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Many, many thanks go out from me to the inestimable FelixOvum, who helped me edit this and make it as good as it could be! Now enjoy the show!
I've spent the last half hour climbing these stairs, and I can conclusively state that they could kill a lesser man. But then, considering I've just crested the final step, I suppose I'm worthy of whatever's up here, no?
There's a walled-off Japanese estate around a hundred feet ahead, a gigantic tree sprouting up from within, but to get there I have to travel this tiled path flanked by cherry blossoms. Alas, the gate ahead is barred by a girl in a green dress, a strange white blob just... floating around her. When I walk towards her, boots thumping across the tiles, she matches my every step until we meet halfway.
I pause ten paces out, and she does the same. Cold blue eyes stare at me, framed by white hair in a bobcut that flutters in the wind. She stands ready to draw, katana sheathed at her hip and shorter wakizashi peeking out from the small of her back. That wispy blob swirls around her at a sedate pace, but I shake my head and snap out of it before the thing hypnotizes me.
"What is your business, samurai?" Her words are clipped, efficient, and entirely too cold for a girl still in her teens.
"Call me Sam," I say, grinning. "What about yourself, eh?"
"Youmu," she says, not so much as blinking. "I'll ask one more time. What is your business?"
I fold an arm across my belly and rub my chin, my expression thoughtful as I look around. "Well, I saw these stairs that just kept going and going, so I thought, 'Sam, why don't you go see what's up there? It'll be an adventure!'" I spread my arms wide open. "And here I am!"
"I'm afraid we're closed to visitors," Youmu says, her pretty little lips turning down. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave, samurai."
I sigh, frowning as I turn to half face her, and gesture at the steps behind me. "That's a cruel thing to say to a man after he's gone up all those stairs. Even from a lady as fair as yourself."
Her katana is in her hands in a single flash of movement, and she holds the blade ahead of her with sure-footed certainty. "Even so, I cannot allow you passage."
I shift back to face her, steadying my footing, left hand falling to Murasama's sheath, and grin. "Is that a challenge?"
The corner of her mouth twitches upward. "It's a promise."
I casually take a step forward, my forefinger sliding past the sheaths' trigger guard. "Let's dance."
She moves so fast that, for the barest of moments, there's only an blur of green and white and shining steel.
I pull the trigger.
Murasama rockets out into my right hand's waiting grip, and I carry it upwards in a flowing diagonal slash, just as the lady's blade comes down on my head. The sheer force of my strike knocks her blade flying, and the shock is clear on her face as the sword flies back through the air.
"Too slow, little girl!" I say, following my strike with another slash, one that she barely avoids with a hasty backstep. She draws her backup blade in one hand and brings it up just as my third swing comes down at her head, the wakizashi catching Murasama, sparks flying as grey steel halts red. Youmu drops to one knee, teeth grit in effort as I push down on her, but she makes a quick gesture with her free hand and that blob sucker-punches me right on the nose, hitting like a brick and stinging like hell as I stumble back a step.
Free for a crucial moment, Youmu turns and runs, that wisp giving chase. I pull Murasama back to my side and launch after her, the blade's tip shrieking as it drags across the tiles. She glances back at the noise, and her eyes widen as she sees me close enough to touch her. She shifts her footing to the left, and kicks off the ground in a flip that leaves my sword to slice through the hem of her skirt instead of her legs.
She lands in a crouch, bringing her wakizashi up again as I swing down. More sparks arc through the air as my blade grinds against hers, but this time I smash a boot into her midsection, carrying her off with a cry of pain before she can command that blob of hers. She hits the ground and rolls to a stop on her front, and spares a glance at me, a mixture of fright and anger plain as day on her face.
I slowly circle around her, idly inspecting Murasama as I go, until I'm standing between her and her katana. She's on her feet again by the time I'm there, and I spare her a mocking smile. "Is that fear I see in your eyes?"
She growls wordlessly, my words striking a nerve, but she doesn't charge blindly in. Good girl. "Nothing so petty."
"Show me a good time, then!" I say, and charge. She holds her ground, her stance loose until I close in with a thrust -
Youmu jerks her head aside, Murasama slicing past her ear, and lashes out with her little sword, carving through an inch of my muscle-suit's stomach plating. She reverses her grip on her weapon and slashes again, all in about half a second. I'm already leaping back when her second blow carves out a thin line across my pectoral plating, but the moment before I touch down is the moment she's on me again, swinging at my neck. As I bend back, launching into a cartwheel, Youmu's blade sails past my eyes with less than a hair's breadth between us.
Hand touches ground, legs kick through air, and I land on my feet with sword held ready, Youmu standing before me with her face set in concentration, that blob circling around her. My chin feels oddly... bare, and my suspicions are confirmed when I rub it and find a patch of stubble missing. The discovery leaves me grinning.
"Yes!" I say, my voice ringing harshly through the air. "That's what I'm talking about!"
The blob morphs into a ghostly-white image of Youmu, this one wielding a katana of her own, and the two raise their blades in unison. They say nothing as they come at me, the double striking first with her superior reach; I parry it, knocking her blow aside, but the full-color swordswoman lunges in with her shorter blade, forcing me to deflect it instead of capitalizing on the ghost's vulnerability. They keep this pattern up, coming in fast and hard and forcing me to continue backpedaling unless I want them to both stick me at once. Strike after quicksilver-strike comes at me, and every one is swatted aside, but I'm left no room for offense like this, something that they capitalize on with perfect unity. Yet, as each blow comes in, a pattern comes to the fore.
And with it, a hole in her defenses.
I backstep one last time, sheathing Murasama in a single smooth motion, while the duo ready themselves for a thrust.
They come at me.
I pull the trigger.
The real Youmu dives past me as Murasama flies out once more, and I slice through the ghostly double in a single blow, stepping past her and spinning around. The clone slides in half, cut diagonally from the waist up, and dissolves into nothing, and the original is -
I fold my arms together and laugh, Youmu standing opposite me with katana held high above her head in her main hand, wakizashi in her off hand, angled defensively in front of her. It looks awkward, but at the same time I'm surprised she was able to get back up so quickly, and not a little impressed she drove me back far enough to be able to reach her katana in the first place.
"Two swords?" I ask, smiling at the stone-faced girl. "Impressive! But what's that stance? Too sloppy to be entirely trained, but not wholly self-taught, either? What happened to your master?"
"None of your concern!" she says, and sprints at me. I bring Murasama up in a guard that her katana clashes against, only for her to swing at my side with her off-blade. I'd expected as much, my left hand already dropping from Murasama's grip to intercept; I click my tongue as I bat the strike away and follow up with a punch, but she lurches aside into a roll, coming back up on her feet a moment later.
"Touchy subject?" I say, smirking as I circle around her.
"Shut up!" she hotly retorts, rushing me again. Both her swords come in high, but the sheer force behind them drives me across the ground by inches. She spins around, this time swinging at my left side, and once more I'm budged across the tiled pathway from the impossibly strong blows.
Her anger is lending such strength to her attacks that I can't risk taking a single one, but it also leaves her vulnerable.
When she spins around a third time, I cartwheel back and land with my blade drawn at my side.
"Wide open!" I snarl, Murasama screaming across the tiles as I rush her. I bring the blade up in a mighty slash, and -
And she parries, effortlessly bringing her swords up just before I could connect with her neck; the flawless timing of her block forces my sword up, my guard utterly ruined, and a sharp stinging jolts across my hand as her wakizashi slices across it, launching Murasama from my grasp.
She baited me, and I actually fell for it. Clever, clever girl.
My blade flies back out of sight, but my retreat after it is arrested when Youmu points her wakizashi at my throat, katana drawn back for a swing at my gut.
"You're done, samurai!" she says, a victorious little smile on her face.
I merely solidify my footing, holding my hands loosely before me, and rush her with a shout of "Here is how it's done!"
She thrusts and swings at me simultaneously, almost too fast to see, but I'm just that little bit faster; my hands clamp around a blade apiece, and I hiss as they bite into my palms. Youmu looses a strangled cry of dismay when I wrench the swords from her hands and throw them back. While she's still off-balance, I launch her into the stratosphere with an uppercut directly below the jaw, my fist connecting with a satisfying crack.
While she's airborne, I spin around and sprint for Murasama, which ended up embedded in a tile a few feet past Youmu's swords. I snatch it out of the ground without stopping, my feet skidding across the ground as I spin again to find Youmu right behind me, having made a remarkable recovery, and she's already diving for her swords by the time I'm able to properly react. She hits the ground, rolls, snatches her swords, and comes up to Murasama held at her throat. The girl freezes, eyes focused unerringly on the crimson blade.
"I think that's that, don't you?" I say, rolling a shoulder in a shrug. "Unless you want to be breathing out your neck, I'd recommend you drop the swords."
Slowly, reluctantly, she loosens her grips on the weapons, and they clatter against the tiles. She brings her hands up, palms out, a tiny, wondering smile on her lips. "Oh, you're good at this."
"I am quite good," I agree, drawing back and resting Murasama atop my shoulder, and I give her a wide smile. "Well, that was exciting! You weren't half bad, and those swords of yours? Oh, absolutely beautiful pieces of work." My smile flips. "But the way you fought - you held yourself back, didn't you? I don't care for that, not one bit."
"But if she did go all out," says a woman from disturbingly close by, and I whip around, blade ready, to find a pink-haired woman in blue watching me expressionlessly from not five feet away, "then I'm afraid you'd be quite dead right now, sir."
"Oh, here we go," Youmu mutters.
I pause, lowering my sword, and raise a brow. "How did you do that?"
She doesn't even blink. "There's nothing quite like a swordfight underneath the cherry blossoms, is there? I can't blame you for goading my dear Youmu on, honestly. But I do mind you waving that sword in my face, so if you would please consider putting it away, I'd be grateful."
A tension's rising in me at the sight of her, one I can't fully explain, but all I know for sure is that making this woman angry seems to be an absolutely terrible idea. In light of that, sheathing Murasama is fine by me. The moment the sword is hidden away, the woman claps her hands together, and that inexplicable dread vanishes as she tilts her head and beams at me.
"I'm glad we understand each other!" Even her voice is bright and bubbly now. "You're quite good if you can put my Youmu through her paces in a swordfight, sir!"
"You're right, Lady Saigyouji," Youmu says grudgingly, and I sidestep and turn to keep both women in my sight. The girl so recently trying to kill me drags a fist across her sweat-dripping forehead. "I don't like it, but... he had me dead to rights there."
'Saigyouji' nods, her expression softening. "No shame in it, dear." She looks back at me, and the gigawatt smile returns as quickly as it left. "Do you know she's never been defeated in a real swordfight before? Even if she wasn't going all out, your victory is still quite the feat!"
"It's not as impressive as she makes it out to be," Youmu says to me softly, blushing as she retrieves and sheathes her swords. "I haven't had a chance to face a swordsman of your skill in... ever, quite honestly. We seemed to be lacking them around here until you showed up."
"A shame," I say, glancing between the two apprehensively. People don't get this friendly this quickly unless they want something of you.
"Oh, I've completely forgotten my manners!" Saigyouji says, holding frilly sleeves in front of her mouth in shock. "My name is Yuyuko Saigyouji, and this here is-"
"Youmu Konpaku, yes," Youmu says, bowing until her head's level with her shoulders.
"Samuel Rodrigues," I say, inclining my head by inches. "I hope you both know how strange it is for us to be doing this after she and I were trying to kill each other."
"Oh, that's all in the past!" Yuyuko says, waving my concerns off without a care. "In any case, I assume you wanted inside the estate grounds, else you wouldn't have had reason to fight in the first place."
"You'd be right," I say. "...If the lady wishes to allow me in, that is."
"Now you care?" Youmu asks, glaring at me in disbelief, before Yuyuko's giggle cuts through the air.
"Oh, he's polite, too!" she says, hiding her mouth behind a sleeve. "Please, won't you come in? I'd hate to imagine you went through all this effort to leave empty-handed."
"After a fight like that?" I say, tilting my head at Youmu. "You could throw me off the cliff and I'd still think I came out ahead." I shake my head, spreading my hands palms-up. "But I won't say no if you want to let me in anyway."
The two women share a glance, and when they look back at me, Yuyuko's eyes have narrowed fractionally. "Actually, Samuel, now that I think about it, we also have spare rooms for guests. Assuming, of course, that you'd care to stay a while?"
I fold my arms, looking between the two. "Don't say you'd host me out of a sense of charity, eh?"
"Naturally not," Yuyuko says, lowering her hands to her belly. "After all, you'd be eating our food! But there are uses for a man like yourself."
Youmu has a certain gleam in her eye that I'm not sure I like. "I suppose I could use, say, a sparring partner? One well versed in swordsmanship?"
"That sounds wonderful, Youmu," Yuyuko says, beaming like she didn't expect it in the slightest. "That would be your payment, Samuel. You spar with Youmu when she desires, and I'm allowed to watch whenever you do. Is that fair?"
Oh, they are tricky, these women. I like them already. Still, I make a show of rubbing my chin in thought, looking around the place. I have to admit it's beautiful, and spending time here getting my bearings would likely not be that bad.
"Well, if that's all I'd have to do," I say, nodding agreeably, "consider your offer... denied."
They both blink in surprise, Yuyuko's mouth turning down in a pout so viciously sad it should be illegal, and Youmu's hand drifting down to her sword.
"Ay, but the looks on your faces!" I say, grinning as they reel mentally. "All right, ladies, I'll do it."
"Excellent!" Yuyuko says, smiling brightly once more even as Youmu struggles to catch up. "But first, we simply must show you around! We'll get you set up and you can just spend this first day exploring the estate, all right? We can discuss your contract tomorrow."
"Contract?" I ask, but Yuyuko's already spinning around, robes fluttering, and she floats off the ground towards the estate. I spare a glance at Youmu; the girl meets my eye and tilts her her head.
"What?" she asks, blinking owlishly.
"Before we follow her," I say, "what was with that little double of yours?"
"That's my ghost half," she says matter-of-factly.
I rub my chin again as I mull that over. "Hmm, yes, that makes no sense."
Youmu merely smiles in enigmatic amusement before she walks after her lady. I shrug and follow suit, falling in step with that curious girl and her even stranger master.
And that was how, stuck in a new land and lacking anywhere else to stay, I started working for a ghost princess and trained her gardener in the New Rodrigues Shadow School of swordsmanship. Life in the Netherworld was much more exciting than I anticipated, but Incidents tended to be that way, as I soon found out.
But what kind of Incident happened, I hear you ask?
Well. That's a tale for another time, no?