Yukiko marched down the road with a dark and sullen scowl firmly affixed to her face. At her side, Katsume marched every bit as diligently, with a matching expression that was every bit, if not more, sullen.
Seeing this, Yukiko deepened her scowl, to which Katsume responded by quickening her step. Not to be outdone, the demon girl sped up as well, forcing the Demon Slayer to grow more sullen in return.
Inari sighed at this display, shaking his head as he tried to keep up with them. “Some days, I think the only one truly being punished in all of this is me.”
“It’s deserved,” Ger observed from his perch on Inari’s back.
“Pipe down, you,” the nine tails growled at the goblin.
“Still deserved,” the small demon grinned.
Inari hung his head and sighed again, a world weary sound meant to express the painfully unjust circumstances he found himself in. It was a cruel fate, crafted by hands other than his own, which had lead him to this lowly position.
Lost in his own sense of self pity, he failed to notice that both Yukiko and Katsume had stopped walking until he ran into them. More to the point, until his head planted itself firmly against their behinds, a place he would normally like to find himself. As he looked up, however, he realized there would be no joy in it.
“How come the goblin gets to ride, Inari?” Yukiko asked him, fire in her eyes.
“Yeah, what’s up with that?” Katsume demanded.
“Why’s he even here to begin with?” Yukiko inquired.
“Especially when we’re walking our feet off?” Katsume questioned.
“Is there some special reason he’s getting preferential treatment over us?” Yukiko inferred.
“Something to do with how and why we met him in the first place?” Katsume suggested.
“Well, what is it? Say something!” they ordered together.
Inari was thankful he couldn’t actually sweat. “Um, well, you see, the thing is, it’s like this, ladies…” he stammered.
“Ger want to help,” the goblin offered.
Both women looked at him in surprise. “Help, how exactly?” Katsume asked, smelling a rat about the size and shape of a certain fox.
“And with what, precisely?” Yukiko added, sensing the same thing the Demon Slayer did.
“Ger cause ladies trouble,” the goblin offered sheepishly. “Want to pay back for ladies not killing Ger. Ger is good at finding things.”
“Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” Katsume sighed. “You want to apologize for stealing from us, by stealing from others?”
“And you think this is acceptable, Inari?” Yukiko queried of the wide eyed and obviously nervous fox.
“Ah, yes, well, while stealing might be wrong and all, there is the matter of us all needing to eat,” he offered.
Katsume stomped a foot into the packed earth. “We don’t steal. We are noble Demon Slayers, and live off the contributions of those we save.”
“Yeah,” Yukiko agreed, then looked confused. “Wait, what? Live off the contributions? That doesn’t sound right.”
“You can’t expect us to save villages for free, can you? I mean, Inari’s right about one thing, we do have to eat,” the red head told her.
Yukiko did not look convinced. “Perhaps so, but demanding we be catered to in return isn’t exactly noble, is it?”
“Now hang on a second,” Katsume gasped. “You don’t mean to suggest we should slay demons for free, do you?”
“If we’re going to go around calling ourselves noble, then that would be the right thing to do,” Yukiko nodded.
Katsume looked horrified at the very thought. “Look here, sister. There’s no way I’m going to get all filthy killing some demon, then not get a good meal and a decent bath out of it in return.”
“Then makes you more a mercenary, and less a noble Demon Slayer, doesn’t it?” Yukiko asked with an annoyed look.
“Ger thinks ladies have forgotten us,” the goblin said to the nine tails.
“Then don’t say anything to make them remember us,” Inari hushed him.
“Who you calling a mercenary, pipsqueak?” Katsume growled, shaking a fist at the demon girl.
“The one with the mercenary attitude, that’s who,” Yukiko snarled, slapping the fist out of her face.
“A little appreciation in return for risking my life isn’t mercenary,” Katsume bellowed. “In fact, if it’s anything, it’s just common courtesy.”
“Common courtesy, you say?” Yukiko roared. “What would a barbaric oaf like you know about courtesy?”
“We’ll just slide around them I think,” Inari whispered as he side stepped the warring women.
“Good idea,” Ger nodded, sinking against the fox’s fur in fear.
Katsume was all but foaming at the mouth in rage. “You’re one to talk! As I recall, you didn’t even have the decency to appreciate it any of the many times I saved your little butt!”
Yukiko looked on the verge of bursting into flame. “Well, if there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that you at least know what being common is!”
“Say that again, ya damn runt!”
“Come over here and make me, ya giant freak!”
As the two glared at each other, seemingly willing the other to die by eyeball, Inari sighed once more and shook his head. When, if ever, would they stop fighting and begin to see each other as friends?
“Think they’ll get naked again?” Ger asked.
“Oh, shut up,” Inari muttered.
Distantly, the ringing of steel drifted to them, echoing through the forest with the clarity of a bell. Both women stopped glaring and turned towards the sound, eyes wide.
“A sword?” Yukiko asked.
“Sounded like it,” Katsume nodded. “Which means someone is fighting.”
“Sounded like just one, though,” the demon girl offered.
Katsume’s eyes narrowed. “Which means, someone may be in trouble and need help.”
“Then we should help,” Yukiko grinned.
“Let’s go!” the Demon slayer laughed and raced after the sound, Yukiko right on her heels.
“Aw, nobody got naked,” Ger whined.
“I’m going to feed you to something horrible, first chance I get,” Inari warned as he raced after them.
At least they’d stopped threatening to kill each other. That was something, he was sure.
The two cut through the forest at a full run, weaving through the trees as they followed the sounds of battle, a solitary sword singing its deadly song in the distance. In their haste, their own battle of wills was forgotten, tossed aside in their mutual desire to reach the lone combatant.
For Yukiko, it was the desire to render aid to someone in need, plain and simple. On her path, in her heart, she believed that helping others for the sake of doing so was enough. No reward could compare to just knowing she had done the right thing.
Katsume, on the other hand, was drawn by the promise of battle. Though, in many ways, she agreed with Yukiko, and knew the demon girl was right about the path of the noble warrior, Katsume sought to grow stronger more than anything. Strong enough to slay any demon, and one in particular.
Behind them, Inari just wanted to catch his breath.
Soon enough, they crashed through the forest and into a clearing, the source of the sound of battle, and found that indeed, someone needed their help. Though he held his ground as valiantly as either of them had ever seen, the lone swordsman was hopelessly outmatched by the massive demon he fought against.
He was not overly tall, or broad, but there was strength in his eyes as he battled the monster. His skill was clear, by the many cuts to the skin of the beast, and the blood that had already spilled on the ground. Sadly, the swordsman was a mere man, no match for the demon’s greater stamina, and already showed the signs of growing weary from the long fight.
The creature he faced was fearsome, as well. Massive, it resembled a snake with the arms of a man, tipped in wicked claws that glittered in the sunlight. Fast as lightening, with coils that rasped like a hiss, it danced about the swordsman, seeking to end the mans life. It could smell his weariness, and knew the kill was close at hand.
“Yukiko, go left, I’ll head to the right,” Katsume barked.
“Got it,” the demon girl nodded as they split apart and moved to divide the demons attention from its prey.
The demon dove at the swordsman, only to have its attack blocked by a series of well placed blows from his nodachi, the enormous sword wielded with such deftness, even in the swordsman’s exhausted state, that both Yukiko and Katsume stopped to stare in awe.
“No way,” Katsume breathed, staring at the sword with wide eyes.
“Amazing,” Yukiko gasped, staring at the swordsman breathlessly.
The swordsman forced the demon back, his great sword leaving it bleeding from a new wound, but the toll it was taking had become painstakingly clear as he staggered and fell to a knee. Howling in pain, the demon circled, still oblivious to the presence of the two women as they made ready to enter the fray.
Katsume hefted Shoki, summoning the living spirit of flame to wreath the massive blade as she looked for the best opening. The swordsman wasn’t going to last much longer, and a full frontal assault was out of the question as long as he was in the way. Shoki’s Ravaging Flare would kill the demon, and in all likelihood, the very person she was trying to save as well. Snarling under her breath, she dove into the battle, seeking to put the man at her back.
Across the field, Yukiko pulled on her demonic power, transforming her fingers into claws. The beast was distracted and had yet to notice her, which meant if she was quick, she could destroy it before it even knew she was attacking. With a dark smile, she kicked off from the ground, launching herself into the air, and made her move.
“Claws of the Rea-“
The demon’s tail struck her from behind, slamming her into the ground. Gasping for breath, she struggling to stand, only to find the beasts coils wrapping around her, holding her in a tight and deadly grip as it lifted her up.
“Yukiko!” Katsume ground to a halt at the swordsman’s back, helpless to do anything but watch as the demon squeezed the smaller woman in its scaly grasp.
“Who are you?” the swordsman snapped as he found his feet. “What are you doing here?”
“Trying to save you,” Katsume barked.
“Oh,” he replied, then turned back to face the demon and Yukiko. “Seems you’re friend is the one in need of saving now.”
“Pretty typical,” Katsume sighed.
“I heard that!” Yukiko snarled as she twisted her arms in the demons grip, trying to bring her claws to bear.
“You were suppose to, pipsqueak!” Katsume bellowed.
“Giant freak,” Yukiko growled, digging her claws into the demons hide, dragging a bellow from it.
Stung, but not truly wounded, it slammed Yukiko to the ground and tightened its grip, seeking to crush her to death. Gritting her teeth, Katsume pressed ahead, Shoki swinging for the demons head.
“Wait!” the swordsman called, but she ignored him.
Too late, she realized she shouldn’t have. The demon’s arm swung towards her, then extended itself impossibly far to strike her down, knocking her to the ground with little effort. Quickly, Katsume found herself pinned by the demon, who laughed at her pitiful efforts.
“Release them and face me, Junto!” the swordsman called, swinging his blade at the demon.
It roared laughter. “Wait your turn, Kieskei! I’ll finish you off after I’m done with these two.”
“I’m not done yet,” Katsume snarled, twisting her grip on Shoki and bringing it up, slicing through the demons arm, flesh and bone alike giving way to the swords power.
Roaring in pain, it danced away, dragging the fading Yukiko with it. Kicking the hand away, Katsume rose up, boiling with anger as the swordsman stepped to her side. They both could see that they had little time to save Yukiko.
Or so they thought. As the beast had paid attention to Katsume, Yukiko had squirmed her hands free, getting them out between the coils. The pressure on her arms was intense, more painful than anything she had ever imagined, but still, she saw her chance and took it.
“Claws of the Reaper!“
White light danced from her hands, racing to strike the demon and slice at its flesh, cutting through the dense scales. Screaming in pain, it flung Yukiko away, hurling her into a tree, where she struck and collapsed with a heavy cry of pain.
“Heh,” Katsume laughed. “I was hoping you’d do that.”
“Die!” the demon cried, slithering towards her at blinding speed, sensing that the tables were turning on it.
Fire ripped the earth as it raced to meet the demon, wrapping it up in a deadly embrace, and ripping it apart with no mercy. At Katsume’s side, the swordsman shielded his eyes, but could not help witness the death of the demon Junto as the magic of the sword ended its life.
“That’ll teach ya,” Katsume quipped, dropping Shoki over her shoulder and surveying her handiwork with pride.
“Miss!” the swordsman cried as he raced past her, towards Yukiko.
The demon girl lifted herself up, coughing as she did. Planting a hand against the tree, she tried to stand, but ended up collapsing back against it, the crushing grip of the demon leaving her winded.
Then, he was there, leaning over her, blue eyes full of concern as the wind tossed his unruly mane of dark hair. For a moment, and just a single fleeting one, Yukiko was sure she saw butterflies floating behind him.
“Are you alright, Miss?” he asked, catching her as she slid down, holding her up in such gentle hands, it was like being captured by a summer breeze.
“I… um…” she stammered, feeling her face flush for no reason.
“Is she alright?” Katsume bellowed. “Did you see what I just did? I killed that damn thing in one blow!”
“I saw,” the swordsman, Kieskei nodded. “But your friend is injured. I would think that to be the more pressing issue.”
“Aw, she’ll get over it,” Katsume complained. “Right, Yukiko?”
“Um.. yeah.. I think…” she floundered, still staring into those beautiful eyes.
“Oh dear,” Inari sighed. “I do believe the young Mistress is a bit taken with our new friend.”
“They gonna get naked?” Ger asked.
Inari punched him in the face.
“Are you certain that you’re alright?” Kieskei asked as he knelt before Yukiko.
She laughed nervously as she nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine. Really. Just a few bruises.”
“I suppose,” the swordsman sighed. “Still, I would feel better if you’d let me tend your injuries.”
Behind them, Katsume watched with a dour expression. It was bad enough that he’d insisted on carrying the little demon back to the road, but now he was hovering over her constantly. Worse still, Yukiko was letting him.
“I recover pretty quick,” she told him. “So there’s no need to worry. I’ll be good as new in a bit.”
Kieskei stood, but still looked doubtful. “If you say so. I suppose I should just be glad the two of you came along when you did. Junto was proving more difficult than I expected.”
“Which reminds me,” Katsume cut in, her tone a bit resentful. “What were you doing out there all by yourself?”
“Ah, of course!” he chuckled. “I guess some introductions and explanations are in order. Forgive my poor manners.”
“It’s fine,” Yukiko said quickly, drawing a dark glare from the Demon Slayer. “I mean, don’t worry about it. We’re just glad you’re alright.”
He smiled at her and she flushed again, making Katsume mutter a few choice obscenities under her breath. To her side, Inari watched this curiously, trying to gauge the Demon Slayer’s mood, but finding it impossible. She was as unreadable, and unpredictable, as ever.
The swordsman bowed to them as he introduced himself properly. “I am Kieskei Atochi, a devil hunter by trade. I was here searching for Junto, one of the Twelve Sacred Demons that escaped from the temple my family serves. My duty is to recapture them and return them to their proper place.”
While Yukiko seemed impressed, Katsume was looking at the great sword he carried, now housed in an ivory bone sheath. “That’s a pretty big sword. Yet, you wield it easily. What’s up with that?”
“Katsume,” Yukiko snapped, embarrassed at the Demon Slayer’s rudeness.
“Ah, yes, Seiken, the holy sword of my ancestors,” Kieskei replied, lifting the massive weapon. “It has been in my family for many generations, always passed down to the eldest child upon their sixteenth birthday, so they may continue the family tradition of hunting demons.”
“So, it’s a demon slaying sword, then?” Katsume asked.
“Not really, no,” Kieskei laughed. “More like a demon trapping sword. It seals the demons essence, which the sword then uses to become more powerful.”
“Hmph,” Katsume grinned. “So you really are an Atochi, then, aren’t you?”
Kieskei seemed surprised by that, and laughed a bit. “I guess my family’s reputation precedes me a bit. It’s not a surprise, as they have been around for some time.”
“Precedes you, yes, but I met Toru Atochi once, long ago,” the Demon Slayer confessed. “My father spoke highly of her.”
“My mother?” Kieskei asked. “I see, then you have me at a disadvantage, Lady Katsume.”
“That’s fine with me,” she replied, turning her back to him.
“Katsume!” Yukiko snapped as she stood. “There’s no reason to be rude.”
“No reason?” she asked, looking back. “And just what do you think this devil hunter is going to do when he realizes that you’re a demon, Yukiko?”
She backed away a step with a gasp, then looked to Kieskei, who regarded her with surprise. Ashamed of her own heritage, she lowered her eyes, unable to meet his gaze. Of course, Katsume was right.
“I will do nothing,” Kieskei said after a moment, surprising them both.
“Nothing?” Katsume asked, whirling on him. “Why do I find that so hard to believe? You devil hunters are just second rate Demon Slayers, out for yourselves, and whatever you can con people out of.”
“That sounds more like you, actually,” Inari mused, and got a glare for his efforts. “Not that I’m taking sides of course! Never!”
“You may be right, in many ways,” Kieskei admitted. “Many devil hunters are just that. Con artists who take money, then vanish without even trying to face the demon they are hired to destroy. However, I am an Atochi! My honor demands that I risk everything, even give my life, to protect others and ask nothing in return.”
Katsume snorted in derision. “If you say so, but I’m letting you know right now, devil hunter. You so much as flinch in Yukiko’s direction, and I’ll cut you down before you know it’s coming. Got it?”
Yukiko gasped at that, looking at Katsume in surprise, along with Inari and Ger, neither of whom would have ever suspected such a thing to be said by her. Kieskei however, simply nodded his head.
“You have nothing to fear, Lady Katsume. Miss Yukiko risked her life for mine, and because of this, I am unable to look upon her as a demon. She is a woman to my eyes, and a very brave and valiant one at that. To even think of bringing her harm would be a stain on my honor I cannot bear.”
Katsume glared at him a bit more, but nodded her acceptance of this. Yukiko however, flushed brightly as she looked at him, overwhelmed by words she could barely believe she was hearing.
He had called her a woman. As if she were really and truly human. Tears formed in her eyes as she felt herself grow warm at the idea anyone would ever think of her that way.
“Heh,” Katsume cut in with her usual brusque manner. “Now you’ve gone and made her all weak in the knees. Well done, devil hunter. The demon is swooning over you.”
“I… uh… what?” Kieskei stammered, flushing himself as he looked at Yukiko. “I didn’t mean it like that! I was just being honorable!”
“Katsume!” Yukiko snarled in outrage.
“If I may be so bold as to interject,” Inari said, trying his best keep the two women from fighting again. “Perhaps the middle of the road is not the best place to be having such an obviously delicate discussion.”
“I guess,” Katsume muttered.
“Fine,” Yukiko agreed sullenly.
Kieskei smiled and nodded to the nine tails in gratitude. “There is a village not far from here. I’ve been staying there for a while now, and the people are very kind. I’m sure we can take our ease without any trouble.”
“Then by all means, Master Kieskei, lead the way,” Inari replied, bowing his head.
“If Miss Yukiko is ready, then I will, of course,” he nodded, turning to the demon girl. “If not, then I can carry you.”
“She can walk just fine!” Katsume bellowed.
Yukiko threw the Demon Slayer a rage filled glare. “Katsume!”
“Gonna fight?” Ger asked with a bit too much excitement.
“Oh, shut up already,” Inari sighed.
Hiataenushi watched the small group depart from her perch atop an outcropping of rock, violet eyes narrowing in frustration at the sight before her. The wind toying with the garments that marked her as a priestess, a loose white shirt and flowing red pants, as she turned to face her companion, only to find him slightly bemused.
“Lord Onihone, is this alright?”
He continued to watch them as they headed down the road, head cocked slightly to the side, the expression in his red eyes a bit too easy going for the priestess’ liking. Long silver hair billowed as he gave a slight sigh, smiling at the turn of events before them.
“If you wish it, My Lord, I can take care of them,” Hiataenushi offered hopefully, the glaive in her hand twitching slightly.
“No, Nushi, that won’t be necessary,” Onihone told her.
“But, sir,” she objected.
“Calm yourself,” he instructed, lifting a hand to still her. “I’m curious to see how this turn of events will play out.”
She grimaced as she watched the group disappear around a bend in the road. “If you say so, Lord Onihone.”
“You are upset that I won’t let you deal with this personally? Why?” he asked, looking down at her.
She looked away from him. “The Demon Slayer, My Lord. She may prove to be a thorn in our side.”
He chuckled at that. “Katsume Oda is of no consequence, Nushi. Worry not. When the time comes, I will crush her easily. Until then, her presence changes little.”
“If you say so, My Lord,” Nushi muttered, her fist clenching the weapon she held that much tighter.
Onihone smiled at her. “The important thing here, Nushi, is that Yukiko and Seiken are together. We have waited a long time for this. Try to be happy that our plans are coming to fruition.”
“I am, My Lord,” she sighed. “However, the devil hunter is not yet dead, which he should have been. He may affect things in a way we are not prepared for.”
“Granted, Junto was suppose to kill young Master Kieskei Atochi. However, that is hardly Junto’s fault.” Onihone shrugged, as if the entire thing was hardly important.
“Because of that Oda woman,” Nushi snarled.
Onihone rested a hand on her shoulder. “The larger plan is in place. Soon enough, Yukiko will take up Seiken as her own. When she does, we will deal with Katsume Oda, as well as that meddling nine tails, and claim her for our purposes.”
Nushi gave a sharp nod. “Once we have, we will turn her power on Lord Orochi, and finish him once and for all.”
“Indeed,” Onihone smiled. “Then, and only then, can you have your way with little Yukiko, my dear. Until my father lies dead, you must stay your hand, and be patient.”
“As you wish, My Lord,” she grumbled.
He patted her head affectionately. “Let us go and find a good vantage point. I’m certain Junto will not be happy about Katsume defeating him. His next move may well take care of her for us.”
“The devil hunter may intervene in that,” Nushi pointed out. “What then?”
Onihone sighed. “Then Junto will die. Either way, what we wish will come to pass, sooner or later. Remember, the death of the Twelve Sacred Demons is something I planned for when I released them.”
“Very well, My Lord,” she said, not happy about the situation. “I simply do not want to wait until it is too late to deal with the complications I see arising.”
Onihone laughed at that. “Where you see only complications, my dear, I see opportunities. As long as everything ends with Yukiko wielding Seiken, and overwhelmed with hatred, we shall emerge victorious.”
Nushi nodded, still clearly unhappy with matters, but Onihone had grown tired of indulging her. Everything would happen as he had planned, and when it was done, his father would be dead. Yukiko was the means to that end, and everything else was trivial.
With his attendant mollified for the moment, Onihone, prince of the demon realm, wrapped them in black mist, whisking them away to watch the trap he had laid be sprung. Soon, Yukiko would fall to her darker side, and when she did, he would be ready.
Both the Human and Demon worlds would kneel before him when the time came. No matter what.
©-2016 Cain S. Latrani