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Someone shook me violently and I had the impression of rocking on a boat in the ocean. The shaking stopped for a moment and resumed almost instantly, even more urgently this time. I mumbled sleepily to the persistent arms as I turned away from them, ‘Quit rocking my boat. Mmmmh…’
‘Wake up Stinky! We’ve got company!’ it hissed in return.
I forced my eyes open and saw nothing but darkness for a few seconds before they adjusted enough to the gloom. Making an abrupt turn, I stared into the face of Reiji, pinched in panic and fear. ‘Whazzat?’ I asked drowsily.
He continued to tug at me incessantly until I wobbled to my feet, wriggling one foot to get the circulation running in it again as Reiji went over to a window and peered outwards through an open crack. It was night once more, though just what time of the night I could not tell for the life of me. I joined him shortly, trying to peek at what he was so worried about and my heart missed a beat as I saw the scene outside.
It was Dead Meat; standing shoulder to shoulder with another person I couldn’t identify having some sort of face-off with Nue. The heated words they exchanged were clearly audible in the silent midnight and as the two intruders took a step in advance, Nue fell back in an opposed movement. In the dim moonlight, I could see the figure next to Dead Meat sporting the same external appendage as she did, only this one looked very much alive and pulsing instead of a dead chunk of meat. More of Three Arms’ flunkies, and the pair didn’t look like they had dropped-by for a social visit.
The chimera’s voice sounded confident but I could detect an undercurrent of tension and anxiety from it. ‘Well well, you honor me. I never thought I’d get to see the Komeiji sisters together in the flesh. Tell me, how did you find us?’ She shifted slightly into a guarded stance as she eyed her antagonists.
Dead Meat spoke a few words in her melodious voice before stopping abruptly. ‘You underestimate us.’
Her sister picked up after her in a deeper voice. ‘Thought you outsmarted the seekers, did you?’
They both finished together in unison, the melodious and the deep voices complementing each other almost like music. ‘They found you. Their original purpose was not to hunt, merely to seek out where you would choose to stop in time for us to reach you. Spreading the news of a hunting party was merely misinformation, and you people fell for it.’
Nue taunted them in return, edging backwards slightly as she did. ‘So we did. So you have. But don’t overestimate yourselves. I won’t go down so easily.’
The two sisters echoed their reply, confident in their own right and superiority in numbers. ‘We’re sure you won’t. Nevertheless, you will pay your due for betraying the youkai. You have sheltered a wanted human and our prize.’
‘No recompense,’ Dead Meat spoke herself.
‘No forgiveness,’ her sister continued.
‘No mercy. The Iron Death for you, traitor.’ They finished together.
In an explosion of trailing colors lasting for no more than a fraction of a second, Nue shifted into her chimera form to lunge directly at Dead Meat in one swift motion and her sister sidestepped aside idly as Nue crashed headfirst into Dead Meat, the force of the impact sending both of them tumbling into the thickets amidst the sounds of breaking bamboo, grunts, and curses. Ignoring the fracas, the solitary figure remaining outside began to move towards the mansion confidently, only to stop abruptly as something snaked out from the thickets to wrap around her.
‘What-‘ she began and ended, forcefully ripped off of the ground and whipped into the bamboo grove by Nue’s outstretched snake appendages. The chaos continued for a few seconds more before a blinding flash of light ended the struggle in the thickets and all three figures exploded through the overgrowth into the night air. Nue had reassumed her human form, clutching a bloodied arm as she faced the Komeiji sisters.
‘Two against one?’ She taunted them again, ignoring the first blood the sisters had drawn. ‘Whatever happened to The Way? Truly, we have descended far into barbarism under Iyen-Shuren’s rule.’
‘The Way does not apply to traitors. This will not be a duel. This is your execution,’ they replied together summarily before splitting up and taking up positions opposing Nue’s. She swung her gaze about the two warily, momentarily confused as she tried to adapt to their movements.
Shit, I cursed silently. There would be no traditional spell-card duel. They meant to slaughter her outright by unleashing the full extent of their abilities. I didn’t doubt for a second that the Komeiji sisters would go into artillery mode straight from the onset of the battle and I began to drag the transfixed Reiji away from the window forcefully. I hissed to him as we moved, ‘Haul ass! We’ve got to find cover! Where the hell is Keizo and the kid?’
He picked up the pace and made a hasty reply, ‘Still sleeping in their rooms. What do-‘
Reiji never had the opportunity to finish his words. The first salvo from the Komeiji sisters tore through everything in the vicinity and the old mansion rocked dangerously from the impact as Reiji fell to the ground unceremoniously. Age-old dust instantly stirred up and we were bathed in a fine haze of debris; moonlight now streamed through the various holes freshly-made in the walls and the ceiling. Sooner or later, the three outside would turn the mansion into Swiss cheese if they kept fighting this close to the building.
Dragging Reiji back to his feet by his arm, I instructed him hoarsely, ‘Go get them and-‘
A second salvo impacted the structure and the sounds of crashing timber and tumbling walls could be heard all around. I threw myself to the ground just in time to avoid a bright flash of light ripping through the space my head had formerly occupied. Spinning around to gape at the hole, I was amazed that I had narrowly avoided decapitation via danmaku. Picking myself up in a panic, I stared through the hole that went all the way outside, glimpsing Nue as she weaved and danced in the air between deadly streams of light and annihilation discs before sending out her reply in a beautiful pattern of death. She held her ground well for now as she tried to bring the battle away from the mansion but I was sure that she would rapidly tire soon enough. She needed help, but how?
Reiji regained his footing and ran for dear life into Keizo’s room and I made a similar dash to Short Stuff’s room, managing to clear the doorway before a tremendous explosion behind us threw me off my feet and I flew a few feet into the room, propelled by the ensuing shockwave. The walls between the two rooms fell apart and I could see Keizo already up through the huge gap, glancing about in bewilderment as Reiji dragged him towards us. Short Stuff sat up in a similar state, confused by the chaos and drugged by sleep as she stared about fish-eyed.
I went back on my feet and gestured for the other two to join us, kneeling down next to Short Stuff. She stared at me in terror, her animosity momentarily forgotten, asking me in a trembling voice, ‘It’s happening again isn’t it? They’re here again.’
I tried to calm her despite the sounds of the raging battle just a few dozen feet away outside. ‘No. Not the Visitors. But we’ve got bad company all the same.’
Keizo remained in a moving crouch and finally made his way to us, now fully aware of what was happening outside. I turned towards him and started to speak, only to have my voice drowned out by another explosion somewhere close-by. I shouted out to him this time, ‘Take shelter in the inner garden with the kid!’
He nodded and sprang into action instantly, taking Short Stuff and Reiji by the arm before I reached out to intercept Reiji with my hand. ‘No! I need-‘
A third explosion reduced Keizo’s former room into mere splinters and a rapidly-cooling crater after sending broken furniture, flying wood, and various items careening into the room we were in. Thankfully, everyone had the presence of mind to throw themselves to the ground and shield their heads as the room next door vaporized in the blinding flash.
Reiji was the first to come to his senses, followed by Keizo and the rest as we surveyed the damage. I wasted no time in gaping and returned my attention to Keizo. ‘Take the kid and go! Leave Reiji with me, we need to help Nue somehow. She won’t last for much longer against them.’
He gave me a look of shocked disbelief and shook me violently by my arms, ‘What the hell? You?! What can you do against youkai?! You take them to the garden and I’ll see what I can do instead!’
I had no time for his hesitations or his misguided attempts at being manly. ‘Listen to me. We don’t help her out, we die. Understand? Nue is our only line of defense and we need to tip the battle in her favor. You don’t know enough about youkai to decide. Now shut up and go!’
Keizo finally complied, not because he agreed but because he didn’t want to sit around arguing for much longer and risk being vaporized ourselves. With an obstinate curse, he lunged to his feet and dragged Short Stuff away despite her protests. I turned away from the retreating pair to look at Reiji staring at me with uncertainty before noticing something that looked completely out of place lying next to him.
The previous explosion had send most of Keizo’s belonging flying into this room and something black, metallic, and glimmering in the moonlight had slipped out of the bag he had used to stash his pigeon-slaying weapon. I recognized the modular curves, arming handle and front sights of the device from what was protruding out.
An old M72 LAW. His hammer of justice. Weapon worthy of the wrath of divinity and all.
I didn’t bother to question the godsend in our current situation. That a light anti-tank weapon had dropped out from nowhere to answer my prayers for help was absurd. The fact that Keizo had lugged the weapon around for months without accidentally setting it off was an even bigger miracle. Scrabbling over to Reiji’s side, I pulled the heavy metallic tube out for a quick inspection. Despite how long the weapon had been out of commission in the outside world, this one looked to be well-maintained and retained a shiny finish nonetheless. Probably somebody’s perverted idea for an antique weapon collection ending up with the kappa who had given Keizo the weapon.
Now we would have a fighting chance. Turning to address Reiji, I tried to shake some sense into him. ‘Listen. I need you to do something to me.’ I gestured outside at the bamboo thickets with my head. ‘Those bamboo, I want you to uproot them and toss them at the green-haired abomination with the funky hat when I give you the sign. Can you do that?’
He looked outwards uncertainly, doubt clouding his young face. ‘I don’t think I can.’
I gave him another firm shake. ‘You have to. Nue will die if we don’t act now. Don’t think. Just do it. Now, can you do it?’
Despite hesitating again, he gave a firm answer this time. ‘I’ll try.’
‘Good.’ I gave him a light pat in the head before propelling him towards the hole in the wall. ‘Now go! Start tossing them when I say so and don’t stay in the same place. Toss, displace, move, and toss again, got it?’
Moving off in opposing directions, I ran out of the room seeking a better vantage point as Reiji sped off into the thickets, narrowly missing a web of annihilating light which tore through the ground behind him before crashing into the thickets for cover. Giving a quick backwards glance, I waited for him to disappear into the darkness of the bamboo groves before taking a crouched dash out of the room.
I picked a relatively-hidden spot amongst the debris of the former welcoming hall, trying to spy on the battle through the haze of dust hanging heavily in the air. Nue was no longer capable of completely evading the crisscrossing projectiles the two sisters flung out in tandem and I saw several of the pinpoints of flying light rip through Nue bloodily as she staggered about in mid-air but she stubbornly persisted in the fight, unwilling to yield knowing that the three humans and a juvenile oni would be unable to oppose the Komeiji sisters. She was close to falling, and it was now or never. I had to try and get the two sisters closer together first before I fired off my one and only shot.
‘REIJI! NOW!’ I screamed into the night, instantly attracting the attention of Dead Meat’s sister and she turned to look at the source of my voice, one hand lifting to rain death on where I hid. Her partner returned her attention to Nue, trying to corral her into a tight space for a clean shot that would permanently take Nue down.
A screeching whistle was the only indication of the high-speed missile Reiji had proceeded to hurl at Dead Meat. The sisters turned sharply at the new sound and Dead Meat blurred in the air for a brief moment, shifting towards her sister slightly as she moved to avoid Reiji’s flying tree.
‘MORE! KEEP DOING IT!’ I screamed out to him once more, and this time, I was greeted by a rain of light tearing through my cover, attempting to flush me out for the kill. I counted as I waited, having found a rhythm in the salvoes I had heard earlier. One… two… three… she would stop after four. I braced myself for the dash to safety, waiting for the last salvo. The torrents of light continued to throw debris into the air and the entire place rocked with the repeated impact.
Four. I broke out in a staggered run, hoping the haze would momentarily cover my escape and I crashed into the other side of the welcoming hall before she could recommence the bombardment, lugging the heavy weapon as I panted towards my next vantage point; an opening out into the walkway ringing the mansion. Behind me, the corridor disintegrated amidst the blinding flashes of additional focused implosions.
Pressing myself against the wall just next to the hole, I peered out slightly to see the sisters randomly throwing their rain of death down into the thickets, attempting to rid themselves of the annoyance Reiji was posing to them. Nue had finally fallen to the ground in a bloody mess from the damage she had taken, unable to sustain her one-sided battle any longer. I prayed Reiji could run fast enough to escape the bombardment and not be flushed out into the open.
In a stroke of luck, Dead Meat edged towards her sister as they paused momentarily to assess the situation, floating almost back to back in the night sky and I let the weapon down, pulling the inner telescoping tube out and arming it with a flick of a finger. Flipping both the front and rear sights up, I steadied myself as I spun in a semi-circle through the hole in the wall to face the Komeiji sisters, weapon fully extended and pointed at them as I fingered the trigger.
‘Merry Christmas,’ I muttered as I depressed the trigger, aiming at Dead Meat, praying that the aged warhead would fly true and its yield would detonate from being inert for countless years.
The release of the rocket blew me off my feet before I could realize I had forgotten to get into a braced position, the ruckus instantly caught their attention and they spun to face me as one as I skittered to a stop on the walkway, wheezing loudly from the impact. In absolute slow-motion terror, I watched the sisters glance at the rocket in flight idly and despair struck me as I realized they would be able to easily avoid the slow-flying projectile.
In an amazing turn of events, Dead Meat’s sister actually reached out to catch the warhead mid-flight instead, unperturbed by the thrust of the rocket as she spun the object around to look at it before closing her other hand on the cone to begin crushing the rocket. ‘You presume to attack us with this paltry human toy? What madness-‘
The ensuing detonation of the warhead cut off the rest of her words as she triggered the impact sensor where she had crushed the rocket, the explosion engulfing the Komeiji sisters in a cloud of incendiary death. The shockwave had been powerful enough to drown out the sounds of their death and I collapsed back to the walkway in fatigue, wondering how things could have worked out so well. I pushed the spent weapon away from me as I closed my eyes briefly to rest. There would be plenty of time to gloat over my victory after tonight.
I would never get the chance to do so. Fingers wet with blood closed about my throat and my eyes flew open to regard the mutilated feature of Dead Meat missing a good portion of her face and an eye. One of her arms hung to her side, useless as it dangled about but her right arm still had strength enough to grapple me as she hissed into my face, her voice no longer retaining that inhuman melody, ‘I don’t know what you did, but that will be your last mistake, human.’
Drawing backwards, she flung me horizontally away from the walkway and I managed to sail through the air for a few seconds before I crashed into the ground, rolling painfully to break my fall as I did. Pushing myself up with one arm, I glanced fearfully at her as she made her way unsteadily towards me, dragging one foot behind with her every step. The explosion hadn’t been enough to take her down as well, but at the very least she was critically wounded now.
Crawling frantically towards a piece of timber which lay strewn all over the courtyard, I closed my fingers around it, making an instant roundabout turn as her shadow fell from behind and I plunged the makeshift stake right through her abdomen.
She staggered backwards from the blow and I reached down for another stake, spinning the other way to pick up speed in preparation of ramming it through her mangled head. Her other hand I had assumed to be dysfunctional came up in defense and stopped my assault, the wooden weapon piercing her palm as she whipped out her other hand to lift me up in another grapple.
The two of us wobbled around as she constantly lost her balance and I struggled for air, feeling the fingers gathering strength to crush my neck. She looked upwards briefly to taunt me, ‘You will pay dearly for my sister’s pain, human.’
I continued to hammer away ineffectually at her rapidly tightening hand, starting to black out from the lack of air. Behind her, Keizo had appeared, followed shortly by Short Stuff as they assumed the battle to be over. Catching sight of the two of us, he took hold of a crude cudgel and sped towards us with a howl of anger, brandishing his weapon in his charge.
Dead Meat didn’t even look behind, having sensed him long ago with whatever ability inherent in her kind and she stomped on the ground with her injured foot, sending an invisible shockwave fanning out backwards and tearing Keizo off of the ground as the compressed air ripped through him. He flew a good few feet backwards to crash through the mansion’s weakened wall. She refocused her attention back on me, having dealt with the annoying pest.
My gaze wandered back to Short Stuff, the only person left standing now. She remained transfixed by the sight, neither speaking nor moving. Why the hell wasn’t she running? I tried to bark something at her, but the vice-like grip had cut off even my voice. The only thing I could do was stare helplessly at Short Stuff, wishing she would sober up and make a break for it while she still could.
Time slowed to a stand-still as I watched her advance towards Dead Meat and my eyes grew wide at her stupidity. What did she hope to accomplish?
Noticing my stare, Dead Meat shifted her gaze to the side as well. ‘Stay back, child. We will deal with you much later. You still serve an important function for now.’ She returned her gaze to me before continuing, ‘Unlike this worthless meat here.’
‘Let her go,’ Short Stuff spoke in a small voice. The figure holding onto me made no indication whatsoever of having heard her.
‘Let her go,’ she repeated once more in a louder voice strained with anxiety.
In anger, Dead Meat whirled around to face her, shaking me in her grip as she did. ‘OR WHAT?! You’ll spit at me? Kick at me? Worry not, I shall let her go. Once I kill her, that is.’ An ugly grin flashed in my face as she focused her strength in a life-ending crush and I awaited my death with trepidation, wondering what it would be like to stare it in the face.
‘LET HER GO!’ Short Stuff screamed one final time before going down on her knees, luminescent circles spinning in an intricate design forming all around her, lighting up the dull night in a vibrant shade of red and white as she repeatedly hammered at the ground with clenched fists in fury.
Dead Meat stared at the circles with fear, the glint of recognition bouncing off of her remaining eye as she began to step backwards from Short Stuff. Somehow, she knew what Short Stuff was doing, or at least recognized what she was going to do. I experienced the same fear as well, recognizing parts of the various runes orbiting Short Stuff. It was the Hakurei proof of lineage; although still incomplete and not fully mature, the seals would be more than enough to kill us if she couldn’t control them.
The last Komeiji sister would never get the opportunity to flee. Short Stuff looked up in anger from where she had went down to the ground and the seals around her immediately responded to her hate, rapidly tearing off from the circle to enclose Dead Meat in a perfectly bounded border and she howled once in dismay before the ground lit up in a blinding flash. I muttered a quick prayer to nothing in particular, hoping my death would come to be quick and painless.
Despite my fears, nothing untoward happened. I felt myself fall free from the grip and I gasped for dear air, luxuriating in the feel of fresh oxygen streaming into my lungs. The light show played about for a while longer before dying away completely as I shielded my eyes from it. Silence returned to the night and I could finally breathe in relief as I closed my eyes, grateful to still be alive. I groaned out loud on the ground, hoping it would finally be over this time.
Short Stuff crawled over to where I lay sprawled, shaking me insistently until I opened my eyes tiredly to regard her. ‘Gimme a break, will you? I want to go back to sleep.’
She pointed at my neck. ‘You… you’ve got a hand attached to your neck.’
‘Uh,’ I fumbled about my neck, feeling something fleshy rapidly growing cold and pulled it free, looking at the dismembered hand in disgust before flinging it away. All around me lay the body parts of what was once Dead Meat. Whatever Short Stuff had done, she had displaced her antagonist piece-by-piece by actively rejecting the space she had enclosed with the border, instantly ripping Dead Meat apart. I could only marvel at whatever miracle it was that prevented me from being torn to pieces along with her. Maybe sleeping in this morgue wouldn’t be such a neat idea now.
She returned her anxious stare to me after glancing around in horror, ‘Did… did I kill her?’
She probably did, but I chose not to burden her with the guilt for now. I wasn’t really sure myself all the same. ‘Nah. Don’t worry about it. These youkai can come back from anything. Don’t want to be here when it happens though. We have to leave now.’ I gestured at the new hole Keizo had made in the mansion. ‘Go check on the big boy. Wake him up. Slap him if you have to. Get the supplies and meet back at the courtyard.’ She took off without another question asked.
Hobbling over to where Nue had crashed to the ground, I started to inspect the damage she had sustained. Numerous holes in her torso and a nearly-useless arm. Her left leg was pretty much a mangled mess of flesh and she bled profusely from an injury on her scalp. Most of her asymmetrical wings had been torn off as well. I poked at her briefly before I resorted to slapping at her. These were superficial wounds which would heal in a matter of days. She was in no danger. I couldn’t say the same for the Komeiji sisters though.
Her eyes flew open and she sat up abruptly, only to descend into a hacking cough as she spewed out mouthfuls of youkai blood. Edging backwards slightly, I gave her some time to come to her senses as I waited in silence. ‘What happened?’ she finally managed.
‘Rocket propelled grenade happened,’ I gestured at the body parts which lay strewn behind me. ‘Well, that, and whatever Short Stuff did. You should thank her. We would be in a far-worse place if it wasn’t for her. Looked like she managed to invoke her latent Hakurei quirkiness to save us.’
Nue hung her head tiredly, exhausted by the fight, not bothering to reply. Reiji finally made his way back to the mansion, breaking free of the thickets and staring about in wonder as he walked towards us, face flushed and drained of all color and hobbling on one foot. He took a moment to survey the mess before joining us.
Extending one hand to ruffle his hair as he came to stand next to us, I gave him a little nudge, ‘Not too shabby with the trees. Good to see you’re still alive.’ He looked up to give me his customary toothy-grin despite the gravity of the situation.
I glanced around the courtyard-turned-battlefield. The once-beautiful and secluded sanctuary had been irreversibly changed, holes and craters littered the clearing and the mansion had partially collapsed into itself, parts of it still smoldering from the immense heat of danmaku exchange. Keizo would not be happy with this, much less his mysterious hosts if they were still around somehow.
Taking a short break on the ground, I waited in silence for Keizo and his charge, massaging my bruised neck all the while. They appeared in short order, clutching various leather pouches where they had crammed the preserved rabbit meat into and Reiji helped to extract the numerous gourds of fresh water from Short Stuff before being weighted down by the pouches of ration Keizo dumped on him. Keizo didn’t look too bad considering the abuse he had taken. Except for a few bruises on his face, he seemed energetic enough.
I gestured at Nue as Keizo looked at me with hesitation. ‘What are you waiting for? Be a gentleman and pick the lady up.’
Nue spoke up before Keizo could reach for her. ‘I can move on my own.’ She tried to stand on her own, only to fall back to one knee as her other leg failed to respond in any way. I gestured one more time and Keizo ignored her protests this time, lifting her up and cradling her broken form in this arms. I thought I caught a blush on her face as he did, but between the twilight and the blood streaming down her face I couldn’t tell for certain. Likewise, Keizo stared down at her for a few seconds before looking up in embarrassment.
‘Which way?’ I asked her.
She pointed slightly north-westward with her good arm. ‘Go in this direction. Get clear of the Bamboo Forest first. Useless to give specific directions while we remain within the labyrinth.’
Keizo voluntarily took the lead. ‘I can take us outside for now. We might need to rethink our path after we break through the edge of the grove though. The western swamplands will greatly slow us down.’
We shuffled out of Eientei in a single file, taking our leave without so much as a glance backwards. As usual, Keizo was back in the lead and moving urgently, followed by his apprentice trailed by Short Stuff. I took one last look at Dead Meat’s remains, curious if this was enough to permanently end her. I had no doubt that Three Arms would be well beyond furious at this and if the Komeiji sisters could actually return from eating an anti-tank round and the subsequent dismemberment they would have a very serious hankering for a certain human who had inflicted so much pain on them.
Shuddering, I hurried after the other four.