Chapter 05) Invasion
China, late winter, 15 years ago
Mighty evergreens struggled under the snow's weight, forming into tightly packed walls of white. With the forest dwellers still in refuge from last night's blizzard, the forest floor was a perfect, colorless blanket without a single paw or hoof print. Snow drifts several meters tall made the trek an annoyance in his current form, but Haruki continued, stepping over a large, rotted log.
Resting on the same log was a lone man cloaked in animal hide, his head hidden beneath a hood. Haruki gave him only a fleeting glance as he passed, his feet scrunching deep into the snow with each step.
"You're lost, buddy?" the man asked.
Haruki looked back at the man, squinting his eyes from the rising sun behind him. "No," he said flatly, turning back towards his original direction. Immediately, he found another, similarly-clothed stranger in front of him.
"You shouldn't had come this way," the second man said.
"Just leave your coin, and you can be on your way," the first man added.
Haruki's face remained expressionless with the exception of a slightly furrowed brow. "Don't waste my time." He summoned his golden shield into his left hand and brought it up to the side of his head. A single arrow shot from the dense trees, smashing into the center of the shield. As the splinters fell into the snow, Haruki turned on his heel. The first man unsheathed a small sabre and charged, but Haruki easily grabbed his wrist, keeping the blade well away from his body.
The second man held a dagger, but hadn't moved an inch. He stood frozen in place with the blade quivering in his hand. Haruki threw the first bandit into him, and they both fell into the snow.
"I can kill you in an instant." Haruki's golden eyes narrowing as the bandits stumble back to their feet. "But consider yourselves lucky. My obligation compels me to let you go."
"But I have no obligation."
Haruki turned towards Toru's, watching him emerge for the thicket with a third bandit. The man whimpered and struggled, but couldn't free his throat from Toru's grip.
"Let him go, Toru.".
"This is the bastard who shot that arrow at your head." Toru summoned his sapphire spear, and pointed it's blade at the bandit's throat. He growled in the man's ear, making the latter's bawling grow louder. "He would have killed you. Why should I value his life when he thought so little of yours?"
"I wasn't in any danger, and you know it."
"It doesn't matter, Haruki. His intention to kill was still there."
"Toru…" A low growl rumbled in Haruki's throat, but it only seemed to make Toru grin.
"Uh, fine." Toru dispelled his spear and released the bandit. The man ran his waitng comrades, and they disappeared into the forest brush. Toru approached Haruki, chuckling along the way. "He's gonna die from exposure, anyway. I made him pissed his pants."
"I'm going to ignore what you just said, Toru. You know if you kill a human, I have to— eck!"
Toru threw his arm around Haruki's shoulders and pulled him close for a hug. He released the embrace, holding Haruki in front of him by the shoulders. "Damnit, Haruki! You're more of a killjoy than before! I knew the Society was gonna change you, but not by this much."
Haruki let out a long sigh, but a smile eventually crept across his face. "But you haven't changed a bit, Toru."
Haruki opened his eyes for the fifth time, groaning his irritation. It was impossible to mediate with a full mind, and so he decided to put off his exercises for the time being. Scrubbing a hand down his face, he left his room and headed downstairs.
The house was eerily quiet, and the creaking floors as he padded towards the kitchen etched his nerves. He grabbed a bottle of saké and a glass from the wooden cabinet and sat it on the table. As he poured himself a cup, he thought about his talk with Isamu. Sometimes the old man exaggerate, but how could the queen's premonition be explained? Whatever the case, Haruki knew something as serious as falsifying a report was rather tame compared to what Toru used to do.
Haruki downed the sake in a single gulp, washing away the dark thoughts with it. The warmth eased his worries as it ran from his throat down to his stomach. Haruki didn't take a step before he dropped his glass and let it shatter at his feet. A sharp pain ripped through the pit of his stomach, leaving him hunched over.
Haruki stumbled into the main room, sweat beading on his face as flashes of light blurred his vision. He grabbed for anything within reach to keep his balance but failed, sending pottery and scrolls crashing to the floor with him. As he tried to pick himself up, another painful spasm stiffened his limbs and brought him back to the floor. Exhausted, he rolled over in surrender. The view of the ceiling began to blur and darken, but stabbing pain kept snatching Haruki back into consciousness.
"Don't try to move," an unfamiliar voice said.
Haruki could barely make out a man standing over him. His body was covered in black, with a matching mask concealing his face. Another agonizing spasm clouded his vision, the satisfied gleam in the intruder's violet eyes the only image until his pain subsided. Haruki snarled under his throat in spite of the pain. There was no way a dark-type's poison could had dropped him so quickly, even in Naomi's body.
"Kamoto! I found Elaine!" a second, unfamiliar voice shouted cheerfully.
"Damnit! Don't say my name in front of the enemy! And… You name your firearms?"
"Only the best ones. Teeheee."
A chill ran down Toru's body, stirring him from his sleep. For a moment, he thought his grogginess toyed with his vision, but what he saw were not mere illusions. They were like living light distortions, transparent colors varying from faint pink to deep indigo. Most were in human form and some took the form of beast and birds. Others couldn't keep their shape at all, slithering through the air like spilled wine.
He turned towards Kana and Ophelia. They were sleeping soundly, oblivious to the invasion around them. Another chill engulfed him, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Toru looked behind him and found two humanoid ghosts floating over him. There color was a deep indigo, transparent against the moonlight. The slimmer of the two extended its arm, its thin fingers just inches from his face.
"N… no! Go away!" Toru yelled, waking Ophelia and Kana.
Ophelia flailed her arms as she sat up, slapping Kana in the back of the head. He went face-first back into the dirt, but Ophelia didn't seem to notice. "Toru! What is it!?"
"Don't you see!?" Toru wrapped his arms around himself, guarding his body from seemingly nothing. "Do you see them!?"
"See what?"Ophelia asked as her eyes followed Toru's frantic gazes.
Kana finally got up, rubbing the back of his head. "What? Ghosts?"
"I'm a dark sorceress, remember? You're going to see spirits in my body."
"You… you don't understand!" Toru got to his feet and backpedaled, eyes wide and voice cracking. He swung his arm at the air in front of him, vapors escaping into the air with his panicked breathing. "They won't leave me alone!"
"Is that what this is all about?" Kana asked, tilting his head with a frown. "You see dead people?"
"Damnit, Kana!" Toru growled. "That's not funny! This pond place is haunted." He turned his back on his friends and headed deeper in the forest. "I'm getting the hell out of here!"
"Toru, wait!" Ophelia called, but Toru had already disappeared into the brush. His retreating footsteps gradually faded away, leaving only the sound of Kana's chuckle. She cut Kana a glare, silencing him instantly. "You stay right there, I'm gonna follow him."
Ophelia didn't wait for Kana's response and hurried after Toru. He was already well out of her sight by the time she reached the thicket, but his trail was fresh and she could still hear his whimpers in the distance. As she walked, memories of her dark sorcerery training flooded her mind. She frowned as she recalled apprentices who lost their minds and took their own lives. Shoving back the unsettling thought, Ophelia quickened her pace.
Ophelia pushed aside the final cluster of branches and found Toru huddled at the base of a large tree, hugging his knees with his face buried. She kneeled across of him and placed her hand on his shoulder. "Toru, it's okay. They won't hurt you."
Toru lifted his head, his face ashen and soaked with cold sweat. "Why they keep getting close, then? Make them to go away!"
"Stand up, Toru." Her voice was gentle, coaxing Toru to get to his feet. She smiled and brushed the fringe plaster on his forehead, moving it to the side of his face. Her other hand stayed on his shoulder, steadying his shaky body. "You want them to go away? But they're just friends, Toru. Would you treat a friend that way?"
"H… how? How can ghosts be my friends?" Toru's eyes were still darting about, but Ophelia's hold kept him in place. "They're monsters! How are you able to live with this curse?"
"Communication with the spirits is a privilege." Ophelia puffed her cheeks, her once concerned eyes narrowing into a glare. She released Toru and spun her back towards him as her fists clenched at her sides. "Do you even understand how I got this power, Toru?"
"Um, yeah. A spirit takes pity on you and teaches you their language. Right?"
"But my village just don't train dark sorcery." She looked over her shoulder back at Toru, her body statuesquely contorted with her head tilted back. "They train young ones to become dark sorcerers. How you think that works?"
"I'm… not sure. Isn't it the spirit's choice?"
"It is, but the elders had a way of swaying the spirits." Ophelia broke her gaze on Toru and looked skyward, the starlight glistening against her swelling eyes. "They would beat, neglect, and starve me. Each night, they would ask if a spirit approached me. When I say no, they will resume the next day."
Vapors passed through Ophelia's lips as she let out a long sigh, willing herself to maintain her composure. Blinking back her tears, she made a full turn in Toru's direction, her arms folded. "Their training could be working me into exhaustion, making me sleep in the cold, or a simple beating. When a spirit came to me for the first time, I cried. And it wasn't because the abuse would stop; it was because I finally had a friend. So… so be nice to the spirits!"
"Okay, Ophelia." Toru rubbed the back of his head, staring shamefully at his feet. "I sorry. I—" His words stopped abruptly, his arms going limp at his sides.
Ophelia stared at Toru, his eyes now unseeing and clouded. "Toru?"
If Toru heard Ophelia's voice, it didn't show on his face. He began to take slow, steady steps, brushing past her in a trance.
"I see," Ophelia whispered, making no effort to stop him. "Let the spirits guide you, Toru." Once Toru disappeared into the thicket, she turned her attention to the pale-orange glow of the full moon, a smirk tugging her face. "Isamu knows that ghost are most talkative during a full moon. He could had told me that Toru was getting tested, too."
Stifling a yawn, Ophelia backtracked towards Kana, following the path through the forest. As she stepped over a rotten log, a sudden pain in her gut sent her falling into the grass. She pushed herself to her knees and wrapped her arms around her midsection. It felt like a dull knife went through her, twisting and tearing her organs. She heaved, violently expelling blood from her mouth. The pain left her gasping, but each breath she took was another twist of the dull knife, a seeming endless cycle of suffering.
"It's been a while."
Ophelia lifted her head towards the feminine voice, her eyes slowly going up a pair of long legs covered in black, skin-tight leggings. Its owner's torso was also donned in black, the only color a large v-shape from her exposed, pale skin. Finally, Ophelia got to a pair of crimson eyes glaring down at her.
"I just needed to borrow this. I hope you don't mind." Sahori held out a bloody arm, pieces of intestines and other organs clutched in her hands. She paid no mind to the blood and bile dripping as she kneeled, her eyes now at Ophelia's level. "You might want to heal quickly. You look like you're in agony."
Ophelia gritted her teeth, too incapacitated to respond.
"I see you still refuse to use your yōkai." Sahori's lips pouted into a smirk as she tilted her head. "Is it also true you don't fight women?"
Lifting herself back to her feet, Sahori gave way to an echoing laugh. "Pathetic." Her gaze returned to Ophelia, strands of her long, black hair whipping around her face as she relished in her victory. "This is too easy. I— ack!"
Sahori's words ceased as Ophelia's fingers wrapped around her throat, clasping it shut. Ophelia lifted Sahari off her feet, snarling just inches from her face. An emerald aura radiate from her as yōkai output swelled.
"Bitch, you just fucked up!"
China, late winter, 15 years ago
A campfire crackled between the two, radiating its warmth and light in the small, narrow cave. Toru pulled his eyes from the mesmerizing flames to the cave's small opening, where a storm of white flurries screamed passed. He sighed, folding his arms as he leaned against the cool, rocky wall. "So, you passed your alpha training?"
"Yeah. " Resting his forearms on his knees, Haruki tossed a piece of firewood into the flames. "All I need to do is find a pack, now."
"Congrats, Little Brother."
"It didn't take long at all. You're more resourceful than me. I'm sure you'll complete the training in no time."
Toru frowned and lowered his head, his dreadlocks dangling over his face. "Damnit, Haruki. We've talked about this before, I'm not joining the goddamn Society."
"You'll still have freedom to move around when you're an alpha. How else could I come all the way here to see your ass? And… what is that?"
"Hm?" Toru followed Haruki's gaze to his own hand, where a strange cigarette was tucked in between his fingers. "This? Oh, I got this great plant from the mountains. Do you want to—"
"No. Uh, anyway, once you get enough training to hold your own, most missions are quite easy."
Toru lit his cigarette, flicking his finger to release a small amount of fire magic. "Easy, you say? I like to hear you say that when you're responsible for a pack who put their lives in your hands." He took a puff and exhaled thick, white smoke through his lips. "Nope. I don't need that kind of pressure, and I'm sure as hell am not gonna let you order me around."
"You're just as stubborn as ever, Toru."
Toru began to respond, but snapped his mouth shut. He lifted his head and shut his eyes, his mind only focused on the scent his nostrils took in. Moments later, he brought his gaze towards the scent, finding Haruki standing at cave's exit.
"Do you smell blood too, Toru?" he asked, his gaze still fixated towards the outside.
Toru got to his feet, letting out a tired grunt. "It smells like it's from multiple people." He let out a yawn and stretched his limbs. "The closest village is in the valley. If the bandits went there, we would not pick up the scent. Some inu is probably giving them what they deserve."
Without another word, Haruki dashed out into the blizzard, his footsteps quickly vanishing under the howling wind. Toru hurried after him, barely able to see Haruki's footprints in the thick flurries and darkness. Once Toru caught up with him, he yelled, "Are you seriously gonna help them, Haruki!?"
"Of course I will! Society warriors can't turn my back on human-inu conflicts!"
"Damnit." Toru gritted his teeth, but kept his pace beside Haruki. "That's another reason why I'll never join the Society."
With Ophelia away, Kana could finally rest. He rubbed his sore shoulder as he laid back into the thick grass, wincing and frowning. "Shit, Ophelia was heavy." Yawning, he stretched his body and tucked his hands behind his head. As his heavy eyelids finally closed, he muttered, "When I get my body back, I'll have to go on a diet."
Kana slowly drifted into slumber beneath the moonlight, but after an unknown amount of time, approaching, heavy footsteps roused him. Assuming it was Ophelia returning to her position on top of him, he let out a groan, but kept his eyes shut.
"Well, isn't it Kana's little bitch?"
Kana knew who it was before he opened his eyes, and quickly realized he was in trouble. Still in Toru's weaker body, he just sat up and greeted Takeshi with a nervous smile, a bead of sweat running down his face.
"Well, seeing you again is unexpected."
After their hunt, Ryuji and Naomi returned to the small forest clearing, where the aroma of roasted fowl mingled in the night air. Ryuji removed the skewered breast meat from the open flame and examined it for doneness. Satisfied, he handed it to Naomi, grinning as she accepted his offer. He quickly noticed a slight frown on her face however, and his smile faltered.
"Come on, Naomi. It's good. I promise. Just take a tiny bite."
He watched Naomi glare at her meal as if it an enemy she had to defeat. After a few seconds of silence, she took in a deep breath and closed her eyes. She slowly dipped her head for a bite, but stopped and gasped, her eyes now looking past Ryuji.
Following her gaze, Ryuji turned around and found a man with short, white standing over him. He had a large, imposing build and ochre skin that shun in the campfire's light. His golden eyes narrowed into slits as they left Naomi and went to Ryuji.
The man delivered a blinding spin kick to the side of Ryuji's head, sending him across the grass. He skidded to a stop on his face, and lifted his head just in time to see him grab Naomi by the wrist. The man was definitely inu; the kick felt like a charge from a raging bull. However, even as Naomi struggled in his grasp, he couldn't detect a hint of yōkai from him.
"Let me go!"
The man let out a deep growl, his hold unwavering. "You've been ignoring me long enough, runt."
"Hey!" Ryuji pushed himself to his feet, still dazed from the blow. "You fucking bastard! Let h—" He froze as the man's grip on Naomi tightened. He watched the man grab her by the shoulders and kick the side of her knee.
Naomi's shin cracked under his kick, her pained screams willing Ryuji to move again. He summoned his weapons, only to have Haruki's sword and shield in his hands. Ryuji grumbled his irritation, but quickly realized it will have to do. He only a few steps towards the man when, he tossed a bag at Ryuji's feet.
"Take this," the man said. "It's an antidote."
"An antidote?" Ryuji's eyes darted between the suspicious bag and the unknown man. "For what?"
He pulled Naomi closer, forcing her to stand with her broken leg. "You can follow me, or take that to your woman. The choice is yours, but I don't think she can wait long."
"She can't wait? Who—"
The man didn't wait for more questions and vanished with Naomi. There was no yōkai signature even after his teleportation. Stuck in place once again, Ryuji thought over the man's words. He was sure he took Naomi because he believed she was him, so her life wouldn't in danger if she played along. As much as he hated the admit, he had to leave her and help whoever needed the antidote.
But who was it?