The dismal visibility coupled with the accursed gloom made running straight an arduous task, much less keeping track of the now-vanished Aya. A new sort of panic tore at me now, struck with the realization that Rilofene’s protection from the Visitors was now steadily being borne away from us at an alarming rate. I had to get to Aya and Short Stuff before they could pull out of range. Easier said than done; I had no clues as to how I was supposed to keep track of or catch up with the speed demon of a tengu. My only hope now lay with Nue or Sunshines.
’Aya is still bearing west-northwards about four of your human minutes away from us. The blizzard is hindering both her orientation and flight. We can still make it.’
At least the old hag could serve as my radar for now. Bringing up an arm to shield my eyes against the sting of the wind I pressed onwards, thrusting all other speculation and doubts aside as I refocused on my run. Aya may be hindered by the weather but so was I; the snow underfoot had grown thick enough to make breaking through them a tremendous effort but like much of the other things happening at the moment, I had no choice in the matter but to take it head-on.
A sense of danger, a silent scream within, a primordial sixth sense bred into humans all shouted a sudden warning on what was approaching from behind; the sensation of impending death. Without really knowing why, I forced my knees to buckle and rolled to one side of the narrow pathway just in time to avoid twin lances of light searing the ground, turning earth to blackened slate as they ripped downwards from where I had formerly been running on the pathway. Alert to the presence of a new threat now, I pressed hard into a crevice of the canyon wall, scanning the darkened skies in futility. Who the hell-
An all too familiar voice shouted a stern challenge, momentarily disorienting me as the words echoed about the canyon. ‘Come out, witch. There’s nothing you can do now.’
With Aya around, there was no surprise as to who the new interloper was. It could only be Tenma, come at last to fulfil his promise of my execution. Even then, why had he missed me on his first attack? Unless he was having great difficulty trying to see through the storm as well. Tenma favoured aerial superiority over the ground; he would not come down unless he had no other choice. I decided to test my assumptions.
I gave a quick shout from my hiding place. ‘You’re just like Aya, Tenma! Single-minded and incapable of seeing things from another perspective!’ Darting surreptitiously out from the crevice a moment after, I moved along the canyon wall stealthily as I frantically searched about for my next hidey hole. One came up soon enough in the form of a shadowed recession in the rocky face which I proceeded to press into. Scant seconds slipped by before my previous hiding spot exploded in a shower of rocks and light. So Tenma was having visibility problems after all.
Taking advantage of his momentary confusion, I lunged out from the recession and bolted down the path as I threw all pretence of stealth away in a suicidal rush. I had no idea how far away I was from the village but there was little room for further thought now. Short Stuff was getting further and further away with every moment I wasted with Tenma.
His confusion didn’t last long; giving a loud curse I could hear all the way from where I was he lashed out once more, this time in random. Webs of crisscrossing light from behind carved through the narrow defile, flinging rocks and debris into the air in their violent sweep. A quick backward glance was all I needed to guess the trajectory of the incoming beams of death before I managed to avoid the first wave with frantic sidesteps and a last second dive to the side.
My momentary evasive dance was all Tenma had needed to catch up with me; the infuriated tengu carried a vortex of snow and rock dust with him overhead as he sped past me and broke into a complete stop just a few feet away in the air. He wouldn’t even waste time to gloat, pivoting around and preparing to pass his long overdue judgment on me as the air around us waved from the displaced temperature of danmaku generation.
The silent silhouette rapidly forming behind him would never give him a chance to finish. Sliding to a stop behind Tenma, Nue lashed forth with all three of her snake appendages, whipping Tenma out of the air and straight into the nearest rocky outcropping. My erstwhile antagonist vanished in a shower of pebbles and porous debris as his body became a new addition to the canyon wall.
Nue effortlessly tore through the snow towards me, followed by a quick shout. ‘Where is she?!’
Her arrival was a fortunate turn of events. I had feared that I would take too long in backtracking all the way to the village but she had saved me the trouble by coming here herself. Momentarily surprising her as I latched onto the malformed body, I pointed back at the village as I mounted the scaled back despite her protests. ‘Get going or we’ll to lose her!’
Regardless of the developing situation, she chose not to waste more time as she complied, spinning around with an agile turn that almost threw me off her back before I could right myself. Rapidly picking up speed, she repeated her former question in desperation, ‘WHERE?!’
I couldn’t tell where the gale was blowing from but if Nue couldn’t pick up their scent it could only mean Aya was downwind. Frantically, I picked at my mind in vain as I tried to remember what Kanako had said earlier. Fortunately, she chose to make things easier by giving me a new update on their positional fix.
’West slightly north-westwards. We’re lagging behind by six of your human minutes.’
‘Go through the village square and up the western path!’ I shouted to the leather-bound head as I gave Nue a hard slap. With a clear path picked now, she pounded at the ground with renewed purpose, steadily picking up speed and forcing me to grip harder on whatever I could find on her scaly body.
Without warning she angled left and right before leaping into the nearest wall, bouncing off of it explosively as the all too familiar lances of light begun their renewed assault from behind. Our mutual friend hadn’t taken long to recover from Nue’s blow. With a quick glance to her rear, she grunted out loud in rhythm with her pounding legs. ‘We’re taking to the air. Hold tight!’
‘No!’ I shouted back at her before she could launch us upwards. I had reasoned that we would be more of a disadvantage in the air compared to the ground. The skies were Tenma’s stomping grounds and my added weight on Nue would only impede her flight. At least here on the ground, we had the blizzard to partially shield us and Nue wouldn’t be in an even more exposed place for danmaku fire. Thinking quickly, I gritted out my words with great effort, struggling to make myself heard above the cacophony of our run. ‘Stay grounded, go through the village square. Break through the western path into the woods and we’ll have a chance there!’
With a guttural roar she barrelled down the path without question, choosing to trust my judgment for now. Behind us, Tenma gave no indication of letting up, continuously pouring forth waves of plasma in an attempt at pinning us down. The scales had tipped in my favour now, for he would now need to deal with Nue’s inhuman speed as well as his limited vision and mobility. I could almost smell his frustration and hear his inaudible curses as he kept the desperate chase up. There was no doubt they were after Short Stuff; Tenma would do anything in his power to impede our chase now that he realized I had the means to reach her.
It hadn’t taken long to break past the outskirts of the village and into the village itself. From Nue’s rhythmic pumping it was easy to see the chimera had put her singular focus into her speed now, ignoring the toll it was taking on her body. Tenma had momentarily ceased his harassing attacks, probably due to his predictable reluctance in bringing innocent villagers into the fray. The sights of the village rocked past at an alarming rate and we had slipped past the brewery within a matter of seconds. I managed to catch sight of the master-apprentice pair standing and watching the commotion with wide-eyed wonder before we went out of sight, but there was little time to stop and explain everything.
We thundered past the brewery and subsequently, the village square before the path sloped upwards once more. The hounding figure above resumed his chase as he finally realized where we were heading towards. Without pausing, Nue proceeded to sweep all manner of village junk skywards with quick whippings of her rear appendages before turning to spit gobs of what looked like gray snakes at the random objects. I watched with wordless awe as the common garbage flickered in and out of sight in a small chromatic cloud whenever one of the independently moving vipers wrapped around them. The blotches of colours were playing tricks with my visual perception and much to my shock, what eventually emerged from the puffs of black turned out not to be worthless everyday objects, but massive black butterflies which proceeded to ascend towards Tenma.
The swarm momentarily obscured his line of sight and flight path, buying us enough time to rapidly tear our way up the exposed pathway leading into the woods beyond.
‘Perfect,’ Keizo muttered low at the rapidly disappearing beast. He had thought they had long graduated from such a mess. Turning to his apprentice, he urgently propelled the oni towards the brewery with one firm hand. The boy stuttered in protest as he was swept back into the dwelling.
‘We’re just going to leave them like this?’
‘No, boy. You will.’ Keizo wasn’t sure he could do much against youkai but he could only try. A more rational part of him nagged at him to calm down and sit things through, but the other wilder part of him would have none of it. ‘Get me Yuugi's crossbow and sit tight. I’m heading out. Hurry.’
There would be no room for error.
She had to be honest with herself. There was very little chance Vana could be easily taken out, and no reason to do so as well. She still needed the elder to play his role in the coming conflict and she had to keep herself alive long enough to buy precious time. Eyeing the well-built figure warily, she mirrored his every move as they danced a stately waltz in the blizzard-filled air above the canyon, swinging about in a slow circle as they faced off.
Even across the roaring winds, Vana's voice carried through loud and clear, seemingly defying the winds themselves as he spoke effortlessly. 'I've heard much of you especially since of late. It is gratifying to finally be able to see you in the flesh, my beauty.'
Yukari froze momentarily at his words. Did Vana know? Was he merely testing her reaction, hoping the twitch of the eye or a glazed frown would expose her charade wide open? No, he couldn't possibly suspect she was Enka all along. The doppelganger had been perfect and had performed flawlessly throughout the years without drawing so much as a hint of suspicion.
She swung her parasol in a half arc to point it at Vana, both a threat and a greeting at the same time. 'I know why you're here. You're not getting her; none of you will. She's mine.'
The elder gave a short laugh, unperturbed by her claims. 'So quick to call her your property. First Iyen-Shuren and now you?' His casual expression solidified into a serious mask, belying his youthful appearance. 'Know your place, infant. You are addressing one of the First Three. Did your mother put you up for this? Stand aside or I will strike you down here and now, daughter of Enka or not.'
Despite the growing anxiety within herself, she found a moment to experience pleasure. So he was still oblivious after all. Smiling sweetly to the figure hovering in the solitary night, she replied demurely, 'Surely you won't try to harm little old me now, would you? The Triumvirate would not take the news of your brash assault on a helpless lady well.'
At her words, Vana seemingly lost all manner of composure and his face grew stormy. The blizzard's veil of white could barely cover the anger that was boiling forth. In an instant, the snow-shrouded silhouette melted out of existence only to reappear right before Yukari, whipping forth an open palm in her direction, stopping just short of her chest and drawing a quick finger in a random pattern, leaving tiny trails of ghostly light as he did.
In alarm, she glided back several feet from the still form of Vana in a split second, instantly popping open the parasol to brace against what she suspected must come next. Innumerable snowflakes previously tearing through the wide open space slowed, stilled, and pulled together to form a solid glacier in the space of a thought and she barely had time to brace against the open parasol before the wall slammed right through her.
The cascade of shattering ice from the aerial avalanche tumbled about the night sky for long moments and she waited patiently behind the damaged parasol as she closed her eyes and tried to peer through gaps in space, attempting to detect where Vana would strike next despite the overwhelming din of cracking ice threatening to disrupt her concentration.
There, right above her, preparing to compress all the ice still falling all around in order to crush her within the unnatural glacier. Drawing a slit behind her, she allowed herself to fall earthwards as she spun the useless parasol nimbly and flung it with inhuman strength directly at the elder. The improvised missile went through layers of ice effortlessly and right into Vana just as the gap slid shut.
The impact barely staggered the elder, but he would still spare a moment to look down at the makeshift spear before lifting a hand to pull the annoyance free, simultaneously beginning his relocation into a new offensive position. He would never get to move. A presence behind him grasped the other end of the parasol, stopping his relocation before speaking in a near-whisper.
'Bounded Field - "Curse of Dreams and Reality"'
Ripping the parasol free from Yukari's grasp, he managed to dislodge himself just in time to see an explosion of light erupting in his face. 'YOU WHORE!' he managed to roar out in fury before the concentrated spread of annihilating plasma blew the upper half of his body apart, sending smoking chunks of crusted meat sailing backwards.
Sliding free from the gap, she dropped back into the blizzard-filled sky, watching the rapid descent of Vana's remains as it fell to the village directly below. A sense of great unease gripped her. That had been too easy. She turned immediately to make her retreat.
‘I jest. Did you enjoy your short-lived rush of victory?' a snide voice from behind her commented at the same time a hand had settled on her right shoulder. This time, she felt a twinge of true fear. Bringing her other arm swinging about, she tried to ward off the iron grip and pump a fistful of danmaku into Vana's torso.
Too late. He breathed out in disdain. 'Die for me, pretty thing.'
The object of our momentary refuge finally came into view; the sparse woods littering the western portion outside the valley. With good coverage from the foliage overhead and a navigable terrain underneath we were now in a far better position to resume our pursuit. Soon enough, Aya. Soon enough, I thought grimly.
'Hang tight!' Nue rasped in her berserker speed and I did, clinging onto the leathery neck in desperation. The scenery sped-by so quickly I could hardly see what the blur of brown and black was. Trees or rocks, I cared not. The only thing that mattered now was the object of our hard chase, getting further away with every passing second.
'Faster!' I screamed back to her amidst the pounding sounds of hooves and paws. 'We can't be separated too far from each other!' Behind us in the blizzard-filled sky, Tenma continued to rain his projectile in a wide arc earthward, trying blindly to hit us through the camouflage the trees provided, obviously unwilling to descend past the foliage into the complete dark. If there was one thing about Nue I could be thankful about, it was the fact that her chimera form possessed night vision compared to the nearly-blind bird antagonizing us. The noise of danmaku impact echoed in tandem with Nue's endlessly pounding legs and I hung onto dear life as we continued to tear through the darkness. 'Faster!' I repeated.
Kanako spoke once more, having sensed Aya's bearing during her brief respite.
'West-northwest, four minutes at our current speed. It's no use; Aya's still faster in the air.'
I cursed in silence as I formed my frantic thought. 'We don't have a choice. We have to try.' Out loud, I shouted the directions to Nue, 'West-northwest! We're losing her!'
In a roar of fury Nue sped up even more, forcibly dredging up whatever she could find within some hidden well of strength to try and keep up with the speed demon of a tengu. Bouncing along with the rhythm of her exertions, I turned slightly to keep an eye on Aya's boy-toy, watching the winged silhouette blaze through the night sky every time a gap in the foliage appeared overhead. He was getting close as well; the ruckus from our pursuit would still be clearly audible even if he was essentially blind.
A new barrage of danmaku tearing through the greenery told me he was coming close to nailing us; one or two more sweeps through the trees and he would essentially catch us in a wave of danmaku as we ran right into it. Even then, I knew the effort of keeping up with the desperate chase was tiring him as well on top of the added exertion in trying to corral us into his annihilating rain of light. We had to randomize the path we were taking to avoid certain death within the next dozen seconds or so. Gripping the scales painfully, I screamed at Nue once more. 'Cut north for twenty seconds, turn north-westwards and north again!'
'What!?' she rasped back breathlessly. 'We're going to gain even more distance between us and Yuhiko!'
'Just do it, Tenma is trying to narrow down our approach trajectory! We need to confuse him a while more. He's tiring quickly!' I retorted impatiently. There was no time for idle debates.
Nue swallowed her protest, kicking out powerfully with two mismatched feet and making an impossibly agile turn, angling sharply northwards without even breaking her stride. The abrupt turn almost flung me off of her back but I managed to compensate in time as I pressed myself against her malformed body, swinging dangerously to one side before righting myself once more. Overhead, Tenma's follow-up spray of death ripped through where we would have been scant seconds ago if Nue hadn't altered her course.
The twenty seconds had barely elapsed before Tenma caught onto our ruse. He would probably be cursing out loud now as he attempted to adjust to our evasive manoeuvre and recommenced his interception. 'Turn! Ten seconds and angle back northwards, and then go after the crow bitch again!' I shouted to Nue. Her response came in the form of another perfectly-executed turn just in time to outrun Tenma's subsequent flushing bombardment.
'Hurry. She continues to gain dist- Hold! Aya is turning back, maintaining speed.'
The tengu was up to something, I was sure of it. Nue as well, evident from her sudden decrease in speed and tensed body at the confusing change in her prey. What the hell was she planning? Our now-opposing approach rapidly decreased the distance between hunter and hunted. In a few seconds more, Aya would be right on top of us.
I gave the scaly neck a hard slap as I suddenly realized what they were going to do. 'Go right, they're going to try and catch us in a pincer!' The spur rattled Nue and she pulled a third sharp turn, roaring a deep grunt in tandem with her burst of speed. Lances of light crisscrossed from above and the chimera narrowly avoiding being sliced clean as she ducked low and slid through an X-shaped pillar of plasma. If I hadn't been pressed tight against Nue I would be missing my upper torso as well. The smell of superheated air was plainly tangible as we slipped through the deadly show of light.
'Great, we're being double-teamed!'
'Thank you for the enlightening observation, Miss Obvious!' Nue retorted in anger as she began to assume a randomized escape path, now the hunted instead of the hunter. 'Any more wonderful ideas!?'
I waited for the din from the two crow’s subsequent assault to pass, thinking hard even as I struggled to cling onto Nue. She was rapidly tiring as well despite how much Nue tried to hide it. So that was Aya's gambit; instead of trying to outrun us, she decided to just put an end to us right here and now and escape with Short Stuff unmolested once she did. From the looks of things, she was close to succeeding. Once Nue could no longer keep up with the evasive manoeuvres, they would move in for the kill together. Another diversion might be necessary to buy us a little more time. 'The vipers you spat in the village. Do it again!'
'The seeds are useless now, he won't fall for the same trick twice!' came the guttural reply.
Damnable birds. Mentally, I trashed about for a way out of our latest predicament. At the very least Rilofene's shroud of protection had returned to us for now, alleviating one of my many worries.
They were blessed with a small moment of peace and quiet as the air cooled down considerably. In the sudden stillness, Ran knew that the inu had no intentions of winning or running. She recognized that her opponent sought the same thing she did; to delay the opposition and prevent the other from moving to assist their allies.
Dropping low into the endless expanse of white covering the ground above the canyon, she waited for the first signs of telltale movement which would give away the presence of the inu, thankful for the fact that her mostly-white garments made for excellent camouflage. Unfortunately, the same could be said for her opponent. Was it fate that decided they should be at an equal advantage?
Amidst the stirrings of snowflakes came a barely-visible puff of white in the far off distance. Instantly, she kicked out in a powerful launch and tore towards the sign of movement. True to her animalistic nature she slipped agilely through the expected wall of danmaku that came in response to her approach. With an extended hand ostensibly hardened into claws, she gave one last jump and saw her quarry in range.
A splash of silver rose to greet her attack, the accursed blade deflecting the downward swipe with an audible clang. It wasn’t enough to wound the inu, but Ran could see that her blocked strike had staggered her opponent slightly. Taking advantage of her momentary stumble, she lashed out with a low kick and sent the figure in white sailing a few feet backwards in an audible grunt of pain. Determined to deliver the finishing blow, she grimly sprang towards the helpless inu, ready to punch out her hammering heart.
Instead, the white-clad figure quickly spun on her earthen bed, executing an impressive recovery and flipping backwards to bring her blade to bear against Ran’s incoming rush. For a brief moment, Ran saw her buried feet spread into a bracing stance and the next, a hail of brown and white rose to greet her as the sword swung upwards in a neat arc. The loose earth and snow had responded well to the compressed shockwave of air she had let loose to break Ran's attack.
Momentarily blinded, she broke her rush and dove aside, tasting the iron in the air as the inu’s next retaliatory strike glassed the debris still tumbling back to the ground. Additional pinpoints of radiance swept through the space next to her as she continued her desperate roll. Her opponent was forcing her to remain grounded as she followed up with consecutive sweeps. Unable to get a solid footing, she couldn’t chance springing back towards the inu. A few more seconds now and she would be caught by the torrent of wildly-flying danmaku.
Remarkably, the assault stopped for brief moments and Ran took the opportunity to force herself up into the air, catching the sight of her opponent as she did. The inu had paused in surprise, staring at curious protrusions on her chest before a stain of red washed through her white hakama. Crossbow bolts. In alarm, she turned away from Ran to scan the darkness behind her, reflexively sending a flushing wave of danmaku into the blizzard without an apparent target in sight.
Intent on making use of the new opening, Ran dove straight at the inu with the hardened hands once more, reaching backwards and pouring strength into the iron-like fingers before swinging them into her opponent’s head. In her growing bloodlust, she relished in the feeling of ripping away her opponent's flesh.
Despite the brutal speed of her attack, the blow was barely avoided with a quick sidestep and Ran’s hands tore through the space the inu had formerly occupied with nothing more than a few drops of blood and skin instead of an entire gout of meaty head. With panicky haste, her opponent reassumed an offensive stance after her close retreat, swinging the blade upwards in an attempt at cleaving Ran apart. Mirroring her earlier actions, she bent at an awkward angle to dodge the counterattack, simultaneously losing her balance and slipping on the snow. One frantic hand-sweep in the direction of her opponent sent a narrow column of danmaku outwards, momentarily denying the inu a second chance at a counter-attack.
Nevertheless, the figure recommenced her advance without so much as a pause to catch her breath, blurring slightly in a high-speed feint to bypass Ran's poor attempt at a defence before reappearing with a raised hand even as Ran struggled to reposition herself into a favourable spot. Before the outstretched hand could deliver a round of deadly danmaku, several more wooden protrusions sprouted from it without warning, accompanied by an audible twang and the swishing of projectiles in flight. The inu’s cry of pain and anger followed almost immediately as she reeled to one side from the impact of the bolts, her sword collapsing soundlessly on the fresh snow as she lost her grip on it.
Lunging towards the now-vulnerable inu, Ran bent low and forced all the strength she could into a counter-clockwise swing, sending her opponent spinning upwards as the powerful uppercut struck her head forcefully and flung the inu insensate into the air for a few moments. Scant seconds after the flailing body had succumbed to gravity's pull she took hold of the fallen blade and prepared for the finishing blow, fully intent on loping the inu’s head off before she could recover.
A hand intercepted her grip on the iron moments before it could swing downwards with full force, forcing her to redirect her bloodlust at her new antagonist. In a dizzying wave, she fought the urge to lash out as her gaze fell on Keizo’s grim face. The healer hung onto an intricately carved crossbow with his other hand. In haste, he hissed at her quickly to calm her down, ‘Easy! Easy! No reason to give her the Iron Death.’
Her head cleared some more and the grip on the blade relaxed as she let the weapon slip to the cold ground. She finally realized she had almost permanently killed the inu in her mindless rage before Keizo stopped her in time. Seeing the figure stir slightly, she gave the inu an inhuman stomp in the heart, instantly crushing the beating organ and her opponent grew still as she exhaled her last, soft breath the gale effortlessly carried away. Next to her, Keizo visibly winced at the raw demonstration of brutality as he took a step backwards. She might not deserve a permanent death, but it didn’t mean they could let her run loose for now. It would take the inu a few days to recover from her crushed heart.
Turning towards the healer she pulled her disarrayed clothing back into place before asking him, ‘How did you know I was here?’
‘You can thank Reiji for that. Boy has a good nose,’ he replied grimly as he kept his eyes on the fallen youkai. ‘What the hell is going on?’
Ran wasn’t sure, but she would find out soon enough. ‘Later. My thanks for your assistance, but get back to the brewery and stay there. We’re not out of danger yet.’ So saying, she left the healer as she lifted into the dark skies without another word. There was something wrong with her master; she could almost smell it. Worried, she made haste towards the two presences she could feel in the far-off distance.
Keizo saw her off silently before returning his gaze to the inu, in conflict with himself over a new dilemma. If he helped the fallen youkai he would be adhering to the healer’s code but it would also mean assisting an obvious enemy. Shrugging mentally, he flipped the surprisingly light inu up onto one shoulder and made his way back to the shortcut. He would deal with the headache later.