Yamihime: Wings of the Butterfly
by Suzume CA
Part 1: Hazuki is Abandoned by Lilith
Not for the first time, the glow of transition between worlds faded into a beautiful woodland scene, but Hazuki was hardly in the proper frame of mind to enjoy it.
The reason for her current feeling of frustration gave a peevish sigh from beside her. "Well, here we are. No sign of her. Can we go now?"
"We just got here, Lilith," Hazuki growled. "We haven't even looked yet."
"And this world does have traces of Lady Eve," Ken-chan piped up from his place on the Keeper's shoulder.
Lilith flicked the parakeet from its perch. "Hush, you traitor. If there are traces of her here, then we can come back later, Hazuki-chan. We've been at this forever! Let's go to one of my vacation books and have a rest."
"Not interested," Hazuki snapped, stepping purposefully forward. She had no idea yet which direction to go, but anything would be better than standing here. Perhaps if Lilith would shut up for a moment, Hazuki would be able to concentrate long enough to get a feeling for these traces Ken-chan had mentioned.
"Okay, fine, no vacation book," Lilith sighed. She then hurried up to Hazuki's side and gave her a mischievous smile. "Then let's go back to that one world with the girls' school. They knew how to have fun there! We could let them dress us both up this time! Come on, Hazuki-chan! A little cosplay never hurt anyone! Besides, you kind of liked that one girl there, didn't you?"
At this mention of this world, and the one she'd left behind there, Hazuki felt her blood boil. In a clipped voice, all but biting her tongue, she replied "That's not like you, Lilith, to try to tempt me with someone other than yourself."
"Oh, I'd get involved, believe me," Lilith giggled. "Maybe that other girl's into threesomes?"
Only twice during her journeys had Hazuki's resolve wavered to the point where she felt tempted to give up the search. Only on two other worlds had she felt enough at home that a frail, hated part of herself had dared to say "what if." What if she never found Hatsumi? Wouldn't it be better to stay here and try to be happy? The first time was with the beautiful and gentle Fujihime, so like her sister that the temptation had been great to simply stay and pretend. The second time had been with Chikaru, whose easy acceptance and quiet wisdom had touched her deeply, and helped for the first time to ease the clench of shame and self-loathing in her heart.
At the same time, she cursed her weakness for even considering the idea that she would not be reunited with Hatsumi, and secretly feared that such wavering in her faith would be the undoing of her quest. Maybe she could try to be happy in another life, or another world, but could she live the remainder of her days wondering what could have been?
And so she reacted to Lilith's renewing of that temptation the only way she could: she snapped. "Don't ever say that again!" she snarled, turning to face the Keeper. "No wonder you've never found her in ten thousand years! You get distracted by everything! How can you even think about giving up after all this?"
"Who said anything about giving up?" Lilith scowled. "I'm talking about taking a break, Hazuki-chan! A little downtime for the weary travelers!" Here, her frown changed to a cagey smile, and she reached out one hand toward Hazuki's cheek. "And... maybe a little love-time as well? You certainly look like you could use the chance to unclench."
Hazuki batted the hand away. "I'm going to look for Hatsumi, with or without you."
"You can't look for her without me," Lilith snorted, hands going to her hips as she set a defiant pose. "I'm the one with the hat, remember? You need me."
"I'll find another way if I have to, then. How can you even call yourself her sister when you're this willing to-"
Hazuki did not have the time to finish her sentence before Lilith slapped her hard, and she tumbled backward to the ground. None of her journey-heightened reflexes could have prepared her for that: never in a hundred years would she have expected Lilith to actually strike her. She looked up to see the Keeper looming over her, her normally smug face thunderous, and Hazuki suddenly remembered that for all her childlike nature, Lilith was more or less a goddess.
"Don't you dare," Lilith said in a frighteningly quiet voice. "Don't you dare even imply that Eve isn't important to me."
With the bravery of those who simply cannot recognize their own peril, Hazuki stood and faced her. "Then come with me and find her. No breaks. No vacation worlds. No love-time. Or I will find another way, and I'll find her without you."
"Oh, Hazuki-chan," Lilith sighed, her mouth twisting into a smirk. "I think it's time you learned just how much you need me."
There was a blinding flash, an implosion of the air around her, and when Hazuki regained her senses she found herself once again on the ground. This time, however, Lilith was nowhere to be found. Hazuki continued to blink spots from her eyes as she scanned the woods for any sign of her erstwhile traveling companion, but she found herself alone.
Hazuki let out a frustrated sigh, wondering how long the latest tantrum would last. She pushed herself to her knees, then noticed to her alarm that her hands were empty. Still half-blind, she felt around for her sword, figuring that she must have dropped it during Lilith's departure.
Her hands touched only earth, grass and tree roots. As her vision cleared further, she looked frantically for her weapon, but like Lilith, it was nowhere to be found.
There was a cold, clenching feeling in her chest as she realized that this had suddenly become something far more serious, and potentially more dangerous, than simply Lilith being petulant. To abandon her was one thing, but to take her only means of defending herself as well?
Fully aware that Lilith was probably back in the Great Library, smugly reading along, Hazuki scowled heavenward, into the canopy of branches above. "Are you expecting an apology? Keep waiting, then. I'll find her without you."
She held onto that thought as she dusted herself off and strode into the woods, trying not to give heed to the other voice inside: the one that feared that Lilith was right, and that Hazuki's search had just taken a turn for the impossible.
An hour of walking did little to cool Hazuki's fury, but at least now she had an improvised weapon in the form of a relatively straight and sturdy tree branch. No substitute for her sword, really, but it would have to do until she had a better idea of what this world was, and whether or not its inhabitants were friendly.
At last she came across the first sign that it would even have inhabitants, in the form of a well-worn footpath. It was far too wide to be a game trail, and upon closer inspection she spotted the occasional shoe-print in a hardened bit of mud. Human beings, then, most likely, and advanced enough to have footwear. This did little to narrow things down, but at least it gave her a starting point. Not a distant past like Quill's world had been, but probably not an alternate modern Earth based on the lack of cigarette butts or other scraps of litter along the trail. Apart from those extremes, though, she had no idea what to expect upon finally emerging from the woods. Would it be marble temples? Frontier villages? Something completely alien?
The sound of scraping steel provided something of an answer, and she whirled around to find that three armed men had emerged from the cover of the trees behind her. The apparent leader was a tall, thin fellow brandishing a nondescript sword (all she could be sure of was that it was not a katana), and his companions, flanking him to either side, were a much shorter man with a metal-tipped spear and an obese giant hefting a two-headed axe.
"Good day, my dear," the leader drawled. "Are you lost? Perhaps we can be of assistance."
Cursing her negligence in letting these three get the drop on her, Hazuki brought up her improvised staff and dropped into a defensive stance. The way they were holding their weapons and leering at her left little doubt that their intentions were far from providing assistance. "I'm fine, thank you," she said in a hard voice. "And if you're really that interested in helping me, maybe you'll put away the weapons first?"
The short one chuckled noisily. "Oh, but we can't do that! These woods are dangerous, you know. You never know when you might run into bandits!" The fat one laughed along with him, obviously amused at the witty irony of the statement.
"Never fear, though," the leader went on, taking a step forward. "We can offer protection during your passage through these woods... for a small price."
"I have nothing you would want," Hazuki grated.
As one, the three bandits raked her up and down with their eyes. "Oh, I wouldn't say that at all, miss."
Hazuki nodded inwardly. It had been apparent fairly early in this encounter that she would end up needing to hurt somebody, but the more they spoke, the more she didn't mind the idea. Now if she only had her sword...
"They never cooperate, do they?" the fat one said to the others.
"What a shame," the leader replied, giving an exaggerated sigh. "Just once, I want to see what that would be like."
"Do you want to see what death is like?" Hazuki snarled, all but grinding the bark from her tree branch as she continued to hold it at the ready.
"Well, I can see cooperation is out of the question," the tall one smirked. He then nudged his shorter companion forward. "Just wound her. It would be a pity if she died before we had our fun."
"You got it, boss," the short one grinned. He then lowered his spear and charged, giving a nasal battle cry as he did.
Hazuki stood her ground, then at the last moment transferred her "staff" to one hand, then grabbed the oncoming spear right where the tip was bound to the shaft and drove it straight down. The spearhead lodged itself into the ground, causing its wielder to stumble forward as he lost his grip, and as he did, Hazuki completed her motion by delivering a spinning kick to his head.
Even as the little one crumpled to the ground, the other two were charging in for the attack. She swung around and planted the thicker end of her branch into the biggest one's enormous gut, doubling him over, then brought it around to block a downward swipe from the leader's sword. The blade snapped her branch in half, but was knocked off its course sufficiently to miss her in the process. Now with a shorter length of wood in each hand, Hazuki spun to deliver a blow with each to the leader's head, then did a backward somersault to get clear.
The three bandits were far from finished, however, as they gathered themselves once more to face off with her. The false cordiality they had shown earlier was replaced by a collective expression of sheer menace. "I've changed my mind," the leader barked to the others. "I think it'll be far more satisfying to just kill her!"
"You're welcome to try," Hazuki nodded, "but I haven't come this far to be stopped by the likes of you."
Then, without warning, a strident female voice cut through the air. "That's far enough, bandits!"
Four sets of eyes turned to see that a cloaked figure had appeared on the road, positioned so that the bandits were between her and Hazuki. Her stance was tall and defiant, with one arm outstretched to point toward the motley trio. Her face was almost entirely hidden by the hood of her plain brown cloak, but draped from the visible arm was a long, hanging white sleeve, like that of a furisode kimono.
"Who are you?" the bandit leader shouted at the newcomer, glancing from one woman to the other with increasing nervousness.
"Glad you asked," the woman nodded, and a knowing smirk peeked out from beneath the hood. "At times, she is a wandering martial artist seeking a worthy cause for her unmatched skills. At other times, she is a guardian from the shadows delivering timely intervention when the need is great. But her true identity is..."
With a flourish, the cloak was cast aside, revealing a tall woman dressed in what appeared to be an extremely abbreviated white kimono with violet edging and obi, low enough in the top to provide an almost impossible amount of cleavage while at the same time high enough at its hem to barely cover her hips. Her high sandals and the trim of her white leggings were violet as well, and the billowing sleeves, probably containing more fabric than the rest of the outfit combined, were decorated to resemble golden wings. She had a bob of pale blue hair (so this was one of those worlds, was it?) with a single lock, longer than the rest, bound behind her. Atop this sat a round white hat with beaded tassels to either side, and most unusual of all, the woman's face was covered by a black and gold mask in the shape of a butterfly.
"...a lone butterfly fluttering through a war-torn world! The messenger of Beauty and Justice, Kachou Kamen!"
And with that improbable proclamation, the woman charged the bandits, white sleeves trailing behind her, giving a fierce cry that reached its apex as she delivered a flying kick to the bandit leader's midsection. He went down in a heap, with her landing more or less on top of him, after which she sprung from his chest into a forward flip and landed by Hazuki's side. The remaining bandits brought up their weapons shakily as the leader scrambled to his feet.
The flamboyant stranger shot a sidelong grin at Hazuki. "You looked like you had things well in hand, to be honest, but I'm afraid I couldn't pass this up. Shall we, then?"
"Yes, let's," Hazuki nodded, and together with this bizarre masked woman, she rushed the three men.
The battle quickly became a rout, with both women landing punch after kick after strike until the hapless bandits, faster than Hazuki would have thought possible, turned tail and fled into the woods. Hazuki took a few steps in pursuit, then held up. At the speed they were going, it seemed unlikely that they would be back anytime soon.
As she turned to offer thanks to the one who'd come to her aid, however, Hazuki once again found herself alone. Somehow, the brightly-attired Kachou Kamen had vanished into the green of the forest without a trace.
Since there was little else she could do at this point, Hazuki continued on her way, wishing now that she had managed to at least wrest a weapon from one of the bandits. At the very least, she'd learned a few things about this world: it had armed highwaymen, it was likely pre-industrial based on their weapons of choice, and she was possibly somewhere in Asia based on the kimono-like garb and fighting style of the masked martial artist. And this was also, if Kachou Kamen were a representative example, another one of those worlds in which hair color was a lot more... varied... than in Hazuki's own. It was a shame the other woman had disappeared: bizarre as she was, it would have been nice to be able to ask her some questions.
About a hundred meters down the path, however, Hazuki heard footsteps behind her, accompanied by that same voice. "Greetings, traveler! It's never a good idea to walk these woods unarmed and alone - there might be bandits about."
Hazuki turned to see her blue-haired pseudo-rescuer approaching, but this time unmasked, and carrying an elaborate polearm tipped by a two-pointed spearhead that somewhat resembled entwined serpents. "Yes, so I've noticed," Hazuki nodded. "I'm grateful for the assistance."
"Assistance?" the other woman said with a frown, cocking her head to one side. "I've only just arrived - what assistance do you mean?"
"With those bandits a few minutes ago," Hazuki blinked. "I'm not used to fighting unarmed, so the help was appreciated."
"Oh, so you've already met bandits?"
"Um, yes..." Hazuki said doubtfully.
"And someone came to your rescue?"
"...You could say that," Hazuki nodded, wondering what the other woman might be playing at.
"Ah," the stranger nodded, giving Hazuki a satisfied smile. "You met Kachou Kamen, then?"
"Yes..." Hazuki said slowly. Did this woman think Hazuki was an idiot? She had the same voice, the same all-too-brief garb, the same hair...
"How fortunate for you! She is indeed a hero of these troubled times. Such nobility, such grace... we can only guess at the beauty that lies beneath that mask..."
Hazuki blinked a few times at her "rescuer," briefly wondering which of them might have gone insane, if not both. "Yes, we can only guess..."
After looking supremely pleased with herself for a few moments more, the other woman turned her attention back to Hazuki. "None of which explains what you're doing here alone. Where are you traveling?"
"I'm... looking for my sister."
"In these woods?" The stranger frowned. "Was she captured by those bandits?"
"No, I... don't really know where she is..." Hazuki admitted. "I suppose you could say I'm... on a quest to find her, but I'm not sure where to start."
"Hmmm. What is your name, traveler?"
"Azuma. Azuma Hazuki."
"Well, Azuma-dono, if you wish, I can accompany you to the capital. I know the lord of this province, and frankly she owes me a favor or two. Perhaps she could help us seek out this sister of yours?"
"That would be... yes, thank you," Hazuki nodded. "How far is the capital?"
"Hmm, we could be there within... three days, I would guess. Shall we, then, Azuma-dono? The road is always better with company, is it not?"
Hazuki nodded again, torn between bemusement at this madwoman (friendly as she might seem) and something almost like relief at the idea that she might be able to continue her search without Lilith's help after all. "Thank you. Um... what may I call you?"
"Ah, forgive me, Azuma-dono," the woman said, giving a small bow of the head. "I am Chou'un Shiryuu of Jouzan."
As Chou'un flipped the point of her spear over her shoulder and started down the path, Hazuki nearly choked on her tongue as she realized both where and when she was. She was in China, late second century, near the end of the Han Dynasty.
And this somewhat addled, voluptuous, blue-haired woman with the butterfly mask and the cosplay-gear kimono was Zhao Yun, one of the celebrated Five Tiger Generals of Chinese history?
Mind spinning with confusion, but lacking any alternative, Hazuki followed Chou'un down the path. "What have you gotten me into, Lilith?" she muttered under her breath.
"What was that, Azuma-dono?"
Next: Hazuki Exchanges Many Blows with Ryofu