There they are again. Loitering around the local convenience store as if they're being paid to guard it. All in all there are five of them, not one of them more than two years older than I am, but the ringleader of the group, a guy called Kai, could literally pass for thirty.
I better avoid them before they think I'm invading their "territory" or something.
'Oi! Gamba! Don't you go runnin' off! I saw you givin' us evils! What's your problem, huh? You tryin' to start a fight?'
I clench my fists and whip around to snap back at Kai, 'What's your problem?'
I'm sick of these idiots. Look at them the wrong way and they think you want to start a war! It's probably not wise but I give Kai the finger, something long overdue.
His face reddens considerably. 'What are you guys waiting for?!' he barks at his minions.
Shit. I run. I can hear them behind me, making a racket as they yell insults and threats.
'I'll kill you, Gamba! I'll fucking kill you!' screams Kai.
'I'll believe it when I'm dead.' I retort.
Kai and his crew are all bark and no bite. It's not like they can catch me anyway. I may not be as strong as they are but I'm definitely faster. I reckon I'll lose them within a minute.
I'm panting as I walk towards the front door of my house. I'd left Kai and his gang in the dust as predicted but they had been a lot more persistent this time. Who needs the gym when you're chased by angry hooligans almost everyday?
'Causing trouble again, aren't ya?' The voice belongs to my next door neighbour, Old Man Elmer. His arms are crossed and he's wearing a scowl.
I choose to ignore his words.
'Good evening, sir.' I say cordially.
'Hmmpf! Ain't nothing great about it! Not with you out and about. So... who's fence did you burn down this time?'
Urgh. I know what he's getting at.
'It was an accident! You act as if I deliberately set fire to your fence!'
'Hmmpf! Leave me alone!'
'But you started -' I stop myself and let out an exasperated sigh. Arguing with the old man was futile. I leave him and enter the house. My mouth immediately begins to water at the smell of cooking. Voices emanate from the dining room and when I enter everyone is sat at the table helping themselves to roast pork.
'Ah, Gamba! You're on time!' exclaims my auntie.
'Hey, Gamba, what happened to you? You look exhausted.' states my cousin, Lucy.
'Probably another fight.' mutters my uncle.
I wish to tell him that, no, I wasn't in a fight, but the old lady sat at the head of the table catches my attention. She has long, black hair and very dark eyes. Her small, red lips look both harsh and dainty. My eyes widen in horror. I know who this is.
'Gamba, don't you remember who this is? This is your great aunt.' says my auntie.
'H-hi, great aunt.'
I take a seat next to Lucy and fill up my plate, even though my appetite has been dampened. My great aunt is a superstitious woman, and even though I think her superstitions are ridiculous, I can't help but feel uneasy in her presence, especially when she begins to talk about monsters as if they actually exist. Maybe she's going senile.
'She's here on business.' Lucy explains.
'Yeah. She's here to exterminate a pest.'
A small smile creeps onto my great aunt's blood red lips and she stares at me with those impossibly dark eyes. I try to ignore her and fill my mouth with a chunk of pork. I almost choke when she speaks.
'I have something for you, Gamba. Consider it a late 16th birthday present.'
She reaches for something on the floor. I expect a bag of sweets or perhaps a t-shirt, so when she produces a sword, a real sword, I actually look around the table to make sure I'm not the only one who can see it. Everyone is stunned into silence.
'Beautiful, isn't it? Be warned though, Gamba. This is no ordinary sword. It is in fact a tsukumogami, and it shall gain a soul when it is exactly 100 years old, which is not too far from now. I advise you to take great care of it. It has served me well, but it deserves a new master now.'
She presents the sword to me and I pick it up gingerly with both hands. My mouth opens and closes like a goldfish. What on earth do I say? Does she actually believe it's a tsuku - whatever she said it was?
'Uhh... thanks, great aunt.'
'Call me Lady Arachne. Great aunt makes me feel so old. I don't need to be reminded that I'm closer to death's door.'
My cousin and I share a glance. This is surreal. I'm surprised my auntie hasn't made a fuss about me getting a sword. Perhaps she's still taking it all in.
A voice awakens me from my sleep. It's a female voice, and soothing. I sit up and look around but no one is in my room. Did I just dream it?
Silence is my answer.
I lie back down to sleep.
'Master? Master, are you awake now?'
My eyes snap open and I jump out of bed, rushing to open the lights. When they are on, my room is still empty. But then who does that voice belong to? Am I still dreaming?
'Master, don't be afraid.'
I feel cold all of a sudden. I feel so cold inside and yet my skin is hot and I'm sweating. Slowly, I shift my gaze to my sword, which is leaning against the wall by the window. I swear if it moves I'm going to scream. I swear if it moves I'm going to-
It's so bizarre. The sword is gliding towards me.
I think I'm about to pass out, and then, without warning, my door bursts open. In the same moment, the sword drops to the floor. Lifeless once more.
'Gamba! Are you alright?' It's my auntie. Her brown hair is in disarray. 'I heard you scream. Did something happen?'
My breathing is heavy and I can feel every heartbeat reverberate throughout my whole body.
'I-I'm fine, auntie. I just had a bad dream, that's all.'
Yes. Just a bad dream. That's what this was.
Then why am I still shaking?
My great aunt appears at the door, looking ghostly with her bloodless face and black clothes.
'You go to sleep, Marissa. I'd like to talk to Gamba.'
'Oh, okay then.'
My auntie looks at me and then at my great aunt before leaving. My great aunt shuts the door.
'Well, now, do you finally believe me?'
'It was just a dream.'
'Oh, really? Then explain that.' I follow her bony finger with my eyes. It points to my sword, which is upright once again.
I step away from it. 'I-impossible.'
'Master...' it says in that pleasant voice.
'Don't come near me!' I hiss at the sword.
'Hoy, Gamba! Calm down! It's not going to hurt you. I warned you that this would happen. That it would gain a soul.'
The rational side of me refuses to believe her, but I don't think she's lying.
Great aunt laughs. 'I can see that you are still a bit skeptical. Why don't you come with me tomorrow to do some business. Then you'll have no doubts.'
'Business? I thought your business was to get rid of pests.'
'Yes, that's one way of putting it. You see, one of my good friends here has a youkai problem at the moment and he'd like me to help him get rid of it. Didn't I used to tell you stories of the monsters I've slain?'
'They can't be true.'
'Well, tomorrow you'll think otherwise. We'll leave as soon as it's dark.'
'Why did you give me the sword?'
Great aunt has a smile on her face as she replies, 'It's because I want you to succeed me when I die. You see, I'm quite old, and I feel that my time may come at any time. Until then, I want to teach you what I know so that you can carry on my work when I'm gone.'