Chapter Thirty-Three: Nightmare
"Beware, sons of Bayushi. Seek, and you may find
The Shinomen…once, it had been merely a place of mystery, a hulking tower of bamboo and hidden eyes. Home of the Naga, it was a strange place, but a place of serenity…once. Now, the children of the Scorpion moved among its shattered trees and twisted branches, seeking the creatures that murdered the Emperor, justice filling their minds.
Justice, and in some minds, annoyance.
Anukeiko hated the forest; everything about it served to set her hair on end. Dressed from head to toe in light, supple armor, the Scorpion prodigy cut an impressive figure; or rather she would have, was she not wrapped in natural camouflage, wet and itchy beneath heavy water reeds.
Before lay a dead deer, and now the monsters came to feed.
The samurai-ko had never determined why people thought the bakemono were funny; the creatures that crept forward were things of foulest dreams. Hunched bodies botched with green and brown splotches came sniffing the air, their long tongues licking at the animal's blood. Like the others Anukeiko had seen, these ones were cautious; they had to be to survive.
But hunger was a piece of their tainted essence, hunger vicious and terrible, and soon it overcame cunning, and the goblins began to feed. The sound of tearing flesh and snapping bone nauseated the bushi, but Anukeiko remained silent, smiling a dark little smile beneath her silken veil.
The taint was no protection from the Scorpion's sting.
A whisper of grass was all the warning the Bayushi received, as something cold and metallic was laid along her left side. Turning slowly, Anukeiko shivered, following the long, slender blade up until she saw the owner's black gloved hand.
Her sensei matched her eyes with steely silenced, crouched close as they watched the bakemono ate. Akijin's sunken eyes blazed angrily beneath his restored porcelain mask; the sensei of the Bayushi School took this newest mission with gravest care.
"The monsters are stupid," the Scorpion girl signed to her master, not daring to employ her voice with his blade still calmly resting beside her head.
His gaze remained on the bakemono, but the master's left hand fluttered freely. "They are pests. They are not what we are really hunting." Akijin's eyes turned sharply, panning off into the forest to one side.
Anukeiko ignored her sensei's gaze, concentrating on the goblins. One by one, the little demons had realized their error; hissing and gagging they circled, slashed the air and cried out in feral tones. Almost immediately smoke burst from dying bodies, their final actions frightened hisses of pain.
"Deeply satisfying," the Bayushi girl whispered, her voice a contented purr.
But Akijin was not there to hear her.
"Sensei?" Anukeiko whispered, not daring to raise her voice higher. It was not like Akijin to vanish like shadows; as Scorpion went the old man was quite forward. If Akijin had withdrawn, then there was only one reason…
Immediately the samurai-ko was on the defensive, one hand on her katana and the other on the nage-yari that lay nearby. Narrow fingers scraped against the smooth wood of the weapon; in times like this, a single rash action could lead a samurai to ruin. Anukeiko found herself settling her eyes on the shadows beyond the goblin corpses, feeling rather than seeing the thing that was to come.
The thing that came forward moved slowly, unhurried in every sense of the word, its feet falling lightly, barely brushing against the Shinomen's heavy grass. A human form emerged from the forest's shadows, but the thing that looked back at Anukeiko form across the clearing of dead bakemono was anything but human.
It moved with ghostly fluidity that set its long white hair swaying, even its heavy black armor no hindrance to the moves. Its robes, though marked with Kakita colors, also seemed to cling with the crimson essence, and with every tiny motion, hidden symbols beneath its pale skin moved. At his side was an ancient, perfectly worked daisho, and resting unsheathed over one shoulder was a great sword of pure shadow.
But more than his image, it was his eyes that transfixed the samurai-ko. His eyes were the color of blood, swirling and without iris or pupil, just crimson that held in them anger and violence more intense than the Bayushi could truly understand or see. The rest of his face was painted white, with deep black lines, giving the creature an image of an actor fully beholden to his role as a beast of Jigoku.
As the man came to the center of the dead goblins, Anukeiko found herself drawing away from him, wishing only to hide, or to be far away. His gaze brought fear, even to the samurai.
"You cannot hide, Bayushi," the tainted man said calmly, the calmness in his tone betrayed by a trickle of bloody mist that slid from the edge of those thin lips. "You came here to take revenge on the darkness…show us what you can do."
Anukeiko rose, drawing her katana in one simple move. The man's icy gaze froze the words in the Scorpion's heart, but not her determination. The Bayushi took one step with her sword raised high. The man moved easily, welcoming the challenge with extended blade.
She could not beat him. She was going to die.
"Do not cry, Scorpion," the man said from his stance, his victory already assured. Anukeiko narrowed her eyes with a snarl, realizing only now that she was crying. "It will be finished soon enough."
"You didn't come here to fight a child," a withered voice said from one side of their duel. The bloody eyes swirled, and Anukeiko lowered her sword with a thankful sigh.
The big man drew himself up, the muscles beneath his body seeming to groan at the motion. "Sensei? You are the master of this girl?" He stood, frozen, as the older man drew himself up from where he leaned against an ancient tree, his Bayushi sword sheathed and ready for the fight.
"Bayushi Akijin, Bayushi Ryu," the sensei snarled in a whisper, falling into a low, almost crouching stance. "You will fight against me, monster. She is no match for you."
"Neither are you," the man responded evenly.
Akijin's skeletal frame did not move, his ancient, withered hands caressing the edge of his sword, "Anukeiko, this is not a place for a student. Go and prepare the other students; this creature will not detain me for long."
The girl bowed low to her teacher, dashing off into the wilderness with a still-unsheathed blade.
"Damn," Akijin cursed under his breath, staggering from a third cut as the enemy almost danced away. The monster duelist from the Shadowlands was too fast, too strong; he was always a step ahead of the Bayushi, meeting him halfway and slashing him at will. "What are you, monster?"
Those strange eyes swelled and swirled, a small smile filling that painted face. "I am Shimekiri." Shimekiri turned slowly, extending his left shoulder and raising his shadow blade. "I told you that you could not stop me, Bayushi. I meant that."
The bushi nodded slightly, his sunken eyes flaring at the words. "The taint has made you fast and powerful. So sad that it cost you your soul."
"A man's honor cannot be understood by another," the dark warrior answered, "I suggest that you concede the fight."
Akijin laughed out loud, using the time their words bought to evaluate and gauge his strength against what he had felt of Shimekiri's steel, "Like you would let me go with something like a word of honor; bargaining with the Shadowlands is nothing but death."
"I said nothing about letting you live, Scorpion." Shimekiri's eyes froze the master's mettle. "There are worse things than dying, Akijin-san. You will understand that soon enough."
The Bayushi raised his sword, watching his enemy for weakness and finding nothing. The blood loss from his wounds was affecting him; Shimekiri's form began to sway. "Most creatures of the Shadowlands don't know of things like surrender or etiquette…"
Shimekiri's voice rumbled with obvious annoyance, as red mist slid from its sides, "And most bushi aren't so cowardly as to send their students running for aid…" Those eyes focused upon the old sensei, "No more stalling, old man. Now you fight."
The shadowy fighter did not hesitate after finishing; he covered the distance without effort, without motion, raising his no-dachi for the final strike. Akijin moved and parried with upraised sword, but the strike was flawless, and Shimekiri's shadow blade opened the Scorpion's body, a bloody gash tearing through the air like unseen fire, breaking through steel, armor, and form…
Go and prepare the students; this creature will not detain me for long.
When Anukeiko found her sensei's body, there was not much left. She had done as he had ordered, rushing back to the Scorpion encampment and rousing all the bushi that were there. Now, the Scorpion stood around the form of their dead master, sliced in two with one savage cut, opened from shoulder to thigh.
He did not look regal or ready in death…rather, the master of the Bayushi Ryu merely seemed…surprised. His prodigy knelt before her fallen master, her slender fingers sliding over his cooling skin, closing forever those intense eyes.
An ample trail led deeper into the Shinomen's darkness, beckoning the vengeful to seek the killer for his or her own revenge. Anukeiko's arm slashed the air, restraining the angry bushi, "This creature killed our sensei; we cannot defeat it alone."
"Our master will see vengeance," she said with pained eyes. "Even if we cannot give it ourselves."
One by one, the children of the Scorpion slipped back into the forest, taking the remnants of their fallen leader silently to his final rest. Beyond them, the darkness of the Shinomen did not laugh, did not taunt, did not challenge or beckon a call.
There was only the silence, the smell of blood, and the heartless finality of
The Sword Never Lies…