A flurry of strikes and parries, the robot was amazingly fast. A quick disarm and an armlock, a headbutt cracked its mask, the robot fell back and its mask fell apart. A woman, little more than a girl! Fist to the gut, driving the air from her lungs, then a sprint, her sword now his, the assassin's knife dragging along the wall to seal the tunnel behind him. He jumped into the river.
"Aki!" Ashi cried as she knelt beside her sister. "What happened? Are you all right?"
Aki nodded weakly, then Ami and Avi helped her rise. "He… broke my mask. Gut punch, I was helpless. Took my sword and ran." Though her breath was not entirely back, she could manage a longer sentence. "Why didn't he kill me? He could have. From what Mother said, he should have. So why am I still alive?"
The other Daughters looked between themselves. "I have no idea," Ashi finally said. Ami said slowly, "Perhaps he has some kind of code? He won't kill a helpless foe?" Her voice rang thick with doubt. They'd all grown up on the tales of the Samurai's merciless depredations, after all. How to reconcile his ruthlessness with his sparing Aki? The Daughters withdrew to a larger chamber to rest and to consider their next move.
"We have to assume he'll use lethal force next time," Ashi said after they'd picked out their resting spots. "We'll be fighting for our lives, and the lives of the world."
Avi nodded. "He's better than we thought. And now he has some idea of our abilities, so we can't catch him off guard so easily, and he has Aki's sword." The others sat in the near-total darkness, thinking and considering. "So we need to plan. We can't fight as we normally did against Rika, we need to find a new way." So it began, the Daughters discussing attack orders, tactics, and a concept they couldn't even name, only grope and stumble blindly towards.
The Forests of England, roughly sixty years before.
"And if I need to trap a man?" Jack asked. "A knight, perhaps?"
His teacher smiled, an expression that became easily to him. "That's why we have man-traps. I'll show you. We've got traps for catching, injuring, and killing; they're a lot like the animal traps you already know." Then the new lessons began.
Another forest, the present.
Jack was busy, very busy, thinking and planning, building traps and making weapons. The girls would not fall to simple traps, they were too skilled, too fast, too strong. He tested every cord; if he could break them, they were too weak. Nets, bolas, snares, even deadfalls, though he doubted the last would help. And for once, the weather was helpful: the snow would cover the snares. This would still be a hard fight, but it was looking more and more possible.
"So, we're sure about this?" Avi asked. "This seems so wrong… "
"But it's necessary. We're strong individually, but with these new techniques, well… " Ashi smiled. "You remember the last drill." The others smiled, even Avi. They certainly did. "And now… we hunt!" The seven rose as one, in more perfect synchronization than ever, and jogged toward the exit.
The river was the clear place to start. Ashi took the centre of their v-formation, Ari and Aji the points, all of them watching the banks. The Samurai would not escape them again; if he kept to river, his lack of tracks would show that, and if he left, his tracks would show that. And so they continued down, swimming to the bank as the sun began to set. Adi reached into her suit's darkness, and came out with empty hands. "We have a problem," she said. The others did the same, and likewise came up empty.
Ashi looked at her own empty hand. "We need to kill something. Something big enough for all of us." She thought back to their meals in the temple. "All our meat came from things with four legs, so anything with four legs should be good to eat. Something… about a quarter our size, I think. We don't want to waste food." The others nodded. "Split up, and when you get a kill, howl. We'll only need one the right size."
Jack surveyed his work, and found it good, until he showed up. Glowing blue, with sharp teeth. "Are you insane?" Mad Jack demanded. "Do you truly think you can take those girls not only alive but unharmed? You've seen how strong they are, they're just as fast as us, and nearly as skilled! They'll slaughter us if we hold back!" Jack growled, turned to him. "I must do this. I must know who and what they are. Where are they from, who raised them, how can they be so strong? And I will not kill them. They are humans, people, and though I will kill monsters, I will not kill people. I never have, and will not start now." "Well you should! There's no other way we'll survive them, it's them or us!" "No! There is another way, and this is it!" He sighed heavily. "I must at least try." Mad Jack screamed, and went wherever it was that he went when not ranting. Jack went back to gathering food.
A howl rang through the forest, a strange and chilling sound of triumph. Shortly thereafter, Avi presented her kill to the others. It was a strange-looking creature, even compared to the others they had seen. Its front legs were too small, or perhaps its back legs too long. Its head seemed strangely large somehow, its tail heavy, thick fur a peculiar grey-green. She tossed it down before the others. "So, who wants to cut it up?" They all looked equally uncomfortable, including Avi herself, until Aji drew her kunai. "I'll do it." It was a slow process, and very messy, the snow stained with blood and entrails by the time the meal was skinned and cut apart. They didn't even hesitate at eating the raw flesh. How could they cook with no fire? Soon, every edible bit they could get at was gone, leaving only skin and bone and entrails behind, and they scrubbed the blood from their faces with snow.
"Tomorrow, we resume the hunt." It was not a question. "Tonight, we sleep up there," and Ashi pointed to the branches of the trees, branches most could never reach. The others nodded, and climbed spider-like into the canopy, finding secure places to rest and probably sleep. The samurai could not possibly take them off-guard from the ground, and was too large and heavy to spring silently through the trees.
Jack emerged from the cave where he had been sheltering with a surprisingly friendly wolf. It had been days since the temple, and the women had not yet found him. Perhaps he needed to make a clearer trail; no doubt they had lost his tracks in the snow. A great leap took him to the edge of the forest, then by leaps and bounds through the canopy, toward the river. They would have certainly followed it, at least at first. Much of the way through, he stopped, puzzled by the strange sight before him. At the limit of his vision, seven figures lay draped over the bare branches of seven different trees, arms and legs dangling. He was not near enough for them to have heard the slight noise of his passing, he was barely near enough to see them clearly. But why were they sleeping so? Why did they have no watcher? He smiled in realization. They were unaware of his ability to "jump good." Perhaps, if he were quick enough about it… He returned to the shelter, then approached the sleeping girls carefully, slowly, as silent as snow, bo across his back and multiples bolas at his belt.
"This is still crazy! You can't possibly take them all like this! One or two at the most, but not all seven. The others will kill us the moment they wake up!" "Two will be enough," he whispered. "We cannot defeat all seven at once, but we do not need to." "That doesn't make this idea not crazy! They're asleep right now, vulnerable, you should just end as many as you can!" "No," he said. "I have failed in many ways, but I will not fail in this way." As soon as he was in range, he readied a bolas in each hand, and hurled each at a different masked woman, two more while the first two were in flight. As he had expected, the first ones entangled two women's wrists and forearms, and they woke with cries of alarm - alarm, but not fear or panic. The others rolled off their branches, twisting as they fell to grab them. A third woman had the bolas wrap around her arm, and the last had her legs pinned. Three out of the fight for the moment, that was a good start. He sprang for the nearest, who produced a great club from seemingly nowhere, swinging at where he would have to be. He could not dodge it, and did not try, instead twisting and grabbing to pull her from the branch with his own weight. They both fell, and in the few moments of the fall, he won the struggle for top spot, driving his knees into her gut with the full force of impact. Another moment to spring clear, and as she rose, unsteady, another bolas took her out of the fight, at least for a moment.
Above, the other Daughters worked to free their pinned sisters. Avi could wait; surely all six of them together could take down the samurai. Suddenly, he was among them again, hurling more of those… whatever they were. Now only Aki and Adi were free, but two to one was still good odds, they thought. Aki flung kunai while Adi pulled her yari from the darkness. The samurai blocked the daggers with his bo as he leaped to another branch, and they had no choice but to follow. They would free their sisters after his death.
The fight was brief, intense, and entirely one-sided. The Daughters were superb fighters, but Jack had decades of experience on them, and was still in the prime of youth and strength. Once they too were helpless, he systematically moved them, and their sisters, to trees to which he bound them with the cords he had brought for that exact purpose. The unmasked Daughter spoke first. "Get it over with," she said.
Jack turned to her. "What exactly do you expect me to do?"
"Kill us, of course. Maybe torture us first." Despite their fury, her words were surprisingly matter-of-fact. "That's what you do, you murder and pillage, you destroy the beauty of our lord and master's creation! Why do you think we were sent to kill you? But we failed… we lost…" and she broke down sobbing. "Failure is death." Face streaked with tears, she looked up at him, expression pleading. "Please… make it quick."
Jack stared, shocked. "I do not want to kill you at all. Or torture you, or otherwise harm you now that you are not a threat to me. Tell me, who is your lord?"
"Who else?" one of the masked daughters demanded. "You don't need us to tell you who is lord and master of the world!"
Jack turned to her, and removed her mask. His brows went up in surprise, and by the time he had removed all six masks, he was staring in open amazement. Seven women, seven young women, and identically pretty. "You serve… Aku? You think he created the world?"
"Of course," snapped the one with the peaked hair. "Our lord and master created the world and everything in it! You are only a parasite, feeding off Aku's generosity! Treacherous worm, lecherous snake, we will undo the evil that is you! We will fight you until our last breath! So long as we have blood in our veins we will strike you down!"
Jack considered his options. "I will be back soon," he said, and walked away.
The Daughters looked at each other once he was out of earshot. "He spared us," Aki said, her voice soft, unbelieving. "He spared me twice. Why? He's killed entire villages, why not us?"
"He wants to turns us to his side," Ari said. "Convince us that he's the good one, and our Lord Father is wicked. I think, perhaps, we should let him…"
"What!?" Ashi shrieked. "Have you gone mad? Turn against Aku? I should beat you senseless just for the suggestion! Traitor! Scum! Two headed worm that turns upon itself! How dare you…"
"Quiet! As I was saying, perhaps we should let him 'convert' us to his side. If he keeps up the pretence of being good and noble, then he aids our master by protecting His creation. If he does not, then we can kill him. Either way, we're better off."
Ashi considered that, and looked down and to the side, face set in hard lines. Her sisters murmured agreement with Ari, and she sighed. "Very well. But the moment he harms Aku's creation, except for food or self-defence, he dies." The others nodded. "We'll need to make him work for this. Two days at least."
Jack returned fairly soon, this time carrying a bag. "I brought you food. Will you take it? I pledge, it is not poisoned." They looked at each other, then nodded. He carefully fed them bits of meat from a bird's carcass, seasoned and cooked.
"You're a really good cook," the horn-haired sister sister said, surprised.
Jack smiled. "I have had much time to learn." After the feeding was done, he put snow in their mouths to drink. "You clearly know my name, but I do not know yours. Would you care to introduce yourselves?"
Ashi looked at her sisters, and nodded. "I'm Ashi. That's Ami," and she gestured with her chin toward the horn-haired girl. "She's Avi," indicating the girl with the pageboy. And she went around the circle twice more before Jack had their names down.
"Tell me, will you be all right here? If needed, I can stand watch over you."
"Our darksuits are surprisingly warm," Ashi said. "But could you give us our masks back? My face is freezing."
Jack considered, then complied. Carefully. "And you, Aki? What of you?"
"I… can survive the night. We all understand hardship here."
Jack nodded to that, and went to gather dead branches and deadfall to make a fire for the girls. They'd need it to keeps the animals at bay.