Katsume woke with a groan, consciousness coming with a pounding headache. Reaching up, she rubbed her head for a moment, grimacing as she wondering how drunk she had gotten this time. That expression faded into shock as the events of the previous night came flooding back, making her sit upright in a sharp movement that left her head pound all the harder.
Glancing to the side, she saw Kieskei watching her with a slightly bemused grin, and groaned again. “Now I know I must of died. Only in one of the hells would I wake up to an Atochi watching over me.”
Kieskei chuckled at that. “Full enough of life to curse my family name. Now I can rest assured you are well and whole.”
“Were you really that worried about it?” she snarked.
“Of course,” he replied with a nod. “Lady Yukiko would be dismayed if you were not.”
Katsume glowered at him. “Good to know where your priorities are.”
“Where else would they be?’ he asked with mock innocence.
“I’m gonna hit you with something in a second, asshole.”
Kieskei laughed at that. “Sorry, sorry. I couldn’t help myself. I am, naturally, relieved to see that you are well. I was worried when you didn’t wake after such a long time.”
Glancing to the window, and the morning sun, Katsume shook her head. “Wasn’t that long. A few hours at most.”
“Katsume,” Kieskei said slowly. “You’ve been asleep for a full day and night now.”
She gave him a befuddled look. “Really?”
“Using the Nova Roar must have taken more out of me than I expected.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
Katsume hit him with her pillow.
“All joking aside,” he said after a moment of laughter he was pleased she joined him in. “How are you feeling?”
“My head hurts,” she admitted. “Not bad, more like annoying, but other than that, pretty decent.”
Kieskei rubbed his chin for a moment, then gave her a serious look. “What you did was incredibly dangerous. Shoki’s Nova Roar draws on the wielders own spiritual energy, you know. Had you fully depleted that, you could have died.”
Katsume found she couldn’t meet his gaze. “Yeah. I know that. My father had always planned to train me properly in fortifying my spiritual reserves. He just never got the chance.”
“Of course,” Kieskei said, expression softening. “Still, it was a very risky gambit.”
“Not like I had a lot of choice,” she replied, flopping back on the futon. “Typical devil hunter that you are, you were pretty useless, just like that damn perverted nine tails. Somebody had to save your collective asses.”
A wry grin touched his face. “Naturally, you were the one for the job.”
She gave him a devilish grin. “Naturally.”
“And if you had died?”
“Didn’t really think about it too much,” she answered with a shrug.
“I find that difficult to believe.”
Katsume stared at the ceiling for a long moment. “I really didn’t give it much thought. All these people were in danger. You, Inari, and Yukiko, as well. I was running out of options, and it was all I had left that I thought might could do anything. Didn’t have time to weigh the pros and cons, you know.”
He considered that for a long moment of silence, before saying, “No. I don’t suppose so. Typical of an Oda, then.”
She tossed a dark look his way. “What ya trying to say there, Atochi?”
“Your family has always been prone to rash acts of bravery and heroism,” he responded with genuine admiration in his eyes. “I should have expected no less from you.”
Katsume felt her face flush. “Shut the fuck up, jackass.”
Kieskei chuckled at that. “I am in your debt, Milady. You have saved my life, once again, and I fear I will never be able to repay you properly.”
“Yeah, I’m kinda worried about that myself,” she huffed.
“Perhaps it would be best if I stayed close to you for a while, if only to keep you from making such brash and heroic decisions in the future.”
“You are really annoying, you know that?”
Katsume sat up again, glancing about the room and finding them to be as alone as she had thought. It sent a small pang through her, but she shoved it down, and felt guilty for having felt it at all.
Kieskei’s face turned sad. “Struggling.”
“Kinda figured,” she sighed. “Sorry to be the one to bring it up, but it didn’t seem you were going to, and I guess I should know what to expect.”
He considered that for a moment. “Her demonic nature has not taken her over, if that is what you were thinking. She is grief stricken, is all I meant.”
She stared at him in surprise for a moment. “Well, duh. What made you think I thought any of that?”
“It sounded as if…” he started, then trailed off and shook his head. “My apologies. I misunderstood you.”
“I’ll say,” she grumbled. “Yukiko is a tough nut, in case you haven’t noticed. She’ll get through this. I just don’t want to make things worse by being my usual self, ya know?”
Kieskei gave her a sad smile. “That may be just what she needs at this point. All of my attempts, and Inari’s as well, to console her have failed to lift her spirits.”
She nodded, staring at the wall. “Nothing is going to make her feel better right now. She’s taken a human life. That weighs on your soul.”
“It sounds as if you speak from experience.”
“I do, but that doesn’t matter right now. Our attention should be on her, not me.”
“These rash acts of kindness are very becoming of you, Milady.”
“You want to get punched in the mouth?”
“Then shut it.”
Kieskei watched her rise, stretch, and go looking for something besides the simple kimono she wore to put on. As aware as he was of the reputation of the Oda family, what little he knew of Katsume came mostly from his mother. The arrogant, angry, rage filled woman Tohru Atochi had warned him of was there, to be certain, but so was Akio and Midori Oda, her parents.
“I do have a favor to ask, if I may,” he finally said.
“Sure, ask away,” Katsume replied as she dug out her mothers armor. “Just don’t expect me to say yes.”
“Allow me to help you strengthen your spiritual reserves.”
Katsume looked back at him in surprise. “Why?”
“Junto and Kamachi both mentioned someone named Onihone,” he said as he pushed himself to his feet. “I am not familiar with the name, but for two of the Twelve Sacred Demons to regard him as someone to obey makes me think him to be a powerful individual. One that already has his sights set on us, Yukiko specifically. We may have need of you to use the Nova Roar again, and I’d rather it not take you out of the fight should that happen.”
Katsume considered that for a long moment, then nodded. “You do know I can only use it at night, when the moon is full, thought, right?”
“Of course,” he nodded. “My mother insured I was well educated in all of Shoki’s abilities, as well as those of the many other known demon slaying weapons. Still, at this moment, it is the most powerful aspect of Shoki that you can access, and we would be wise to utilize it should we find ourselves faced with this Onihone fellow.”
“Can’t say I disagree,” she admitted. “Odds are, though, with Kamachi escaping, Onihone now knows to avoid us under the full moon.”
Kieskei shrugged at that. “That’s not the only reason I want to help you with your spiritual reserve, but it is a good point, and one we’ll have to be careful of in the future.”
“What’s the other reason, then?”
“So you can access the rest of Shoki’s powers,” he told her.
“Bring it on, then,” she replied. “I’ll do whatever it takes to gain full control over that damn sword.”
“Of that, I have no doubt,” he grinned. “You can use the Nova Roar, and remain alive. With a bit of practice, you should be able to access the next level of abilities as well.”
Katsume sat in a chair, dropping her boots in front of her. “There’s more to it than just the spiritual reserve, though, as you know.”
He gave her a surprised look. “I’m not aware of there being any other requirements, no.”
“I’ll explain it all to you later,” she told him, waving him to leave so she could get dressed. “Shoki isn’t like other demon slaying weapons. It wants things. Sometimes, things that are hard to give it. Still, I’ll happily take you up on your offer. Sora knows, my spiritual capabilities aren’t what they could be.”
He nodded. “Let’s call it a trade, then. You expand my knowledge of Shoki, and I’ll help you master it.”
He was almost out the door when Katsume called to him. “That’s all I wanted from your mom, you know?”
“I know,” he said. “I guess I feel someone in this family ought to do what should have done back then.”
She nodded and watched him go, then stared out the window for a while, thinking. She had been harsh on Kieskei when they had first met. Perhaps, she felt, a little too harsh. He wasn’t so bad. Nothing like Tohru, and her condescending tone.
Maybe, just maybe, Katsume wondered, fate really was guiding her quest, after all.
Soon after, she found her way to the kitchen, or rather, what was left of it. The common room of the inn was still more or less intact, but the far wall, where the kitchen had once been, was now more of a gaping hole. Katsume grimaced a bit as she recalled knocking Kamachi through it.
“Sorry,” a middle aged man called. “Doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to feed any of our guests for a while.”
“Yeah, I’d guess so,” she sighed. “Sorry about that.”
“What do you have to be sorry for?” he asked with a slight laugh. “From what Master Atochi says, if it hadn’t been for you, we’d all likely be dead now. Having to rebuild a kitchen is something you only get to do if you are alive.”
“I suppose that’s one way to look at it,” she said with a wan smile. “Still, you have my apologies for the hardship.”
He shrugged a bit. “Consider it a fair trade for my life.”
“If I can ask, where’s the old innkeeper at?”
The man nodded his head towards the back of the inn. “Resting. I guess whatever that demon did to him left him pretty weak. I’ll be a while before grandpa is up and around again.”
Katsume thought of the brief struggle with the old man in the room she had been sharing with Yukiko. “Yeah. I guess so. I’m just glad he’s okay.”
“A bit worse for the wear, but he’s pretty sturdy, despite his age. He’ll be good as new in a few days,” the man told her. “There’s a tea house a bit down the road that avoiding the fighting. I’m pretty sure you can find something to eat there.”
“Thanks,” she nodded. “And again, sorry for all the trouble.”
He shook his head. “No need for apologies. I’m just glad a capable Demon Slayer happened to be around. If you ask me, the only good demon is a dead demon.”
Katsume tried to smile at that, but felt it to be thin. “Have you seen my other traveling companion today? Little short thing, dark hair, absurdly big boobs for her size?
His face darkened. “The other demon, you mean?”
“Yeah. My friend.”
“It’s upstairs somewhere,” he said as he turned back to cleaning up. “Master Atochi insisted we treat it like a person, but like I said, only good demon is a dead demon.”
Katsume bit back the retort that wanted to jump from her brain to her mouth, instead saying, “Thanks.”
“Do us all a favor, Demon Slayer, and kill that one, too. Before it can kill one of us again.”
Forcing herself to not respond, Katsume took her leave of the room. She knew he had no way of knowing. Of course he didn’t. How could he? Still, it hurt. Not just for herself, but for Yukiko, who had done nothing but try to help the villagers that night.
Some things, it seemed, truly never did change.
Yukiko stared out the window, watching the villagers as they worked to repair the damage caused by the battle with the two Sacred Demons. Everything in her yearned to join them, to be a part of their lives as they rebuilt. It was an ache in her chest that just wouldn’t go away, no matter what she told herself.
Or what they told her. The morning after, while Katsume had slept, she had tried to help. She had been prepared to face uncertainty, and even distrust, as her demonic heritage was obvious to anyone with eyes. What she hadn’t been prepared for was the open hatred.
Had it not been for Kieskei, she had no doubt the people she wanted to help would have driven her from their village. Left with no choice, she had hid behind the devil hunter, and gone with him when he went to make his apologies to the headman.
Things had gotten worse after that. The headman was with a woman and two children when they had found him, offering his condolences for their loss. Before Kieskei had even asked, Yukiko had known who it was they had lost.
The man she had killed. She could see his face in her mind so clearly. She had waited for it to be confirmed, then had gone to his wife and children and begged their forgiveness. It was all she could do.
As she had knelt there on the ground, crying, offering up her apologies, the wife had kicked her in the head, and cursed her name. Kieskei had been forced to intervene again, putting himself between Yukiko and the widow.
The headman had insisted Yukiko leave the village, but Kieskei would have none of it. Finally, the man had relented, and advised she stay out of sight until their party left the town. The villagers were already in a state of fear, and to learn a demon who had killed one of their own walked among them, unpunished, would likely lead to violence.
So, she had retreated up to an empty room, and remained there, waiting for Katsume to awaken, so she could flee this place. Inari and Ger had come and gone, trying to bring a smile to her face with their words, and their antics, but she couldn’t muster it. Kieskei had come with food, and kindness, but she could only wish he would leave, and stay as far from her as possible.
Before what she was tarnished him.
She had slept in fits that night, nightmares plaguing her. The man she had killed, Yuichi by name, haunted her dreams, accusing her with a bloodstained face. In the end, she had chosen to simply sit by the window, and wait, as dawn finally came. His ghost didn’t go far, but it receded a bit in the sunlight.
It was all she could ask for. More than she had a right to expect.
When Katsume arrived, Yukiko steeled herself. She expected recriminations, even the idea to be floated that perhaps they should not travel together any more. At worst, she feared what the Demon Slayer would do. Punish her, most likely, though she doubted Katsume would go so far as to kill her.
Yukiko blinked, looking over her shoulder as Katsume lounged against the door, dressed in her armor. Of Shoki, there was no sign. The look on the Demon Slayer’s face, however, made the demon girl turn away quickly. She had expected many things, but not sadness. That, she wasn’t sure how to handle.
“How you doin?” Katsume asked.
Yukiko hesitated. “I’m not sure what you expect me to say, then.”
“Tell me how your doing.”
“Yeah,” Katsume sighed. “I can bet.”
Yukiko said nothing else, watching the villagers work. After a long moment, one that seemed to stretch on forever, she heard Katsume’s footfalls cross the room, and felt the Demon Slayer’s presence at her back. She flinched internally, and tensed, waiting.
Katsume wrapped her arms around Yukiko, rested her chin on the demon girls head, and said, “Nothing will ever quite be the way it was before. That’s the hardest part to get use to. That feeling that everything is just a little off inside of you. In time, you get accustomed to it, but it never really goes away.”
“How do you know?” Yukiko asked, wanting the comfort she offered, but afraid to take it.
“You think you’re the only person in the world who’s ever accidentally killed someone?”
Yukiko put a hand on Katsume’s, still afraid, but wanting that contact more than her fear could prevent. “Of course not. It’s different for me, though. I’m a demon. What I did, it was unforgivable.”
“It’s unforgivable when anyone does it. Demon, human, what’s the difference? Killing someone is killing someone. You being a demon doesn’t matter in this.”
Yukiko pulled her hand away, suddenly angered by Katsume’s dismissal of the matter. Standing, she pushed the Demon Slayer back, and brought out her claws.
“Of course it matters,” she snapped. “Look at these things. Really look at them, Katsume! So wicked. So vile. What good can ever come of hands such as these? What did I ever think I could do with these? Save people? Of course not! The only things these hands are good for is taking lives! Look at them and tell me I’m wrong!”
Yukiko turned, wanting to see Katsume’s face when she answered. She wanted to see the lie in her eyes when she tried to tell her she was wrong. Perhaps, then, when even she looked at her with distaste, she could feel…
Red eyes met hers. Taloned hands reached out for hers.
“You’re wrong, Yukiko,” Katsume said, her demonic side on full display. “Hands like these, they can save people. Or do you think I’m no different than you?”
Yukiko felt her demonic fingers fade. She had known, Of course she had known. What had she been thinking? To say something like that to Katsume, of all people?
“I just… I meant…”
Katsume smiled, her fangs glinting past her lips. “I know. It’s okay. I understand.”
“It’s not okay,” Yukiko cried, tears forming in her eyes. “I didn’t mean to do it! I swear I didn’t! I tried my best to not hit him! I didn’t want to hurt anyone! I’m sorry!”
Katsume felt her heart might break at the girl’s collapse into sobs, her words trailing into nothing as she screamed out her pain and regret. Stepping forward, she wrapped Yukiko into her arms, holding her tight against her, and let her wail her sorrow into her chest.
“I know,” she whispered to her “I forgive you.”
“Why?” Yukiko gasped out as she found herself clutching at Katsume, holding on to her to have something, anything, to hold on to.
“Because you are crying,” Katsume told her, stroking her hair. “Only those who are truly sorry cry. Only humans cry. Monsters don’t cry. They can’t. They don’t feel regret. They don’t feel the weight of their actions. They can’t understand what it is to carry a life on their shoulders. That’s something only us humans know.”
“I’m not human,” Yukiko sobbed. “I am a monster.”
“No, you aren’t,” Katsume told her, cradling her closer. “You aren’t. I promise you aren’t.”
“How can you know,” she whimpered in return.
“Because,” Katsume replied, pulling back just enough to tug Yukiko’s chin up, to look her in her eye. “These wicked, vile hands of mine can comfort you now. If that’s true, then neither of us can be monsters. Right?’
Yukiko stared, eyes wide and heavy with tears, into Katsume’s demonic gaze, and slowly, so slowly, nodded, before falling back against her chest and losing herself to her grief again.
Katsume held her close, and let her pour it all out. She held her close, and silently, promised, she would carry it for her.
It took some time for the tears to stop. The sun was drifting higher in the sky as Katsume sat against the wall, Yukiko curled against her chest, resting her head on the Demon Slayer’s bosom, wrapped in her arms. For the demon girl, it felt safe, like nothing she had ever known. More than that, it was welcoming, in some way she couldn’t name.
Like a place she felt she could belong.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last, breaking the long silence that had lingered between them.
“Already told you I forgive you,” Katsume teased, hugging her a little.
“No, I mean, for this,” the demon girl replied. “For making you have to do this. I know you probably didn’t want to.”
“If I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t have,” Katsume told her. “Now hush with he apologies.”
Yukiko looked up at her, her blood red eyes finding Katsume’s, who still held her demonic form. “Then why?”
Katsume ran a hand over her head, her touch gentle. “I’ve been where you are, pipsqueak. I know how it feels. I had someone there for me when it happened, who comforted me. You deserve the same. That, and, well, we did decide we were gonna be friends, didn’t we?”
Yukiko couldn’t look away from the kindness, the warmth, and the compassion in the Demon Slayer’s eyes. She felt transfixed, as if she was seeing her for the first time. “We did, yeah.”
“There ya go, then, dummy,” Katsume told her with a smile. “Where else would I be when my friend needs me?”
“I guess,” Yukiko said slowly. “It’s just that…”
“You thought I’d be angry?”
Katsume pulled her head back down to her chest. “That’s cause you really are a dummy. I know the difference between an accident and a killer.”
“Oh,” Yukiko murmured, listening to the steady beating of Katsume’s heart. It soothed her, and felt somehow familiar. Again, she felt safe, and snuggled closer.
“Why would you even think that?” Katsume asked after a moment.
Yukiko gave a slight shrug. “Because, even when you used the Nova Roar, you didn’t hurt a single villager. If I couldn’t manage something so much less powerful without it, well… you know.”
Katsume nodded. “I get it. Still, here’s the thing, Yukiko. If I had been off in how I held Shoki by even a tiny bit, a lot of people would have died by my hand. Junto and Kamachi pushed me into a reckless, and desperate position. What I did, it was risky, and even when I did it, I couldn’t be sure I’d be able to keep the villagers safe. I didn’t know for certain I wouldn’t hurt some of them.”
“But, you didn’t.”
“I got lucky. That’s all. Well, lucky, and I’ve spent years practicing with Shoki. It’s a powerful weapon, and if I’m not careful with it, I could hurt a lot of people. It’s easy to loose control.”
Yukiko looked at her hand for a moment. “Yeah. It is.”
“That doesn’t make you a bad person, you know,” Katsume told her. “You overestimated your control. It happens to a lot of people. It happened to me once, too.”
“And you hurt someone?”
“I was younger than you when it happened to me,” Katsume told her. “It wasn’t long before my parents died. During one of my training sessions. I underestimated Shoki, and overestimated my own control of it. I lost control of the fire, and somebody died. Somebody who I knew, really well. A friend. I was afraid to even touch that sword again after that. Had my parents not been killed, I don’t think I ever would have”
“Was it your father who comforted you then?”
Katsume shook her head, then rested it on Yukiko’s. “No. It was my mother. She was a demon, like you. She’d killed more than a few people in her life. Some on purpose, others to defend herself. A few by accident. She told me the same thing I told you. Then she held me, just like this, until I felt I could stand on my own again.”
“Thank you,” Yukiko said. “For this, and for everything.”
“Of course,” Katsume told her, and dropped a kiss on her head. “I’ll always be here for you, Yukiko. Never doubt that.”
“It’s weird, though, isn’t it?”
“We fight all the time. I thought you hated me.”
Katsume sighed. “Yeah, we do. We probably will still. Doesn’t mean we aren’t friends, though. Doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. Just means I’ve got terrible people skills, and kind of suck at not being a jerk.”
“That’s true,” Yukiko said.
“Hey, now,” Katsume scolded, drawing a small laugh from the demon girl. “Oh, what was that?”
Yukiko buried her face in Katsume’s cleavage. “Nothing.”
“Yeah, that was a laugh,” Katsume said, then hugged her close. “Sounded good. You should do that more, you know?”
“Maybe,” Yukiko replied, then looked up at her timidly. “If you’ll help me.”
“Knowing me, that won’t be hard,” Katsume grimaced. “I’m pretty easy to laugh at.”
“Also true,” Yukiko said.
“Okay, now you’re just being an ass.”
A smile flitted across the demon girl’s face, but was quickly replaced with fear. “They won’t forgive me. The villagers.”
Katsume looked to the window. “Probably not, no. They don’t understand how heavy the burden you carry is. They can’t. Try not to think less of them.”
Yukiko laid her head back on Katsume’s chest, listening to that strangely familiar heartbeat. “I don’t.”
“Good,” Katsume said, and kissed her head again.
Deep down, though, Yukiko knew the truth. The one she feared more than the hatred of the villagers. More than she feared anything. She felt it, burning at the very core of that anger she couldn’t understand.
She did think less of them.
She resented them.
She hated them for hating her.
Yukiko leaned up and kissed Katsume on the cheek, then buried herself in the Demon Slayer’s arms, to keep the world out, and her own terrifying feelings in.
They left town the next day, Kieskei and Yukiko wanting to give Katsume plenty of time to recover. Yukiko had kept herself from the eyes of the villagers, as rumors began to circulate that she was what had drawn the demons to their village to begin with.
Katsume had desperately wanted to correct them on that matter, by force if need be, but considering the conversation between Junto and Kamachi, she knew she couldn’t rule it out. Regardless, it burned her very soul to allow the whispers to go unchallenged.
As the group walked down the road, Inari eyed Katsume with suspicion, enough so the Demon Slayer allowed herself to lag back, where the two could speak without Yukiko overhearing. Seeing this, Kieskei fell back a few steps as well, leaving Ger to keep Yukiko distracted, so she wouldn’t wonder what they were doing.
“You’ve been tense,” Inari finally said. “But in a different way than usual. What’s up?”
“You know exactly what it is, nine tails. Don’t play coy,” she retorted.
Inari’s suspicious look deepened. “Maybe I just want to hear you say it.”
“Fine,” she huffed. “I didn’t like the way those people were talking about Yukiko.”
“Nor did I,” Kieskei agreed.
“I would imagine not,” the fox said. “However, there’s something else, isn’t there? Something to do with this Onihone?”
Katsume and Kieskei exchanged a look before she nodded, “Yeah. That. You know anything about it?”
“I can’t say that I do, which is bothersome in and of itself,” he told them both. “However, I was warned that dark forces seek to steer Yukiko from the path she has chosen for herself. It would be safe to assume this Onihone is such a person.”
“So, what do we do?” Kieskei asked.
“Protect her,” Inari replied with a shrug. “Until she can protect herself at any rate.”
“Already planned to do that,” Katsume said.
“As did I,” Kieskei nodded.
Inari smiled, accepting their answer. His mind, however, was whirling a mile a minute. Of course he knew who Onihone was. He was a Heavenly Being. Just what that man was up to, however, was something no one could ever guess. If he had designs on Yukiko, then it most certainly couldn’t be a good thing.
He considered telling them what he knew, but decided it best to leave it be for now. No sense scaring them. Not that he thought they would be, as all of them were braver than they were smart.
Still, to be told the Crown Prince of Hell, son of Orochi, who had slain Katsume’s parents, stalked Yukiko was the sort of thing he feared might drive them all to foolish action before they were ready.
In time, all things would become clear, including Onihone’s plans. All Inari had to do, was wait, and be ready to protect Yukiko, no matter the cost.
©-2017 Cain S. Latrani