Author: Indygodusk PM
Tokio Takagi teaches her students about the world after magic came, but even she can't explain the mysterious deaths plaguing her town. Hajime Saitou knows, but he has his own agenda.Rated: Fiction T - English - Supernatural/Adventure - Saitou - Chapters: 4 - Words: 24,497 - Reviews: 83 - Favs: 50 - Follows: 57 - Updated: 01-26-06 - Published: 10-30-05 - id: 2639703
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A Rurouni Kenshin Fanfiction
Disclaimer: Rurouni Kenshin and its characters do not belong to me. Oh, the wicked things I'd do with them if they did.
AN: The fight scene in chapter 1 along with the campout in chapter 3 was expanded on 06Jan06, so feel free to go back and check it out.
KC Evans and katyclismic, my beta team duo, are grenades of grammar goodness! (If you only now figured out I'm weird… I'm flattered?)
A few hours earlier….
The sun tumbled into the western forest in a froth of scarlet and gold lace clouds. The scene reminded Saitou of a gaudy bordello. At least, that was the image he was trying to hold on to. Better that than seeing significance in the way the sunset bathed the western forest and nearby buildings in blood-red hues.
Saitou felt a razor-sharp anticipation at being able to finally corner the Black Lizard. One of the few things blighting his mood was the absence of Captain Tsang. He still hadn't returned from his meeting. A runner had been dispatched hours ago to inform the Mayor and the Captain of the planned attack. Their lack of reply was disconcerting.
As a newcomer, Saitou wanted Captain Tsang's input on the area and tonight's plan of attack. It would be nice to have his sharp mind and authoritative presence. After the afternoon's confrontation with Gaurav, Saitou counted on a change of attitude among the other police officers. Tonight of all nights they had better follow orders without the questions and disrespect. If Captain Tsang were here, Saitou would be able to focus on the real threat.
Saitou also needed to confirm that the Mayor had already sent his people out to warn the western neighborhoods of tonight's action. The last thing he needed was to be attacked by some irate housewife with a frying pan for invading her yard. It sometimes frustrated him how all information had to be filtered and approved by the proper government agencies first.
For every good man in the government there seemed to be at least three idiots. Saitou could force himself to stomach such idiots, but his superiors were well aware that he would not tolerate corrupt officials. His last demonstration of that fact was probably what landed him this assignment, so far away from the capital. Such people often had carefully cultivated powerful allies. Fortunately, they weren't powerful enough to get him cashiered or killed. Saitou had powerful allies of his own. Smirking, he made a mental note to write his mother. Her birthday was coming up soon. He could send her letter along with the letter informing the capital that this situation had been resolved.
In recent months he'd been hearing whispers about a possible rebellion forming against the government. Saitou hoped they stayed rumors. A war would only make things worse for New Japan and bring into power too many of the stupid and corrupt. If necessary, he would fight against it. His loyalty rested wholly with the government of New Japan. The government was what upheld justice in this magic-besieged land.
Teams of men had been sent ahead to scout out the western edge of town, place lookouts, and set ambushes. Saitou lounged against a light-pole and looked left down the empty road to the Mayor's office. Everything was ready. He couldn't wait any longer. Turning west he watched the sun disappear under the sky's skirt of red and gold lace, coming to rest between the knees of the foothills. Definitely time to visit Aioi Tayu again. She's probably still mad that I missed visiting last week, but making up will be worth it.
Saitou rolled his shoulders to settle his gear and tossed his cigarette down. Grinding the ashes into the road, he ran his gloved hands over the small pouches attached to his belt and bandoleer in silent inventory. Ending with his hand on the hilt of his sword, Saitou blew out a breath.
"Gather up our squad, Robinson. The Captain will have to join up with us later."
"Yes, sir," Robinson replied. A shrill whistle gathered in the four other men that had been canvassing the area for traces of their quarry.
Although he tried not to show it, Saitou was pleased to have Robinson with him on this hunt. After their talk in his office, he'd found himself watching Robinson more carefully. He liked what he saw. The sandy-haired officer seemed competent and moved with a deadly grace few could match.
At first Saitou had been confused by the apparent respect offered to the young man. Throughout the afternoon he'd seen people stop by Robinson's desk to ask questions. Most of them were younger men, but a few of the older officers visited too. When Saitou went to get another cup of coffee First Lieutenant Valenti must have seen his quizzical glance, because he ambled over to talk.
For almost a minute, the man simply sipped his coffee while leaning next to Saitou on the counter. Saitou didn't want to reveal his ignorance of Robinson by asking outright, but he was growing impatient. He shifted his weight irritably. Finally the Lieutenant spoke, "His father is the Master of the Armory." Seeing Saitou's interest, he continued. "Kid learned to read using field manuals instead of school books. Officer Robinson's memorized and forgotten more about weapons than most of the men here ever learned in the first place."
Saitou frowned, "Why aren't they better trained?"
"They aren't badly trained for policing a city," the First Lieutenant defended. "It's just that the docks have their own guard, and the forest isn't dangerous because of the treaty – well, it wasn't until this mess started – so lots of the men here haven't had deal with anything that a badge and a small show of force won't solve." To Saitou, that explained a lot of questions he'd had about the men's performance to date.
"Right now, Master Robinson's busy back in the armory mustering up weapons for tonight, so those with questions go to his son instead."
"How good is he?" Saitou asked, watching Officer Robinson explain something while expertly stripping down a spear gun for the officer standing next to him.
"The son?" the First Lieutenant took another sip of steaming coffee while he thought.
"In a fight," confirmed Saitou.
"Officer Robinson can outshoot all but a few of the oldest veterans. I'm not ashamed to admit that he can even outshoot me. He also has no problem compensating when magic mucks up the works, almost seems to sense it coming."
"Is he a magic user?"
"No, Sir, wouldn't be just an officer if he was. He'd have been sent off for training if that were the case. Most figure it's just instinct."
"Hmm," Saitou's eyes narrowed in speculation.
"His blade-work and unarmed combat skills are also ranked excellent," the Lieutenant added. He looked like he wanted to add something more but was hesitating.
"But?" prompted Saitou.
The Lieutenant sighed. "Only problem is, he's spent so much time helping his father that he never got much of a chance to actually go outside and use those skills. He's always back in the armory. That or he's off training with the men. Despite being surrounded by fighters and weapons his entire life, he doesn't have much experience with uncontrolled violence. It's only been this past year he's been working the streets at all."
Saitou pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Do you trust him in the field?"
"He's still soft, emotion-wise and experience-wise," the Lieutenant said reluctantly. "I wish we had more time to-" he paused and chuckled softly under his breath. "Is there ever enough time?" He turned and looked Saitou in the eye. "He's young, but he's solid. I trust him."
Returning to the present, Saitou looked at the flamethrower strapped across Robinson's back. He expected Robinson to prove worthy of that trust. Saitou glanced one last time down the road Captain Tsang would most likely take from the Mayor's office. The only pedestrians were several young men laughing their way down the street. All of them were too short to be the Captain. He hid his sigh and turned resolutely west.
"We'll be searching the area northwest of the Aizu Academy. That includes three factories, about fifteen houses, and the open area extending out to the cordon of men in the forest," Saitou explained as they walked. "You all have descriptions of the creature. Any last questions?"
Robinson made brief eye contact with Saitou before looking away and wetting his lips nervously. "Could the Black Lizard be related to the lizard of Japanese myth? From your descriptions it does sound like a revengeful spirit with supernatural powers. Should we be worried about other legendary creatures showing up?"
Placing a hand on the hilt of his nihontou, Saitou answered. "From what I saw I doubt it. Every indication we have is that it's alone. As for it being part of a myth, it isn't really a lizard. I just thought that it just looked like one. But in the end, whether it is or not doesn't really matter. Despite the glare of the Toad my blade wounded it. Tonight only the Hare haunts the sky. The important thing is that it can be killed."
"What if it won't stay dead? They sometimes don't," questioned one of the other men darkly. The officer's name drifted just out of Saitou's reach. He was short and bald with a perpetually sour expression.
Before Saitou could answer a grizzled officer named Takaya spoke up. "Aw hell, James, you should know the answer to that. If it don't stay dead, we chop it into little pieces and get creative. Do you think Robinson brought along that flamethrower just for fun?"
The men chuckled, and Robinson looked up with a grin. "That isn't a fair question. On any other night the answer might be yes."
Seeing their eager faces made Saitou caution, "It moves fast. Search in pairs so it can't pick you off individually." Then he made eye contact with each of the men and didn't bother to hide his wolfish smirk. "Stay smart and remember who's hunting whom."
For partners, he paired up older veterans with younger, less experienced men. It didn't escape his notice that the most experienced man there was the youngest. By this time, everyone else better realize it too, he thought, because the next time he heard someone mutter 'only seventeen,' he was going to unsheathe his nihontou and to hell with the consequences.
Saitou partnered up with Robinson, who turnout out to be nineteen, and sent the other men off while they started their own search. While Robinson was reportedly one of the most lethal men on the force, he also had the least field experience in their little squad. It was safer for everyone to pair him with the Mirror.
Initially they searched in silence, punctuated only by occasional grunts or one syllable words as Saitou pointed at something and Robinson gestured in response. Occasionally Robinson would finger something in his jacket pocket. After the fifth or sixth repetition of this strange behavior, Saitou had had enough. But before he could irritably demand an explanation they were interrupted.
Two men stood at the end of the street and squinted at Saitou's face in the faint starlight. The Hare moon had yet to mount the sky. "Mirror Saitou?" questioned one of the men. The pair both wore white messenger armbands.
"Yes, what is it?" he asked, glancing briefly at the sliver of silver moon rising from behind the mountain peaks like a slow-motion, monochrome volcanic eruption.
"Captain Tsang, sir. He's returned from his meeting and wants to speak to you. He said he'd be somewhere by the Aizu Academy, sir."
Saitou rubbed his forehead and glanced around. "Do you two have another assignment after this?"
"Um, no, sir. We were to report back to the Captain."
"Good. Finish searching this block first, and then tell James, Takaya," he paused for a moment to recall names, but Robinson slipped into the silence and answered.
"James, Takaya, Wong, and Mizuki."
"James, Takaya, Wong, and Mizuki where we've gone and to finish up searching this area."
"Ossu," the until-then-silent partner answered with a salute. When his friend elbowed him in an attempt to be discrete, the man coughed, stumbled sideways, and stuttered out in accented English, "I mean, yes, yes sir!"
Controlling the urge to roll his eyes, Saitou turned towards the academy and snapped over his shoulder, "Come on, Robinson."
As they strode quickly toward the school, they kept their eyes out for any sign of the monster. They passed several workmen who seemed to be hurrying home for dinner and a young couple heading back into town. Saitou frowned.
"Aren't they supposed to be safely inside behind barred doors?" asked Robinson hesitantly.
"They are. Maybe they decided to ignore the warning or didn't hear," Saitou offered quietly. He was tempted to go yell at them to get off the streets, but he had to talk to Captain Tsang first.
Robinson pulled something out of his pocket and rubbed it between his fingers. "As long as they stay out of the way and we catch your Black Lizard, it won't matter."
Perhaps it was the anticipation of the hunt, relief that Captain Tsang had finally shown up, or Robinson's friendly demeanor, but whatever the case, Saitou suddenly felt unusually loquacious. "I wouldn't call it my Black Lizard, but I do plan on it being my kill."
Robinson laughed. "As long as it's dead tomorrow morning, I don't care who kills it. I just hope I get to use my flamethrower tonight." Robinson skipped a step to keep up with the taller Mirror's fast pace. "Did you know that they had flamethrowers as far back as 500 B.C.? Not like my pack of course, personal ones weren't invented until Pre-Sundering World War II. They thought that was a vicious war and they didn't even have magic then." Robinson shook his head pityingly.
Saitou glanced over at Robinson to silently prompt him to get to the point, if there was a point. He rather suspected the man was just babbling. "But those early flamethrowers, they worked just like blow guns. The warriors just blew into one end of the tube and propelled the burning stuff out at their enemies. Amazing!" Robinson enthused.
"Considering how stupid people are, most of them probably killed themselves by inhaling accidentally," commented Saitou dryly.
Robinson patted the stock of his flamethrower, undaunted by Saitou's cynicism. "If that was the only problem with this baby I'd be happy. But magic and the Toad moon mucks everything up. If it isn't a problem with the compressed gas, it's a problem with the batteries and the ignition system. Sometimes I have to use a lighter to ignite the fuel when it doesn't work, or even a match. You can char off fingernails that way-"
Robinson continued as if Saitou hadn't even spoken. "But in the end, it's usually worth it. This beauty can ignite an object over fifty yards away." He smiled down at his weapon like a proud papa.
"Sounds like a forest fire waiting to happen."
"Yep, but if the Black Lizard dies in the flames we can call the fire department later. Or maybe you know a good water spell?" Robinson asked.
"Not for an entire forest," Saitou said in a tone aimed at quelling any more such ideas.
"Oh, that reminds me, just a second." With that, Robinson turned ninety degrees and sprinted to the edge of the forest. Squatting down he placed something on a tree stump, bowed several times, and ran back.
"There are easier ways to go to the bathroom," mocked Saitou as he continued his quick pace.
"I wasn't- I was just," Robinson stuttered out before taking a deep breath. "I wanted to leave an offering to the forest spirits for our hunt, both the kami and the magical creatures. Our town has a treaty with the forest spirits you know. They protect us."
Saitou snorted. "They don't seem to be doing a very good job lately. Seems like a waste to me. You're probably better off not feeding them."
Shifting uneasily Robinson replied, "You shouldn't mock them. For all we know they have been protecting us as best they can. The number of victims could have been ten times greater." He rubbed the object in his jacket pocket again.
As he fell silent Saitou finally allowed himself to ask, "What is that you keep rubbing?"
"Oh," Robinson face darkened in what Saitou assumed in the moonlight to be a blush. Saitou's skin was just as fair, but luckily he'd never had a similar problem with redness. "It's my lucky hare's foot."
Robinson pulled out a small white bundle of fur that easily reflected the moonlight. It was about as long as Saitou's little finger. Curious, Saitou send out a tendril of power, but sensed nothing. To all intents and purposes it was exactly what Robinson had said – a hare's foot.
Never having heard of such a thing, Saitou prompted, "And it's lucky why?"
"A lucky rabbit's foot is an old western superstition. My grandfather gave me this one when I was little." Seeing Saitou's skeptical face, he expanded his explanation. "Both the Japanese and Chinese find rabbits an auspicious omen and the Hebrew associate it with intuition. Some Native American tribes call rabbits 'the giver of luck in the chase.' Plus it's like having a little bit of protection from the Hare moon with me all of the time." At each cultural reference, Saitou's eyebrows had crept higher in incredulity. The hand Robinson had been gesturing with dropped to his side and he coughed in embarrassment. "My grandfather's obsessed with world mythology."
Although the walls of the Academy had come into view, Saitou still took the time to scoff. "That's ridiculous. It's just a dead animal's foot. I sense no power."
Robinson's face remained blush-dark, but surprisingly his spine straightened and his lip curled into a small smile. "That's why it's called a superstition, Mirror Saitou." The young officer looked over and met Saitou's eyes. "It may sound foolish, but, like my grandfather, I believe it works. Nothing is hurt by having it and if it does help like I believe, it benefits not only me but everyone around me."
His calm rebuttal in the face of Saitou's scorn gained Robinson a small measure of Saitou's respect. However, Saitou didn't have to tell Robinson that. "You're an idiot to hold to something so irrational."
Something in Saitou's voice must have given him away, because Robinson's smile widened. "Would you like a lucky hare's foot, Mirror Saitou?"
An unwilling laugh escaped Saitou's lips. "What, you carry around extras?"
"Of course. A rabbit does have more than one foot, after all, and the police are always in need of more luck," rejoined Robinson with mock seriousness.
Spotting Captain Tsang's broad shoulders in the distance, Saitou dropped the subject. Jogging forward, he recognized First Lieutenant Valenti standing next to the Captain. They looked to be in deep conversation. Most likely the First Lieutenant was bringing the Captain up to speed on their plan of attack.
At their approach the Captain looked up and acknowledged them with a nod. He fired an order at First Lieutenant Valenti that sent him running off and turned toward them. Not a short man by any means, Saitou still had to look up to meet Captain Tsang's dark eyes. In sometimes startling contrast to his street brawler body, the Captain possessed a fine-boned, aristocratic face that would be more at home on a statesman. Tonight it was deeply lined with anger, stress, and what on any other man he would have called suppressed fear.
"Mirror Saitou," he acknowledged gruffly.
"Captain Tsang," Saitou replied with a slight incline of his head. Though technically the senior on this case, Saitou respected the Captain and wanted him to know it. "I expected you back hours ago. Was there a problem with the Mayor?" This close, Saitou could faintly smell expensive cologne and cigar smoke, a testament to the amount of time the Captain had spent closeted with the politicians.
They began walking as the Captain responded with a half-smile and flat eyes. Robinson trailed a few meters behind. "The Mayor wants us to know he supports our efforts to catch the Black Lizard."
Suspiciously, Saitou asked, "That took all day to convey?"
"No, that took about ten minutes. What took all day was arguing over his decision to not send out a warning for tonight's actions," he replied in a voice dripping with vitriol.
"What!" burst out Saitou. "Then the people in these houses and the school-"
"Have no idea what's going on," the Captain confirmed through gritted teeth. "I've ordered the Lieutenant to tell the men to warn any civilians they meet that we're here trying to corner a dangerous criminal, but that's the best I can do."
Growling, Saitou bit off a string of obscenities. "What about the school?"
"I delivered that warning personally." A cool breeze ruffled Saitou's hair and almost covered Captain Tsang's next sentence. It was whispered in a voice threaded with anguish, "My daughters go here." The Captain's eyes shut in a pained grimace.
Such a show of emotion on the face of this normally confident and collected man worried Saitou exceedingly. Scanning the shadows around the school's walls, Saitou gave the Captain a moment to pull himself together. From the corner of his eye he saw the man shake his head briskly. Then he placed his hand on the butt of his rifle.
In a steadier voice Captain Tsang continued, "The gatekeeper said he'd bar all the entrances and ring the bell if they had any trouble. However, a group of students are camping out in the woods and won't be back until tomorrow afternoon. He didn't know a specific location, only somewhere in the foothills."
Pausing, Captain Tsang checked his sword by drawing it out a few inches from the sheath before letting it slide back down with a hiss of steel against cured leather. "I can't spare enough men to search for them, and those I can spare won't be enough protection if the Black Lizard appears."
"So we make our stand here," Saitou confirmed. It was a difficult call to make. Although Saitou could have overruled the Captain, he didn't. Without more specific information he found himself in agreement with the decision.
"Captain!" interjected Robinson excitedly. "Look!"
Following his pointing finger, Saitou saw the four men from his squad slowly retreating backwards while emptying their guns into the shadow of a warehouse. One of the men, bald so it had to be the sour-faced James, had his arm slung over his partner's shoulder and seemed to be limping. The field echoed with the pop-pop of their gunfire.
Captain Tsang, Saitou, and Robinson raced towards the battle. If they were only firing at a feral cat, Saitou would kill someone. Blood surged in his veins and he felt eager and alive.
Flicking his fingers through several complicated positions, the Mirror gestured at his face. "Gokanzou," he whisperedin a rumbling voice of power. Because the incantation only lasted about half an hour, Saitou waited to use it until the last possible moment. The stress it put on his body limited his use of the enchantment to three times a day. More than that and he risked permanent damage as mutated cells started to die. Some casters could only use it once a week. They were weaklings.
Saitou felt the surge of sweet pain as cells and molecules warped. Suddenly the world was more. He could smell fresh blood, dry grasses, and the sewer-like stench he recognized as the Black Lizard. Opening his mouth, he tasted gunpowder on the wind. The formerly impenetrable shadows sharpened into buildings, boxes, and running police officers.
Crouched behind a trashcan, the Black Lizard bared its serrated shark-like teeth in a vicious grimace. Saitou noticed the popcorn sound of bullets suddenly slow as James passed out from loss of blood and dropped his weapon. His partner, Mizuki, staggered in an attempt to support his deadweight, fumbling with his own weapon.
With the hail of bullets halved, the Black Lizard leaped from its concealment and bull-rushed its attackers. Gracefully it dodged through the remaining bullets. There was a beauty to its sinuously flowing form. It pissed Saitou off. As soon as he was in range he was going to tear that black bastard apart.
A ragged, high-pitched scream of rage escaped the Black Lizard as it got close enough to slash into the gunmen. The sound made the hair on Saitou's neck rise in atavistic aversion. Robinson's run faltered slightly, but Saitou heard his pace pick up again after that moment of weakness. Good boy, he spared the time to think as he finally came within range.
He cocked his rifle and aimed, but the Black Lizard's victims were still struggling and obscuring his shot. Men were converging from out of every alleyway.
The monster tried to attack with its tail, but only a blunt stub remained. Saitou had cut the barbed end off in their last encounter. Instead of disemboweling its victim, the Black Lizard only succeeded in knocking Wong onto his back. Grim satisfaction twisted Saitou's lips, only to disappear as Mizuki's throat was viciously bitten into and ripped out. The Black Lizard dropped Mizuki's body and thrust its blood-flecked maw into the sky in a triumphant roar.
With a suddenly clear target, Saitou fired. His shot was closely echoed by Captain Tsang and others. The acrid tang of gunpowder seeped through the clearing and tingled in his hypersensitive nostrils. Staggering, the Black Lizard snarled like a grinding chainsaw.
Then in a move to put a professional ballet dancer to shame, it twirled in place with claws extended and decapitated the only one of the four still fighting. Saitou's enhanced senses gave him an all too clear picture of Takaya, the grizzled veteran who had teased the men earlier into laughing, dying in a geyser of copper-scented blood. Leaping back into the shadows of the factory, the Black Lizard disappeared.
Voices shouted as men frantically tried to target its flight. Despite its apparent retreat, Saitou had a feeling it would break for the woods. He resisted the urge to follow it into the narrow and twisting alleyways. Robinson turned on a flashlight to scour the shadows, but Saitou wanted his hands free. Instead he relied upon his enhanced senses.
A sudden CLANG of struck metal assaulted Saitou's ears with a bell-like tone. His stomach clenched as he turned to look at the school. Had the monster escaped behind its walls? Was it now gorging itself on the soft and vulnerable flesh of little girls?
The same thought must have occurred to Captain Tsang, because an enraged howl burst from his lips as he sprinted towards the sound. Instantly Saitou followed.
While he'd seen a lot of death in his life, almost all of those bodies had been adults. He'd learned to take most death as a matter of course. However, the three murdered children he'd investigated over the years were specters that still haunted his dreams. How would he deal with an entire school of small mutilated bodies? Some of the girls in there were his age.
Focus! Saitou ordered himself harshly, clamping down on any further speculations. Only killing the monster mattered right now. Worry about incidentals later.
As they rounded the corner of the academy, Saitou saw a man flying through the air. His body harshly smashed into the side of a metal dumpster and dropped boneless to the ground, landing partially on top of his partner. The man's impact against the dumpster had produced another metallic CLANG. The sound hadn't been the school's bell. Relief made Saitou's legs almost falter.
"There!" shouted Robinson. The Black Lizard raced across the field heading for the tree line. There was no way they would be able to catch up to it. Guns across the field fired, but the creature didn't even seem to slow.
A sudden click and soft roar presaged the priming of Robinson's flamethrower. The sweet smell of gas wafted to Saitou's nose. Yelling wordlessly, Robinson pulled the trigger. Bright golden flame shot out in a long streamer of roiling light. The fire barely caught the edge of the Black Lizard's leg. It yelped in pain, but put on an extra burst of speed.
"Dammit!" screamed Robinson.
Reaching into a pouch, Saitou ordered, "Keep firing!"
"It's out of range," Robinson protested, but didn't relax his trigger finger.
Chanting urgently, Saitou licked the shard of obsidian held between his fingertips. Roaring out, "KAZAN!" he thrust the volcanic shard and his fingers into the stream of liquid fire. The flamethrower snarled and the cone of fire exploded outwards in a blue-white beam bordered with gold.
The Black Lizard had half-turned towards them as it ripped a spear from its thigh. Boosted by Saitou's volcano spell, the flamethrower's reach doubled. Molten fire bit viciously into the monster's left side. Ink-black flesh bubbled and sloughed off. Writhing in an attempt to escape, the Black Lizard keened in pain. The jarring reverberation made Saitou's teeth throb painfully.
Without warning, the stream of fire ended. In the sudden darkness Saitou couldn't see. Blinking rapidly, his eyes finally adjusted to the moonlight.
On the ground at his feet, Robinson sprawled like a marionette with its strings cut. "Sorry," whispered Robinson through blistered lips, "fuel ran out."
Once his eyes adjusted, Saitou noticed Robinson's charred black hands and burned face. As the spell caster, Saitou had been protected from the extreme heat of his magic. Robinson had no such protection and had been forced to suffer. Despite the intense pain as his flesh blistered and burned, the young officer had continued firing. He had proved worthy of the First Lieutenant's trust, as well as Saitou's own.
"Good job, Robinson," Saitou praised gently. The boy's lips twitched into a slight smile as his eyes slipped closed. Saitou's heart clenched as he listened anxiously for Robinson's next breath. He could hear gunfire and screams, but the sound seemed distorted and distant.
"Breath, dammit!" snarled Saitou angrily, imbuing his words with magical power. Robinson twitched and inhaled harshly. Filmy eyes blinked open groggily and struggled to focus.
Scouring the field with his eyes, Saitou spotted what he hoped in the darkness was a red cross. "Medic!" he roared out. The man immediately trotted over.
"Injuries?" the medic asked briskly.
"Burns on the hands, face, and possibly torso," Saitou tersely replied. "He stopped breathing a minute ago."
Kneeling down, the man opened his bag and pulled out a syringe. "Right, I've got him. You better go finish it off, sir."
Growling out, "Stay alive, you idiot," Saitou raced off.
While he'd been distracted, the Black Lizard had managed to roll around and douse the flames on its body. Staggering to its feet, it began a shambling run into the forest. Although the Toad moon wasn't in the sky, conventional bullets still didn't seem to be hurting it very much. Its current lack of grace was a testament to the efficacy of Robinson's flamethrower. If only we had some explosive-tipped rounds!
Step-by-step the cordon of men came in from the trees in an attempt to surround and kill the Black Lizard once and for all. Captain Tsang plucked an eight foot long javelin from the hands of another officer and hurled it at the creature. Saitou's enhanced hearing picked up the whistle of the javelin's oscillation as it hurtled through the air, followed by a sodden thud as it pierced the Black Lizard's side. The creature was knocked down into the long yellow grass with a thump.
Several men drew swords and advanced in an attempt to finish it off. Before they could land a blow, the javelin was ripped out and shattered against their kneecaps. Bouncing back up clumsily, the Black Lizard lithely dodged a sword thrust and disappeared into the shadows of the forest.
Bypassing the moaning bodies, Saitou followed it into the trees. Behind him he could hear Captain Tsang reforming the men and sending them into the woods in pursuit. Following the scent of burning flesh, Saitou tracked the monster. Broken branches blazed a clear trail through the woods.
However, after fording a small stream Saitou found himself cursing. The moisture-laden air held scents too well. He couldn't tell which direction it had fled in the heavy air because the scent in both directions seemed equally strong. Searching the banks for signs of its passage, he was soon joined by the Captain and several squads of officers. They split up to look both up- and downstream.
Finally a shout of discovery rang out. After confirming that the tracks belonged to their quarry, the group began following a small animal trail heading northeast up into the foothills. Men raced up the trail in the dark, lit only by wavering flashlights, stars, and the full Hare moon. Saitou caught occasional glimpses of black scales in the distance until his gokanzou ran out.
Momentarily disoriented, he didn't notice the tree limb strewn across the path until too late. His toe caught under the branch and catapulted his body forward. His momentum was such that he was flung off the path to roll and thud down the hillside. Finally sliding to a halt face-down in the dirt, Saitou could only clench his eyes shut in pain and try to catch his breath.
When he could finally stand he dusted himself off disgustedly. He couldn't believe he'd been so clumsy. If he didn't know better, he would swear that the trail had been clear until the split second before his foot came down.
Most likely no one had noticed his fall in the chaos of the hunt. By the time he climbed back up to the top of the hill everyone would most likely be long gone. An inventory of his possessions showed that his gun and several pouches were missing. At least he still had his sword. Touching the hilt of his nihontou calmed his thoughts.
Turning northeast, he made his way through the forest. It was tough going. He kept having to detour west around boulders and impassable tangles of brush. It was almost as if the forest was herding him somewhere. After fighting his way through a thick-growing grove, Saitou looked up and snarled silently. The trail he'd blazed dead ended at a cliff face. The top looked to be about thirty yards up.
Above his head he could hear birds trilling and the susurration of feathers in flight. It sounded like a nocturnal flock of migrating song birds, perhaps wrens or sparrows. Firming his lips, he looked up and began scaling the cliff, wedging his fingers and toes into moss-encrusted ledges and cracks. It was slow going as he tried to pick the most stable hand-holds in the shadowed rock. Several times he had to scrape off slick vegetation before trusting the notch to hold his grip. Finally after about thirty minutes of climbing, he pulled himself over the top with a guttural grunt.
Rolling into a crouch he surveyed his surroundings. In the distance, he saw a light twinkling through the leaves. Silently he climbed a nearby tree and balanced himself on a stout branch. Sticky sap crusted his white gloves. From his vantage point, the light looked like a fire, not a flashlight carried by one of the policemen.
Casting gokanzou for the second time that night, he waited impatiently for the pain to pass. The sharp scent of sap and the sound of migrating larks became momentarily overwhelming. Forcing his mind to down-regulate the stimulus, Saitou concentrated on his sight.
The distant light sprang into sharp focus. It was a campfire. Surrounding it were about ten girls who looked to be roasting something white on sticks. The girls from Aizu Academy, he identified. At first he thought they were roasting fish. However, when another girl held up an empty plastic bag emblazoned with red lettering, he realized the truth – marshmallows. How in the hell did they get marshmallows in a town like this? I didn't even know they still made marshmallows.
Behind the fire, a girl stood up suddenly. Her laughing face was framed by two midnight braids that trailed over her pert breasts to curl at her waist. The firelight gilded every curve of her body, highlighting her beauty. Affectionately she placed her hand on another girl's head and ruffled the bangs. Saitou blamed the migrating larks for the sudden words that sprang into his mind: From the earth thou springest, like a cloud of fire.
Wrenching his mind away from such poetical musings, he examined the scene more strategically. She looked older than the other girls, perhaps fourteen or fifteen. Another older girl seemed to be armed with a gun. He frowned when he couldn't make out any other weapons.
As the laughing girl thrust her marshmallow stick into the fire, he was struck with a terrible foreboding. Their fire was a beacon. The Black Lizard would see it as surely as Saitou had. It would attack them and coat the memory of this idyllic scene with a froth of blood. He would have to bury his little skylark without ever hearing her sing.
Heart racing, Saitou jumped down from the tree and rushed toward the clearing housing the schoolgirls and their fire. His body wove through the trees like water through a sieve, finding openings effortlessly. Earlier it had been a battle to move even ten yards through the forest. Now it felt as if he sprinted down a wide avenue.
Unimpeded, he reached an overlook above the schoolgirls' clearing in record time. As he burst out of the trees he saw his misty fears become concrete. The Black Lizard had come. It loomed on the opposite side of the clearing like a thundercloud about to break forth with a fury of hail.
Only his skylark seemed to notice. Then the only girl armed with a weapon jumped as if electrocuted and turned to look. Raising the barrel of her gun with a steady hand and wide eyes, she shot. Her bullet exploded one of the creature's bulbous eyes in a spray of gore. Saitou reached for his rifle before remembering it had been lost in his tumble down the hillside.
Not wasting his energy by swearing, Saitou immediately dropped flat and swung his legs over the edge of the overlook. Luckily it wasn't as high as the previous cliff. Several times he missed toe-holds in his haste and almost hurtled off into mid-air. He could hear terrified feminine screaming behind his back and smell the metallic tang of fresh-drawn blood. Sweat dripped into his eyes. Jumping the last eight feet, he drew his sword and raced into the clearing.
His little skylark, no longer laughing, stood in a basic kendo stance between the charging monster and the other girls. She was dressed in baggy pajamas and armed with only her marshmallow stick. He would have called her a pitiful sight if not for her face. It was incandescent: skin stretched taut across her cheekbones, eyes burning like coals, and stripped raw of everything but the desire to survive, to protect, to triumph.
Saitou sprinted forward and knew he wouldn't be fast enough. As those serrated fangs lunged for her heart he swallowed bitterly and committed himself to avenging her death. He already knew he would never forget her face.
When the Black Lizard was less than three feet away, she suddenly pivoted sideways and lunged with her stick. Stunned, Saitou watched as it burst through the creature's remaining eye and rammed into its brain. Not a skylark, but a warrior – a Tomoe Gozen.
In a stroke of luck, the force of her blow tilted its head up just enough that the razor-sharp teeth pierced her shoulder instead of her heart or lungs. Not powerful enough to halt its forward momentum, the girl was buried underneath the body of the black abomination.
Sending out a whisper of power, Saitou sensed nothing from the beast, only from the girl buried beneath it. Reaching her side, he saw her eyes slowly blinking at the sky in shock or bemusement. Their focus slowly shifted to his white-gloved hands and the steel of his blade.
Not one to take chances, he quickly set about dismembering the Black Lizard to make sure it stayed dead. The other girls were still whimpering and crying by the fire, but for the moment he ignored them. He had more important things to worry about. From his bandoleer he pulled out a green powder made of mint, sea salt, and iron shavings. After sprinkling it on the body parts to ensure they remained inert, he tossed and kicked them to the far side of the clearing.
He'd shot the Black Lizard, stabbed it, and even burned it with a flamethrower earlier on when they'd cornered it at the edge of the forest. And still it kept on going. But this girl, who looked all of fourteen in her braids and baggy t-shirt, had killed it in one stroke – using a marshmallow roasting stick.
Hajime Saitou was in love.
TO BE CONTINUED
Nihontou – Japanese sword
Ossu – Japanese for "Yes sir!" More commonly used in slang as "yo!"
Kami – God, nature spirits, reverence for nature in Japanese
Gokanzou – Japanese for five (go) senses (kan) increase or augment (zou, from the kanji fuyasu).
Kazan – Japanese for "volcano"
Kendo – The way of the sword (Japanese)
Tune in next time to learn just what the heck a Mirror is, what Saitou meant by calling her Tomoe Gozen, and to see some sexual healing. Just kidding on that last part! Sort of….