Ei didn’t know where the scream had come from; it was so loud it echoed everyone.
She looked around but found nothing. Without closing her eyes, she enhanced her hearing, trying to sense anyone, or anything, near them.
But it was hard. The scream had put fear into her heart.
Calm down… calm down, Eiko… don’t let your fears dull your blade, she told herself, trying to control her breathing.
It worked. But as her awareness expanded, she felt nothing around them.
Then, when the silence covered the mountain, another screamed echoed.
Ei covered her ears, but it made no difference; the screech was so loud the girl could feel it reverberating inside her. She felt sick and almost lost her consciousness. Damn it… I can’t… If I faint now, I might die…
Panting and grabbing her chest, the swordswoman managed to keep her consciousness.
There’s no way… that was from… a human… but I don’t… know any animal… that can scream… so loud…
But there was something the girl could tell; whatever being had screamed, it wasn’t because of pain. That scream was full of rage.
The swordswoman tightened her grip around the handle of her sword. As her body stopped trembling, she looked around once again.
But, in the clearing, it was hard to determine where the scream had come from.
No…it’s more like it’s coming from the mountain itself…
Once again a heavy and eerie silence filled the clearing.
It was as if everything was still, cold, dead.
Then they heard footsteps coming to them from the top of the mountain.
Ei and Tadayoshi towards the sound, standing before the priest with their swords raised.
“Run!” a voice shouted. “Don’t stop!”
Moments later, five people entered the clearing. They were looking back in the direction they had come from and didn’t notice the people before them.
At once Ei knew they were soldiers from the fight that destroyed the village at the foot of the mountain. But their armors were too dirty and worn out, as if they had gone through tough situations without any maintenance.
Though it was faint and scratched, three soldiers had the same emblem on their armor; three swords intersecting in the middle. The other two had four yellow cherry blossom petals inside a circle. She had seen that symbol before.
So the soldiers did run to the mountain… and there’s no way the villagers wouldn’t notice them in their territory… they lied to us.
The soldiers froze when they looked forward and saw the three strangers before them. For a brief moment, the girl thought they could avoid the fight. But when the soldiers saw their swords, they drew their own weapons.
“We’re not sacrifices for that monster!” one of them screamed and before Tadayoshi could say anything, they attacked.
Shit! They’re so frightened they won’t believe even if we say we don’t wanna fight them!
“Ryuu, stay in the temple,” her master said, and his friend nodded and obeyed.
The priest almost tripped when Ei took her bag and threw to him.
The soldiers ignored him, completely focused on the swordsman and his disciple, the people who carried weapons.
“Ei,” the master whispered without looking at her.
“Yes,” the disciple whispered back.
There was no need for him to say. She already understood how they should fight. But even if Ei knew it was their plan, it was hard for her to control her anxiety as they faced their opponents side by side, waiting for them to come close enough and then surprise them.
Don’t forget it, Eiko, she told herself without taking her eyes off the soldiers. Don’t forget…
There was a lot she complained and disliked about Tadayoshi’s trainings and way of teaching. But even so, his lessons were burned in her mind. Especially one that she requested herself. The still remembered that day, when she was still far from fighting by her master’s side.
“How do you fight many enemies?” Ei asked as she got out of her improvised hideout she had found when the assassins attacked.
“The best way is you don’t. It’s stupid to fight when you’re outnumbered,” Tadayoshi replied, tearing a piece from the assassin’s clothes and cleaning the blood from his sword.
“So that’s why you always fight?” Ei jumped over the dead body. She recognized the face quickly. It was the one she exchanged a blow before hiding.
They had been ambushed in the middle of a plain field with little trees. The group was too organized to be simple bandits. They wore green cloaks that blend with the grass and when the appeared, it was as if they had come out of nowhere.
What made Ei wary was the fact that she didn’t sense any of them, even though she had been training hard to sense people’s presence. But the fact that even her master only noticed them in the last instant before they attack made her somewhat less dejected.
When he told her to hide, Ei listened to him and ran. But to her bad luck, she went in the direction of one of the assassins.
The girl had been training with a sword for a while at the time, but even she was aware she wasn’t anywhere ready to fight. However, that didn’t mean she was completely defenseless before an enemy.
When the assassin attacked, Ei drew her sword and raised it above her head, ready to redirect the weapon’s trajectory. It was the first movement her master had taught her. But there was a difference; unlike Tadayoshi, the man before her wasn’t teaching her. If he had to, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill the girl.
When the blades met, Ei felt the entire weight of his killing intent behind it. Even if it was only for a moment, her entire body trembled. Gritting her teeth and using all her strength, she managed to deflect the attack, and the assassin’s sword dug into the ground. Even with her arm throbbing painfully, Ei didn’t lose the chance and slashed at the man’s leg.
The cut was superficial; it barely cut through the man’s skin. But it was enough to make him surprised. He took an instant too long to react, and before he could do anything to her, Ei felt a blade cutting the air above her head. The girl could only watch as the sword slashed the man in the chest.
Ei didn’t wait to see if the assassin was dead or not; she ran as far as she could from the fight without turning her head.
“You know, I liked you more when you got angry easily. This Ei from now isn’t that much fun to tease.” Tadayoshi used another piece of cloth to clean and another to wrap the wound on his leg. “What did you notice?”
The fight was so fast and intense she barely had time to understand what had happened. But there was one thing did stick in her mind.
“You never stood still. You were always moving and didn’t waste any attack. You either killed or disarmed them with each blow.” Though Ei would never tell him, she was awestruck when he broke the assassin’s weapon and slash at his eyes. “Ah, and you never let them get behind you at any time,” she added when she remembered.
Every time her master sensed an enemy around his back, he changed positions or charged and aimed at whoever was closest.
“Fighting against many opponents at the same time is stupid, but not impossible. Normally I try to run away, but with you by my side, it’s harder,” he said in a tired voice, showing his hand to his disciple. When she handed him the bamboo bottle, Tadayoshi drank it all in two gulps.
Despite his words, Ei knew he wasn’t blaming her. And even if did, she wouldn’t let it bother her; there was nothing she could do to change that at the moment.
“When running away isn’t an option, you need to observe everything. If the enemies are weak, it’s easier to just kill the leader right away. Almost every time the rest get scared and run away. But when they aren’t weak, or have more experience, or worse, if they’re used to fight as a group, standing still is the same as getting yourself killed. Have you ever played sword fight against an adult? Or just an older kid?”
Ei nodded. The girl used to play fight with her cousin and the other kids. They pretended to be samurais and tried to hit each other with sticks, imagining those feeble pieces of wood were mighty swords.
Even if her cousin was almost a grown man, the kids won over half the times. When they all ganged up on him, he had no chance.
“Then you already know weaklings can defeat stronger opponents if they have the numbers. Even the lords can die if they underestimate their peasants.”
He flashed a smiled and Ei knew her master was thinking about his own master. Then Tadayoshi shook his head and turned back to her.
“But there are ways to fight many people at once. First, be quick and never stop moving. Don’t give the opportunity for them to use the numerical advantage on you. And never leave your back open. If you can, kill the weakest as fast as you can with less moves as possible. That makes the enemies surprised and you have to take advantage of that,” he said. Then he smiled at her. “And if you’re fighting with someone by your side, protect each other’s back.”
All those memories came to Ei as she took a deep breath.
As the enemies came closer, she knew whom she would fight against. Without exposing that, she focused on her adversary, leaving the others to her master.
The soldier was one with the four cherry blossom petals in a circle stamped on his armor. From the way he moved, Ei could tell he was just an ashigaru, a foot soldier, the lowest rank in the armies. Even so, she couldn’t, no, she wouldn’t underestimate him.
Despite his state, he was a man, an adult, a soldier, an enemy.
But despite facing an armed enemy, the soldier wasn’t truly seen the girl.
Ei smiled in her mind. As a swordswoman, she should be angry at being ignored once again. But the girl quelled down those feeling. Because she knew she should use everything in her disposal in order to survive another day.
But soon the swordswoman realized the soldier before her wasn’t like the others.
The man wasn’t paying attention to her, but not because he was underestimating her. In fact, he didn’t even seem to notice the girl with a sword in her hands before him.
The soldier had his bloodshot eyes wide. Even as he faced Ei, he was always looking in the direction he and the others had come from over his shoulder.
Then Ei realized. He’s more afraid with whatever screamed… He’s taken by fear… something that dulls the blade, right, master?
But when the sounds of swords crossing filled the clearing, the man seemed to awake. Despite his fear, he turned and truly looked at the swordswoman before him for the first time. His sword trembled so much the sound of metal rattling was louder than anything else to the girl. With his eyes filled with dread, the soldier screamed and ran towards the swordswoman.
His attack, a vertical slash, was simple and direct.
Ei didn’t even bother to block or redirect the blade. At the last minute, she avoided with a sidestep. Then she aimed her sword at his waist, on the joint of the armor, one of the weak spots. Just as Tadayoshi had taught her.
The soldier took too long to react, and her blade hit him.
Yes, the swordswoman thought. But at once she knew her attack was too shallow.
Even as his screams of pain filled the clearing, the soldier managed to jump to the side and get away from her. He shut his mouth and touched his wound, but never took his eyes off the girl.
Overtaken by her urge to end the fight and help her master, Ei advanced. This time she aimed the tip of her blade at his throat and put all her weight behind the sword.
But the soldier reacted. More out of reflex than ability, he raised his arm to defend his throat.
Shit! I put too much strength, she thought. But it was too late to change the direction of her attack.
Ei’s sword struck the gauntlet with full force. Despite the enemy falling backwards, she felt the impact. The rebound was too strong, and her hands went a little numb as her arms trembled. She lost her balance and the control of her weapon.
The man was surprised at himself. But it only lasted a moment. Despite his fear, he was still a soldier. He stood up and attacked.
His sword seemed almost still compared to Tadayoshi’s as it came towards her head. Even so, Ei had no way to react in time without her balance. The only thing she could do was block the attack, and she knew she would lose in terms of strength.
When the blades met, Ei threw all her strength to the side, trying to redirect the arc of the attack. The swordswoman managed, but barely. Despite avoiding the mortal blow, her own sword dug deep into her shoulder.
If it was the edge, I’d be dead now…
Ignoring her pain, she jumped sideways to get away from that pressure.
The soldier lost his balance and fell forward.
The girl didn’t waste her chance to catch him off guard
Without rushing, Ei attacked again, aiming at the joint under his arm with a stab. She put all that was left of her strength into her blade.
The sword pierced his flesh deep enough to be fatal.
When she pulled Asahi back, the soldier put a hand over his wound and stared at his blood-covered hand. He opened and closed his mouth, but no sound came from him. He looked at the girl who had killed him and then fell forward.
With her breathing shallow, Ei stared into his eyes until it lost its glow.
Even though he was taken over by fear, I had trouble fighting him… I’m still far from fighting by master’s side for real, the girl thought, with an emptiness filling her. But I have don’t time to think about this.
The next moment, the swordswoman exhaled, letting go of those feeling. Then she swung her sword to clean the blood and turned to the other soldiers.
Her master had killed two, but the others seemed too frightened to keep fighting. They lowered their swords, completely ignoring the swordsman before them. All they seemed able to do was stare at the direction they came.
Tadayoshi didn’t take his eyes off them. But the next moment, he widened his eyes and lowered his sword. His face had lost its color as he turned to look in the same direction as the soldiers.
Ei froze for a moment. What could leave Tadayoshi like that?
Gulping, she took a deep breath and honed her senses. Coming from the top of the mountain, she felt something.
The girl had trouble breathing. There’s… something there… Something big, strong… and evil…
At once she knew that was the source of the screams that shook the mountain. Her instincts told her.
A quake shook the clearing.
Her entire body trembled and her knees cave in. Without letting go of her sword, the girl hugged herself, but the shivers did not stop. It was as if she was drowning in frozen waters. Ei couldn’t breathe.
Her head became dizzy and her body numb. She couldn’t stop the urge to vomit.
The two soldiers screamed, dropped their swords and ran to the other direction.
Ei wanted to do the same, but her boy didn’t obey.
It’s coming… to us, she wanted to say to her master, but she had no voice.
The girl could feel the ground shaking. She tried standing, but her body still hadn’t recovered her strength. Even using her sword to support herself, Ei had trouble to stand.
The trees shook, the leaves fell.
The entire roof of the temple cave in, the dust rising up.
Even in her weakened state, Ei thought of her teacher. But there was no need to worry.
The priest came running from the temple before it caved in completely.
Whatever was coming, would soon be in the clearing with them.
“Ryuu… protect Ei,” her master said without taking his eyes from the source of that evil presence. Even though his voice was low, the disciple could feel the urgency in his tone.
The priest took the girl by the arm and urged her to hide with him. But she didn’t budge. He pulled her harder, his hands cold and sweaty.
Ei almost fell, and the priest had to drag her out of the clearing. Without ceremony, he threw her in the bushes.
Suddenly the quakes stopped, along with everything else in the clearing.
The leaves, the sounds, the wind, everything stopped for a heartbeat.
Even Ei’s breathing had stopped. With difficulty, she managed to sit. Without enhancing her senses, she could feel something evil in the air.
A fear she had never felt before embraced her. Each part of her screamed for her to run as far as she could from there. She let go of her sword. We need… to get away… from here…
Even though she knew that, her body had stopped obeying her.
She heard a tree being ripped from the ground. And then the source of that evil presence was with them
With difficulty, she turned her head and became paralyzed.
Before her eyes, was an Oni.
Just like in the stories she had heard as a kid, it was beyond terrifying.
The demon was huge, almost three times Tadayoshi’s height. Wearing nothing but a loincloth made of bear hide. Its skin was a mixture of red and black. The teeth were huge, strong and so numerous it gave the beast the impression of a permanent smile. Each tooth was the size of a finger. Its breathing made a long fog. In one hand it had a kanabo, a club made of wood with iron encrusted, almost the thickness of a tree trunk.
Before them, was a monster, a nightmare, in the form of a human, an Oni.