabou muttered sourly, leaning in next to Shouei so he could hear as well.
< < It has also become even more important to protect the humans, > > Kuromaru’s sister Sasami cut in. < < Not only are they innocent targets and dupes, they are potential enemy reinforcements if the Hundred Tales youkai can bring them to this Kyousai Shouei-san encountered. > >
< < Agreed, > > Kuromaru replied. < < If possible, do your best to direct or guide humans out of the areas being attacked… and if anyone encounters this painter, call for reinforcements immediately. He is a priority target. Anything else? > > A brief pause during which no-one spoke, and then Shouei thought he heard a faint sigh. < < Very well. Thank you for your hard work, Shouei-san. > >
Shouei rang off without answering and handed the phone back to Aotabou. “Thanks.”
“Yer welcome.” Ao turned to eye the gathered humans again, counting under his breath. “You did collect a lot. I guess we know what you’re doing next, huh?”
“Yeah. …Damn. Give me the phone back for a second?”
The phone on the other end was picked up almost immediately. < < Ao? What is it now? > >
“Kuromaru, it’s me, Shouei,” he said, looking around again. The immediate area was still clear of enemies, but he could feel youki stirring in all directions. Time to move, definitely. “Sorry to bother you again. I’m on the east edge of Shibuya near the Omotesando train station, I’ve got around thirty humans here--”
“Forty-two by my count,” Aotabou put in over his shoulder, and Shouei elbowed him away irritably.
“--and if anyone knows the shortest way to a safe area, you will,” he finished. “You’re getting reports from the crows, so…”
< < I am, but… Shouei-san, you’re in the centre of the worst hit area, > > Kuromaru said. < < No surprise now that we know Kyousai is in Shibuya, but there is no safe area close to you. > >
Shouei blew out his breath in a sigh, wishing he had a hand free to rub his forehead, and tried to call up a mental map of Nura clan holdings in his head. “Well, I’ve got to get them somewhere. They’re a bunch of walking targets as it is… if we were in Ukiyo-e I could take them to the Bakenekoya or even the main house… are there any subclans nearby with secure houses?”
Kuromaru’s answer was fast; clearly his mental map was better than Shouei’s. < < No. I think your best option is to head north-west to Yoyogi Park, and take them to the Meiji Jingu shrine. It has decent wards, and quite a few of its attendant priests and mikos are spiritually powerful; the local crows state the shrine itself seems clear. I would advise caution passing through the park, though, > > he said dryly.
“No kidding. Thanks.” Hanging up and passing the phone back again, he raised an eyebrow at Aotabou. “Want to come along?”
“Not unless you think you’ll need the help.” Ao scratched his chin, eyeing the crowd of humans again-- no, Shouei realised, he was looking past the humans at Celadon. “She any good as backup?”
“Reasonable, so far,” he said, then closed his mouth on the next words. …Ao doesn’t need to know where she came from, he decided, a little uncomfortable. Yet.
“Then I’ll head south a bit,” the bulky youkai monk said grimly. At Shouei’s puzzled look, he jerked his thumb over one shoulder and elaborated. “Aoyama Gakuin’s about three blocks thataway. Women’s college. If those Hundred Tales jerks are after new blood, it oughtta be crawling with things hunting ‘canvases’.”
Shouei swallowed hard. “…Right. We might come back and give you a hand after we’ve got this lot clear.”
“We’re heading for Meiji Jingu,” Shouei said, striding back towards them as the blue-robed youkai he’d been talking to headed off southwards. “You should be reasonably safe there.”
“Meiji Jingu? That’s miles away!” one young man whined, pulling his knees up to his chest in a stubborn pose as the other resting humans started to get up around him.
“Less than one, actually,” an elderly woman in a torn department store uniform informed him tartly, straightening her skirt. “Not even a kilometre and a half.”
“Isn’t there anywhere closer? Can’t we just hide in one of the buildings?” he insisted, pouting. “I don’t know why you dragged us out of them in the first place, I had a good spot--”
“We were in a building,” the first-rescued long-haired girl interrupted, fists clenched. “We had good hiding places, too. And the youkai who’re doing all this ripped holes in the walls and caught us anyway. Everyone else there got turned into--” her eyes slid towards Celadon, then away “--things. Shouei-san and, and Celadon saved us, so if they say we’re walking to Meiji Jingu backwards and barefoot I for one am doing it!”
“Forwards and with shoes on will work fine,” Shouei said gently, patting her shoulder. “Celadon, can you take rear guard again?”
“Certainly,” she murmured, lowering her gaze. The familiar round of what-if questions started up again in the back of her mind. What if something attacks from there? From that alley? From above? Out of a drain? What spells would be best to cast? Quickest? Which useful spells can I cast in advance and hold without straining? How much energy do I have left to cast with? What if-- what if--
She pushed the scrabbling fears back, keeping them to a low mutter, ignorable unless they had something important to say. He trusts me to watch his back, she thought, watching Shouei through her lashes. To watch the humans’ backs. That’s good… I think. At the very least it’s a start. I need this, I need allies, I need a place…
The human who’d objected was still sitting in place, pouting, but scrambled to his feet as she stepped past him to follow the group, slippers whispering over the cracked roadway. “Hey! Hey, you can’t leave me!”
“Keep up, then,” Celadon told him, and walked on.
“This is stupid!”
“Sitting in the road waiting for something to show up and eat you does seem rather foolish, yes--”
“You know that’s not what I meant!” Hurried footsteps pattered up behind her, and she slid smoothly out of the way as he reached for her arm. “Hey, c’mon!”
“I need my hands free to cast spells when we’re attacked again,” she told him, taking another pointed step sideways. “Don’t touch me.”
“Uh-- well-- I can help!” he declared, puffing out his chest.
“No you can’t.”
“Aw, don’t be like that, sure I can!” Looking around, he spotted a broken signpost and darted over to grab it, grunting with effort as it came up with a small chunk of concrete on the end. Brandishing it like a club, he grinned at her, practically preening. Behind him, dust shifted and settled.
Pausing for a moment, Celadon looked him up and down, then turned away. “No.”
“No, you’re not pretty enough for that to impress me.” Just a little closer…
Choking noises and giggles from the group ahead of them proved that they weren’t out of earshot, and the young fool practically deflated. “Oh, come on!”
Celadon took one more step forwards, fingers shaping symbols inside her sleeves, then spun back and flicked her hands out towards the human idiot. “Spasm!”
A wide ribbon of asphalt-coloured flesh flailed into the air behind him, screeching through a fang-filled mouth as the camouflaged worm-youkai that had been sneaking up behind him convulsed. She shaped a fireball with nothing but a flick of thought and sent it straight into the gaping mouth, blasting the flat head into shreds and ribbons of burnt flesh, but there were more shapes rising out of hiding. Yells and the sound of a sword chopping through flesh let her know that the front of the group was being attacked as well. No help from Shouei-san, then, she told herself coldly. No matter.
The idiot was scrambling towards her, hands outstretched, and she had to sidestep him again. “Stay out of my way,” she hissed, hands lifting to cast again. “Shield!”
He tripped and fell, grabbing the back of her robes, pulling tight and yanking her off balance, and she nearly lost her concentration on the spell. “Help me you gotta help me please save me they’re gonna kill me--!”
Which would at least get you out from underfoot! “Let go!”
One quick backwards stamp loosened his grip as he yelped in pain, and she yanked free. There were running footsteps from behind, and a voice yelling about idiots -- Good, someone else can deal with him from here -- as she stepped toward the new pair of enemies.
About to form another fireball, she hesitated as something rose up from the jabbering fears at the back of her mind.
--trust is one thing but sometimes you need to be feared--
…I need Shouei-san to trust me, she thought coldly, one hand flicking the nearly-invisible shimmer of force conjured up by her shielding spell into the path of a blow. The humans, though… they just need to do as we say. That idiot won’t, because he might be afraid of the Hundred Tales youkai but he isn’t afraid of us.
Another flick of the hand, another blocked strike.
Decision made, she started shaping another spell as she let the attackers drive her slowly backwards. One had birdlike claws for hands and feet; the other looked nearly human, only dead-black eyes and a long forked tongue flickering to spoil the disguise, and was using a katana.
“I have a question,” she said calmly, angling her shield to slide another blow away from her body. “Are either of you new?”
Bird-claws looked puzzled and the swordsman frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Kyousai’s made a lot of new youkai tonight,” she shrugged, forming the last symbol inside her sleeve. The finished spell tingled in her fingertips, humming with energy, waiting to be released. “I just wondered if either of you were among that number. You might not know for sure, of course… do you remember what you did last week? Can you remember last week?”
The bird-clawed one was looking positively confused now, drawing its claws in to its chest and blinking. “Last… week?” it chirped, clicking hard beaklike lips together. “I…”
The swordsman sneered, bulling forwards and hacking at her shield. “I, new? I was born from one of Sanmoto-sama’s original tales, three hundred and fifty years ago! I have served the Hundred Tales clan from the very beginning! I’ll carve the flesh from your bones for this insult!”
“Oh, good,” Celadon said, taking one last step backwards. A quick sideways glance told her that the idiot was right behind her, along with a couple of the other humans who were trying to drag him away; well within earshot. “You,” she purred, fixing the bird-youkai with her gaze. “Sleep.”
The spell nearly failed, complicated by the two spells she was already holding, but the recently created youkai didn’t have a strong enough will to fight it off and crumpled to the ground, breath whistling through its beak in quiet snores. The swordsman hissed, gaze flicking to his defeated ally for a second.
“Nura bitch,” he spat, lifting his sword for another strike. “I won’t succumb to that level of spell!”
“I don’t expect you to,” she told him frankly, shaking her right sleeve back to free her hand.
Celadon lunged forwards as the sword fell, flicking the shield up and sideways to swat the sword away; it crumbled under the blow, but held long enough that the blade skimmed past her shoulder and barely brushed her sleeve. Her right hand flattened on the swordsman’s chest, fingers spread, and his eyes widened in fear as she spoke the triggering word.
His ribs ruptured outwards with a wet cracking sound, and she stepped back, fingers closing around the pulsing knot of flesh in her hand. The swordsman staggered, dropping his blade, and reached for her, mouth stretching wide in a horrified grimace… then his eyes rolled up and he collapsed. A puddle of blood quickly formed around his body, trickling into cracks in the road surface and dribbling away.
A faint movement further down the street could have been another youkai scuttling into hiding, but nothing else stepped forward to challenge her. Shouei had taken care of his fight, too; when she turned back to look, he was standing several feet away, bloodied sword in hand, watching her with a mildly impressed expression.
The idiot was sprawled on his back at her feet, looking up at her with a strange, almost delighted look on his face. “You saved my life,” he breathed, starting to grin again. “I knew you didn’t mean it!”
“Are you fucking insane?!” one of the men who’d dragged him to that spot hissed, tearing his gaze away from the heart in Celadon’s hand to stare at him.
The boy’s grin faltered as Celadon just looked silently at him for several long seconds; then she slowly uncurled her fingers from around the cooling heart and let it fall to the ground with a splat, flexing her hand. A trickle ran down her wrist towards her sleeve, and she raised her arm to her mouth, licking it off.
“Ew,” somebody whispered.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” she said almost gently, flexing her fingers again. They were inhumanly long, with extra joints and a sixth finger that she knew made her hands seem creepy and spiderlike to humans even when they weren’t dyed red with fresh blood. “Shouei-san wants to save everyone here, and I owe a debt to someone who would want all of you to live. Apart from that, I don’t particularly care if you, personally, die. More to the point…” Pausing, she licked the blood off her thumb, never taking her eyes off him. “…if it comes to a situation where saving you will endanger the rest of the group, I will let you die without a second thought; and if you ever again get in my way during a fight, I’ll kill you myself.” She let her smile widen, beginning to show sharp teeth that were only a fraction away from being fangs. “Keep up with the group and stay out of my way, and you won’t have to worry about me. Is that clear?”
The idiot gulped like a fish, staring at her wide-eyed, and the man who’d questioned his sanity grabbed his shoulder. “It’s clear,” he said, hauling the boy up and starting to drag him back to the rest of the group. “Really clear. We’ll make sure he’s got it straight.”
“Uh, yeah,” the other man nodded, grabbing the boy’s other arm. “He won’t bother you again. Promise!”
“I would appreciate that,” she said sincerely, and turned away to watch their back trail for movement.
Shouei walked up to stand near her, wiping his sword. “Did you mean that?” he asked quietly.
“…Yes and no,” she answered after a pause, glancing sideways at him. Tell him the truth, she decided. They’re all out of hearing range again if we keep our voices down. I can’t ask for trust without giving it myself, and I need it. “I wouldn’t mourn if the fool died, but I’m not planning to kill him myself even if he does do something stupid again.”
He nodded slightly, examining the blade for nicks. “I see. You’re not making any friends among the humans like that, though.”
His silence invited an explanation, and she sighed, feeling very tired. I hope we don’t have to fight much more. Shouei-san is tired too, he’s hiding it well but it shows a little. “He’s the sort of person who feels no respect for anyone he doesn’t fear. If I hadn’t scared him, he would have gone right back to lagging behind, whining, and trying to flirt with me as soon as he got over the shock of nearly being eaten. Now that he’s afraid of me, he’ll behave, and we won’t have to deal with all the extra trouble he would have stirred up.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Shouei sheathed his blade and looked back towards the humans, scanning past them for threats. “I’m a youkai, Celadon; I understand all about respect through fear, but I also understand that when you’re after allies, you need the sort of Fear that manifests as admiration. You’re scaring all of them.”
He’d put an odd emphasis on ‘Fear’ the second time he’d said it, almost like he meant something different, and Celadon frowned slightly. “That’s all right. I don’t want them as allies.”
“…Not even Naoko’s friends?”
Hidden in her sleeve, her left hand clenched into a fist. She took a moment to lick another finger clean, concentrating on keeping her voice steady when she finally spoke. “Especially not them.”
“N-- that girl,” she couldn’t speak the name, couldn’t, “wanted them to be safe. Wanted them to be able to go back to their lives. If they’re afraid of me, they’ll be able to accept that I’m not… her. They’ll be able to mourn, and go on. If they’re not afraid of me, if they… like me… they won’t accept that she’s gone. I can’t bring her back for them,” she said, flicking another glance sideways at him as he made a soft, uncomfortable noise in the back of his throat. “She didn’t want them to be pulled into all of this, and if they like me -- if they try to stay near me because they think of me as her in some way -- they’ll never get out of it.”
If things go as I hope, we will be able to bring Naoko back for her friends, he thought, wincing inwardly, but only by losing you. Killing you. Or-- does it count as dying when she made you up in the first place? Are you just a dream she’s having, that she’ll wake up from if Kyousai dies?
“Before my father died,” Shouei said quietly, “I was planning to stay out of ‘all of this’ myself. After he was killed, though, I came back to youkai society… and I left my human friends behind, for the same reason you’re trying to keep her friends clear. So.” He cleared his throat, scanning the area for new threats yet again, using it as an excuse to not look directly at her. “I’m not going to argue with your methods, I guess.
“He taste any good?” he went on abruptly, jerking his chin towards the swordsman’s evaporating corpse. Oh, excellent change of subject there, idiot! Why not talk about the weather next time, that’ll be even more awkward--
“Fair,” Celadon said, smiling faintly as she shook her sleeve back into place over her cleaned hand. “You were much better.”
“I’m not sure whether I should consider that a compliment or a warning.”
“Don’t worry; I won’t need blood again for nearly a month, and I don’t drink from allies without permission. This time was… um…”
“I think Kyousai counts as extenuating circumstances,” Shouei said dryly, turning to go. “Besides, we weren’t allies at that point.”
“…Are we… now?”
Startled by her suddenly uncertain, timid voice, he looked back over his shoulder and met her eyes, staring at him in-- hope, perhaps? Longing? She looked away almost immediately, turning her face down and to one side, but the desperate need in her expression for that one brief moment before she wiped it away shook him. Her, too; the jewels in her hair chimed together quietly, shivering.
I can’t do it. Even if the transformation can be reversed, even to get Naoko back safe for her friends, I can’t--
“You said it yourself, didn’t you?” he bit out, voice rough. “Even though I taste good, I don’t need to worry because you don’t drink from allies without permission. You’re already treating me as an ally… and I owe you my life. There’d have to be something wrong with me for me to ignore that. So… yeah.” He shrugged one shoulder, smiling wryly. “We’re allies.”
“Thank you,” Celadon whispered, and bowed to him, deep enough that her braid slid forward over her shoulder to lie in the dust and he could see the back of her neck. She held that pose, perfectly still, and he pretended not to notice the wet spots appearing on the ground beneath her hidden face as he turned away.
“Oi, we’re not taking another break!” he called, striding towards the bewildered humans. “You can sit down once we make it to Meiji Jingu!”
He could hear quiet footsteps at his back as Celadon followed, backing him up, and it felt right.
On to Part 2
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