06 Elemental Warriors
A winding trail of trampled leaf litter lead Toru, Naomi, and Ophelia to Tessu Village. Dressed in vines and painted with moss, the small huts looked as if they sprouted from the ground alongside the trees and shrubbery. It all reminded Toru of home. Even the mountain air permeating from the small nearby stream filled him with homesickness with each breath.
He stepped ahead of Ophelia and Naomi, anxious to get whatever lay ahead over with. As his eyes swept up the rice paddies staircasing the mountainside, a frown creased his face. "What's going on up there?"
Naomi and Ophelia followed his gaze at the mountain's plateau where a murder of crows circled above. Their distant caws descended on the tranquil village as they blemished the sky like splotches of ink on a light-blue canvas.
"I can sense a shadow-breed up there," Naomi added.
"That sounds like our guy," Toru said, turning to Ophelia. "His name is Yoshirou, right?"
"Yeah," Ophelia answered with a small nod. "He's held in high regard with the villagers, so it's a mystery why he's suddenly harassing them."
Scratching his chin, Toru glanced beyond the village onto an open pasture where the villagers tended a small herd of goats. Children played behind a small barn nearby while a few elders watched from beneath their sunhats. As far as he could tell, there was nothing that would hint to Yoshirou's displeasure. "I guess we'll have to ask him what the hell is his problem ourselves."
Shrugging, Toru took the lead toward the mountainside with Naomi and Ophelia close behind. As they cut through the pasture, a stray goat bleated at the three warriors. They ignored it and continued on their way, forcing the goat to bolt back toward the rest of the herd. Panic rippled through the sea of hooves, sending the farmers scrambling to regain order.
"Let's hurry before someone notices," Ophelia said, throwing her hood over her head. "The villagers here don't… you know."
Naomi stifled a growl. "They're just superstitious, Ophelia. Don't take it personal."
"It still bothers me," Ophelia mumbled.
"We know you're thinking about your old home," Toru said. "You have a new family now. Those assholes are not worth the thought."
Toru gave Ophelia a wide grin, but she seemed to have tucked her head deeper into her hood. "Come on" he cooed, wrapping his around her small shoulders.
More silence. Ophelia's shoulders sunk lower, but Toru refused to break his embrace, walking beside her in an awkward, hunched-over position. He couldn't stand seeing Ophelia so sullen, not to mention she was sure as hell not in the mental state to confront a pure-blood. When his whimpers and nuzzles also failed, he glanced at Naomi for help.
However, Naomi had walked ahead of them, her eyes narrowing at the circling crows. "Guys, we need to hurry."
"Something wrong?" Toru asked.
"I'm not sure. Something's not right with Yoshirou's yōkai."
Ophelia broke away from Toru's hold and picked up her pace. "Maybe he's sick."
"I don't know an illness that affects yōkai, though," Naomi said. "Yokai can drain if an inu uses to heal, but this feels different. It"
Ophelia turned back to Toru, the gloom she had just moments ago now vanished from her face. "Can you get us to the top?"
"I most certainly can," Toru answered. He rushed behind Naomi and wrapped his arms around her waist. "Ophelia, climb on my back and hold on tight."
"Wait!" Naomi yelled, squirming frantically in Toru's hold. "You guys know it I—"
A gust of wind formed beneath Toru's feet and propelled the three over the mountainside. The moment they landed on the plateau, the stench of decay slapped Toru in the face. He glanced at Naomi and Ophelia, who both had their hand over their nose.
With a wordless agreement, they scouted the area. It wasn't long before they came upon a looming torii, with a decomposing goat carcass directly beneath it. It was exactly what it seemed. The sacrificial offering went ignored by the inu it was meant for, now reduced to whatever was hidden under the steaming blanket of maggots.
While Naomi and Ophelia studied the carcass, Toru stayed a few feet behind and stared at the torii, rubbing his fingers between his goatee. The torii served as an indicator of inu territory for the humans because of their weak sense of smell. It was an old tradition developed during a peaceful time between the humans and the inukonjous, making Yoshirou's unwarranted hostility toward the villagers all the more puzzling. "Hey, Naomi. I thought you said you sensed Yoshirou? Where is he?"
"At the other side of the mountain," Naomi answered. "His yokai seemed to have settled."
"The documents said that he's a teleporter," Ophelia added. "So we should be ready for h—"
Ophelia snapped her mouth shut as her gaze raised over Toru's head. Naomi's did the same, prompting Toru to turn around. He wrinkled his brow, but not at the snarling muzzle hovering just over his head. Instead, he stooped down to the inu's left paw. Starting from there, a fleshy creature coiled itself up the inu's arm, stopping at its elbow. Blood seeped from the sides of the unknown parasite, and judging from the caking on the inu's otherwise perfect golden-brown coat, it had been there for a while.
"What the unholy hell did you get yourself into, Bud?" Toru asked.
"That thing," Naomi said, pointing at the strange parasite. "What is it and how can it alter your yokai?"
Ophelia stepped forward, removing her hood. "Yoshirou, is that you? We were summoned from the Society and are here to assist you."
"How about I get this thing off of you?" Toru said, rubbing his fingers between the hair on his chin. "Maybe it will fall off if I freeze it?"
"Don't," Yoshirou growled, speaking for the first time. "It won't… it won't help."
Toru frowned, troubled by Yoshirou's haggard breaths than his growls. With strands of grey peppering his pointed muzzle, it wasn't a surprise that an older pure-blood like him would reject help from a group of half-breeds. Curled lips exposed rows of sharp teeth, but also hid a pained grimace. Recurring tremors threatened to break his statuesque stance. A slightly tucked tail confirmed Toru's suspicions.
"It will only take a sec," Toru said, taking a step closer to Yoshirou's left leg. "Frost bite!" The air around Toru's palms condensated into a thick, white mist at his command. As he began to encase the parasite into the frigid pocket of air, a scarlet aura radiated from Yoshirou's leg.
Toru pushed against the aura, but it grew denser. It was like pressing into dough only to find solid stone hidden inside. Just as stubborn however, Toru continued, ignoring Yoshirou's growls.
"Enough, Toru," Naomi said.
"Wait, I think I almost got—"
The scarlet aura expelled a forceful blow, launching Toru several meters skyward. He landed face-first onto the grass, the boom from the impact only surpassed by Yoshirou's pained howl.
"Idiot!" Yoshirou shouted through gritted teeth. "It told you it won't help! Ugh, moron! I have half a mind to flatten and crumple you in twenty different places!"
Toru kept his face firmly on the ground. It was better than having it showered with Yohsirou's spittal as he continued his insults. Over the snarling and cursing, Toru somehow made out Ophelia's gentle voice.
"Excuse, me," she said. "I apologize for my packmate, Yoshirou. I assure you, we will be more cautious of your plight."
Naomi nudged Toru's ribs with her boot. Whether to see if he was still alive, or just a half-hearted attempt to help him up, he wasn't sure. Whatever her reason, Toru decided to push himself to his feet, just as Yoshirou morphed into his passive form.
With silky golden-brown hair tied into a tight knot, Yoshirou was a traditional as they come. His fine robes looked like it was from a fantasy land, with reflective colors and patterns that made Toru's head throb when he stared at it too long. A wide, funnel-like sleeve draped down his right shoulder while the left was tattered and frayed, with the parasitic creature still firmly attached around his arm.
"I too, must apologize," Yoshirou said, his voice now matching his more refined form. He took Ophelia's hand and brought to his lips. "In spite of my words, I know Her Majesty would not take kindly to me turning her…," he paused and cast Toru a glare, "to me turning her warrior into origami."
Unappreciation from those he try to help wasn't new to Toru. It was part of being a Society Warrior. Each assignment either earned apprehension from the humans they or loathing from the pure-bloods. Granted, it's usually a lot more subtle than Yoshirou's outburst, but this mission was turning out to be far from standard.
"Your apology is unnecessary," Ophelia said. "A Society fairy grew concerned, and asked us to investigate. We are here to help however we can."
Ophelia's hand had yet to leave Yoshirou's grasp.
Thank you for your concern," he responded, his gaze back on Ophelia. A smile tugged his lips, the kind of smile that Toru was all too familiar with.
Ophelia returned the smile, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear with her free hand. "Thank you, Yoshirou. The honor to serve you is ours."
Ophelia had calmed Yoshirou down and brought the assignment back on track. She was doing her job and doing it well, just when Toru thought she would have difficulties. He have should been proud, but something plucked his nerves. The sensual tone in Ophelia's voice, her hand still in his, or perhaps it was how their conversation continued as if neither he nor Naomi where there.
Toru didn't realize he was growling until Naomi jabbed her elbow into his side.
Yoshirou took notice as well, cutting Toru a glare. "Please excuse my harsh response to your assistance." He raised arm, pale and swollen from the parasitic creature. "As you can see, I am not quite myself."
"We are well aware," Naomi said."I can only hope your howl didn't cause a goat stampede down below."
Yoshirou's face flushed a pink hue, a hilarious contrast to his otherwise refined and cultured demeanor. Atta girl, Naomi.
Ophelia leaned toward the parasite on Yoshirou's arm. "It looks like a living creature," she said, looking back at Toru. "But I have no idea what type of magic it used to knock you back. It's definitely not dark sorcery."
Naomi peered over Ophelia's shoulder, taking a closer look at the parasite as well. "Yoshirou, you must report to the Society."
"That is not an option," Yoshirou said. "I will not abandon my territory."
"You can't resist that thing much longer," Ophelia said. "And you're putting your own subjects at risk."
"We have company, guys," Naomi said.
Toru turned toward the cliff as the group grew silent. In the distance, he spotted a figure of a large man slowly advancing. "Is this guy a friend of yours, Yoshirou?"
"Takeshi," Yoshirou growled, baring his teeth at the approaching stranger. He dropped his injured arm and straightened his posture. Sweat immediately beaded on his face, the only sign of his continued pain.
"I guess that's a 'no'," Toru sighed. Of course, another inu would sense Yoshirou's weakness and take advantage of him. "We have no time for this shit."
"You stand back and let me deal with h—" Yoshirou's legs buckled beneath him and a pained growl followed. Naomi hurried beside him, taking his good arm around her shoulders for support.
"Yoshirou, don't push yourself," Ophelia said. "Stand down and I'll tell him to leave."
Toru raised a brow. "You?"
"He'll understand once I tell we're under the Queen's orders."
Frowning, Toru threw another glance at Takeshi. The stranger's stride was long and confident, very out of place for a visitor in another's inukonjou's territory. His boots didn't make a sound against the gravel, nor did the buckles on his leather armor. His slick dark hair made the focus in his jade eyes all the more apparent. There was no mistaking it. They were being stalked.
Unfortunately, Ophelia dashed away to the stranger before he get a single word out.
"Toru," Naomi said, grunting under Yoshirou's weight. "Give me a hand."
"She'll be fine. Stop playing old papa dog and help."
"But she can't… uh..." Meeting Naomi's glare, Toru's voice retreated back down his throat. Defeated, he took a deep breath.
Just because this guy and Yoshirou seem to have some sort of grudge didn't mean Ophelia was in any danger. What Toru saw as stalking could simply be the pridefulness that usually come with being an earth-breed. His downcast, seemingly disapproving glare was just the result of Ophelia's small stature. With her head barely reaching his chest, staring down at her was necessary to make eye contact.
In fact, he was one of the largest earth-breeds Toru had ever seen, even bigger than Kana, although just slightly. Nonetheless, Ophelia spoke to him with her hands innocently tucked behind her back. If she didn't detect any malicious intent, why was he so upset?
Toru couldn't make out her words from that distance. Ophelia was likely speaking with the same soft, friendly voice she used to calm Yoshirou earlier. Between the three of them, she had the eloquence to tell a guy to piss off without causing a commotion. At ease, Toru helped Yoshirou keep his bearings, grabbing his side opposite of Naomi.
That brief moment he tore his gaze away from Ophelia was all it took. By the time he looked back, Takeshi had summoned a huge mace into his hand.
"Society scum…" Takeshi growled, raising his mace over his head. "Die!"