As the iron war club scythed toward her head, Yukiko couldn’t help wishing she’d listened to her father.
She rolled aside as her cover was smashed to kindling, azalea petals drifting over the oni’s shoulders like perfumed snowflakes. The demon loomed above her, twelve feet high, all iron-tipped tusks and long, jagged fingernails. Stinking of open graves and burning hair, skin of polished midnight blue, eyes like funeral candles bathing the forest with guttering light. The club in its hands was twice as long as Yukiko was tall. One direct hit, and she would never see the samurai with the sea-green eyes again.
“Well, that’s clever,” she chided herself, “thinking about boys at a time like this.”
A spit-soaked roar pushed her hard in the chest, scattering a cloud of sparrows from the temple ruins at her back. Lightning licked the clouds, bathing the whole scene in fleeting, brilliant white: the endless wilds, the stranded sixteen-year-old girl, and the pit demon poised to cave in her skull.
Yukiko turned and ran.
Trees stretched in every direction, a steaming snarl of roots and undergrowth, stinking of green rot. Branches whipped her face and tore her clothes, rain and sweat slicked her skin. She touched the fox tattoo sleeving her right arm, tracing its nine tails in prayer. The demon behind her bellowed as she slipped away, over root and under branch, deeper into the suffocating heat.
She screamed for her father. For Kasumi or Akihito. For anybody.
And nobody came.
The trees erupted and toppled in front of her, cleft to the heartwood by an enormous ten-span sword. Another oni appeared through the shower of falling green, tombstone mask for a face, lips pierced with rusted iron rings. Yukiko dived sideways as the great sword swept overhead, clipping her braid. Strands of long, black hair drifted down to the dead leaves.
She was rolling to her feet when the oni snatched her up, quicker than flies, its awful grip making her cry out. She could read the blasphemous kanji symbols carved on its necklace, feel the heat gleaming from its flesh. The first oni arrived, bellowing in delight. Her captor opened its jaws, a black maggot tongue lolling between its teeth.
She drew her tanto and stabbed the demon’s hand, burying six inches of folded steel to the hilt. Blood sprayed, black and boiling where it touched her skin. The oni roared and hurled her against a nearby cedar. Her skull cracked against the trunk and she crashed earthward, rag-doll limp, the bloody knife skittering from her grip. Darkness reached up to smother her and she desperately clawed it away.
Not like this.
The first demon’s laughter reminded her of screaming children, burning on Guild pyres in the Market Square. Its wounded comrade growled in a dark, backward tongue, stalking forward and raising its sword to end her. Lightning glinted on the blade’s edge, time slowing to a crawl as the blow began to fall. Yukiko thought of her father again, wishing for all the world she’d done what she’d been told for just once in her life.
Thunder cracked overhead. A white shape burst from the undergrowth and landed on the oni’s back; a flurry of razors, broken blue sparks and beating wings. The demon shrieked as the beast tore into its shoulders, ripping mouthfuls of flesh with a blood-slick beak.
The first oni growled, swinging its war club in a broad, hissing arc. Their attacker sprang into the air, tiny whirlwinds of falling leaves and snow-white petals dancing in time to the thrashing of its wings. The demon’s tetsubo slammed across its comrade’s shoulders. Bone splintered under the war club’s impact, the oni’s spine shattering like dark, wet glass. It crumpled to the ground, its last breath spattered in steaming black across Yukiko’s terrified face.
The beast landed off-balance, digging bloodstained claws into the earth.
The oni glanced at its companion’s corpse, shifting the war club from one hand to the other. Howling a challenge, it lifted the weapon and charged. The pair collided, beast and demon, crashing earthward and tumbling about in a flurry of feathers, petals and screams.
Yukiko wiped at the sticky black in her eyes, tried to blink away her concussion. She could make out blurry shapes rolling in the fallen leaves, dark splashes staining the white azalea blossoms. She heard a crunch, a choking gurgle, and then a vast, empty silence.
She blinked into the gloom, pulse throbbing behind her eyes.
The beast emerged from the shadows, feathers stained black with blood. It stalked toward her and lowered its head, growl building in its throat. Yukiko groped toward her tanto, pawing through the muck and sodden leaves for the blade as her eyesight dimmed. The darkness beckoned, arms open wide, promising an end to all of her fear. To be with her brother again. To leave this dying island and its poisoned sky behind. To lie down and finally sleep after a decade of hiding who and what she was.
She closed her eyes and wished she were safe and warm at home, nestled in her blankets, the air tinged blue-black with the smoke from her father’s pipe. The beast opened its beak and roared, a hurricane scream swallowing the light and memories.
Darkness fell completely.
Copyright © 2012 by Jay Kristoff