“Okay,” he replied. “Should we head back and get it?”
“Are you…” she stopped as the head rush cleared all opposition in her head, survival instinct telling her that the answer would come in an unsavoury flavour. They needed to get away from here. Winning or losing weren’t options and would clearly result in either humiliations or a criminal record. “We need to get out of here.”
“We could probably escape down that way,” he said, indicating the street that led to a main road filled with occupants. “Are you okay to run?”
Three of the mature people, having politely taken to circling like vultures while the two discussed their options, headed to block the direction just suggested with their bodies. Sagara paused a moment, a second’s distraction as he jolted his legs one direction and went the other, picking Natoko up by the hand and dashing off in the where there was only a nervous looking accountant who had believed earlier that this was the place best suited to avoid direct confrontation. Sprinting passed her, the ninja dived into the dark shadows of an adjacent alleyway, the pitch-black shadows coating him instantly.
Glancing up for a quick second Natoko caught the bright light of the moon shining in the sky between the buildings that were the closest thing the village had to an industrial district. She felt hidden in the darkness of the alley where the moon couldn’t touch. Hidden from guilt she somehow felt the strength to continue. If she stayed hidden in the dark, her grandfather wouldn’t get angry for what she had done. That was what she told herself in those few seconds.
“How much time again?” Sagara asked, kicking up mud for her to jump out of the way of.
“Twelve…” She stopped mid sentence, not wanting to answer such necessary questions at a time of unreasonable mob lynching, then feeling the urge to finish off anyway. “…minutes.”
“Right,” he called out after two turns and a mere forty meters of buildings, sliding in his tracks and making her jump to the side to avoid running into him. “Stop!”
“What?” she asked, wondering why he had decided this was the best place for them to get severely wounded. Looking up for a few seconds, he grabbed her with no warning and jumped up to the fire escape of the building they were by. It wasn’t reasonably high, but he was still only able to grab hold of the bottom rung of the stairway connected to the building.
Understanding, Natoko was able to quickly climb over him, onto the stairway before helping him up. Sagara stopped her as she went to continue climbing up the stairs, instead motioning for her to watch as the mob chasing them caught up to where they just were and just stop. Natoko’s heart froze, wondering if the ones below had discovered their location, her eyes gradually adjusting to the near pitch-black situation. Beneath them, there were four different routes, the way they had come from, the way that was presumably the way out, and two others, that ran parallel through the buildings on each side, both ways going into further darkness. Only six of the original group seemed to have shown up, and they seemed to decide that safety wasn’t important in numbers, splitting up into two groups of three and running down the two side alleys.
“What?” Natoko said, almost forgetting to mumble. “Why didn’t they go that way?”
“Simple,” Sagara replied, his voice louder like she liked it. “They can’t see anyone in that direction.” Pointing, it was quite clear if anyone were running down that particular ally, his or her silhouettes would be seen. As they both jumped back down, Natoko couldn’t help but be a little impressed.
“That was smart,” she said. “First you distracted them, then you waited until you found a stairwell that was in a place where there were multiple directions.”
“Actually, I was just waiting for a place where it was dark enough. I am a ninja you know. Darkness is cool.”
“Oh… I see,” Natoko grumbled slightly, embarrassed for them both. In the background, she could hear one of the groups running, almost stomping down the dirt-ridden alleyway. The industrial estate was mostly full of abandoned business that had never quite picked up and weeds grew here more than any potential new ventures.
What was wrong with these people? They already seemed highly frustrated, looking for any excuse to start an incident on the street, but now they seemed intent on doing nothing but start incidents, like they were on a witch hunt and she was the perfectly innocent maiden who had grown better potatoes that year. She didn’t even know any of them, certainly not enough to be personally accused.
“Unfortunately, because it is dark, it shows there’s a problem,” Sagara said, apparently not showing the same concerns as she was. He appeared to start thinking about something, looking up a few times at the bright moon while he did so.
“Come on,” Sagara said, jumping back down into the dirt of the alleyway and almost completely into darkness. Natoko found herself following him, subconsciously worrying about the state of her loose jeans. Landing, she found Sagara running in the direction of one of the darker areas of the alley.
“What? Where are you going?” she tried to scream, but found herself instinctively whispering. Thinking he might not have heard her, she ran off after him, catching up fairly quickly to ask him once more.
“Isn’t it obvious?” he said, sticking his arm out behind her and jumping up again. He ended up hanging off another stairwell and waited for Natoko to climb up again, only this time she tried to jump back down.
“Let go of me,” she said struggling. She didn’t care what was down this alley, she didn’t care at all. They should be heading back. She had forgotten her sword and would be useless without it. There were always other trains and if they going to be assaulted by the village elderly and frying pans then perhaps they were safer in their own beds anyway. Trying to pull his arm away from her waist to make him drop her, he responded by tightening his grip around her, with both his legs and remaining arm.
“Climb up now or we’re dead.”
The tone grabbed her like an order barked from a commanding officer. He looking down at her with those green eyes that were apparently special and she found herself glad to have something to obey, beginning to climb up and flipping back onto the stairwell where he immediately followed.
“Look,” he said, pointing about twenty meters ahead of him to the black shadows that covered the garbage alleyway. Leaning over the rail, Natoko glared forward to see what was ahead of them. Just through the fog of stench, she saw two of the elderly persons that had been chasing them, staggering back slowly as a giant, silhouette of a creature snarling loudly in front of them, the mere reverberation of its roar being enough to fell them.
Natoko swallowed hard as she looked on, seeing them now helpless as another figure became clear to her in the darkness. A strange odd looking fellow of a man in a fine tweed suit stepped closely behind the monster, far too close to be considered ignorant of the creature and far too calm to be anything but its accomplice.
The man looked like he was dressed for dinner, wearing a fine, almost polished suit that was only contrasted by his forehead, currently missing and having his brain bleed out all over his fine mustache and onto the floor, culminating into a pool under his long black cane. The gentlemen seemed blissfully ignorant of this as he stood stock still, and his face looked to be focused upon the two intruders’ to his domain, his wraith like companion also showing an interest.
“It’s…it’s a demon” Natoko stuttered, her fingers tightening around the guardrail.
“Yep. Demon. You’re right,” Sagara confirmed. It was impossible to tell if he was being sarcastic or not. “You ready? If you’re going to be my servant retainer person, you’ll need to see if you’re up to fighting demons.”
“But…but,” Natoko began stuttering as she watched the monstrosity hovering above the gentleman.
“Or at least that’s what I’m told.”
She couldn’t help but be a little scared. The last time she was near a demon, it was inside of her. She had never actually had to face one before. And the previous demon was nothing like this either. And she didn’t have her sword? And how was she supposed to fight them anyway? The creature hovering above the finely dressed demon looked like it would treat her as fodder, brushing her aside like a stereotype thug in a cheap period drama. The man that it was with seemed even worse. Despite his brain hanging out of its container, it felt like it was the leader of the duo. Wasn’t it that type that was usually more powerful, taking out even the main character in one shot? Sagara looked to her in the dark, didn’t show if he noticed her discomfort or not, and just smiled.
“Come on then,” he said. “A warm up to the tournament.”
“This seems a lot more intense than a tournament,” Natoko argued, finding herself irritated at Sagara’s joking attitude.
“Then, if you pass this, the tournament should be a breeze,” he said simply, getting a weak grin out of her that felt forced even by her standards
“Anyway listen,” he continued. “This thing is a Dark Scourge, it’s a demon like you said. But the waiter is the real threat here.”
“And what’s the demon?”
Sagara paused. “He is the Dark Scourge.”
“Oh,” she replied, getting mixed up already. “And the wraith?”
“They’re both the Dark Scourge. They’re both the same thing really. His shadow is just an illusion. Ignore it all the time.”
“What?” she said, looking back towards the monster with a mouth the size of her. “Are you sure?” He responded with a nod, not convincing her one bit. The shadow looked to be the stronger of the two, or at least the powerful, brutish flunky. Despite being a shadow, it was clearly not projected against anything, and seemed to exist in mid air. Their conversation was interrupted by one of the demon’s current victims.
“Back off, you stupid bastard!” the woman screamed, hand poised and ready to slap as the demon edged closer, its grotesque features looking more amused than anything else. The man besides her stood patiently, a kitchen knife held casually in his hand.
“You have to knock the waiter out with wood, okay?” Sagara said, ignoring the woman’s plight. He didn’t wait for a response. Dropping down into the fray, the ninja ran towards the apparent illusion and with adrenaline still soaking through Natoko’s veins she fell a few seconds behind, running before she had touched the bottom, and grabbing a plank wedged in a garbage pile. It wasn’t her Iziz, but she could use it like a bokuto wooden sword at least. She paced herself behind Sagara, hoping that he knew what he was doing.
Noticing him, the larger demon roared at Sagara, the bellow sounding more like a wheeze as the shadow darted towards him, its body flowing like a velvet curtain. Instead of running away, he ran towards it. If he was right, Natoko figured that he would run right through it and be able to charge at the demon himself. Launching itself the boy, he stared it directly in the face getting ready to-
“Whoa,” he called out, jumping out of the way. Natoko growled at the boy, cursing his stupidity as to not believe his own eyes. She watched the snake like shadow plunge in the direction where her lord once was, falling into the ground, sliding through it like water through cracks, as Sagara rolled to the side and out of harm’s way for a few brief seconds.
Deciding he can fend for himself, she looked over to where the bald man was currently shivering and ran at him. That then gave her a thought, her rationality overriding the current flow of her emotions. If this were a demon, then technically her ‘sword’ would be useless against. It might have been effective against a human who only had bone to protect them from the wood, but against a demon? What good would slamming a stick on its head do?
“You,” she said toward the old man, holding the wooden stick at him as if his life depended on it. “Give me your knife.” Turning his attention away from the fight, the man chose to spit at her instead, muttering as she swiftly dodged it and snatched the blade from his hand. She had no time to be polite now. Turning to face the leader demon, she saw it just standing there, observing the battle between Sagara and its shadow.
From where she was standing, the Dark Scourge did just look like a servant of sorts, propping itself on the ground as it waited for an order. This thought faded as she saw it start to move, now grinning lewdly as Sagara slipped, rushing onto a trashcan and propelling himself away from the creature with fantastic speed. With complete disregard for the creature following him, he got up again and ran towards the demon waiter like it was the only creature there. Seconds later though, the shadow was upon him again and he was once again forced to bolt back into the darkness to avoid its snare.
The gentlemen stopped, Natoko had noticed. Just for a second, the moment when Sagara was rushing at it, but it was a clear pause, a blind man’s bluff, now waiting for the next moment it had to strike. Sagara was right to an extent. This was the one looking to attack. This was the one that should be focused upon.
With all the noise Sagara was making, the creature wasn’t hearing her sneak up upon it. With the man’s knife in her hand, something that under normal circumstances she would have been scared to have known the old fool had, she stood right behind it, a slight adulation in her stomach that she could be this close to someone without them noticing, before grabbing its neck and slicing the fine blade across it, surprising herself as a torrent of blood ejaculated from the creature.
Howling in agony, the demon growled ferociously at the samurai, its screams cursing with spit and bile as the head turned without the help of the neck, forcing her step back with a gasp, the knife dropping from her fingers as the creature’s upturned eyes injected fear into her heart. She trembled. Here in front of her was a true monster, its body contorted to a pattern that no human could take, its eyes drinking in her body but empty forever. If Yamanaka Natoko had any doubt that demons existed left, they were removed in that instance.
She stepped back a meter or so, to see the demon’s shadow jump up from behind its partner, snarling as they both looked her in the eyes. She futilely tried to stare at both and found herself shivering as the two others had, petrified as they were, the creature licking its lips. Her resolve gone like it was never there, the creature dived down upon her. She closed her eyes.
In a way, she found it a real shame that nothing happened. Feeling her anticipation leave her, she opened her eyes, only to find Sagara standing there in front of her, moonlight bathing the alley, standing next to someone who had an old rag over their head.
“I told you to use the wood,” Sagara pointed out like he wasn’t sure whether or not he need to explain what wood was. “This would have worked a lot quicker if you had.”
“Wha- what’s going on?” Natoko asked, confused as to how everything had calmed down, to the point where Sagara was now stretching casually. He seemed a lot brighter than usual as he walked up to the elderly man.
“Can I borrow your knife?” he asked politely, not waiting for an answer, turning around to pick it up. The demon was gone. Both of them actually. Now she could see the entire alley without problems, litter gathering by every wall, seeing the elderly people standing around like nothing had happened. The strangest thing she could see though was the rag hovering in front of her. It was incredibly dirty and Natoko could smell it from where she was standing, a mixture of sewage works and ten year old mold. Gasping, her brain made the connection, realising what the rag was covering.
“The demon is under there?” she asked, astonished by the absurdity of the situation.
“Yup. Mom says Dark Scourge are kind of like horses. If he can’t see, he’ll just stop moving.”
“But, what about the other demon?” asked Natoko inquisitively, looking around. The shadow creature was now gone, as if someone had flicked a light in the room.
“Like I said, there was no other demon,” Sagara said simply.
“But earlier you said there was,” Natoko complained. She rolled this over her tongue again. “But you also said there wasn’t…”
“Yeah, I did both,” Sagara stood there like there was nothing more to say. Natoko evaded subtlety and went straight for the bluntness.
“Could you please explain?”
“Sure, though I still need to finish this guy off,” he said, reaching under the old piece of carpet as he felt around for something. “Dark Scourges are creatures of shadow that serve the False Balance. Like all demons, they have to possess someone or something in order to exist on this side of the InBetween Realm, but once they do, they can make a few changes to the item they’ve possessed. In this case, they allow their true form to exist in the item’s shadow. But with the shadow hidden under the cloth, it can’t wander about. Then the horse thing also applies.”
Natoko failed to understand any of this, like he had tried to teach her complex maths by standing on his head and rotating backwards. He continued. “This creature had some weird beliefs according to what I’ve been told. One of the main ones is that light and dark should be balanced. Whenever it is light, there should be no darkness, whenever it is dark, there should be no light. These guys try to help ensure that, by spreading the darkness around. Wherever these guys are, there will be darkness, even when there’s not supposed to be. Now that he’s covered up, we can see better.”
“So that’s why the alley was pitch black despite the moon,” Natoko mumbled, understanding at least that much.
“Exactly, but it’s a clear violation of the Balance. Not to mention he shouldn’t be on earth at all. These guys have a habit of coming here and making places that should be light, like this alley, dark during the full moon.”
“Well, what’s the problem with that?” the girl asked as the game of twenty questions continued.
“Well, there’s also the tendency to, while they’re here, rape and kill any males they come across.” He moved up behind the sleeping demon, the knife rotating in his hands. “Although, even without that, it’s just simply not right. If demons exist on earth, humans lose their free will, so they have to go. Even this illusion is damaging.”
“So it was an illusion?” Natoko repeated, trying to keep off baffled and at least stay on slightly perplexed but slowly getting it. “But I heard it growl.”
“Well, I guess it’s a bit more complex than a basic illusion,” he continued. “It’s created to affect and trick four of the major senses. You can see, hear, smell and taste it in every way, so it appears real, but it’s fake. With my eyes, I can sense that it’s not real. It looks semi-transparent to me, but my other senses still got freaked out, hence why I thought it was real for that one moment.”
“So… how did you stop it?” Natoko asked, trying her best to ignore the fact that, even now, in a situation where it could escape at any moment and continue to attack them, Sagara was still tranquil and calm, as if he had a line of morphine constantly pumping into him.
“Because,” Sagara said, now fiddling underneath the old, smelly carpet like he was trying to find something, “of the exact same reason you can be tricked in the first place. You may be able to see it, hear it, smell it like there really is something there, even though there isn’t. But one thing you shouldn’t be able to do is taste the demon. You probably have a lingering effect even now on your tongue, kind of like vomit mixed in with raw sewage and a hint of strawberry?”
“Erm, now that you mention it.” Although she didn’t know what the recipe tasted like, she figured she got the free sample.
“However, the taste shouldn’t be there. Dark Scourges are too savage you see, so they’re not that smart, hence why right now it’s assuming that it’s asleep because it can’t see. It can normally see in pitch black perfectly, but since the rag’s preventing it, it assumes it’s gone to sleep. The same applies with the illusion. Dark Scourges can taste things from a distance away, so it assumes that humans can as well, so it adds that to the illusion. Since we can’t taste things from a distance, you can make yourself snap out of the illusion if you make your body realise this. Understand?”
“I guess, but all so they can rape someone?” said Natoko, still on the last page. “And why males?”
“Well that’s the easiest bit to answer,” he said, turning the demon around. “It’s because they’re evil. “As with all demons, they generally exists to cause bad things to happen. Its reasons don’t apply to our logic. It’s why we have all these folklore and myths and legends and religions that have been made up along the way to warn us that these things are generally not nice things that we, as good citizens of earth, should try to avoid them and not raise from the depths of hell using small cute sheep. Understood?”
“Um, I guess,” replied Natoko, annoyed not so much at what felt like a condescending tone, but more the jumps in logic that he was expecting her to make with him. She carried on watching him tear a small hole in the dirty old carpet currently covering the fearsome ‘Dark Scourge,’ ripping it up to reveal the back of the demon’s rather expensive suit. Without a care for such well-tailored goods, Sagara began to rudely stab the Scourge in the back where the hole was made, black bile first trickling and then spraying out through the gap, Natoko and the two elderly persons watching the amateur surgery session with morbid fascination, slowly becoming aware of a tune that Sagara was whistling rather badly.
“Breaking a possession of the kotodama on humans is a little harder than it is items. If you don’t have special methods like I did with you, though I suppose you were also still alive, then you have to destroy most of the organs.” Judging the hole he had made, Sagara bent down a little further before jamming the knife straight through the creature’s belly, his hand twisting and traveling through the corpse, apparently traveling upwards, keeping a firm grip on the top of the rag to prevent it from falling off.
She felt like saying something. It felt almost cruel to kill it off like this, despite its murderous intentions earlier. Was this what a demon hunting ninja was? It felt like it would be more childish, more heroic. Standing up and stepping well back, Sagara watched, as the demon, still underneath the carpet, began to convulse within the cotton confines, falling to the floor and rolling in a circle, gurgling and sizzling as its flesh began to burn off from the inside. A simple moment later, there was just the rag and the smell of sewage.
The place felt empty now, like a party where everyone had left at the same time and yet. The old people in the alleyway with them still weren’t saying anything. Nor did they look as shocked as she probably did.
“Though why was it here? It didn’t look a wild type.” Sagara paced round the alleyway for a few moments, looking at doors and dustbins. “So it would have had a reason for being here, and therefore-”
Resting for a moment and ignoring Sagara’s jabbering. Part of her wanted to display more interest. Who knows what small subtleties may be used in tracking demons, but another part was more concerned that Sagara was on the verge of routing through trashcans that probably had very little to do with a creature with a freshly pressed tweed jacket.
“How far away is it to the city again?” Sagara asked out of the blue.
“Argh,” Natoko called out, reality piercing her with its incessant timekeeping. “The train. I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed it. Though if we still hurry we could perhaps-”
“Uh huh, how many miles?” he asked again before she could finish the first answer.
“About ten, I think, maybe between fifteen.” She had no idea. Trains were for sleeping or playing cards, nor calculating distances. There was no middle ground.
“And it’s in that direction right?” Sagara pointed towards a solid brick wall with only one door and Natoko nodded hesitantly. If he intended to sprint, the first three seconds should at least prove amusing.
“This way!” a voice snapped down the alleyway. “We’ve found them!”
Natoko darted back to standing up. She almost said ‘oh no, more old people,’ but was stopped as Sagara started banging around behind her. She only got time to notice around eight or so mobster old people were slowly crowding around them, screaming and shouting as loud as they could, before it became clear that Sagara was kicking the back door of someone’s apartment in. She went to protest, but the glints of metal that bounced off moonlight from the approaching darkness told her he might have the right idea.
Rushing to help, the door swung open as Sagara tried the handle for the first time, and the two dove in with hopes they weren’t seen. On the other side of the mahogany oak was a long passageway, with cream tiles littering a pattern on the floor and white walls in need of repainting. Seeing the door at the opposite end of the corridor, Natoko let her legs follow as Sagara took off, the door slamming shut behind her.
“Should we have stayed?” Natoko gasped before sprints. “Maybe we could have done something.”
“Mom always told me not to kill humans unless I really want to.”
“I didn’t-” Natoko short circuited a little. “I meant try to explain our situation. Running makes us look more guilty.”
“True. But still less likely to be stabbed.”
“I really wish I could argue with that.”
They reached the door, Sagara pulling it open and zipping round like he was grinding the floor, running backwards to hold it open long enough for her to come through. Expecting fresh air, Natoko paused a second as she came into another corridor, her dash continuing as Sagara shot past her.
Almost galloping, she looked behind her, the crowd was definitely not following them. She turned round to run again, this time a little less, extreme sprinting not being her forte as much as it was apparently Sagara’s, so it took her a little longer to reach the front door to the building.
And then even longer.
Reaching the next door, Sagara zipped round again, his stamina inexhaustible as the three second slow down to get through the frame caused Natoko to desire rest. She could continue, but a three hundred meter sprint wasn’t her thing and-
With a sudden jolt Natoko’s brain went into emergency stop procedures, as the instructor to her left side called out to stop, and she slammed down on her legs on the empty path for no reason.
There was certainly no need to stop.
Sagara was certainly still running down the corridor.
She looked behind her.
About fifty meters of corridor? She was no good at actual measurements, just random guesses that felt right, but even so, it was still pretty long.
She looked ahead of her.
The next corridor was about the same length.
“How long is this building?” she muttered as Sagara barely noticed her flight had stopped. Had they broke into the local hospital? No, the village didn’t have anything like that. The industrial complex was tiny when it came to it, one block being at most the length one of these corridors.
But even in a hospital, no one corridor should go on this long.
“Just keep running,” Sagara insisted. “Oh, and keep your eyes closed. You’re not really allowed to see this place.”
“What?” Despite the waves of deep pressure building inside her, telling her something was wrong, something was out of place, she continued unabated down the next length of corridor, desperately trying hard not to look to surprised as another long stretch of corridor was revealed, then another and another. Natoko swallowed hard as she began hoping if Sagara knew where he was going and what he was doing. She barely had time to think as her brain focused on keeping up with him. A retainer should stay with their master at all times, she thought, even if that meant traveling in a straight line through an impossibly long corridor. Now that she thought, she couldn’t see any other doors save the ones they were going through.
Sagara slowed down a bit for her.
Five corridors later, and a door popped out on the side of the final corridor. Sagara came to a slow stop, his breath only minimally ragged at the long distance run. She’d really have to take up running if she was going to follow this guy. Running this much was never necessary before her life was invaded by harsher realities than Iaido practice and Nazi music teachers.
“Geez… thought it never… ended,” she wheezed, Sagara opening the side door.
“Doesn’t,” he said simply, turning through, revealing another long walkway.
“Ah dammit!” she slipped, her legs trying to push her forwards. With one last look to the side, she saw that the other corridor still hadn’t ended either and she began mentally cursing whatever this fate was that had happened to be picked out of the lucky dip this week.
Two corridors later and another turn Sagara seemed to finally stop for good. The air was different here, she thought to herself, realising it could just be her body trying to shut down.
Sagara turned to another door, swinging it open to provide Natoko with even more confusion.