The sun was setting by the time Katsume stepped out on the wide, long porch the surrounded the inn on all sides, to find Keiskei sitting on the edge, staring up at the growing gloom. His head shifted slightly, acknowledging her presence, but he didn’t turn enough to make eye contact.
Something about that made Katsume want to kick him in the head. It was as if he was letting her know he knew she was there, but didn’t find her worth facing, much less speaking to. A deep scowl spread across her face as she glared at him, trying to decide how to handle it.
“I can’t help but feel as if you are attempting to set my head on fire with your gaze alone,” he chuckled.
Startled, Katsume’s face turned to shock as she found herself stepping back. After a moment, the scowl returned, but she looked elsewhere, grumbling, “Was not.”
“Really?” he asked, turning enough to let her see the mirth that twinkled in his eye.
“I wouldn’t bother,” she snapped, forcing herself to take a step forward again, hands clenching at her sides. “I’d just kick ya in the head, provided I didn’t decide to chop it off!”
The humor in Keiskei’s eyes faded, turning to sadness. “I see. I’m sorry to hear that. I had hoped you would think better of me.”
“Why would I?” she retorted.
“I am not my mother.”
Much of her anger faded at that, replaced by the guilt she always hated to feel. “I know that,” she answered, tone quiet, looking anywhere but at him.
“Well, that’s good, at least,” he chuckled as he stood. “Where would Yukiko be, then?”
“Taking a bath,” she replied. “Don’t go thinking of getting a peek, either.”
To her surprise, he flushed deeply. “I would never do such a thing.”
“Yeah, whatever. Guys are all the same.”
Keiskei’s expression turned to full embarrassment, then to realization. “Oh, I see now. I’m very sorry, Lady Katsume. I didn’t know you were interested in Yukiko as well. I will, of course, not stand in the way.”
Anger flared hot and bright as she forced herself not to grab him by the throat. “That’s not what I was saying!”
Once again, he surprised her by bursting into laughter, waving her down, saying, “Oh, I know, I know. I was just having a bit of fun with you.”
“I ought to punch you into next week, ya jerk!” she roared.
“If it would make you feel better, than please do,” he said with a warm smile.
Confused, Katsume did what she always did, and sulked. “Why would it make me feel better?”
“We both know why, Lady Oda.”
With a heavy sigh, she turned an irritated look on him. “So, you know.”
“Of course,” he replied with a deep bow. “I may not be my mother, but I am an Atochi. It would be impossible for me to not know of the Oda family, and you. After all…”
“Shut it,” she snorted.
He frowned slightly. “Care to take a walk with me?”
“Just around a bit, so we may speak while the people you do not wish to have hear are near enough to do so.”
After a moment of consideration, she gave a curt nod and stepped down into the street. Whatever it was he had to say, she could see, he intended to say it one way or the other. Better to have it done than leave it linger, and come up at the wrong time.
The walked in silence for a bit, putting several streets between themselves and the inn, before Keiskei asked her the question that had been foremost in his mind since they had met.
“Why don’t you want her to know?”
Katsume mulled that a moment, then shrugged. “Don’t see as it’d make any difference.”
“I don’t believe it would, either, but it that begs the question again,” he said, giving her a soft smile. “Why don’t you want her to know, if it wouldn’t?”
Katsume blew out a snort of irritation. “First of all, she’s got no memories, so it isn’t like she’d understand. Knowing requires understanding of how things stand, and she doesn’t. So, it’d just be throwing meaningless words at her. That’s all.”
Keiskei considered that for a bit. “I suppose that’s true. Though, I can’t help feeling as if there is more to it than that.”
“Like what?” she asked, suddenly suspicious of what he was getting at.
“It’s obvious to anyone with eyes that you respect her,” he started.
“The hells I do,” Katsume yelped, cutting him off. “Respect that pipsqueak demon girl? You must have brain damage if you think that!”
“Uh-huh,” he deadpanned. “Like I said, obvious.”
Katsume fumed for a moment, then sagged. “Yeah, okay, fine, maybe I do. A little.”
“She is worthy of respect,” he said. “What I don’t understand is why you try so hard to hide it.”
“”I don’t know,” she barked at him, then forced herself to be calm, taking a deep breath before continuing. “Yeah, I respect her. I saw her stand up to a fire demon with nothing but her bare hands, to save a village full of people. What’s not to respect? It’s just, there’s something about her that pisses me off, too, okay?”
“She did that?” he asked, in awe.
Katsume gave a soft laugh. “Yeah. She did. Was ready to die for them, even though they treated her like crap. Then saved my ass, too, with me telling her to take those people and run. She wouldn’t do it, though. She wouldn’t leave me to die and save herself.”
Keiskei smiled warmly. “I cannot say I am surprised. I sensed it in her the moment we met. There’s a brightness to her soul. A warmth. Demon or not, she walks the path of righteousness, and there’s no denying it.”
“Yeah, I just remembered what it is about her that pisses me off,” Katsume growled, giving him a hate filled look.
“You would prefer I be smitten with you?” Keiskei teased.
“Hardly,” she snapped, giving him a shove. “It’s just, when people take a minute, they see her. The real her. They see that light. Even I saw it. I can’t help feel that, when people look at me, they don’t see me.”
“They don’t,” he told her. “You keep your demon heritage well hidden. Not that I don’t understand, but if you shield yourself too fully, no one will be able to see your light.”
Katsume stared off at the fading sunset. “Even if I didn’t, would they see anything but the demon in me?”
“We’re not a couple,” she snarled.
“I know,” he laughed. “I’m just saying. Do you really think she would have risked so much to save you, if she didn’t see the real you?”
“Maybe not,” she sighed. “Shit, I know she would have, actually. That’s Yukiko. She’d risk that much to save anyone. Which is why I respect her, and even admire her more than a little. Still, it pisses me off.”
“Not as much as I do, though,” he offered, giving her a guarded look.
“Like you said, you aren’t your mother,” she replied. “I do get that. You can’t expect me to just forgive what she cost me, though.”
“I don’t,” he admitted. “In fact, when I learned of her refusal to train you, I was outraged by it. As Atochi’s, we had a duty to aid any member of the Oda family. Her refusal left a stain on our honor, one I now hope to able to clear.”
“Yeah, whatever,” she grumbled.
“Katsume,” he said, stopping, his face suddenly grim. “I am not exaggerating. The whole of this land owes a debt to the Oda family, to your father, for what he did. Without him, I have no doubt these lands would not know the peace they have for many years. He was more a Demon Slayer, he was a true hero. That my family refused you in your time of need is not something I can just accept.”
Katsume blinked back tears, even as she held back anger.”Yeah, well, tell that to your mom, who said I was too full of anger. That training me would be a waste of time.”
“I did,” he stated, anger rising in his own voice. “I wanted us to train together. I wanted to help you conquer that anger, which you so rightfully felt. I wanted to be your brother in arms, to help you avenge Akio and Midori Oda. I came to you, intending to beg you to let me. If you recall, you turned me away, refused to even see me.”
“What did you expect?” she shouted.
“That you would at least hear me,” he said softly. “That you would know I was not my mother, and hear me. Like I am asking you to here me now.”
Katsume ran the back of her arm over her eyes. “Yeah, so what is it you want to say, then, huh? What can you say that will change the past? What can you possibly say that will give me back all these years of wasted time?”
Keiskei studied her face for a moment, and once satisfied she truly was listening, knelt before her, bowing low, forehead resting on his hands. “Forgive my family, Katsume Oda. Forgive me. Please, I beg of you, let me stand by your side now, as a friend, an allie, and a brother in arms. Let me help you avenge the death of your parents, that their spirits may rest, and that the stain on my family’s honor may be removed. Please, Katsume.”
For some time, all she could do was stare at him in shock, as the last of the light faded, leaving them bathed only in the shine of the full moon s it began to rise. Finally, with a weary sigh, she kicked him in the head.
“What the hells?” he yelped.
“Get up, you idiot,” she grumbled. “I already decided to do all that, so there’s no point in you pleading.”
“Uh… oh,” he managed. “You did?”
“Yeah,” she told him, voice heavy with annoyance. “Yukiko kinda talked me into it, so you should really be bowing to thank her.”
“I see,” he said, then slowly stood, staring off at nothing for a long moment. “You probably could have told me that before I got down there.”
“Like I knew that’s what you were gonna do!” she snapped. “Besides, it felt kinda nice having an Atochi groveling in front of me.”
Keiskei smiled at that, then snickered, and finally burst into laughter. “Yes, I suppose it would, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah, a little,” she said as she tried, and failed, not to laugh with him.
With a kind smile, he held his hand out to her. “From here on out, friends, then?”
“Something like that, anyway,” she answered, taking his hand. “And… I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was you that day. I thought it was your father, come to try and take Shoki from me.”
Keiskei frowned, his grip tightening on her hand for a moment. “He discussed it.”
Katsume fought down the urge to say something, and after a brief hesitation, squeezed his hand and let it go. “I’d have liked to see him try.”
“As would I,” Keiskei chuckled. “In the end, my mother convinced him it wasn’t our place. However she may seem, she did believe you would one day master your anger, and Shoki.”
“Could have fooled me,” she grumbled.
He shrugged at that. “Tohru Atochi isn’t known for her open nature.”
They stood for a several minutes in the street, before Katsume offered up the last thing she was going to say on the matter for the moment. “I’m sorry I didn’t see you that day.”
“As am I,” he replied.
With that, the two turned their steps back towards the inn. Keiskei hadn’t gotten all the answers he had hoped for, but he had gotten at least one that he needed. For now, that was enough. The mystery of why Katsume hid her true heritage from Yukiko could wait, he supposed.
For Katsume, the question lingered in her mind, and she found herself bothered by the fact she had not been able to answer it in a way even she found satisfactory. There was no good reason to hide the truth, yet she did. When she let herself think about, she knew why, but that was a reason she didn’t like, so she decided not to think about it. For now, it was enough that her anger at Tohru Atochi had faded somewhat, thanks to Keiskei.
As the two reached the inn, clouds gathered, casting the small village in darkness as they rolled over the moon. In that darkness, figures watched, and began to move.
Yukiko lay on the futon the innkeeper had provided, staring out the open window and the cloud coated night. Beside her, Katsume snored heavily, sprawled out like a child. As much as it irritated her, she couldn’t help but smile at it, as well.
If only sleep would stop eluding her, perhaps she could rest as easy.
Snuggling deeper unto the blanket, she considered what she’d said to Katsume earlier, that both of them couldn’t go on being the angry one. It bothered her that she’d spoken of herself in that way, when in truth, she didn’t consider herself an angry person. The opposite, really.
Except, she was angry, wasn’t she?
Yukiko frowned at the clouds. She hadn’t allowed herself to think of it before, but now she couldn’t stop. She was angry, and she didn’t know why. She had tried to tell herself it was because the old monk who had nursed her back to health had sent her out into a world that didn’t want her, but that wasn’t it. She had tried to tell herself it was because of Inari and his lecherous behavior, but this too was not entirely the truth. She had even tried to tell herself it was Katsume’s fault, but that was the most obvious lie of them all.
She was angry, and she didn’t know why.
It wasn’t a seething anger, but rather, a small pellet that rested somewhere deep inside her. Something she hadn’t even noticed until earlier, and now, couldn’t seem to ignore. The more she considered it, the more it burned, too, making her want to weep at how much it hurt.
That eluded her. She was, and there seemed no logical reason for it. The more she pondered it, the harder it became to grasp, which made her angry at herself. With a sigh, she closed her eyes and rolled on her back.
“How can my own heart be such a mystery to me?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Yukiko’s eyes snapped open to see the face of the innkeeper inches from her own, a hideous smile stretched across it. Her breath caught in her throat as he leaned in, his wizened face almost touching hers.
“W… what?” she managed.
“I’ll cut it out for you, so be still,” he snickered, showing her the knife he held.
“As if,” she snarled, snapping her head forward, connecting with his nose and sending him back.
The innkeeper staggered, clutching his face as Yukiko swept the blanket aside and rolled to her feet. Glancing at Katsume, she saw the Demon Slayer still slept, snoring loudly, telling her that she was at least still alive. Cutting her gaze back to the innkeeper, she found him already rushing towards her, knife swinging.
No, not rushing, she noted in a distant way. His feet weren’t touching the floor.
Grunting, she caught his swing, barely holding it back. He was too strong, impossibly so for a man his age. Since they had arrived, he had tended to them with a stooped shuffle, making what he did now something she couldn’t fathom. Was he possessed? Or had he fooled them all? What was going on?
“Katsume!” she shouted, spinning the innkeeper away, planting a foot in the side of the Demon Slayer’s head as she pivoted.
“Fuckin ow!” Katsume roared as she was jerked awake. “You got a death wish, pipsqueak?”
Katsume blinked, taking in the weird scene before her as the innkeeper, who had hit the floor, scrambled up the wall like a spider.
“What the hells?”
“Dunno,” Yukiko told her, falling into a fighting stance, her claws already out. “But I could really use you right now.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the Demon Slayer grumbled as she rose, grabbing Shoki from where it rested on the floor by her. “Want I should just blow him to pieces?”
“No,” the demon girl replied. “He may be possessed.”
“I’ll never tell!” the innkeeper laughed as he let himself fall from the ceiling, knife swinging for Katsume.
“Yeah, I think you will,” she replied in an annoyed tone as she casually deflected his attack, sending him sprawling across the floor again, while the knife buried itself in the wall across the room from them.
His wide grin faded as fire wreathed the demon slaying blade. “You’ll wish you’d died in your sleep for this,” he sneered before rolling to his hands and knees, then leaping backwards out the window.
“That was fucked up,” Katsume said, pointing after him.
Yukiko sighed heavily. “C’mon, we need to check on Keiskei.”
Katsume thought about it for a minute, then waved it off. “Yeah, okay. I got it. Let’s go. Though if he could get taken out in his sleep, he wouldn’t be much of an Atochi.”
“You almost got taken out in your sleep,” Yukiko snorted as she slid the door open.
“No, you almost got taken out in my sleep,” Katsume argued as she followed her into the hall. “Totally different.”
“Whatever,” the demon girl groaned.
Rounding a turn in the hallway, only steps from Keiskei’s room, Yukiko skidded to a stop, causing Katsume to plow into her from behind. Already annoyed, the Demon Slayer started to snap something at her companion, when she saw what had made her stop.
A dozen villagers were floating towards them in the corridor.
“That’s even more fucked up,” Katsume offered.
“Thanks for the deep insight,” Yukiko grumbled. “Think you can hold them off while I get to Keiskei?”
Katsume snorted at that. “What do you think, pipsqueak?”
“Try not to kill them,” she reminded.
“Tell them that,” the Demon Slayer muttered as she raced forward, Shoki already swinging, but the supernatural fire already snuffed.
Yukiko smirked and followed her, keeping close, but watching for the door rather than the strange villagers filling the hallway. Katsume would be good to her word, of that much, Yukiko was certain. Which meant all she had to do was get to Keiskei, as well as Inari and Ger, who the two women had banished from their room after the Goblin’s intrusion on Katsume’s bath.
‘Take this!” Katsume roared, jumping at the villagers, Shoki cutting an arc through the air over their heads. What she had intended as a distraction that would allow her to swing a punch, had a very different effect.
All the villagers with in the reach of Shoki collapsed to the floor. Katsume landed just past them, staring in curiosity and confusion as Yukiko gained Keiskei’s door and flung it wide.
“What the hells is happening,” the Demon Slayer muttered as the villagers remained on the floor, looking for all the world as if they slept.
Yukiko didn’t notice any of that, however, too focused on rescuing the devil slayer, Inari and Ger. As she slid the door open, she realized there was no need, Keiskei already holding back three villagers, one of them the headman, with the sheath for Seiken.
“Yukiko,” Inari barked. “We’re being attacked!”
“Noticed,” she answered as she rushed the villagers, sweeping the legs from the headman and sending him tumbling into his two companions.
Keiskei wasted no time capitalizing on her efforts, cracking the heavy sheath across the backs of their heads, leaving them unconscious. “Are you alright, Lady Yukiko?”
“I’m fine,” she assured him. “You?”
“Unharmed, but confused,” he admitted.
“I’m okay, too,” Inari grumbled.
“Ger, too!” the Goblin assured from inside a cabinet.
Yukiko nodded. “We have more coming, so we need to get someplace that gives us the advantage. Let’s go.”
Keiskei smiled as she darted back into the hallway, looking for Katsume. “Quite the take charge type, isn’t she?”
“Only just now,” Inari replied, watching her go with more than mild curiosity. “Ger, come on.”
The Goblin tumbled from the cabinet. “Ready!”
Keiskei took a step forward, only to stop by the sound of movement behind him. Glancing back, he saw the headman and his two companions levitate into the air, still unconscious, and reach for him.
Sweeping the sheath around, he pushed them back, where they bounced off the wall, and floated for a moment in disarray. Instantly, he knew what was happening.
“Hurry,” he told the fox and the Goblin, sending them out first, retreating backwards so he could keep an eye on the villagers still in the room.
With all of them gathered, Yukiko glanced to Katsume, who was still holding back the rest of the villagers in the hall. Her wide swings hadn’t be able to connect a second time, the seemingly possessed towns people hovering away from each of her attacks. It was starting to get on her nerves.
“Something ain’t right here,” she called to Yukiko.
“We need to get outside, Katsume,” Keiskei called. “They are being controlled.”
Keiskei’s face was grim as he answered. “Kamachi. Another of the Twelve Sacred Demons.”
“Shit,” Katsume spat. “Lead the way, I’ll cover our rear.”
“Right,” he nodded, readying the sheath of his nodochi. Better to use that as a weapon, to avoid harming the villagers. He was well aware of Kamachi’s abilities, as well as how to counter them, but it wasn’t something he could do in a narrow space such as the corridor.
Turning the corer for the exit, Keiskei had a moment to be surprised by the massive fist the punched him through the wall, and outside.
“Miss me,” Junto laughed.
“Keiskei!” Yukiko screamed.
“Oh, shit,” Katsume gasped. “Everybody, run!”
©-2017 Cain S. Latrani