Leaves and flower blossoms swirled down in a dizzying hale, increasing in number with each ferocious gust of wind. The whipping tree branches gave intermittent flashes of cold light from the moon and stars, illuminating their journey in patches. Here past the stream, there over the thicket; Shibi cast a worried glance at her mistress, bending lower over her horse. The night was unnaturally cold for spring. Darkness whispered threats. She could only protect Sakuya from so much.
“We’re almost there Shibi,” Sakuya gasped, panting nearly as much as her horse. Shibi reached behind and grabbed one of the blankets, along with her own cloak, and handed them to Sakuya as they rode. Sakuya shook her head, teeth chattering. Shibi swore as they parted around a tree, and rejoined under a new flash of moonlight.
“Take them my lady,” Shibi urged, shaking the bundle of fabric again. Her mistress’s soft hand reached out tentatively through the night, nearly upsetting herself in the process. Sakuya quickly righted herself, wrapping in the blanket while goosebumps spread over Shibi’s skin. Her mistress had always been graceful, even when riding, but the pregnancy had given her unaccustomed weight. Hopefully, it would all be over soon.
The horses gave a grateful snort as Shibi and her mistress pulled to a halt. Sakuya waited for her handmaiden to dismount, eying the cabin; it had been a retreat for her and Ninigi in the beginning. They hadn’t used it in years, and they hadn’t needed to, but now…now things were changing. Sakuya tried to dismount herself, but gripped the mane of her horse, scrunched her eyes shut; even the simple things were beyond her reach. This uselessness was tormenting her. She had been ready to die from the ride over; a saddle was not very accommodating to a woman in her position. But it would all be over soon.
Shibi helped her mistress dismount, wrapping the tall woman’s arm around her stocky shoulders. She led Sakuya to the cabin and settled her in the bed. The soft whimpers of her mistress tore at Shibi while she gathered the pots, cloth, and water. The cabin carried in memories of getaways and ancient promises; it also smelled of dead insects.
“Are you comfortable, my lady?” Sakuya’s eyes flickered, finding her handmaiden in the dim candlelight.
“Has anyone in this position ever been comfortable, Shibi?” Sakuya gave a weak smile that turned into a grimace all too quickly. Suddenly, her breathing erratic. Shibi reached her hand out, gripping her mistress’s warm palm. “Thank…thank you. You have always been a faithful friend and companion to me all these years. Perhaps, after—” Sakuya gasped, curling in on herself, squeezing Shibi’s hand harder. The moment passed and she laid her head back, keeping her eyes closed. “Perhaps after this, you will have this cabin instead of a room in the palace.” Shibi glanced around the musty cabin. It had probably been nice…once.
“No offense my lady, but I think I will be just fine in the palace.” Sakuya chuckled, her pulse fluttering underneath Shibi’s grip.
“Please, keep watch outside. Nobody can be allowed in.” Sakuya’s eyes flared open and her handmaiden nodded at the request, disappearing out of the room. This would be a long night.
“My lord!” Ninigi turned, hand on his sword. The harsh light of the guard’s lantern drew his face in stark contrast. The guard bowed and Ninigi inclined his head, resisting the urge to tug at his beard; Sakuya would always chastise him about it. She said it was an old man’s habit.
“Speak,” His voice was sharp, clipped. He didn’t mean for it to be; that’s how it had always been. His dark eyes only warmed when focused on Sakuya. His men never seemed to mind; they weren’t there for his kindness.
“The queen and her handmaiden aren’t in the palace or the grounds. We found tracks heading into the woods, and we have men combing through it now.” Ninigi’s callused hand squeezed into the fabric of his robe, his breath shallow.
“What direction?” She wouldn’t head there. They hadn’t used it in years. The memories they had there were sacred; she wouldn’t taint them with her petty retaliation. Sakuya would never stoop that low.
“East, my lord.”
“Damn it!” The guard wisely kept his face neutral, and his mouth shut, as Ninigi mounted his horse. He had underestimated the depths to which his wife would go to provoke him.
The wind howled in his ears as he sped deeper into the forest, retracing the worn path by heart. They had stopped by that tree once; they weren’t patient enough to wait for the cabin’s bed. And by the stream, they had named all the palace’s fish, their toes dipped in the cool water. This forest, this place, had always been theirs. It was destined for them from the beginning. Would she really throw all that away? He hadn’t meant what he said. If he knew she would react this way—no. He couldn’t think that way. This wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t.
Ninigi yanked on the reins, securing his horse with the others tied to a tree. They had buried a gold piece each there, sowing the seeds for prosperity. The cherry blossom tree towered over Ninigi now, burdening rather than supporting, looming over his future.
“My lord you must turn back.” Shibi. She was always there, always by Sakuya’s side. He knew how capable she was. He had hired the handmaiden himself; he would always be grateful for how she had protected his wife.
“Is Sakuya inside?” The wind nearly snatched away his words, tugging at his unbraided hair and beard, snapping his robe like a flag across his body. Shibi’s outfit billowed out slightly, her hair in a bun, staff held at the ready.
“You must turn back,” She repeated, almost imploring him. But her hands were steady, her eyes were set.
He moved without warning, embedding his curved blade in Shibi’s staff. The metal gleamed in a burst of moonlight, the handmaiden’s staff concealed in darkness again a moment later. Her shin hit him behind the knee, yanking her weapon back. The thick leaves and shaking branches gave their battle an almost surreal feel, partially illuminated. Blade flashing and then disappearing in the same movement, the knock of wood on metal and flesh cracking out above the peals of thunder echoing across the sky. Their breathing heavy and lips sealed, they danced a deadly dance in the solitude of the woods. Ninigi could see his opponent’s moves slowing, but her determination struck almost as punishingly as her staff. He narrowly avoided a blow to the head, sweeping his leg at her ankles. Using her staff, she vaulted over him, and he spun while crouched low, swiping his sword at the wood. Even as it collapsed underneath her, Shibi tucked into a graceful roll, coming up with a twirl of her staff that parried his quick thrusts.
Thunder cracked across the sky with no trace of lightning. Ninigi could almost have sworn he heard something. He stepped out of Shibi’s reach, and then he heard it for certain this time: a scream.
“Sakuya!” He looked with wild eyes at the cabin. A wave of heat washed over his face as the cabin became engulfed in flames. Was this a nightmare? How could this be? Shibi’s staff slammed into his chest as he sought purchase in his footing, and in his mind. Sakuya’s handmaiden pressed her advantage while he was distracted, striking from impossible angles. Another loud wail burst through the cabin, slamming into Ninigi with the weight of a stampede. He spun to his side around a thrust of Shibi’s staff, slicing through the ropes barely restraining the horses. They flew into Shibi, knocking her to the side into Ninigi’ grasp. He followed the momentum of the movement, throwing her into one of the trees; she didn’t get back up. A flash of lightning brought the clearing into focus for one brief moment. By the time the darkness had slithered back into its place, Ninigi was in the cabin.
“Sakuya?” He moved past the low candles, past the drapes they had picked out together. Their couch was on fire, the heat pressing in on him from all sides. Smoke billowed as the fear rose with the air in his throat. Coughing, he covered his mouth with his sleeve, stumbling through one of the doorways. Where was she? Where could she have gone? What had happened?
“Ninigi,” The voice was weak and came from his left. He burst through the smoldering curtain covering the door, breathing heavily in the sheltered room
“Sakuya,” He dropped to his knees beside the bed, tears stinging his eyes. “Why? Why are you here? What are you—”
“This is Hoderi,” She held the crying infant up with a smile. “He has your eyes.” She brought another child up for him to see. “And Hoori has your old man nose, even though he was born last.”
He coughed up a laugh past the emotion choking his throat and smoke trickling into the room. She held up another child, pressing it into his arms. In that moment he felt a change. The anger, the resentment, gone. A thousand feelings fought for his attention: worry, fear, hope, love. He gripped the child tighter, worried that he might break it, but hoping he could dissolve the little thing into his body and keep it safe for eternity. Even now, it looked like Sakuya.
“That’s Hosuseri.” He laughed again, holding Hosuseri in one arm, and clutching Sakuya close, their tears joining as he pressed his cheeks against her.
“Three boys,” He choked out. “What a handful.”
Sakuya laughed, letting out a low sob. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.” Ninigi wrapped his free arm around his wife, helping her to her feet. “I’m sorry,” She whispered in his ear, cradling both children in her arms.
“I was wrong,” He replied, passing Hosuseri to her for a moment, taking off his robe and covering the children with it as he took Hosuseri back, covering him in his undershirt. “I was wrong about everything.” They covered their mouths, pressing through the wall of smoke, fire crackling beyond their sight while the children continued to scream without knowing better. One last time Ninigi opened his mouth, shouting over the cacophony of noise. “Things will be different from now on!” His foot hit wood and he pushed Sakuya through the doorway.
“My lady!” He could make out the dim outline of Shibi rushing forward, dragging her mistress away from the cabin. A loud crack resonated through the whole cabin, Ninigi rushing forward, but not fast enough.
The flaming beams crashed around him, laying him flat on the ground. He could feel heat on his back, flames licking at his skin, the smoke choking his cries. He clutched Hosuseri tight, shielding him from the weight, even as his chest burned, undershirt on fire. The smoke blinded him, the cabin crushing the air out of his lungs. Suddenly, it was gone, and he scrambled, his back seizing and he collapsed again. Hands gripped his arms, dragging him.
“Hosuseri,” he pleaded, looking up at the dim outlines of his soldiers, weakly craning his neck to see the burning cabin behind him. “Somebody save my son!”
A thick bolt flies past and I duck back behind the corner, checking my body. That was too close.
“Maybe we could talk!” I peek out from behind the corner, looking through the slits in my mask. I’m greeted by a row of archers. One of them grins, the cheeky bastard. He probably thinks this is funny. I dive back around the corner, nearly avoiding being turned into a pincushion by a hail of arrows. A chuckle of laughter echoes off the walls while I take deep breaths. Yeah, he definitely thinks it’s funny.
Leaning against the wall, I let out a long breath, wrinkling my nose as the air bounces back in my mask. Note to self: no curry before missions. My eyes flick to the right, noting the corpses and marks on the walls; it’s been a long night. Is that idiot archer still laughing?
“Hey,” I call out, sliding closer to the corner, gripping the handles of my kusarigama harder. The curved blades gleam in the light as the weighted chains scrape on the polished wooden floors. I wonder who their floor guy was? Naiomi could use a floor guy, but she’d kill me just for saying that. “What’s so funny?”
An arrow flies past, clacking against the wall in front of me. Prick. “No, seriously, I want to know!” I let smooth wooden handles slide through my palm. Gripping the weighted end of the chain in my hand, the small curved blade rests on the floor, swinging gently like a pendulum.
“The funny thing?” His voice is a little high pitched for private security, even by the standards in Malor. And boy, do we have some low standards.
“Yeah,” I sidle closer, blade scraping against the floor. Keep talking. That’s right.
“We grew up hearing scary stories about Inari’s agents, the Kitsune; and now that we’ve met one…well,” I can hear the other guards lick their lips, a few chortles passing between them. The air tastes metallic, and every breath through my nose brings in the stink of sweat soaked leather. And a little bit of urine. But that’s just Malor. Gods, I hope Naiomi has the shower fixed. “I honestly don’t know what all the fuss was about.” Arrogant little son of a bitch, ain’t he?
“Well you see,” I slide closer. “The thing is,” My foot edges around the corner. No bows creaking, no rustling of swords and armor. Good. “I’m not—”
I dive out and sling my blade out in an arc, but the hallway proves too narrow. My weapon clangs uselessly against the metal wall.
“Shit,” Fortunately the loud sound echoes, causing all the guards to jump. Yep, those low hiring standards in action. With a quick movement, the weighted chain slams into the other guards. That one moment is all I need.
I scramble to my feet, sliding forward. I collide with one of the guards, gutting him with the curved point of my blade. With so much blood on my boots, it’s difficult to keep traction. Ruined boots: just another part of the job.
I step hard on one of the fallen guard’s faces, slicing one of the archers across the throat. I pivot, covering my enemies in a whirlwind of deep gashes and cuts. There. That should do it.
Arms wrap around my torso from behind, pinning my arms. I roll my eyes behind my mask. Amateur. I kick my legs out behind me, smiling at the pained groan. Poor you. I twist, breaking the guard’s grip, and land in a low crouch. Before the unlucky bastard can react, I’ve scrambled atop him and slit his throat. The low creak of a bowstring being drawn behind me sounds out, forcing me to pause. That same high pitched voice from before mutters curses behind me. Gods, it makes me want to drive my own blade through my skull.
I slowly stand, weapons held beside my head. Deep breaths now, in and out. Don’t kill the twerp. Yet.
“Easy there now,” The thing about a mask, it doesn’t allow great peripheral vision. “Let’s not do anything you’ll regret.”
I notice the shadow of the archer behind me on my left. Boy, am I glad I wore my red vest today. Well, one of them. I hate washing out blood. I move my right foot a little and the archer’s breath hitches.
“Don’t!” His voice is shaking. How old is he? Twenty? “Don’t. Move.”
“Or what?” I shift my weight a little more to the right.
“I’ll shoot!” Likely story. And I eat rat-free meat pies.
The blade of my kusarigama slings back while I drop into a crouch. When I hear the snap of my blade cutting through the bowstring, I send the weighted chain of my other weapon flying through the air. The chain wraps around his throat, and I hear a satisfying crunch when I snap the chain, breaking his neck. I look from the young guard up to the wooden door in front of me and take a moment to rest.
Sabotage guard barracks for a distraction? Check. Infiltrate secure compound? Check. Kill all the guards? Check-a-roony. Now to break into the locked vault just past this wooden door, and in four short hours, get paid. The things I do for money!
The door opens silently, my breathing erratic. Man, I really gotta stay away from curry next time. From the echo of my breath I can tell the room isn’t huge, but it’s not a small box either. I stay crouched low to the ground, moving closer to the wall. Note to self: next time bring matches. I hear a soft click underneath me and immediately leap back, rolling through the door I came from. For a moment, all is silent. I slowly open my eyes, uncurling from the ball I had been huddled in. Gonna be honest, not the loud explosion I was expecting. Suddenly, the room floods with light, momentarily blinding me. When my vision clears, I backpedal through the door and slam it shut, breathing heavily, swearing softly. Maybe there’s another way in.
A large, spiked-metal ball crashes through the wood next to my head and I flinch away, whirling around. The ball slowly retreats, the sound of rustling chains and soft cranking causing sweat to drip down my temples. Soft, metallic, grumbles steadily mount in volume, coming from the hole in the wall. Time to leave.
A huge metal monstrosity crashes through the door, taking out chunks of the wall with its hulking frame. Shit! I bolt down the hallway away from the beast, pumping my legs for all they’re worth. For a moment, I think I might survive this. Then my foot slips.
I skid on the pool of blood left by the young guard, cursing that damn archer all the way through the slip ‘n slide. I roll as one of the metal spike balls shoots out, splintering the floor where I had been just a moment ago. I don’t want to be part of the next mystery meat soup, thank you very much. I flip onto my feet, blinking sweat out of my eyes.
The thing lumbers forward, hissing with steam exhaust. At least it’s slow. It looks to be a security golem, and a high end model too. Unfortunately for me, some serious Fae magic went into this thing. I should seriously reevaluate my life choices.
Equipped with launchable and retractable flails for hands, durable metal plating, and a desire to kill whatever comes near, it has its sights set on me. Fantastic.
I jump to the right as one of its hands shoots toward me, rolling to avoid the second attack. I come out of my roll close to the golem, slicing at one of the gaps in its armor plating. The blade of my weapon snaps with an earsplitting shriek. The golem looks down at me with blank eye sockets and I flash it a smile.
“I don’t suppose you would consider letting me go?” A large metal foot crashes into my chest as an answer, sending me flying through the hallway. Damn Baerus and his cheap ass weapon forge. Why can’t he ever make a durable weapon? If I live, I’m going to have serious words with that hairy little beast.
My body slams into the metal wall on the opposite end of the hallway with a resounding crack. I can practically feel my vertebrae trying to shoot out of my back. Alright, that one hurt. But so did the one before that. And, well…all of them. With a groan, I make my way to my feet, leaning on one of the walls for support.
“Is that—” I cough and lift my mask slightly, spitting blood onto the floor. “The best you have?” I bend my knees a few times, lowering my mask. The golem doesn’t give me a break, shooting one of its giant flails in my direction. I barely dodge the metal ball, feeling one of its spikes graze my side. The golem is already launching its second flail hand when I roll, denting the wall behind me. Without pause, it’s first hand locks into place. Oh come on!
The deadly ball rockets in my direction while I race forward, sliding on my knees underneath it. I sling my kusarigama’s chain around the golem’s hand in less than a blink. I may not be able to hurt this thing, but it can hurt itself!
I yank on the careening flail with all my fading strength while I stand. For that one second, I strain, trying with all my might to pull the flail towards the golem. The cords in my neck press out against my skin, the veins in my arms nearly burst with the pressure. The flail finally submits and I dive back down as it sails through the air over me. I look up from the dusty ground in time to see the golem’s head crushed in a torrent of metal-on-metal action, annihilated by its own hand. Ha! Right in its stupid. Metal. Face.
“Timber!” While I pick myself off the floor, the golem falls back through the hole it created, and the metal vault door gleams behind it. Take out giant security golem? Check. I take a moment to catch my breath, rubbing my bruised ribs gingerly, comforted by the sound of my breath slowing down, and the sound of rapid beeping. No, wait. Rapid beeping isn’t part of my normal bodily functions. Red light blinks up at me from the security golem and I sigh.
“You can’t just make this easy on me, can you?” The light blinks faster in response. “Ah hell.” I race down the hallway, diving around a corner as a blast of heat and shrapnel flies past me. The wave of pressure sends me flying down the corridor, singeing the hair on my neck. I land with a very unpleasant squishing feeling amongst the cooling corpses. Slowly, I pick myself up, ears ringing, slipping on clammy flesh and oozing entrails. “No, don’t get up, I got this.” I push myself up, shuffling back down the hall with a limp. I’m going to be sore in the morning. My foot catches on a piece of shrapnel and I hiss through my teeth. Yeah, definitely sore tomorrow.
I kick my way through the metal remains of the golem, cursing every self-destruct feature ever made. My weapons have been completely vaporized in the blast, which is going to dip into my payment. I hate constantly buying new weapons. On the bright side, the blast ripped the vault door straight off.
My limping, aching body protests as I stumble through the smoking wreckage of the vault, clutching the steaming metal doorway. The vault holds only one thing. Fortunately for my bank account, it looks to be intact. I gingerly pick up a roll of paper, unfurling it and giving it a glance. It looks to be a map with one destination circled. That looks very important. For a moment, I consider my options. Do I take the map for myself? Or return it to my employer? Option three it is! I quickly rip the map in half and stuff the circled section into my pocket. My employer wanted a map, he’ll get one. Or, well, half. It’s better than nothing, right?
I stumble out of the vault, running a hand through my hair. I really hope Naiomi got that shower fixed. Rounding the corner, I retrace my steps out of the complex. Get highly prized item of untold importance for wealthy employer? Check. Scam said employer for more money and possibly gain untold riches with the important half of the map? Double check. Some safes are meant to be cracked, some rules are meant to be broken, and really, some people are just meant to be conned. That’s life in Malor. Crime, piss, and mystery meat pies. That’s home.