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Thread: [TOUEI] Ashura (Sidestory)

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    [TOUEI] Ashura (Sidestory)

    I forgot to intersperse the chapters of my concurrently running fic sidestory. The next side chapter will be integrated again.

    Ashura: Demigod synonymous with demon.
    Burning blood.
    Clouded moon.
    A smile that encircles all and invites fate.
    16th Century Japan, Warring States Period


    Prologue: Ashura

    It was an acrid smell. Not in its singular qualities, for it was too strong to allow any judgments about it. It overpowered his senses, closed in on all sides. In the darkness, he could feel it crawling along his armor, like a second skin, loose and deadened to feeling; and as the atmosphere reached the true, exposed skin at the base of his neck, it was a rough, unpleasant situation. Not even his tightly bound haramaki, with its rigid metal plates and silk rope, could constrict his chest more than the oppressive stench, filling and corrupting his lungs with every breath. Deep, tropical heat drew forth beads of sweat upon his creased brow, and his hindered breath struggled to emerge from behind his face-mask, a plate of steel frozen in a bestial grimace.

    The smell came from below. That’s why it could creep up his body so. He knew the thing he followed was near, and in the darkened room, lit only by a few, sparse candles, he felt its desire. Every shadow let out imaginary lunges of murderous intent.

    But that sense was unnecessary. It had left behind a trail of its work.

    His sandaled feet soaked themselves in what could have been a pool of shallow water. But the thickness and consistency of it clung fast to him, and even with a strong heart, he dared not look down. Invisible, robust things, some soft, some metal, brushed against every step. At times he felt himself stopping, steeled but somehow frantic eyes searching every corner of the un-navigable blackness. The grip he held on his katana was stone-like, but not out of bravery. Shame and bravery had ceased to exist when he’d entered the keep. That low ceiling, and the heavy oak pillars boxed him in, leaving him nothing but shadows and the things upon the floor he refused to look at. His feet were entirely saturated in it in by now, and they dragged. He could no longer hear his steps on the formerly slick, almost lacquered cherry wood floor.

    The sound of ragged breathing ahead had crept up on him even from directly before his face. Something was there in the darkness, and the candle posts had petered off. Its voice was hideous, and each gulp, a wet hiss of drawn air, filled him with revulsion. He had to cut, dispatch the thing right away. It wasn’t any longer because he knew that thing had cut down every one of his allies. They were samurai, and prepared for death. No matter how torturous. It was simply that his mind would not accept the existence of a living, breathing, avatar of abject terror standing before him, back turned. Its fear had to be appeased, and only one sacrifice would do.

    A blade, that of a nodachi, but perhaps his own height, held in one dark hand, laying disrespectfully tip against the floor. The curved point was embedded in the red floor, perfectly still.
    The armor was a dark, impure crimson-no, dyed in crimson. Heat emanated from every orifice of the shadow-covered shape that his eyes could only barely comprehend. With every gasp of air, its heaving shoulders filled the silent mortuary with pure dread, and sucked from him the strength in his chest and proud arms.

    Only fear remained behind.

    He felt it move before it even turned to face him. It was because his eyes picked up on the ripple in the “floor” the sword point buried itself in. Long, pure, circular ripples that traveled across murky shapes to brush against his warm feet.

    The helm upon the hunched shoulders of the enemy warrior twisted to face its enemy. It faced his frozen, metal yell of anger with an identical one, but that mouth carried within it two thick swords no human jaw could have supported. It was enough for the samurai to imagine that mask was his enemy’s actual face. The red armor’s back was studded with quills like that of a porcupine; until the samurai strained his eyes and saw that they were arrows buried deep within, saturated with blowfish poison. Yet still the beast stood there with its feet invisible, and rusted, bloody sword bare.

    But behind that mask were eyes that even in the darkness, he could somehow perceive. Cold, perfectly round, and brimming with a dim light. The face they were set deep in was stiff with the rigor of fury, tensing and pulling with each breath. Within those eyes he recalled the stories of dark times before the daimyo, and before their retainers. Of an age of blood and consumed flesh. A place in their country where human men dared not set foot, for only there in the world would they be eaten. Man, who fed upon the flesh of lesser beings, would be food for devils that should not have ever emerged from Naraku. Those tales were the domain of children not men, but even so, the recollection surfaced unwelcome inside his mind.

    It raised a thick, tree-trunk like arm and began its approach. The sounds of its breath strengthened, cutting through his ears and limbs, making him week. The extremities of his body became useless, like they had suddenly fled far from him and the frantic commands of his mind to face his enemy, to raise his katana into a defensive posture. It seemed as though the legs beneath him wilted and crumpled like trampled flowers. He fell to his knees in a sanguine splash. The barely recognizable pieces of meat resting below him violated his vision without mercy. His fingers finally crumbled away from the grip of his blade, the hilt dipped in the fast-sticking dye, to join with those beneath them. Incomplete, and cold. No response but the trace heat of life bleeding away, slowly.

    There was nothing more left to him but to be scattered amongst those below, in the blackened hallway of butchers.

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    夜魔 Nightmare Cascade's Avatar
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    Grey sky. Scarlet banners. Walls of shale. The clouded heaven of fall weighed down upon the ravaged land with the misery of welling tears. Beneath it, doomed men stood clad in blackened armor, or blackened armor painted red, knee deep in mud, postures rigid behind pathetic mockeries of their formation; bound reed shields standing more bravely before the lowly footmen, and even further ahead of their samurai lords.

    “What is the meaning of this?!”

    Urakami Sadamune cussed under his breath. Before him the brutalized walls and battlements of the Matsuda-clan castle remained unbroken. The immense gates, low and far removed to the castle’s north wall, spiraling upwards into the keep, were fully breached, yet presented as much of an impossible wall as any other. Footmen and samurai alike fled from the mouth of the serpent that wrapped itself around Matsuda’s fortress, screaming prayers and cries for deliverance. Only through that passageway could victory be achieved, but now it was flooded with a wall of the dead and dismembered. Sadamune’s rage was infamous across his territories. He had never been completely at ease since his father was slain by the Matsuda-clan; rumors persisted that he had forsaken sleep, or sleep had forsaken him, for his desire for revenge was so great that his mind could not settle for one hour of rest. Even after his family regained its composure and brought back retribution upon its rivals, even after Norimune’s death was all but vindicated, their honor regained, Sadamune would not be satisfied with a tiny spilling of blood. It was their blood, however, and the blood of their loyal retainers and servants that cascaded from their enemy’s gate. Months ago, he could not have imagined the manpower and resources necessary for a campaign of that scale. Now his army marched through Bizen with little effort.

    For all their might, though, the castle continued to stand in his way, like a callus that could not be pierced, or sanded down. The enemy’s men and peasantry lay slaughtered in the hundreds, all broken, pierced, and scattered, their entrails spilling across the road, their bodies hanging from the ramparts. They continued to put up a token resistance, even as their food supply was fully blockaded, but only to protect one member of the Matsuda-clan’s heirs, and a tactically ineffectual one at that. If it was he who resided within the castle, Sadamune reasoned, surrender would be inevitable, for he had little in the way of shame and valued his own life too highly. However, what he had expected to be a painless offering of a bare neck to him slowly degenerated into a grueling siege.

    Among the retainer families attached to the lands and family members of the Matsuda clan, one name came to mind in particular. They were not respected or famous so much as infamous: the Nogami clan of samurai, who were known far and wide as “Eaters of Flesh,” or “Drinkers of Blood.” A clan peopled with savage warriors so fearsome they eschewed the dictates of bushido entirely in favor of disorganized melee and berserk rage, the Nogami clan was not known for its defensive prowess. Sadamune had to admit that even outside of their typical battlefield role, the defenders were performing admirably. Far more admirably than his own soldiers, who, while seasoned and well trained, were no match for the “human demon” that prowled just inside the castle’s dark corridors. If their strategy was simply to hole up inside Matsuda’s castle and place a few incredibly strong warriors as sacrifices ordered to slay as many enemies as they could before dying, it was, against all basic logic and battlefield strategy, working. Reports continued to stream from the foreward outpost of men, holed up within the outer gates of the castle with relative safety. Aides came to Sadamune speaking of a great ogre in red armor who cut down men as if he carried Kusanagi itself, the holy sword which lay low fields of grass with every stroke.

    Though the time for talking had largely passed, Sadamune, dressed in his full, illustrious black armor, coaxed his black horse forward, approaching the edge of the moat surrounding the castle. Its hooves carefully picked their way between bodies and navigated over the mud slurry of terrain. He was fearless, but not without reason. The defenders had long lost the ability to put up any sort of threatening bombardment from either bow or harquebus, and even though he was aided by a few spearmen on foot, they were not necessary. However, one could have easily said that Sadamune was not a man prone to thinking about such details, and would have pushed forward to the front line even if it meant his untimely end.

    Within yelling distance, Sadamune’s powerful voice echoed upwards to the battlements.

    “Cowards of the Matsuda clan! I see how your retainers fight their battles!”

    At his brash words, no answer came to him, not from the far off mountains or the grey wisps of smoke shrouding everything.

    Shifting in his saddle, Sadamune expected not to be dignified with a representative, but attempted a second time. His throat lumped as another great cry built up behind his teeth. Louder than before, it bounded like a thunderclap further than the keep before him.

    “So, you are frightened of Urakami Sadamune? That is not without cause, for a degenerate who shelters the inhuman beasts of the Norogami* clan can only hope to curl up and weep beneath our banners, once captured! Or is it the guilt your blood feels for the dishonorable murder of my father?”

    For a long moment, there was silence. Sadamune was about to turn his horse about, confidently pulling its reigns when an unarmored head emerged from the wooden-shuttered windows in the castle’s upper walls. Even at that distance, Sadamune’s sharp eyes could discern the wide, solemn face of Nogami Ouryu.

    “Urakami Sadamune, I have heard your call. What words do you have to speak of my family?”

    “You’ve finally shown yourself, Nogami Ouryu.” Sadamune smiled with bitter, sardonic confidence. “Your children have butchered many of my men. And naturally, ‘butchered’ can only be used to describe your wanton, self-satisfying acts of slaughter.”

    The patriarch of the migrant Nogami clan spoke back with a strong, equally loud voice, but with none of Sadamune’s rage. Indeed, he was almost devoid of sentiment. “The battlefield is a place of rage and fire. You reward your retainers with fiefs for slaughtering their enemy and gritting their teeth with fierce anger on the battlefield. Why then do you criticize our ways for the same actions?”

    Sadamune’s face and neck were like stone in his anger. “Do not compare your subhuman brood with our kind! You, whose sons are monsters that kill indiscriminately and without honor, who do not even announce their names to their opponents or kill themselves when their lord has forsaken them, have not the right to compare yourself to the Urakami’s brave samurai!”

    “I will not dispute you that. Indeed, our families cannot be compared, nor can our soldiers. Your men are not capable of slaying my sons, or myself, and your siege will fail. In that aspect we cannot be compared; our levels of prowess are entirely different.”

    “Tch!!”

    “Return home to your people. My lord Matsuda Houji will no more bother you than he will attack your lands. Our feud is all but settled.” The monotone yell, like a prayer call, reverberated across the desolate plain before Matsuda’s stronghold.

    Sadamune’s horse stirred beneath him. Ouryu’s voice alone was enough to unsettle his mount, which was normally as immune to fear as its rider.

    “You talk brazenly about your own lord! Will you abandon him to our swords like you did your previous master?”

    “Nogami is a name that has a purpose to fulfill in this prefecture. We are a clan that values the preservation of its bloodline, cutting away illusions, and that which is useful. If our lord no longer can make use of us, we seek another lord. If your bushido states that capable warriors should waste themselves when defeated or when their lord is slain, then our bushido will be different.”

    “Your ‘bushido’ is the code of degeneracy which dictates the action of every demon in hell!”

    “Goodbye, honorable Urakami. It was a pleasure speaking to you.”
    The dusk-shaded face faded into hte darkness. Ouryu closed the wooden shutter with a dull clack, and the exchange ended there.

    The slighted Sadamune snorted and turned his steed around, which was all too eager to retreat behind their lines. Returning to the arrayed rectangular walls of gold fabric that designated his battlefield headquarters, he dismounted and stormed to his seat. His gloved fingers plied the skin of his forehead and thin beard. Sadamune was shortly interrupted from thought by his aides.

    “Report: We have incurred roughly 30% casualties! However, the fortress’s water supply from the northern river has been barricaded. My lord, if we continue this way, we should achieve victory, however-“

    “These are facts I am already aware of!” Sadamune roared. “I want to know how to finish this quickly. The continued existence of every last member of the Matsuda clan is a slight upon my father’s name. Beyond that, it is inexcusable that the Nogami still live.”

    Clasping his hands together, wringing an invisble neck, Sadamune’s twitching face gazed towards the castle.

    “We must mount a full on attack through the front gate if we are to overcome ‘him.’”

    The aide shook, not daring to expose the pale terror of his expression to his general. He had only enough bravery to object.

    “B-but my lord, the men within the keep’s entrance refuse to move any further. Nogami Genryu, or Unryu; we’re uncertain of which, but he is a monster! They say even after fifty poisoned arrows, he continued to fight and slay every man who came before him. No human being is capable of this! We should bypass, or perhaps completely avoid-“

    “Pathetic!!!” The general snapped his command fan between his clenching fingers. “Are there no men of suitable mettle who will stand up to rid me of this disgusting nuisance? Bizen will remain contested forever between our clans, then. And you are saying you are satisfied with that? You dog!”

    The sliding of metal alerted Sadamune’s aide with little time to spare. He scrambled haplessly away from his master’s impetuous strike. Sadamune shook off interfering arms and struck at any who neared him, ignoring plees for mercy and words of reason alike.

    “Please forgive me my lord!!!”

    “Silence! For once in your life, do as a samurai should-“

    “Please wait a minute, Master Urakami.”

    Sadamune’s blade was halted mid-swing by a voice familiar only to him. The rasp of an elderly timbre put the command tent to silence.

    From the entrance, a man who appeared to be in his early sixties strolled calmly across the pressed grass in woven sandals. His faded robes, while not overly ornate, were beyond that of a peasant, but he was no samurai, and his graying hair indicated he was useless on a battlefield. Sadamune’s guards and non-threatened aides watched the figure with suspicion. As for the frightened aide, he lay on his back and breathed heavily, his eyes fearfully darting back and forth between his lord’s katana and the strange old man.

    “What this man says is true.”

    With a raised eyebrow and conspicuous eyes of blue, Sadamune’s mysterious “tactical advisor,” who had arrived only weeks before, began his instruction, with no intention of saving the unfortunate man, but rather preserving his life simply by distracting the tiger-like general.

    Sadamune sheathed his sword grudgingly, paying it the proper respect even within the midst of his rage. He too regarded the man suspiciously.

    Rojin,” for he only knew him as an old man, “You too test my patience? I have tolerated your lack of respect. Far be it from me not to recognize ability. But, if you are a strategist, then devise a plan for me to slay Nogami and take Matsuda’s head.”

    The old man’s wispy hair shook from his balding head as he shut his eyes with an inappropriately calm smile. Shaking his head back and forth, one could only imagine the punishment of death Sadamune had in store for such an audacious fool.

    “I say that he speaks the truth. The name Nogami is synonymous, in this case, with ‘monster.’ They are beasts who dominate war, and thrive on bloodshed.” He punctuated his macabre words with an unfitting smile of fascination that exposed his perfectly white lower teeth.

    The general warily approached the pale, specter-like figure. His presence was faint, easily unnoticed by all. Sadamune mind scraped at every possible identity, but no solutions came to him; only half-likely suspicions and theories. That was the limit of his mental prowess.

    “Yes, the Nogami are monsters, and only a monster can defeat a monster, Master Urakami.”

    The old man’s smile widened, like a opening wound, and Sadamune envisioned the entire camp enveloped by its sublime crescent.

    “I see. Then, tell me. About this monster of yours.”


    *Though I'm no real expert on Japanese, I decided to take the risk of putting this in. Sadamune used the character Noroi (Curse) and put it into the Nogami name.

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    Jester of the Moon Cell's Sovereign Kieran's Avatar
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    And now this is back. Hopefully by reading it as one piece, I'll figure out its mysteries.

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    Lantern globes danced about canvas and wooden barriers fearlessly in the night. The Urakami forces were free to do as they wished, razing the countryside and appropriating resources wherever they found them, so long as they stayed outside of the castle keep. Inside was a slaughtering ground, but Nogami Ouryu nevertheless remained complacent. For they were the purveyors of slaughter, and though wholesale death wasn’t to his taste, save for in his most vicious moments, the clan’s patriarch knew well the meaninglessness of a struggle against his family’s nature.

    He sat stolidly as he observed their tiny festival from the high windows of their stone bulwarks. Two thoughts seized his mind: that of service to his lord, and that of the survival of his family.

    The former, Ouryu hypothesized, would not trouble him much longer. Matsuda Houji was without honor, and feared death, amongst most other things, but he was samurai, after all, and sooner or later, his shame would get the better of him.

    The later was far less easy to ensure. Long had he soaked his hands, and the hands of his offspring, in blood to serve Matsuda, though far be it from Ouryu to deny their purpose. The war against Urakami’s family was fruitless, its outcome indeterminate, but even so he had experienced the feeling of purchase with every swing of his sword. Each man he and his unnaturally skilled sons felled bought an hour of life for his masters, Ouryu had felt. For that purpose, traditional bushido was not sufficient. As a tool for enforcing decorum amongst his class during times of peace, it was indispensable. But the Nogami were a tribe incompatible with the samurai code in times of war. Ouryu himself had questioned the purpose of decorum in a savage time. Their nature and status rewarded them for killing, yet condemned his family for “indiscretion.”

    He had felt it himself when he was younger. The ferocity with which the bloodlust took him wrapped his body in scarlet ribbons. The feeling of ecstasy when he cut flesh drove him through his twenty years of youth. First as a murderer, who felt no guilt; he could not suppress his yearning. For another 30 years he insinuated himself into war wherever he could, finding his services desired as long as he butchered with skill. Upon the battlefield he was a demon, Ashura, who presided over the art of combat; not strategy, for it had no meaning for him, but the simplistic act of removing life from the soft, clay-like shells of human beings. Men were sacrificial straw dogs. As the dogs were null in purpose until they were burned, the death within humans was the true actualization of existence. His blade seeded the battlefield with its creations. Until the fatal moment, they had no significance in his eyes. Blood was dirty, an impurity, corruption. When it sprayed freely from man-shaped containers, those spirits were freed of their taint. And with every purification, Ouryu damned himself more and more in their stead. It had been since he was born that the man felt the presence of a great and terrible evil flowing within his veins. It was natural that allies avoided him despite his prowess on the field of combat. That was fortunate for them, for in the midst of combat, Ouryu could barely discern, through the red haze, friend or foe.

    Only when he reached more advanced years, having slashed his way to the status of a retainer, hated and feared but uncaring, did he know anything else but bloodshed. Ouryu came across a mysterious old man who claimed to understand the origin of the fire woven into him. In a dimly lit hit, they traced back his lineage, before the Heian period, before even that, and the man, who never stopped smiling, shared with the warrior the knowledge that he’d instinctively known all along.

    Within the name Nogami was a curse: The curse of inhuman blood.
    That day, Ouryu considered whether or not it was a sin to continue the existence of an abomination, intermingled with the ambitions and passions of a man.

    “It seems they are hard at work even now, Father.”

    Ouryu turned his head. His graying hair and semi-bald head flickered in candle illumination before the deep blue of coming night. His face tightened slightly.

    His middle child, Hiryu, emerged from the darkness of the castle chambers. He was a young man with gentle, childlike features despite having already reached the age of twenty years. The lines of his harmless mask were effeminate and attractive. Few of his father’s traits were evident in the young man, physically or otherwise. Messy black hair cascaded over his forehead and rest loosely bound at the back of his head; his father hadn’t the care to demand that he shave his forehead or tie a topknot. The softness of his black eyes revealed the face of a boy who had seen only the most minimal of combat. His arms were like flax and his hands had only faint calluses from sword training. In one shaking hand he grasped a length of chain that led out of sight.

    Ouryu nodded. “This is true. I’m afraid your younger brother will get no sleep tonight. There is no one free enough to take his place at the Red Gate.”

    He turned his face back to the camp below the castle, and Hiryu averted his gaze in shame. Had he been born gifted at combat, like his older brother, or fearless, like his younger, he would have had a purpose. But even from his youth, his father disdained him, and recognized his inability to properly handle any martial weapon, his lack of stamina and skill. Hiryu’s only purpose was to be married to another family, as if he was his father’s sole female child.

    “Will reinforcements come?”

    “No such thing exists.”

    “Will we continue the defense?”

    “As long as our lord still lives.”

    “What of the Mie family? The servants?”

    “I’m going to release them.”

    “…”

    Ouryu closed his eyes. “There is no need for them to follow us to the grave, if that comes to pass.”

    Behind him the hulking shape in the darkness moaned uneasily, shifting like a quivering mountain. Hiryu receded into shadow with it and reached out, his hand brushing blood-soaked armor until it contacted dry, blistered skin.

    “There there… your older brother is here for you.” He feared its grasp but kept his trembling heart still, for fear that it could feel it resonate through his hand’s veins. “I’m here, so the pain won’t last much longer. Those little sewing needles can’t kill you. You’re so strong, Unryu.”

    Hiryu brushed the skin, taught with unnatural muscle and sword calluses, grasping the apelike fingers as thick and rigid as bamboo stems. “You’re so strong.”

    He didn’t know if his little brother could understand him. There was never any indication, save for his placidity. The “boy” had only one method of communication.

    “Hiryu, remove the arrows.”

    “Yes father.”

    The red carapace on his back fell away. Hiryu struggled under its weight. Broken shafts of wood jutted out of gored, pale skin, and underneath a misshapen spine heaved, lungs like fire bellows expanded and contracted. He stifled a gag; the sight of flowing blood provoked sickness within him.

    “How terrible.” Hiryu murmured.

    “Hold your tongue, boy.” Ouryu chided in exhaustion, not even looking at him.

    A normal man could barely move with even one arrow lodged in him. It verged on physically impossible. Ten meant nothing to Nogami Unryu, for he was not a man.

    He was careful to fasten his brother’s chain tightly before attempting to remove them.

    “I’m sorry brother… I’m sorry-“



    The wails of an inhuman creature echoed through the castle’s shadow. Foot soldiers peering over the bales and wooden, arrow-infested barriers looked to each other with fearful eyes before drawing their metal hats further down over their faces. Within Sadamune’s tent, the officers gazed upwards as if they could see anything but the fabric shielding them. The horrible sound continued, provoking shudders from some of the Urakami samurai’s most stalwart men.

    “That is Matsuda’s monster, is it?” Sadamune smirked confidently.

    “My lord.” An underling skittered in before him. “Your aide has returned, with a suspicious character.”

    “The old man.” Sadamune nodded forcefully, grasping his chin. “Send him in.”

    The elderly figure slid in through the tent’s entrance, wearing the same sublime smile. However, illuminated from below by glowing embers, it looked quite more sinister.

    And behind him walked a construct of ink. A figure of middling height, every inch of his skin concealed in black clothing, entered Sadamune’s headquarters. His face was hidden behind a solid veil.

    The lord was indignant. “What’s this? Old man, you bring me a stagehand? I have no taste for that art, however.” The clothing the man, or woman, no one could say, wore reminded Sadamune of an “invisible” actor on stage, meant to manipulate props. It was not an art the brusque man had taste for.

    “He is no stagehand, honorable Urakami.”

    The old man drew a skeletal hand across the concealed face, dragging the veil aside.
    The eyes of a pale, intense young man stared back at Sadamune. Granting allowances for a childlike appearance, the boy could have been no older than sixteen. The boy possessed hair white like the surface of the moon, a skin tone like porcelain, and eyes like aquamarine, but otherwise he seemed disappointingly ordinary.

    “You mock me. Surely this isn’t the monster you promised me.”

    The old man bowed, not quite reverently enough to convey loyalty, or even respect. “I can assure you he will be quite useful. Base trickery is entertaining to me, but I have nothing to gain from lying to you, and everything to gain from honesty.”

    Sadamune was silent, striding pompously towards the shorter pair. He watched the boy who followed him with his own eyes, step by step.

    “What’s your name?”

    The young man made no reply.

    “Forgive his rudeness my lord. His family forbids the boy to speak with anyone not of his own blood. Secrecy is of utmost importance to these people, you see.”

    The focus within the youngster’s eyes was startling even to a veteran like the Urakami. The black pinpoints of his pupils were barely visible at the center of his wide blue irises.

    “He has the eyes of a killer.” Sadamune withdrew, seemingly satisfied. “Where did you find this child?”

    The old man smirked back at the warlord.
    “At a certain shrine I once visited, there is a board for fortunes. I stopped there to possibly attain an auspicious favor from the world. But in order to be granted such a favor, you need to know where to ask. These are wooden request talismans left for the king of hell Yama.”

    “A Buddhist?”

    “Hah, no my lord. I am quite lacking in faith. I learned of a legend surrounding that particular shrine and its fortunes. A local once spoke to me that if one wrote certain words on the talisman, with the name of an individual who must be killed, that individual would be without exception dead by the next morning. The victim was always executed in a way that suggested forces beyond our comprehension, but as I said, I am a skeptic, so of course, I investigated...”

    Sadamune looked to the strange boy once again, more curiously this time. “Oh! Then he is one of those assassins.”

    But the old man shook his head at that as well. “No, he is not one of the shadow people. The techniques his kind uses, though I have never witnessed them myself, are far more exotic than those of a simple shinobi.”

    Sadamune scoffed. “You have never seen him assassinate a target? That is reasonable, I suppose. But what evidence can you provide me of his loyalty? His skill?”

    “None, my lord. If he is unable to slay even one of Nogami’s sons, he will die. No gain, no loss. It is that simple.”

    “I don’t want to be responsible for the burial of this boy’s corpse in the middle of my campaign when he isn’t even one of my own. Remove him from my sight.” The warlord turned his back on the pair, only to meet the old man’s visage again, where his back was once facing.

    “Please, have patience my lord.” The elderly aide walked swiftly to the boy. With two fingers and his thumb, he violently grasped the side of the young man’s face, pulling hard enough to tear. The boy did not flinch, though blood trickled down from the corner of his mouth. “Observe how he does not recognize pain nor fear. Before I have tickled his eyelashes with the tip of my knife, and gained no more reaction than this. The dictates of his employer are all the truth he desires, as was written by his associates. My monster is more than sufficient to kill Nogami’s monster. As I’ve said before, sending more men in tonight will only result in greater losses, and tomorrow morning, Nogami will grow in viciousness.” The old man shaded his eyes, releasing his grasp on the impassive young killer. “This boy will enter the castle alone tonight, with his tools. He will present you with your enemy’s head, or you may remove his and mine as substitutes, though they be unworthy.”

    The warlord, taken aback by the man’s willingness to offer his own life and the life of his “monster,” stroked his mustache in deliberation.

    “…Let us see then what this ‘expert killer’ can accomplish, old man.”

    At his approval, Sadamune’s unofficial advisor, whose name was not known and origin secret, turned to the white-haired youth with cyan eyes. “Here, my young friend. I understand that this is unorthodox, but I am sure your kinsmen will not object to the assignment.”

    The old man then handed the man-slayer four tablets. Nogami Ouryu, Garyu, Hiryu, and Unryu. Beneath each name, two succinct characters were written.

    Seven Nights.



    Hiryu rubbed the poisoned blood off his fingers. If nothing else, he had delicate hands, and so he was naturally talented at not cutting himself when working with small blades like the arrowheads. That was a miniscule fear in comparison to the danger his thrashing younger brother presented. However, he had managed to survive, at least for that night, and Unryu had since calmed. Their father had not once turned from his place near the shuttered window.

    In the midst of refastening the armor to the monster’s back, the oldest of the Nogami children emerged. Disfigured only in a human way, he was in uncertain territory between Hiryu’s normalcy and Unryu’s brutishness. But he was clever, and shared his father and youngest brother’s thirst for battle. If not for Garyu’s delving into esoteric knowledge, they all, perhaps with the exemption of Hiryu, would have lost all vestiges of human sanity long ago. But the manner in which he staved away damnation was unforgivable. For his part, Garyu had no complaints.

    “As you suspected, Father, the water supply through the East canal has been blocked off.”

    Ouryu did not stir. “We will last another week at best.”

    The eldest son stepped fourth. Like Unryu, it was difficult to tell where the blood ended and red lacquer began on his armor. “Perhaps it would not be wise for us to stay with Lord Matsuda.”

    “You speak the unforgivable.”

    “True, it seems to be what I often must do.” His lumpy features twisted into a smile, with a voice like gravel. “Lord Matsuda’s time is close at hand. If he does not take the honorable path, we are under no obligation to do the same.”

    Ouryu flinched. “That is plainly untrue. Do you suggest we become master-less again?” His voice was strained. Their name could shoulder little more shame than it already bore.

    “As long as we possess our servants, and have our lives to call our own, we still can find work. This country has plenty of warfare for us to partake in.”

    “Ridiculous. Garyu, your words sting my ears, even if they are sensible.”

    All the while Hiryu watched his older brother with hardened eyes. Unryu shifted about under the thick armor. That he harbored a special hate for his own kin was difficult for a self-effacing individual like himself, but nonetheless, he could feel his dormant blood boil when Garyu was around. In terms of martial skill, however, there was no comparison between them; to the older sibling went the privileges of superiority and greater favor. Hiryu dared not speak in his presence.

    “Please father, at the very least, we must flee this lost castle with our loyal subjects. Once we have carved our way out of this carcass, doing so with ease if my experiences today prove truthful, we shall take the Mie with us, and establish our own fortress.”

    “Where?”

    “Perhaps in the mountains. We could disguise ourselves as merchants and flee to Mimasaka, or as far as Nagato.”

    “… Flee.”

    “This is no time to be wringing our hands over the same concerns as Sadamune. We should let reason govern our actions.”

    Ouryu was silent for a long time, but did not view the smile Garyu wore. The man knew his son well enough to understand his thinking. If they were to flee, that would have entailed a violent break out from the castle. Their betrayal of Matsuda Houji would be displayed to all. Their clan would be mistrusted countrywide, more so than it already was. It had taken him half a lifetime to build up the esteem amongst the Matsuda clan in order to attain the status of retainer. Now Ouryu considered discarding that prestige like rotten food before the sea of rats huddling together in the glowing camp below their formerly illustrious home.

    It was however, a home he had always felt their kind never deserved from the start.

    Hiryu, meanwhile, secreted himself away from the conversing pair. Any further listening, and he would have been unable to contain his fruitless anger.

    You intend to continue their slavery to us brother? Or is it because you haven’t finished with them yet?!



    In the midst of the night, hidden beneath the shadow of smokey clouds obscuring half the moon, the dark garbed stranger walked. He dragged behind him two heavy carts in impossible silence. With every step he took his clothes rippled about him with the fluidity of oil. A black wisp of smoke, Nanaya Mangetsu, crept the ravaged path to the red front gates of Matsuda’s keep, alone.
    Last edited by Cascade; April 9th, 2011 at 03:00 AM.

  5. #5
    Jester of the Moon Cell's Sovereign Kieran's Avatar
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    This does work better, at least in my head. Easier to follow now.

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    夜魔 Nightmare Cascade's Avatar
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    4

    Nogami Hiryu sat, his body limp as he held his hand loosely clasped around the heavy chain. The soft hands, which had rarely handled a sword, brushed against the moving links. His brother; his monster’s metal tail was dragging across the wooden floor. The strange, one-man procession of metallic ringing and scraping moved in time with Unryu’s breath. Every gasp clawed the air, and if the middle child focused, he could almost feel the percussive beats of the deformed creature’s poison-strained heart. Only when the red warrior slouched off into the darkness of the corridor did Hiryu realize he was breathing heavily as well. His frail, womanly wrist trembled as the last of the chain slipped from his grasp. Soon, the ringing and the scraping were no more.

    He could feel it. Regret encircled his heart like unbreakable shackles. Were he the ideal older brother, the love in his heart would not be abated, no matter how fiendish the younger boy looked or acted. Or he would be a strong son, who could, if not suffer alone in his family’s name, suffer along with his other siblings. But Hiryu had no such power. His name evoked the image of a dragon soaring in the sky. However, like his namesake, Hiryu was set aside from the worldly conflicts that surrounded his clan; and unlike his family, Hachiman had forsaken him. No special talent, nor blind berserker rage, drove him to cross swords with their enemies. Hiryu had no taste for combat, but the shame of being utterly useless was not an easy morsel to swallow. He was convinced that the day he emerged on the battlefield would be the day he died.

    As much as he desired to have courage, watching his disfigured, murderous kin slouch off to combat had an effect on his composure. Gripped by fear, the young man felt his extremities grow numb. A creeping pain seeped through his body, as if veins of frozen blood split the skin and extracted themselves from him like an uprooted tree’s unseen half. He could not move, no more than he could fathom facing the enemy alongside an ally such as his brother. Unryu always fought alone. Indeed, perhaps he never saw friend or foe from the beginning.

    The candles’ fire trembled. Black snakes of shadow quivered across the floor.

    Hiryu’s eye’s twitched.
    “So, you were there all along.”

    The soft light in his expression shone on a dark corner of the room. A diminutive girl trembled in the shadows. Her tiny body sheathed in a modest servant’s robe, she was smaller than Hiryu, who seemed undeveloped next to his father and brothers. Onyx hair shone red in the dimming light, framing a round face with the same delicate appearance as her master.

    “Forgive me… I did not intend to pry.” The words seeped from her lips, phantasmal whispers of a once energetic, female voice. The younger brother had left her in shock.

    Of the Mie family there remained one mother and two daughters. No males of the family were left, some slain in battle, some killed by Hiryu’s father. They did not respond well to the virtual enslavement of their women. Originally they had been a simple clan of peasants and ashigaru, warriors of the lowest class. Ouryu had not sought the obscure people out for their fighting skills, however. The mother and eldest daughter tended to the father and eldest brother of the Nogami family. It fell to the remaining, slight girl to tend to the shambling brute. No need to do so had arisen yet, thankfully. Rather than that, Unryu was incapable of using her. The duties of the Mie were simple: Serve their masters as best they could, and tend to their fragile minds.

    However, the thought of what the three women were expected to do for his family filled Hiryu with a sick feeling. It provoked a rage within him so profound, so uncharacteristic, that it felt as if his muscles had knotted themselves like wound rope, his heart constricted by their stoniness. A thousand times he had wondered to himself what it would be like to steal away in the night with her, his brother’s unused servant, but only that night had he truly felt he could be excused for such an act. He would have liked to think that she would have thanked him, with tear-stained cheeks and a smile he only saw in his dreams.

    “The smell of death is strong upon him. More tonight than ever before.”

    Hiryu heard Hanako’s words, but could only feel the encroaching, tropic air surrounding his body, entwining it with hers even from far away. He too was embroiled in the smell of death, polluting and tensing him up with an animalistic thrill he found disgusting. In the dank interior of the castle corridor, her clean, white skin and sharp eyes became singularly pure, and distanced from everything.

    “You look uncomfortable. If there is anything this unworthy servant can do to please you-“

    “I fear him.” The cut in his face formed shriveled, dry words.

    Hanako’s face quivered in childlike innocence. Yet, submissiveness did not seem to come naturally to the former peasant. The black hair framing her face seemed to hang with rigid intensity, and in her relaxed standing posture there was silent confidence. She wanted to speak.

    Hiryu couldn’t keep back his tired smile. His eyes pulled his gaze to the lacquered floor. “You must be ready to admonish me again.”

    “… I am sorry master. You are samurai, after all.”

    “You’re a terrible servant. I can taste the derision in your words… But you are true, and fitting for a terrible samurai.”

    Hiryu could have imagined the acrid sting that came with the word “samurai.” There was always a statement of disapproval carefully hidden behind Hanako’s words when he fell into self-pity.

    “But that is not half of it. I am his brother. It is unbecoming to feel anxiety at the bonds of blood between him and I.”

    “…”

    Hiryu looked towards Hanako again. She had grown; or rather, she had grown closer. There was not even the slightest sound in her footsteps. He’d been taught to lack subtlety, to blast forward in life with fire residing in the space behind his eyes and tongue, a fierce burning resting within his soul. She had been taught to chill her heart, to bind herself in place and open her ears until they bled, all of her body a tool for the raging demon that possessed her and her family. Hanako’s mother had succeeded in training her where Hiryu’s father had failed with him, even though his spirit was more the more compliant of the pair.

    “But my little brother walks my nightmares. His presence leaves me cold.”

    The white flower drew nearer still. Her reassurance was as tired and

    “You fear for him, as his life is twisted...”

    “No, not for him.”

    Hanako looked down at her master, who sat with legs half-crossed on the floor. Wordlessly, she drew close to his side, close enough that their shoulders met. She saw the poison-stained, shaking hands of her young master and enfolded them into her own, enshrining them before Hiryu’s eyes.

    -----

    For a katana, it was far and away much too large. It did not have the shape of a nodachi, nor its weight. Despite its size and subtle thickness, it wasn’t a weapon strictly suited for brute force. Craftsmanship had still gone into the tempering of the slight curve in its blade. The hamon, wave pattern along the dull inner edge of the sword, shone a beautiful deep blue-purple, but the entire surface of the blade was encrusted with drying blood. Its once perfect cutting surface was notched and vaguely chipped by endless journeys through flesh and bone.

    Fingers, thick as strands of heavy rope, wrapped the hilt of this tremendous sword. The beast’s torrid breath filled the hallway with an intense heat, enough to freeze the stamina within one’s body in short order.

    The bodies of those it had slain weren’t where it’d left them. That alone was enough to bring about dull curiosity within Unryu’s mind, if perception was not his strongest trait. The scent of new blood wearing new flesh wafted through the air. If the monster still had its reason, if it ever had reason, it would have understood that the enemy had secreted themselves in just long enough to steal back their comrade’s shredded remains. The threat of the inhuman family’s presence had perhaps sealed their further advance into the keep. Or perhaps their strategy had changed. Perhaps they had simply exhausted themselves and could no longer maintain morale, hiding in their camp.

    Those possibilities never came to Unryu’s attention. The creature felt the pain from the arrows in its back and front fading. The bodies it mutilated were gone.

    And something else had impugned Unryu’s senses. It seemed as though it too was a smell at first. Something acidic stung the creature’s nostrils, and instinctively its muscles and sinew contracted, growing rigid as stone. It was like a shark that arched its back ever so slightly at the scent of viscera. In place of the eyes that rolled back in their heads, Unryu’s pale white portals to nowhere hung unblinking in its skull, visible in the shadow of its helm.

    But this was no simple smell. The odors of hewn bodies and spilt blood filled the creature’s breath, but the feeling it experienced was an intruder upon its senses. It was an instinctive response to a sign of danger no eye could see, no ear could hear, and no nose could smell. The creature’s brain struggled to comprehend the atmosphere of pure murderous intent that streamed forth from the dark hallway ahead. A feeling of dread so strong it was tangible. Unfortunately for the origin of that harmful sensation, Unryu did not comprehend fear.

    The beast continued to move forward, pausing momentarily to search for the source of the sensation. With every step, it grew slower, until it halted in the middle of the passage. It occurred to Unryu that he was not voluntarily slowing down, but rather being slowed. No bonds held them in place, and the air was thick yet offered no resistance, but the body did not respond to the brain.

    It was then that a small black cloth hurtled down the hallway. A woman’s stole, or some flag, rippled down from the rafters, touching the crimson floor once before bounding towards Unryu’s face. The black cloth produced distinct arms and legs, and from there, a shining tanto knife was born. His stabbing arm thrust forward, the shaking from his movement drawing the veil away from his face just enough to expose a cold steel eye. Spidery strands of silver light seemed to trace themselves through the air, flaxen like the hair of celestials.

    This was the “snare” he had perfected over countless assassinations. But he’d been hasty. There was just enough play in the wires for Unryu to break free and save its wretched life. Rearing back, the blade glanced off the edge of the ogre’s red helm. Vital fluids leaked from torn flesh as he struggled against Nanaya’s thread, and Unryu roared in both pain and indignation. A moment seemed to pass in time as the black figure crouched in the air, before planting his feet on Unryu’s shoulders, on both sides of its head, and raising the dagger high.

    But Nanaya disappeared in a rush of air the moment Unryu’s right arm struggled free. Too close to be cut with the tremendous sword, it merely swatted the assassin away, though the force was more than enough to break a normal man. Nanaya’s body impacted the wall, shaking standing lamps to the ground and tearing the veil from his face. The boyish, shock white visage was stained with blood, but the placidity present there would not falter in the least. Red gushed from his mouth while it was still frozen in a stoic, straight line. Nanaya took no time to recover himself, becoming a moving stripe of calligraphy ink that painted itself over the walls and floor. His mixtures of slow and fast movement seemed to create a mirage-like blur.

    Unryu attacked with the bare pretenses of technique, swinging wildly, but with bone-shattering force. Even its lightest slashes would cleave Nanaya in half, and it covered wide arcs with the bloodstained sword. As the pursuit continued, gashes appeared in the walls and pillars as if Unryu meant to cut down the castle around him and drop it on top of his enemy. The tip of his sword dragged through the small fire left behind by the overturned torch; human oils ignited and left tiny embers careening through the air.

    Nanaya retreated to the side of a pillar. Having flanked Unryu, he was the first living creature to have made it past the gatekeeper of the castle since the beginning of the battle. Now it fell to him to contend alone with the monster’s boundless wrath. His gloved hand caressed the air. Light slid along hair-like threads that followed his fingertips, like he was dragging them through still water. In response, Unryu’s next blow, one handed and overhead, nullified. The skin on the unprotected areas of its arm seemed to contort like a quilt’s lumpy surface. The impossibly strong threads held the limb in place, but Unryu’s other arm was free to swing ineffectually at the assassin.

    That was when the floorboards buckled, and exploded. From the dark space beneath the hallway, a *second* identically dressed Nanaya Mangetsu hurtled, knife ready, leaping into Unryu’s shoulder. His shining fang drove deep into the monster’s hard flesh, finding an exposed area between his shoulder and neck armor. The beast’s ichor polluted the air freely, splashing upon the other Nanaya’s garment, secreting itself within its dye. Unryu roared with pain and reached up to the clinging thorn, tugging at him with its gnarled root of a hand. A sickening crunch sounded as the creature’s fingers dug in, but the pale assassin did not even so much flinch as his beleaguered ribcage buckled under Unryu’s dread grip. His dagger drew fanciful sputtering lines through Unryu’s flesh the more the pseudo-samurai struggled vigorously.

    The beast was barely reacting with pain, but though the stab to the shoulder was perhaps far from fatal, it could not ignore the second blade entering through its abdomen, near its hip, as the other Nanaya dashed across the floor with a torchlight glint and with unexpected force penetrated the thick slabs of armor at their seam, beneath the monster’s arm. He dodged its flailing motions, which released gusts of wind strong enough to bowl him over had he not secured himself with his blood-drinking piton. Digging in, Nanaya ponderously dragged his razor point through what was exposed of Unryu’s abdomen, but there was seemingly no end to the vital fluids splashing onto the floor. What should have exhausted Nogami’s youngest child only magnified his fury.

    The entire keep echoed with the sounds of Unryu’s struggle, as the creature bellowed like a distorted infant trapped in a grotesque parody of a mature man. Its rage peaking, Unryu twisted free of the snare and slammed his body full force into the lower Nanaya, his hip armor connecting with the boy’s chin and spilling even more blood from the white face. The upper Nanaya found himself flung bodily from the carapace of his foe, slamming into a pillar. His spine was pulverized instantly, all sense of strength leaving his limbs; he saw a flash traverse his vision, and barely managed to follow the swing of freakishly long arm and oversized sword in tandem. The pillar was cleaved in two, and Nanaya’s body with it, as the wooden column slowly slid into two separate diagonal halves and a deluge of blood erupted from his waist. The sounds of spraying liquid, Unryu’s abominable breathing, and the creaking of wood filled the chamber. A macabre coating from Nanaya’s blood only matched the color scheme of Unryu’s armor. His legs fell to one side of the pillar; the emotionless face and upper body still clasping the knife fell to the other. A single poisonous gasp later, Unryu watched the ceiling collapse on what remained of the cloven body as the pillar slid apart, unable to support the weight of the heavy wooden planks above.

    But the beast’s dull eyes would have expressed shock, or even horror if they could, at the following sight. Diving within the cloud of dust, discarded skeletons with gnaw marks on their bones, and splintered wood, a *third* Nanaya Mangetsu emerged trailing thousands of brilliantly shimmering threads from his sleeve. On the floor, mixed in with the suspiciously thin blood of the previously slain triplet, were wooden cogs and intricately carved metal pieces. Sinew was a pale pink and textured, like woven thread. Mangetsu landed flawlessly on the uneven pile of debris, and within his emotionless eyes there remained yet a trace of irritation. It had been a terrifically hard duplicate to acquire.

    By that time, the fire from overturned torches had begun to release thick smoke, and the air was filled with dust from the collapsed ceiling. Unryu’s ragged inhalations diminished to wet coughs. It didn’t matter to the warrior how many of its assailant there were, or that the one lying in pieces on the ground was a fake. Until the warmth had been dashed from each of their bodies, the rage wouldn’t subside.

    Stepping backwards, blood still seeping from its grievous wounds, it raised its tremendous katana and stabbed it forward towards Mangetsu. Its full length in blade alone exceeded its target’s standing height. Mangetsu reacted by crouching forward and yanking back one of his arms, the shimmer passing over Unryu’s head as lacerations crept across its primitive face; at the same time, his back seemed to grow spikes as his dark clothes were yanked upward in critical spots. The strings he’d fastened around the wooden ceiling beams of the crawl space above the hallway pulled him out of danger, as the assassin seemed to defy gravity and slip up the wall behind him.

    Unryu followed up with an upward slash that would rip more wood and previously hidden leftovers from its meals from the rafters. The timber hewn from the ceiling collapsed with a sound akin to a thunderclap, but Mangetsu was already in the air, gliding over Unryu’s head as he hurled himself from the wall with a sharp kick. His unseen blow scored a deep gash across the monster’s unprotected face; one of the luminous white eyes darkened forever.

    At the same moment, the Nanaya assassin’s fingers played in the air. His remaining triplet rose from his collapsed position and immediately leapt feet-first to a crouching posture. Running forward in a low, predatory dash, he slid in low and struck at Unryu’s legs, attempting to slash at the enemy’s heels and topple it. The two Nanaya clones seemed to continuously exchange sides, never attacking Unryu from the same angle, and always attacking from different elevations. The sweeps from his long sword were more easily evaded in that fashion. Still, no matter how many cuts they delivered, Nogami’s son continued to struggle, smoke-ridden lungs heaving within its breastplate uselessly. It staggered to one knee, but took another swipe at the Nanaya rushing past him. The blow’s strength sundered its weapon in twain, hitting the floor at the right angle to break its already chipped edge in half. It was now no longer than a typical sword, if not shorter.

    With the substantial weight lifted from its arm, the tired Unryu parted the rapidly spreading smoke. A grey veil had fallen over the monster’s eyes, and the scent of human flesh was confused by the previous corpses and smoldering ash. Gusts of wind and dark shadows circled in the hall with inaudible footsteps. As its frustration reached the breaking point, Nogami lashed its fractured saber right and left, pouncing upon shadow after shadow.

    Mangetsu had been wisely trained. It had been said that the eyes of a creature stricken with bloodlust were its weakest trait. How fortunate then that he possessed a special form of vision of his own. Through the haze, a faint outline of red surrounded an enormous, hunched form, turning violently from side to side in agitation. That nebula of light was the hatred of his foe itself. Padded feet slid along the floor again and again as Mangetsu raised his knife and darted in, his double mirroring his movements on the other side. Unryu let out a strained snarl and whipped the katana about in a rudimentary stance. Much quicker than before, but not quite fast enough. The thing would have to make a decision. Which enemy would it cut down?

    Swerving on knobbed heels, Unryu raised the sword, and in one motion slashed downwards, completely devoid of form or technique, just driving its wedge into the meat in front of it. Nanaya’s stoic face faded in through the mist, doll-like radiance splattered with a mess of scarlet. Not the slightest flinch marred his face as the broken sword buried itself deep within his shoulder, stopping his momentum entirely. His entire body was driven to its knees, legs pushed out from under him as the katana nearly split his corpse as easily as a block of wood.

    It pushed its body weight into the slash, hunkering down. But what should have been human viscera was thin blood, ropy strands of fake sinew and clockwork. Sputters of the counterfeit human’s life force ran across its mask-like grimace, as if to insult a creature with no concept of pride. Unryu chose poorly.

    That moment, the castle guard dog turned about, sword still engorged within the dummy’s body, and faced Nanaya Mangetsu as he leapt from the smoke. Trails of grey wisps followed his arms and legs, and a shining blade gripped with both hands, aimed straight for the monster’s head. His eyes’ lids peeled back as if the organs would swallow all they perceived, for they were the kings of beasts. The barely sentient son of Nogami felt for the first time in his brief, pitiable life a trace of the human emotion known as terror.

    A tremendous red helm flew through the air. The front of the samurai’s forehead guard separated cleanly into two bloodstained pieces.

  7. #7
    Jester of the Moon Cell's Sovereign Kieran's Avatar
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    Interesting - afterimages born of sheer speed, or some kind of clone technique? Given that this is a samurai story, ninja arts aren't exactly out of place, eh?

  8. #8
    夜魔 Nightmare Cascade's Avatar
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    His supernatural ability is being able to see killing intent or malice; a more primitive, weak version of Nanaya Kiri's.
    More important than his supernatural power is his drugged physique, which feels no pain, and his puppeteering techniques. He made perfect copies of himself in a way that is sort of similar to Aozaki Touko, and controls each one with razor wire. People would likely see the technique, and if they somehow survived, (unlikely) tell of a "man who was in three places at once." That would give people the impression he was fast enough to create after images, or clone himself.

    The kuroko outfit is an anachronism, but then again, it's relatively tame all other factors considered. XD

  9. #9
    夜魔 Nightmare Cascade's Avatar
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    5

    The fell puppeteer stood over the sundered mountain of flesh that was Nogami Unryu. It had cost him much. The karakuri doubles were the masterwork products of his fledgeling clan, identical to Mangetsu's very last strand of hair. He could not help but feel regret staring at the lifeless, shattered dolls, whose inlaid glass eyes met his own equally glassy stare. It was only an affectation, but they had never felt any less legitimate of a container for his spirit than his own body, connected to him by strings alone as they were. His twins had “died.”

    He tightened and loosened his fingers. The blackened metal rings slid cleanly off his fingers, the tension from his control wires severed. Each manipulator ached with the dolls' absent weight. The life ichor of his slain target pooled at his feet, and the expressionless boy took note with faint disgust. It would not do to leave footprints, but the job was a haphazard one at best. To not go unseen was anathema, and the fluttering black image of his figure still carried a subtle hint of ethereal displacement, as if he was a shadow from out of a dark space beyond reality. But he would leave his tracks here, enter the world of the material as he did when fighting. The enemy's strongest tool had been neutralized; the castle was virtually undefended. He had no doubt, based upon reports, that the aging Nogami and his eldest son would present little resistance. The youngest would be nothing but an execution. That old man's information was always accurate. Were he more inclined to theoretical matters, Nanaya would have considered, for a moment, why the ragged elder, associating so strongly with the flesh-eaters, would dispose of interesting specimens so wholeheartedly.

    That thought sparked in his mind as a hot wind fluttered through his pale hair. The black hallway in which he had plied his sanguine trade blossomed in orange, walls alive with foliage of embers. They had come to raze the place, having retrieved their allies' corpses and having no murderous wall to bar their entry. If his humors favored boldness that night, Sadamune himself would enter the castle, though Nanaya had no opinion on his chances were he to cross swords with the remaining two wardens of the keep. Better to submerge the father and elder son in a sea of footmen; isolate the the boar and run it through on countless lances.

    They would not escape. The boy, however, would complicate his mission. “Eradicate the line of Nogami.” Those were the specific words, the commandment under which Nanaya functioned. To slaughter the willing took numbers and muscle, but a foe in flight, who had a head start... tracking was part of his nature as well. Though the state of emotion within him was nothing more than shadow puppetry, he could feel “regret” at the thought that his encounter with Unryu left him free of unnecessary encumbrances. He'd be fleet of foot once more. Even if the quarry started a day before him, it would make no difference now.

    Hunt and kill. The words flowed into his body and it obeyed. Dipping forward, a black beast of prey bounded over the floor, deeper into the castle in search of the target's trail. The ever-present scent of taint would be his guide, and would feed him unearthly energy.

    At the end of his path, the monster, of the same kind but not kin, awaited its slayer.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



    “Matsuda's castle is lost to us, father.”
    Ounryu looked up from his seated position, dressed in robes of white. A sunken eye peered out of his ashen skin, over his shoulder to his son.
    “That's what you're here to tell me, isn't it?”

    Immense pressure and stress chiseled deep lines into both of their broad faces, though they ran far deeper in the thuggish face of Garyu.

    “Old man... you must be joking. Prepared for death, that I can well see, but wearing that garment...” A throaty chuckle gurgled within the toad's throat. “'Tis a pretension our family has discarded as such trash.”

    Ouryu closed his eyes, turning his back on his son.

    “Is it wrong for an old slayer to seek absolution?”

    Garyu gestured sickly with his hands, balling them into tired fists.
    “Surely you cannot be considering the honorable end. You think I will be your second? Matsuda Houji may have most likely already taken that path, but you are not beholden to him. Spit upon his impotent leadership, curse his family name, and do not follow them!”

    “They have deserted this castle long ago.”

    “What?!”

    “Matsuda Houji was not in this castle to begin with. We were not allowed to see him because this was the Matsuda clan's method of severing ties with us. The rumors of sickness were exaggerated. They were a pretense to keep us unaware, so that they might not face the betrayed.”

    The son's face, ashen with fear before, returned to color with the boiling of his corpuscles. “Dog-born bastards. We serve as their butchers, but to be repaid in such... Let them sleep upon their children's entrails!”

    “Resentment is pointless. After all, they could tolerate their name being dragged through mud only so long. In any case, they've left this place, and our family and servants are the only remaining occupants.” Ouryu raised his eyes to the ceiling, scanning fruitlessly the invisible chambers above them. “Soon to be only our family.”

    “So much the better! We are not abandoning them; they've pilfered our path for themselves long ago!” Garyu laughed in sardonic fury, “And we have survived worse conflicts than this. Perhaps we are one or two shorter in number, but no matter. Exiting with our lives intact; that is is the sensible path, is it not?”

    The patriarch gave no answer.

    “Running away is the path we've always taken in the past, is it not?!” Garyu roared. The cowardice in his subhuman heart twisted his voice into a weaker echo of Unryu's nightly howling.

    The old man's eyes were shaded beneath a heavy brow fettered with war's scars and age's scars. “That's a wonderful thought. What sort of place should we flee to?”

    Garyu bared his teeth in an angered grimace. A hint of blood secreted itself between his thick tusk-like teeth. “Such a place that we should be free to seek out new service, and meal to furnish our plates. The Mie may have fled, or fallen on their daggers; 'tis a shame, they were pleasurable, but we'll have no choice but to find others with the gift.”

    “From the day we are born, the soul exhausts with every year...”

    He focused his hateful, bloodshot spheres on his father's back. “'...but though the mind of a Nogami will inevitably die and fall to hell, the body will persist and continue the feast. If is naught, only when.' I remember your words father, too well. Before we suffer a natural death, we will be slain in battle, or our mind will scatter to the four directions. Perhaps no others like the Mie exist. If that is true then let the fall be our salvation.”

    “Salvation?” The old man's dry laugh shook his broad back and the white kimono he wore. “Boy, only those born with no human mind are truly unaware of their misdeeds. Falling is no escape.”

    His head rose slowly then drooped, gravely, towards the floor, as if bearing his neck for a phantom executioner.
    “The contaminated blood of my clan must end here.”

    Nothing more than a murmur, but far more striking than his son's yells. He knew fully well that the white robe was a facade of purity that did little to hold back the cascade of impurities built up within the aging body it shrouded. A coagulation of bloodlust and brutality so engorged upon itself it could burst. In the flames that overtook Matsuda's castle walls, Ouryu could hear the choir of war cries that had sustained the beast for nearly sixty long years. Were he to be consumed, would his body become pure as ash? When there was nothing left, would his sin simply dissipate into the earth?

    He fancied the thought that nothing would grow on that desecrated ground.

    “You've lost your sanity, old man.”
    Garyu retreated a step. The armor that bulged in irregular places to fit his misshapen form clanked as he moved, as slight as it was.

    “In this family, sanity is the diamond of our minds from birth, but such priceless treasure is easily robbed by our own bloody hands.”

    A bitter nod from Garyu; shallow acknowledgment from one soaked in fear meant nothing to the patriarch, but he listened, motionless.

    He rose from the floor. Even in his elderly state, his rich demonic blood emerged in his robust physique, a kind of such calibre that to wield a sword merely gave accentuation to extant killing power. But that murderous capability was sedated and tranquil in the moment before death. Perhaps, if Garyu refused to be his second, he could simply cut off his own head. It was of course blatantly impossible for any normal man to attempt such a grisly feat of strength. The arm would stop long before the blade fully separated the halves of his neck from each other. But that was unacceptable, for he would not die as a human being.

    “My son, would you not oblige this 'old man' with the honor, tainted though it may be, of dying by your hands?”

    “You are the one person I would not kill where he stands, when I hold a blade in my grasp, and the world is red.”

    “Can I not extinguish this thought of retreat from your mind?”

    “Your entreatments are feeble, father.”

    “Then, having so cursed the world with a bestial son like yourself, who dishonors his father with irresponsibility and yet still thinks himself deserving of a family's love, allow me to finally make what little amends I can make.”

    His katana freed itself of the scabbard in a silver scream.

    Preserving their lives again and again before was the true sin, beyond that of slaughtering so many and shredding the code of bushido. Their very existence was a blight upon the earth, a monumental blasphemy against the art of war, the miracle of life and the fragile mortality of man. He once thought himself, if degenerate in all other aspects, counted amongst the noble and beneficent fathers of the world. If only that much could redeem his ultimate failure, he might have still fled the castle that night.

    His only prayer was that Hiryu would succumb to his frailty in time to finally seal the Nogami bloodline, and follow his family to the endless, well-deserved torture that awaited them in the other realm. Or, if he was fortunate, find himself someplace more fitting.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    “We can't die here. Come now, there's not much time!”

    “Nnh, a moment-”

    Her body weighed on his imperfect physique in a way he couldn't dare say. She'd never felt so heavy before when he'd caught her falling out of the orange tree. Just her tugging grasp behind him made his lungs rage with an aching fire. The tropical heat of the incinerating castle was hell enough to render his muscles as soft as rotting fruit, and it dried his innards; he thirsted terribly. Hanako fell to her knees and the restricting kimono blossomed out from beneath her legs like the flower in her name.

    Hiryu knelt beside her. “Catch your breath while you can.”

    Panting, her shining eyes reflected the far-off glow of the fire within the long hallway. Her eyes moistened with the stinging haze of smoke creeping up on them as she raised her chin to lock her gaze with his.

    Hiryu's parched throat could barely form words. He needed to release the swelling feeling in his chest for fear he would burst.

    “A black mark is upon me. My brothers and father burn. This soul is bound to be judged harshly by Yama,” he barely managed to gasp the last few words before coughing. “But to protect someone like you, even a gutless coward can feel like Yoshitsune.”

    The pallor of her cheeks, denied the sun's warmth for years, made a pathetic veil that could not hide her shying emotions. She bowed her head and cursed under her breath in the lower-class way Hiryu disapproved of. The youngest Nogami blinked.

    “Was I too honest?”

    Dozens of the invaders' footsteps alerted him to their swiftly depleting time. Their distant shouts grew louder and more vehement.

    “You should leave here.” Hanako murmured, not daring to look at him in her state. “I can't... mother and sister are...”

    Hiryu shook his head and drew a hand around her sashed waist, drawing her tightly close. There was no more time for words. The enemy was nearly upon them, and while he had courage enough to save a life, taking one was far beyond him still.

    Bobbing umbrella-like shades surfaced from the bloody darkness behind them, silhouetted against the inferno. Then came the shouts, “there they are!” Hiryu ran with her body clutched against him. Feeling her so close invigorated him. Calm thoughts did not occur to him, but in his flight he felt just enough clarity to realize the softness of his muscle had come only because of his intense fear.

    With Hanako so very much beside him, somehow he felt the heat in his lungs rising and transmuting into a burning force of life.

    As his body slowly reduced to a gasping wreck, he could only ignore the degradation and stumble to the edge of a dumping sluice. Such wooden shafts were often used to spill waste from the castle into the moat. Running away from combat was disgraceful enough and contrary to the nature of his family, so resorting to desperate, filthy measures paled in comparison.

    “Draw yourself close.”

    He pulled the wooden shutter, as as Hanako buried her face into his heaving chest.

    “With luck, we won't break any bones...”

    A low rumbling alerted the boy to the ceiling's collapse behind them. Pouring embers like a liquid wave of Kagutsuchi's blood ate falling wooden beams and the stench of burning hair and bone, his brother's feed, was drowned out by bold ash's scent.

    A black bolt was exhumed from that mess of fire and collapsing bulwark. The black bolt, a living ink blot that sought to finish its duty and claim its pay. From within billowing cloth the impaling blue gaze affixed itself on Mangetsu's last target, scrambling to fit himself and a servant girl inside the chute. What fleeting boldness colored Hiryu's heart faded quickly at the sight of those eyes, and the blessing of the fire's rumble concealed his emasculating scream of terror as he plunged down the shaft, narrowly avoiding a flying dagger's whistle. The dark wooden walls rushed past them and Hiryu's body bruised as he wrapped Hanako in his arms, tumbling down further and further, gravity a cruel manacle tugging them down, until the tunnel gave way and he saw the gold-black reflections of water beneath them. Hiryu closed his eyes.

    Their bodies pierced the water's hard surface. Liquid rushed into his convulsing lungs, and then all was muffled thunder.

  10. #10
    Jester of the Moon Cell's Sovereign Kieran's Avatar
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    Love the description.

  11. #11
    夜魔 Nightmare Cascade's Avatar
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    I thought I'd lost this chapter actually but the word file was buried in my computer, lol.

    I've finished reposting now. All that's left is for me to write the final chapter of this side story.

  12. #12
    夜魔 Nightmare Cascade's Avatar
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    I had hoped to finish it off with this update, but I felt it would be better if I split it into two. My second one will come next.
    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Though the battle was long over, Matsuda’s castle still raged as an inferno consumed its entirety. Echoing yells and the clamor of horns continued to wage a phantom war in the wake of the successful siege. Such was the fervor of Sadamune’s invaders that they set fire to the foundations too hastily; their retreat from its inevitable collapse left many trampled and others with broken bones. It had likely been a spark of panic that ignited within them a desperate, horrified desire to burn away all they saw there. That castle’s walls contained things no man was meant to see, and its inner chambers resembled a grotesquery of meat and unbroken carnal desire, the elder son’s leavings. Ouryu and Garyu lay slain at each other’s feet, their fluids mingling and seeping through the floorboards. It seemed natural for beasts that masqueraded as samurai to die slaughtering one another.

    From a tall pine the figure black as soot watched, hair shock white like the surface of the moon. His disinterested gaze drifted from the Nogami funeral pyre to the flickering orange and black waters of the moat. His quarry was not far from here, struggling comically with stilted, dragging steps along the banks of the river, searching for that elusive forest path that would lead to freedom. Were he to descend from the tree now, Mangetsu could track them down in three or four minutes at most. And then…

    What? Kill the quarry? Sever his effete head and offer it up to Sadamune on a platter? He’d already lost much in this assignment. The resources utilized to build his doubles more than tripled the reward his lord was offering. A headhunter should not be so inefficient. Contracts were rare, and ones that fully reimbursed his tiny family for their troubles rarer still. The Nanaya were no mere assassins but artisans of death, and artisans were by nature devoted to their work for more than simple monetary satisfaction.

    Who would be the canvas upon which he would work? His children? Their children?

    The bastard children of demon and men were a sparse, short-lived breed. Most were malformed and could barely be considered living creatures if not misshapen lumps of flesh; the rejected models of what would eventually become human. The rest lived pathetically short lives, finding violence, or having it find them; ending themselves or being ended. Violence was their grain and insanity their drink. Mangetsu imagined the remainder of their kind would last no more than a decade, so intent on running themselves into extinction they were.

    “I had heard the Nanaya never let their prey escape. The rumors are false, I see.”

    Mangetsu turned a cold eye to the gnarled root of a man scaling the pine. Despite his withered frame, he carried a slight and supple grace as he sat down beside his monster atop the branch. Through leathery eyelids the Nanaya could see the old hermit’s eyes were a brilliant and terrible sapphire.

    “Seed the pond with a few fish and perhaps next spring you’ll find a bountiful catch waiting for you. Is that what my young friend is thinking? How very shrewd. The Lord Sadamune will be quite displeased.”

    His wrinkled throat quivered as he laughed; a choking, dry slapping of gums and tongue.

    “ I wonder what price he’ll ask of you. I hear he’s fond of comely boys your age.”

    If he could engrave emotions upon the placid mask Mangetsu treated as his face, the doll made no effort. But there was a sharpness to his unbroken stare.

    The old man seemed to wither away from him, and slid down the branch towards the trunk cautiously.

    “Aha, aha, haha. I was merely speaking in jest. Though such a demand isn’t far from the realm of possibility. Best be getting home to your lands and forget about demanding compensation from Sadamune. A ghost has no trouble disappearing in a night, I would assume. But perhaps that too is merely a rumor.”

    His eyes winced subtly at tongues of flame flashing from the shutters of the castle. It disrupted the natural adjustment of the eyes to darkness. Mingling with the crude ways of warriors would dull his family’s techniques. Well handled a knife could retain its edge for years, but it took only one crude hand to leave it notched and foul. Aside from that, he and the Nogami son were monsters far removed from humanity, even if formed from the same flesh and blood. To live amongst them was unnatural, as was to serve them. Mangetsu’s clan would be far better suited carrying out its work on its own, in the absolute darkness. In the space between shadow and light they would reside, cutting down the twisted ones that lingered there, relics of the black ages before man ruled this world. Without prey the hunter could no longer hunt; without darkness, no light. Yin and yang fused and intermingled, the taijitu spun forever onward, charting the Nanaya clan’s path to the infinite. Mangetsu secured a future for his kind, eyes as pale as the full moon watching his released catch stagger through the woods, a wilting flower at his side.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The kimono that night must have been the heaviest armor he had worn. Hiryu’s limbs ached with its leaden burden, the fabric saturated in moat water. It occurred to him that his robes dwarfed Hanako’s modest weight. Every part of his slight frame screamed for mercy with each step as tangled roots snatched at his sandals. The underbrush was a scourge upon his flesh. Clumsy as he was, Hiryu played the buffoon and barreled through the thick foliage heedless of his own pain, cutting a path for the girl he pulled by the wrist. Through his hazy vision he could see nothing but murky shadow, as if the moat had somehow poisoned his eyes and left the world as indistinct as it was when he’d leapt to salvation. The trek through the forest left a trail of ravaged bushes and flattened grass even a novice could have tracked for miles, but speed mattered more to Hiryu than subtlety; even now he could feel the hunter’s presence behind him.

    ”If I falter I will be killed. And Hanako will be left alone. Who will rescue her then? I must be strong for her sake.” So the diminutive hero in his heart whispered to him and Hiryu obeyed. He had always been a pliable, obedient boy, but never had he followed orders from himself. Before if Hiryu found himself unable to comply with his father’s demands , it was because his body failed him. His body rebelled when his brother bellowed “a thousand, weighted suburi,” but for his part Hiryu had attempted to swing. After twenty swings or so his arms rocked with their own painful momentum that echoed up and down his body.

    Yet now that pain was nowhere. Hiryu recognized its presence, and he understood that the scenario he found himself in should have been a torture beyond compare, but nonetheless he continued to move. Hanako’s soft but strained gasping at his back filled him with an unholy endurance born of frantic desire.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Quite unexpectedly, it was noonday. The smoking ruins of Matsuda’s castle were a tiny brown splotch on the horizon the size of his little finger. Throughout the night they ran, Hiryu pulling Hanako when she could walk, dragging her when she crawled, carrying her on his back while she slept. Somehow his body continued to ward off tiredness and his spirit never drained. But his toes were callused, feet torn, legs pillars of blood and dirt. His robes were tatters, but if Hiryu looked the part of of a wretched beggar, so much the better. There was no sign of the dark shade that had briefly pursued them through the castle’s smoke. He hadn’t even harried them at any juncture of the night trek, though Hiryu’s mind played tricks on him and a stray branch or whistling breeze could have easily been a thrown dagger or the rustling of the assassin’s loose clothing. Such moments filled his heart with terror, but always the churning of his legs and the soft warmth of Hanako’s breath against his neck.

    It was summer, he now remembered. The air was stagnant. There was not even a cool zephyr to ease his aching muscles. Dry grass encircled the banks of the vanishing river that led all the way back to the castle. At times Hiryu could hear it moving, which was unnerving considering the lack of wind. The sun beating down as it was, a corpse would fester and gather flies in a short time. A discarded set of armor lay caked in mud. Half-buried, the riverbed’s dirt and stone did little to hide the impression left there. Someone had picked away the bones, but the shape was impossible to ignore.

    He was stricken with a vision of his father, skin like leather, blood dry and black on cracking lips, eyes like murky pools of milk. His older brother lay wretchedly in a haze of dust with wings, growing smaller and smaller in the dark cloud. For the first time since he had left the castle, Hiryu wondered if it had never been his father’s intention to escape at all. He should not have left him then, to face Sadamune’s mercy, but died together with his own blood. It was a fate befitting the Nogami family, or perhaps all men. Born in blood, dying in blood. His father would have liked to go screaming as a babe did when it entered this world as well. Growing old and withering away quietly was for the trees.

    Hiryu backed away from the corpse, too suddenly. He could feel a sore on one of his toes reopen. The owner of the armor had died in a battle long past. But there were no signs of war to be found in that field. Perhaps he had died someplace far away, and the river, at that time overflowing with water, carried his body to rest here. Perhaps he was a strong warrior who only finally succumbed to his wounds at this very spot. Perhaps he was a coward, and a deserter, like Hiryu felt at that moment.

    No matter how a man’s strength, coward or fearless he may be, the end will come. No matter how tall he is, he becomes lower than a dog when face down in the mud.

    “My mother wanted to stay.”

    Hanako’s whisper made Hiryu start, adding a dose of shame to flavor his regret.

    “Our family was to share your fate. I knew about this and still I ran.”

    Her fingers entwined with his, scratched and torn as they were.

    “You and I are both cowards. Does it hurt? Do you wish to go back?”

    Hiryu looked once more at the suit of armor and shook his head.

  13. #13
    Jester of the Moon Cell's Sovereign Kieran's Avatar
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    Hmm - OK, I'll wait and see what follows . . . And maybe go through a refresher in the meantime.
    “Love will be cruel to who it entices — love will have its sacrifices.”

    — Carmilla Theme




    "Evil isn't the real threat to the world. Stupid is just as destructive as Evil, maybe more so, and it's a hell of a lot more common. What we really need is a crusade against Stupid. That might actually make a difference."

    ―Jim Butcher, Vignette




  14. #14
    夜魔 Nightmare Cascade's Avatar
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    The final chapter of my sidestory. Sorry I took so long. I'm not totally satisfied with it myself, but I felt I needed to complete it this week as I'll be busy with some stuff next week.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Hiryu had shriveled to the last of his unprecedented vigor. Lungs burning, legs aching, he hobbled until Hanako could walk again, but that too hardly lasted. When the Mie family was inducted into their forced servitude by his older brother, they were forced to regularly consume a poison that left them numb and infirm, though never enough to build immunity. Hanako, already being naturally frail, would never have survived serving the youngest Nogami, so she consumed a lesser quantity of the drug. She had gone without a dose for a full day now and still her body was like flax. Walking on her own for more than a quarter mile was inconceivable, and soon the two of them were nearly prostrate, crawling in the dust with exhaustion.

    Still they pressed on. To where Hiryu could not say, for the scenery had long since grown unfamiliar. His only choice was to follow the road; he feared stalking hunters from Sadamune’s army, but the country trail was lifeless save for black collections of wings above and the warbling of cicadas. Hiryu’s throat parched. It was cruel that his body, which felt so devoid of moisture, could still sweat so much in the summer heat.

    “Do you want to stop?” Hanako gasped behind him, but Hiryu only shook his head. Her eyes were cloudy with fatigue and her figure seemed more slight than ever. It pained him to force her onward.

    “We can rest once we find a safe haven, by nightfall. Until then…”

    “You can’t be certain you’ll be able to keep me safe. I understand.”

    She smiled meekly back, as she always had, since before Hiryu had been old enough to read her name. But her voice was too soft and he could hear the aching within. At times he wanted to lie there by Hanako at the side of the road. Still, he feared that the birds overhead would mistake them for carrion while they slept. He’d too narrowly escaped final death to partake of the “little” one.

    When they refused to shut their eyes, the evening darkened them. The crickets conquered the cicadas, and the sky turned murky scarlet. The hobbled, awkwardly shifting figures of Hanako and Hiryu strayed from the road and into a tight outcropping of stone behind a traveler’s shrine. Hiryu’s head throbbed as he braced himself against the crude structure for support, and before long the two collapsed into a pile of their own shredded robes and tall grass. From the way the reeds lay flat, it seemed as though others had spent the night there previously. Hanako shivered in his arms. Her body heat was faint. What left of her clothing barely preserved her modesty and he could feel the intensity of her shame as his eyes wandered across her pale skin. The two of them were weak. Only a day’s worth of travel and the road had already wrenched a hefty toll from their decorated and well-groomed countenances. While in the keep Hanako never went wanting of fragrances and fine clothing; though she rarely saw the sun, a healthy glow hid itself beneath the milkiness of her flesh. Now she was a pitiable thing, kimono in tatters and her hair clumped and disorderly after their dive into the moat. Hiryu clutched her close until she felt the heat of his breath on her cheek and turned haltingly to gaze over her shoulder, back at him. She diminished further in his grasp, and Hiryu did not immediately recognize the fear in her gaze. When their eyes met, the night’s sounds seemed to yield to a roaring silence, unbearable to either of their ears.

    “… I wonder how far we’ve gone.”

    Hiryu felt himself whispering, but ever since slipping into the alcove, his words felt like an orphaned echo, recognizable as his own voice but utterly alien. By that time his entire world had become the girl in his arms. Her perfumed scent was gone, replaced with merely Hanako’s scent, the softness of her disheveled hair, the shivering of her body. The inside of his skull continued to throb painfully, and his breaths became ragged. From time to time at the keep, whenever Hanako strayed too close, he entered a similar state, beyond simple arousal. The emptiness of her, the unblemished state of her absolute purity, beckoned to him to fill it. The stain inside of him raged and wanted to grow. Hiryu wanted to taste her, to partake in more of her than that fleeting heat, that silken texture, that empty fragrance. And Hanako was aware of this, leaving Hiryu feeling all the more wretched. He did not have the energy left within him to do anything but tighten his grip. It was enough to make Hanako wince, but her hands clutched blindly in the dark at his and he could feel her heartbeat quicken.

    “It must be painful.”

    He disliked something in the tone of her voice.

    “Your family’s condition… If it becomes unbearable, my lord, then… my mother taught me... to…”

    Hiryu’s worn hands clenched down across her lips. Through the dryness of his own skin he could feel their faint moistness.

    “Nothing is unbearable. You’ve taught me that.”

    “I am still capable of soothing you, though I may be unskilled. At least allow me to…”

    She would have been his little brother’s leavings, had he even the basest of a human psyche. Hiryu didn’t have it in him to despoil her, though he felt it. Disgust roiled in him at the very desire to do so. Her taste was bitter indeed.

    “Speak no more of this. I only need you by my side. No matter what may befall us, I will keep protecting you. Close your eyes.”

    His fingers traveled across her cheeks, to her temples, exploring every inch of her face. Her eyelashes brushed against his fingers as they fluttered shut. Hanako went limp in his embrace as the night stretched on, but Hiryu remained wide awake, aching for her. Eventually he entered a sleep akin to unconsciousness, and all feeling and thought left his body.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    He awoke with the sun. A heavy weight rest upon him, and Hiryu realized the shrine had collapsed. The Jizo sculpture’s stone head and empty eyes gazed out at him from amongst shingles of weather beaten, rotten wood. The surface of the statue's bulbous forehead was fouled and black. His hand, folded in the bog standard gesture of blessing, rest upon the edge of his torso, and had settled there while he slept. The weight should have felt like a boulder on his slight frame, but the sleep had reinvigorated him. With Hanako at his side, resting with quiet breaths, the sun’s rays galvanized him more than ever. Hiryu extracted himself from the debris, gently shook her awake and the two brushed stiff grass and briars from their robes before carrying on. His companion was no longer as tired and it seemed as though the medicine dosage had run its course, allowing them both to make excellent time. Far be it from him to describe their journey as easy, but Hiryu imagined he could march several leagues more in his current condition. Hanako could not, however. In addition, the problem of finding lodging and a meal begged consideration.

    “I know of a place. My mother’s servants carried ingredients for our medicine from this town to the keep. On horseback it was less than a day’s ride, so it should not be far from here.”

    So Hanako said, but the fact that the town was still so near to the castle worried him. Were they truly safe from the conquerors? Nogami was an accursed name. Many would see him dead. Even if it presented him with no tactical benefit, just the reassurance of knowing the last of his clan was dead could compel Sadamune to hunt him down.

    “I mislike it. To think that your family served mine, but yet was of status enough to maintain servants of my own. My brother is to thank for this farcical social order. I find it too confusing.”

    “A lord should have retainers, and his retainers should have servants, nothing more. I agree. My family exists in the dark area between peasantry and bushi. Were I so gifted, I would change my name and my face to be free of it… this body.”

    Hanako clutched a hand to her heart fervently. His hand joined with hers and lingered there. A rosy tint glowed from beneath her fair complexion.

    “Then we are one in the same.”

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    They strolled on until noon day. At times Hanako’s presence made him forget the threat of pursuit, but their pace was still hurried. At the end of their trek, with his companion’s directions, they at least fell under the shadow of a tall palisade wall. Fortifications, along with more typical earthworks, were not unusual in their age of warfare, as deserters, perhaps like the man who left his armor behind, presented a threat to the peasantry, to say nothing of armies themselves. Encircled on all sides, the hastily erected barrier concealed all but the thatch rooftops of the houses within. Hanako’s walking grew in vigor and her smile widened, that merriment permeating every inch of her figure until she was running, half-stumbling towards the town. Although his first instinct was to call out to her, for fear that she might fall, he stopped himself. Hiryu had never considered it before, but she had been born before their family entered their servitude to the Nogami. The possibility existed that she had visited this town in the past. That joy was unlike anything he had seen in the castle, where Hanako rarely smiled, save for in the most demure and muted of ways. Hiryu wanted to see it more often. Her laughter filled his heart with joy as he watched her hail the guards on watch at the gate and scramble inside.

    “If Hanako is happy, then perhaps this would a pleasant place for us to rest for a while and make plans for our futures.” He murmured to himself.

    “Eheh, heh. What’s the matter my young friend? Aren’t you going to follow her?”

    A raspy, genteel voice emerged from somewhere. Hiryu found it odd that the owner of the voice had gone unnoticed by him for so long, and it briefly shook the paranoia of their escape back into his mind. It had emerged, unusually enough, from within a network of twined sedge. The sight, however unusual it may be, was mundane. What surprised Hiryu was that it spoke at all.

    He was faced with the face-enclosing headwear of the komuso. Monks of the void, they were called, the komuso went everywhere in the country without notice. Allowed to freely wander, they did not utter word save for in notes on their shakuhachi flute. Their entire head was concealed from the world in a sedge basket with just enough space in-between weaves in some places for the wearer to look through. It deprived the monk of his identity and allowed him the emptiness that earned their ilk that name. That emptiness was an attractive path to enlightenment for some. It also was a keen attraction to men who would rather keep their identity secret, who were not monks at all, and played secret messages in music to one another. This was the first Hiryu had heard of one talking.

    “…Is it alright for you to be speaking, sir?”

    Hiryu swore he could sense a pale, teal gleam from within the basket. Surely it was merely a trick of the sunlight. The monk’s throaty laugh was as dry as the riverbed.

    “As appreciated as your concern for me is, shouldn’t you worry more about yourself?”

    The monk had finally breached his guard. Hiryu backed away, his muscles tightening. He was no fighter, but he’d run if he must. However, Hanako was in that village. She had no value to Sadamune’s men, if the monk was a killer they’d hired. He’d heard that the Komuso basket had disguised an assassin, once or twice. Some say even the shadow people, like that man who had hunted them, had donned the basket before. It was a terrifying thought.

    That was when Hiryu realized that if his brother had learned of the Mie’s ability to “heal” others through intimate contact, others could have known as well. That value itself put more than simply Hanako’s life at risk. But he couldn’t advance past the monk safely, with him watching Hiryu’s every move from beneath his shade.

    “Eheh, don’t be so stiff young friend. I am a monk, of sorts. Not the most orthodox, I grant you, but my only desire is to observe.”

    Hiryu did not lower his guard. “Do you mock me? I am a scion of the Nogami family. Mark my words, if you dare cross our kind, you shall…”

    But what would he do to the false monk? The basket facing him was the perfect, stone cold expression, unknowable and unflappable. The Nogami no longer existed. His father and brothers were dead, and so Hiryu might as well have been. Doubtlessly the sunburnt, tattered figure he cut would strike fear into the hearts of craven children, but not even this old man would flinch at him. The mettle flowed from him as if he had been punctured and left to bleed out.

    The monk pretended not to notice his abortive threat. Fiddling absently with his komuso’s coarse robes, as if he had never worn them before, the hunched man turned his back on Hiryu, almost insultingly.

    “It’s frightening, isn’t it, young man? The world behind a closed door. Down a dark hallway. Within a shadowy cave.”

    “…What are you getting at? How do you know me?”

    “The fact is that the future is sculpted the very second one opens a gate. Anything could be behind it. Until the act of observing takes place, chaos is all that awaits you. Oh, maybe you think you have a good idea on what lies beyond. Every human knows that. Still, there could be an empty room. A mountain of treasure…”

    The basket slowly turned to face him. Again, that upsetting cyan glare from within.

    “… A monster in a red hallway.”

    Over the last day Hiryu had felt a powerful courage overtake him. He hadn’t understood where that bravery had come from initially. A weak boy such as himself couldn’t comprehend the nature of heroics, but while Hanako slept in his arms, the feeling became so blissfully clear. So after reconstructing the bulwarks of his spirit and steeling himself for a battle against everything that would threaten her, why did his knees feel like they were going to give out at that moment?

    “A..Aa..”

    "Your world extends as far as you can perceive. It will change the moment you extend that perception beyond this wall. If that is the case, than my world is an indistinct boundary of shadow. The innards of this basket, you see! Eheh... eheh..."

    Was it what the man said? That his existence was defined by an unknowable chaos? The boundaries of his miniscule world shrunk and expanded on a basis of what he could perceive. So too did the monk’s world. How much of his family was encompassed within the monk’s world? Was that territory greater than Hiryu’s own? Limited by age and inexperience, his courage was already failing him the moment Hanako disappeared. This, he realized, was what it meant to define your life in defense of a single thing, a single person. When that object left his world, a gaping darkness remained. It was a maw, a hungry fiend that consumed a man from the inside out. What lay in the darkness of his future with Hanako terrified him and stole away his fledgling courage.

    “… Stranger, I don’t know who you are, or why you know me. I’ve lost everything. Surely you’ve nothing to gain from misleading me. But I’m going through. Do not obstruct me.”

    Hiryu’s voice wavered. His hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Why?

    “Eheh. You’ve got the right of it, my young friend. No need for fear. Follow your girl.”

    Hiryu passed through a pool of muddy water. The rippling surface was infested by shadow; both dry and wet dirt surrounding cracked in black spiderwebs.

    “Hanako and I have been through much together… I… I want to face that future, the future beyond the gate, together. No matter what happens, I will continue to protect her…”

    "And so you shall."

    The basket-headed monk nodded once, a slow gesture, as if nodding off to sleep.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    He found himself face to face with the wooden wall. His callused hands clasped its splintered surface and pushed. The bright interior of the village shone on the other side. And there, awaiting him, was Hanako…

    “I will continue to-“

    A conspicuous huddle of men and women in ragged clothes and sedge hats partially obscured her. Smiling faces, laughing faces, teary eyed women and wrinkled men with many missing teeth. All of them speaking indistinct words and rejoicing at Hanako’s return. A world apart from the one Hiryu shared with her in their castle. Hiryu’s heart sunk as he understood why Hanako had known of this village. He was not entirely unhappy, but…

    Something was wrong. The chatter of the peasantry died as one barked something and pointed haltingly towards the village gates. Hiryu’s ragged shape stumbled towards them, towards Hanako. The faces turned from joy to suspicion and fear, and the blob of people diffused into a steadily expanding crescent, pulling away from Hanako.

    But she was not alone. A strong arm encircled her waist. Steely eyes beneath a peasant’s hat and a hard, rugged face met his gaze. His free hand gripped a sharpened, crude lance of bamboo. Hanako’s body overlapped his, protectively, longingly. Against him her delicate outline seemed so tiny…

    Look at me.” A painful ringing filled his mind. “Please look at me.

    Hiryu staggered closer. The man gently brushed Hanako aside and lowered his sharpened rod. Its hollow tip leveled at Hiryu’s heart. Hanako’s fingers entwined with those of the peasant’s, refusing to be separated. The semicircle followed suit, drawing sickles and similar bamboo spears from out of nowhere. Their wary and tired stares gave way to grimaces of pure malice. The way they gazed at Hiryu filled him with a burning, agonizing sensation. Their hatred infected him.

    Look at me… look…

    “Hanako... What is this place? Who is-“

    That. His lips formed the words, but the wind within his chest escaped through a different hole. From behind a hard sensation rocked his spine. Hiryu’s hands blindly groped behind him along the wetness in his rags until they met the rough cylinder of a spear, heating with the warmth of his blood. A sanguine line ran from his lips to his throat as he craned his neck to lock eyes with his attacker. A boy, half his age, cowering beneath a sedge hat, hands shaking as he gripped the sharpened bamboo in terror.

    “G….Give her back…”

    His mind filled with white. Strangely, it didn’t hurt. Hiryu’s punctured lungs quivered with quiet, gasping laughter that filled the air with flecks of red. Give back who?

    “Give my sister back!”

    Around a chorus of grief erupted as the peasants bellowed the names of family they had lost to the war. Those names stabbed through Hiryu long before their spears. Vectors of force jammed through him from every angle as his flesh was perforated from every side. He felt their slanted tips grind against his bone and feast hungrily upon his entrails. Pain was everything Hiryu could perceive, his entire world, until the healing salve of their sheer murderous intent filled him, numbing his body, chilling him. He felt his blood drench everything below his waist as his legs went slack and still the sheer number of impaling spears held his leaking corpse aloft.

    “A…Aa…”

    “We did it!” An old man screamed. “We killed the beast!”

    “Furuko, I have avenged you!”

    “Burn the Nogami monster!”

    Their triumphant screaming blended into an indistinct victory roar. Hiryu’s glassy eyes never parted from Hanako for even once. The crowd soon became too thick and he lost sight of her, but somewhere above the din, he could hear a girl’s scream. Someone was hurting her. Hanako was in pain.

    If Hanako was in pain, then his world would have to become one in which she didn’t feel pain anymore. He didn’t want this world on the other side of the komuso’s gate to be real anymore.

    “Hanako.” What was left of Hiryu gurgled. “I… will continue… to protect you.”

    A red lotus bloomed that day. Petals of pure crimson echoed outward under the sun.

    “I will continue to… protect…”

    The blossom was fed with the lifeblood of countless people, young and old. He felt their essence flow between his fingers, beneath his knuckles. His body ripped free of its shackles and flew. Flew with a speed he never knew before, a victual power that only his brothers and father possessed. Hachiman blessed him and filled his mangled figure with divine clarity. Hanako was so near to him, after all.

    His assailants tried to free themselves of their improvised lances as they stuck fast to his sealing wounds. The green and brown shafts blackened and cracked from the miasma escaping his flesh. Hiryu’s eyes were milky and white, like that of a dead fish. But the peasants were in the way. If those eyes ever wanted to lock with Hanako’s again, they would need to move. In an irreverent, shooing gesture, the massed figures, shoulder to shoulder, scattered into mists of crimson at his command. He tasted something acrid upon the wind. The dry earth was moist and slippery beneath his feet, quite unexpectedly.

    Countless spears tugged at him but he continued on. Nothing could separate them. His love for her was undying.

    “I will continue…”

    He felt something soft and sticky between his hands. A tiny boy scrambled, bare skin slick with mud and red dye, in the dirt before Hiryu’s heel found his back and his figure folded in upon itself like a paper envelope. Hiryu’s arm flung outwards involuntarily as he lost his balance, and he dropped to his knees on the broken child. His body was numb, but Hiryu could still barely register the particular combination of softness and hardness as his fingers slid through flesh and bone.

    “…pro…tect…”

    Looking over his shoulder, he saw a familiar, tall man cradling a dark, purple and red ropy mass in his arms and crying softly to himself, praying on his knees. Blows rained down upon his shoulders, his back, even his legs, but nothing permanent. His world had ceased to include that destructive power; the moment he failed to recognize the punctures in his lungs and the stabs and cuts of sickles was the moment they all ceased to exist. He felt their hatred sustain him, their terror feed his fire until his body was so hot it burned where moments before he felt it go cold and lifeless. The komuso was right. Everything he needed within his world was sculpted the moment the future came to him. But Hiryu retained the right to determine what was beyond that gate and what was not. He was continuing his journey with Hanako, an infinite trek towards a blissful existence where neither pain nor suffering existed. A place where they were eternally joined, no longer Nogami and Mie.

    “Hanako… Hanako I will protect…”

    The cries of the town’s inhabitants died out and were replaced by the ringing in his head, the ebbing life force of every being the Nogami consumed. The magnitude of suffering sustained him, gave him the strength to seize his love. If they knew what he knew in that moment, they would never have to suffer again. His fingers smeared her satin skin with scarlet. She squirmed piteously under his grasp until his fingers found the small of the back of her heel and pinched until something shattered. Blood leaked from his gasping mouth and dripped across her screaming face. What was wrong with her? Hiryu had been certain the medicine had worn off that morning. Why was she unable to walk? What had the smallfolk done to her? It was as Hiryu feared; she was too delicate of an existence to be left amongst wretched and foul people such as these.

    “Hanako… Hanako…”

    Hiryu’s right hand gripped her two furiously shaking wrists and clasped them together. Her body rocked and bucked against him but it was meaningless; he’d never let them be apart again. Hanako was half submerged in pieces of red floating through a warm sea, her body’s thrashing scattering them in rolling waves. A place like this was no suitable location for Hiryu to raise his family with Hanako. He’d need to take her even further away from the castle, someplace where no man or woman had ever traveled before. A place with no name to call its own; only then could the boy and girl be free of their names. As he exited the gate, he glanced from right to left, expectantly, hoping to find the komuso in order to thank him properly for the divine insight he’d delivered, but no trace of him was left behind. It was of no consequence. They needed to keep moving; who knew what strange hunters Sadamune had sent after him and his love?

    A dark, polluted tide followed him as he waded ankle deep in the crimson lake.

    “I will continue to protect you… Hanako…”
    Last edited by Cascade; February 27th, 2012 at 03:01 AM.

  15. #15
    Jester of the Moon Cell's Sovereign Kieran's Avatar
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    And so we come to a poignant end . . . It'll be interesting to see how this ties into the main story.
    “Love will be cruel to who it entices — love will have its sacrifices.”

    — Carmilla Theme




    "Evil isn't the real threat to the world. Stupid is just as destructive as Evil, maybe more so, and it's a hell of a lot more common. What we really need is a crusade against Stupid. That might actually make a difference."

    ―Jim Butcher, Vignette




  16. #16
    夜魔 Nightmare Cascade's Avatar
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    Well hopefully it was a good end. I must say that "poignant" wasn't nearly the word I had in mind, lol. It was difficult for me to figure out how to tie everything up cleanly, (in a manner of speaking...) though I'd already decided on this conclusion at the start.
    Last edited by Cascade; February 28th, 2012 at 06:11 AM.

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