01 Elemental Warriors
A calm silence shrouded the forest. The crackling flames of a single campfire made the only sound as it illuminated the small clearing. There, a woman rested, a hood draped over her bowed head in spite of the summer night. The slits of her dark dress exposed her slender legs as she struggled to stand.
A hand grasped her own, its bronzed skin a stark contrast to her pale complexion. She lifted her eyes to the man it belonged to, meeting his concerned gaze. Even through the shadow of his hood, his icy-blue eyes never failed to radiate warmth. The irony tugged a grin on her face.
"How's your ankle?" he asked.
"It still hurts," she answered. "I can't go on."
"The fire should keep the wild animals away." The man cupped her face, his rough hands against her soft skin. "I'll go to the village and get help."
The woman swallowed back a knot in her throat. "I'll wait for you, my love." She embraced him and a whimper slipped between her lips as his strong arms wrapped around her waist. However, her calm lasted only a few seconds. "But what about the inukonjou? What if it… what if..."
The man pulled away, his fingers gripping her shoulders while his eyes held her gaze. "They're just rumors. Those vile beasts will not come near you." As if convincing himself, he glanced towards the dark brush. A sudden breeze howled in response, its high-pitched whistle rustling the leaves. He let out a defeated sigh and got to his feet. "Keep your mind at ease. I will return as fast as I can."
The woman started to protest, but snapped her mouth shut before any words could escape. Instead, she watched him disappear into the thicket. The moment she could no longer hear his fading footsteps, panic began to rise from the pit of her stomach. Her breath hitched. Her heartbeat pounded against her ribcage. Harmless shadows tormented her.
She steadied her shuddering lips between her teeth. Her mind slowly settled and her eyes focused on the campfire. Hypnotized by the dancing flames, the woman soon forgot that she was alone in the middle of a dark forest.
A sudden bellow of rancid breath extinguished the fire. Jerked out of her trance, she found herself staring at her own reflection through a pair of crimson eyes. Its owner grinned, revealing rows of sharp teeth. The doglike form towered over the seated woman by at least a two meters. Huge paws armed with black claws flanked her.
"Dear god... " the woman stammered and cowered under her dark cloak. "Please… please don't eat me."
"Why not?" The beast slinked its body around the helpless woman. "A young, tender woman like you will make a delicious appetizer."
"But… but my husband…"
"Don't worry, my dear. You'll join him soon enough." The inu crouched its body lower, licking his chops. His pointed muzzle curled into a grin. "He will be the main course."
Slowly, the woman pushed herself to her feet. Her hood slipped from her head as she did so, and her braided ponytail whipped behind her in the wind. A deep frown marred her pale, round face. Her violet eyes narrowed into a glare.
"I see," the inu said. "You want to look your hunter in the eyes before your death? Such dignity from a human is quite impressive."
"You fire-breeds don't know when to shut it," the woman sneered. "You can't even tell what's in front of you."
She lifted her bare arm from beneath her dark cloak, exposing a strange mark on her wrist. A violet aura emitted from the marking, shimmering in the darkness as it grew and morphed. Within seconds, it formed into a large violet axe.
The inu gnashed his teeth and barked, but his tucked tail and retreating steps betrayed him. "Half-breed bitch! I'll—"
The woman charged and swung her blade into the inu's throat, cutting off his words. She spun back around and took another swing. The attack severed the inu's head and sent it rolling away. The rest of the body collapsed at her feet with a resounding thud. The trees rippled from the shock wave and the leaves rained on the bloody corpse.
With a satisfied smile, the woman rested her axe on her shoulder. However, approaching footfalls rustled in the darkness, interrupting her silent celebration. She whirled around, gripping the long handle of her axe with both hands. The brush soon parted, and she lowered her blade as her companion emerged from the thicket, joining her side.
He lifted his hood and gazed at the beheaded inu, nodding his approval. "Great job, Ophelia." He turned towards her, smiling. He stood over a head and a half taller than the woman, with a trimmed goatee on the tip of his broad chin. Several strands of black dreadlocks fell loose from his ponytail and draped down the sides of his face, tousled by the breeze.
Ophelia's axe dissolved from her hand and formed into a violet aura, shrinking as it settled on her wrist. The light dwindled away and left a tattoo-like mark depicting the profile image of a howling canine. "Thanks, Toru."
As Ophelia began to bow, Toru placed a hand on her shoulder, stopping her. "There's no need to be so disciplined. I'm not Haruki."
"But Haruki said I should always stay modest."
"A little bragging does no harm." He brushed away Ophelia's fringe from her violet eyes, gently placing it on the side of her round face. "You got a confirmed confession, and followed through with the death mark with no struggle. I just need to—"
The hairs on the back of Toru's neck stood on end as a low growl rumbled the space behind him. He whirled towards the new intruder and planted himself between it and Ophelia. As he confronted another inukonjou, a blue aura radiated from his left wrist and formed into a sapphire double-edged spear.
The snarling, bipedal canine towered over the both of them. "Mongrels!" it roared, anguish in its voice. "I will avenge my brother!"
Before the inu could make another move however, a glistening silver arrow shot from the thicket and pierced its throat. The inu jolted back from the impact, gurgling blood as it struggled for breath.
Toru took a confident step towards the inu. "Time to put you out of your misery." He swung his spear above his head, bringing it across the inukonjou's chest. The blade cut through hide and ribs, slicing flesh, butchering organs, and separating the inu's torso from the rest of its body with ease. What was once a inukonjou collapsed to the ground, joining the other in the afterlife.
"Don't teach Ophelia your sloppy habits," said a feminine voice.
Toru and Ophelia turned towards the arrow's origin, watching a third hooded figure emerged from the thicket. She lifted her hood and picked the leaves from her short, brown hair with one hand. In her other hand, she held a long, silver bow that glittered against the moonlight. Thick lashes fluttered over her silver eyes, its brilliance rivaling her weapon.
"We had it under control, Naomi," Toru said, patting Ophelia on the top of her head. "But thanks, anyway."
"Whatever you say, Toru," Naomi said, her silver bow dissolving into her left wrist. The silver arrow remained in the halved corpse, going from silver to black as its essence escaped. The aura floated into Naomi's right wrist, leaving her with a set of two marks identical to Ophelia's single mark. "I sensed the teleporter's yōkai long before it showed up behind you."
"Yeah, thanks," Ophelia said as she rubbed the back of her head. "dammit, I guess I let down my guard too soon."
"You did great, Ophelia," Naomi said, the sarcasm in her voice vanishing. "Don't beat yourself up."
Toru yawned and threw his arms over his head. His sapphire spear dissipated as he did so, and like the others, its aura reformed into the canine mark on his left wrist. "Let's go back to the village and tell the elder we took care of their problem. There's a nice inn where we can spend the night, too."
"You just want to find some woman to lay with," Naomi snarled. "I don't want to sleep in a filthy inn."
"You just don't want me to have fun. Don't be mean."
"Why are you looking for women when you have nothing to gloat about, anyway? Ophelia finished the first target and you would have been a chew toy if I wasn't ready for the second. We did all the work."
"But the stakeout was my idea," Toru puffed his chest. "I knew the coward couldn't resist vulnerable prey."
"I guess you're right about that part. Your plan made the mission easy." Naomi's lips tugged upwards, her almond-shaped eyes narrowing into silver slits. "As a matter of fact, Ophelia should decide since she had to be bait."
"Eh?" Ophelia's eyes darted between Naomi and Toru as their glances fell on her. Pursing her lips, her gaze went to the ground. "Um… I think we should head back to base. It's not that far."
"Fine." Toru's shoulders dropped in defeat. His disappointment didn't last long however, and his grin returned. He whirled behind Ophelia and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, nuzzling his face into hers. "Well, we can always practice our roleplay once we're back at base. Right, my love?"
Toru tried to steal a kiss, but Ophelia pushed him away. She couldn't escape his hold however, and could only manage to keep her face just out of the reach of his lips. "Stop it, Toru!"
"Come on, Ophelia," he said in a singsong voice. "Just one kiss?" He puckered his lips, smacking them in the loudest, most obnoxious way possible.
"Leave her alone, you lecher!" Naomi snarled.
A growl rumbled the thicket, bringing the trio's bickering to an instant halt. They stood in formation, with little Ophelia sandwiched between Toru and Naomi in a tight huddle. Soon, a fourth member arrived, his growl growing with each approaching footstep.
The man had a slightly smaller stature and younger appearance than Toru, but held an authoritative aura that kept the three warriors erect. The humid air plastered strands of his chestnut-brown hair on his forehead, the rest pulled into a sleek ponytail. With a stiff jaw and a half-lidded gaze, his face was impossible to decipher. Ophelia fidgeted as his golden eyes met her face. Naomi stifled a yawn, seemingly uncaring. Toru returned the gaze with a wide, silly grin.
"Hey Haruki," Toru said.
Haruki let out a long sigh, folding his arms. "Dammit, Toru. Can't you stay focused for at least five minutes?"
"But we completed the mission." Toru turned towards Ophelia, the same grin growing even wider. "And I was only playing, right my love?"
Face still red from Toru's teasing, Ophelia puffed her cheeks and stuck out her tongue. "You're a jerk."
Toru almost giggled at Ophelia's display, but the glare Naomi gave him shoved his laughter back down his throat. He raised his hands in defense and took several steps back. "Okay, okay. I'm sorry. You can relax, Naomi."
"There's no time to relax." Haruki brushed past the group. Beckoned by the sway of his cloak, the others to followed. "We're moving out, pack."
The last to follow, Toru let out a groan. "Why so soon, Haruki?"
Haruki continued his pace, his gaze fixated on the forest path in front of him. "It's urgent, and the Society wants me for this assignment."
"Is it another eater?" Naomi asked, keeping her pace at Haruki's right side.
"No." Haruki's eyes met Naomi's fleetingly, and a low growl rumbled in his throat. "We're searching for one of our own. I have to kill a rogue warrior."