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[x]Bring a small detachment with me and enter without making too much of a fuss. The rest of my men would wait outside in case things went bad.
"Skinny, Shorty, you and your teams take the closest vantage point to the camp. We'll be in contact by hand signs, so keep an eye on me always. Be prepared to fire if things get ugly," as soon as I gave my orders to them, the two crows bowed and practically vanished. "Inubashiri, with me. Pick five of our best soldiers and dress incognito."
With a plan in my head and a casual dress on my body, the tengu army began to mobilize in the utmost discretion. Well, if you could call it a plan, anyway. I was just going to introduce myself to Yakumo properly, without bringing my whole possy with me. I did not consider the Witch an enemy, but when there are so many unknowns in an operation, you must be prepared for the worst.
Fortunately the worst didn't happen. Nobody paid us mind when we arrived at the camp, or if they did, they were too busy or distracted to recognize us as tengu. To be fair, even while some tengu like to boast about their majestic wings, tails, talons, fangs, you name it, the truth is they don't really stand out that much when everybody else has non-humanoid appendages too. Especially when most of them were either drinking like there was no tomorrow, sparring against themselves, or just commenting how many heads they were going to bash.
"I can smell the inexperience," said Inubashiri, just loud enough for our group to hear above the hubbub.
My second's comment brought my attention to a certain particularity of the youkai army Yukari had reunited: the vast majority were young blood. I'm talking about youngsters of only a hundred years old, tops. Smooth skins with no scars, pristine horns and claws, unnotched weaponry and armor, optimistic and boisterous attitude... all the signs of innocent soldiers who are going to war for the first time in their lives, and have no idea of the horrors and complications of the battlefield. Hell, they probably hadn't even killed anyone with their own hands yet.
"Is she really planning on sending these babies to fight?" I heard one of Inubashiri's men whispering to his companion behind me.
"I hear you. These rookies won't live to tell the tale unless they're led by someone capable," she muttered back.
"I just hope the Witch knows what she's doing... You think she has any idea how to lead an army?"
"Beats me. But I have a bad feeling she'll delegate that task to someone else."
"...Ugh. I pray you're wrong for once."
He wasn't the only one praying for that. The least thing I wanted was to babysit an oversized group of undisciplined, bloodlusty rookies in battle with an enemy I didn't know anything about. But in war, things never go as you wish.
We squirmed our way through the crowd of youkai running around frantically, carrying crates and weaponry from the huts without any semblant of order, until we finally made it to the Witch's tent. There we found the two kitsune guards Shorty talked about; one eating a piece of fried tofu, the other telling a story to his partner, and bore evident in their dull expressions. As soon as we approached them and they saw us, they quickly stood firm and ready, as if we never caught them procastinating on the job.
"We came to speak with the Witch on behalf of Lord Sojobo of the tengu," I spoke to the two foxmen.
"The Witch has explicitly asked not to be disturbed," the tofu guard responded haughtily. "You'll have to wait until she's finished."
"She told us to meet her here when the moon is at its peak," I looked up to the starry sky and saw that, in fact, the moon was at its peak. At least we were not late.
"So what? She's busy with preparations and can't deal with the likes of you at the moment," the other kitsune said in an equally arrogant tone.
"Watch your mouth, fox," Inubashiri growled gutturally. "Have you any idea who are you speaking with?"
"No I do not, I do not care," the tofu guard took a bite of his snack and waved his hand at us. "Now scoot!"
My team's reaction was immediate: they quickly brought their hands to the hilts of their swords, and they would have swiftly unsheathed and pointed them at the two bratty guards if I hadn't raised my hand to stop them. As much as I felt proud knowing that my men would so fiercely defend my honor as much as their own, that very obsession with honor made them forget they were supposed to lay low. It was not in our best interests to start a fight with potential allies. However, I must admit I was getting fed up with those two as well. So, I decided to teach them a small lesson:
"If that's how you want to play, so be it. Do you recognize this?"
I took out the seven-feathered fan of Sojobo and showed it to the confused kitsune. Just one glance at their clueless eyes fixated in that object so alien to them told me everything I needed to know about them. A second look at their tails confirmed my suspicions: those two were no older than two centuries, evidenced by the two scuts both had. Seeing fox cubs so young going to war was indeed a rather strange and disheartening sight, for kitsune were the kind of youkai who spent about three centuries learning the arts and sciences of the world before leaving their home.
"That's a tengu fan," pointed out the storyteller guard after a few seconds of pondering. "What's so special about it?"
So young, so ignorant, so naïve. Their lone memory grates my nerves. But, I guess we've all been there sometime, hm?
"It's the tengu fan for you," with the fan, I lightly touched the piece of tofu of the glutton fox. "Do yourselves a favor and read more books before wasting your lifes like this."
I did not stay to hear the offended kitsune's response; instead I pushed them aside and went directly for the tent's door. I only heard the whistling sound of four arrows piercing the wind from four different directions, and nailing with ludicrous precision the fried tofu the glutton was holding in his hand. Sadly I missed their terrified faces, but the shocked gasps were a good enough substitute.
Yeah, having snipers watching over you and willing to teach some brats humility is always great.
We were taken aback when we saw what was Yukari's tent like inside. Okay, we weren't sure what we were expecting in the first place, but certainly not that. I mean, how would you feel if you entered through a curtain and found yourself in a huge, plain praerie literally in the middle of nowhere, with only green as far as your eyes could see? 'Disoriented' would be putting it mildly. Imagine you step go to your house, open the door, and see something like a whole different world, and it's much bigger than the outside you're in... I still can't wrap my head around what I saw there. That, or I really suck at similes. Both probably.
So there were we, all dumb-founded and confused, staring at the vast immensity of the monotonous scenery around us, when suddenly we heard a sultry feminine voice coming from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Truly strange, but it was not the first time someone pulled that trick on us, so we were able to remain relatively calm.
"About time! I was wondering if you'd ever show up."
Just in front of me, the very fabric of space seemed to rip open, exposing an even weirder endless scenery of scarlet red, filled with creepy, huge eyes. And from there, a woman popped up and stared at us with the curiosity of an infant.
"Oh my, you aren't the ones I was expecting," she gracefully covered her - probably fake - surprised expression with her fan.
You should be quite familiar with Yukari Yakumo, the Youkai of Boundaries. Purple eyes that stared into your soul and beyond, long blonde hair let loose under a mob cap. She carried a pink lace parasol and the forementioned paper fan, and wore a purple Chinese-style tabard with various trigrams over a pale pink dress. She hasn't changed at all in these thousand years, except in how she carried herself. If you see her now, you'd notice how she always stands uptight and firm, as if she was withstanding a heavy burden in her shoulders but doesn't let herself yield under it. At that time, that metaphorical weight wasn't there; she moved and acted with the grace and innocence of a young girl. Yeah, I think that's a good comparison: it's the difference between an unwed maiden and an old housewife, even if her outward appearance remains the same.
"You must be the Witch of the Boundaries," I said, stating the obvious in an attempt to reassure myself.
"Some refer to me as that. But please, call me Yukarin," she giggled.
"I'd rather go with Miss Yakumo."
"Boo, you're not fun! Can't we at least stick to first name basis, for friendship's sake?"
"Fine, Yukari it is..." I sighed. No more than three sentences exchanged and I was already mentally exhausted, that's how unnerving she was to me.
"But I never caught your name, miss..."
"Right, Tenma, would you kindly take a sit over here?" Yukari pointed with her fan at a patch of grass right beside her.
Seeing as I had no other choice than to appease Yukari's petition, I turned around to dismiss Inubashiri and the others... but they were no were to be seen. Or rather, it was like they were never there to begin with.
"Huh!? Where are my men!?" I exclaimed.
"I wanted to have a private conversation with you alone, so I sent them off," the Witch calmly explained.
"It was your doing? What have you done with them!?" I admit I sounded a bit more distressed than I wanted to let out.
"Relax, Tenma. They're outside the tent, keeping the two kitsune you scared company," Yukari was quite amused with my reaction. She definitely did that to threw me off, I'm sure of it. "Your concern with your own people is laudable, my friend, but being such a worrywart isn't a good trait for a war strategist."
Since I had no way to confirm what Yukari told me, I could only resign myself to trust her word and do as she told for the time being. The word of a whimsical and powerful sorceress who had fun in taunting and confusing me, already calling me a friend a minute after we met, and even going as far as using the first name basis. You should understand why I was beginning to detest her.
"Tell me, Tenma, do you study astrology?" Yukari asked.
"Astrology? Can't say I have."
"Too bad. You're missing on a lot," the Witch looked up and sighed. "The stars tell many interesting things to those who can read what they say."
I mimicked her and, to my surprise, I witnessed the same dark, starry night with the full moon I'd been seeing the whole night. How did she manage to make the tent's ceiling transparent from the inside and opaque from the outside escapes me even to this day, but it wasn't that surprising after all she had done up until then.
"I had a friend who was able to tell the exact time and position she was in just by looking at the stars and the moon," she went on.
"Yes. But I'm not interested in that. Anybody can do that with proper tools and mathematics," the Witch mindlessly ran a finger along one of her golden strands of hair. "What I really look at is the hidden meaning in the constelations, the omens, the prophecies."
At the time, the thought of a secret message hidden among the random assortment of twinkle lights in the sky was simply ridiculous for my utilitarian and realist mindset. Sure, I do know how to get my bearings with the basic astronomy I learned, but other than that, for me the stars and the moon were just there. They had no other purpose for me other than orientation and (literal) illumination. Prophecies? Omens? Bah, that was laughable.
"What can you tell me from looking at the stars, Tenma?"
So when Yukari asked me that seemingly innocent question, I felt like a fish out of water, totally helpless and confused. No matter how hard I tried to search for any meaning up in the sky, the only thing I saw were little brilliant dots with no connection whatsoever, much less a message. Instead, I opted for the 'easy' way out:
"How can I be sure these stars are real? As far as I know, I'm still inside your tent, and this sky is another trick of yours."
To which Yukari laughed heartily. "Ohohohohoho, questioning the veracity of what your own eyes see? My oh my, I never took you for a philosopher!" She fanned herself, even more amused than she was a while before. "Rest assured, my friend, this sky is the sky you always watch every night. You have my word."
Sadly, my attempt to derail the conversation to a topic I was a bit more comfortable with failed, if the expectant look Yukari was giving me was of any indication.
"But you are the expert here, Yukari. Why do you want to hear the opinion of someone who is not knowledgeable in this?"
"Because you could see something that might have escaped me, or that I cannot see," having said that, the Witch picked up a peeble and showed it to me. "Take this stone, for example. If you asked your henchmen to tell you what is it, they'd say it is a stone, right? But beyond the mere appearance, the sight of the stone ellicits different reactions on each of them. Some might believe it's nothing out of the ordinary. That is truth. Others might remember a childhood memory of when they used to play with them. That is also truth. Others instantly start to think of ways to use that stone for their advantage if the need arises. True, as well. And others might recall the time they accidentaly hurt their toe with a peeble. A sad truth that is.
"These truths come from the same sight of a simple peeble, yet each and every one of them is as valid as the rest. The same goes for the stars. Each person thinks different things when they look up to the sky and see, but who are we to determine who is more in the right? I believe subjectivity is truer than objectivity. The truths we infer from our own insight are truer than the truths we agree upon as a community, the so called 'facts'. And so, to attain true wisdom, I'd like to learn the truths of all the people I meet. That's why I ask you, Tenma, to look up in the sky and tell me what you see."
I stood there in silence, mulling over what Yukari had told me. Even though I considered myself somewhat versed in philosophical stuff, that level of mumbo jumbo about truths and subjectivity and insights was too much for me to grasp. Yet I had a feeling I disagreed with her own view. I was a realist, and I still am. My job has always been to deal with problems in the real world. Conundrums of philosophy have no place in my line of work; many lives depend on my strategies, and I could not afford to dilly-dally about establishing my own insight as the truth. If it were like that, I would win all my battles with staggering easiness, right?
Even so, after hearing Yukari pour her thoughts out like that, I thought the least I could do was to give it another try. And so I looked again at the black sky, littered with white dots all over the firmament, and the enormous white moon looming over us. I figured Yukari would be satisfied if I told her the first thing that came to mind, and that was...
"Nothing special. It's just a black sky with little stars and a big moon."
"Vastness. Watching the immense blackness above me makes me feel so small, insignificantt."
"Curiosity. What lies above our land, beyond the stars? This earth is but a tiny cage compared to the sky."
"Reverence. Up there is the home of many gods, deities we pray and owe our life to."
"What do you see there, Yukari?"
"Enough with this. Tell me what are your plans, Yukari."
Thanks, mate. I'm just trying my best, though I wish I was able to be more regular with my updates...
And thanks to you too. Your praise is much appreciated, and your critiques most welcome and useful. I'll try not to use too modern slang from now on.