Author: Half-Breed PM
Mysterious girls seem to be a dime a dozen these days. Kuphir finds an injured blonde and takes refuge from the demonic pursuers chasing his group within the hollowed out mountain the blonde and her family call home, but are they truly any safer inside?Rated: Fiction T - English - Chapters: 11 - Words: 79,628 - Reviews: 17 - Favs: 2 - Follows: 4 - Updated: 06-07-10 - Published: 08-15-06 - id: 2231161
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Author's Note: Sprung from the depths of my bored imagination and spiced with stuff I tweaked from other sources, this is my story. Don't like, don't read. Do like, do review! A simple concept, huh? Most of this story will be 16 and older 'T' rated, but every now and then it will go higher. I'll warn beforehand in the author's note.
Copyright: There are too many to list by now. Safe to say though, if it is in this story, it belongs to me. So, no touching.
Appearance Of A Mechanic
-- -- -- -- --
The night was quiet.
The sound of grass beneath her boots was a whisper at best, but to the girl it was louder than her own pounding heart. Adrenaline did that to a person.
The light stick in her hand was steady. The beam showed her a tree trunk, a bush, a fallen log, a stream, a badger's hole. Nothing dangerous. Nothing that could have torn apart the better part of a whole village in one night. Nothing that looked like a wolf out of a nightmare, like what the survivors had described.
Honestly, the girl wasn't sure if she was really disappointed to have not found anything. She had come prepared, but the thought of fighting one of those things – or more than one – after the sun had gone down did not fill her with the warm fuzzies. She had seen the remains of the villagers who had fallen to those beasts and had helped bury what was left. They had not died peacefully, though the amount of damage on their bodies said it could not have been slowly.
Again, she was not sure if that was a good thing.
But for the third night, whether or not it was a good thing, it seemed she was not going to encounter anything. The only sounds she could hear were the noises she herself created. Something was indeed frightening all the wildlife away from the area, but whatever it was had chosen to hide itself from her once again. Or perhaps she had simply not stumbled across it.
Sighing, the girl turned around and began walking back to her engine-bicycle. The hunt would resume another night.
"Bring Mikkel with me next time," the girl muttered. "He always finds what he's looking for."
There was a soft movement to her left.
The girl froze.
More movement, louder, to her right.
The light stick came up, scanning the bushes that surrounded her. It showed green leaves, tangled branches and flattened grass; there was nothing moving.
Low growling, heavy and wet, came from behind her.
She ducked just in time to see something massive, furry and fast fly over her head. It would have crashed right into her back had she been standing up. The creature landed heavily in front of her, the weak light that escaped from the light stick's tunnel giving her the impression of an overgrown farm dog, and then it bounded away back into the bushes.
The light stick was tossed into her left hand and her right went down to the belt that hung around her hips. She pulled a metal weapon from a holster and aimed it with the light stick's shine.
The bushes in front of her rattled noisily, a complete opposite to the stillness that she had been walking through ten seconds earlier. Whatever the beast was, it was snarling loudly now.
"Come on, you bitch," the girl hissed.
In response to her voice, the thing burst out from the bushes to her right. As she turned, the girl saw glowing eyes and flashing teeth. Everything else became unimportant as she lined her shot up with those two things that had become the center of her vision.
The light covered the beast as she turned, her light stick showing four legs, shaggy gray fur and a broad chest. Then it was jumping at her and she pulled the trigger.
There was an ear-ringing explosion. The powder packed cartridge in the firearm went off, sending a ball of metal flying through the air to hit the beast in the head. There was a small fountain of gore when blackish blood and shattered bone flew through the air alongside the corpse. The girl smoothly sidestepped and the body sailed past her, crashing heavily into the grass. Blood from the wound splattered over her face and shoulders.
The night was quiet again.
It was only then the girl realized that she was shaking.
"Shit," she whispered.
The fangs flashed in her mind again.
"Shit," she repeated, more violently.
The girl sheathed her weapon and kept the light stick trained on the corpse. It was some kind of dog. It did not look like any kind she had ever seen, but it was a dog. Thick fur, broad chest, a curled tail and short legs, but there was something subtly off about it. It smelled like a five day old piece of raw meat and something more than the odor was making her hair rise up. She felt a niggling urge to scrub herself clean simply by being around it.
'Diseased?' the girl wondered.
She knelt down next to it and prodded its head. The fangs were still shining wetly, its lips pulled back even in death. Something dark was coating the beast's muzzle. It was long since dried, but when she picked some off of the fur the girl recognized it as blood. The muzzle fit the shape of the bite marks she had seen on the villagers' bodies and it certainly looked strong enough to kill a man.
"So, were you eating people or a helpless deer? Then again, you went after me and I've never had a wolf or dogs do that," the girl muttered, thinking aloud.
There was a low, short growl behind her.
The girl swiftly stood up and turned around, her right had pulling the weapon from its holster again. The light stick shined in the nearby bushes and something's eyes glowed fiercely green in the light.
Her mind kicked into overdrive and the girl fired a shot into the eyes hiding in the bushes just as something crashed into her from the left and knocked her to the ground, stealing all the air from her chest. The light stick fell out of her hand, but she kept a hard grip on her firearm. She tossed her head to the left just as its fangs came together with a loud clack where her face had been. Her left hand came up and she sank her fingers into its fur, pulling as hard as she could as her right hand came up. The dog-thing snarled and its head came down, aiming for her face again. It blocked out the moonlight and all she could see were white teeth and a dark, wet, ravenous tunnel behind them.
Her right index finger curled painfully tight.
The brief, brilliant illumination from her shot let her see the nose, the eyes, the whole face of the dog before it fell off her, squealing. She sucked in air and rolled away, coming up in a crouch as the writhing dog creature tried to get to its feet. She fired; once, twice, three times at point-blank range. It still tore chunks out of the forest floor, still screamed raggedly into the night.
"Just die!" The girl screamed and fired into its head.
It stopped moving.
Panting and half-blind from the flare of her ammunition, the girl snatched up her light stick and started running toward her engine-bicycle, all caution and stealth forgotten as howls began rising from the trees around her to fill the night.
--- --- --- --- ---
"So, how many more days until we get there?"
"Sariyah, what was my last answer to that that question?"
"Um… about a week?"
"How long ago did you ask it?"
"A while back."
"How long, specifically?"
"Um… twenty minutes, maybe? I dunno."
"So, what do you think my answer will be this time?"
"…About a week."
"There you are."
Tensions in the one wagon caravan had not dissipated in the two days since the stories were told. Kuphir was now keeping Sariyah and Torako apart from each other by having them ride the wagon in shifts. Torako was currently outside the wagon, stepping alongside Nikko Sr.'s two bodyguards, Hoshimaru and Taiyoumaru. It was another two hours before she could switch with Sariyah and get a ride.
Nikko Jr. – Tsukimaru, as he preferred to be called – was doing his father's account records from the top of one of the strapped down barrels. Toriko was curled up in a corner and napping. Her head was using the Tome, still in its bag, as a pillow.
Sariyah wasn't too sure what the big deal about the Tome was. He'd gotten a glimpse of it once when everyone else had been busy with dinner and it just looked like an oversized book to him. However, Kuphir had insisted upon Sariyah never drawing any attention to Toriko's bag or what it held. Thus far, neither the merchants nor their bodyguards knew what they were carrying. Sariyah didn't really see the problem with that, because he didn't know either. Kuphir had started to say something about Ikoi and the final words she spoke before shutting herself within paradise and then stopped, telling Sariyah that it wasn't something he had to worry about.
"Just make sure that Dainichi-san and the Tome both stay safe, all right Sari?"
'Big Brother, I wish you wouldn't make me do this stuff,' Sariyah thought. Toriko wasn't as bad as her bitch of a sister, true, but she was still a girl.
Rolling onto his back, Sariyah stared up at the canvas ceiling and watched the shadows of tree branches that passed overhead.
It should have felt better, he thought. They'd found one of the swords that Kuphir was looking so hard for! The ones he'd been looking for even before he'd found Sariyah. The feral child knew how much those blades meant to his older brother. Finding one of them should have left Kuphir smiling for months. Instead, he was even more tense and worried than usual. It was, Sariyah knew, because of those girls and that stupid Tome.
Sariyah wasn't too clear on why that creepy guy – Kuphir had said the man's name was Joy – was so hot on getting his hands on the Tome. After losing consciousness during the double-team attempt he had made with Torako at killing the crazy bastard, Sariyah had woken up the next day to learn that Kuphir had saved him and the tiger priestess. That was totally embarrassing, but also kind of scary.
Chi was the life energy found in all living things. People who could draw it out of their bodies and use it as a tool, people like Sariyah and his brother or Toriko and Torako, had an edge over normal fighters. They could move faster, hit harder, take more damage and gain a sensory perception that was a dozen times better than what they were born with.
Sariyah, no matter how young he was, had a greater than average amount of chi within him. A much greater amount. Part of it was because of training with Kuphir, but most of it was simply something he had been born with. Losing a fight was not something Sariyah was familiar with and it left a bitter feeling in his mouth when the little boy remembered how easily Joy had fended him off. Sariyah had taken down whole groups of bandits by himself, but against Joy he had been nothing more than a larger than average annoyance.
And Joy was going to be after them.
Sariyah knew it because Kuphir knew it and if Kuphir thought it was important, he told Sariyah.
"He wants the Tome, Sariyah. Maybe not him personally, but whoever he works for. He will be back for it someday."
So Sariyah could live with not knowing what was so special about the Tome, because if Kuphir didn't worry about it, then Sariyah wouldn't.
What he couldn't live with – what made his tiny fists clench – was the thought of his brother having to come and save him again when that crazy swordsman finally caught up with them.
The runt of the litter, Sariyah knew, was usually the first to die.
He wouldn't let it be him.
--- --- --- --- ---
Torako huffed and jumped over a tree root that had the audacity to grow itself in her path.
Even the damned forest was out to get her.
A moment of reflection had her correcting that statement, but the feeling of burning resentment stayed behind.
It wasn't the forest she was mad at. It was everything else.
Her parents were dead and Torako found herself an orphan at the ripe old age of fifteen. Her father's duties had fallen to her and her mother's to her sis… to the new Keeper. Neither of them was doing a good job, but Torako could at least say that she was trying.
'Stupid weakling,' Torako thought. 'She decides I'm not a good enough Guardian and shacks up with the first strong arm who flashes her a smile. Well, he ain't foolin' me.'
Torako knew her place and knew her obligations, however much she may have disliked them. A priestess of Benitora had to have honor and the fact was that, to all appearances, she owed Kuphir. She owed Kuphir a lot, the sheer amount of debt making the hair on her neck stand on end when she really thought about it, which she tried to do as little as possible.
First she had tried to murder him in a blind rage, thinking him to be Joy, the one responsible for murdering her father and sacking her god's temple. He had spared her life instead of returning the violence upon her. Then he had fought against the bandits who had survived the sack of Benitora's shrine to raid Shiroitori's shrine, placing himself at risk for the sake of strangers. Then he had crossed swords with the man responsible, nearly killing him and avenging her father not once, but twice. The very next day, during the renewed assault with the demon dogs, he had returned yet again to fight on the behalf of Shiroitori's priests. He had saved her life again, saved her Keeper and gotten them all away safely from he did the chivalrous thing (oh, Benitora-dono, how she had wanted to knock his teeth out when he gave that proposal) and insisted on them traveling with him until they were safe again.
Absolutely none of which made her trust him one little bit.
It was too freaking convenient. A planned assault on two of the biggest temples in the eastern kingdom and he just happened to be there when the Keeper needed him? He just happened to be a phenomenal swordsman and chi user? He just happened to be kind and generous enough to place his life at continuous risk for the sake of two girls? He just happened to know who and what they were? He just happened to know about the Golden Tome?
He was getting something out of it. He already had gotten something out of it, she was sure. Her memories of their first encounter were a little hazy, but she definitely recalled him only carrying one sword. There had been a bunch of empty sheathes hanging off of his body, but only one sword. Then, the morning she woke up after the final attack, she had seen a sparkling blade driven into the ground of the meadow she had stormed out of. After she and Toriko had had their… argument and she woke up back in the same meadow, it was gone. She hadn't seen it since and persistent questioning of the Keeper had yielded only three things:
One, the blade had powers of some kind. Kuphir had used it during the night to hide them from Joy and his creatures, somehow shielding their auras from being felt.
Two, it had a name. Adamantine. It was a foreign word that felt clumsy on her tongue and she thought it came from the west, in the central deserts. Diamond or steel was what it meant. Something along those lines, at least.
Three, she was pretty damn sure he'd gotten it from her mother's temple. Toriko had said she'd seen the two boys before they had departed shortly before the second attack. At that time, Kuphir had had only had one sword on him. He'd had no bag, no donkey, no anything with him to carry another blade in. Yet, somehow, between returning to the temple and finding Toriko escaping at the end of the ordeal, he had acquired another sword.
And Toriko had told her something else, something very interesting.
"The Tome wasn't the only thing in the temple. There was something else that we were supposed to guard, something in the eastern wing. I thought about going after it, but there wasn't enough time. It was all the way in the eastern wing. I'm not even sure I could have gotten it out if I had made it there. I don't know what it is and I never saw it, but okasan said it was very dangerous."
There had been a miniature storm of evil energy erupting from the east wing of Shiroitori's temple, starting before she met Joy and ending just before she passed out.
Maybe it was a coincidence.
Maybe Kuphir was exactly who he claimed to be; a kind hearted, wandering sword collector and nothing else.
Maybe Torako secretly enjoyed embroidering and making daisy chains.
Toriko said "Trust him" and until Kuphir screwed up, Torako would have to do just that. Unless it unquestionably put Toriko in danger, the Keeper's word was law to the Guardian. So far, Kuphir had done nothing but try to keep them all safe.
Until he messed up, Torako would trust him only as far as she had to. But the second he did, her father's claws would be waiting.
Her father and brethren had painted the shrine red with the blood of their enemies, red like the fur of their god, but they had failed and Torako with them.
Her mother had purified her shrine and made it as white as snow, as white as Shiroitori himself, as pure as it was meant to be, but she had failed and Torako with her.
How many chances did one person get?
How many did Torako have left?
'Never again,' Torako thought. The words seemed to burn her mind.
'Even if my Keeper is an idiot, even if Joy is the most dangerous bastard alive, even if Kuphir is a traitor who holds our lives in his hands, even if means my death, I will not fail again.'
'Not ever again!'
--- --- --- --- ---
Kuphir soaked in the silence that was so rare in the current days and wondered how long it would last. Sariyah had seemed to finally grasp the concept of one week meaning one week and not a second earlier. The little boy was currently sprawled on his back and watching the shadows on the wagon ceiling pass by.
Kuphir was tempted to mimic him. As nice as it was to not have someone trying to kill him, it was getting very boring. He had sharpened Crescent until it could cut thread in water, mended all of the rips in all of his clothes, organized all the gear in Stub's bags and played I Spy until he'd been ready to leap out of the wagon and paint the landscape blue.
"Hey, Tsukimaru-san. I spy with my little eye something blue."
"Is it the sky?"
"No. IT'S A BUSH! HA HA HA HA HA!!!"
Really, the dress was the worst of it. If he could have simply taken it off and put his normal clothes back on, it would not have been so bad. As it was, he still had to deal with nine to eleven jokes from Torako alone each day. Nikko Sr. was forcing him to wear it simply out of spite, Kuphir knew. The worst part of it was that Kuphir agreed with the main driving point of the evil old bastard's – er, the wise old merchant's argument. If they were surprised at some point, Kuphir wouldn't have time to get back into the dress if he took it off. His only options would be to pray he remained unseen or kill every unfortunate individual who saw him. As the past month had proven that his luck was in the negative digits and Kuphir wasn't a fan of wholesale slaughter, the dress stayed on and Torako and Nikko Sr. kept snickering.
When they finally parted ways with the merchants, Kuphir was going to burn the damned thing. Truly.
Stifling a sigh, Kuphir took a glance at one of the wagon's other occupants. Toriko was still fast asleep. Her short black hair had fanned out over her cheek and the ends danced in time with her breath.
Neither she nor her sister had tried questioning him yet, but Kuphir knew it was only a matter of time. They were both still wary of him, though Torako was much more open about it. Toriko was infinitely more polite than her sister, but the stuttering, the shyness and the way she kept to herself as much as possible all told Kuphir that she was still uncomfortable around him. He couldn't really blame either of them. Even Sariyah, who had followed after Kuphir like a puppy once they had met, had taken a long time to trust the desert born teenager.
What could he say when they did start asking him the inevitable questions?
"What was that sword you used in the clearing?"
It was my sword.
"Where did it go?"
Into the sheath.
"Where did you learn to fight like that?"
From my teachers.
"Why are you helping us?"
I don't like seeing women scared.
"How do you know about the Golden Tome?"
Someone told me.
"Why should we trust you?"
"Because you have no other choice."
"Kuphir?" Tsukimaru called, snapping the teenager out of his revere.
The noticeable lack of an honorific made it very clear what Tsukimaru thought of him, but it was still preferable to 'hey, you.' Kuphir blinked at the merchant's son.
"Did you say something?"
"Er, no. Not at a - "
Kuphir stopped, the hair along his neck rising up.
A small, reeking bundle of chi to the northwest. Foul and warped. Tainted and malicious.
"Sariyah!" Kuphir yelled, but the boy was already bounding out of the wagon.
Toriko was awake, though whether from the noise or the auras Kuphir did not know. Her widening blue eyes sought him out in the growing confusion.
"Kuphi – "
"Stay with Tsukimaru-san," Kuphir barked and then hurled himself after Sariyah. Tsukimaru was shouting at him, demanding to know what was going on, but Kuphir ignored him. He had about twenty seconds to learn how to fight in a full length dress and any distraction was one too many.
Kuphir landed outside the confines of the wagon and saw Hoshimaru hustling Nikko Sr. down from his perch on the driver's box. The old man was a clear target up in the open like that. Torako had pulled her father's clawed gauntlets from the loose folds of her borrowed kimono and was snarling like a beast, her face turned towards the approaching evil chi. Sariyah was little better, half crouching in the dirt with his whole body tensed in a way Kuphir recognized as the precursor to a mad dash that could shatter bones with little effort.
Crescent was still hidden away in Stub's pack, but Kuphir was not unarmed. Flicking his hair up, he calmly removed the bracelet sized gold hoop that had been fastened to the cord holding his braid together. Anyone looking very closely would have noticed several dozen small ridges on the inside and outside of the ring, spanning its full circumference.
Kuphir's earlier prediction of having only twenty seconds to learn how to run in a skirt proved false, though not by very much. Exactly twenty-two seconds after leaving the wagon, with both Nikko family members and Toriko more or less safely ensconced in the wagon, a sprinting bundle of demon chi burst from the tree line and barreled towards the group, with more close behind it.
Kuphir struck. Torako, Sariyah and bodyguard doppelgangers charged towards the pack, but Kuphir hung back and swung his hair ornament towards the approaching danger. Or was it not an ornament at all? Perhaps Kuphir had simply tied it there to hide its true nature from anyone who sought him harm, leaving him with an ace in the hole. A hair ornament certainly could not split apart at it's base and change from one thick gold ring to dozens of thin, razor sharp hoops linked together at the edges; nor could it slice through the flesh of a demon hound as though through paper. Yet, that is precisely what happened.
Torako slashed and Sariyah crushed, and Hoshimaru with Taiyoumaru made a living dervish of their blades, but Kuphir cut and cut and cut; each stroke was impossibly perfect, mathematically precise and no matter what the angle of attack or the ally that stepped into the line of fire, still the razor edged chain found ways to curve through the air and split apart in new directions, striking the demons and only the demons over and over again.
He never moved more than two feet away from his starting point. A half step to the left, maybe a full step ahead, but no more. The chain almost seemed to be a living thing in his hand and he hardly had to move his body more than a little to give it the position it needed.
A demon charged him not long after the fight started, bypassing the front line altogether. Without changing expressions, Kuphir tilted his hand and jerked the chain back, then rotated his wrist and flicked his hand out yet again before the links had even halfway returned to him.
Somehow, impossibly, the chain split into two separate lengths.
Like a snake with two heads, it sought out and dispatched both targets. The demon that had leaped for Torako's shoulder had a ring buried into its skull and then yanked back out just as quickly, while at the exact same moment the second chain encircled the neck of the other demon and cleanly decapitated it.
Then another jerk of the wrist and the chain links snapped together at their heads, separated lower down the line and one solid chain was slicing through the air towards a demon that was approaching Sariyah's rear.
It was madness; the kind of insane skill that belonged only the bodyguards of kings or of legends.
Kuphir was neither and, as he helped Hoshimaru heave a particularly stubborn corpse off to the side of road, Torako decided that that just made him all the more unusual.
But really, what was one more thing on the list already made?
--- --- --- --- ---
"The reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek," Sariyah moaned. "Big Brother, the reeeeeeeeeeeeeeek…."
"Sariyah, shut up and help us move these dead bodies," Kuphir snapped.
His patience had run out for the day and Sariyah's ear grating whine was adding salt to the wound.
"This is child labor!" Sariyah snapped back. He was sitting in the wagon's shade and trying to rub the demon blood off of him using the dirt of the road. No one could tell if it was working, because every inch of him was now obscured under a curtain of filth. "There are laws against this and I will sue you, I don't care if you're my family, I don't wanna touch a dead demon dog – "
It was That Tone, the 'I am your older brother and, I swear to Ikoi, if you don't shut up and obey me, I will spank you in front of the Four Gods and everyone around us' tone, the no more nonsense tone and the tone that even Sariyah recognized as the line he should never cross if he wanted to live to be ten years old.
Sariyah shut up and grabbed a demon dog.
It truth, although everyone wanted to kick him whining, no one blamed him for what he was whining about. The beasts had smelled as refreshing as an open cesspit before they died and now that the demons possessing the bodies had been vanquished, the flesh of their hosts was decaying at an accelerated rate. Putting it mildly, the smell was bad.
Still, it had to be done. Even if the flesh dissolved, the bones would still be littering the road and blocking their way. So Sariyah held his breath, dragged his chosen corpse over to the roadside and tried not to gag when the skin sloughed off into his hands after ten feet traveled.
"Ew," Torako remarked.
Kuphir booted another demon corpse off of the road and relaxed when this one didn't explode all over him. The formerly spotless pink dress was covered in gore and dirt only five minutes after he had left the wagon. Kuphir thought it no less than the evil thing deserved.
Toriko was bandaging the one wound received during the skirmish. Taiyoumaru had fallen and skinned his knee rather badly, but thankfully nothing worse than an ointment and a piece of gauze could care for. The Shiroitori priestess all too well remembered the festering infections that erupted from the smallest scratch of a demon dog's teeth or claws.
They had nearly cleared away the last of the monsters when Sariyah stiffened like a wild animal and turned to face the direction the dogs had come from.
"Hey, Big Brother."
"Sariyah, I swear to Ikoi – "
"No, not the smell! I hear something, thatta way," Sariyah said, pointing into the trees.
Kuphir blinked and let go of the last body. Turning his attention to the forest, he found that he could indeed hear something. As to what it was….
"Is that another monster?" Torako asked, sounding uncharacteristically confused. Kuphir could not blame her.
The noise, approaching them very quickly, had a roaring, growling quality to it, but it did not sound like any animal or monster he had ever heard.
"Dainichi-san, I think you, Nikko-sama and Tsukimaru-san had better get back in the wagon," Kuphir said.
No one argued with his suggestion. Toriko hastily climbed back into the cover of the wagon, with Nikko and his son right behind her. On the road, Kuphir idly flipped his long braid up into his hand and removed the chakram chain from his hair tie. In the end, however, what came out of the forest was no demon.
At least, not a supernatural one.
With a roar like a strange dying animal, a heavy, fast moving object hurtled out of the forest eleven yards up the road. It had made its exit wrong in some manner and everyone in the group saw it veer heavily to the left, far beyond what anything could accomplish and hope to retain balance, then fall to its side and slide hard against the ground until crashing into a tree on the other side of the road. The roar grew dull once that had happened; it was still there, but heavily diminished. All present could smell something burning and beneath the rumbling growl was the ticking of cooling metal.
Perhaps most odd of all was the girl they found pinned beneath the strange thing.
It was definitely a girl; the skintight leather suit showed ample evidence of that. She had padded armor of some kind strapped to her arms, legs and chest and wore a close fitting helmet, but a long blond ponytail hung out from the head voering. She had belts strapped in place all over her hips and the most bizarre collection of things was hanging from every inch of them. Kuphir saw all of this in a second and then flooded his body with chi to heave the metal, growling contraption off the girl. He could clearly see now that it was no monster, not even an animal, but some kind of machine, though he had never seen the like before.
As he moved the bizarre creation, he saw the spreading pool of dark liquid that had begun to stain the ground around her. More disturbing were the rips in her leather bodysuit and the familiar smell that came from them.
'Oh damn,' Kuphir realized. 'The demons bit her.'
Toriko had told him of her futile efforts to save the Shiroitori priests who had been savaged by the dogs in her temple. The girl likely wouldn't survive for more than a few hours.
Nonetheless, he could feel more demons approaching and leaving her to be devoured would be just cruel. He scooped her up, ignoring the pained and strangled scream that issued from beneath her strange helmet, and started carrying her back to the wagon. The others followed him like ducklings.
Setting the stranger on the wagon floor, Kuphir doubled back around and hopped onto the driver's seat alongside Hoshimaru and Taiyoumaru while Torako and Sariyah clambered into the wagon. Grabbing the reins, Taiyoumaru gave them a hard shake and whistled piercingly. The horses lurched forward, disturbed the demon blood staining the road, but quickly increased their stride until the wagon was rattling down the road at a hard gallop.
"Any advice, Kuphir-san?" Hoshimaru asked.
"You want my opinion now?" Kuphir asked, feeling amused.
"You seem to be a reasonable boy," Taiyoumaru answered.
"And we are in a bit of a situation," both bodyguards finished.
"Too many approaching to fight," Hoshimaru said.
"We are too slow to outrun them," Taiyoumaru said.
"So, any thoughts?" they both queried.
"Well, if you can't run or fight, hiding is the next best thing," Kuphir shrugged. "You know this area better than me, I think. Is there any place we can take cover?"
"Not outside of two hours," Hoshimaru answered gravely.
"The nearest guard outpost is at least seven hours away," Taiyoumaru added.
Then, in perfect sync, they began again. "It would seem we – "
"Hey, don't move!"
From behind them, within the wagon, came a hard thump against the canvas wall separating the driver's seat from interior. Then, following Torako's yell, came a much lower, more forced voice.
"They're… following me, right? We need to… hide, un… unless you have an army hidden in your pockets. I… I know a place nearby."
"Where?" Kuphir called.
There was a pause and then the voice (which had to belong to that blonde girl, Kuphir was sure) spoke up again.
"You see… that mountain, over on the left? Go there."
There was indeed a small mountain to their left. The group had been driving the wagon through its shadow all day.
"Is there a road heading that way or do we need to get out on foot?" Hoshimaru asked.
"Road," came the pained reply. "'Bout one minute up from here… the way we're going."
Her saying that reminded Kuphir that the ride was probably causing her more pain. The road was not paved and every little bounce was doubtless causing her pain.
Then again, being dismembered by ravenous demons would probably be worse, so Kuphir put the stranger's discomfort firmly out of mind and turned back to watching the road.
Sure enough, after one minute of racing down the road at breakneck speed with the howls of demon dogs closing in from behind, there was a sudden break in the trees to the left. Taiyoumaru, through some mastery of driving Kuphir could not catch, pulled the reins to the left and the horses just barely made the turn. The wagon skidded at the curve, lurching up onto the right wheels high enough to have Kuphir contemplate the possibility of a crash for one panicked second. Then balance was regained and it came slamming back down onto the left set of wheels hard enough to rattle everyone's teeth.
The road they were on was not a road, per say. Calling it a backwoods, overgrown deer path fit it better. They were bouncing down it more than rolling and all three men crammed together on the driver's seat could hear things tumbling to the floor of the wagon behind them alongside shouting oaths from Nikko Sr. and Torako.
The trail was tight and the trees were tall, blocking any chance of looking ahead to see wherever the trail was going to come out. Kuphir twisted in his seat and slapped a hand against the canvas of the wagon.
"Miss, where is this taking us?" Kuphir asked.
"My place," came the strangled reply. "Go up t'the mountain side …Granny'll let us in."
"We are taking refuge in a house?!" Taiyoumaru exclaimed.
"The monsters will tear it to pieces!" Both bodyguards yelled.
There was silence.
"Miss? Isn't there any other place you can – "
Then Toriko's voice rose up, cutting Kuphir off before he had ever finished.
"She says it isn't a house! It's not a house, Kuphir-san, she says it's a fortress!"
That was, if anything, even more strange. Why build a whole fortress in the middle of nowhere?
Except the whole point proved moot quick enough. The wagon burst from the trees not long after and there was nothing to be seen in the picturesque meadow except the sheer cliff on the far end that climbed up into the mountainside. The path led from the trees, through the healthy green grass and then dead ended right into the cliff. There was no fortress, no shelter, awaiting them.
Torako, who had swung her upper body out of the wagon and was leaning on the frame to get a look at their surroundings, summed up everyone's feelings in one heartfelt word.
Swinging herself back into the wagon, Torako scrambled to the blonde girl's side and started yelling.
"There's nothing there, you twit! Where are we supposed to be going!?"
The blonde, her helmet removed by Toriko, gave Torako a pain-filled, annoyed glare.
"Go. To. The. Mountain. Side," she spat out. There was a small amount of blood leaking from her mouth. Toriko may have been the one with medical training, but Torako had seen enough injuries to know that that was a bad sign.
"There's nothing there!" Torako roared.
Finally, the blonde did something other than lie there and bleed. Faster than Torako would have thought someone so injured possibly could, the blonde reared up from where she had lain with her head resting on Toriko's lap. Her gloved hand fastened itself into Torako's loose black hair and yanked. The yowling tiger priestess abruptly shut up when she found herself staring into fanatically desperate steel colored eyes not two inches away.
"Go up to the damn cliff and knock! She'll let you in, she'll open the – "
The half yelling, half hissing tone was brutally cut off as the blonde began coughing wetly, her whole body convulsing as blood began coming up from her mouth with each hacking breath. Toriko frantically pulled the girl back down onto the wagon floor and laid her hands on the padded chest. Digging deep into the reservoir of sacred chi that she held as a priestess of one of the Four Gods, Toriko began desperately trying to repair the blonde's injuries and halt the demonic chi that was wreaking havoc on the poor girl's body.
Torako was staring blankly at the blonde, trying to make sense of what she had just been told.
'Knock on the cliff? She'll let us in? What 'she' is there to let us in?'
'Tora girl, you can count at least a hundred demons coming up fast. The twenty you fought on the road were bad enough. Nobody wants a repeat of the massacre you saw at Shiroitori's temple, so I ask you if it really fuckingmatters who lets us in?!'
Without another word, Torako bounded out of the wagon in one leap like a cat and landed in a crouch, which she used to launch herself into a desperate chi fueled sprint to the cliff.
As she dashed past the galloping horses they took fright, the day finally pushing them beyond endurance. Neighing shrilly, the horses ground to a stop in the meadow and refused to move no matter how Taiyoumaru ordered them onward. They simply stood stock in the meadow and trembled.
"Well, we were going to have to stop and fight anyway," Kuphir muttered. Jumping down from the driver's seat alongside Hoshimaru and Taiyoumaru, the tall teenager pulled the chakram chain from his braid one more time and started spinning it around his index finger, whistling a happy tune and looking for all the world as though he were about to encounter nothing more than a group of wearisome relatives.
Sariyah, Nikko Sr. and Tsukimaru were climbing out of the wagon. Both Nikko had crossbows in their hands, though Kuphir knew that such weapons would only irritate the demons. They were simply spirits from the astral realm that had possessed dogs and physical weapons had little to no effect on them. You had to use chi to reach the demon spirit beyond the flesh.
Toriko was still in the wagon. Kuphir could feel her channeling divine energy and pumping it into the unfortunate girl they had found by the roadside. As for her sister, Torako was….
…Where was Torako?
--- --- --- --- ---
She reached the cliff and balled up one hand into a fist. One hundred yards behind her, the group was making their stand. If it had been half the number of monsters after them, Torako would have joined them. Except, it wasn't fifty demons. It was at least one hundred demons, more than she could easily count using just the feel of their auras. As powerful as they all were in their own ways, those kinds of odds could never leave them without casualties.
Unless, maybe, blondie wasn't off her rocker and there actually was someone living inside the mountain.
Really, what did she have to lose by trying?
Torako, the steam of chi coating the air around her red, raised her fist, cocked her arm and let the punch fly.
With enough chi packed into her arm to make the little hairs on her skin sizzle off, the strike sounded like a gong. Her hand and wrist disappeared into the rock, leaving her buried up to her elbow. Rock began raining down on top of her and where the cliff had not crumbled, it had cracked instead and sent a spider web of fractures that reached high above her head.
"If you can hear me, then open the FUCK UP!!!" Torako screamed. "We're gonna get eaten out here!"
That was Kuphir. Torako turned around, ripping her arm loose from the cliff in the process, and saw the first of the demon dogs running out from the trees.
"Fuck all," Torako hissed. She channeled energy into her legs and took off sprinting towards the fight.
Both merchants were already firing their crossbows, but the bolts had little effect. The demons simply took the shots and ignored them. The only long range tactic that had any effect was Kuphir's chakram chain, which he filled with chi and then sent slicing into the pack again and again.
Even as good as he was, though, Kuphir could not hit all of them. Dogs slipped passed his chain's range and closed in. Nikko Sr. and Tsukimaru, seeing how futile their efforts were, retreated and made for the confines of the wagon. Hoshimaru and Taiyoumaru were obliged to attack the five demons that had angled off from attacking Sariyah and gone after the two merchants.
Sariyah took a full body tackle from one and held his ground without flinching. Catching its rank fur in his small fingers, the little boy threw the monster to the ground and smashed its skull in with the ball of his right foot. Three more converged on him and started snapping their jaws. Sariyah rolled away and came up swinging.
Torako barreled into a knot of demons four thick. They had come out of the forest to Kuphir's left and were making for him while he fended off a group of seven or so approaching from the front. Her father's claws were still in the wagon, dropped to the floor when she had entered it back on the main road, but covering them with Benitora's burning, divine chi made her hands just as deadly. Her fists appeared to be on fire as they punched and clawed their way through demon after demon.
Despite their ferocity, despite their desperation, all of the fighters were beginning to be pushed back towards the wagon. Although any of the demons was no problem by itself, the massive horde they had gathered was simply overwhelming. Every one cut down was replaced by three others. You didn't have to be a tactical genius to see how things were going.
Inside the wagon Toriko sat with the blonde's head in her lap. She was listening to and feeling the fight outside: the horses' screaming, Torako's cursing, the almost musical clinking of Kuphir's chakrams, the wagon rocking and the demon chi that was smothering out everything else in the meadow. Shiroitori's divine power kept coursing through her hands and into the dying girl in her lap, but there was no improvement in her condition. She had managed to halt the flow of evil energy, but not to eradicate it. The demon chi was also stubbornly resisting her attempts to clean and heal the bite wounds, and all she had been able to do was stop the bleeding.
Suddenly, the blonde, who had fainted after her outburst and coughing attack, opened her gray eyes and smiled.
"She heard," was all the girl said before the sound of thunder began.
--- --- --- --- ---
Kuphir was about to send the sharp outer edge of his chain into the neck of a demon when what sounded like thunder erupted from behind him, what looked like a lightning flash appeared from the same direction, and the demon, as well as six feet of the earth it had been standing on, disappeared in a flash.
Then the cacophony started, endless blasting and shaking to the point where Kuphir had to throw himself to the ground or be knocked down. He could hear nothing, but he could still sense and the only things being destroyed were the demons. Their shells were being destroyed somehow, utterly annihilated, and without something to anchor them in the physical world they were fading away.
In less than a minute it was over. The sound of thunder faded and Kuphir raised his head from the ground to look around.
Huge chunks of the ground had been carved out of the earth. They were smoking faintly, as were the littered body parts that remained from the demon dogs. As bad as rotting demon limbs had smelled, rotting and roasted demon limbs smelled significantly worse. Picking his head up from the ground, Sariyah took in one deep breath and gagged violently.
Kuphir stood up and took a look at himself. The dress was ruined beyond repair (no tears there), but he had no injuries to speak of. If the rapid and fluent complaints coming from Sariyah and Torako were any indication, they felt all right as well. Hoshimaru and Taiyoumaru were leaning on each other, but neither seemed terribly distressed. They were likely all right as well.
As no one appeared to be in danger of dropping dead anytime soon, this left them all the interesting task of figuring out what the hell had just happened.
The question was answered for them after a few moments. There was a dull cracking sound from the mountain and most of the rock face of the cliff behind them simply fell away. When the dust cleared they all saw that what had been behind the rock was not merely more rock – it was solid metal.
There was a harsh squawking sound and an ear piercing whistle. Kuphir winced and heard Sariyah, as well as the horses, give short, pained howls.
"Now, who the hell are ya'll and why are causin' such a ruckus on my back porch?!"
The voice was coming from the fallen rock pile, but there was no one there.
'Inside the mountain, perhaps? If it even really is a mountain,' Kuphir thought.
Inside the wagon, the blonde tugged on Toriko's robe.
"Help me up," she whispered. "I've got to ask her t'open the doors or she'll just send ya on yer way now that the monsters're dead."
Blinking, Toriko let the channel of healing chi lessen and die. Carefully, she helped the blonde stand (not an easy task, as she was a good four inches taller than Toriko and heavier as well) and move toward the open end of the wagon.
Kneeling down on her knees, the blonde carefully leaned out of the wagon and yelled as loud as she could.
"GRANNY! OPEN UP! WE'VE GOT GUESTS AND AH NEED SOME HELP!"
"Susie?!" The bizarre voice exclaimed. "Girl, what have ya been up to today?"
Susie, the blonde girl, may have wanted to answer, but another coughing fit took her and she would have fallen from the wagon bed to the ground had Toriko not grabbed her and eased her back inside.
There was silence for a long moment. Then Torako broke it, staring angrily at the metal wall and hoping she was not being a fool.
"Well, you heard her! Are we coming in or not?! She needs help and we could use a rest, so open up!" Torako shouted.
And even after that, there was silence. Then, finally, it was broken.
"Brat, it will be a warm day in the ice of the north before I let any jumped up punk speak ta me like that on mah own damn property. Apologize or ya'll be sleeping under the stars with them dead'uns tonight."
Torako glared and shouted, "I'M SORRY! NOW LET US IN ALREADY!!!"
"Oh, Ah am gonna have to teach ya some manners," the voice growled. "But Ah ain't killin' my kin to do it. Ya'll bring Susie and yerselves inside now. Hurry up about it. Them puppies might have friends comin'."
There was another harsh squawk and then it was quiet again. The quiet was soon broken by a series of heavy thunks from behind the metal wall beneath the rock. Then, amazingly, the metal split cleanly down the middle. The now two halves of the wall (except it wasn't a wall, Kuphir realized, but a door) swung outward slowly, but with enough strength to plow through the rocks that had fallen in front of them and clear the way.
The interior the massive walls revealed was dark and no one could see what was inside. Even so, Kuphir felt that going in was the better option. As the strange voice had said, there were likely more demons around if such a large pack had existed. Even ignoring that, the blonde – Susie – needed help and a wagon was no place for what had to be a rather serious set of medical treatments.
Kuphir went first, his chakram chain held tightly in one hand. Sariyah and Torako went next, each of them pacing along either side of the horse team. Hoshimaru and Taiyoumaru stalked along either end of Nikko Sr., who had resumed his customary place in the driver's seat. Tsukimaru, Toriko and Susie huddled in the wagon, with Tsukimaru holding tightly to his loaded crossbow.
The ceiling of the cavern they were entering was out of sight, even in the lighting available near the door. Kuphir guessed it to be at least one hundred feet above them. The end of the cavern was beyond sight as well. Ahead lay nothing but sheer blackness.
Still, they stepped forward.
And behind them the massive doors began their slow, grinding exertion to swing shut once again, which they did with a massive and somehow very ominous slam, sealing the group, for better or for worse, in the mountain.
--- --- --- --- ---
Show of hands: who thought I was dead?
Sorry to disappoint.
More characters introduced, some short lived and others reoccurring. Eleven chapters and this story isn't even at 20 percent of what I've outlined. Holy. Crap.